You might be surprised to learn about the lengths your favorite authors may go in order to research their next book! Egyptian history has always been an interest for me, and I’m planning a book around some of this fascinating history. This is one of the reasons I’ve just completed an online course through Manchester University and Coursera called “Ancient Egypt: a history in six objects.” Book number five of The Undead Unit Series is going to be set in Egypt, and is going to involve the cloning of one of Egypt’s mummified pharaohs. So, what better way to learn a little bit more about this ancient history than to take a course in it? Many courses like this are offered for free through Coursera. The following article is the final assignment I wrote for the class, where we had to use our own six objects to explain this ancient history.
Ancient Egypt in Six Objects
by Markie Madden
From the first discovery of ancient artifacts in Egypt, people all over the world have been fascinated by this culture. There is a wide range of items recovered from all around Egypt, and some of these objects can be used to gain a good understanding of the civilization that evolved to build the largest and most long-lasting buildings in human history.
Egyptologists have grouped the known history of early Egypt into several different periods: Predynastic, Early Dynastic, Old Kingdom, First Intermediate, Middle Kingdom, Second Intermediate, New Kingdom, Third Intermediate, Late Period, and Greco-Roman. Archaeologists use many different objects, such as statues and models, papyri scrolls, and tomb paintings to gain more knowledge of these different periods.
The first known time period in Egyptian history is called the Predynastic Period by Egyptologists. Keep in mind that during this period, writing had yet to be developed. So much of our information about this time period comes in the form of various kinds of pottery. These objects were often found in cemeteries where they had been buried with the deceased. So, by this, we can ascertain that early Egyptians already had a sense of the afterlife and were taking steps to help the deceased in whatever came after their physical death.
Most of these predynastic pots and pottery were found empty, leading Egyptologists to surmise that food, water, or other organic material was placed in the pots as a food source for the deceased in the afterlife. This food source should be considered more important than the pot itself. However, many of the predynastic pots were highly decorated, often with what we can assume are scenes of daily life. The pot found at the Metropolitan Museum in New York here: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/20.2.10 is strikingly similar to the pot discussed in the University of Manchester’s Ancient Egypt: a history in six objects course.
Looking at this pot, or the one discussed in the course, you can see the red paint still remaining, though I imagine it was more vibrant before being subjected to the ravages of the desert. But the scenes can still be clearly seen: birds, a scene of a boat, and some type of wide leaves. As objects like this are the only way to learn about the predynastic Egyptian people, we can only assume that these are scenes of what the people, or maybe more specifically, the deceased belonging to the grave it was found in, actually did in their daily lives. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be any particular social class; everyone was buried in simple graves in the desert sand.
During this phase of Egyptian history, the Badarian cultural phase, it is believed that the people lived in small villages which have since vanished, so the grave goods found buried with deceased individuals in cemeteries have provided our only glimpse into the daily lives of these ancient people. Over the course of the next phase, called the Nagada phase, we see evidence for the earliest of social division. Bodies buried in some, more ‘elite’ graves were wrapped in linen, while bodies in the common graves were not. The end of the Predynastic Period was marked by the reign of the earliest known king of unified Egypt, King Narmer. Some Egyptologists place him as the last king of Predynastic Dynasty 0, while other scholars put him in as the first king of Early Dynastic Dynasty 1. It was during this period that writing, in the form of hieroglyphs, was developed.
This puts us into the Early Dynastic period, from around 3050 BCE to 2686 BCE. At this point in time, we see the development of the city known as “White Walls”, which would eventually come to be known as Memphis to the Greeks. During this period we see the elite of Memphis being buried at Saqqara, while most of Egypt’s kings were buried in complexes made of mud-brick at the cemetery at Abydos.
Next we enter the Old Kingdom period, which saw a marked increase in the technology available to the ancient Egyptians. Most of their buildings from the time were made of mud-brick or other temporary materials, and unfortunately are lost to us. However, much of their burial structures have survived, and this gives us a glimpse into this time period. Pharaohs from this period built stone pyramid complexes in the northern deserts, and the elite built funerary complexes around these royal pyramids, called mastabas.
