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Scarabs, Scaraboids, Seals, and Seal Impressions from Medinet Habu

Scarabs, Scaraboids, Seals, and Seal Impressions from Medinet Habu

By Emily Teeter (Oriental Institute Publications 118). Pp. xxiv + 249, figs. 3, pls. 110. Oriental Institute, Chicago 2003. $95. ISBN 1-885923-22-8 (cloth).

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This volume concerns 349 scarabs, scaraboids, seals, and seal impressions excavated at Medinet Habu by the Oriental Institute from 1926 and 1933. In discussing this material, the authors assembled the original excavation notes of Uvo Hölscher, the director of the Oriental Institute excavations, and Rudolf Anthes. Hölscher had published several volumes on the architecture and inscriptions of Medinet Habu but not the small finds because of difficulties occasioned by World War II. This volume is the first to study the original excavation notes and to publish a group of the small finds, and it is the first in a series that will publish all the small finds from this site.

The introduction to the volume is an historical overview of the archaeological fieldwork at Medinert Habu. Teeter also describes Hölscher’s 12 different strata at the site and the dates he assigned them (from pre-Amenhotep III [before ca. 1390 B.C.] to the 29th Dynasty, ending ca. 380 B.C. and to Roman levels of the fourth century A.D.). This is followed by a catalogue of the scarabs, including heart scarabs, funerary scarabs, and associated funerary amulets as Sons of Horus, scaraboids, buttons, cowroids, lentoids, plaques, stamp seals, and seal impressions on mudbricks, vessel stoppers, funerary cones, amphora handles, and bullae.

The format of this volume makes it a pleasure to use. The scarabs, seals, and impressions are organized in 10 categories: plaques decorated on both sides, royal name, divine name, personal names, anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures, designs (including hieroglyphic decoration), scarabs without decoration, heart scarabs, funerary scarabs and amulets, and seals and impressions arranged by date.

Besides the catalogue there is a complete and useful set of indices, including divine, royal, and personal names, titles, and concordances by Cairo Museum and Oriental Institute Museum numbers, and by findspot for the Medinet Habu objects.

Each piece is well photographed and accompanied by one or more line drawings. For scarabs there are usually three photographs—front, side, and back. The pieces are described in detail, with transliterations, translations, and commentary on stylistic analysis. The provenance, based on the excavator’s site notes, is painstakingly recounted. Material found in context with each seal is noted. For instance, the information concerning the provenance of Scarab 198 details 26 objects found with it with their OIM numbers and an additional 75 objects mentioned that had no registration numbers but were described in the field records. Thus, every piece of information possible is given to allow readers to reconstruct, as far as possible, the original context of the objects and to enable them to make their own assessment of the assemblage.

Scarabs can rarely be dated with certainty. Even those found with a secure provenance may possibly be a reissue or an heirloom. For instance, scarabs with the prenomen of Thutmose III were issued hundreds of years after his reign, and the Egyptians, who venerated their past, have been known to save scarabs for generations. There are some circumstances, however, in which one can be certain of a scarab’s date: (1) scarabs found in foundation deposits have been proven not to be reissues or heirlooms; (2) scarabs coming from a securely dated royal tomb of Lahun, Dashur, and the royal tombs at Byblos of the 12th Dynasty; (3) scarabs deriving from a definitive context such as the palace complex at Malkata, and contexts containing seal amulets of Amenhotep and Tye can be dated closely to their reigns; and (4) scarabs inscribed with the name of a minor pharaoh would not have been reissued. It is also likely that the scarabs bearing the names of Queen Hatshepsut, Queen Tye, and all Amarna period rulers were not reissued—they would date then to the reign of the pharaoh named. Also, kings of later periods (e.g., Dynasty 25 and later) are likely not reissues either. Stylistic analysis can be useful for dating in specific cases. An element of iconography in the inscription may be known to be used only in certain time periods (e.g., images of horses and chariots, for instance, are not found on scarabs after the New Kingdom).

It should not be too surprising or disappointing, therefore, to find few securely dated scarabs in this volume; in addition, as the author notes several times, the stratigraphy of the site, especially at the Temple of Medinet Habu, “was badly disturbed by several generations of systematic and unsystematic excavations” (1), and “By 1926, when the Architectural Survey of the Oriental Institute began work at Medinet Habu, there was little of the temple area that had any promise of preserving a clear stratigraphic sequence” (2 n. 7). Stratigraphy has been useful, therefore, in only a few cases (e.g., the scarabs found in temple area “Eye 10” and “Eye 52,” which the excavators dated from the reign of Aye in Dynasty 18 through the end of Dynasty 20 when the temple was abandoned, and those from another stratum that could be dated from Dynasty 25 to 26). Unfortunately, most scarabs were found in undatable debris, and these are analyzed and dated stylistically when possible. (While one is always hopeful for the cache of excavated scarabs that could provide firm dating criteria for future scarab analysis, this site did not produce such a cache.)

The rest of the objects (seals, funerary cones, and bricks) are much more easily dated by known parallels and by their personal names. The group of post-Pharaonic seals and seal impressions is also well dated by context and type. These are divided into three categories: a group of stamped amphorae handles from the Ptolemaic period; a group of impressed lead and clay bullae from Late Roman burials, which are especially interesting since they appear to have been used to secure the cord of mummy tags to the mummy; and the stamp seals and impressions primarily from stoppers of amphorae from domestic structures firmly dated to the sixth to the eighth century A.D. town of Jême (a few of these, e.g., nos. 331 and 341, represent new variations on already known motifs).

Publishing the scarabs, scaraboids, seals, and seal impressions of Medinet Habu was an excavation in itself, a painstaking process of sifting through the 70-year-old field notes of Hölscher and Anthes and placing each object back into the stratum from which it originated. This is a clear, meticulously researched, well-illustrated, and user-friendly volume. The corpus should be of great use to anyone who wishes to use these scarabs, scaraboids, seals, and seal impressions with a secure Theban provenance for comparative study.

Joyce Haynes
Egyptian Section
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02115-5523

Book Review of Scarabs, Scaraboids, Seals, and Seal Impressions from Medinet Habu, by Emily Teeter

Reviewed by Joyce Haynes

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 1 (January 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1101.Haynes

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