Cambyses’ Lost Army Found? Don’t Eat That Elmer …

I’m sure folks have all heard/read about the latest news from the Egyptian desert — presented with varying degrees of credulity by a less-than- incredulous media –about the claimed discovery of remains of Cambyses’ ‘lost army’ by the brothers Castiglioni. Google, fora, lists, discussion groups are all agog at this apparently amazing discovery ‘proving’  one of many hitherto unverified stories in Herodotus. So let’s begin with Herodotus (3.26 … from the Internet Classics Archive; Rawlinson translation):

The men sent to attack the Ammonians, started from Thebes, having guides with them, and may be clearly traced as far as the city Oasis, which is inhabited by Samians, said to be of the tribe Aeschrionia. The place is distant from Thebes seven days’ journey across the sand, and is called in our tongue “the Island of the Blessed.” Thus far the army is known to have made its way; but thenceforth nothing is to be heard of them, except what the Ammonians, and those who get their knowledge from them, report. It is certain they neither reached the Ammonians, nor even came back to Egypt. Further than this, the Ammonians relate as follows:- That the Persians set forth from Oasis across the sand, and had reached about half way between that place and themselves when, as they were at their midday meal, a wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear. Thus, according to the Ammonians, did it fare with this army.

Back in the beginning of 2004, rogueclassicism had its first taste of the search for this ‘lost army’ with a story from Egypt Today about a tourist company’s plans to have tourists take part in the search (hopefully the reason I’m doing this will become clear later) … here’s a better excerpt (I think) than I originally had, via the Wayback Machine:

The fate of Cambyses’ army is one of the great mysteries of archaeology. Attempts to find traces of it have ended in failure, and some historians suspect the tale was a fabrication, or at the very least a gross exaggeration.

Tourism companies, however, see it as a potential cash cow.

“It is a great opportunity,” says Hisham Nessim, manager of Aqua Sun Resort. “We will give tourists a chance to participate in solving this ancient mystery and we will sell it as a touristic product.”

Nessim, a former desert rally driver, leads the Egyptian Exploration Desert Team (EEDT), an exploratory “archaeological” mission funded entirely by private tourism firms. The plan, approved by the Ministry of Tourism, is to comb the Western Desert in 4WD vehicles packed with paying tourists hot on the trail of Cambyses’ army.

Archaeologists have reacted with suspicion and horror.

“It’s a very, very bad idea,” contends Salima Ikram, associate professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

“The more people go trampling through the desert, the more they muck up the archaeological evidence.” A foreign archaeologist, preferring not to be named, railed: “Do you think that if they find anything they will leave it intact? Of course not. They’ll pick it up, manhandle it and take home a few souvenirs. This is just the sort of sh-t we don’t need.”

Nessim brushes off his critics, who he says are blowing things out of proportion.

Hundreds of desert safari expeditions take tourists to the Western Desert each year.

The only difference here is that the safari’s route winds through areas deemed likely to contain remains of the lost army. Any evidence discovered will be referred to experts for analysis.

“My license is not to dig, so if I find something I must report it to the authorities,” Nessim says, indicating that the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has no objections to the project. So far, Aqua Sun and co-sponsor Emeco Travel have organized two expeditions. Neither trip, each of which went ahead despite last-minute cancellations, made significant discoveries.

“We still have far to go. This secret has been hidden for over 2,000 years and we can’t expect to find it in just two trips,” says Nessim, who is reportedly cooperating with US space agency NASA to prepare a route for a third mission. “There are some places on the ground that I suspect and they [NASA] will check with satellites.”Remote sensors will also scan an area 50 km southwest of Siwa Oasis, where a Helwan University geological team prospecting for oil in 2000 discovered human bones, arrow-heads, frayed textiles and daggers in the dunes. The find sent shivers of excitement through the archaeological community, but an SCA team dispatched to excavate found nothing at the GPS coordinates they were given. The sand may have simply swallowed the evidence.

