Object in Focus: A Female Figurine from Ancient Egypt

Countless figurines have been found in Egypt, from steatopygous figurines in the Predynastic to blue faience nude figurines, from paddle dolls to innumerable shabtis, statuettes designed to spring to life in the afterlife to work for their master in the Fields of Reeds. This particular figurine – E.6895 – predates the New Kingdom (c. 16th Century BCE) and is something of a curious find. The object comes from Garstang’s excavation at Abydos (1906-1909). The statuette features an elaborate headdress or wig, and is decorated with rounded impressions across the entirety of the figurine. These “punctures” are paralleled on other figurines from the Pharaonic Period.

Material and Production

Figurines tend to be made from local ceramic and may have been produced en masse – indicated by the commonality of features across numerous figurines. The distinctive decoration and head shape may indicate production by individuals working to emulate a specific form. However, the ease of access to the material (clay) opens the possibility that these figurines were not produced only by so-called ‘skilled’ craftspeople. Similar material from the Predynastic – e.g. steatopygous figurines – are found across multiple sites from different time periods and show no evidence of any centralised production or specific ‘workshop’ or ‘craft area’ where they were produced. Similarly, the ubiquity of these statuettes across multiple sites suggests that, even if they were being produced en masse to a specific design, they were still being produced by numerous individuals.

Note that this statuette does not have holes through the head, which can be seen on other figurines and similar material and which were used to string “hair” onto the head of the figure. So-called ‘paddle dolls’, usually found in funerary contexts, have hair as a prominent feature – usually gathered into a coil, which was subsequently looped over the “head” of the doll. Note that the statuette does not feature the emphasised breasts and pubis associated with other forms of Egyptian figurines – they are clearly identified, but not overly emphasised or enlarged. Like Badarian anthropomorphic figurines, Naqada steatopygous figurines, Pharaonic ‘paddle dolls’ and numerous other female figurines from across the Near East and Europe, statuettes such as this have been labelled as ‘fertility fetishes’, ‘concubine figurines’ or variant shabtis used to act as a concubine or servant in the afterlife. This interpretation, however, is dated and deeply problematic.

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Close-up detail of pubis and “puncture” decoration (E.6895).

Fertility Figurines?

Most interpretations of figurines as “fertility” icons rely on emphasised breasts and pubis as part of their interpretation, but this figurine lacks the exaggerated female aspects that are common among other “fertility” idols. In fact, the most emphasised element of the figurine is its headdress/wig and “puncture” decoration. The “puncture” decoration is not necessarily associated with sexuality, and instead may reflect Egyptian tattoos, evidence for which has been uncovered in mummies from IFAO’s excavations at Deir el-Medina. Is it necessary to associate these tattoos with, as has been done in the past, prostitution and sex work? Could an alternative explanation, one more reflecting the material at Deir el-Medina, instead identify tattoos as signifiers of ritual “magic” or female priesthood and religious rites?

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Close-up detail of the headdress/”wig” and “puncture” decoration (E.6895).

Shabtis, which were mass-produced by the thousands, were subject to far more extensive decoration, with even the most simplistic including hieroglyphic inscriptions and some indication of clothing and facial features. If E.6895 were a “concubine” figurine for the afterlife, this would necessitate some spell of activation to bring it to life in its function as a shabti, which is not the case on this object or its parallels. Later examples of figurines with perforations and headdresses of a similar style are still simplistic in their form and show few parallels with shabtis. Parallels in the museum and elsewhere are regularly found broken, with the heads, torsos and arms damaged. Is it possible that this deliberate damage was inflicted as part of a religious or magical ritual?

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Egyptian shabti dated to the New Kingdom (E.1749).

Magical Tools?

Recent findings paint a different picture of the object and figurines like it. Papyri discovered in the Mut Precinct of the Karnak Temple Complex show that these figurines may have been used in the practice of magic (or heka) in ancient Egypt. The direct quote from the papyrus, which can be found in Leiden, describes a spell for curing stomach ache: ‘Words spoken over a female figure of clay. As for any of the suffering in the belly, the affliction shall go down from him into the female figure of Isis until he is healthy’. At this point, the statue would be destroyed. This explains examples of similar statuettes being found broken at points where natural breakage is very unlikely, such as at the thick neck, or the waist. Furthermore, note that this figurine is incapable of standing as its legs taper to points.. It is possible, then, that the statue was most likely held in one hand – as one would expect from a magical tool.

This also explains the nature of the decoration – a statuette meant to be used as an aide to a ritual spell and then destroyed would not necessarily be afforded the level of detailed decoration one would expect to find on other forms of Egyptian statuary and figurines. The elaborate headdress/wig could also be attributed to the statuette being a representation of Isis. Notably, one of the titles of Isis, weret-heka, meaning “great of magic”. Isis was regularly associated with healing, and in Egyptian mythology was able to heal the child Horus in the marshes of Chemmis after he was injured by snakebite.

Final Thoughts

These figurines are fascinating, not just due to their function, but due to the various interpretations of their meanings since their discoveries. It has only been the discovery of papyri, the survival of which is nothing short of a miracle, that cast light on their functions, beyond simplistic interpretations such as “fertility fetish”, or ”concubine figure”. They illustrate the difficulty in understanding objects and materials without written context to refer to, one of the greatest challenges in interpreting archaeological evidence.

Thomas Redpath.

Edited by Chris Bebbington & Megan Clarke.

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Decorated Ware – A Landscape in Ceramic

D-Ware (or Decorated Ware) is a classification of Predynastic pottery originating from Flinders Petrie’s seriation of Predynastic material from Diospolis Parva. The characteristics of D-Ware are that it is made from Marl clay and decorated with red pigment, likely made from ochre. The vessels are decorated with numerous designs and motifs, ranging from abstract geometric patterns to depictions of humans, animals and the natural landscape of the Nile Valley. The majority of D-Ware vessels date to the Naqada IIC-IID and Naqada IIIA-IIIB periods, with most found across sites in Upper Egypt (though there is limited distribution through Middle Egypt, Lower Egypt and Nubia).

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Boats, plants, animals and human are all motifs regularly appearing on D-Ware vessels like this one (E.3030).

Geometric Designs

Certain forms of decoration on D-Ware vessels appear to be abstract – wavy lines, patterns or simple shapes. It is unclear whether these shapes may have communicated an idea or might represent something more concrete, as the vast temporal space between the manufacture of the vessels and their interpretation now prevents our understanding of the meanings behind these abstract shapes.

 

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The decoration on this vessel from Koshtamna consists only of a series of curved lines painted on all sides of the vessel (E.3045).

In some cases, it is possible that these shapes are an imitation of more expensive vessels – it is common, for example, to find Predynastic vessels with swirls, spirals and other decorations intended to imitate the patterning of stone vessels – a material that was less common, harder to procure and much more difficult to work with. Another possibility is that these vessels might still be representing aspects of the natural world – for example, it is not uncommon to find wavy-line decoration on D-Ware vessels reminiscent of the later hieroglyphic sign for the consonant value ‘n’, which represent water. Could this form of decoration be an attempt to depict water, or the River Nile – of central importance to Egyptian society throughout both history and prehistory?

