30 August, 2007

Kingdom of the Ark, by Lorraine Evans. Book review

Edition reviewed: Simon and Schuster, 2000, ISBN 0-684-86064-3

Kingdom of the Ark is a work of narrative non-fiction, putting forward the theory that refugees from Ancient Egypt settled in Britain and/or Ireland in the middle of the Bronze Age, under the leadership of Meritaten, eldest daughter of the ‘Heretic Pharaoh’ Akhenaten.

Medieval legend

A medieval manuscript called the Scotichronicon, or Chronicles of the Scots, written in AD 1435 by a monk named Walter Bower, gives the following legend about the origin of the Scots:

“In ancient times Scota, the daughter of pharaoh, left Egypt with her husband Gaythelos by name and a large following. For they had heard of the disasters which were going to come upon Egypt, and so through the instructions of the gods they fled from certain plagues that were to come. They took to the sea, entrusting themselves to the guidance of the gods. After sailing in this way for many days over the sea with troubled minds, they were finally glad to put their boats in at a certain shore because of bad weather.”

The manuscript goes on to say that the Egyptians settled in what is now Scotland, were later chased out by the local population and moved to Ireland, where they merged with an Irish tribe and became known as the Scotti. They became High Kings of Ireland, and eventually re-invaded and re-conquered Scotland, which gains its name from their founding princess, Scota.

This sort of folk etymology, deriving contemporary names from (legendary?) eponymous founders, was extremely popular in the Middle Ages. For example, Britain is supposed to have been named after Brutus, Gwynedd after a (legendary?) king Cunedda, and the seven provinces of the Picts after the seven sons of Cruithne. Orkneyinga Saga, written in Iceland in about 1200 AD, attributes the name of Norway to a legendary founder called Nor, and Historia Brittonum, written in northern Britain around 830 AD, attributes the names of major European tribes (Franks, Goths, Alamans, Burgundians, Longobards, Saxones, Vandals) to the sons of a descendant of Noah.

Kingdom of the Ark attempts to find evidence to support the story of Scota’s journey from Egypt to Britain or Ireland.

Egyptian history

As Scota is not an Egyptian name, the first task for the author is to identify a plausible candidate princess from surviving Egyptian records. The Walter Bower manuscript gives the name of Scota’s father as Achencres, and a historian called Manetho, writing around 300 BC, gives Achencres as the Greek version of Akhenaten. As readers of the recent novel Nefertiti will know, Akhenaten ruled in Egypt around 1350 BC and instigated a political and religious revolution, moving the capital to a new city at a site known today as Amarna and attempting to change the religion of Egypt to sole worship of the sun-disk or Aten. Six daughters of Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti are known from carvings in the royal palaces excavated at Amarna. The author argues that five of the daughters appear to have died in Egypt, and that the eldest daughter Meritaten disappears from the records at around the time of Akhenaten’s death and met an unknown fate. On the strength of this, she identifies Meritaten as ‘Scota’.

Akhenaten’s reign was not a successful time for Egypt, and the end of his reign appears to have resulted in a period of political chaos. He was followed by three short-lived successors (including Tutankhamun of the famous tomb), and then by a military Pharaoh Horemheb, who came to power about 1320 BC. Horemheb appears to have had a particular dislike of everything associated with Akhenaten, and systematically destroyed buildings and monuments erected in Akhenaten’s reign. Given this upheaval, it is not implausible that a daughter of Akhenaten might have had good reason to become a political refugee and look for a new life outside Egypt, perhaps with a foreign husband. Several chapters in Kingdom of the Ark are devoted to Akhenaten’s chaotic reign and its aftermath, and are among the most detailed and informative in the book (probably reflecting the author’s background as an Egyptologist).

Having suggested that Scota might be an alternative name for Meritaten, the author then looks for evidence that Meritaten/Scota travelled from Egypt to Britain and/or Ireland as recounted in the Walter Bower manuscript. This relies mainly on material from a range of archaeological sources, summarised below.


A necklace of amber, jet and faience beads was found with a secondary Bronze Age burial of a young man in a Neolithic burial mound at Tara in Ireland, excavated in 1955 and carbon-dated to 1350 BC. The faience beads were similar to those in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which dates to about the same period. (Note: faience is a ceramic, often characterised by a glossy blue glaze resembling precious stones such as turquoise or lapis lazuli). A second, similar, necklace was found in a Bronze Age burial mound in Devon in 1889. As the faience beads are similar to those found in Egypt at the same period, the author suggests that the burials may have been high-ranking Egyptians.