Many of these burial mastabas include what Egyptologists call a “false door”, through which the Egyptian people thought offerings of food and drink would be accessible to the deceased. The Egyptian people believed that the ka, one of three portions of the human soul, could leave the tomb via this false door, and collect the offerings left behind by family and employees of the deceased. This was especially important because of their belief that the ka needed sustenance in order to survive indefinitely.
In the middle of the 5th dynasty, false doors often included “torus moulding” like you can see in this example of a false door (website: http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/falsedoor.html)
The first pyramid, known to scholars as the Step Pyramid, was built for King Djoser at Saqqara, during the Third Dynasty. Pyramids were reserved for the royal family, and a few of the prominent people were buried in stone tombs such as the free-standing mastaba, or in tombs cut into the rock. The rest of the population were usually buried in sand cemeteries. By this point in time, the tomb was considered “the house of the Ka”, and so was set up in a similar way to a house of the living. These tombs often contained the private space where the deceased was buried, as well as a public area for visitors to leave offerings to the deceased.
But the ancient Egyptians were nothing but practical, and knew that food products left in the offering chapel would not last forever. In order to sustain the ka indefinitely, they carved images of food or food products, and other offerings into the “false door” so that the deceased, using the magic of the carvings, could access the offerings at any time, even long after the deceased’s relatives and employees had passed away. There was even an offering formula, called the Htp-di-nsw and it’s thought to mean “An offering that the king has given…”, and serves as an introduction to a list of things the tomb owner needs, including possible gifts from the king himself. (Taken from Week 2 Object Fact sheet, Ancient Egypt: A history in six objects by the University of Manchester.) You can see this offering formula here.
This brings us to Middle Kingdom Egypt, the next stop in our journey through ancient Egypt. The kings of this time period still built burial pyramids, but these were different in construction from the tombs of the Old Kingdom. These were built from mud-brick and later finished with an outer casing of high quality limestone. This style of pyramid may have been quicker to build, and cost less in the way of building materials. Yet a pyramid build still needed a large workforce, so often whole towns were built to house the workers building the king’s tomb.
One such town is Kahun, which was built near the site of 12th dynasty king Senwosret II. When this town was abandoned, the villagers left behind many domestic items, tools, toys, religious items, and even scrolls of papyri, which gives us more of a glimpse into the lives of the average people. One interesting piece recovered from this time period is now housed in the Manchester Museum, accession number 9325, and is well-known as the “Spinning Statue”. This statue, inscribed on the back as Neb-iu (presumably the statue’s owner), was placed on display in the Manchester Museum. Visitors were soon to notice the statue spinning in its glass case. However, a study of the statue revealed it has an uneven base. The foot traffic in the gallery, combined with traffic on a busy street outside, rather than supernatural forces, is what causes the statue to spin. You can read more about this artifact by clicking here: https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/the-mystery-of-the-spinning-statuette/.
The Second Intermediate Period saw Egypt as a divided country once again, with the traditional Egyptian dynasty in the southern city of Thebes, and the Canaanite (or “Hyksos”) ruling in the northern Egypt city of Avaris, on the Nile delta. (Remember, the Nile river actually runs from south to north, so Northern Egypt was upriver, or in the southern part of Egypt, and Southern Egypt was downriver, closer to the delta of the large river.) The Theban kings fought their way north, until finally a man named Ahmose united the country once again. He has the honor of being the king to usher in the New Kingdom, starting with the 18th Dynasty.
During the New Kingdom, Egypt continued its expansion and soon became the richest land in the world. Kings during this period, wanting to be closer to the god Amun, began to build tombs cut out of rock at the place we now call The Valley of the Kings. It should be noted that, along with the Valley of the Kings, where pharaohs were buried, there was also a Valley of the Queens, where their mothers, sisters, or consort queens were laid to rest.
Perhaps the most famous of artifacts dating from this time period is the Berlin Bust of Nefertiti, a life-sized sculpture of this Queen, preserved remarkably well, with only a broken ear, broken crown piece, and missing one jeweled eye. There are several replicas of this bust in museums all over the world, and the recovery of this statue brought this little-known Queen into the public eye. This bust can be seen in many museums, but my image is from the Berlin Museum. (website: http://www.egyptian-museum-berlin.com/c53.php).
