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Excavations in the Temple of Mut at South Karnak

Dr. Betsy Bryan spoke to the Chapter in March, related to her work at the Temple of Mut in South Karnak, and the cult of the goddess which has been revealed there.  Dr. Bryan is on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and has since 1997 been the Alexander Badawy Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology.


Dr. Bryan opened her lecture by acquainting the audience with the goddess Mut, and her position in the Egyptian pantheon, and presented a brief introduction to the excavation and conservation work that has been ongoing at the temple of the goddess.


Mut’s home – called the Isheru, is located in what is now referred to as the southern precinct of the Karnak temple complex at Luxor in Egypt.  It is connected to Karnak temple via an alley of sphinxes leading from the 10th Pylon to the Mut temple.   Mut was one of the god Amun’s, consorts, and her temple definitely equates her with a lion goddess.  One of Dr. Bryan’s objectives has been to determine just when those aspects of Mut became clearly established.


Mut’s role as the wife of Amun-Ra is indicated architecturally during the time of Hatshepsut via a path that connected her temple to Luxor temple during the Opet Festival, but exactly when that association with Amun came into being is still unclear. Dr. Bryan hopes that if she is able to study the oldest remains of the Mut temple so that question can be answered.


Using several exceptionally clear and detailed Google Earth satellite images, Dr. Bryan showed the audience exactly what makes up the Mut temple precinct.  When entering the main gate of the Mut precinct, a visitor first encounters Temple A and its chapel, where Dr. Richard Fazzini has been working for some years.  The front portions of the temple are the latest constructed.  The front pylon has a Ptolemaic gateway and a ka chapel along the wall.   The temple itself, dedicated to Khonsupakhered, contains the earliest known mammisi (birth house).  It is not, however, the earliest temple to have occupied the site, for the pylon and the gate are filled with blocks from other temples. 


To one side of the Mut temple and its surrounding lake, is a temple built by and dedicated to Ramses III, which was originally outside the temple precinct. 


Inside the original precinct is the temple of Mut, surrounded by a horseshoe shaped sacred lake, the Isheru, which is a truly remarkable aspect of the Mut Temple precinct.  Dr. Bryan and her excavation team have revealed the entire footprint of the temple in its last form which dates to after Dynasty 25, for sure; however, it was probably finished around the reign of Taharqa.  He added to a building that had already been there for at least 900 years.


The Isheru has one arm that is much broader than the other, and it is now thought that it was enlarged to facilitate access by the Ramses III temple.  The Isheru was probably primarily a watering hole for lions, in connection with the goddess Mut.  There is an unusual intimacy between the lake and the temple, which was constantly attended to, built and rebuilt over and over during the life of the temple.  Deep corings into the embankment found a clear reverse stratigraphy which was the result of repeated dredging.  Janet Gourlay excavated along the embankment and her work demonstrated the fact that the embankment was repeatedly rebuilt using chopped up statuary to facilitate the dock that was used during festivals.

Karnak temple itself was designed in the New Kingdom with an eye to processional ways, and also to connection with the Mut temple. Intermediate processional connections date at least from the reign of Hatshepsut, whose successor, Thutmosis III built Pylon 7.  Pylon 7 is the first pylon in the north- south access on the south side of Karnak temple leading toward the Mut temple complex.


A major question for those who work in the Mut and Karnak precincts is, “where was the Nile 3,000 years ago?”.  The Nile has meandered for all of its existence and some of its meanders have been very wide.  When trying to determine how the Isheru evolved the question is, was it man made or did it result for a meander of the river?  Much consideration has been given to the possibility that it was perhaps originally part of a meander of the river which was incorporated into the sacred precinct as the river began to move east.  The lake is fed by ground water now, but may very well have been fed by the river originally.  Temples in Egypt often have strong relationships to water and to the Nile and many were constructed on natural sand gaziras, which rise out of the water itself in very predictable forms.  Any obstacle can form a deposition in the river.  The sand is pushed against the obstacle by the current moving downstream, such that the farthest end of the gazira grows higher than the near end and a boggy depression develops in the middle.  Today canals run along earlier arms of the Nile and many artifacts of these old arms are visible from high altitude satellite maps


At the Mut temple there is quite a difference between the elevation at the front gate (73 meters) and at the rear of the temple (approximately 79 meters).  In between, however, Dr. Bryan and her team are finding that stones are wet from 1½ to 3 meters below the surface.  From the 10th pylon to the Mut temple the processional way is all down hill then it rises again at the temple.


