The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Carl Graves
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
One of the things I love most about the ancient world is the way in which anyone can form connections with people living so long ago. You don’t need to be an expert to do this and it can be as simple as finding a fingerprint in a mudbrick or vessel, all the way through to translating personal letters on papyrus. There is something inherent in all of us that needs human contact and, even at a time when we’re all so isolated like this, that desire to form relationships still takes over.
There are so many amazing Egyptian artefacts that come to mind where the daily concerns, opinions, and general lives of people in the ancient world can be seen. For written sources I might turn to the Oxyrhynchus papyri, a collection of over half a million literary and documentary texts dating from the third century BC to the seventh century AD (see Parsons, P. 2007. City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek papyri beneath the Egyptian sand reveal a long-lost world. London: Phoenix.); for objects of daily life then you’d be pushed to find better than the wonderful collections in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology in London – particularly their ceramics gallery!
Personally, for me, I love the stela of Seped-Hor which dates to the Egyptian Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650 – 1550 BC) but was actually found in northern Sudan, an area usually called Nubia.
When did you first come across this source?
I came across this stela (an upright stone slab) during my master’s degree which focused on Egyptian urbanism in Lower Nubia. This region was colonised by Egyptian garrisons during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (c. 2055 – 1650 BC) when a series of large mudbrick fortresses were built along the Nile valley during the reigns of Senwosret I and Senwosret III. These rotating garrisons were gradually replaced with permanent settled communities, including families, who increasingly engaged with their surroundings bringing them into greater contact with local Nubian populations. These connections were further enhanced when Egyptian control collapsed at the end of the Middle Kingdom and the groups living in the fortresses became self-sufficient communities during what is called the Second Intermediate Period. Engagements between different cultural groups can be difficult to find in the archaeological record, but Seped-Hor’s stela gives a hint of how wider geo-political changes impacted relationships between Egyptian and Nubian communities.
Can you tell me a bit about the stela and its context?
The stela of Seped-Hor was discovered at the fortress of Buhen during the Eckley B. Cox Expedition to Nubia directed by David Randall-MacIver and Charles Leonard Woolley in 1910. The stela, and others commemorating Seped-Hor’s family, was discovered in the North Temple of Buhen, a site now submerged beneath the waters of Lake Nubia (also called Lake Nasser further north). The stela was then taken to the United States where it can now be visited in the Penn Museum, Philadelphia (E10984). For those preferring a digital visit, check out the museum’s online catalogue, or the publication by Torgny Säve-Söderbergh in volume 35 of the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.
The text of the stela begins with naming the scribe of the artefact itself – something uncommon in these contexts – as Ahmose. Following this is a rather typical Egyptian inscription in which offerings are requested for the ka (similar, but not identical to, the idea of a soul) for the commander of Buhen, Seped-Hor. At the end, a personal statement from Seped-Hor is given: “I was a valiant commander of Buhen, and never did any commander do what I did, I built the temple of Horus, Lord of Buhen, to the satisfaction of the Ruler of Kush.”
Unfortunately, the stela is broken off immediately after this statement, so we don’t know what else Seped-Hor wished to boast of. The text indicates that Seped-Hor wished to be remembered in a very typical Egyptian way but, curiously, had spent his life serving of the Ruler of Kush. Kush is often considered as Nubia, but probably more accurately refers to the powerful kingdom centred around the city of Kerma located in the Upper Nubian Nile valley. During this time, Kerma launched attacks into Upper Egypt reaching at least as far as el-Kab. The influence of this civilisation clearly spread to the former Egyptian communities in Lower Nubia. However, this seems to have been a relatively peaceful operation and local Egyptian traditions appear to have continued. The stela itself refers to a temple, built at Buhen by Seped-Hor, dedicated to the Egyptian deity Horus but to the satisfaction of the Ruler of Kush.
What is it about this stela that appeals to you most?
The stela of Seped-Hor is just one small piece of evidence demonstrating the complex relationship between Egypt and Nubia during this time. For me, this stela and those commemorating Seped-Hor’s family offer a glimpse into a community living between cultures but prospering, despite the usual narratives of state collapse. Most clearly, Seped-Hor and the inhabitants of Buhen continued to form that vital thing we all need – relationships and connections. I’m generalising a lot in all of this, but I think this stela shows that being open and welcoming of different people and cultures results in new situations that are stronger, culturally enriched, and inclusive. Sure, there is still much to unpack about this period in Egyptian and Nubian history, and perhaps the stela can be interpreted differently, but the message remains – and isn’t that exciting?! I feel like I’m hearing the voices and ideas of a small community, albeit the elite of that community, speaking across time and space. I think that’s pretty cool!
For more information about Buhen and the UNESCO Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, check out the EES website here: https://www.ees.ac.uk/buhen-a-site-submerged
And finally… what do you do, outside of studying the ancient world, to cheer yourself up?
Like most of us that study the ancient world, it’s a passion that takes over my life. I spot Egypt in everything I do and actively look for it too! But I do think it’s important to have time away. My niece and nephew take up most of that time, but the lockdowns have meant that long walks (including a ‘walk to work’ every morning) and enjoying the great outdoors have cheered me up after a busy week!
Carl completed his studies at the University of Birmingham and achieved his PhD in 2017. He has worked at the Egypt Exploration Society since 2013 and was promoted to Director in 2019. In this role Carl is responsible for managing the Society’s day-to-day operations in its London and Cairo Offices and works closely with Board, Committees, volunteers, and staff to deliver the Society’s charitable activities, research, and publications programme.
Carl will shortly be running an online class called ‘Top Twenty Towns and Cities of Egypt’ for the Egypt Exploration Society.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.