Tombs & Temples V: Into the Dark


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Imagine descending into a damp, echoing black tunnel. Your only light is from a flashlight. Figures of death, and night crawl across the walls, seeming to move as the light flickers across them.

You are descending into the Osireion, the legendary Tomb of Osiris at Abydos. Let’s explore.

Temple of Seti I, Abydos, February 2022
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Tombs & Temples IV: The Treachery of Images


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An ancient temple was more than a house for the gods. It was a treasury, holding vast stocks of precious stones and metals. It was the center of the local economy, as people made their living supplying it. Its priests were local authorities, judges, and respected sages. Its size and grandeur awed visitors and projected the power of the country.

And if you needed to spread a story, chiseling it on the temple walls was a great place to start.

The pharaohs understood this. In fact, it was helped by the nature of the Egyptian religion itself. Religious practices prized images and the importance of language and art: when people painted things on their tomb walls, those things would become real for them in the next life. And when 99% of your population can’t read anyway, putting an image fifty feet high on a temple wall would spread the message like nothing else.

Maybe, if you repeated the lie in images often enough, it would become true.

Come with me to explore two ancient Egyptian temples. First, the Cenotaph Temple of Ramesses II at Abydos – one of many, many places where he depicted a triumph that wasn’t actually a triumph. Then, to the Temple of Dendera, where we see a different kind of trickery: attempts to blend foreign rulers into Egyptian culture through the magic of images.

Let’s begin.

The gate of Ramessess II, Abydos, February 2022
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Book Recs: Learn About Cursed Mummies!


As you may have guessed by now, I love learning about ancient Egypt! One of the things that’s always fascinated me is how pop culture constructed this bizarre idea of the cursed mummy — the walking ancient Egyptian undead who brings death and bad luck wherever he goes.

When the wonderful folks at Shepherd gave me an opportunity to do a book recommendation list, I knew that was the topic I had to pick. So here it is, in all its nerdy glory:

The best books to explain why people think mummies are cursed

How cool is that? It was a real challenge — a fun challenge — to go through my collection and find the books that would help people understand the history of the curse myth. “Red Land, Black Land” is a great introduction to ancient Egypt, and the Sobekmose Book of the Dead is honestly one of the best I’ve ever read.

(Yes, I have a tier list for my favorite Books of the Dead. Because of course I do.)

If you’re interested in book recs from all kinds of authors, check out Shepherd’s other lists! Of course, I had to paw through their ancient Egypt tag. There’s some solid stuff in there — can’t go wrong with the Tale of Sinuhe, of course, and Toby Wilkinson’s “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” is a great all-in-one history for people interested in Kemet.

I’m also watching the development of their medicine tag. Medical history is another (slightly less intense) passion of mine, and I was thrilled to see that Jennifer Evans contributed a list called “The best books on early modern medicine“! I have a book of hers, “Medicine & Maladies,” and it was a big help in writing one of my manuscripts.

Happy reading, everyone!

Tombs & Temples III: The Remains of the War


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High up on the cliffside, a row of tombs tells a story. It’s an old story, the real Tale as Old as Time. “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

The Middle Kingdom era (2030-1650 BCE) of ancient Egypt was a time of technological and artistic innovation, but it came at a price. When the Old Kingdom collapsed in ruins, burdened by debt and a stagnant central government, the country split into pieces. As usual in human history, war forced things to change.

The remains of the day give us a hint about the chaos.

Tomb of Ankhtifi, El-Mo’alla, February 2022
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Tombs & Temples II: A King’s Burial


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Pharaoh Sneferu had bad luck with pyramids. One collapsed, and one ended up bent and misshapen. “Third time’s the charm!” is supposed to apply to things like souffles and art projects, not two-hundred-foot structures.

But nobody says no to the god-king. And whether he realized it or not, Sneferu’s persistence—his quest for the perfect tomb—created some of the grandest archaeological wonders of human history. All it took was three million blocks of limestone, each a paltry two tons … and maybe twenty or thirty thousand laborers working for decades. It’s good to be the boss.

Today, I’m going to take you into the depths of two pyramids. They’re older than Christianity; older than the Roman Empire; older even than the Great Pyramid of Giza. They are the O.G., the Original Geometry.

First, though, let’s take a look at how this madness started.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser, February 2022
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Tombs & Temples I: A Family, a Nurse, and a Lot of Combustible Cats


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Something Americans lose track of is just how much history fills the old world. The land you stand on was not only claimed or used by someone once, but by many someones, over and over again. Densely compacted layers of archaeological fill: break through a medieval floor to end up in an Anglo-Saxon wine cellar, which sits on top of a Roman road, which was built over the mass grave of a Catuvellaunian tribe that once looked at Julius Caesar in a funny way.

In Egypt, history isn’t just locked up in museums or set aside in out-of-the-way places. It’s in your face, demanding your attention.

The site we call Saqqara doesn’t feel densely packed when you arrive on the edges. The dominant colors are yellow sand and blue cloudless sky, occasionally broken up by a few palm trees. Here and there, irregular squarish shapes poke up out of the yellow against the blue. Remnants of stone structures.

Saqqara, February 2022
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Tombs & Temples: Introduction


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In February 2022, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. I joined a small tour group sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and spent two weeks in Lower and Central Egypt.

It. Was. Incredible.

