Papyrus Westcar

Continuing the theme of Egyptian literature, today we’re going to be talking about another ‘classic’ Egyptian story; the Tale of Khufu and the Magicians, also known as Papyrus Westcar.

The Westcar Papyrus (P. Berlin 3033) was (supposedly) found by Henry Westcar, a British antiquarian, in 1823-4. In 1838-9 it was (supposedly) bequeathed to Karl Lepsius, but was found in his attic after his death; there’s a deal of speculation about whether Lepsius did ‘inherit’ the papyrus, or whether it was stolen! The papyrus was viewed as a curiosity, until it was translated into German by Adolf Erman in 1890; since then, it has been re-translated numerous times.

The story is quite an unusual one, consisting of five vignettes relating to the sorcerous efforts of various priests and magicians. Each tale (save the last) is told in the court of King Khufu, the famous 4th Dynasty pharaoh and builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, though the composition of the text itself has been placed between the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period.  The first of the stories is almost entirely missing, but the others survive.

The First Story

The first story is missing entirely, save for the ending, where Khufu orders that offerings be made to the kings featured in the story. The conclusion mentions King Djoser, and may have had something to do with his famous Step Pyramid (and Imhotep, its famous architect!).

The Second Story

The first complete vignette begins when Prince Khafre stands up to speak and tells of a biayt – a ‘wonder’ – that happened in the time of King Nebka. Nebka had gone to the temple of Ptah to perform rites therein, accompanied by his chief lector-priest, Weba-iner, and the lector-priest’s wife. The lady meets a charming commoner, and the two decide to spend a pleasant day drinking in a nearby pavilion…and their ‘pleasant day’ doesn’t end until the sun has set!

Weba-iner finds out about this, and decides to exact his revenge with magic. He crafts a wax model crocodile, and passes it to the caretaker, instructing him to wait until the commoner goes for his daily swim, and then throw the model crocodile into the water.

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E.620 – Model of a Crocodile, Hierakonpolis.

Meanwhile, Weba-iner’s wife sends to have the pavilion made ready again, and spends another ‘pleasant day’ with the commoner. After the sun sets, the commoner goes for his evening swim…and the caretaker throws the crocodile into the lake! When it touches the water, the crocodile springs to life, becoming a real crocodile, seven cubits long. It snaps its jaws around the commoner and drags him to the bottom of the lake!

Chuffed with his work, the lector-priest brings Nebka to the lake to see the magical crocodile. He summons it back, and it brings the commoner along for the ride. The lector-priest transforms the crocodile back into a wax figure, and explains his woes to Nebka. Outraged, the king declares that the crocodile can drag the commoner back to the bottom of the lake, while the adulterous wife of Weba-iner is burned alive.

Then, everyone celebrates how cool the magical crocodile was. Priorities.

The Third Story

After declaring that offerings be made to Nebka and his lector-priest, Khufu is ready for another tale. This time, Baufre has the floor, ready to tell a salacious story of a bored king, a boating accident, and fishnet stockings.

King Snofru is bored. So bored, in fact, that he sends for his chief lector-priest, Djadjaemankh, and complains that he has been through every room of the palace looking for something to do and found nothing. The lector-priest has an idea on how to alleviate his King’s ennui…

Djadjaemankh counsels Snofru to visit his palace lake, and sail around on it with a ship manned entirely by beautiful women. The king sends off for twenty ebony oars, plated with gold, with handles of special wood plated in electrum (why not?), as well as twenty beautiful, virginal women, with braided hair and large breasts. He also asks for twenty nets, and for the women to remove their clothes and replace them with the nets.

This may be the first historical reference to fishnet stockings in the world.

The women row back and forth, and Snofru feels very pleased with himself, but alas! He made a mistake asking for women with braided hair. The lead stroke gets entangled in her braids, and her turquoise fish-pendant falls into the water! Distraught, she stops rowing, which infuriates Snofru. He is, after all, a king, so he can just get her another pendant. Alas, she doesn’t want another pendant, she wants hers back. She gets a little bit sassy, telling Snofru, “I prefer my own to its substitute”. Ouch.

Growing rather grumpy due to this turn of events, Snofru sends for Djadjaemankh. The lector-priest arrives, and Snofru complains that he was having a rather wonderful time, but then this fish-pendant got lost and ruined everything. Without a worry, Djadjaemankh casts a magic spell, folding the waters of the lake, and revealing the lake bed. He pops over to the newly-revealed lake bed, retrieves the pendant, and then casts a spell to return the water to normal.

