Entrevistas, Historia & Arte — 14/01/2019

Günter Dreyer: «I would call real writing, is phonetic writing. That was the invention, as far as we know, by the Egyptians»

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Traducción por Leotopía

He looks at you straight in the eye. Günter Dreyer (Germany), one of the great world specialists in Egyptology, agreed to let us meet during his visit to Spain. He went to Cistierna, as a speaker at the Summer School of the Biblical and Oriental Institute, gone together with Isabel Plumed —Archaeologist, Draftsman and Restorer—. To keep a conversation with him causes genuine vertigo. He speaks with restraint, correction and seriousness, but sudden flares of contagious enthusiasm light up his speech when discussing the importance of Egyptian civilization in the West.

Günter Dreyer

This is not your first visit to Spain, but it is your first to León. With the eyes of an archaeologist, what do you think about the city, about León?

Actually, it’s my second time in León, but the first visit was very fast. In answering your question, I must say that it is well preserved. No ruinas [laughs], no too many, at least.

In general, I think that the monuments in Spain are very well kept, restored and accessible. I was quite astonished to see that. Excelente. El Museo de Mérida —The Mérida National Museum of Roman Art—, for example, is first class. I’m very impressed by that.

Let’s start with your origins. In which moment you decided you want to be an archaeologist, an Egyptologist?

[Hum] I first was a chemist, and then I traveled through Near East, and saw all the ancient monuments. And then, I decided that is what I really want. So I went back to university, and I studied Assyriology, Biblical Archaeology and Egyptology. But I like the writing in hieroglyphs much better than cuneiform writing, so I changed the main subject, but I always wanted to excavate.

The first excavation I attended as a student was in Lebanon, and then the second in Egypt. I knew that this was the right field.


I wanted to excavate to find things, to discover things, to answer some questions.

Great attitude. You studied first in Hamburg and then in Berlin. What was amazing? What has changed in the university have since you were studying in the late 60s, early 70’s?

That’s a difficult question, because I really don’t know exactly what is going on there. By far too many students. When I studied we were one professor, three students, and still was doubtful whether any one of us would get a job. Now they’re much more and it’s quite clear, they will have no jobs. That is a big problem.

Another big change it´s also that at the time I studied we wanted to know, and now people want to be taught, want to be told. We asked questions, we took the books to read. Nowadays, quite often (not always), students come there and they want to be told, like at school. This doesn’t work.

At the time I studied we wanted to know, and now people want to be taught, want to be told. We asked questions, we took the books to read. Nowadays, quite often (not always), students come there and they want to be told, like at school. This doesn't work

Do you think that now Egyptology is more a matter of office than a matter off field?

It always was. In Germany and in many other countries, you study philology, hieroglyphs, writing, texts, inscriptions… but you cannot really study archaeology. You can learn about some monuments, but to study archaeology you must go to the field, you must work in an excavation.

The best training you can get in Europe is with the pre-historians who work in Europe, and they don’t have big temples. They learn accuracy there, so I would always advice for somebody who wants to become an archaeologist to go with a pre-historians first, and then go somewhere else for the training.

With your experience of director of the German Archaeological Institute Cairo —since 1998 until 2008—, there is a connection, a practical connection between the academic life and the practical world in the field? How you manage with that?

Well, students who are interested apply to the Institution which carries out an excavation. Then, we interview them, ask them. What can you do? What abilities you have? Why do you want to do that? And then if that is positive… For example, a lot of work in excavations is drawing, so you need ability of drawing. A wall, an object, an inscription… you must draw, draw, draw. Or take photographs, but draw is much more important. And if you don’t have the ability or talent for that, forget it.

Then, they come to Egypt, go to the field and learn. First, they start processing pottery shreds. Everyday life of archaeology is pottery, shreds, shreds, shreds… Some archaeologists say that is the curse of Pharaoh [laughs].

And then if you develop some more interest… Maybe you find as a student already a subject in an excavation for your thesis, for your master’s degree, or whatever it is. So that was the case with me as well. I joined as a student to the excavation of Elephantine and I was lucky enough to find nice things, motive objects of that I choose as a subject for my dissertation[1].

Everyday life of archaeology is pottery, shreds, shreds, shreds… Some archaeologists say that is the curse of Pharaoh

Why they need to draw if now they can make good photographs? Which is the advantage of drawing?

