Thursday, 2 June 2011


“Every civilization is, among other things, an arrangement for domesticating the passions and setting them to do useful work.” - Aldous Huxley

On the 30th of May, the BBC aired an episode in a program called “Egypt’s Lost Cities”, which recounted a marvellous archaeological discovery in the northern part of Egypt. One may hardly blink an eyelid because in a large country like Egypt which has such a long history, has been civilised for thousands of years and is so rich in artifacts, yet another discovery like this is not unusual. However, the strange thing about this discovery was that it was spotted by infrared satellite imaging.

The satellite image revealed a distinct pattern of streets and buildings in the buried ancient city of Tanis. This new imaging technique that has been recruited by archaeologists has also shown the sites of 17 lost pyramids as well as thousands of tombs and settlements. Dr Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham uses satellites to probe beneath the sands, where she has found cities, temples and pyramids. Now, with Dallas Campbell and Liz Bonnin, they are off to Egypt to discover these magnificent buildings buried under the sands.

It is possible that only one percent of the wonders of Ancient Egypt have been discovered, but now, thanks to this pioneering approach to archaeology, the means that we make our discoveries is about to change. The satellites that orbit 720 km above the surface of the earth provide the images, which the researchers analyse and enhance to display the patterns of ancient streets and settlements, temples and pyramids. This gives them very precise information about where to dig and by looking at the satellite image it is almost as if they have a road map of the ancient site.

The city of Tanis is relatively unknown among Egypt’s historical sites, although it yielded one of the greatest archeological treasure troves ever found. Tanis was once the capital of all Egypt, and the royal tombs of Tanis have yielded artifacts on par with the treasures of Tutankhamun. Movie buffs may remember Tanis as the city portrayed in the Indiana Jones film “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In this movie, the city was buried by a catastrophic ancient sandstorm and rediscovered by Nazis searching for the Ark of the Covenant. This is Hollywood fiction, as in reality the Ark was never hidden in Tanis, the sandstorm didn’t happen, and the Nazis never battled Indiana Jones in the site’s ruins. However, Tanis does exist and its ruins hide many wonderful secrets.

Ancient Egyptians called Tanis “Djanet”, and the Old Testament refers to the site as “Zoan”. Today it’s known as Sân el-Hagar. The site of the city is in the Nile Delta northeast of Cairo, and Tanis was capital of the 21st and 22nd dynasties, during the reign of the Tanite kings in Egypt’s Third Intermediate period. The city’s advantageous location enabled it to become a wealthy commercial centre long before the rise of Alexandria. However, political fortunes shifted, and so did the river’s waters, which led to the city’s abrupt abandonment. It was long known that the ancient city was hidden somewhere in the area, but not exactly where.

In 1939 Pierre Montet, a French archaeologist, discovered Tanis after nearly a dozen years of excavation. He unearthed a royal tomb complex that included three intact and undisturbed burial chambers, a rare and amazing find. The tombs were full of dazzling funereal treasures such as golden masks, coffins of silver, and elaborate sarcophagi. Other precious items included bracelets, necklaces, pendants, tableware, and amulets. Statues, vases, and jars also filled the tombs, all part of an array that still bears witness, after thousands of years, to the power and wealth of the rulers of Tanis. One of the kings, Sheshonq II, was unknown before Montet discovered his burial chamber. But he wore elaborate jewellery that once adorned the more famous Sheshonq I, who is mentioned in the Bible.

Montet’s discoveries were extraordinary, but the timing of his finds was unfortunate. The discovery of Tanis was completely overshadowed by the nearly simultaneous eruption of World War II. Even today, few people know the tale of the treasures Montet discovered. Although the objects of Montet’s excavations are exhibited in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, they draw far fewer visitors than their more famous counterparts such as the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Tanis was found largely as it had been abandoned in ancient times, so the city is home to many archaeological treasures in addition to the tombs. Temples of Amun and of Horus, have been found, with many more to be excavated. Even large urban districts of the ancient city remain, and the site continues to host archaeological expeditions in search of more finds. The “blueprint map” of the city that the satellite images have disclosed is likely to yield rich finds that the archaeologists will now unearth.

It is easy to underestimate the achievements of our ancestors and the size and extent of past human settlements. Visiting many ancient sites one is amazed by the degree of comfort and luxury that ancient people enjoyed, as well as by the advanced science and technology they used to build marvellous edifices. Finds such as Tanis should be instrumental indemonstrating to us that our forebears were sophisticated and highly civilized people who lived complex and highly organized lives in cities that rival many modern-day towns and make other modern towns seem primitive.

infrared |ˌinfrəˈred| adjective
(Of electromagnetic radiation) having a wavelength just greater than that of the red end of the visible light spectrum but less than that of microwaves. Infrared radiation has a wavelength from about 800 nm to 1 mm, and is emitted particularly by heated objects.
• (of equipment or techniques) using or concerned with this radiation: Infrared cameras.
the infrared region of the spectrum; infrared radiation.
ORIGIN: from Latin infra ‘below.’


  1. Hello Nicholas V:
    Well, this is all rather remarkable and one can only imagine the treasures which are yet to be unearthed from Tanis. At least with this new technique, the needle in a haystack method is gone for ever and archaeologists the world over must surely be excited at this new tracking technique.

    We remember only too well queueing for hours around the courtyard and along the street of the British Museum when the treasures of Tutankhamun were first exhibited. Perhaps the discoveries to be made in Tanis will attract the same frenzy?!!

  2. How very interesting! I love visiting museums with Egyptian exhibits and I admire the great ancient Egyptian civilisation. This new technique is bound to lead to more exciting discoveries!

  3. I heard some time ago that archaeologists were even using Google Earth to 'explore" some ancient sites and made discoveries that way.

  4. Wow!!!! Thats like something out of Scifi!!!!
    Technology can sure make everything simpler....