José Manuel Galán began thinking in words, since they are the raw material of philologists, the profession of origin of this man from Madrid. But the lands of the Nile had another path prepared for him. This CSIC researcher devised the way to promote Egyptology in Spain. The fruit of his labor is the Djehuty Project, of which he is his director. Together with his team, he is responsible for several discoveries full of the magic of the past, such as the discovery of the only burial garden excavated to date. The passion to continue learning defines his character.
ASK. Since what year has the Djehuty Project been developing?
ANSWER. The first campaign was in January 2002, so we’ve been here for 21 years. We work on a hill known today as Dra Abu el-Naga, which is where the necropolis of ancient Thebes is located. Very close we have the Hatshepsut temple and the Valley of the Kings. For example, we are 100 meters from Howard Carter’s house when he was excavating Tutankhamen’s tomb. The site is not bad.
Q. What was the reason for starting an excavation in that place?
R. When I got the position of tenured scientist at the CSIC, I thought that I had to take advantage of the opportunity to look for a project. That gave me the chance to help promote Egyptology within Spain. But since I was not an archaeologist, but a philologist, I looked for a project that had inscriptions, that had texts, which is what I like. And Djehuty’s tomb is entirely written.
Q. During the excavation, in the courtyard of Djehuty’s tomb, one fine day you find a stick that appears in the middle of nowhere.
R. Yes, that was very exciting, because we found what looked like a vertical stick, and as we were digging it was clearly seen that it was the trunk of a tree, still upright. It was a tamarisk (Tamarix sp.) that lived for about 25 years. Shortly after, the root that was advancing through the ground came to light. When we began to excavate the root zone, a reticular adobe structure emerged, a space of three meters by eight meters, divided into squares of 30 by 30 centimeters.
Q. Then you discovered the funerary garden.
R. At first we didn’t know what it was. But one night one of the team members, Francisco Borrego, told me: “José Manuel, I think we have a garden.” Coincidentally, that same night a teacher from Hilderberg wrote to me through the newspaper on-line in Spanish from the excavation who told me the same thing: “José Manuel, I think it’s a garden.” From that moment we realized the importance of the discovery.
Q. Had a garden of this type been discovered before?
R. Our garden is the only one well documented and preserved in the necropolis. Another was discovered in the early 20th century, but not well documented or excavated.
Q. What era is it from?
R. It is from the year 2000 BC, that is, it is 4,000 years old.
Q. And what was grown in it?
R. In each little square the botanical remains of what was planted were preserved. We have coriander seeds, a kind of non-sweet melon or also flowers from the daisy family. So the garden combines edible vegetables and flowers.
Q. Was it then an ornamental garden or an orchard?
R. It is rather a symbolic garden to stock up in the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians also played with the symbolic nature of things: they mummified themselves, but, at the same time, they had wooden or clay figurines in the shape of a mummy, just in case their mummy deteriorated. Well, here we see the same thing: the deceased commissioned priests to cultivate plots to attend to his needs in the afterlife; but, just in case they didn’t go well, they built a little garden at the entrance of the tomb.
Q. What function did the tamarisk have in that corner?
R. It may be to provide shade, or it may be for another symbolic purpose that mentions the Book of the Dead: when the soul of the deceased, which has taken the form of a bird, leaves its grave to enjoy the offerings, it perches on a tree.
Q. Another of the discoveries, at a botanical level, is the appearance of bouquets of flowers. What did it mean to give flowers in Ancient Egypt?
R. In the entrance courtyard to the Djehuty tomb we found 50 bouquets of dried flowers, with 50 vessels from the year 1000 BC. The branches were still tied with palm fiber. Everything seems to indicate that they were the remains of a funeral. The deceased in Egypt were greeted with flowers, as a play on words, because the word for life in Ancient Egypt is ankh, which is what is known as the Cross of Life. But it is a word that also serves to refer to plants, to flowers. So, the idea is that when you offer flowers to someone, you are offering them life. So the offering of flowers to the deceased is a wish that they live in the afterlife.
Q. Is there any document showing the importance of gardeners in Ancient Egypt?
R. Next to our excavation the tomb of the gardener, or rather the florist, of Thutmosis III was discovered. It was unearthed at the end of the 19th century, but the problem is that it was later covered up and lost. So the outfielders play a very important role. And then in iconography, all you have to do is visit the tombs of the nobles in Egypt to see that the gardens played a fundamental role. They were part of social life.
Q. Where is archeology taking you?
R. The beauty of archeology is that you experience what is now known as serendipity. In other words, you go looking for one thing and you find many others that are equally or more interesting. Archeology is like a river that carries you, you almost just have to let yourself go. From a scientific point of view, you are constantly learning things that you did not anticipate. Together with my colleague José Miguel Serrano, with whom I have been in the project for 21 years, we have learned things that we never dreamed of. We have been very lucky. And I think the trick is to let yourself go.