I talked a little while ago about the length of Egyptian civilisation and its continuity using Khaemwaset’s reconstruction work on Unas’s pyramid as my example, and today my photo is of another example of the deep, deep roots of Pharaonic Egyptian culture.
The implement in the photo is a pesesh-kef, a knife which was used in one of the key funerary rituals throughout ancient Egyptian culture – the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. This was performed on the mummy and it rendered the deceased able to breathe and eat in the afterlife.
It was a ceremony that was also performed on statues, rendering them able to be vessels for the deceased’s ka. This was a key part of what we might think of the soul of a person, and it was this part of your person that received food offerings left at the tomb after your death.
And this example of a pesesh-kef dates to waaaay before the time of Pharaonic Egypt: it was excavated at a place called el-Ma’mariya and it dates to the Naqada I period around 3800-3500 BCE, so something like five to eight centuries before Narmer unified Egypt.
Of course we can’t be at all sure that it was used for the same purposes, but it does demonstrate that the rituals grow out of deep roots in the local Egyptian culture and that even before the concept of Egypt as a country existed elements of that later culture were developing.
At first glance this is a collection of rather unprepossessing little objects. Squares of ivory, with a small hole and hieroglyphic sign or two etched onto the surface. They’re not terribly big, just about the size of the museum’s number for the objects.
And that juxtaposition illustrates what they are – they are labels. Very very old labels with some of the first evidence for the use of hieroglyphs. They were found in Tomb U-j at Abydos, which had been looted in the distant mists of time but some of the labels remained.
It’s thought that they were attached to the various funerary goods that were buried with the tomb’s owner. There are numbers on some of them, others are thought to name towns – including what looks like the names of a couple of towns in the Delta region far to the north.
It’s not entirely certain whose tomb this is, but it probably belongs to a ruler called Scorpion – probably not the one with the famous macehead but an earlier one, who may’ve unified Upper Egypt around 3150 BCE.
These are now in the Cairo Museum, but I don’t have accession numbers for them.
Even 5500 years ago people kept their possessions in boxes and trays. This one dates to the Naqada II period (c.3500-3300BCE), and is fairly small – just over 6 inches on the longest side. We’re looking at the base here, and while I expect it once had a lid it doesn’t any more.
It’s decorated in the typical style of the period that we refer to as “Decorated Ware”. On the sides you can just about see in the photo there are zig-zag lines and mounds – water and hills. On the base the water is flanked by two lines of long legged, long necked birds.
There is debate as to whether birds drawn like this are ostriches or flamingos, but in this case flamingos seems most plausible. The way they are lined up close together makes them look like they are walking along the water in step, which is something that real flamingos do.
It’s not known where it was found, but it is now in the Met Museum (acc. no. 10.130.1175).
I love the grace and elegance of this vase. Both the physical form of it, and the line of crocodiles spiralling up the side while the hippos sit more chaotically next to them interspersed with zigzag lines that are presumably representing the water these creatures live in.
I say “vase” because if something like this was in my house that’s what it’d be used as – a decorative centrepiece with some flowers in it. But that’s probably not what the person it was made for did with it. Maybe it contained drink, or some food stuff?
I don’t have much information about this object, but I think it’s from the Naqada I or early Naqada II periods – so some 500 to 1000 years before Egypt was unified in 3000BCE. A beautiful survivor of what was clearly a sophisticated and rich culture in the deep past.
It’s in the Cairo Museum (or at least it was in 2016 when I visited) but I don’t know the accession number or the provenance.
Sadly I don’t know anything more about this piece, I’m not sure if there was a label for it in the museum in 2016 (I didn’t find it to photograph it if there was). I would guess it is likely to be roughly contemporary with the pieces it reminds me of, so around 6000 years old.
If anyone has more information on the piece, an accession number or anything else about it, please let me know!
Edit: Isabel Plumed García has given me more information. It was found by the excavations of DAI (German Archaeological Institute) at Abydos, led by the late Günter Dreyer. It was found in grave U-502 at the Umm el-Qaab cemetery and dates to the late Naqada I period.
This grave was badly damaged, but the excavators could tell that it originally belonged to a premature baby of about 6-8 months gestation.
There are traces of black bitumen wigs on the heads. The white and red paint was added some time after the item was originally manufactured.
The above information is taken from a publication by G. Dreyer in Antike Welt 1996/3 p.242.
Thanks to Isabel for the photo of the relevant book page, and the information.
And @Egypt_Stories on Twitter has given me the last piece of the puzzle – the accession number is: JE 99583.
This is one of my favourites from the Manchester Museum collection (acc. no.: 5069) so it was nice to see it pop up in the Garstang Museum’s Before Egypt a couple of years ago, which is where I took this photo.
It dates to the Naqada I period, which makes it really quite old – something like 6000 years old (+/- a few centuries). And unusually for an object as old as this we also know where it came from: it was excavated by the EEF at the site of el-Mahasna and was found in tomb H29.
It’s not a unique design idea, either – there’s another similar bowl in the British Museum (EA63408), excavated in Matmar by Guy Brunton for the British Museum. It’s got 4 hippos and a crocodile on the rim, and isn’t nearly as impressive looking: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA63408
The objects that survive from Ancient Egypt are often beautiful things, to enjoy looking at. Or practical items that remind us that they were people too, just like us. But there are also less palatable remnants – like this mace from Predynastic or Early Dynastic times.
This roughly 6000 year old carefully smoothed and shaped piece of stone with a hole for the handle painstakingly (and slowly) drilled through it was not intended to inspire or delight, it was intended to be used to hit someone else with until they stopped fighting back.
It’s also a symbol of power – from the Narmer palette through to every temple pylon facade there’s the image of Pharaoh holding an enemy by the hair and raising his mace up to execute his victim. Not all of Egyptian history is gold and beauty, some of it is power and fear.
It’s in the Garstang Museum, either E.611 or E.614. I saw it at the Before Egypt exhibition they put on in 2019.