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The swirling patterns on this vessel are an imitation of the patterning on stone vessels from the same time period (E.4762).

Depictions of Natural and Human Geography

A common motif is the inclusion of natural and human features in the landscape. For example, often one sees rows of black triangles taken to represent the desert hills surrounding the Nile Valley. In most cases, these are featured alongside depictions of animals, such as oryx, addax or ibex, and may indicate a spatial relationship between the grazing lands of these animals and the desert hills located nearby. Alternatively, the relationship between the depictions of geographical features and other parts of decoration on the vessel might be an early precursor to the strictly delineated registers of decoration found on later Egyptian material, such as stelae and tomb and temple wall inscriptions.

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This striking D-Ware pot includes zig-zag banding just below the rim, followed by “registers” of grazing animals, desert hills and river plants (E.3035).

A less common feature of decoration is the potential inclusion of human architectural elements. These ‘architectural elements’ are cross-hatched geometric shapes, in the form of structures tentatively identified as wattle-and-daub or matted constructions (potentially shrines or temples, although this is mostly conjecture). These structures, whatever their intended purpose, may be the origin of the so-called ‘façade’ style decoration found in Predynastic and Early Dynastic motifs and iconography.

More common than actual buildings is the inclusion of boats. The central importance of the Nile River in Egypt cannot be understated, and riverine trade would naturally have been a facet of Egyptian life as far back as the Predynastic period. The ubiquitous representations of boats on D-Ware vessels illustrate how important they were to the Egyptians; moreover, their regular inclusion alongside human figures may be representations of trade and exchange happening along the riverside, a scene that is familiar from later depictions in the Pharaonic Period.

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Boats are one of the most common features of decoration on D-Ware vessels, regularly appearing next to depictions of humans and animals (E.3038).

Depictions of Flora and Fauna

Flora and fauna are commonly depicted on D-Ware vessels; plants and other natural vegetation are regularly included, although identifying specific species of plant is difficult due to the abbreviated nature of the art style. The fauna depicted are usually oryx, ibex and other grazing animals, although ostriches are also very common. It has been suggested that the representation of these animals on D-Ware – particularly if that representation is alongside human figures, which are sometimes represented touching or otherwise in contact with the animals – might be an artistic trope, illustrating the triumph of human order over animalistic chaos. However, this is difficult to prove with any certainty, and while the motifs are abstract enough that it is unlikely that they are historical – referring to a specific hunt or a specific interaction between humans and animals – they may just act as a record of the daily activities of their Predynastic creators.

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Close-up detail of a D-Ware vessel. This is the only known example of D-Ware including the unusual motif of birds in flight (E.6111).

Depictions of Humans

Humans depicted on D-Ware tend to be shown in an abbreviated form that emphasises the general shape of the figure rather than individual details or characteristics, much like anthropomorphic Predynastic figurines. Likewise, there are numerous examples of female human figures depicted with their arms raised over their heads and their legs together, the same pose as is depicted in steatopygous figurines and in rock art in the Western desert. The exact meaning of this pose has been hotly debated. Older theories tended to focus on a divine reasoning, either participation in a mother goddess cult or some form of prayer, but this is generally less accepted now. Modern scholarship relates the pose to being a symbolic assumption of authority through taking on visual characteristics associated with bulls.

The inclusion of human figures in this style on D-Ware vessels might indicate people of importance – they are regularly included in scenes that also include boats, which suggests that those humans depicted in this way may have had a level of social responsibility relating to boats, and by extension, trade. This would match with depictions of similar figures on rock art, which show them surrounded and potentially in control of grazing animals.

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This vessel shows human figures interacting on a boat, with the figure on the left shown with legs together similar to steatopygous figurines. Unfortunately, much of the decoration has been damaged (E.3027).

A Window into Ancient Minds?

The choice of decoration used on this pottery allows archaeologists a glimpse into the meaningful motifs and semiotic communications that were utilised and understood by Predynastic Egyptians, and can assist with the identification of important cultural signifiers relevant to the daily life of these prehistoric people. The absence of textual evidence from the Predynastic necessitates a reliance on the visual themes and designs utilised in Egyptian material culture in order to envision and relate to their world, as they understood it.

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This collage image stitched together from multiple photographs shows off the entirety of the decoration of this D-Ware vessel (E.3030).

Chris Bebbington.

Homosexuality in the Ancient World

The modern conception of sexuality relies on a strict categorisation of sexual appetites and personal desires – heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, etc. In the ancient world, however, these words did not exist and the concepts they represent were not necessarily analogous to our modern understanding of sexuality.

Attitudes towards homosexuality in recent history have coloured the perspective through which we view the nature of sexuality in the ancient world. Early historians, archaeologists and antiquarians viewed notions of alternate sexual identity through the lens of their own social mores, and their discussion of these sexual identities was often stilted and couched in euphemism (when it wasn’t downright ignored).

Modern scholarship has done a great deal to explore the history of sexual identities in ancient cultures and, though progress is slow, there is now a wider consensus on the existence of alternate sexual practices in the ancient world. Despite this, the application of modern labels to sexual identities in antiquity still provides an inadequate exploration of the lived sexual identities of ancient peoples.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece has a reputation in modern culture as a society in which homosexuality was accepted – even encouraged. Realistically, however, this is an oversimplification of a complex matter centring on gender, identity and social structure. Ancient Greece has served as an idealised utopia for alternative sexual identities, with Oscar Wilde famously referencing, in his trial in 1895, affection between two men as the “very basis” of the philosophy of Plato. Similarly, the attraction of the Greek isle of Lesbos – home of Sappho, the “tenth muse” and famous poet and writer – to lesbian women has taken on an almost mythological light. But to what extent was homosexuality truly accepted in ancient Greece?

Ancient Greek society was not an equal one. Citizenship was an obstacle to freedom, and those who were not counted as citizens – for example, in classical Athens, women, children and slaves – did not have the same rights or social esteem extended to the citizenry. Even between male citizens same-sex courting was couched in the terminology of pederasty, with an older male – the erastes – taking the role of a teacher, and a younger male, usually in his teens – the eromenos – taking the role of a student. Ignoring the necessary power imbalance that this imposed upon the relationship, the eromenos was often idealised as an embodiment of the virility, impressionability, naivety and beauty of youth. Pederasty had its own complex social-sexual etiquette and does not reflect the modern understanding of homosexual relationships as being functionally similar to heterosexual relationships.

The relationship of Plato with same-sex desire is a complex one. In his Symposium, the speaker Aristophanes discusses same-sex relationships in a way that closely resembles a more modern understanding – with the two participants treated as equals whose relationship completes the other. In his Laws, however, Plato dismisses same-sex relationships as being unnatural and unsuited to his vision of utopian society. This contradictory view of homosexual relations is characteristic of our understanding of alternate sexual identities in ancient Greece – same-sex relationships did occur, and in some ways may have been accepted and even celebrated, but they were not the ideal partnership and the way that courtship occurred is fundamentally unrecognisable to our modern understanding of same-sex relationships.