You take a camera and make click. What did you see yourself? Almost nothing. If you take a pencil and draw an object, you have to study it. Where is a corner? This original or not?

The camera will not tell you. Your eye must tell you.  You must look, and then, you can understand the object or a wall. You take a photo of a wall built of bricks and it’s fine, but you have to clean it with a brush and see where are the bricks, where are the stones where is the joint of a wall to another. This cannot be done by a photo. Photo are very important, of course, for documentation, but they can never replace drawing.

How Germany went, after the expedition of Napoleon, into the matter of the Egyptology?

Egyptology or Egypt became mainly known, of course, by the Expédition française de Napoléon. Was published in the Description de l’Égypt [1809], but shortly after, the King of Prussia, King Frederick Wilhelm IV, also sent an expedition to Egypt with architects and experts which traveled all the country and make drawings of much better quality than the Description, I must say. Very reliable. And published this in big huge volumes also.

Since then, Egyptology became in a way established. After that came The decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion [1822], which was a French task. By the way, it’s interesting that the decipherment of the cuneiform language, which was done by Germans —Mr. Georg Friedrich Grotefend— is less known [laughs].

In Berlin, there was an institution establish the academy for the study of Egyptian language. And they published over decades, the first comprehensive Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian. Studied all the inscriptions there, and this is still in use until today.

In any case, I think we are an international group of scientists. Whether is French or German, or British, or American, or Spanish, or Italian… doesn’t matter. We work together.

The side of Abydos, first was excavated by a Frenchman, Monsieur Amélineau, then, again, excavated by a British, Mr. Petrie. About hundred years later, we came and did it again. But of course, we studied the old publications and we are in contact with the colleagues, exchanging information.

So that is a family kind of, and they’re not so many, so almost everybody knows everybody. We know all that is a specialist for this subject and we help each other. For example, with the first inscriptions we found, I went to the director of the French Institute in Cairo, Madame Posner and we discussed it. So that is really an international cooperation.

Why are we so fascinated —experts and laymen alike— with Ancient Egypt?

Well, Egypt is mainly known by pyramids and the gold of Tutankhamun, but there’s much more.

Egyptian culture is the culture which lasted the longest of all history, three and a half thousand years.

I always wanted to know how it came into be-ing. People don’t just start with building pyramids, there must be something before. How did it come to that? How did this culture emerge? What were the preconditions? That, I think is the most interesting question.

That is by your side, but why you think the people is so much interesting in Egypt?  What is the attraction?

The pyramids, incredible monuments not surpassed by any modern monument and… the gold! The treasure! The curse!

And then the stories of Cleopatra, beautiful Nefertiti and all these tombs with decoration. Is magic. If you read One Thousand and One Nights’ stories, you will see the treasure diggers, and also describes how the tombs were robbed. People are always fascinated by treasures, and Egypt has a lot.

And is also the beauty so simplicity as it seems, of the artistic achievements. It’s very touching, it’s easier to get at it then Near Eastern culture. From Mesopotamia looks more complicated. Egypt looks easy, simple. It’s not, but…

I think this is what’s attracts the people, and, I want to repeat, there is no culture which lasted that long. First hieroglyphs, written about 3400 BC The last ones, third centuries After Christ, so that is really a long period. No culture lasted that long. Why? Interesting question.

Günter Dreyer

Herodotus described Egypt as a gift from the Nile. Which is the important of the river for the development of the culture there?

How can I put this in simple words? The Nile is an oasis, a fluvial oasis in the desert, and when the desert spread out people went to the Nile Valley, where they could make a living and could be sure there is water. And then, there is the inundation with the flood going to the Nile Valley and fertilizing the ground, so they could rely on that. And the main problem of mankind is food. There, they would be sure about the agricultural, so they could live there.

And also the Nile´s means a transportation. There’s a marvelous long water road connecting all the places. So that was an advantage of Egypt over all other cultures. In Mesopotamia is quite different with the two rivers Euphrates and Tigris. They change their central course quite often and was not just one big river.

Which was your first impression when you saw the Nile first time?

I came to Cairo first in 73 and I crossed Abou al-Ela Bridge, which was said to be built by Mr. Eiffel. I stood there on the bridge, and I wanted to take a photo of the Nile. And suddenly police came and said: «That is forbidden!». I was on the bridge, and that was a military secret. So that was my first encounter with the Nile. Was a bit dangerous. I almost got arrested.

