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21.06.2011

Searching for "a few stray fragments" of an astronomical ceiling

Professor Sarah Symons of the Integrated Science Programme & Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario recently visited the Society's London offices to study some of the unpublished material relating to the discovery and excavation of the Osireion at Abydos. She has sent the following report on her experiences.

"I recently spent an enjoyable and productive day deep in the EES archives in Doughty Mews, trying to track down an unpublished astronomical ceiling in the Osireion at Abydos. My main research field is ancient Egyptian astronomy, and astronomical ceilings are a key sources for information about how the night sky was perceived from around the New Kingdom onwards. However, ceilings with star names and constellations are relatively rare, partly because the ceilings of tombs and temples are very often the first parts to be damaged.

Photograph of the doorway leading from the anteroom of the Osireion through the sloping passage to the transversal room, showing a further doorway and Central Hall within

The clue I was following was spotted by an American colleague, Charles Herzer. He had been reading Frankfort's Cenotaph of Seti I at Abydos and found a mention of "a few stray fragments" of an astronomical ceiling. The excavation diaries from one of Frankfort's seasons were stored at the EES, so Charles and I agreed that whoever visited London first would investigate further.

I didn't find any more details of the ceiling, unfortunately, but I did look at a wealth of information in the form of the diaries and the Society's photo archives concerning excavations from the early twentieth century at the Osireion. Some of the pictures revealed interesting glimpses of life at the dig, including the delivery of a large steam engine (shown being lowered very gingerly down to the subterranean floor of the Osireion) which would have been used to pump away water. A large collection of negatives has recently been scanned and were available on a hard disc, while a whole drawer of other photographs from the Osireion and other Abydos sites offered even more views of walls, rooms, and artefacts. Importantly for me, I was able to find better images of the other astronomical inscriptions in the Osireion than I have had access to before.

Chris Naunton, Patricia Spencer, and Roo Mitcheson were incredibly helpful and interested in my progress. Spending the day immersed in the archives was both a pleasure and a worthwhile research visit."

  

Drawing by W. B. Emery of the scene of Nut and Shu from the west side of the roof of the sarcophagus chamber in the Osireion.

Collage of photos showing a detail of the torso, head and arms of the goddess Nut, from the west side of the roof of the sarcophagus chamber in the Osireion

Many of the photographs examined by Sarah were taken by Mr Herbert Felton whose work at Abydos is described in part here. An article on astronomical ceilings by Sarah was published in Egyptian Archaeology 30 (2007), 11-13.

Stamp of the photographer Herbert Felton on the reverse of the photograph of the relief of Nut (above)

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