Ancient Rome

Though Rome has a rich history of homoerotic art and literature, their conception of same-sex relationships between men hinges around a traditional viewpoint of masculinity and femininity. Male same-sex relationships were generally accepted amongst the citizenry of Rome, but only as long as the citizen was in the dominant (or penetrative) role. The men who took on the “feminine” or submissive role were generally slaves, prostitutes or entertainers, men with lower social status known as infamia – technically free men, but not afforded the rights and protections of the citizenry. For a free man to allow himself to be penetrated threatened his sexual integrity and invited challenges to his virility and masculinity.

Female same-sex relationships are generally less well-attested in Roman literature during the Republic and Principate, although whether this reflects an issue of decorum – a refusal to mention these relationships as they were viewed as improper in some way – is debateable. Certainly, the attitude of prominent Roman poet Ovid hints at this, with his claim that female same-sex relations were “a desire known to no one…no female is seized by desire for a female”. In his Metamophoses, Ovid tells the tale of a pregnant woman named Telethusa, whose husband claims that he will kill their unborn child if she is female. She attempts to conceal the sex of her daughter when she is born, giving her the ambiguous name Iphis, and she is married to a golden-haired maiden named Ianthe. Though initially the relationship between the two is described romantically – “Love came to both of them together / in simple innocence, and filled their hearts / with equal longing”. The tale ends with Iphis being so horrified that the goddess Isis intervenes and transforms her daughter into a man – “Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!” This tale betrays not only Roman attitudes towards the clear division of gender roles and a lack of ambiguity in gender identity, but also highlights the valuation of female same-sex relationships as lesser or improper compared to heterosexual relationships.

Ancient Egypt

Attitudes towards same-sex relationships in ancient Egypt are hotly debated due to a lack of surviving literary evidence. In Talmudic literature, the ancient Egyptians are painted as a sexually promiscuous and “debauched” people, with Maimonides referring to lesbianism as “the acts of Egypt”. In truth, however, there is little evidence that such sexual freedoms existed in the ancient past.

In the New Kingdom tale of the Contendings of Horus and Seth, Seth assaults Horus in an attempt to dominate him and prove that Horus is unfit for kingship before the Ennead of Egyptian gods. Horus, however, catches Seth’s semen in his hands and tricks Seth into consuming his own semen. When this is revealed before the Ennead, Seth flees in embarrassment and is seen as unfit for kingship, giving some hint at possible Egyptian attitudes towards male same-sex relationships.

Perhaps the most famous case study regarding Egyptian homosexuality is the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two Overseers of Manicurists in the Palace of King Nyuserre. The two men were buried together in a joint tomb at Saqqara, and have been considered by some scholars to be the first recorded same-sex couple in history. A great deal of this argument is based on the interpretation of tomb decoration showing the two men standing nose-to-nose and embracing, the most intimate pose allowed by the decorum of Egyptian art. There are a number of flaws in this theory – most obviously, the families of the two men are depicted in the decoration of their tomb, showing that both men had wives and children. Is it possible that the two men were engaged in a same-sex relationship? Was this permitted, allowed, even encouraged, by their families? Were they engaged in a polyamorous same-sex and heterosexual relationship? The dearth of solid evidence provides space for a great deal of supposition, but unfortunately such supposition tells us little of use about the practicalities of ancient Egyptian engagement and understanding of same-sex relationships and alternative sexual desires.

Projecting onto the Past?

The nature of academia is to not only strive for new discoveries, but also re-examine past interpretations of evidence to divorce oneself from the attitudes and lenses that coloured scholarly analysis in the past. It is crucially important to identity the biases and prejudices that existed in the past in order to come to a greater understanding of the truths of the past. Still, it is equally important to note that our own understanding is tinged by the attitudes of modernity, and our own conclusions will necessarily require re-examination by scholars in the future.

In truth, the projection of utopian ideals of sexual acceptance – particularly in the case of same-sex relationships – onto ancient cultures does not truly capture the complexity and social nuance that surrounded the complex issues of sexuality and desire in the past, and continues to cause controversy in the modern day. The application of modern labels onto sexual attitudes in the past – labels still hotly contested by scholars today – creates the issue of forcing a modern understanding of sexuality onto people who did not necessarily conceptualise sexual identity in the same way we do.

Furthermore, it is challenging to answer questions such as “What were ancient Roman attitudes to homosexuality?” or “How did the ancient Egyptians conceptualise same-sex relationships?” as these questions inherently assume a continuity of culture through vast chronological spaces. When discussing ancient cultures, it is important to appreciate the length of time and space through which they existed, and summarising socio-cultural attitudes so generally can obscure the fluid nature of human society. Attitudes towards homosexuality in, for example, the UK, have changed a great deal in just the last few decades – how much might attitudes have changed in the span of, for example, thousands of years of Egyptian culture?

Nonetheless, it is crucially important to continue re-examining the work of previous scholars and to try to understand these attitudes in the ancient world, not just to combat misinformation but also to come to a closer understanding of this fundamental aspect of human identity. The truth likely exists amongst layers of complexity between dated and conservative interpretations of ancient sexuality, and amongst modern utopian reinterpretations – as in modernity, attitudes towards sexuality in the ancient world were likely various and multifaceted in a way that archaeological and textual evidence struggles to communicate.

Christopher Bebbington.

Aspects of a Goddess: The Cult Image of Hathor in the Garstang Museum (E.66)

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This New Kingdom cult image found by Garstang at the site of Esna depicts the goddess Hathor, the mother (and sometimes daughter) of the sun god Re. Hathor was a prominent Egyptian goddess, and held many titles and epithets relating to her function in mythology and day-to-day religious practice. Some of these titles include “Mistress of the West” (an allusion to her role in funerary beliefs), “Lady of the Sycamore” (associating her with trees, vegetation and the environment) and “Lady of Turquoise” (associating her with turquoise from Serabit el-Khadim). Hathor was also associated with dance, romance and song, and was one of the few goddesses depicted carrying the was sceptre.

Hathor and Fertility

A key feature of Hathor as a goddess is her association with fertility. Symbols of Hathor such as the menat necklace and the sistra (a musical instrument used in cult worship) were thought to help promote fertility. Her bovine form was a symbol of fertility, prosperity and abundance. As a fertility goddess Hathor was closely associated with many other Egyptian deities such as Isis, Min, and Bes.

Hathor’s temple at Dendera had two birthing houses connected to it with statues of the god Bes outside of them. In Papyrus Westcar, midwives hold items sacred to Hathor to aid the woman giving birth. The menat necklace and the sistra are often items used in spells to protect the milk of the mother and likening the mother to Hathor’s bovine form. At Hathor’s temple often fertility symbols were left as dedications to ensure fertility (both male and female) and to provide protection from the moment of conception in life (to avoid miscarriages, protect the child, and protect the mother) until the moment of rebirth in the afterlife. Her connection as a fertility goddess extends to her role in divine mythology, where Hathor birthed the sun god each morning.

Hathor and Rebirth

Hathor is often mentioned in New Kingdom funerary compositions such as the Book of the Dead, where the deceased regularly identifies with aspects of Hathor; in Spell 186, Hathor is mentioned as “She of the West”, “Lady of the Sacred Land” and “Eye of Re which is on his forehead”. Hathor is said to have “built the Great Bark of Osiris in order to cross the water of truth”.