Cheered up once more, Snofru proceeds to spend the day partying with the entire palace, and making joyful offerings to his favourite lector-priest.

The Fourth Story

After another bout of offerings, this time dedicated to Snofru and Djadjaemankh, Khufu is amazed…but his son, Prince Hardedef, is not. Hardedef complains that all of these stories take place in the past, where one cannot easily discern truth from falsehood. Instead, Hardedef can tell Khufu of a man who still lives, and who can perform miracles! A commoner, named Djedi, who is 110 years old; he eats five hundred loaves of bread and a shoulder of beef, and drinks one hundred jars of beer every day. He can mend a severed head, make a lion follow behind him with its leash on the ground, and even knows the number of chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth!

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Image of Thoth, from the Book of the Dead (2016 Book of the Dead).

Now, Khufu is intrigued. He himself had been seeking the chambers of the Thoth sanctuary, in order to make something like it for himself…so he commands that Hardedef bring Djedi to him, so he can be questioned! Hardedef sets off for Djed-Snofru by boat, and the prince is borne to Djedi upon an ebony palanquin, with poles of special wood, plated in gold (of course).

Hardedef finds Djedi, with servants anointing his head and rubbing his feet. After buttering him up, Hardedef summons Djedi to meet with Khufu, and the two return to the river bank, board ships, and head back to the royal residence. Djedi is announced to Khufu, who excitedly asks if it is true – can Djedi really mend a severed head? Djedi answers that he can, and Khufu sends for a prisoner to be brought so Djedi can prove it.

Djedi refuses to work his magic on a human, asking instead for a goose; Khufu agrees, and a goose is brought before Djedi and beheaded. The head is placed on one side of the chamber and the body on another, and Djedi works his magic – causing the body of the goose to waddle over to its head and reattach it. Khufu sends for another goose, and Djedi does the same; he then sends for a bull, and once again, it stands up and walks – with its leash on the ground (hang on, I thought Hardedef said it was a lion who would walk with his leash on the ground – oh well, I suppose Khufu wasn’t paying attention…).

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E.608– Faience lion figurine.

Khufu then brings out the big question – does Djedi know the number of the secret chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth? Djedi says he doesn’t know the number – but he does know where it is kept, in a hidden casket at Heliopolis. Khufu asks him to bring the casket, but Djedi says it is not him who will bring it – it would be brought by the eldest of three children, currently in the womb of the woman Reddjedet.

“Who is she?” Khufu asks, and Djedi replies, telling him that she is the wife of a priest of Re, pregnant with his three children. These children would ascend to the highest offices of the land – a fact that Khufu is not entirely happy about. Khufu agrees to visit the woman, and the temple of Re, but the sandbanks of the canal will be cut off when she is due to give birth – Djedi assures him that he will cause water to rise there.

And then there are more offerings, of course.

The Fifth Story

The fifth vignette continues immediately, Reddjedet struggling with a difficult labour. Seeing this, Re sends for the gods Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket, and Khnum, sending them to deliver these three children – who are prophesied to become the next royal dynasty. The gods disguise themselves as musicians – Khnum carries the bags – and go to visit Reddjedet.

The priest, Reweser, leads them to Reddjedet, and the gods assist with her birth. Isis commands the baby Userkaf to behave himself, and he is born into her arms with ease. After washing the child, Meskhenet and Khnum bless him.

Then, Isis brings forth Sahure, and again, he is washed and blessed by the other gods. Finally, she hastens the birth of Kakai, who is washed and blessed like the others. Having delivered the three children, the gods head out to inform Reweser, who provides them with a tip for their efforts – a sack of grain.

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E.9381 – Wooden model of Nephthys.

Isis realises that they had not yet provided a sufficiently wondrous wonder, and so the gods create three royal crowns, placing them in the sack. They summon a storm, and return to the house, asking if they can leave the grain so it will not get wet in the rain.

Later, the household are throwing a celebratory party, but there is no grain to brew beer – save for the grain left by the ‘musicians’. Reweser decides to use this grain and sends the maid to fetch it, thinking he will compensate them when they return. When the maid enters the room, she hears the sounds of celebration – dancing, singing, and music – without any obvious source. Reddjedet heads down to the room, puts her ears to the grain sack and discovers the sound is coming from inside the sack!