“The dunes in the Great Sand Sea move about 30-50 cm a year to the south and southeast because of the prevailing wind,” explains geologist and EEDT guide Bahei El-Asawi. “It’s hard to find anything, because the sand can cover one area and expose another.”

The nature of the desert adds a challenge, says desert safari specialist Hani Zaki of Emeco Tours, who compares the search for Cambyses’ army to finding a needle in a haystack.

“When you’re in the Great Sand Sea you can look 360 and all you see is sand. There are no landmarks, mountains or anything,” he says. “You don’t see anybody and there is almost no sign of life, but there is plenty of natural beauty.”

EEDT expeditions run between 10 and 22 days, traversing parts of the most beautiful and inhospitable desert in the world. The team’s 4WD vehicles are specially equipped for deep desert exploration, carrying extra fuel, water, rations, parts and GPS equipment.

“There’s always a risk, but it’s greater if you’re not following the rules, are not well-equipped or don’t have experience,” says Zaki. “Without risk it’s not an adventure. Our role is to avoid major risks and minimize minor ones.”

While Zaki is apologetic that the EEDT team does not include a professional archaeologist, he strongly rejects arguments that tourists are being deceived. Clients do not sign up for an archaeological dig, he says, they come to explore the desert with veteran guides “who know the desert like the back of their hand” and can provide valuable insights into desert history, geology, flora and fauna.The search for Cambyses’ lost army is “just a theme,” he says, insisting clients are aware that the chance of actually finding 50,000 desiccated soldiers and the bleached-white bones of their pack animals is remote. Instead, they hope to find traces like clay water vessels, trail markers, discarded weapons and – if lucky – the remains of a stray soldier.

Rival outfit Zarzora Expeditions is promoting similar themed trips, with itineraries that trace the steps of 19th Century German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs as well as Hungarian spy Count Laszlo Almasy (upon whom the 1996 film The English Patient was loosely based). The firm is also hoping to put together its own quest for Cambyses’ lost army.”It is an irresistible marketing tool,” says Wael Abed, the company’s general manager.

Even before that, in September/October of 2004, Archaeology Magazine was reporting:

A Helwan University geological team, prospecting for petroleum in Egypt’s Western Desert, has come upon well-preserved fragments of textiles, bits of metal resembling weapons, and human remains they believe to be traces of the lost army of the Persian ruler, Cambyses II, who conquered and ruled Egypt in the sixth century B.C.

A feature at Tour Egypt gives a few more details:

Lately, there has been considerable petroleum excavation in the Western Desert. Anyone traveling the main route between the near oasis will see this activity, but the exploration for oil stretched much deeper into the Western Desert. It is not surprising that they have come upon a few archaeological finds, and it is not unlikely that they will come across others. Very recently, when a geological team from the Helwan University geologists found themselves walking through dunes littered with fragments of textiles, daggers, arrow-heads, and the bleached bones of the men to whom all these trappings belonged, they reported the discovery to the antiquity service.

Mohammed al-Saghir of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) now believes that this accidental find may very well be at least remnants of the mysterious Lost Army of Cambyses II, and he is now organizing a mission to investigate the site more thoroughly. If he is successful and the discovery is that of Cambyses II’s 50,000 strong lost army, than it will not only answer some ancient mysteries, but will probably also provide us with a rich source of information on the Persian military of that time, and maybe even expand our knowledge of Cambyses II himself. The Persian armed forces consisted of many elements, including companies of foreign mercenaries such as Greeks, Phoenicians, Carians, Cilicians, Medes and Syrians. Hence, if this is not another false lead, we may expect excellent preservation of helmets, leather corselets, cloth garments, spears, bows, swords and daggers – a veritable treasure trove of military memorabilia. The rations and support equipment will all be there, ready for detailed analysis.

However, it should be noted that some Egyptologists question the very existence of such an army, rather believing that the whole affair was simply a fable told by a very prejudiced Greek.

A vague item from the BBC appears to be referring to the same thing.