Hathor has the title ‘Mistress of the West’ (protector and guide of the deceased) and in the New Kingdom, was thought to reside in the mountains protecting the Valley of the Kings. The cult image of Hathor in the Garstang Museum is made of limestone and gilded with gold and painted, rather than completely made of gold as most cult images were. This is likely why this image has survived being melted down and reused.

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Traces of paint and gold foil are still visible on the cult statue today.

As well as a protector of the deceased, Hathor is also a provider for the dead. As ‘Mistress of the Sycamore’ she provides them with shade, food and water on their journey. The cult image from Esna depicts deceased tomb owners drinking water from Hathor’s bovine form on the bottom right. The text on the image indicates Hathor is asking for nourishment to be provided for the deceased tomb owners.

Hathor and the Pharaoh

Hathor (through her association with the goddess Isis) is often depicted in her bovine form providing nourishment and milk to a young child Horus in the marshes of the delta region. This association likely derives from The Contendings of Horus and Seth, wherein Hathor restores Horus’ sight using milk after he is blinded by Seth. Due to this, Hathor is depicted as the symbolic mother of the pharaoh and his protector; she is often depicted in bovine form nursing pharaohs with her milk. In the tomb of Seti I, Hathor is depicted placing the menat necklace around his neck to protect him from evil on his journey in the afterlife, indicating Hathor’s continued protection of the pharaoh and ensuring his chance at rebirth.

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In this depiction of Hathor, she is surrounded by individuals drinking the life-giving water that flows from her.

Hathor and Ma’at

Ma’at was the goddess of maintaining order and the concept of ma’at itself, the “correct way” that things should be in pharaonic Egypt (often translated as “balance” or “order”, as opposed to isfet – “chaos”). In The Book of the Heavenly Cow, humanity plot and rebel against the rule of Re and attempt to destroy him causing chaos in Egypt and disrupting ma’at. Re asks his daughter Hathor to carry him into the sky where he now remains; she is then sent by the sun god (as the ‘Eye of Re’) to Earth to punish humanity for their crimes against him and for causing chaos and disruption to order. By punishing humans for the crime Hathor restores order, and therefore ma’at, back on Earth.

In Hathor’s temple at Dendera, Hathor is depicted receiving the ma’at ritual from the Pharaoh. She is often shown on the boat of the sun god standing next to Ma’at, ensuring that the sun god survives the journey through the night to be reborn in the morning.

Final Remarks

Hathor is an example of the many interlocking facets and aspects of ancient Egyptian deities; she has many roles and is associated with many different things both in mythology and in day-to-day life. Her cult statue is an incredibly rare find, and this unique and valuable object illustrates the style and content that would be included on cult statues of Egyptian gods. In modern portrayals, Hathor is often associated primarily with fertility and motherhood, but in ancient Egyptian religious beliefs she was fundamentally tied into aspects of divine kingship, afterlife belief and the philosophical conception of divine order in Egypt.

Hannah Drummond & Chris Bebbington.

Love Islands? “True” Stories of Romance, Hedonism and Debauchery in the Ancient World

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To celebrate the momentous return of the inexplicably popular TV series “Love Island”, we’ve finally caved and decided to watch it. To be honest, we were a little disappointed…Love Island has nothing on the gossip and myths of the ancient world! So, we’ve decided to showcase some of our favourite romantic, sensual and downright naughty stories.

(Content Warning: Salacious Acts, Salubrious Naughtiness and an Unfortunate Amount of Incest)

Carry On Cleo!

By Sarah Hitchens

One of the most famous and controversial love triangles in ancient history was that of Cleopatra and her Roman amoureux, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Cleopatra was an Egyptian queen whose affairs with Rome’s “most desirable” men have inspired Shakespeare, Hollywood and the unforgettable Carry-on Cleo.

Cleopatra was queen of Egypt and the last monarch of the Ptolemaic Empire. The Ptolemaic dynasty liked to “keep things in the family”, and like her relatives before her Cleopatra was married to not one, but both of her brothers, as well as having legendary affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.

Cleo’s exploits are too extensive to fit into two short paragraphs but our favourite part of the story is definitely her fabled meeting with Julius Caesar.

Cleopatra married her brother Ptolemy XIII, solidifying her claim to the throne ahead of her two older sisters (who would later meet somewhat suspicious, sticky ends). According to legend, Cleopatra heard that Caesar was fond of royal women. So, she rolled herself up in a carpet and was smuggled into Caesar’s bedroom where she “convinced” the enigmatic Roman leader to lend his support to Egypt. When her brother/husband heard what Cleopatra had done, he incited a riot and ended up besieging his sister/wife and her lover. However, Roman reinforcements eventually showed up and Ptolemy’s army were chased into the Nile. Ptolemy was killed in the fighting. Cleopatra claimed that Caesar was father to her oldest son (though Caesar never acknowledged the child).

Cleopatra was then married to her even younger brother Ptolemy XIV, whom was eventually poisoned – probably by Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s final affair was with Roman Triumvirate Marc Anthony. Marc Anthony’s wife Fulvia was less that happy about the match, but was unable to stop the affair! In the end, rather famously, Cleopatra supposedly committed suicide by snake-bite when Augustus Caesar captured Egypt after the Battle of Actium.

A Girl Worth Fighting For

By Classicus Scholarus

You’ve probably heard of Helen of Troy: “the face that launch’d a thousand ships/and burnt the topless towers of Ilium” A.K.A. the most beautiful woman in the world A.K.A. a woman so gossiped about by different Greek authors that it’s impossible to know what’s true and what’s not.

When she was young, she was supposedly kidnapped by Theseus and rescued when her brothers Castor and Pollux invaded Athens. Helen’s life involved quite a pattern of men invading cities to get her back. When it was time for her to marry, many suitors competed for her. Odysseus (who was never a real contender – he hadn’t even brought a gift!) proposed that all her suitors should pledge to support the victor against his enemies. After the pact was made, Menelaus the king of Sparta won and married Helen.

Meanwhile, Eris (the goddess of discord) had been angered because she had not been invited to the banquet celebrating the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (hello there, Maleficent!). She threw into the festivities a golden apple as a prize for “the fairest” to try to cause disruption. Athena, Hera and Aphrodite all tried to claim that they deserved the apple and asked Zeus to judge who was the most beautiful. Zeus refused to choose between them, so asked a mortal, Paris, to judge the contest. Naturally, all three tried to bribe him; Athena offered him skill and wisdom in war, Hera offered him all of Europe and Asia, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world (i.e. Helen).

Paris was not thinking with his brain that day.

After being promised Helen by Aphrodite, Paris visited Sparta “on a diplomatic mission”. Accounts vary on whether Helen was seduced by Paris and willingly ran away with him or whether she was abducted. Herodotus claims she was kidnapped, while the Cypria says that (after giving Helen gifts), Aphrodite brought the pair together. Sappho argues that Helen willingly left Menelaus and their daughter Hermione. To be fair, stay with the guy who won you in a contest after making a pact with his mates, or run away with the guy who won you as a bribe in a contest with a bunch of bickering goddesses? Tough choice.

