Now let’s go and see what Dyspepsia has been doing all the while.
I told you she was away in Egypt on a school trip. Yesterday they spent the afternoon in the Cairo Museum, looking at the marvellous things that people have dug up all over Egypt.
Everybody wanted to go and see the mummies, and point at them, and go “Oooh!” and “Yerrgh!” But Dyspepsia is more discriminating. She wanted to look at the everyday items that ordinary people used, and the Kings and Queens, when they were just being ordinary people (as they did occasionally). She’s not really into jewellery for herself, or luxury goods of any sort. But she’s very interested in the jewellery that Egyptians wore. Because they didn’t have plastic, and they didn’t have a lot of metal, unless it was gold, which was as common as dirt in ancient Egypt.
But they did have a lot of stone.
And when they didn’t have exactly the kind of stone they wanted, they used to import it from far away. As far away as Afghanistan. Especially a gorgeous deep blue stone called lapis lazuli, which can only be found in Afghanistan. They used it a lot, in spite of how expensive it was, and still is.
In the museum Dyspepsia saw tables and chairs which had come from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. She was amazed by how modern they looked. Actually there’s no mystery about it. When Howard Carter found the tomb in 1922, he took photos of all the wonderful things inside, including the table and chairs. The furniture designers saw the photos and said “How cool!” – and copied them. So that’s why King Tutankhamen’s tables and chairs look like expensive furniture from your great-great-grandmother’s time.
Really it’s the other way round.
But getting back to jewellery, Dyspepsia knew they didn’t have plastic, and when they used metal it was was mostly decorative, so how did they manage to make such fancy bracelets and necklaces? It turns out they used a lot of stone. Besides loads and loads of scarabs, which were stone beetles with writing on them – heavens knows what they were used for – the museum had a display cabinet full of stone beads. Some of them were very tiny, no bigger than a lentil. But each one was perfectly carved, and polished, and engraved with patterns, and each had a tiny hole drilled through it for threading on a string.
This really brought it home to Dyspepsia that there were a lot of clever people in Egypt with a lot of time on their hands. She knew that for three months of the year all the fields were flooded, so the ordinary folk couldn’t get out to work in them. This wasn’t a nasty accident, as it would be in England, but was expected to happen, and was looked forward to.
When the river Nile overflowed its banks, as it did each year regular as clockwork, it threw down tons of black sludge which was good for growing things. And that was why the Egyptians had plenty to eat and plenty to spare to sell abroad, so they all grew frightfully rich. So after the local bigwigs had got everyone to mend the canals and dikes and make the muddy water go where it was meant to, the King used to get them to build pyramids and fine monuments in the big cities. They weren’t built by slaves: the people were glad of the work and were paid for it in bread and beer – and onions and garlic, because bread tastes a bit plain unless you put something on it.
But that still left time over, during which they had wonderful water festivals, which needed a lot of preparation, and made a lot of clearing-up afterwards – and in the time left over from that… they made beads.
Dyspepsia gazed at the beads with the eye of a scientist, marvelling at the workmanship. She wanted to work out how they did it. They didn’t have grinders or electric motors, or power tools of any sort (except tools powered by little boys jumping up and down on pedals connected to the workbench with pulleys and rods). Clever people who have studied these things think they must have taken a thin stick and dipped it in gritty powder and then just sat twiddling it to make the hole in each tiny bead.
How would you fancy doing that all day? Or would you rather go to school?
Then, in the top corner of the display cabinet, she saw something which made her heart go bump. The label said it must be some sort of bead for sticking on furniture, because it didn’t have a hole through it. But Dyspepsia knew better.
It wasn’t a bead – it was a button cell.
She had a geiger counter in her pocket which took button cells. Not many people carry geiger counters around with them, but if you’re friends with Spookie the Cat, it’s not a particularly unusual thing to do. She fished one of the cells out of it and held it at arm’s-length, level with the one in the display case (you mustn’t put anything on the glass top, or the alarm goes off). Apart from the battery in the display case looking old and corroded, she couldn’t see any difference.
Did the ancient Egyptians make their own button cells? The museum didn’t want to go saying it was a button cell for fear of people laughing at them. Dyspepsia knew it was no good trying to tell anyone at the museum what it really was, because they would only laugh at her.
That’s how Egyptology gets done. You have to wait until you’re famous, then you can write your discoveries down in a book. And some people will laugh at you, but some won’t. Especially if they have to buy the book to use on the course you’re teaching.
Dyspepsia didn’t reckon on being an Egyptologist when she grew up (actually she wants to be an admiral in the US Navy). But she did reckon on talking it over with Spookie when they next spoke on FaceTime.
Perhaps there was no mystery about it at all. Button cells didn’t start to appear until about 40 years ago. Maybe they hadn’t been invented then, but merely rediscovered from Egyptian tombs? But of course the people who patented them wouldn’t have gone blabbing about that.
…to be continued.