A shipwrecked boat excavated in Ferriby on the Humber Estuary in northern England in 1938-1946 was of a design similar to those used in the ancient Mediterranean and was carbon-dated to 1400-1350 BC. The author suggests that the boat may have been part of Scota’s fleet from Egypt.

Amber from the Baltic Sea is found in Bronze Age contexts in Britain and in Mycenae (Greece), indicating the existence of long-distance trading routes across Europe. The amber’s source can be identified by infrared analysis.

Egyptian artefacts such as faience are found in Mycenaean excavations, and Mycenean-style pottery is found in Akhenaten’s city of Amarna in Egypt, indicating trading and/or diplomatic links between Mycenae and Akhenaten’s Egypt. The author suggests that Akehenaten’s daughter Meritaten could have known about north-western Europe via contacts with Mycenae.

There are mysterious prehistoric towers called motillas in Spain, which consist of a conical tower in an enclosure. One was excavated in 1947 and metalwork dated to the middle Bronze Age was found. The Bower chronicle says that the followers of Scota settled for a while in Spain and built “….a very strong tower, encircled by deep ditches, in the middle of the settlement….”, and the author suggests that the motillas are these towers. Numerous Egyptian artefacts have been found in Spain, dating from the Third Dynasty (well before the time of Akhenaten and the supposed flight of Meritaten), indicating long-established links between Egypt and Spain. (However, as far as I can see the author does not claim that Egyptian artefacts have been found at motilla sites).

Two barrow burials near Stonehenge in Britain were excavated in 1808 and 1818 and contained amber jewellery and gold artefacts that resemble types found in the eastern Mediterranean.

Tin ingots have been found in Cornwall that resemble those found in the eastern Mediterranean. The author suggests that Cornish tin may have been traded, probably by the Phoenicians, into the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, but notes that it cannot be proved because the Cornish ingots cannot be dated.

Two Bronze Age shipwrecks found in the English Channel, one near Dover and one in Devon, date to about 1200 BC and appear to have been carrying cargoes of bronze artefacts of types found in Continental Europe, indicating that seaborne trade between Britain and Europe occurred in the Bronze Age.

Summary and conclusion

To my mind, the archaeological finds described in the book make a reasonably convincing case for trade links across Europe in the Bronze Age, connecting Ireland, Britain and the Baltic with central Europe, Spain, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt. If the boats found at Ferriby did indeed come from the eastern Mediterranean, some of this trade may have been direct rather than the passage of goods through a sequence of intermediaries. This doesn’t particularly surprise me; ancient cultures have a habit of turning out to be more mobile, more connected and more sophisticated than we thought. I would have liked to see some attempt to set the finds in context. As presented, they indicate that long-distance trade was possible, but give little idea of whether it was rare or commonplace.

I’m afraid I’m less convinced that these links can be construed as ‘evidence’ of a single person’s journey from Egypt to Ireland and/or Britain, and still less that they constitute proof that a daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh founded the dynasty of the High Kings of Tara and gave her name to Scotland. It could have happened (and it would make a great starting point for a novel), but it seems to me that the artefacts do not demand an explanation involving a refugee Egyptian princess. They can be just as easily, and more simply, explained as the result of regular trading and/or diplomatic links over a considerable period.

Kingdom of the Ark presents an intriguing hypothesis, but in my view has a tendency to over-interpret its evidence. For example, the book claims that the Walter Bower manuscript had preserved accurate details that were only later discovered by archaeology, such as “the exact dimensions” of the towers in Spain and the “terrible plagues” in Akhenaten’s Egypt. Yet the actual wording of the Bower manuscript – taking the translations given in the book – seems to me to be too unspecific to support this claim. Bower’s description of the Spanish settlement is, “….a very strong tower, encircled by deep ditches, in the middle of the settlement….”. This is a general description, not a set of exact dimensions. It could also apply to a medieval castle in the middle of a fortified town, for example – which would presumably have been familiar to Bower. And Bower specifically says that Scota fled “…from plagues that were to come,” whereas the plagues documented at Amarna happened before Meritaten disappeared from the records – i.e., Bower would seem to have got the events the opposite way round. He may have been drawing on a genuine tradition (although it’s worth noting that 1350 BC to 1435 AD is over 2,700 years, which is a very long time to maintain a tradition), but I think it is stretching a point to claim accuracy. There are also occasional oddities in editing, e.g. “These are found on the Continent, predominantly in southern Germany to the west of the River Seine.” The famous River Seine is in France. Is there another one in Germany, or is this an error? Kingdom of the Ark presents its case with a strong narrative drive that carries the reader easily along, but needs to be read with a critical mind.