When he found out she was missing, Menelaus called on Helen’s other suitors to honour their promise and support him in war, including Odysseus and Agamemnon, king of Argos. This started the war between the Greeks and Trojans which supposedly lasted ten years. Ironically, some authors (Euripides, Stesichorus, and Herodotus) claim she never even went to Troy, but was in Egypt for the duration of the war.

Speaking of Agamemnon and the Trojan War…

The Last Bath of Agamemnon

By Juan Candelas Fisac

This is the story of King Agamemnon of Argos, and how he came to a sticky end in the bath, at the hands of his queen, Clytemnestra. Do note that this story is more a love web than a love triangle.

Have you ever heard the saying, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”? To say Clytemnestra was furious was an understatement. Marital turbulence began when Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis in exchange for good winds to carry their war ships to Troy. Yep, that’s right, he murdered their daughter for some wind.

Infanticide is just the beginning of this couples’ problems.

So Agamemnon was not exactly the father of the year, but neither was he the ideal husband, since this immoral king also cheated his wife numerous times during the Trojan War. One of these unfortunate endeavours, recorded by the Odyssey, is the attempt of Agamemnon to sleep with Achilles’ lover, Briseis. Are you keeping track of all these names? (Do you think Agamemnon did?)

The carnal and bloody sins of Agamemnon were paid in kind with a sweet last bath in his home when he came back from Trojan War. Aegisthus, who was taken as a lover by Clytemnestra due to her frustration during the War (yes, an eleventh-hour additional lover!), killed Agamemnon with an axe or sword whilst he was having a bath!

Love, War, and Blacksmithing

By Hannah Drummond

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, fertility, pleasure and beauty. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born when Cronus cut off the genitals of his father Uranus (which then landed in the ocean and created Aphrodite). Like many Greek gods and goddesses, Aphrodite had numerous lovers – both mortal and immortal. Her immortal lovers included the gods Hermes, Poseidon, Ares and Hephaestus.

Aphrodite was forcibly married to Hephaestus by the will of Zeus, who gave her as a prize (!) to whoever could bring Hephaestus to Olympus (he had trapped Hera in a golden throne as revenge for his own ugliness…). Aphrodite agreed, believing that her lover Ares would win. Dionysus suggested to Hephaestus that he go to Olympus, free Hera from the golden throne, and claim Aphrodite for himself. He agreed with Dionysus’ plan and was married after freeing his mother from the throne that he created – which seems a bit like cheating, really.

In the Odyssey Book 8, the bard Demodocus tells the tale of Ares’ and Aphrodite’s love affair after Aphrodite had married Hephaestus. Helios, the sun god, witnessed the affair and told Hephaestus. Hephaestus decided to make a plan and exact revenge upon the two, but this time a golden throne wouldn’t do. Instead, he forged chains that were impossible to break and attached them to his and Aphrodite’s bed. When Ares next visited Aphrodite the chains were triggered and bound the two lovers together. Hephaestus then brought the gods of Olympus to his home to see the two shamed lovers in his bed. When the gods witnessed the two stuck in the chains they laughed, claiming that “Ares must pay an adulterer’s penalty”. Poseidon spoke up for the two lovers and said he would pay the penalty if Ares failed to and Hephaestus, agreeing, released the chains. Shamed, both Aphrodite and Ares fled.

The “happy” ending is that in total Ares and Aphrodite had four children together, but they also both had many children outside of their relationship. Of course.

Two Gods, One Lettuce

By Christopher Bebbington

Ah, the humble lettuce – forefront of the classic salad, and one of the players in a very strange Egyptian “romance”. In any reality TV show, there’s always one contestant who is in it to win at any cost, and for ancient Egypt, that contestant was Seth! The Contendings of Horus and Seth, found in the 20th Dynasty Chester Beatty I Papyrus, tells the story of the Egyptian gods Horus and Seth engaging in a number of trials to prove who was more suited to succeeding Osiris as the king of Egypt.

During the story, Horus and Seth faced challenges before the Ennead of Egypt to prove themselves worthy of kingship; in each challenge, Horus proved superior to his uncle. Ultimately, Seth decided to employ trickery to defeat Horus – he asked Horus to spend the evening at his home, and in the dark of night, he tried to mount his nephew!

Horus caught Seth’s semen in his hands, and ran to his mother, Isis, who was shocked to see what had happened! She took some of Horus’ semen into a pot, and cooked up a scheme for revenge…

The next morning, Isis visited Seth’s garden and asked his gardener what vegetables Seth usually ate. The gardener told Isis that he frequently enjoyed a bit of lettuce, so Isis mixed Horus’ semen in with the lettuce. Seth breakfasted on the lettuce, and enjoyed it as he always did (even with the additional dressing).

When Horus and Seth came before the Ennead, Seth decried Horus as unfit to rule since Seth had “performed the labour of a male” upon him. The Ennead were horrified, but Horus confidently declared that Seth had lied. He told the Ennead to summon forth the semen of Horus and see where it answered from.

The Ennead called forth the semen of Horus, which emerged as a golden solar disc upon his head. Seth was horrified, having been beaten at his own naughty game, and in the end Horus was awarded the kingship of Egypt.

So maybe don’t always eat your greens.

Ancient Affairs

Human society has always been fixated by gossip, sex and sensuality, and this holds true in the ancient world. The immoral activities of gods and mortals in legend, myth and reality create a fascinating tapestry that stretches through time and is certainly more fascinating than who cheated on who on Love Island. Or at least we think so.

 

Edited by Christopher Bebbington & Elle DeSpretter.

Royal Titulary: What’s in a Name?

“The King is Ka. His utterance is abundance. The one whom he brought up is one who will be somebody. He is Khnum for all limbs, the begetter of the begotten. He is Bastet, who protects the Two Lands. The one who praises him will be protected by his arm. He is Sekhmet against those who disobey his orders, and the one with whom he disagrees will be laden with sorrow.”

 – The Loyalist Instruction of Sehetepibre

The word ‘pharaoh’ is derived from the Egyptian per-a’a, meaning “great house”, a reference to the royal court of Egypt. In the modern conception of ancient Egypt, the pharaoh is synonymous with our understanding of the governing forces behind the Egyptian state during this period. The monuments of the pharaohs are littered across the landscape, from the northernmost Nile Delta to conquered lands in the Sudan. Throughout history, cultures have been obsessed with Egypt and its god-kings – thanks to ancient peoples such as the Romans and modern events such as the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt during the French Revolutionary Wars, ancient Egyptian monuments can be found in France, Italy and throughout Europe. This lasting fascination with the world of the ancient Egyptians, and particularly with the pharaohs who ruled that world, has persisted into modernity. The history of the pharaohs is colourful, and the lasting monuments and objects left behind for archaeologists to discover allows us to reveal hidden truths regarding these ancient kings.

The Five Part Titles of the King

Egyptian pharaohs were known by more than one name – by the Middle Kingdom, each pharaoh had a full titulary consisting of five different names.

The Horus name is the oldest form of the pharaoh’s name and is evident from the Predynastic Period onwards. This name was usually written in a serekh, a special hieroglyphic symbol that has been argued to represent the façade of the royal palace. The falcon god Horus would be depicted perching upon the serekh, representing the close ties of the pharaoh to the divine world, and the protection that this afforded them.

narmer serekh

This potsherd bears an incised serekh containing the name of Narmer, a major figure in the process of the unification of Egypt into a single kingdom (E.5242).