And something more romantic between the Nile and you? [laughter]

Was like that, I’m sorry [laughs]. It was like that.  It was a real big river, so I was impressed, but that is my main memory of the first view of the Nile.

Do you think that the study of Egypt can be understood without taking into account the African context? Perhaps the first moments of civilization have been studied in contrast to Mesopotamia, and that leaves aside key elements in the formation of settlements such as the Nubian area, Libya or the Saharan space.

Well, Egypt has African sources and very many relations with the Near East. For example, the language ancient Egyptian is more close to Babylonian then than African languages.

It’s a Semitic language and the cultural connections were much closer with the Near East than to black Africa.

Let’s talk about Abydos, the place that you have excavated for several decades.  What is Abydos? A city? A cemetery of high class people? A religious center? 

No. It’s much more, much more. Already in the first millennium BC Abydos became an important local center, but there were several ones in Upper Egypt: Naqada, Hierakonpolis…  Abydos enjoyed the crossing of trade routes. There’s the Nile, of course, which is the main trade route, but also a trade route coming from the Red Sea, and then going to the Oasis.

And Abydos was nearby and could control that. That I think, was one of the main reasons why the settlement there flourished.

In the middle of the IV millennium BC, a local chief decided settlement and buried people there, in the cemetery. By the descendants of these chieftains became later the rulers of a larger area of Egypt, and still buried their dead people, especially the kings, were already the ancestors had been buried. It was a long tradition. We discovered that a cemetery of vittle skulls back to early Naqada period.

The local rulers gained the importance and finally, step by step, united all Egypt on the one rule. They changed the main point of settlement of residence to Memphis, but following the old tradition: the kings are buried there.

It became a very important religious center, much later, in the Middle Kingdom, about 2000 BC, because one assume that the God of the dead was buried at Abydos II.

But according to Egyptian mythology, Osiris is a former king of Egypt. So they assumed: «Oh, he must have been buried where the other kings are buried!», and they did an excavation — or many excavations— and try to find the tomb of Osiris. They said:«Oh, must be this one, the largest biggest in the center! They put stones that, so it was the tomb of Osiris».

And became kind of a Mecca, the holiest place of ancient Egypt. All pious people went there once in a life if they could to make an offering, like the Hajj to Mecca nowadays, to pray for an afterlife to Osiris.

Günter Dreyer

How can you explain to someone that doesn’t know anything, a profane in that matter, the mythos of Osiris?

Osiris, in principle, is a God of fertility, of agriculture. He represents natural power of growing of the plants. For example, in some tombs there are frames in the shape of the God Osiris with seeds, so they come out, and from dead earth comes life. It is a symbol of life, of fertility and that, of course, was the main concern of everybody.

But I must tell you that Osiris originally is not Egyptian. He’s not known in the Early Period. The first mentioning of Osiris is in The Pyramid Texts of the Fifth Dynasty. He was not known before. The main God at that time was a big white baboon. He’s probably an import from the Near East and very similar to the God themls who was worship there.

Some see a direct connection between Osiris and Christianity’s belief in a resurrected God.

I think carefully about that because that is a dangerous field. [laughs]

The ancient Egyptians thought of the Gods organized like living people and families. And one of the most important families is the man, Osiris and his wife, Isis. And they have a son together: Horus. Horus is regarded the living King, Osiris becomes the dead King, and is the ruler of the afterlife.

And Osiris gains new life after he had been killed by his brother Seth, that’s another myth, and his wife reassembled all his parts and conceived post mortem their son Horus. So the dad is gaining new life. That is very similar to the resurrection in Christian belief, but already in the tombs we can see that before Osiris was known.

The tombs in Abydos big chambers was a wooden shrine and their coffin, their sarcophagus, they were not the final resting place. In some tombs we found exits. There’s a staircase leading into a tomb, but also stack is leading out.

And then, in one tomb we found at chamber attached to the burial chamber where there was a statue of the king and the staircase, obviously serves the king, who had one life again to leave his tomb and go to the opening of a wadi which was regarded to be the entrance to the afterlife.

That is why later all the kings in the Valley of the Kings are buried in the wadi, because it was also regarded to be an entrance to the afterlife. So the idea of resurrection, that you leave your tomb like Christ and gain new life, is coming from ancient Egypt.

