By Andrea Byrnes, published on In Brief, Egyptological, 18th March 2012
The Vanished Capital of the Pharaoh
(In the series ‘Lost Cities of the Ancients’)
BBC4, March 15th 2012. 2000-2100.
Narrator, Mark Halliley,
Series Producer, Dan Clifton
Writer, Mark Everest
Featuring Manfred Bietak, Edgar Pusch, Aidan Dodson
The first in a series about “lost” cities and how they were rediscovered, this show discusses the discovery of the location of Piramesse, the existence of which was known long before it had been found. Ramesses II founded the town in his home area in the 19th Dynasty, and finding the new capital would be an important archaeological discovery. Piramesse was first identified, incorrectly, by Pierre Montet at Tanis (ancient Djanet), but it is now known to have been located on an earlier eastern branch of the Nile, at Qantir. This show looks at why Tanis was incorrectly identified as Piramesse, and follows the archaeological investigations that identified the correct location. It then goes on to look at why much of the monumental architecture of Piramesse found its way to Tanis.
The following are the notes that I took whilst watching the show. I’ve commented at the end with some of my brief thoughts about the presentation and quality of the show.
The opening lines of the show are filled with all the dramatic emphasis that one would expect from a show about Ancient Egypt and the discovery of lost glories. The narrator explains that the search for Piramesse was “one of the most bizarre mysteries in the history of archaeology, because when Piramesse appeared it was in the wrong place . . . . in a place that didn’t even exist when Ramesses II was alive.”.
The show goes on to explain that Ramesses II was born a commoner but became one of the greatest kings of the ancient world, building temples and monuments throughout Egypt. His masterpiece was the city he named after himself, Piramesse, a “vast citadel of white and azure,” designed to impress and be awe-inspiring. It served as a gateway on the Nile between Egypt and the sea, becoming a thriving hub of the ancient world housing up to 3000 people. It was home to the rich and the poor as well as Egyptian and foreign merchants who came to trade and included a military garrison with stabling for 100s of warhorses and chariots. As the narrator says, Pirammese must have looked as though it would last forever but only 200 years after it was built it vanished completely and was lost for 1000s of years.
The show now shifted to the beginning of 20th century. Egyptologists, aware of the city from Ancient Egyptian texts, remained puzzled because locations of most of the other Pharaonic cities had been identified, making Piramesse, as Aidan Dodson put it “almost a holy grail of Egyptologists”. It was known that Ramesses II had shifted his attention away from Luxor and Memphis in favour of the place where he had been raised in the Nile Delta. The Nile Delta was crossed by multiple branches of the Nile, which watered the fertile land before reaching the sea. It was also known from texts that Piramesse was located on an eastern branch of the Nile in the Delta. Unfortunately all the Nile channels have now changed, and the courses that the Nile followed over the Delta in the past have now dried up and been lost. Obviously, the absence of this single most important landmark presented a major obstacle to finding Piramesse, but archaeologists knew what other remains to look for because texts had described the city. Statues and monuments showing the royal names of Ramesses II could be expected in considerable number, with major temples particularly dedicated to Amun. As it was the home of the Pharaoh himself a large palace with great open courtyards with painted plasterwork would be expected, as would a military garrison.
The first step towards solving the puzzle came in the1920s, when this story really begins. The Delta was not a popular place with archaeologists but one man prepared to take on the challenges that it presented: Pierre Montet, one of France’s leading Egyptologists. He had heard of a “strange ancient site deep in the Nile Delta that had gone largely unexplored” at Tanis in the northeastern Delta, and he went to investigate. What Montet found at Tanis was a very remote site at the end of a track in a landscape that “looks like the surface of the moon” but it delivered everything that Montet was hoping for. Everywhere he looked he found half buried monuments of Ramesses II. He was certain that he had found Piramesse.
Within a few years Montet had established a full time excavation site at Tanis, identifying a massive temple dedicated to Amun and various colossal monuments, including obelisks and numerous granite statues of Ramesses II himself. As his work progressed the sheer number of pieces found seemed to confirm that this was indeed Piramesse.
But something, as Aidan Dodson remarked, “was not quite right.” Montet failed to understand the significance of the fact that many of the statues and monuments were missing pieces – large pieces and a lot of them. It is by no means unusual for parts of 3000 year old statues to break off and go missing but at Tanis the scale of this problem was unusual, and nothing seemed to be quite in place. And there were other strange anomalies too, including discoveries of important finds linked with Ramesses II from other eastern Delta locations, discrepancies that Montet overlooked. Montet spent the rest of his career thinking that he had found Piramesse and in complete fairness to Montet, he had found the monuments and temples that belonged to Piramesse, but “there was a bizarre twist to his discovery because this is not where Ramesses built them”.