The serekh has been argued to originate  during the Naqada III period of the Predynastic at the latest. The oldest known tombs including the ‘palace façade’ decoration were found at Saqqara and Naqada, dating to the reign of King Hor-Aha, although the serekh’s appearance before these tombs were built indicates structures of a similar nature must have existed earlier. The earliest examples of serekhs do not include the Horus falcon perched above the serekh structure, and others show some variance (such as the inclusion of two falcons instead of one); the serekh decoration was only formalised at the beginning of the Pharaonic Period.

The Nebty (or Two Ladies) name was associated with two goddesses thought to personify Upper and Lower Egypt – the vulture goddess, Nekhbet, patron of Upper Egypt, and the cobra goddess Wadjet, patron of Lower Egypt. This name represented not only the duality of the king, and his rulership over Egypt in its entirety, but also illustrates once again the divine protection afforded to the royal name. This design may originate from the royal tombs of early kings Hor-Aha and Djer from Abydos, where ivory tags show the Two Ladies (although they are mounted upon the red crown of Egypt, rather than the typical basket hieroglyph).

The Golden Horus name is preceded by the image of the god Horus, perched above the hieroglyphic sign for gold. This is thought to either provide a link between the pharaoh and the prosperity of Egypt but may potentially illustrate the triumph and success of Horus and relate it to the success of the king. Alternatively, it has been suggested that it might represent the triumphs of Horus, with the hieroglyphic symbol for ‘gold’ being taken to show the superiority of Horus over his foes.

The following two names are traditionally written inside a cartouche, the first instance of which is found on a clay sealing showing the name of Nebka from Beit Khallaf. The ancient Egyptians believed that names held magical power, and so the cartouche was a form of protection that encircled the final two names of the pharaoh.

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Line drawing of a clay sealing from Beit Khallaf with the first known use of a cartouche (top left) encircling the name of 3rd Dynasty King Nebka (E.5251).

The Throne Name (prenomen) is accompanied by the title nesu-bity, which translates roughly to “Dual King”. The sedge and bee hieroglyphs used to write this title have traditionally been associated with the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt and translated as “king of Upper and Lower Egypt”. Recent research, however, indicates that they may instead refer to two specific roles of the king – the king acting as both a nesu-king and a bity-king, fulfilling different functions in each role.

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This inscribed piece of limestone shows the nesu-bity hieroglyphs alongside the bottom of a cartouche (E.7802).

The Personal Name (nomen) was the name of the pharaoh given at birth. The name is preceded with the epithet sa Ra, meaning “son of Ra”. This name was first introduced in the 4th Dynasty, and ties the king closely with Ra, the Egyptian sun god. This is the name most commonly used to refer to pharaohs in popular culture and is where their anglicized names tend to derive from (for example, Ramesses).

Royal Names at the Garstang: Queen Neith-hotep and the Naqada Royal Tomb

One of the most curious objects at the Garstang Museum is a clay seal impression from the Naqada Royal Tomb. This object is unique in that it contains the name of a woman named Neith-hotep within in the form of a serekh. Traditionally, the serekh would not be used for the name of anyone who was not themselves a king (i.e. ruler in their own right, not a consort), which raises interesting questions about Neith-hotep and her role and responsibilities.

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The name of Neith-hotep is shown in the form of serekhs in this mud sealing from the Naqada Royal Tomb (E. 1335).

 

One possibility is that the formal use of the serekh had not been codified entirely by this early point in Egyptian history, and there was some variability and experimentation that allowed the name of Neith-hotep to be presented in the same way as the name of a pharaoh. However, this does not discount the possibility that Neith-hotep was herself a queen or ruler in her own right.

This poses an important question to the modern archaeologist – do we assume that Neith-hotep was not a ruler in her own right because of historically entrenched views on masculine kingship in Egypt, where female kings are curious exceptions in a predominantly male lineage? Or are we being overly optimistic, applying a more modern, egalitarian ideology into the ancient past when we suppose that she may have held similar power to her son, King Hor-Aha, or her husband, King Narmer? These important questions will be explored in greater depth in the museum’s upcoming exhibit in May 2019, Before Egypt.

Christopher Bebbington.

Reflections of the Natural World – Predynastic Palettes

Egyptian ‘cosmetic’ palettes are found during the Predynastic period, they are made of flat pieces of stone – often described as ‘slate’, but in actuality siltstone – on which pigmented material could be ground up and made into cosmetics. The palette is a curious piece of material culture in Egyptian history; they are found throughout both Egypt and Nubia, and take on various distinct forms and evolutions throughout the Predynastic Period. Despite their ubiquity in the burial context, palettes quickly vanish from the archaeological record during the Pharaonic Period, disappearing not only from the material culture of Pharaonic Egyptian burials from the 1st Dynasty onwards but also from later material culture found in Nubian C-group burials.

Animal Forms

Palettes come in a variety of forms. In the Badarian to early Naqada I Period, they were primarily simplistic rectangular pieces of siltstone, clearly a form more suited to functionality than aesthetic value. In the later Naqada I, II & III periods, however, palette forms change to become predominantly shaped into forms reminiscent of animals. Of these zoomorphic palettes, the most common representations include fish, birds and turtles, though there are also more unusual examples such as hippopotami and gazelles.

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Predynastic oblong palette from the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery (E.5308a).

 

The Nubian A-Group also had their own distinctive cosmetic palettes, though there is evidence of importation of Egyptian palettes as well. These palettes were usually made from quartz, rather than siltstone, with most Egyptian siltstone palettes being found in the northern regions, closer to the First Cataract. Nubian palettes have similar feature to their Egyptian neighbours, though often of simpler geometric shapes rather than zoomorphic forms; there is evidence of use from observable malachite residue on many palettes, and they were usually deposited in burial contexts.

The Importance of Iconography

Animal iconography is used across all mediums of Predynastic art, including ceramic vessels, taking the recognisable forms of turtles, birds, fish, hippopotami and other animals found represented in cosmetic palettes. Perhaps the most obvious form of animal representation in Predynastic vessels are theriomorphic stone and ceramic vessels, such as those found in Cemetery T at Naqada and in the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. Similar zoomorphic material is found on a range of objects of beautification and personal adornment, including ivory bangles and combs with carved tops in the form of bull horns or birds, as well as on prehistoric graffiti across the breadth of Egypt.

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Predynastic fish-shaped palette (E. 5318).

 

The use of animal iconography across Predynastic material culture illustrates the importance of these animals to the Egyptian people at this time. These recurring motifs indicate that the fauna of the Nile Valley was of great importance to Predynastic Egyptians, and while any symbolic or religious associations can only be conjectured about, the actual animals themselves played a key part in the visual landscape that prehistoric Egyptians inhabited. As well as illustrating the Preydnastic fascination with the native fauna, palettes also indicate the importance of cosmetics and beautification in Predynastic society, as well as providing evidence for trade between regions in Upper Egypt and A-Group sites in the Sudan.

Christopher Bebbington.