Egyptian culture is the culture which lasted the longest of all history, three and a half thousand years. How did it come to that? How did this culture emerge? What were the preconditions? That, I think is the most interesting question

Why Naqada is the most important city for the beginning —in archaeological dating— and becomes after an unknown? Why this decadence, this decline? What happened to Naqada?

There are many settlements. Some flourished, and others went down.

About Abydos, for example, gained supremacy. The court was there, that’s where the music played. Naqada was still a big settlement, but did not gain importance by the ruler class. So it came into some decline.

But Naqada is only the place where this culture was identified first. There were many places of the Naqada culture, so it’s not only the site of Naqada. We have Naqada culture also at Abydos.

Why the most important cities —Abydos, Naqada and Hierakonpolis— are in the West bank?

That’s where they are [laughs]. I have no reason for that.

Usually people were buried on the west side because one assume that the entrance to the afterlife is in the West. On the other hand, there’s a very huge early and Predynastic cemetery on the other side.

So I think the preference for that side is more by local conditions. Where was the larger area for agricultural land, available or not… That was not the preference for the West. I don’t think that.

Günter Dreyer
Source: Biblical and Oriental Institute

In this early times the keys of the treatment of death, the way to preserve the bodies, and the religion… is already on?

We can only describe what we find in the tombs. The earliest tombs already contained beside the burial, usually, a pot, a vessel, sometimes with a little lag of an animal food. From that we may conclude they already believe there is an afterlife where you need to eat. And then that try to provide the dead people everything when needed in real life for the afterlife, which is much longer, of course, than real life.

For example, in the royal tombs they were piled up thousands of vessels with beer, bread, wine and things like that. We found a Predynastic tomb who had   about 4500 liters of imported wine. After life is a long time, you need a lot, you know [laughs].

One may assume that, like with all human beings, what happens after the death is a main question and everybody’s hoping that will be something. So they imagine it must be similar to real life, so we need equipment, so they put more and more. As much as they could. They wanted to protect the tomb covered build big constructions about it. They also wanted to be sure that the body is preserved because, how can you live without the body?

The only times ever just wrapped up it was the climate which preserve the body. Tried it out later on the mummification quite often did more bad than positive effects. All this oil and whatever they did. So it’s mainly the climate which preserved the bodies. But to be sure, you can also put a statue into the tomb, reserve the body, so in case the real body is gone, you can use the statue. You still have your place for the soul. That’s why we find so many statues in ancient Egypt. All for the afterlife.

They imagine it must be similar to real life, and because of that, like you wrote, «the arrangement of the rooms and passages indicates a function- adapted structuring of the building that anticipates the form of a “tripartite house”, one that is divided into three sectors: and entranceway, the reception rooms, and the private rooms».

Yes, exactly.

I have a feeling that in that time the death was taken as a more natural thing in comparison with now. Now, in our time, we want to escape, we want to forget we are going to die.

Yes, but I think the Egyptians had a more positive approach, and so far that they were rather sure, have an established to believe there is an afterlife good, so they could rely on that, but they had to take care that are well equipped.

But sometimes the Egyptian culture is described as the cult of the death. No, it’s a cult of life, they want to prolong life, by all means to make sure that it goes on.

I mean, I think they’ve been very much afraid of time, of course. There’s also this custom described by Herodotus in Histories [440 BC] in which the Egyptians people, before a symposium or a big meal, they passed a little figurine of a skeleton around saying: «Beware, death is not far. Enjoy life, as long as you have it». And then they started eating and drinking.

So they are human beings like us. We try to ignore death a little bit, or in a way, they were more aware of it, but put a lot of energy to safeguard the afterlife.

Sometimes the Egyptian culture is described as the cult of the death. No, it's a cult of life, they want to prolong life, by all means to make sure that it goes on

 Why do these first kings begin to cover their tombs with burial mounds?

It is a natural way. Go to a cemetery nowadays, and look at the barrow. They dig a hole, they take the earth out and put the coffin in. They fill it, and they have a surplus. So you put it on top, there’s a natural way to do it. It also gives you the position. Is here.

But from a certain point on, we don’t know exactly when, they changed it. We know that because in some tombs, we found backup copies of the tumulus was in the tomb pit, which makes no sense at all for the surplus. I think that is because the Egyptians identified the natural tumulus with the primeval mound of creation.

