In another instalment of the SSEA Toronto Chapter Summer lecture series, Gayle Gibson spoke this week on Tanis: the Second-hand Capital and its Untouched Royal Tombs to an overfilled room. Known widely for her engaging lecture style, Gayle Gibson is a former president of the SSEA and recently retired from her lengthy tenure in the Education department at the Royal Ontario Museum. Gayle is an expert in all things related to mummies and garnered fame in her identification of the mummy of Ramesses I at the Niagara Falls Museum. For her talk, she described the intriguing site of Tanis, known for being the eastern Delta capital of the ‘Libyan’ kings of the Third Intermediate Period.
The Delta Capital
Located in Egypt’s northern, marshy Delta region, Tanis lies atop a natural mound (also called a turtleback or gezira, “island,” in Arabic) and is surrounded by rich, agricultural lands. Tanis was founded during the Twenty-First Dynasty as a new royal capital and continued to be used until the Roman period. During the Thirtieth Dynasty, its enormous temenos wall, measuring 16 meters in width at the base, was built to surround the Amun Temple complex. The ancient city of Tanis was known by many names: it was Djanet to the ancient Egyptians, Tanis during the Hellenistic period, San during the Coptic period, Zoan in the Hebrew Bible, and the modern Egyptian town is known as San el-Hagar.
The Three Rs: Reuse, Reuse, Reuse
Referring to the site as “second-hand, but first-rate” throughout her talk, Gayle emphasised the fact that most of the monuments and building blocks found at Tanis were originally from various sites across Egypt. Stelae, columns and bases, statues, and obelisks ranging from the Old to New Kingdoms were reused, including some palmiform columns from Sahure’s temple at Abusir. The Tanite kings did not hesitate to integrate these into new buildings. For example, Shoshenq III reused obelisks with the cartouche of Ramesses II stacked on top of each other in the construction of his gateway. The main perpetrator of these moves was Ramesses II, who was adept at taking monuments from his forefathers, stamping his own name on them, and re-establishing them at nearby Per-Ramesses. Once Per-Ramesses was no longer an important harbour city, these building materials were only a short journey away from reuse at Tanis.
As there was such a plethora of Ramesses II-inscribed monuments, early scholars attributed the construction of Tanis to his reign. Some explorers wanted to see Tanis as the biblical site of Pithom (or Per-Atum, perhaps located at Tell el-Maskhuta) or Per-Ramesses (now identified at Qantir) and an important place in the story of the Exodus. Others, meanwhile, were searching at Tanis for the legendary ark of the covenant supposedly brought to Egypt from Jerusalem by ‘Libyan’ king Shoshenq I, which was the inspiration for the classic Indiana Jones film!
The Royal Tombs
Tanis’ royal tombs, famous for their elaborate “treasures” now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, were discovered in 1939 by French archaeologist Pierre Montet. Unfortunately, unlike Howard Carter’s great discovery of Tutankhamun’s burial in 1922, Montet’s fabulous finds were overshadowed by the second World War, and received very little international attention at the time. These royal tombs were situated within the temple precinct of Amun, and differed greatly from New Kingdom royal tombs: the Tanis tombs are above-ground structures that did not have their own memorial temple complexes. Among these tombs, NRT III contained numerous burials, including Sheshonq II, who was buried in a silver, falcon-headed coffin. French archaeologist Philippe Brissaud has continued Montet’s work at the site since the 1970s.
Lapis lazuli, a precious stone from northeastern Afghanistan some 4,000 km away, occurred in abundance among the tomb equipment for necklaces, bracelets, amulets, and pendants. On a certain bead from a necklace, Gayle pointed out a rare cuneiform inscription, which was a dedicated by an Assyrian official to his daughter. She assessed that it was most likely an heirloom, but its presence at Tanis has not been explained satisfactorily. She also took a closer look at the many other precious artefacts within the tombs, which may have stayed in the same family for several generations and emphasises close kinships in the community. One thing is for certain: the Tanite kings may not have been given the glories of the New Kingdom kings, but they nevertheless were able to construct not only a “second-hand, but first-rate” capital, but also give their rulers burials fit for a king.
- Necklace with lapis-lazuli beads from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (JE 85755-6) in C.A. Andrews. 1990. Ancient Egyptian Jewellery. London: British Museum Press – Fig. 35 (Photo by Henri Stierlin).