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Recent Revelatory Research in Ancient Egypt


            Ancient Egypt has been an obsession to the Western world for centuries, going back into antiquity.  Egyptomania has been a disease to which archaeologists and aspiring archaeologists have gladly succumbed for generations.  With all this continuous interest, people could certainly be forgiven for gaining the impression that itfs all been done before, that itfs all been found, and seen, and done, and everything that can possibly be known has been learned, and therefs nothing left buried in the desert for us to find.

            But this is quite plainly not true; as much as we have learned, there is still vastly more to be found.  We can never know it all, but we learn more and more, all the time – even in the more recent years, new things have been learned, new things have been found, that shed light on previously unknown details of one of the greatest civilizations to ever exist on our humble planet.

            Although there have been a number of recent finds – all of them of interest to even the most casual Egyptophile – I have decided against the brief exploration of several topics, in favour of an more in-depth discussion of just one that has particularly caught my interest. Itfs actually a discovery that combines my love of Egyptology with my love of virology and epidemiology.

            One of the more fascinating things I have found in the course of my research, is the proposition that the bubonic plague may have originated in pharonic Egypt.  Classical sources for the origin of the plague point to the pandemic starting in the Byzantine Empire, in and about the sixth century, and going east, but recent finds at Amarna

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indicate that the genesis of the fearsome black plague goes back even farther than that. (Panagiotakopulu, 2004).  Interestingly, in his paper on the plague in early England, Maddicott (1997) briefly mentions Egypt as the origin of the Justinian plague, a pandemic which swept across the Byzantine Empire, and into Europe, even as far as Ireland and England, indicating a somewhat lengthier evidence for the Egyptian origin of the bubonic plague.

            However, in a recent National Geographic news article, Panagiotakopulu is quoted as saying that, gthis is the first time the Egyptian origin for the plague has been backed up by archaeological evidence.h (Walker, 2004).  In her paper, Panagiotakopulu discusses the black rats that have been found to be a contributing vector of the plague.  There is strong evidence of their presence in pharonic Egypt: gcalthough most records from Egypt are Ptolemaic, fourth to first centuries bc or later, Boessneck (1976) noted the species amongst the 17th to 16th century bc material from Tell el-Dabfa in the Nile Delta (Table 1).h (Panagiotakopulu, 2004).  And later: gcthe six from the stomach of a mummified cat in Roman deposits from Quseir el-Qadim on the Red Sea coast of Egypt provide a secure group.h (Panagiotakopulu, 2004). 

            This evidence is emphasized by the fact that the Nile rat is apparently the original carrier of the flea that typically carries the plague virus: gThe species carries both flea and plague but has a high level of immunity from the disease.h (Panagiotakopulu, 2004). 

            The utilization of archaeoentomology as a method for investigating disease vectors isnft a new thing, as cited by Panagiotakopulu in the same paper, but it has always been difficult, due to the rarity of preserved insect remains in archaeological sites. 

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This rarity is compounded by the past tendency to ignore these things in favour of artifacts and human remains, with little thought given to the potential significance of insect and other miniscule remains.

            Ironically, there is a bright spot in this; for all of the things that were overlooked in the past, there are more things for future scientists to discover, provided of course, that they werenft destroyed.

            Although there has been a marked change in this tendency to disregard the eminorf things in recent years – as highlighted by Panagiotakopulufs own works – the lack of investigation into the possibilities of insect remains has almost certainly left a gap in our potential knowledge of the past.  Egypt though, according to Panagiotakopulu (2001, 2004) is ideal for the study of archaeoentomology, as it is to many areas of archaeology, thanks to its dry and relatively unchanging climate. 

            The presence of Nile rats, and black rats at Ancient Egyptian sites, coupled with the presence of large numbers of fleas in Amarna lead Panagiotakopulu (2001, 2004) to take a closer look at the various written records available to us.  Descriptions in the Ebers papyrus and other ancient Egyptian medical texts offered supporting evidence of the existence of bubonic plague in pharonic Egypt.

            She quotes a section from the Ebbell tranalation: gcit (i.e. the accumulation) has produced a bubo, and the pus has petrified, the disease has hit.h (Panagiotakopulu, 2004). Although there was more material from the papyrus quoted, this is the key part, describing one of the most highly distinctive (Maddicott, 1997) symptoms of the bubonic plague, the bubos (something like pustules) that give the disease its name.

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            There is supporting evidence to be found in other medical papyri, but the description found in the Ebers papyrus seems to be the clearest of all. Add to that the fact that Ptolemaic mummies have been found with plague (granted, pneumonic plague, but it is caused by the same virus, and can be delivered through similar vectors (Maddicott, 1997) (Panagiotakopulu, 2004)) in their systems, and it seems that more than circumstantial evidence is presented.

            Of course, on of the problems with all of this evidence – especially that collected at Amarna – is that it is so new.  Or at the very least, so newly brought to light; it will take further research, and more in-depth examination of the various evidence before anything resembling a hard decision can be made.  Certainly, as Panagiotakopulu (2004) acknowledges, more specimens will have to be collected, as the presence of the plague virus (Yersinia pestis, a bacterium) has yet to be confirmed in the insects recovered from Amarna.

            However, if this can be confirmed – is the existence of bubonic plague can be proven in pharonic Egypt, or even only as far back as the Ptolemies, it would certainly necessitate a change in the established origin and method of spread of the bubonic plague.  Perhaps Panagiotakopulufs research will prompt others down the same path, in their search for epidemiological answers.

            This discovery is utterly fascinating to me.  So very rarely, it seems, do people think of archaeology in anything other than in terms of culture and history, maybe population.  And even more rarely do people seem to think of Egyptology in anything but those sorts of terms.  But even a seemingly narrow discipline such as Egyptology can

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reveal new and exciting things about the world at large – and even more exciting things about Egypt itself.

            For instance, Panagiotakopulufs research brings up the question of the Mosaic plagues.  Is it possible that one or more of the plagues referenced in the Bible (specifically, the boils and the death of the first born comes to mind) could be a reference to the bubonic plague?  If so, is it possible that the Hebrews carried it with them when they left, providing the disease yet another vector for travel?

            Although there is as yet no evidence (direct or otherwise) to support this speculation, given the endemic nature of rats and fleas in Ancient Egypt (Panagiotakopulu, 2001, 2004), it would not be in the least bit surprising if the Hebrews did carry plague with them from Egypt.

            It seems almost certain though, given the preponderance of evidence from Panagiotakopulufs research that the plague made its way to India and China (the more commonly cited origins of the bubonic plague) via trade with Egypt.

            One other line of speculation raised by the apparent Ancient Egyptian origin of the plague is the question of whether the plague might not in fact have originated from further south, deep in the heart of Africa.  A number of other rat-carried diseases (such as ebola, for instance) have been known to originate somewhere in the African interior – if not precisely where. It would make a certain amount of sense if the root of the bubonic plague did indeed stretch this far.



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            However, given the tendency of organic material to decay in a jungle environment, it is unlikely that any archaeological evidence to support this speculation will ever be discovered.