Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Uncovering the Origins of Ancient Egypt

Posted by Andrew Howley of NG Staff in Explorers Journal on April 22, 2013

Ancient Egypt has stood out even among the impressive remains of other ancient civilizations for three main reasons: the pyramids are enormous, the cultural style and imagery remained consistent for ages, and it is really, really old. In fact, the pyramids were roughly as old to ancient tourists from classical Greece as the ruins of Athens and Delphi are to us today.

One of the biggest questions surrounding ancient Egypt then is “where did it come from?” Last week at the Dialogue of Civilizations in Guatemala, National Geographic grantee Renée Friedman of the British Museum, and Ramadan Hussein, recent recipient of a Humboldt Research Fellowship at the University of Tuebingen, set out to answer that question.

The Catfish

Friedman began by showing the “Narmer Palette,” which dates from 3100 BC, and features a ruler, triumphant over his enemies, seen with the crowns of both Upper and Lower Egypt. He is identified by two animal images: a falcon, symbol of the leader of gods, Horus; and a catfish his own personal symbol, since the ancient Egyptian word for catfish was “nar.”

According to Friedman, the iconography of forceful leadership and control over chaos illustrate that already at this early date, the role of kingship in Egypt fit a pattern that would continue for the next 3,000 years. But this is still not the beginning.

Renée Friedman leads excavations at the oldest known city in Egypt, Hierakonpolis (“city of the falcons”) where the Narmer Palette was found. While earlier generations thought there must have been an external spark from Mesopotamia or elsewhere that triggered the rise of civilization in Egypt, she’s uncovering a very different tale. With activity at the site as early as 3700 BC, “there was momentum long before Narmer,” she says.

Of Beasts and Beer

Remarkably even the earliest stages of Hierakonpolis give clues to significant developments beforehand; it was clearly a planned settlement “from the outset” and it was the center of a cult dedicated to a falcon, either a predecessor to or the earliest example of the god Horus, shown for the subsequent millennia as a falcon himself, or a falcon-headed man.

Hierakonpolis contains many interesting sites and burials, but Friedman mentioned two in particular which shed light on what was capable and what was important at this earliest stage in Egypt’s history. The first has been called the “brewery”, and dates to about 3600 BC. While the vast quantities of beer production there are what catch most people’s attention, she said in truth, it was a site of much broader significance, processing any number of grain based foods. It remains unclear whether its products were used regularly by average people, or ceremonially among early Egyptian elites.

One purpose it may have had was to support the feeding of and ceremonial activity around Hierakonpolis’ most unexpected occupants: dozens of wild animals. “One fifth of the 3,500 animal bones are from wild animals,” Friedman reported. Crocodile, turtle, hippo, elephant… the list goes on. And the bones aren’t scattered in one heap of food remains, each animal was buried intact, the same as the many humans interred in the same area.

Many of these animals were thought of as “agents of chaos” said Friedman, “that rulers and rituals were meant to control.” With one in six annual Nile floods being either too low or too high, you can understand the people’s hope for salvation from such chaos.

Not Just a Day at the Zoo

Numerous holes at the site indicate where posts would have been erected, to create rooms and temples from wood, cloth, and plaster, in this era a thousand years before the great pyramids, and two thousand before the Rameses’ famous stone temples and monuments.

In the corners of these temples, the team found delicately worked stone effigies of the same species of animals buried throughout the site. There is also a portrait in flint of a human of unusual but recognizable proportions: a dwarf. Remarkably, the remains of two dwarfs have been found at the site. At 30-40 years old, one is likely the oldest human in the entire cemetery.

In addition, dates of the actual bones all match nearly exactly. This wasn’t just some random zoo. This was a home for culturally significant wild animals many of whom appear to have been sacrificed at once, perhaps with humans as well, as part of a ritual display of power, or perhaps to accompany their owner, employer, or master to the afterlife when he met his own demise.

While the spectacle of these animals in life and death would have been quite a powerful illustration of the power of the leader, the associated costs may have been unsustainable. The amount of food required to feed these animals (including an elephant and a hippo, remember) was immense. “Huge amounts of ash” at the site indicate it was active and used extensively. It would have been enormously expensive. As Friedman put it, “This couldn’t last.”

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Pounds of Hippo Feed

By 3400 BC, leaders had changed tactics. No longer housing and dispatching entire menageries to convey their command over chaos, they “switch back to imagery.” In painted tombs, the same symbolism continues in a much more manageable way for thousands of years. The biggest change? As climate and possible over use push elephants further away from the city, they disappear from the iconography, and the giant wild bovine known as the aurochs becomes the ultimate symbol of the ruler’s strength.

Eventually Hierakonpolis would lose out to Abydos as the bigger city in the region, but Friedman says it would have its monuments restored, and the temple would hold artifacts of kingship which may even have been on view as a kind of ancient museum display. This looking back to the past was a key element of ancient Egyptian culture, and it may be what kept the expression of that culture so relatively consistent for more than three millennia.