The Egyptians thought: at the beginning of the world, there was water everywhere. A big flood, as they saw it every year, and then the water went down, and little islands came out, little mounds. One mound has must have been the first. Logical thinking. That is where life started. Without land, you have no life. So the first mound is the primeval mound of creation.

So if you have a symbol or a copy of that mound on your tomb, you can regain life, like at the beginning of the world. That mound of course, must not be destroyed, so you safeguarded, make a copy, put it in the tomb molded, or build it in stone, much better than just sand.

First two bricks around, then stone and that is the origin of the pyramid, becoming higher and higher. But in principle, it is a primeval mound of creation, a represented all the little natural amount above the tomb it.

Günter Dreyer

Can you make a description of a city in Egypt Ancient? In Hierakonpolis, for example, have been found breweries and bakeries.

Very little settlements are known. Elephantine is a very good example, and where I’ve worked also from for many years. And that is easy to excavate because is on a high rock formation where you can reach all the levels. Other places usually has covered by a layer silt, so you cannot get to these levels.

The brick is a very important invention in man’s history. So after the invention of the brick, they built their little houses. It´s interesting how the earliest houses we found had only a roof height of one meter 30, so you can’t stand there. Life was outside, in the court. The house was only to start goods and to sleep.

But of course, as always, people may want to take your things, so they built a city wall around it for protection. The earliest depictions of cities show circles with buttress and towers, so those always dangerous and you had to protect yourself until there was central government guaranteeing protection, —which took care of the borders then you didn’t need any more city walls—.

That was a big step forward. In fact, I would say one of the greatest achievements of ancient Egyptian culture is the central organized state. Guaranteeing stability to the whole country. I think that is the reason also why this culture flourished for so long.

But how is the life in one of this cities?

Dusty, dirty, stinky… [laughs]Not very much different from village life today, I think.  Our workers, which came from small villages, quite often explained us specifics and house building´s details, because it’s similar to today.

There’s for example explained me why the door of the house is very low: «We creep in, we don’t need a big door. And then, we clean the house to the street and all the dust is in the street. We pour some water, so it is glued to the street and the level of the street is coming higher and higher and the level of the houses lower and lower». You could still can see this in our cities of medieval cities.

Also they live together with their cattle —sheep or goats, sometimes cows— and went to the fields for the agriculture. Is still the same.

Wine or beer?

Beer was for the average people. Wine was for the nobles.

Tom Standage in A History of the World in 6 Glasses (2006) says that Barbarians drunk beer, and became civilized thanks to the tradition of wine drinking.

Egyptians early discovered that one could brew beer from bread or grain. In the Predynastic, at the beginning of, wine was not known.

Wine was invented, or first grown, in Turkey, very far from Egypt, and then made its way to Palestine. In the earliest tombs of Abydos, we found imported vessels, and from the rise of use, we could say that was wine, that was a precious commodity, and not everybody could drink wine, only the upper class and I even think that the wine played an important role in the unification of Egypt, because there was a trade route from Upper Egypt along the delta to the Near East.

And these trade routes were endangered, and the luxury goods, especially wine, but other commodities also, were stolen. So they wanted to save that route and conquered the delta to make that flow of wine possible. And the first dynasty then they learn to grow wine themselves. But in the beginning, that was all imported.

Günter Dreyer

Abydos is an important key for the unification oris only a piece?

Abydos is one of the most important keys for the early history of Egypt. Hierakompolis is another one, but as Abydos gains a special role for the sequence of the kings, of the rulers, it became more important. The complex always remained very important religious place. Why is that?

I think the invention of writing was very important. Imagine. What is governing under nowadays it is collecting taxes and distributing money for different purposes. If there’s a chief king of the village, you can easily collect from the different peasants, you bring so much beer you bring so much grain, okay.

But if he wins power over, let’s say, ten, twenty settlements, confusion comes up. Who has sent his taxes? Who was responsible for this bad delivery, for example, or bad beer or wine or whatever it was? That needed control.

So the beginning of writing is control by the administration. They wanted to know what comes from where and who is responsible, what is the quality, what is the amount. It all starts with bureaucracy.

Ok. So, at the beginning of writing —at least not to a large extent—, there was no place for creativity.

No, this was for practical reasons, as an administrative requirement. But they were clever enough then to use it for other purposes.