Skipping ahead a bit, a quick scour of past issue of my Ancient World on Television Listings note a documentary called The Lost Army of  King Cambyses, which appeared on the Canadian History Television network in 2004 (not sure if it ever was on in the US). I don’t recall seeing it myself, but a program summary at ABC (Australia) seems to be referring to the same thing. Here’s a good excerpt therefrom:

The Lost Army of King Cambyses follows Bown and MacKinnon on their journey from Luxor into one of the most dangerous deserts on earth on the trail of the lost army.

Bown has developed his own theory to explain the army’s fate and has meticulously calculated how long the journey would have taken it. He believes the Persians’ lack of understanding of local geography led them into the towering dunes known as the Great Sand Sea, where they perished.

They explore the area for lost weapons and bones to prove his theory. But, although they find pits from which the dagger and arrowheads were excavated, there is no sign of the bones and skulls and a sandstorm blows up before they can search further.

When they do find bone fragments, MacKinnon is sceptical they belonged to a Persian soldier and puts a brake on Bown’s unbridled enthusiasm.

So much for recent history … before getting to the ‘recent’ stuff, I think it’s also worth noting something I found while poking around Google Books in an idle moment today which may or may not be relevant. From Gentlemen’s Magazine, vol 135 (1824):

FWIW … the common denominator seems to be a bunch of bones lying around, with the more recent ones mentioning arrowheads and a dagger. For another ‘backgrounder’, see Rossella Lorenzi’s excellent piece at Discovery News. Outside of that, most of the other coverage seems to derive from another piece at Discovery News, so we’ll do some clipping from that … Dixit Dario del Bufalo, who is described as “a member of the expedition from the University of Lecce”:

We have found the first archaeological evidence of a story reported by the Greek historian Herodotus

The article continues:

Now, two top Italian archaeologists claim to have found striking evidence that the Persian army was indeed swallowed in a sandstorm. Twin brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni are already famous for their discovery 20 years ago of the ancient Egyptian “city of gold” Berenike Panchrysos.

Presented recently at the archaeological film festival of Rovereto, the discovery is the result of 13 years of research and five expeditions to the desert.

“It all started in 1996, during an expedition aimed at investigating the presence of iron meteorites near Bahrin, one small oasis not far from Siwa,” Alfredo Castiglioni, director of the Eastern Desert Research Center (CeRDO)in Varese, told Discovery News.

While working in the area, the researchers noticed a half-buried pot and some human remains. Then the brothers spotted something really intriguing — what could have been a natural shelter.

It was a rock about 35 meters (114.8 feet) long, 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) in height and 3 meters (9.8 feet) deep. Such natural formations occur in the desert, but this large rock was the only one in a large area.

“Its size and shape made it the perfect refuge in a sandstorm,” Castiglioni said.

Right there, the metal detector of Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat of Cairo University located relics of ancient warfare: a bronze dagger and several arrow tips.

“We are talking of small items, but they are extremely important as they are the first Achaemenid objects, thus dating to Cambyses’ time, which have emerged from the desert sands in a location quite close to Siwa,” Castiglioni said.

A bit later:

“Termoluminescence has dated the pottery to 2,500 years ago, which is in line with Cambyses’ time,” Castiglioni said.

In their last expedition in 2002, the Castiglioni brothers returned to the location of their initial discovery. Right there, some 100 km (62 miles) south of Siwa, ancient maps had erroneously located the temple of Amun.

The soldiers believed they had reached their destination, but instead they found the khamsin — the hot, strong, unpredictable southeasterly wind that blows from the Sahara desert over Egypt.

“Some soldiers found refuge under that natural shelter, other dispersed in various directions. Some might have reached the lake of Sitra, thus surviving,” Castiglioni said.

At the end of their expedition, the team decided to investigate Bedouin stories about thousands of white bones that would have emerged decades ago during particular wind conditions in a nearby area.

Indeed, they found a mass grave with hundreds of bleached bones and skulls.