She realises that her sons will be kings, and is overjoyed – but fearful. Reddjedet hides the sack, locking it away in her room, and tells Reweser, who is equally joyous, and they have a wonderful party.

A few days later, Reweser has a quarrel with the maid, ordering her to be beaten as punishment, and she decides to seek her revenge by telling Khufu of the new kings. She finds her brother (or uncle, depending on the translation), and tells him of her plan, but he is appalled – and beats her with flax. Distraught, the maid rushes to the riverbank to get a drink of water and is snatched away by a crocodile (presumably not the same one from the previous story, but who knows?).

Her brother (or uncle) heads to tell Reddjedet, who is terrified that Khufu will now know about her children. He informs her of the maid’s death by crocodile…

 

…and the story ends there!

The Significance of Westcar

These stories appear to teach entertaining moral lessons – though some are perhaps lost in translation, and others just make very little sense to our modern sensibilities! Egyptologists have argued that these stories may have been drawn from the folklore of the common people of ancient Egypt, instead of deriving from the compositions of the royal court.

The tale was certainly written much later than it is set, and this provides the opportunity for reflection; the text itself acknowledges its fictional nature, with Hardedef remarking that it is hard to discern fact from fiction in stories from the past. Moreover, the text uses this temporal distance to create characters out of the royal figures it discusses; rather than distant, impersonal pharaohs, they are each portrayed almost as caricatures. Nebka is strict, lawful, and judgemental. Snofru is bored, cantankerous…and a little perverted! Meanwhile, Khufu is harsh, cruel even, willing to sacrifice a man’s life to see a magic trick and concerned that his dynasty will be replaced.

Is the ending of the story complete? It seems a little abrupt, but studies by Egyptologists Verena Lepper and Mirian Lichtheim both indicate that this is, indeed, how the story was supposed to end. The crocodile sequence is repeated – almost like a refrain – and in any case, Lepper argues, there was enough room on the papyrus to add more if there was any more to add.

By Christopher Bebbington.

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The Destruction of Humanity

We are fortunate to have many surviving pieces of Egyptian literature and religious writings, allowing us to translate, read, and share stories that were originally composed in the ancient past. We have previously looked at the story of Osiris and Isis, one of the most famous tales from ancient Egypt. Today, we’re going to be looking at a very different tale, however – one known amongst Egyptologists by the rather unusual name, “the Myth of the Heavenly Cow”.

The Myth of the Heavenly Cow, telling the tale of the near-destruction of humanity, was first discovered in the outermost of the four gilded shrines of Tutankhamun, but in incomplete form. Three completed versions of the text were found, however, in the tombs of Seti I, Ramesses I, and Ramesses II. The text forms part of a corpus of royal funerary compositions dating to the New Kingdom, but was written in Middle Egyptian (the seminal form of the classical Egyptian language), and the ideas within it may date back as far as the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom.

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E.507(2) – A section of the amduat of the 21st Dynasty songstress of Amun, Tja-ty. The amduat is another royal funerary composition; unlike the Myth of the Heavenly Cow, the amduat is concerned with the topography and inhabitants of the Egyptian underworld.

The Rebellion of Man

The story begins in the mythical past, at the dawn of Egyptian history when the land was ruled by the sun god, Re, ‘the god who created himself’. The sun god had reached old age, and his mortal subjects had conspired against him, rebelling against his rule. Re summoned his council in secret – the gods Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nun, and the primordial ‘mothers and fathers’ who were with him before the world was created. He also summoned his ‘Eye’, a fiery manifestation of his divine power, and retreated with his council to discuss what should be done about the rebellious hearts of men.

The council of gods suggested that Horus should ‘let [his] Eye go’, sending her down in the form of the goddess Hathor, to wreak vengeance on the disobedient humans below. With her power, she could smite the evildoers, preventing them from rebelling against the rule of the sun god.

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E.9186 – A wadjet-eye amulet. Eyes could symbolise many things in ancient Egypt; while the wadjet is a symbol of magical protection, the powerful Eye of Re instead symbolised divine vengeance.

