Two powerful Bronze Age figures laid to rest with special reverence; two large ritual complexes in places of kingly significance; each in a bend of a river valley; two burials with remarkably well-preserved contents; and two impressive daggers.
The quartz-handled dagger of King Tutankhamun is part of probably the most famous treasure hoard excavated from the dry, dusty desert of Egypt by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon 87 years ago; the dagger excavated by teams from Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities in Forteviot in August 2009 is still being conserved after being freshly lifted from a cist burial in the rich agricultural soil of lush, rainy Perthshire in Scotland.
While the sleepy, rural valley in which Forteviot is located is today a quiet, sparsely populated agricultural landscape, it has been a place of royal significance through the Pictish and medieval periods. The Valley of the Kings, in Luxor, was a place of burial for pharaohs which was in use for around 500 years from circa 1500BC. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, and is today a major tourist destination.
Only 600 years, and 2500 miles, separate these burials of exceptional individuals. And both daggers, found close to the bodies of the burials inhabitants, are of immense importance. The Forteviot blade may be less glitz and glam than its Egyptian counterpart. But archaeologists expect it to make a significant contribution to the understanding of Bronze Age funerary practices on an international scale.
In this Face-Off we see which comes out fighting in the duel of the daggers.
King Tut’s Dagger
Forming part of the most magnificent haul of grave goods dug up during the last gasp of Egyptian excavation at the dawn of the 20th century and certainly the most famous – this was one of two daggers which Tutankhamun kept close to hand as he entered the afterlife in the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom, during the second millennium BC.
The pair of daggers were discovered wrapped in Tuts mummification wrappings, one on either side of his torso, as archaeologist Howard Carter worked his way through the hitherto obscure young pharoahs tomb in the Valley of the Kings, in the Upper Nile, at Thebes.
Carter had been excavating in Egypt for almost thirty years, and his work had been interrupted by the First World War. Funded by Lord Carnarvon, who was dissatisfied with the lack of finds from the dig, the English archaeologist was on his final season in the Valley of the Kings when he discovered Tuts tomb in November 1922.
The dagger was part of a complicated array of 97 amulets, jewellery and other ritual goods wrapped inside the bandages surrounding the body of the mummy, excavated in mid-November 1925.
Having been dated by its context to circa 1350BC, the dagger measures 34.20cm. It has an iron blade, originally very sharp and still bright, and the hilt is exquisitely decorated with granulated gold and cloisonn inlay.
The pommel is a quartz crystal, inlaid with coloured glass and quartzite stones. The blade was contained in a golden sheath, embossed with a palm and rope design on the front, the pattern continuing on the reverse, ending in an engraving of a jackals head.
The dagger was acquired by the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, in 1934, and forms part of the museums star exhibit, the treasures of King Tuts tomb, one of the key attractions which draws more than a million visitors annually.
Thanks to the dry, hot climate aiding preservation, and the fact the tomb had been undisturbed by robbers prior to Carters arrival, the dagger was in superb condition when it was excavated, and is still impressive today.
However, with the emphasis on shiny goodies for their own worth, were the Egyptologists so dazzled by individual objects and so absorbed in their rush for new discoveries, and the cataloguing and creation of typologies that they overlooked objects value in terms of both their immediate context, and the wider context of the landscape of the Valley of the Kings?
It took Carter a decade from 1932 to empty over 3,500 artefacts which flowed like a stream of treasure from Tuts tomb; and it was the discovery and last-ditch nature of the excavation itself not to mention Carnarvons high-profile patronage which propelled King Tut to superstar status overnight.
Later, the curse of the mummys tomb, pooh-poohed by the average Egyptian today, helped feed the international media hunger for exotic, edgy mystery from the heart of the desert.
The period in which Tutankhamun [1341-1324BC] lived and died, aged around 17, probably of an infection in a leg injury, was a period of upheaval and change in Upper Egypt. Tut came to the throne, it is believed, aged eight or nine, inheriting a kingdom in chaos after radical religious reform implemented by his (disputed) iconoclastic father, Akhenaten, who replaced the established pantheon with his single solar deity, resulting in destruction of temples and a shift in the seat of power.
The overtly extravagant display of richness, both in the type and composition of the grave goods which were deposited in Tutankhamuns burial, could be taken as an aggressively assertive indicator by a society screaming: Look at our wealth! Be awed by our power! The identity of the ruling elite class is inextricably linked to that of the kingdom; here they appear to be deploying heavy-duty bling as political spin.
