Tuesday, February 29, 2012
Although once a palace-city that housed hundreds of people, as an archaeological site Malqata is part of Egypt’s low desert. When you visit the site, it is not immediately apparent that wildlife is part of Maqata, but if one is quiet and patient after a little time local birds –like the crested lark appear. But not all the wildlife is innocuous and this season we were reminded of that while clearing the large patches of camelthorn (see blog post for Feb. 15, 2010) from across the site. Camelthorn is damaging to mud brick if it is allowed to grow in archaeological sites because its tough roots explode the brick as it grows. Since we don’t have much left in the way of brick, down to the last few rows, eliminating camelthorn to preserve any piece that still survives, is part of our site management program.
So we tackled this unpleasant task in a big way each season, setting a crew of about 12 men to cut the camelthorn and burn it. During this process, another of Malqata’s hidden occupants was discovered. Buried in the sand under two separate clusters of camelthorn were horned vipers. Regrettably but not surprisingly the immediate reaction of the workmen was to kill the snakes; they did so instantly.
The presence of the vipers for me was a surprise since we are so near modern settlement –only a few hundred meters—that I didn’t expect snakes to be comfortable living where there is constant traffic. However I was intrigued and decided to a carry out a little research on the reptiles which are the snake represented in the striking hieroglyph used for the sound “f “in ancient Egyptian.
A Horned Viper Hieroglyph Representing the Sound ‘f’ in the Word “Nefer” (meaning beautiful or good)
Widespread across North Africa, the Desert Horned Viper (Cerastes cerastes) makes its home in the stony desert, a perfect description of the topography around Malqata. Surviving on lizards, rodents, and small mammals, the viper buries its body under the sand leaving its head exposed during the day. It actively hunts at night. The camelthorn where they were discovered at Malqata probably helps to keep the snakes cool during the day. I suspect that a few of those lovely little larks that hunt insects in the camelthorn fall victim to vipers occasionally.
This species of viper is distinctive because the snake often has supraorbital horns whose purpose is not yet understood. The horned viper is not an aggressive snake, and although it produces a cytotoxin, venom is rarely injected in large amounts so fatalities are not common. Adults are about 2 feet long with thick bodies. The ones at Malqata were probably young since the one I saw was just over a foot and not very thick.
The ancient Egyptians had to cope with several species of poisonous snakes. The Brooklyn Museum of Art has a fascinating late New Kingdom papyrus (47.218.156) that was a manual for treating snake bite. Published by Serge Sauneron (Le papyrus magique illustré de Brooklyn, 1970) the sections that survive contain a physical description of a snake, symptoms caused by its bite, whether the bite is mortal, and the deity associated with that snake. Apparently the most common ingredient in the ancient treatment of snake bite is onion, which lived on in Egyptian folk medicine into recent times. I have been unable to verify that information, however.
Diana Craig Patch