A colourful narrative full of interesting snippets of history and archaeology, presenting an intriguing (though to my mind not entirely convincing) theory.

Has anyone else read it? Or come across the theory?

Orkneyinga Saga. Translated by Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards. Penguin, 1981, ISBN 0-14-044383-5.


Megumi said...

I've never heard of that theory (and I have my doubts), but I DO agree that we constantly underestimate ancient civilizations, especially Egypt. I just read about a bowel from Sparta found somewhere in the British Isles, proving how mobile Ancient cultures really were!

Gabriele C. said...

I agree on the trade connections, but to hinge the story of an else little known woman upon a few finds and a Mediaeval chronicls (and we all know how reliable those are, lol) seems to take things a bit far.

I've read a book that states Odysseus surrounded Scotland instead of just criscrossing the Mediterranean. Now, he's at least a famous fellow and I found the book interesting (some of the tidal and weather phenomenons in the Odyssee do look rather like the Scottish westcoast), but I still think it's no more than a somewhat unusual idea that would need more support than geographical identifications to be valid.

But then, so far archaelogists and historians are not even sure about the routes Odysseus might have taken in the Mediterranean. :)

Carla said...

Megumi - indeed, it does seem to be a common assumption. I daresay it's true that most people didn't travel far, but that doesn't mean that no-one did or that cultures were isolated from each other. Maybe it reflects our difficulty in imagining travel without the car and plane? By the way, where was the bowl from Sparta found - have you got any more details?

Gabriele - I suppose Odysseus could have got a long way in 10 years of sailing :-) Do you suppose there's a desire to imagine famous and/or exotic visitors to one's own country (Odysseus, Egyptian royalty), in the same sort of way as people liked to imagine the adventures of Roland and Arthur taking place in their locality?

Bernita said...

Well, the "sea with troubled minds" translation of Bower certainly entranced me, but I am reluctant to give much credence to this sort of speculation ( while I am delighted with the "what if it were true" approach to legends) for there is never sufficient reason for the principal arriving at the designated spot.
The pharaoh's daughter, if indeed she did flee, would have more likely to seek sanctuary a little closer to home.
And I'm not sure that the claim that Merataten "disappeared" is established.

Rick said...

Going just from your review, the book's central thesis sounds utterly unconvincing - not impossible, or even totally implausible, but with no actual reason to believe it. On the other hand the material sounds interesting, even if it doesn't support that thesis.

I more than half wonder if this is a sort of historical fiction for the reality-show age. Or - nearly the same thing - a rather clever attempt to sex up a treatise on trade and contact in the Bronze Age so it sells better. You can almost picture it like a Hollywood pitch meeting: "Hey - I know! We'll throw in an Egyptian princess!"

A couple of side questions: Does the author have a line of jive for how Meritaten became "Scota?"

And how come there's never (that I know of) been a crackpot theory that the Irish are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes?

Gabriele C. said...

There may be something like that, Carla, though the author of that particular thesis is German, not Scot.

Alianore said...

To my mind, trade links between Ancient Egypt and Britain are interesting enough without having to sex it up with an Egyptian princess. :) Had to laugh at Rick's comment about the Hollywood pitch meeting - that's how I saw it, too!

I hadn't heard about the boat in the Humber Estuary, which is a fascinating find in itself. Theorising that it must have been one of Meritaten's ships seems to be stretching the evidence dangerously far. Afraid I find the central theory of the book very implausible (though I would like to read it).

Carla said...

Bernita - agreed, legends can be marvellous fun, but while it's often possible to come up with a halfway plausible suggestion for how they might have happened, it's rare to prove that they must have happened. I gather that the records at the fag-end of the 18th dynasty are so confused that they can bear many interpretations, e.g. the disagreement over whether Pharoah Smenkhare was a man or Queen Nefertiti under another name.

Rick - the Egyptian princess idea goes back to Walter Bower, so if there was a pitch meeting it was held in 1435 :-) That said, the agent credited in the acknowledgements is with a high-powered London agency, so I daresay he was alert to the marketing possibilities! It certainly makes a cute hook to hang a story on, and pushes a lot of buttons - exotic 'descent', Ancient Egypt, Irish celts, a bit of feminism, etc.

