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.

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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.

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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.

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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.