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MEDINET HABU RECORDS RECOVERED

By Emily Teeter, Ph.D., Assistant Curator,
Oriental Institute Museum,
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 140, Winter 1994, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


On a sunny day in late August, I was escorted through the labyrinths of the Staatliche Museen in former East Berlin to meet the museum directors, Drs. Dietrich Wildung and Karl-Heinz Priese. After more than a half century, the excavation records of the Oriental Institute's only excavation in Thebes were about to be returned to the Oriental Institute and reunited with the thousands of artifacts they document. There, on a table in Dr. Priese's office, was a group of notebooks and manuscripts. The ten notebooks with their tan and purple covers proved to be the excavation Fundlisten (find lists) that detail each group of artifacts from the site. Although the amount of detail given for any one group of artifacts varies, in many examples precise stratigraphic data, plans of tombs, drawings of small objects, rubbings of scarabs and seals, and commentary about the objects are given. I was also presented with a group of miscellaneous notes by Egyptologist Rudolf Anthes, including a manuscript for a catalogue of artifacts from the site. After pleasant conversation, a tour, coffee, and cakes, I carefully loaded the manuscripts into my airline carry-on bag and rushed back to the home of my Berlin hosts where we toasted the memory and good work of the excavators of Medinet Habu.

The story of the loss and recovery of these field records and notes is an illustration of how modern history, politics, and human circumstance affect our search for the past. The Architectural Survey of the Oriental Institute, under the direction of German Architect-Egyptologist Uvo Hölscher, excavated Medinet Habu from 1926 to 1932. During those years, the Epigraphic Survey worked alongside it and documented the reliefs and inscriptions of the temple. The goal was to recover the architectural history and use of the sprawling and complex site over the 2,500 years of its occupation. Characteristic of the Oriental Institute in those days, the excavation operated on a huge scale, with 300 men clearing 20 meter squares. Skilled foremen and scientific staff were borrowed from the Institute's expedition at Megiddo. In Medinet Habu Reports I, Hölscher describes the working conditions as, "At times Medinet Habu was completely enveloped in an opaque and blinding cloud of dust which resembled the thick masses of smoke that hover over a great conflagration."

Hölscher was an experienced archaeologist who trained with the famed Ludwig Borchardt at Abu Sir and later at Giza, producing the still-definitive work on the Khephren causeway. He was well trained and meticulous. An obituary refers to Hölscher's work for the Oriental Institute as:

… a campaign that was conducted on a far more intensive and thorough manner than anything known in Egyptian archaeology before; completely new standards were set in the recording of this great building and superlative plans with an immense amount of detail were drawn for the monumental publication.

Hölscher contributed to five issues of Oriental Institute Communications, and authored five magnificent folios in the series The Excavations at Medinet Habu (Oriental Institute Publications),which appeared between 1934 and 1959. These volumes are masterpieces of documentation. For example, each of the mudbricks in the walls of the houses to the southeast of the Great Temple are distinguished as headers or stretchers, and existing heights of walls are indicated by shadows.

Hölscher returned to his native Germany in the off-seasons to prepare the publications and to resume his duties as professor at the Technischen Hochschule in Hannover. With the end of the excavation in 1932-33, the field documentation was taken to Germany where Hölscher and his colleague Rudolf Anthes could refer to it to produce the final publications. By the end of the decade, the notes were turned over to Anthes who then served as the Acting Director of the Staatliche Museum, Berlin, in the zone which was to become East Berlin. Correspondence indicates that a sixth volume, dealing with the artifacts from the excavation, was planned under Anthes' authorship. The letters between Hölscher and Anthes, copies of which are in the Museum Archives of the Oriental Institute, give only a pale impression of the deprivations that the war brought and of the apparent chaos in Berlin. In 1939, Anthes was removed from his museum post because of his anti-Nazi sentiments, although he continued to work there until 1943. Judging from calendar slips and memos inserted into the newly recovered records, he worked on, or at least referred to, the Medinet Habu records into 1941. After that time, for unknown reasons, the scholar and his documents were separated so thoroughly and perhaps chaotically that although Anthes returned to work at the museum in then East Berlin from 1945 until 1950, his letters indicate that he considered the records to be lost. A letter from Anthes to Hölscher dated December 13, 1949 expresses hope that the two scholars could still develop a catalogue of the finds from Medinet Habu based solely on minimal documentation in Chicago and Cairo. Anthes bemoaned, "It is fairly abominable that not a scrap of my notes, let alone my manuscripts have survived-in other words, actually or probably they are in Russia and they rot there!" This belief that the records were lost is echoed in the last volume of Excavation at Medinet Habu (vol. 5), which appeared in 1954: "pictures and data concerning them [the artifacts] with a discussion by Dr. R. Anthes were lost during the war."

For more than another half century the Egyptological community considered the records to be a victim of the war. In 1985, ironically the year of Anthes' death, Museum Archivist John A. Larson and Joan G. Rosenberg, Oriental Institute Visiting Committee member, Museum Docent, and volunteer, began to organize the surviving data about the excavations at Medinet Habu. A report on Joan's work appeared in the September-October 1987 issue of this publication, and eventually a copy of that issue of News & Notes made its way into the hands of Dr. Priese, Director of the then East Berlin Egyptian Museum. Very shortly after the end of the cold war and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dr. Priese wrote to the Oriental Institute informing us that indeed, most of the records, as well as some of Anthes' manuscripts pertaining to Medinet Habu, had escaped destruction. The possibility of the return of the manuscripts became more of a reality when, by chance, I met Dr. Priese at the opening of an Egyptological exhibit in Cleveland in 1992. He gave a spirited description of the materials and invited the Oriental Institute to reclaim the documents.

After very cordial and helpful correspondence between Dr. William Sumner, Director of the Oriental Institute, Dr. Wildung, Director of the Egyptian Museum, Berlin, and Dr. Priese, the stage was set for the return of the documents to Chicago. Needless to say, I carried them on the plane where they safely rode at my feet. They are now housed in the Museum Archives of the Oriental Institute where they will provide generations of scholars with essential information about the artifacts and the site of Medinet Habu. We only hope that we have the opportunity to be as helpful to another institution as Drs. Wildung and Priese have been to the Oriental Institute.


Emily Teeter is now preparing publications dealing with the Medinet habu artifacts.

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