No, the book doesn't even speculate as to how 'Meritaten' could have become 'Scota'. Which is probably just as well, as 'Scota' looks so obvious a back-formation made up to explain the name of the Scots. The mildly curious aspect is that the attached legend is a refugee princess rather than the more usual heroic male founder-figure (see Nor, Cunedda, etc in original post). Perhaps either Bower had an unusually vivid imagination or he was working from a genuine tradition of sorts. (Which itself could have been made up any time in the intervening 2700 years, with or without a grain of truth).

Re the Irish and the Ten Lost Tribes, there is - see Wikipedia for a start.

Gabriele - that's interesting, I could understand someone wanting to place Odysseus on home turf.

Alianore - it's well worth reading for the leads into bits of history, but I think you need to keep your critical radar switched on :-) I thought the sections on the Amarna heresy (apparently it went back to Akhenaten's father and grandfather and he was just taking it further, rather than it being his idea de novo) and the various suggestions of trade links were more interesting than the central theory itself.

Scott Oden said...

I first came across this idea in Geoffrey Bibby's excellent '4000 Years Ago: A World Panorama of Life in the Second Millenium BC' (Collins, 1962). An archaeologist himself, Bibby explored the notion that quite elaborate trade routes existed between the British Isles (a source of tin) and the Mediterranean -- some via the sea and others overland. The bulk of this trade was done in a round-about way, tribe to tribe or from established entrepots. Though firmly rooted in the science of his time, Bibby's portraits of life among early Germanic sea traders, their rare trips to sunny Crete, are fanciful and interesting. The whole book, which covers the history and social changes of a thousand-year period in seventy-year 'snapshots', is quite excellent.

Carla said...

Scott - that sounds a fascinating and unusual book! I've heard of the suggested tin trade between Britain and the Mediterranean before, and it makes sense to me - tin isn't widely distributed and it seems logical that the vast deposits in Cornwall would have been discovered and exploited. I don't know if anyone's done a systematic trace-element survey of Mediterranean bronzes to see if they can identify the tin source unequivocally. Trace element analysis can identify the source of gold, but I don't know if it can be applied in the same way to an alloy.

Rick said...

Carla - I guess pretty much the same stuff sold in 1435 as now. No real surprise; Homer was around 750 BC, and the Iliad and Odyssey between them are more or less a complete guide to schlock: monsters, babes, and lots and lots of hack & hew.

Scott - I remember that book! I read it in high school or even junior high ... not long after the time period it covers. I was thinking of it after reading Carla's post - I'd long forgotten author and title, but the 70-year intervals stuck with me.

Scott Oden said...

You know, I want to say it can but I'm not familiar enough with metallurgy to say for certain. It's definitely an interesting read, however.

I realized I forgot to mention the book you're reviewing ;) I find it highly unlikely that ancient Egyptians would flee to a point as distant as the British Isles. Simply put, their religion is their life, and their religion is distinctly Nilotic. It makes NO accomodations for foreign burial; the idea of dying in a far-off land and being denied an afterlife was a very real fear to them (it's an almost constant theme in the 'Travels of Wenamun'). This fear even informed their foreign policy -- though the Egyptians of the 18th dynasty had trading posts and colonies in Palestine, most were run by locals and defended by mercenaries, with officials making infrequent trips to check things out. So, I have serious doubts about a princess fleeing to such a remarkably distant shore, thus denying herself and her followers any hope of an afterlife. More likely, she would have fled into Upper Egypt or Nubia.

Scott Oden said...

Oh, it's a classic, Rick! I hunted down my copy on Alibris after reading a review of it in a fanzine a few years ago. I'm sure some of Bibby's history is outdated, now, but he had a gift for injecting life into dry archaeological records.

He's also credited with finding the ancient island empire of Dilmun in the Persian Gulf (on the island of Bahrein, actually).

Carla said...

Rick - yes, nothing changes, does it? I shall have to see if I can find a copy Bibby's book - I hadn't come across it before but if both you and Scott recommend it it should be a good read!

Scott - I don't know enough about metallurgy either. My concern would be that you could do the trace element analysis on the artefact no problem, but you wouldn't be able to tell whether the trace elements you found came from the tin or the copper or both and in what proportion, which might mean it's of limited use for identifying the source of the components used to make the alloy. If I ever get the time I may try to look it up.

Good point about the vital importance of the afterlife in early Egypt. The book doesn't mention that aspect at all, although she does mention that Egyptian princesses were never married to foreigners and that's presumably part of the same issue. Exile was a particular horror of many early societies (e.g. the Welsh concept of 'hiraeth', and Old English poetry such as the Wanderer), and the fear would be redoubled in spades if you believed your soul would be exiled from the afterlife as well.
Out of interest, if one of the officials happened to die on his infrequent trip to one of the colonies, just by chance, would they have been able to preserve his body on the spot so they could bring him home for proper burial? I suppose you could pickle a body in something simple like brine just for transport?