The Descent of the Eye

The story continues with Hathor returning triumphant; not only did she overpower mankind, but it pleased her! As Re celebrated his unopposed rule, Hathor took the form of the vengeful lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, to wade in the blood of the humans she had massacred throughout Egypt.

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E.9011 – an amulet depicting the mighty goddess, Sekhmet.

At this point, Re realised that his retribution was perhaps a little disproportionate. With Sakhmet spilling the blood of people across Egypt, he sent for swift messengers – messengers who could ‘rush like the shadow of a body’ – and concocted a plan to calm the raging Eye.

The Drunken Goddess

Re sent his messengers to Elephantine, to bring him red ochre in vast quantities. When the messengers returned, he sent word that the ochre should be ground up to make red pigment, while servants were to grind barley and make beer. The pigment was mixed with the beer, creating a mix that looked like human blood; in total, 7 000 jars were made for Sekhmet.

Vowing to protect mankind against the vengeful goddess, Re had the beer brought to the fields that Sekhmet would target next, and during the night, the beer was poured over the fields, flooding them. When the goddess arrived that morning, she found the fields already full of ‘blood’, and stopped to sate her thirst on it. With the Eye drunk – 7 000  jars drunk! – she decided to leave mankind alone, returning to the other gods.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the tale, Re leaves the earthly world behind forever, ascending to the heavens. The sky was created in the form of the Heavenly Cow, a manifestation of the goddess Nut, and the other gods joined him, separating themselves from the world of mortals. In future generations, the pharaoh would be a human – one who acted as an intermediary between the mortal world and the realm of the gods.

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E.66 – cult statue of Hathor in her bovine form.

The Ancient Egyptian World and the Concept of Evil

The Myth of the Heavenly Cow elucidates the role of the pharaoh – a semi-divine emissary who ruled the world on behalf of the gods, maintaining ma’at (balance) and stopping isfet (chaos), and ensuring the gods were properly worshipped. At the end of the tenure of the pharaoh, they would take their place in the gods’ realm, ascending to the heavens and integrating themselves in the divine cosmos.

The tale also raises issues of evil in the world – even in the mythical, perfect times, humanity was imperfect and chose to rebel against the rule of the sun god. The existence of evil is not due to the actions of the creator god, but instead arises from the selfish interests of humanity; Re must slaughter the very people he created in order to stop this evil.

When the gods choose to leave, separating themselves from humanity, it creates three realms – the divine realm, the duat (the underworld), and the mortal world. It is this mortal world where evil can be found; it is the mortal world that is forever caught in the perilous struggle against the ensuing forces of chaos, and where the pharaoh must work to bring about order and divine perfection.

By Christopher Bebbington.

The Environment in Egyptian Prehistory – A Story in 3D Models!

The geography of the Nile Valley was instrumental in shaping Predynastic material culture, which often incorporates motifs drawn from the natural world. The recurring use of natural imagery in the decoration of Predynastic material culture illustrates the importance of the natural world to these people, providing us with a window into the thoughts and concerns of people living over five thousand years ago.

Thanks to the tenacious efforts of our photogrammetry team, we are excited to now present these objects in full 3D!

Painted Decoration – Creating Landscapes in Ceramic

 

Painted decoration was one of the most common ways of incorporating natural motifs on objects during the Predynastic. Painted decoration regularly included scenes of desert hills, plants and foliage, boats, and a variety of animals, alongside more abstract designs. Sculpted forms of plants and animals were also applied to objects, particularly ceramic vessels.

 

Boats and water are another motif regularly incorporated into Predynastic designs; the importance of river travel in Egypt cannot be understated. Travel by boat was much quicker than by land, facilitating communication, which in turn allowed individual groups and rulers to control larger territories and proto-states; the connections forged by the capability to travel by boat also assisted in the transmission of material and social culture.

 

The way in which these motifs were utilised also illustrates the way prehistoric people viewed the world; for example, in the decorated sherd above, the animals appear to be wearing some kind of collar. The emphasis of the conflict between the settled land of the Nile valley and the wild, untamed creatures of the adjacent deserts is a recurring theme in Predynastic art, and depictions of animals sometimes include collars or ‘leashes’ to indicate the imposition of human order and control over the natural world.

Representations of Animals

Predynastic material culture included objects made to resemble animals, or otherwise incorporating animalistic motifs in their design. Small figurines, such as the crocodile below, were made to resemble animals. They may have been purely decorative, or they might have had some religious or ritual purpose – unfortunately, that information has been lost to us.