“We learned that the remains had been exposed by tomb robbers and that a beautiful sword which was found among the bones was sold to American tourists,” Castiglioni said.


There is also a very interesting Discovery News video report up at YouTube (which is mentioned in the Discovery News report mentioned above):

There’s a similar sort of thing (in Italian) at Archeologiaviva (not sure how long it will be on the front page). Also of interest is a slideshow of some of the finds, which, interestingly enough, are bones, arrowheads and a dagger. And a horse bit.

So far, so good … it seems to be a spectacular find and I can’t help but wonder whether that claimed sale of a sword to an American tourist occurred on one of those tours we mentioned above. But whatever the case, to paraphrase Hank Hill, something ain’t right about all this. Consider another video up at Youtube, which appears to be an excerpt from the Castiglioni brothers’ film:

While watching this, I had a very uncomfortable feeling … these guys don’t seem to be acting much like archaeologists, even perhaps in a survey situation. There doesn’t seem to be any concern for context and they appear to be pulling random artifacts out from random places. Not a good sign. I also get very suspicious that they happen to find what appears to be an Achaemenid horse bit, and I don’t see anything resembling horse bones in any of the photos. Not a good sign. I also see a bunch of broken pots and they are described as “artificial wells” which the army supposedly used … does an army on the move carry water in pots? Does it create ‘artificial wells’? To what end? Not a good sign.

So I do some poking around, and while the Castiglioni brothers are touted as archaeologists, they are, it seems, filmmakers. They are included as exemplars of “mondo” (a.k.a. “Shockumentary”) films in the English version of Wikipedia. The Italian listing for their names reveals their education background is economics/commerce. Not a good sign.

Poking around for some info about Dario Del Bufalo, I was somewhat gobsmacked to find I had a mention of him in a previous post at rogueclassicism. According to an item I excerpted from the Museum Security Network — and I can’t vouch either way for its authority — Del Bufalo was once (perhaps still is?) a bigwig in the Italian Ministry of Culture who was possibly connected to Frieda Tchacos, of ‘Gospel of Judas’ fame. Possibly not a good sign.

Finally, and certainly not least, there is up at Dr Zahi Hawass’ blog (hmmm … is that why Facebook was suggesting I should “reconnect” with him?) a very important press release:

I need to inform the public that recent reports published in newspapers, news agencies and TV news announcing that “twin brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni have unearthed remains of the Persian army of Cambyses,” are unfounded and misleading.

The brothers are not heading any archaeological mission in Berenike Panchrysos at the small Bahrin Oasis near Siwa Oasis. This site has been excavated since 2002 by an Italian mission led by Dr. Paulo Gallo of Turin University. The Castiglioni brothers have not been granted permission by the SCA to excavate in Egypt, so anything they claim to find is not to be believed.

The Supreme Council of Antiquities has already informed the proper legal and security authorities in Egypt and are taking the necessary procedures.

I think it’s time to let the air out of this balloon …

UPDATE (11/17/09): driving home from school today I realized the other name in the report is known to us as well … Aly Barakat is the Egyptian geologist who ‘confirmed’ that those things in Bosnia were pyramids … and that they were man-made like the pyramids in Egypt … I think that puts the final nail in the credibility coffin on this one …

More skepticism:

22 thoughts on “Cambyses’ Lost Army Found? Don’t Eat That Elmer …

  1. The point that the two Italians lack knowledge of archaeology and that the video shows little evidence of real archaeological skills, this also applys to hawass. Indeed his many videos shows little on his part of real archaeological ability.

  2. Maybe they did…maybe they didn’t. Clive Cussler found the HUNLEY and he’s not an archologiest. It IS possible for a novice to find something. It will take the scientist to determin WHAT has been found. Lets wait and see.

    1. i’m not suggesting that they didn’t find anything important and i don’t want to downplay the fact that many discoveries are made by ‘outsiders’. but the outsiders in this case have some very questionable ties to other things which suggests we shouldn’t be putting as much faith in their claims as the headlines would like us to …

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