Another well-known aspect of this period in Egyptian history deals with the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. This ruler moved the entire capital city to Amarna, and created a new cult for the purpose of worshiping a single god, the sun disk, or the Aten. It’s interesting to note that Akhenaten did not worship the sun itself, only the light, the rays of the sun, which were often depicted in cave sculptures ending in human-shaped hands. In a society where polygamy was natural and normal, Egypt’s new pharaoh didn’t make many friends in his attempt to spread a monotheistic religion.
Several generations after Akhenaten’s death, Amarna lay abandoned. The new pharaoh, Tutankhamun, and his advisers abandoned Amarna, returning to the original capital of Thebes. These rulers even went a step further, and set about to systematically erase Akhenaten from the face of history. As the Egyptians believed that words (as well as art) held magic, we can only assume they believed that by destroying images and anything else relating to this failed dynastic king, they could make people completely forget about him. And they were very nearly successful.
Tutankhamun is also a well-known Egyptian king, his tomb having been discovered more recently than any of the others. His tomb was also still sealed when it was found, and so it retained all of the grave goods that the “boy king” was buried with, including his gorgeous gold sarcophagus lid. This is one piece of Egyptian history that most people anywhere in the world can recognize, and it certainly is stunning. But many other things were found in his tomb as well, and these objects can give Egyptologists and archaeologists a look into the lives of these 18th Dynasty kings.
By the 22nd dynasty, Egyptians had changed their decorations of their tombs. Instead of filling the tomb walls with painted carvings as they have done previously, many of the carvings during this time period are found on the coffins instead. Perhaps this indicates a shift in the attitude of the tomb, for example, that the tomb itself isn’t nearly as important as the coffin and the body itself. Many cartonnage items have been recovered from the Third Intermediate and Late Periods. These cartonnage items are made from layering linen and plaster. The Egyptian belief that the physical body must be preserved at all costs is still prevalent.
During this time period, mummification procedures were still improving. The organs would be removed from the body, several of them dried separately and placed either in canopic jars or wrapped and replaced in the body cavity. Once the body was completely dry, it was stuffed in order to retain its human shape, and then wrapped in a manner similar to that seen in the story of god Osiris and his wife, Goddess Isis. Above all, the spirit needed the physical body to be preserved forever, if that spirit was to go on in the afterlife forever.
The Art Institute Chicago has the coffin and mummy of Paankhenamun, dated in the Third Intermediate Period, around the 22nd dynasty. (www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/64339).
X-ray scans reveal this man to be approximately 5 feet, six inches tall, and that he was middle-aged when he died, probably anywhere from 30 to 50 years of age. After the remains were mummified, they were then put into the cartonnage coffin through the back, which was then stitched up. Then, the coffin was painted and a footboard was added to it. These cartonnage cases were then often placed into one or more wooden coffins, which were also painted. During the unwrapping or scanning of mummies from this time period, we also see evidence of amulets wrapped into the mummy wrappings in different locations. Some of these amulets would have been made of metal or stone, and some of beeswax.
This finally gets us to the last period of Egyptian kings, the Greco-Roman Period. Though the last kings were usually of Roman origin, the Egyptian burial rites were often adopted, as Romans in this time period were generally cremated. Often, the two rites were combined, as you can see in numerous statues of the god Bes, a figure often seen in, and recovered from homes as well as burial sites. This week, the figure of Bes at the Manchester Museum is studied. It’s interesting to note the Roman-style sword and shield, all on the decidedly Egyptian god Bes. Look at this example from Ancient Egypt Online (http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/bes.html), where you can see that he’s holding what looks to be a sword in the Roman fashion, while wearing a headdress that appears to be Egyptian in origin.
Modern man is still fascinated by the ancient Egyptian culture, and work continues to this day at the Valley of the Kings, excavating and recovering precious artifacts from the burial chambers and tombs of these magnificent leaders. New things are learned each day by studying these amazing artifacts that are over centuries old.Follow Us! by
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