It starts when the administration wanted to know when was this sent? Which year? They wanted the date, and the Egyptian system of dating was by name of years. Each year had a name. Each year was named by the most important event of the year. We still think personally like that. The year when the first or Second World War ended is much clearer to us than a number, so they gave names to the years after the main events and created lists with these years names.

Yes, but which was the role of Abydos in the unification of Egypt?

I think we have not very much evidence for that. We don’t know that for sure.

The expansion of roads has an important role. Why? As I said before, to safeguard the trade routes, they wanted the luxury goods.

They wanted to make sure and so they expanded, and as they were well organized was a developing administration and writing they were rather successful in organizing a large area of the country.

And that made it. Although soon after the final unification, the Kings decided it’s better to go, to have the capital, not in Abydos, but at the apex of the delta, between Upper and Lower Egypt so they could control the Delta better.

Günter Dreyer

You mentioned the grave robbers before. What role do they play in this world? Is only bad or there is, so to speak, there is a useful role too?

Of the tomb robbers? [Astonishment]

 [Laughter] Yes. Because sometimes they can help to find nice things, can’t they?

I don’t know, I wouldn’t say that. I mean… [laughs]. Tomb robbing is one of the oldest businesses of mankind. We have traces that the tombs at Abydos were robbed shortly after the burial already, for the first time.

Protecting never worked. Time passes, and again, they were robbed. And this continues until today.

And positive aspect of tomb robbing is another one, not for archaeologists, but is also the economy. The gold they put into all these tombs, especially of the New kingdom, was out of circulation, it was no longer there, and the tom brobbers got it back to the economy so it could flourish again. The money must come back, you know [laughs].

Yes! [Laughter] What about the story of Howard Carter and the little boy of Abd el Rasul´s family?

I don’t know whether that is reliable or so he was systematically excavating there, and of course it was well known this valley contained tombs and it was most likely that they were unknown tombs and so you had to clean it.

You may refer to another story. On the art market appeared many objects from unknown tombs and they could trace these back to the family of the Abdel Rasul´s and they had discovered The Royal cachette, where all —or a lot of Pharaohs— had been assembled and protection of ancient tomb rhombus already and that they had discovered and kept it the secret, of course. Until one of them was seized in heavily beaten by the local authorities and he finally confessed is there.

Who was king Narmer?

A man by the name of Narmer [laughs]. He had a rather simple tomb, we know, but he’s played the major role in finishing the process of end of unification, of conquering step by step.  Both parts were under one king for the first time.

He’s one of the earliest ones of who we know a little bit by this famous monument of him. This palette [points to the drawing] shows his victory over the Delta people and that was often taken as a monument for the unification of Egypt.

There were kings before him, who did the same and they were kings after who did the same, but he achieved it for the first time and so he became very popular.

We know very little about him. His tomb is rather simple as almost empty. We found this few fragments of boxes decorated in a similar way as a palette and we could reconstruct them. First monument of Egyptian history.

Actual event of a certain year is this: victory of king Narmer over the Delta people. We don’t have any special event before. We know, of course, there were events, but nobody knows about them.

Source: Biblical and Oriental Institute

Let´s talk about the symbolic character of the Narmer Palette, about the theme of order over chaos represented in objects like palettes, scepters or knife handles.

One of the main human experiences is that life, the world, is chaotic.

No order is endangered everywhere. Chaos is a danger for existence and must be confined. The chaos is usually symbolized as a snake. Dangerous animals from the ground you cannot control. Think of the story of The Paradise and the snake. Snakes are bad.

And there must be established order by power, a divine power. So in an early knife handles, for example, you see arrows set referring to a stars, the same sign of God in Sumerian in the middle of two snakes. The snakes are orderly and tangled around it. So it is representing central power, divine power, controlling chaos. Another symbol in carvings is elephants, trampling on snakes. The elephant is the strongest animal and tries to keep the bad chaotic animals down. Is interesting to observe that the heads of the animals, of the snakes, are still up. They are not extinguished. Still there, only confined.

And then, on some knife handles, behind the elephants trampling on snakes, they show a stork: this bird who’s eating a snake, because is the natural enemy of snakes. And then follows a giraffe, very peaceful animal, with a very long neck. And behind her, follow the giraffe, many storks without snakes on her peak. What can that mean?

The giraffe has a very long neck. It can see much further than human beings. It sees dangerous approaching or whatever approaches, earlier than the people. Is a view for the future. The hieroglyphs for the giraffe in fact in Pyramid Texts means for see what is going to come.