We visited sites in Cairo and Luxor, as well as special or restricted areas in Al Minya, Abydos, and the Faiyum region. I climbed pyramids, (poorly) translated hieroglyph inscriptions, found ancient pottery littering the site of the Heretic Pharaoh’s lost city, and came face-to-face with mysterious shades in the tunnels of the Osireion. I learned a lot … and took a thousand-plus photographs.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some of the amazing things I was privileged to see on that trip. Some of these sites are not open to regular tourists; others are newly discovered or newly reopened, as preservation technology improves. So come with me as we explore tombs and temples of ancient Egypt!

  1. The Tomb of Wah-Ti (5th Dynasty) — 12/29/22
  2. The Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid of Sneferu (4th Dynasty) — 1/5/23
  3. The Tombs of Beni Hasan (10th and 11th Dynasties) — 1/12/23
  4. The Temple of Dendera (18th Dynasty to Late Era) — 1/19/23
  5. The Osireion, or Tomb of Osiris (19th Dynasty) — 1/26/23

With additional stops at the Colossi of Memnon, the Ramesseum, Amarna, and any other pyramids I happened across. Because once I’d got into one pyramid, it was hard to get me out of them.

The Great Pyramid of Giza looms over Cairo, February 2022

Reality is Unrealistic: Or, what if Gavrilo Princip was a wizard?


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The problem with reality is that it doesn’t have a plot.

We like to imagine it does. After all, what are we but the protagonists of our own lives? But anyone who’s ever taken a course on “The Causes of (insert war here)” or had passionate, possibly drunk late-night arguments about “What if X thing happened instead of Y” knows that life is messy and full of inconsistencies. Tiny mistakes change the course of history. Random coincidences and singular bad decisions snowball into giant disasters.

The Chernobyl meltdown is a good example of this. There’s no “plot” to the Chernobyl story: no arc, no theme, no single protagonist. There wasn’t even a villain, unless you count state bureaucracy and inefficiency. Many small, independent issues added up: a delayed safety test, an inexperienced night shift handling a procedure they’d never done before, a flaw in the system they didn’t even know about, cost-cutting here and there. A few details here and a few details there until KABOOM, and you’re left picking pieces of radioactive debris off the roof and wondering what happened.

In a book or a movie, something like Chernobyl would need a more coherent through-line. We’d need a structure, acts, a theme to focus on and keep us going. Stories have to have a point.

The recent “Chernobyl” miniseries managed to get through the problem by focusing on individual character arcs. “Lies” and “bureaucracy” were the overarching enemy, the symptom of a system rotten to the core. The character’s arcs were about discovering what happened and making a public statement, to counteract the lies.

But that wasn’t quite enough to make the story work. They needed a temporal villain, a man with a face that we could hate: “lies” are too abstract for something like this. So the series creators wrote shift lead Anatoly Dyatlov as a bad boss who pushed his stressed subordinates to the breaking point and thus shouldered much of the blame for the disaster.

When you’re writing fiction, being too realistic is a bad idea. Readers need plot and structure because those things make a story satisfying: they have logic, B follows A, and we get the enjoyment of setup and payoff. If we tell a story where everything is chaos, nothing makes sense, the real villain doesn’t appear until the last minute, and the whole thing snowballs simply because a few too many people made a bunch of unconnected mistakes … well, it’s realistic, but it’s also unsatisfying.

Which brings me to “Dragon Age 2.”

These days, DA2 is pretty much considered the redheaded stepchild of the Dragon Age franchise. Which is fair: the game was a rushed sequel that didn’t seem sure what it was doing, where it was going, or what its focus was. Pieces are missing; B doesn’t always follow A; and your protagonist actually has very little effect on the outcome of the story, barring which of the factions they support. Environments are limited. The story is small.

But I will go to bat for this one, because Dragon Age 2 may be the most realistic video game I’ve ever played. The jumbled approach and nonsensical plot accidentally ends up mirroring many real-world historical scenarios. And I find it very interesting to look at, if only as an illustration of the difference between plotted fiction and plotless reality, and how reality is unrealistic.

Note: You don’t have to be a Dragon Age fan to read this essay. Believe me, I will explain everything in exhaustive TL;DR. Spoiler warning!

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Craft Tutorial: Cheap & Easy Face Cast


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Halloween is coming, and that means masks!

The face is an integral part of any character look, and a well-chosen mask or a set of facial prosthetics can really be the final touch on turning yourself into someone (or something) else. And for some cosplayers and LARPers, covering your face comes with an additional bonus: shielding those of us who are otherwise shy. A mask can be your passport to a character and protect you if you’re otherwise awkward in social situations.

Unfortunately, a good mask can be pricey, and a lot of premade masks don’t fit every face. If you’re a woman with a larger-than-average nose, for example, then you’re out of luck. And if you resort to making your own masks, then you quickly run into other problems. (Ever had to pick papier-mâché out of your eyebrows? Ow.)

The solution? Plaster! With a few supplies and a couple of hours, you can create a plaster cast of your own face — which will then be your model for customized masks! A cast like this guarantees a homemade mask that fits your face and opens up a lot of possibilities for awesome costumes.

Skill level on this one is … pretty low, to be honest. I am NOT a sculptor, and I’ve never made a flawless cast. You don’t have to create a perfect likeness, just get the shape of your face right. And it’s cheap: I made mine for about twenty-five dollars.

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