During the Middle Kingdom, we know that the bank of the Nile was much farther east than it is today and that it meandered in that direction quite quickly.  Luxor temple could very well have been on a separated island had it existed at the time, and it is very likely that the Mut temple was on a seasonally island, for we know that at the rear, southeast, corner of Karnak temple there was a river bank, so it is certain that Karnak and Mut temples would have been on islands for at least some parts of the year.  The terrain of the Mut temple complex is typical with the rear of the complex highest, the front high and the center area boggy, as noted previously.


Dr. Bryan believes that the shifting of the Nile around the Mut temple occurred no later than the 2nd Intermediate Period as there is no indication of a temple existing at the site during the Middle Kingdom.  During the reign of 17th Dynasty king, Sobekemsaf, a statue, now in the British Museum, portrays the king in Mut of Isheru, which is the oldest known attestation of the sacred precinct.  Thus the question of what was the earliest occupation of the site and what it consisted of is a question of great interest to Dr. Bryan.


To date, a mud brick front of late 2nd Intermediate Period/early 18th dynasty vintage has been revealed, and large areas at the rear of the complex, behind the sacred lake, have proved to be 2nd Intermediate Period temple installations which continued into the Rameside period.  They include such things as workshops, grain silos (6 to date), and bakeries – one on top of another.  The granaries are surrounded by rectangular walls and are immediately below the 2nd Intermediate Period remains.  Thus it is possible to confirm a well functioning temple system during the 2nd Intermediate Period.  


The aim of Dr. Bryan’s excavation project is to retrieve the earliest material of the temple, but to do so within what is appropriate to the environment and consolidation of the material.


In 2003 the front wall of the porch which fronts the temple was where work began.  Dr. Bryan’s team removed the material which was in bad condition in order to rebuild the wall.  When her team began to dismantle they found that the second course of stones above the sand base was almost completely disintegrated. The porch had been built by king Taharqa in Dynasty 25, as an extension to the main porch of the temple itself.  Dr. Bryan’s team has now excavated behind the porch and conserved the blocks which have been moved to an open air museum where they can be displayed out of danger of ground water encroachment.  One particularly fine block features Thutmosis III and the goddess Amunet.  Dr. Bryan noted that all of the Mut images which have been recovered to date show Amarna period destruction and eventual restoration.


In the late 18th Dynasty, new interest was taken in the Mut temple complex.  Many pillar sections, with 3 sides carved in sunken relief and 1 side carved in raised relief, are from a porch added by Thutmosis III, which had square pillars in front and was roofed.  After the reign of Amenhotep III, that same porch became an indoor space.


Also, discovered at the Mut temple is the “porch of drunkenness”.  Twelve decorated columns provide a description of the cult that existed during Hatshepsut’s reign.


One of the most spectacular finds to emerge from Dr. Bryan’s excavation is a statue of Queen Tiy, great wife of Amenhotep III.  The re-carved inscription on the back pillar of the statue is for a much later queen – one from Dynasty 21 – but the statue is of Tiy and dates from the last portion of her husband’s reign.  The statue has been dated based on the sed festival decorations on the piece and the cryptogram on the queen’s modeus.


After finding the statue of Queen Tiy, excavation continued in the same area, and that is when it became clear that there is a mud brick temple under the Thutmosis III temple.  When the decision was made to build a stone temple, it appears that the old mud brick temple was filled with sand.  The excavators found that the central passage of the new, stone-built temple is directly over the central passageway of the original mud brick temple.  Pottery found in the area is from the transition period between Dynasty 17 and Dynasty 18.  The Thutmosid building clearly stood until Dynasty 25 when Taharqa rebuilt the front platform.  In the front corner, the excavators found that the ancient builders had dug down to a foundation of a Hatshepsut/Thutmosis III building that was from an earlier period, and buried it then used it as a foundation.  From that level have come blocks with original images of Mut with Hatshepsut.


The excavation has also uncovered pavings over which limestone blocks were placed and under which column drums from the co-regency (Hatshepsut/Thutmosis III) have been found.  During the last week of work in 2006/07, working in the temple proper, the lowest bits of the original limestone temple were discovered.  When work begins again and these remains can be completely excavated it may be possible to tell exactly when the temple was taken down.


Did the temple look much like the Akhmenu at Karnak with its combination of square and round pillars or was it more like the temple that stood at the fort at Buhen?  That is one of the questions Dr. Bryan and her team hope to answer when they excavate again in 2007.

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