So this see wishful thinking the future the storks don’t need to eat the snakes. They are no longer more there. Chaos is confined. That is peace.

Another interesting topic: human sacrifices. What is true about the idea of human sacrifice to join the king as an entourage in his afterlife? You found the trail of 15 previously unknown pharaohs who did it.

No. I mean, I estimated there must be about 15unknownkings. I establish a list of a possible sequence. There are some mistakes, but part of this list is still valuable.

Tomb U-J is one of them. That was good reason we can ascribe to a king by the name of scorpion. The neighboring tomb, I assume is the king of the first king Horus, Falcon. Then we have several tombs with no evidence of the names of other sources, for other royal names.

But in other parts of Egypt, there were local rulers who didn’t like those rulers. And they said: «We make our own kingdom here». There was a guy named Crocodile near Cairo, and he made his own kingdom for some time. So there was a struggle for that.

But as for human sacrifice, there’s a big change. In the beginning of the first Predynastic times there is no subsidiary burials. They don’t exist. The tomb of Narmer is not. Is a very simple two chamber tube.

But the tomb of his successor, Aha, is the first which has about 30 subsidiary burials, small chambers beside the big chambers of the king, and his equipment. We found bones around. Unfortunately, had been excavated before, but the bones are still clear, and they were all very young people —20 years, and average and younger—. Even at that time, that is not a natural age of death. That should have been at least one or two is 35, one make 40. All very young people. So one may assume they didn’t die a natural death, they were killed. But it’s that human sacrifice?

What is a sacrifice? A sacrifice is a deal. You give something to get something. You worship a goddess and bring something valuable because you want something of the God. That is a sacrifice. You give, and you get.

Here is different. These people were killed, not to be extinguished, but to serve the kingdom in his after life, in eternal life. We cannot say for sure whether they liked it, but I wouldn’t call it human sacrifice. The king needs his servants, his people around him and his equipment in his tomb.

Günter Dreyer

So, it was not a free decision?

This we don’t know. We know from the inscriptions of the subsidiary burials. They had names written on the wall and in the tomb, like in our graves.

It happened that we found two examples of people died before the king died. Natural death. And they were very before the other ones. They probably were killed by poison or how we don’t know. That no traces on the skeletons.

Maybe serve the king in eternal life was a great honor. Probably they were told that.


Or whether they liked it. It’s difficult to say

But they called it ritual death.

Is a ritual death to follow the king and his eternal life. They also got the equipment. For example needles, so they could work the gowns of the king

When you discover the beginning of the writing?

We discovered this in 1989. At 1988 discover the tomb, we found the first, but the understanding took a little bit. And then it was discussed and went through the media and so and so.

The point is still we must define what is writing. We can define writing in a very broad sense that is giving meaning by signs which are engraved in clay or stone, whatever.  If you draw a little sheep and put six lines below it, you have six sheep, you can understand the signs, is like our traffic signs. You understand the meaning but you cannot read it.

At when you want to write are to note something which is abstract. For example, a word like big or small, we have no picture for that. That is difficult. And so the ingenious invention of the Egyptians, and that is obviously earlier than in Mesopotamia is that they use signs also with their phonetic value, with the phonetic value of the word which is shown.

Give me a Spanish example now.

Ok. A Spanish example? Cosa, casa.

You can draw a little house, and it is a «casa». You can read it, and say, it´s a house. In any language you can read this or understand it, but how can you draw a picture for the idea of «cosa» or «cosita»? It’s abstract. But you can use the house because it has a similar sound. «Cosa» – «casa». Like in all Semitic languages, the vowels are not important. The consonants are important.

So if you have a word which you can draw and has required consonants C and S, you can write a house for «cosa». See? It´s the same.

And then you put an abstract determinant, and that’s it. They could recognize that it was not «casa», but «cosa».

Günter Dreyer

BBC and  The Guardian published some articles that refer to hieroglyphs as a more primitive form of writing than emojis. Margaret Maitland—curator of the Ancient Mediterranean collections— refuted them.

 Yeah, the Egyptians didn’t want to show emotion. They wanted to show facts.

It’s the same principle in a way, but it’s not writing. It’s pictorial. Whatever the emoticon says, you can read it in any language. But you cannot use them to express grammatical parts of a sentence.  So, how can you write past and future tense with pictures only? You’ll need phonetic. The biggest step, and I would call real writing, is phonetic writing. That was the invention, as far as we know, so far by the Egyptians.