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The ‘Hierakonpolis bird dagger’ (E.616)

 

This ‘bird dagger’ is one of the most unusual and unique objects in the Predynastic collection at the Garstang museum; it seems entirely impractical, and would not have functioned particularly well as a dagger. The blade has been crafted to resemble a wing, while the hilt bears more than a passing resemblance to a bird’s beak. The purpose of this object is unknown, but its form is very interesting – the use of avian motifs here is in an abstracted form, suggesting identifying features of the animal without appearing thereomorphic.

Animal Forms (Theriomorphism)

Some Predynastic objects do not simply incorporate animal motifs on their design, but were manufactured to resemble certain animals. These are known as theriomorphic objects. The forms of these artefacts are often impractical, and it is unclear whether they would have seen actual use or whether they were purely decorative.

 

Palettes are one of the most common forms of material culture that incorporated natural designs; palettes were often made to resemble birds, fish, turtles, goats, and other animals from the Nile Valley. They were used to grind pigments for cosmetics.

The Natural World

The historian Herodotus said that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”, and this was the case even in prehistory. When studying prehistoric artefacts, the lack of written evidence and poor survival of important archaeological features such as settlements, housing and clothing can distance the modern observer from the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the people who created these artefacts. By examining the recurring decorative motifs on Predynastic objects, we can begin to understand the way prehistoric people experienced the world; the things that were important to them, and the way they chose to display this importance.

If any of these objects piqued your interest, you can see them in person – visit the BEFORE EGYPT exhibition at the Victoria Gallery & Museum to discover more of our predynastic Egyptian collection.

By Christopher Bebbington (edited by Sarah McBride).

Photogrammetry Team: Ardern Hulme-Beaman, Sofie Kinzer, J.R. Peterson.

 

Before Egypt: 3D Models

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With our upcoming exhibition launching soon, we thought it would be nice to put the ‘spotlight’ on a few of the objects that will be on display. Our photogrammetry team has been hard at work creating 3D models of many of the objects that will be on display, in order to provide access to the objects for anyone unable to visit the exhibition in person.

The first three of our models are now available to view on Sketchfab; each of these objects depicts an animal, which suggests the importance of the Nile Valley, and its flora and fauna, to the Predynastic Egyptian people living there. These objects serve to illustrate the three important environs within the Nile Valley – the land, the river, and the sky.

The Land: E.4176

This black-topped red ware sherd is decorated with white crossed-line depictions of animals. The depiction of animals in Predynastic art often relates them to a fundamental struggle – the civilised order of humans triumphing over the wild beasts of the desert. In this case, the animal on the right appears to have a collar or leash of some kind around its neck, a sign of domestication.

The River: E.620

This carved stone crocodile was excavated by John Garstang at Hierakonpolis, and likely dates to the Early Dynastic Period. It is quite unusual in its form, particularly in the inclusion of a base for the crocodile to stand on. The pierced holes on the base of the object indicate it may have been worn (as an amulet or pendant of some kind), or it may have been suspended. Though John Garstang excavated primarily at the fort cemetery at Hierakonpolis, the unusual form of this object indicates it was likely excavated elsewhere.

The Sky: E.6111

This ceramic vessel also comes from Hierakonpolis, and is a unique object. Birds are commonly portrayed in Predynastic art, but they are never shown in flight – this vessel is the only known example. Though the decoration has faded over time, the distinctive and unusual forms of these flying birds are still clearly visible in their original red pigment.

Working With 3D Models

Exhibitions are limited in their scope; they run only for a short time, and even in large exhibitions, there is always a great deal of material that cannot be displayed – simply, there is never enough space! We hope that these 3D models will provide a means of access for anyone unable to make it to the exhibition, and for those who are coming, we hope this will whet your appetite! You can rotate the models, and zoom in and out to look at specific details; you can find out more information about the objects in the model descriptions and by clicking on the annotation points on each model.

We will continue uploading and sharing 3D models on our sketchfab page – check it out!

Christopher Bebbington.

Photogrammetry by: Sofia Kinzer, JR Peterson, Ardern Hulme-Beaman

 

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.

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.

E.5251 (Line Drawing)

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.

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.

 E.537 (2)

E.537 (3)

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.