Scott Oden said...

The notion that Egyptian princesses (princessi?) should never marry foreigners springs from the fact that to ancient Egyptians members of the royal family were literally gods -- the earthbound avatars of Isis and Horus. Only another god -- another Egyptian god specifically -- could be a royal's equal in marriage. This is also at the core of the brother/sister unions.

In the wake of his death, King Tut's wife, who was likely a half-sister, offered herself in marriage to a son of the Hittite king, presumably to avoid being forced into marrying 'a commoner' (most Egyptologists believe it was the vizier, Ay, who ruled twixt Tut and Horemheb). She was gotten rid of real quick, and Horemheb, who was chief of the army, had the Hittite prince killed as he crossed the frontier. Though not of royal blood himself, Horemheb married a daughter of Akhenaton AND proclaimed that Horus had elevated him to godhood. His heir was Seti, who was the father of the Ramesside (19th) dynasty.

As for officials dying abroad: I think most would have had a quick and dirty embalming done, been packed in salt or sand, and hastened on their way back to Egypt. I recall reading something about that very problem in the aftermath of the Battle of Kadesh; accomodations had to be made for the Egyptian dead to be transported home. Details, though, have always been hazy.

Carla said...

Scott - many thanks for that clarification. It's interesting that Tutankhamun's wife should have considered marrying a foreigner preferable to marrying a 'commoner' of her own country - unless she had a specific reason to dislike the guy in question. What did Horemheb do to her? was she executed?

Good point re the Battle of Kadesh. I suppose there would have been similar arrangements needed for other military expeditions abroad - presumably some Egyptian soldiers got killed even if they won, and wuld have had to be brought home for burial. Or did common soldiers not count and they only needed to make special arrangements for the top brass (who usually don't get killed)?

Scott Oden said...

First, I made an error: Ramesses I was Horemheb's heir, not Seti. I get my Ramessides confused ;)

Unfortunately, we don't know what really happened to Tut's wife after the Hittite Prince Affair, save that she likely was forced to marry Ay and was quietly put aside in favor of Ay's first wife (whether that means she was killed or just 'retired' is a topic of discussion, indeed). Conspiracy theorists believe she was against the marriage because Ay was the prime suspect in Tut's supposed murder. Some have even postulated that Ay was Nefertiti's father (she was Akhenaton's wife and Tut's wife's mother), meaning she'd be marrying her grandfather. While that's possible, the vitriol in the letter against 'the commoner' precludes in my mind a family connection. I believe Ay was a courtier who had risen far beyond his station. He ruled for approx. 3 years before Horemheb took full control of the government and set about erasing all vestiges of the Amarna period. In the propaganda, he became the heir of Amenhotep III (Akhenaton's father).

You can see why the Amarna period is one of the most popular in all of Egyptian history. Which makes Ms. Evans' book all the more ballsey for assigning such an exodus to Meritaten (I want to say this was the daughter of Akhenaton that Horemheb married, but I'm not certain -- there names are so similar, and this isn't my favored time period so my memory is a bit spotty).

The fate of the common casualties at Kadesh is part of the ongoing debate. In Egypt, even the poor were embalmed (albeit a cheap and dirty embalming). The afterlife was open to all Egyptians regardless of class or station; indeed, it was meant to mirror life along the Nile, with workers happy and full of love for their rulers. No record was ever made regarding disposition of the dead after Kadesh, though as far as I know, no one has discovered Egyptian remains near the site of the battle. It might be we'll never know ;)

Carla said...

Michelle Moran's recent novel Nefertiti uses the premise that Ay was Nefertiti's father (more details in my earlier review if you're interested).

Was the wife of Horemheb that you're thinking of called Mutnodjmet? Michelle Moran's novel sets Mutnodjmet (Horemheb's wife) as Nefertiti's sister, so Akhenaten's sister-in-law, although I gather the relationship isn't certain. Or did Horemheb marry another wife who's known to be a daughter of Akhenaten? It's all terribly confusing, and fertile ground for the imagination - no wonder it's a popular period!

Have other non-Egyptian remains been discovered near the Kadesh battle site? If they have, that would show that bodies survive in the local conditions and supports (though doesn't prove) the idea that the Egyptian dead were taken away. On the other hand, if no remains have been found, that might suggest either that bodies don't survive or that we're looking in the wrong place.....