Pierre Montet died in 1966. At about that time Manfred Bietak began to carry out work in the Delta that would answer the question of where Piramesse actually was, and why so much of it was now at Tanis. Bietak was interested in the role of the Nile in relation to settlement locations and set about tracing lost branches and riverways to see what the Delta would have looked like at different times under the Pharaohs. In the past the courses of these waterways had changed many times and in the Pharaonic period there many branches across the Delta that had already dried up in Pharaonic and later times, and have now vanished completely from view. The cause of these frequent changes in course is the build-up of silt carried by the Nile branches towards the Mediterranean. As the waterways cross the Delta their flow rate slows down, and much of the silt drops, causing blockages that prevent water passing. The river must then carve a new path on an easier track, sometimes far from old river bed. Bietak approached the problem with the aid of contour maps. All lost rivers leave tell-tale signs which experts can track to find old river paths. Bietak finally came up with a complicated map of old riverways and many lost channels. Using his new map, Bietak’s next task was to work out when each of these waterways was in use during the Pharaonic period.
In Egypt cities and settlements built along active waterways leave behind rubbish including the pottery that can be dated. Every kind of pottery or ceramic has a unique signature that dates it in time and Bietak claims that pottery analysis can be accurate to “30-50 years”. He surveyed the eastern Delta branches, collecting pottery sherds for analysis. This allowed him to pinpoint when the various Delta waterways were active. He found that the big Tanitic branch, which went directly past Montet’s Tanis, had numerous sites but that none dated to Ramesses II, meaning that this branch did not exist during his reign. Montet had not dated pottery at Tanis but Bietak discovered that there was no pottery of Ramesses II at the site and that all the sherds date to at least 200 years after the king’s death. This meant that in spite of genuine finds of Ramesses II, the king could not have built his capital city here: “a bizarre paradox”.
Bietak now had the means to find the original site of Piramesse. Using his map, he identified that the Pelusiac branch, to the east of Tanis had pottery dating to Ramesses II along its length. At this time Bietak teamed up with Edgar Pusch to find the city. At Qantir, 30km south of Tanis, they found an incredible concentration of settlement debris dating to Ramesses II in an area that is now almost completely flat due to intensive cultivation. But there was no visible sign of the monumental city of Piramesse.
They began to excavate, convinced that the site was in that area. Just three days into the dig and only 10cm below surface they found odd carved almost mushroom-shaped objects. Although no-one had a clue what they were they kept digging, finding more of the mysterious objects before encountering “something rather wonderful” – a complete set of horse bits made from bronze. It is the only one ever found in Egypt and literally looks as though it was made yesterday. Next, they unearthed the floor of the building in which objects had been left, and unearthed another surprise – a special set of stones consisting of a tethering stone then an opening in ground surrounding by limestone, apparently designed so that a horse could tethered so that it would urinate into the holes. Horse toilets! They took mules that are about the same size as the horses and one did them the favour of urinating directly into the hole. The building stabled at least 460 horses. Stabling on such a large scale indicated that this was part of a military complex. Horses were now the mainstay of a pharaoh’s army. The strange objects were explained by comparison to ones found on a chariot from the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Cairo Museum – knobs like that connected with yolk of the state chariot. Thousands of stone knobs would have held together harnesses of the war chariots of Ramesses II. The chariot garrison was the right size for that of the lost city.
The team next turned to technology to determine if they had indeed found Piramesse. They used an electro-magnetic scanner to read traces underground. No-one was expecting very much from the scans but they produced amazing results – the outlines of a building just a few centimetres below the surface of the ground. Since that first day they have scanned 2 square kilometres around the area and have revealed, for the first time in 1000s of years, the vast ancient foundations of Piramesse, including a building, probably a temple, that covers more than 41,000 square metres and has a sequence of rooms which each have symmetrically arranged columns.
A number of separate areas within the city have been identified. On the southern edge of the Pelusiac branch, overlooking the river, was a villa area with long straight streets and a large number of big villa estates surrounded by walls, the homes of the wealthy. Door lintels have been found bearing the names of Egyptian generals and royalty.
The scans of the eastern part of the city reveal a much denser building area with very small buildings, also divided by streets but neither straight nor on a clear grid, with everything fairly haphazard and tightly packed. This was probably a mixture of socially lower ranking homes and small workshops.