You discover the beginning of the writing in 1989. What has changed since then?

Well, some readings were disputed. Some of my first readings were wrong, but basically is accepted that this is phonetic writing. I read some names of kings and say, no, this is maybe a name of a city, for example. But the principle, is established and accepted, I think.

In details, here and there, yes, but the principle is no doubt about it.

What about the dichotomy or the competition between Mesopotamia and Egypt?

That is another point. Who invented writing? That is dependent on the definition of writing.

But what do you think?

Well, I think the Mesopotamians developed earlier codifications, I would call it.

They could store information by signs, but it is not phonetic writing. It´s a big step in mankind. But the second step, read phonetically, took more time in Mesopotamia than in Egypt.

Maybe they discover one day earlier examples in Mesopotamia, but so far? No.

We go to the modern Egypt now. After several decades of excavation, knowing the country and its people, how do you think that life in Egypt has changed as a result of phenomena such as Islamist terrorism or the persecution of Coptic Christian communities?

Unfortunately development is not only restricted to Egypt.

We have some friends that they told us in former years that they are friends together. They visited the Muslims for the Ramadan and the Muslims came to congratulate him for Easter Christmas, but with the growing nationalism… That has come, and unfortunately is becoming worse, and worse.

Is a phenomenon we have all over the world, unfortunately, and it will destroy the country. I see no positive developments, I´m so sorry.

Günter Dreyer

Which is the heritage that Western people has received from Egypt?

Oh, it´s a lot, but I just tell you a few things I mentioned that before.

The organized state. The central government which is responsible for the welfare of the world country is an invention or a development of Egypt. Bureaucracy, administration, which can be terrible, but it’s necessary, is an invention from Egypt. Mesopotamia had similar one, but…

Other things are ideas on religious areas. The idea of an afterlife certainly was also present in other cultures, but so clear as an Egypt that the body comes back to life —which is transferred to Christianity—, nowhere.

Is even the idea of Mary receiving Jesus, not by her husband, but by God, is ancient Egyptian. The concept of immaculate, is also an idea of ancient Egypt and God Amon.

Monotheism goes back to Akhenaten of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Moises was an Egyptian. He had the ideas from Egypt transferred to the Jewish religion, then it came to Christianity, and it came to the Muslims as well. It’s all coming from there.

So, it’s a lot.

Are the West and the East natural enemies or they are not?

No bad branches of a same big tree.

You have done many interviews over the years, and have participated in some TV series and documentaries, like Planet Egypt. How do you think is the treatment of the media about your subject, I mean, Early Egypt? 

They liked it, but they didn’t want too much details. What the media want is something easy to sell which is a bit breathtaking, sensation. If it’s not gold, at least it must be something extra ordinary. But the true story, I think which is much more interesting than all the sensations, easy gets lost.

Gold don´t tell anything. What did the gold treasures of Tutankhamun told us? Historically? Nada. Beautiful pieces, the gold mass, some piece of art… are marvelous. Yes, but… Gold are treasures by themselves, don’t tell much.

What do you think about Egyptologists like Zahi Hawass? Is necessary this kind of person in some moments?

One must acknowledge a lot of achievements of Zahi, his popularity and how he sold information. Was ingenious, really. He got so much attention which otherwise would not have been there, and he also got the means to restructure the Antiquities department Egypt, so he did a lot of good for the safeguarding of the Antiquities. Scientists don’t like the methods so much, but the outcome is positive I must say.

Because, that’s how our world works. You need attention to get something, and he got attention, so he could achieve something.

2016 marked the 50 anniversary of Spanish Archaeology in Egypt. How is your relation with the Spanish archaeology and how do you think about her progress?

The Spanish Egyptologists have a problem that Spain was oriented not to the Mediterranean but to South America and all the energies when are there, goes to the Romans which were here. It was a bit neglected but understandable, but I’m happy that there are some institutions, like the Museum of Madrid and others, could launch projects in Egypt.

It is not the heritage of one country. Is heritage of mankind, and Spain, of course, have some responsibility there too.

An archaeologist goes into retirement?

Never. Because it´s always something unfinished, and my purpose in life is to write articles. This never ends, thanks God.

Günter Dreyer

[1] Tempelweihgaben der Frühzeit und des Alten Reiches.



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