“Egyptians liked to do things ‘as they were done the first time,’ “ said Friedman. “But when was that? Hierakonpolis helps us understand.”

The Beginning

Young Egyptian egyptologist Ramadan Hussein then presented on how he searches for the origins of Egyptian civilization not so just in buildings and bones, but in the extensive written record left by this early and highly literate civilization.

According to the ancient Greeks, he said, the ancient Egyptians said that Osiris, god of the dead, taught people the art of civilization and agriculture. He then gave a quick summary of Osiris’s story, roughly paraphrased here:

There were nine gods who created the universe. Osiris was a son of them. He had a sister Isis, and a brother Seth. Osiris was given control over Egypt. Seth, being the god of confusion and evil, grew jealous and killed his brother (again, according to the Greeks). Isis collected his body parts and resurrected her brother (imperfectly). They then had a son, Horus, the falcon god. Horus then followed his father’s footsteps and ruled over Egypt. But the story goes on. Seth wants Osiris’ old job. Seth and Horus contest each other. They go to the council of the gods and Horus is given the position to rule Egypt, and Osiris goes on to be god of the dead.

So that’s the ancient story of how Egypt got its start. The modern story follows the archaeological record, and in it, Hussein says, we see that there are early cities in Upper and Lower Egypt that were all in the process of developing into states.

“It took almost 1000 years to emerge as fully unified,” he says. The general process was that much like today, “people left small villages and moved to big industrial places with jobs.”

The most important of these early urban centers in Upper Egypt were Hierakonpolis in the south, Naqqada at the noticeable bend in the Nile, and Abydos just a bit further north than that. In Lower Egypt it was Maadi and Buto, both in the Nile’s famous delta.

Each of these cities had a good reason for being. Hierakonpolis was on a seasonal river bed and already was seen as a place for a ruler. Naqqada controlled trade routes. Abydos had big agricultural fields. Maadi had copper mines access. Buto controlled sea trade with the eastern Mediterranean.

The Scorpion King

The dynamics that led to these cities ultimately becoming part of one great Egyptian whole, as seen in the Narmer Palette, are what Ramadan Hussein was particularly interested in during this presentation. Those dynamics function on many levels, including the personal: there is one man who may have been the key to the bringing them all together.

In Hierakonpolis not only was the Narmer Pallete found, but so was the tomb of a man identified through hieroglyphic inscriptions as “King Scorpion.” In nearby rock art, he’s shown conquering another man, whose symbol appears to be that of Lower Egypt. In Naqqada, a ceremonial mace head with images of him were found. In graffiti near Naqqada, a king labeled “Scorpion” is seen defeating a bull-headed man, a symbol of the king of Naqqada. Back in King Scorpion’s tomb in Hierakonpolis, there was found a vase with similar bull symbolism.

All this points to the idea that before Narmer unified Egypt’s two kingdoms politically, Scorpion conquered the cities of Upper Egypt to create one of those kingdoms in the first place.

Scorpion may also have made the first forays into uniting with the north as well. While the south saw military conquest, Hussein says in the north change came through a cultural movement. Once completely different in terms of houses, pottery, and more, throughout the region of Maadi and Buto, there suddenly appears pottery mentioning King Scorpion. Even houses begin to be built in the southern style. There is, he said, “complete cultural takeover…[but] no evidence of battle like in the south.”

Given this presence of the name of Scorpion throughout the entire region, Ramadan Hussein thinks this early king, even before Narmer, may have had a hand in the union of the kingdoms. The Narmer Palette, he suggests, could just as easily represent a king putting down a rebellion as conquering a separate kingdom.

Lessons on Origins

In conclusion for the presentations on ancient Egypt, Ramadan Hussein and Renée Friedman took the stage to answer a few questions from the audience.

Asked about the mysteriously sudden inspiration and ability to construct the pyramids, Hussein gave a solid and practical answer. “As archaeologists, we’re not just looking at an object,” he said. “We’re looking at the process that creates that object… It took at least 900 years for [Egypt] to move to a state… Tombs started as shallow pits, then all of a sudden, they have a superstructure above that, then all of a sudden they have 6 [levels of structure], then they have 8… When you have [evidence of the entire] process leading up, you don’t have to wonder who made it.”

Renée Friedman then fielded a question about how well does the archaeological record correspond with details from Egypt’s extensive written records. Harking back to her translation of “hieroglyph” as “writing of the gods,” she said, “There is remarkably good correspondence. Since writing really was the ‘gods’ words,’ I don’t think they lied about it.”

The great lessons from this session then were clear: as unprecedented as ancient Egypt’s civilization was, there is an increasingly clear record of its development being unearthed at sites like Hierakonpolis; written and archaeological clues should be used together to reveal more about whatever either is hinting at; and more broadly, we need to look beyond just tombs and monuments to get the full story of the rise and fall of civilizations from the many groups they contain.


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