There is no sign of the palace yet, but it is more than likely that it is under the jumbled town of Qantir, out of reach of even most high tech scanning equipment. According to accounts of the time the palace was vast, the heart of the city, white-painted and decorated with glazed tiles.
The scan also showed that Piramesse was crossed by canals – “the Venice of its day”.
So what had Montet discovered at Tanis? It was generally agreed that the Tanis finds came from Piramesse, now known to be located at Qantir. How could this have happened? The answer is that 150 years after the end of the reign of Ramesses II the Pelusiac branch dried up and river switched course altogether leaving the city without water. The new path that it took is now called the Tanitic branch, and was the main branch of the Nile. Piramesse could not survive without its Nile lifeline so it had to be abandoned, and a new city was created at Tanis. In a field in modern Qantir there remains the base (and feet) of one of the colossal statues, but the rest of the statue is somewhere else – in Tanis. When the powers that be ordered that the city be moved, they took their monuments with them. The entire city of Piramesse moved to where the Nile had moved, “disassembled and reassembled”. It was a staggering feat. The largest statues weighed up to 1000 tons and it would have taken a workforce of 100s to move pieces on sleds. Some were transported whole, including statues and obelisks, but temples were moved a bit at a time.
Tanis became home to a new dynasty of Pharaohs.
Overall I thought the show was excellent. The main themes were covered in a friendly, digestible way, explaining very clearly why archaeologists sought Piramesse to begin with, how it was possible for Montet to believe that he had found it at Tanis and why it became clear that Piramesse was elsewhere. The work to locate Piramesse was well presented and, once found, the city was described in a way that brought it clearly to life. The final conundrum, why the monuments built by Ramesses II at Piramesse were moved to Tanis, is also clearly explained. Puzzle sorted. Unlike many shows of this sort, it used the time it had well, and was neither too long nor too short.
The story was certainly presented as a mystery, a fascinating and marvelous puzzle to be solved, but it did this without losing sight of the facts and the underlying hard work, which it thankfully avoided romanticizing. It created just the right balance between intrigue and documentary, which takes an awful lot of skill (as anyone who has seen some of the more grizzly over-egged productions will be aware).
The real strength of this show is that it showcased the archaeologists who did the work to discover Piramesse – Manfred Bietak and Edgar Pusch. The show wisely gave space to the groundbreaking work of Bietak and his reconstruction of the ancient branches and channels of the Nile through the Delta, together with the time-consuming work to collect and date pottery. This is real archaeological endeavour, and the show presented this very well. Aidan Dodson was also very good as a commentator, explaining various aspects of the story as it unfolded.
The footage of the modern day Delta and the land where those sites were formerly located was excellent, enabling the viewer to see the differences between Tanis, all lumps, bumps and fragments of vast monuments, to the uncompromising flatness of Qantir where nothing at all remains visible to suggest that a vast city had once been located here.
The recreations depicting Ramesses II and workers hauling colossi from Piramesse to Tanis were harmless, and although some of the backdrop scenery supposed to represent the city of Ramesses II was really rather poorly done (some of the statues were bizarre) the general views of how Piramesse may have looked were excellent.
It was pleasing that although actors were used to dramatise some of the events that took place in the past, these were usually background material and were not allowed to feature centre stage. Having said that, the scenes with an actor portraying Pierre Montet discovering Ramesses II colossi at Tanis, his extremely un-French conversations with a side-kick and his calm dismissal of evidence for similarly dated remains further east, gave a poor view of Montet. Several people without any knowledge of Egyptology, who enjoyed the show, have since commented to me since that Montet must have been a very poor sort of Egyptologist, and I think that these scenes take his work harmfully out of the context of the rest of his career, which is unfair.
The scale of the task of moving the city of Piramesse to Tanis was emphasised, with references to the possibility of injury and loss of life, and it is a useful reminder that this was very much an enterprise that could only be commanded by a powerful central authority. Unlike the UNESCO-led rescue operations during the building of the Aswan High Dam, which had equipment and specialized skills to hand, manpower was at the heart of the Ramesside operation. It must have been a staggering operation. The show did not explore which Pharaoh was responsible for that decision.
Overall, I thought that it was well presented and engaging, and I would recommend it.
Figure 1. Satellite photograph in the public domain. Modified with place-names by Andrea Byrnes
Figure 2. Photograph by Codadilupo78, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.
Figure 3. Photograph copyright Francis Lankester, used with permission.
Figure 4. Photograph copyright the author
Figure 5. Photograph by Iri-en-achti. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.