And, being kept within such intimate contact with Tutankhamuns body, literally within reach of his hands, it could be inferred that the dagger was an extremely significant object, precious and intended for personal use in the afterlife, not just a ceremonial object. A king during turbulent times of change, was he armed and ready, expecting a fight in the netherworld? Or was it a ritual object?
- The dagger is incredibly well preserved.
- It was found in a secure context discovered snuggled up inside the wrappings of Tuts mummy.
- Its very pretty. And sharp!
- Its overshadowed by many of the other shiny pieces from Tuts tomb
- Everyones so dazzled by the treasure, little regard is given to the broader context of the burial..
The Forteviot Dagger
In 2008, during the fourth season of fieldwork by archaeologists from Glasgow and Aberdeen univeristies in the lush agricultural river valley of Forteviot, in Perthshire, central Scotland, the team working on a henge monument made a surprising discovery, when a huge stone turned up inside the ditch and bank.
The following year, lifting of the stone became a key objective of work on the prehistoric part of the multi-period site, first identified from aerial photography as cropmarks in the 1970s. The archaeologists wanted to find out whether this was a monolith which had deliberately been laid on its side, or – an enticing prospect – a capstone covering a burial.
On a brilliantly sunny afternoon in early August 2009, heavy lifting equipment was brought in to lift the lid on what turned out to be an impressive cist burial, with a quartz stone lining, exceptionally well preserved organic remains highly unusual in the acidic Scottish soil and copper and bronze objects, including a bronze dagger, lying flat close to where its believed the head of the cists occupant would have been.
An excited Scots media immediately pounced on the dagger as belonging to a chieftan or prehistoric power lord, while the archaeologists set about carefully removing the objects and beginning the meticulous process of conserving it, which is still being carried out by Pieta Greaves, of AOC Archaeology.
The dagger, which measures 25cm long, has a 16cm bronze blade, a hilt made of horn and wood, and a gold hilt-band. It has been dated to 2150-1950 BC, making it around 600 years earlier than Tuts dagger.
Considering its age, the archaeologists describe the dagger as being in very good condition – it will probably be the best preserved found in Scotland. As yet, it has not been ascertained whether it has been used, but the tip may have been deliberately bent when it was deposited.
With the attention (and technology, and cash) which has been lavished upon King Tut since his grave was discovered 87 years ago, we almost feel we know the boy, right down to reconstructions of his face. But while its too early to form a clear picture of Forteviots inhabitant – and we will never get as close to discerning his features as a facial reconstruction – Dr Gordon Noble, of Aberdeen University, one of the directors of the excavation, in no doubt that this is certainly the burial of an important person, although he is wary of describing him as a chief. He points out that daggers may have been implements of sacrifice, so he may have been a ritual specialist, which might also explain strange swirls of rock art turned facing into the cist on the 2m wide by 40cm thick four-ton capstone.
While King Tut walked or perhaps hobbled, given his gammy knee in an arid, desert environment in Egypt, where the precious water resources of the River Nile were crucial to the habitation and civilisation which flourished along its banks, our Forteviot figure would have been striding out in a valley through which flowed the River Earn, perhaps with woodland cover and, given the lush nature of the soil which is heavily farmed in modern times, may have been occupied for domestic use and agriculture too. But the henge (one of the biggest in Britain), in its massive ritual complex, shares a similarity with the burial of King Tut in Egypt; both being located in valleys, in a bend in a river.
The SERF (Stratheran Environs and Royal Forteviot) project was initially a five-year venture funded by the British Academy, Historic Scotland the universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen. But with important medieval and Pictish finds relating to the palacium and the death in AD858 of one of the first Scottish kings, Kenneth MacAlpin (referred to in the Chronicles of the Kings of Scotland) also being turned up, in addition to the massive prehistoric henge complex, the team are optimistic that government funded Historic Scotland will continue to support them, and they will be applying for further funds in the future.
While the reports on the Forteviot dagger have not yet been published and work is continuing, Dr Noble says its importance on a national and international level is likely to be immense, revealing a lot about Bronze Age funerary practices, and playing an important part in understanding the importance of Forteviot through time.
It will be one of the few dagger burials in Scotland, if not the only one that has been found in controlled research conditions; and the preservation is unlike anything encountered before – so good even flowerheads were preserved within the cist. As Dr Noble has said before, the real treasure in Forteviots cist is not necessarily sharp or shiny stuff.
- One of the few if not the only Bronze Age dagger burial in Scotland.
- The dagger is being valued as part of its context as part of the wider understanding of the landscape of Forteviot through the millennia rather than just as a shiny bit of treasure.
- The tip is bent!
- Forteviot is no World Heritage Site.