Horses in Ancient Egypt

There have been developments in the research into E.6953, regarding its context and Ancient Egyptian attitudes to horses.

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E.6953

The object is likely to have been made of Nile silt, due to the characteristic red colouring of the clay, suggesting that the object was made in Egypt, not in the Ancient Near East, where other such models come from. The two horses share a body and four legs but have their own heads, a style that may have been utilised to make the model robust and easier to make. They have reins and blinkers, which may indicate that the break at the rear of the object was a chariot. The fact that this figurine depicts a chariot is unusual, as this is the only example that has been found in the course of this research and other examples depict only one horse.

The object cannot be dated before the New Kingdom, as this is when horses were introduced to Ancient Egypt, as the first archaeological evidence of horses is at the Hyksos site of Tell El-Dab’a, where a significantly large number of horse molars have been found. This indicates that the species may have been introduced during the settlement of the Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period.  Horses are depicted in writing for the first time in the Stela of Kamose, before becoming a routine feature in Ancient Egyptian art and becoming a standard hieroglyphic sign.  The hieroglyphic sign for the collective is ‘sesmet’, which is derived from the Arabic ‘susim’ and indicates the influence that Ancient Near Eastern culture had on the Ancient Egyptians.

Horses and Power

In Ancient Egypt, horses were never used for labour, but were a symbol of royal power and heroic actions in scenes of chaos. In the Kadesh Inscription of Rameses II, his two horses are named ‘Victory in Thebes’ and ‘Mut is content’. The fact that these animals were given theophoric names by the king indicates the prestige that they held with royalty. It also shows how even though horses were not a part of religion, they could be used to indicate how the gods were always beside the king. The fact that Rameses II also tells his officers that his horses would be eating with him, because they behaved more nobly than they did, indicates the level of care that was given to these creatures. Although this is hyperbole, it does indicate the high regard that horses were given in Ancient Egypt.

Similarly, the Sphinx Stela of Amenhotep II also describes an episode where he is shooting at a target from his chariot and describes how he trained his horses into fine beasts. This indicates that these were a highly revered animal and were an important part of royal iconography, especially as horses were expensive to obtain and maintain. It also indicates how they were an important part of Ancient Egyptian warfare, being used to pull chariot in battle, from which the rider would then fight.

The fact that the king was so appreciative of these animals in Ancient Egypt can be seen in the Stela of King Piye from the Nubian Twenty-fifth Dynasty. After finally ending his assault on King Namart, ‘His Majesty proceeded to the stable of the horses and the quarters of the foals. When he saw they had been [left] to hunger, he said “I swear, as [Ra] loves me, as my nose is refreshed by life; that my horses were made to hunger pains me more than any other crime you committed in your recklessness!”’ This passionate speech shows the real concern of the king at the poor state in which he has found the horses and that he finds it the most despicable crime of Namart, indicating the passion the Ancient Egyptians for horses.

Hunting and Racing?

Near the palace site of Malkata at Kom el-Abd, a track of 4km width and 120km in length has been discovered. It has been suggested that this is a racecourse for chariot racing, however it is difficult to date this structure and with a lack of comparisons from within Egypt, it would be hard to ascribe this function to the site confidently. The tomb of Userhet (TT56) shows the owner hunting using chariots pulled by horses. The reins are wrapped around his lower waist in order to free his hands for hunting. This is important, as it shows that horses were often pulling chariots in Egyptian art, which would indicate why E.6953 is of two horses.

Finally, horses were not just valiant, brave and noble creatures to be used in hunting and warfare, but they also had rather a romantic image. This can be seen in poems written on P. Chester Beatty I, Verso, where the poet writes:

‘Oh, might I welcome you

As the king’s own steed is welcome,

A champion chosen from thousands,

Thoroughbred, best in the stables.’

Lauren Hill.

 

Translations taken from:

Foster, J.L. (1992) Love Songs of the New Kingdom. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Further Reading:

Houlihan, P. (2002) “Animals in Egyptian Art and Hieroglyphs” in Collins (ed.) A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East. Leiden, pp. 97-144.

Teeter, E. (2010) Baked Clay Figurines and Votive Beds from Medinet Habu. Chicago.

Burials and Grave Goods in the Predynastic – You Can Take It With You!

Typically, the modern audience associates burial and funerary ritual in ancient Egypt with the iconic imagery of the Pharaonic period – meticulously mummified bodies locked away deep in tombs filled with ancient treasures. However, the practice of preserving the body after death and providing assemblages of burial objects dates much earlier, going as far back as at least c. 6000 years ago. These early burials – such as the iconic Gebelein Predynastic “mummies” – did not go through a deliberate process of preservation, but instead were naturally desiccated by the desert environment that they were buried in.

The lack of written language and knowledge of Predynastic funerary ritual poses a problem for the modern Egyptologist – how to interpret the assemblages of goods that were deposited alongside the body. Without any literature to allow the Egyptians themselves to “tell” us why they included these objects in burials, we must carefully extrapolate and interpret the meanings and significance behind these objects. It is undeniable, however, that their inclusion in burials illustrates that these objects proved important in some fashion for the deceased.

Pottery

The most common grave good found in Predynastic burials is the simple pot. These come in various forms but decorated (or D-Ware) vessels are of particular interest. These vessels were painted with iconography and imagery reflective of the geography of the Nile Valley, the natural flora and fauna of the region, and human activities. Often, they include depictions of boats indicating the importance of riverine trade in the Predynastic.

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The decoration used on Predynastic D-Ware vessels gives modern scholars an insight into the motifs and iconography that were important or relevant to ancient Egyptian culture at this time (E.3033).

 

Generally, Predynastic burials contain numerous ceramics, often placed over the body or alongside it. Occasionally these vessels contain other grave goods, such as ceramic figurines. Whether the inclusion of these vessels indicates that they belonged to the deceased or their family is unclear; they may have been included in burials for a specific ritual purpose, or as goods that could be taken to the next life.

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Petrie’s C-Ware is named for the iconic white ‘crossed-line’ decoration which can be seen on this bowl. This is another common form of pottery decoration in the Predynastic (E.4195).

Palettes

Another very common grave good associated with the Predynastic is the cosmetic palette. These objects are most commonly made of siltstone (often described as ‘slate’) and come in a variety of forms. The Badarian and Naqada I period palettes are often simple oblong shapes on which pigmented material such as malachite could be ground up into cosmetic powder. In the later Naqada periods, however, palettes commonly took on a host of forms that reflected the fauna of the Nile Valley – common examples include turtles, fish and birds.

E5318

Fish-shaped palettes are a very common feature of graves in the Predynastic, further illustrating the importance of the river Nile and the fauna around and within it during this formative period of Egyptian culture (E.5318).

The use of animal shapes in these palettes has clear parallels across the breadth of Predynastic Egyptian art. Animal iconography is commonly found on Predynastic decorated vessels, taking the recognisable forms of turtles, birds, fish, hippopotami and other animal forms, indicating the importance of the natural world and the flora and fauna of the Nile Valley to Predynastic Egyptian social groups. Notably, residue from cosmetics and evidence of wear has been found on numerous palettes, indicating that they were not just burial goods but also were used in life – whether specifically by the deceased, or by someone with a familial/social relation to them.

