Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Mummified Crocodiles

Mummified crocodiles.
I have recently acquired a new desktop computer.  I needed to install Microsoft Office in order to use Word, the software almost universally used for writing documents and which I have long used for writing books.  But unlike every other computer I have ever owned, it turns out that this one does not have a slot for CDs or DVDs.  So how am I to install Word?  And for that matter how do I back up files on CDs or photographs or anything else?  

Yes, I know about saving things in the clouds but that has seemed an airy-fairy thing to me.  Can you really believe that you have saved anything by surrendering it to some cloud thousands of miles away?  Not me; and so I have used CDs and DVDs as my last line of memory.

But now I have no choice.  My computer will not accept CDs or DVDs.  I had to install Microsoft Office by downloading it from a cloud.  And if the thing goes wrong I can go back to the cloud and download it again.  The plain fact, I realise, is that discs are on the verge of obsolescence; soon they will be no more.  This remote and hardly believable cloud is the present and the future.  All my memories, and all yours, will hover about somewhere in a cloud.  

I have been through this before, this serial obsolescence.  First there were big floppy discs; then they were replaced by smaller floppy discs; and they in turn were replaced by CDs and DVDs - which you would think would last forever, but they degrade surprisingly quickly ('disc rot' or 'laser rot', to give it the high tech term), within twenty years, even within a few months.  

Even if the memory storage object, the CD or DVD or floppy disc, did not degrade, the devices for operating them are not made anymore.  Try to find a machine that will operate a floppy disc.  Or a video machine that will operate a tape cassette.  It is easier to find an old record player, even a wind-up record player, to play your music collection of non-degradable vinyl records - the ones you threw out twenty years or so ago to keep up with the times and which always delivered higher sound quality than any disc. 

I will not go on about the virtues of yet earlier devices I have used for writing, such as the typewriter, or paper, pen and ink.  

But I have been thinking about mummified crocodiles.

Mummified crocodiles dug up at Tebtynis.

With the exception of our own times, there has been no period or place better documented and understood, right down to the smallest details of everyday life, than Graeco-Roman Egypt, that is Egypt from about 330 BC and for a thousand years onwards, when it was ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty which ended with the famous Cleopatra at whose death it became a Roman and Byzantine province until the Arab invasion in 642.

The reason for this is to be found in the crocodile cemeteries of Tebtynis (also called Tebtunis) in the Fayyum oasis.
Digging for crocodiles at Tebtynis.

Searching for mummified crocodiles wrapped in papyrus.

How this came to be is described by the British Egyptologist and classicist Bernard Grenfell, writing in Fayum Towns and Their Papyri, published in 1900.  In 1899 he and his colleague Arthur Hunt had gone to the Fayyum in a search for human mummies; instead they made a momentous discovery.  
The tombs of the large necropolis adjoining Tebtynis proved in many instances to contain only crocodiles. One of our workmen, disgusted at finding a row of crocodiles where he expected sarcophagi, broke one of them in pieces and disclosed the surprising fact that the creature was wrapped in sheets of papyrus. As may be imagined, after this we dug out all the crocodile-tombs in the cemetery. The most remarkable characteristic of the Greek papyri from crocodile-mummies is their great size. For enfolding crocodiles 3 or 4 m in length small documents were useless, though they were employed as padding, in which case they had often not been unrolled or were hastily crushed together. For the outer layers the papyri used consisted of large unfolded rolls.
With the old order confronted by foreign influences, Egyptians of the Late and Ptolemaic periods increasingly clung to tangible shreds of belief, so that animal cults came to enjoy an astonishing popularity. At Saqqara the priests had long been giving magnificent burials to the Apis bulls, but now new and vast underground chambers were established - the Anubieion, sacred to Anubis, with a gallery for dogs; the Bubasteion, sacred to Bastet, filled with mummified cats; the temple of Thoth, its subterranean galleries piled high with thousands of baboons and millions of mummified ibises and falcons; and the Isieion, the temple of Isis, with underground galleries containing the sarcophagi of the sacred cows that had given birth to the Apis bulls. 

Most votive crocodiles were infants; adults have greater data storage capacity.
These uncountable numbers of mummified creatures were brought over hundreds of years by pilgrims as offerings to a favoured god, or as supplication by those seeking a cure. For the Egyptians animals carried within them the quality of the eternal, just as over the years it always seems to be the same bird that one hears singing in the branches of a tree, so that animal cults were a reassurance that Egypt was at one with the sacred and things would remain fundamentally unchanged. 

The intensity of Egyptians' feelings in the matter can be gauged from the incident witnessed in the first century BC by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in Alexandria, when a Roman diplomat accidentally killed a cat and was immediately lynched by the mob.

In other words mummified animals were a way of commemorating the past, remembering traditions, preserving culture and connecting with the sacred. 

Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt.

But not only ethnic Egyptians indulged in animal worship and mummification.  Greeks and Romans who settled in Egypt and whose families lived there for centuries adopted Egyptian practices.  This was especially true in the Fayyum oasis where the crocodile god Sobek was worshipped and offerings of crocodiles made at his temples, in the capital called Crocodilopolis and elsewhere round the oasis, as at Tebtynis.  In Graeco-Roman Egypt Sobek was honoured as a protective deity, fierce in warding off evil while at the same time healing the sick and defending the innocent.  
A treatise on the medical properties
of plants.
Grenfell and Hunt's great discovery was not the crocodiles themselves but their papyrus wrappings which amounted to over thirty thousand fragments concerning everything from agricultural and irrigation management, leases, contracts, tax receipts, reports of burglaries and missing persons, to scientific, mathematical and medical treatises, and also literary works by Pindar, Xenophon, Sophocles, Euripides, as well as parts of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

A fragment of the Iliad,
Book XI, 11, 556-613.
Discarded pieces of papyrus, used to bulk up crocodile mummies or enwrap them, have given us a detailed understanding of the administrative, social and economic history of Egypt and the ancient Mediterranean world, as well as an intimate look into people's lives.  

A second century BC portion of Sophocles' lost play Inachus.
In these days when people no longer put pen to paper or even use a typewriter, when CDs and DVDs rot within twenty years, one wonders what will be left of us for future generations.  For all our tweets and text messages we are creating a world without a memory, a place without a trace, a time that will be immediately forgotten.  Unless you really believe that something will remain out there on a cloud - mostly collected and one hopes preserved by America's National Security Agency, Britain's GCHQ, and the French, German, Russian, Chinese, Israeli and Iranian intelligence services. 

Declaration of a birth AD 50.
But if you really want to be sure of saving what you write, a far superior memory device is a crocodile mummy with a proven life of over two thousand years. 

[For an update on the necessity of crocodiles click here.]