Figurines

One of the more unusual forms of burial good found in Predynastic graves is the anthropomorphic figurine. Usually made of ceramic, understanding the meaning of these figurines has posed a significant challenge to Egyptologists. The lack of defined facial features and individual, personal aspects in the form of the figurines suggests that they were not personal representation of the deceased; instead it has been theorised that they represented a deity (often characterised as a ‘fertility’ or ‘mother goddess’) or had a ritual meaning. It has been suggested that, alternatively, these figurines might have been ritually deposited (or even, in some cases, ritually broken) as part of the burial rites or as a display of mourning.

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Predynastic ceramic figurines usually include emphasis on the genitalia and a lack of decoration on the face. However, ivory statuettes such as this piece from the Louvre (E 11887) often have great deal of detail devoted to their facial features (photograph by Guillaume Blanchard, distributed under a CC A-SA 1.0 license).

Some of the most striking examples are the “steatopygous” female figurines (a word that refers to their large buttocks), which often have their arms raised over their heads. This gesture can be seen in representations of humans across Predynastic art, from figurines to decoration on vessels, to graffiti and art on cave walls. One interpretation of this gesture is that it refers to some kind of ritual behaviour or form of worship, and the presence of these figurines might indicate that the deceased had a personal connection with religious customs or divine spirituality.

E.3027

The depictions of humans on D-ware vessels can be strikingly similar to human-shaped figurines and Predynastic rock art (E.3027).

Personal Adornment and Miscellanea

 Objects found in Predynastic burials often reflect practices of personal adornment or status, such as the inclusion of imported beads of lapis lazuli from far as Afghanistan, obsidian from as far as Ethiopia and meteoric iron. These more luxurious and “high-status” objects may have been impersonated in other burials through the use of alternative materials – for example, bone and shell bracelets are a relatively common find and these may have been impersonations of objects of personal adornment made from a more affordable, readily-available material.

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This shell bracelet from Hierakonpolis illustrates how objects of personal adornment were made not only from luxurious precious metals and stones, but also more easily-accessible material (E.7262).

Other miscellaneous objects in burials may have reflected information about the individual, their status in society, or their social roles and relationships – for example, objects made of flint such as knives, scrapers and arrowheads may illustrate something particular about the deceased (although this is impossible to know for sure). These objects may have been included for a specific funerary purpose, but they may instead be objects that had a special significance for the deceased or for the larger community engaging with the funerary ritual.

Funerary Customs in the Predynastic

Burials are fundamental to our understanding of the Egyptian Predynastic, with cemeteries often the only archaeological sites that have survived. The study of these burials does not just tell us more about the funerary beliefs and burial culture of Predynastic Egyptians, but also illustrates the development of stratification and hierarchies in social groups, the themes and iconography that was important at this time, and the vast trade networks that existed even at this early point in human history. While the large tombs and detailed burial customs of Pharaonic Egypt are perhaps more famous and well-known, their rich lineage can be traced back to the simple pit burials of the Predynastic.

Chris Bebbington.

Ancient Egyptian Mummies

 

 

Content Warning: Images of unwrapped mummy. 

 

 

The discovery and analysis of mummies from ancient Egypt, has fueled a long-standing fascination with ancient Egyptian culture. Mummies enable the modern audience to connect with the physical forms of people who lived thousands of years ago. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mummies inspired morbid curiosity among the upper classes and wealthy patrons would host ‘unwrapping’ parties where the remarkably preserved bodies would be have their bandages removed, bringing people face to face with ancient Egyptians. Modern analysis of mummies is far more controlled and scientific, involving scanning, x-rays, DNA analysis and blood tests. For example, the mummy displayed here at the Garstang Museum is known to be blood group A from the tests performed on it in preparation for their later use in testing the mummy of Tutankhamun. The stunning preservation of mummies enables archaeologists to reconstruct ancient lifeways in beautiful technicolour, but the process of mummification is perhaps one of the most intriguing practices in ancient Egypt.

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The Garstang Mummy (2015/13)

How to make a mummy?

The extensive, 70 day embalming and burial process was an important part of Egyptian belief, and was crucial for a successful journey into the afterlife. The mummification process consisted of two main components: the embalming of the remains, and the wrapping and burial of the body.

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Canopic jar heads in the shape of the hawk-headed deity Qebehsenuef and the baboon-headed deity Hapi (E.7840 E.7841).

During the embalming process, the body was washed with water from the Nile for purification. The internal organs were then removed and stored in canopic jars. Canopic jars come in sets of four, each identifiable with a specific god; Imsety, a human-headed jar to store the liver; Qebehsenuef, a falcon-headed jar to store the intestines; Hapy, a baboon-headed jar to store the lungs; and Duamutef, a jackal-headed jar to store the stomach.

Next the heart (ib) was put back into the body, and the body was stuffed and covered with natron (salt) to dry it out, before being covered for 40 days. The body was then unwrapped for the final time to be coated in embalming oils before being stuffed with dry materials to give the corpse the appearance of life.

The wrapping of the corpse began with the head and neck, then the individual fingers and toes, and finally limbs. Ritual spells would be spoken over the mummy by priests during the wrapping to protect against evil spirits in the journey into the afterlife. The limbs were then bound into the body with cloth that was wrapped around the entire corpse, and liquid resins were used to glue the bandages tightly. The body was then placed into a series of coffins for its final journey.

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Canopic jars featuring the human-headed deity Imsety and the hawk-headed deity Qebehsenuef (E.5267 & E.5266).

How do we know about the mummification process?

Greek historical texts are a useful (if often confusing) source of information for mummification; writers including Diodorus of Sicily and Herodotus discuss mummification practices in ancient Egypt. Herodotus left little to the imagination in his description of the processes:

“…making a cut near the flank with a sharp knife of Ethiopian stone, and then take out all the intestines, and clean the belly, rinsing it with palm wine and bruised spices.”

Perhaps even more interesting in Herodotus’ writing is the discussion of burial practices when there is little physical body to preserve:

“…anyone, Egyptian or foreigner, known to have been carried off by a crocodile or drowned by the river itself, must by all means be embalmed and wrapped as attractively as possible and buried in a sacred coffin by the people of the place where he is cast ashore…”

Mummy Mysteries

At the Garstang Museum, a mummy placed in a child’s coffin was always believed to be the remains of a child. However, X-Ray analysis revealed that the mummified remains were those of two cats, wrapped to look like a child.

There are two obvious possibilities here; the most likely theory is that there was a mistake by the embalmers leading to the original body being lost and replaced, but it is possible that the child was carried away by some creature from the Nile. The embalmers may have crafted the best impression of a child mummy they could to allow the ka (soul) of the child to carry on into the afterlife with some form of a physical body buried in their place, as alluded to in Herodotus.

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Child’s coffin containing the mummified remains of two cats (E.537).

Preserving Identity

The processes and rituals behind mummification have long fascinated societies around the world, from ancient Greek travellers and historians to modern archaeological scientists. Mummies provide a remarkable opportunity to understand ancient Egyptian people, their lives and their identities. Arguably, the most striking feature of mummies is how easily identifiable they are as humans, allowing a modern audience to look directly into the face of the past.

Greta Brown.