Sunday, March 31, 2013

Be a Scribe

Fig 1 - Old Kingdom Scribe, Louvre Museum
     Writing was taught in ancient Egypt by having students copy the the well respected works of other writers. Some of the most famous Egyptian texts are known to us from school boy copies (the Carnarvon  Tablet detailing some of the war between Kamose and the Hyksos King is just one example).

     The Papyrus Lansing contains a work extolling the virtues of being a scribe. The papyrus tells a student about the virtues of being a scribe and the miseries of having any other profession. Some of these miseries include:

  • The Washerman - "his limbs are weak (from) whitening his neighbors clothes every day..."
  • The Maker of Pots - "is smeared with soil..."
  • Merchants - "are a busy as can be.. but tax collectors carry off the gold..."
  • Peasants - they have crops that fail, and when the scribe comes to collect the taxes the poor peasant is "beaten savagely" for not being able to pay the taxes

But the profession that must be avoided at all costs is that of a soldier. His commanding officers are after him " (after) a donkey...". He has no clothes and sandals while serving in Syria. "His march is uphill through mountains. He drinks water every third day." And if he dies in a foreign land he will not "...know his resting place...".

     The teacher of scribes has a much different life. His barns "are supplied with grain, are bulging with abundance". The teacher of scribes is "...loved by all, and praised by the king..."
     All in all, it is so much better to be a scribe!

     In figure 1, we see a statue of a scribe from the Old Kingdom. Notice the rolls of fat shown on the scribe's chest. This is meant to show that the scribe is prosperous and does not do physical labor like the unskilled peasants. His papyrus roll is open on his lap in the traditional pose of Egyptian scribes, a pose that will not change in Egyptian art for thousands of years.

Photos copyright 2013 by John Freed. Translations of the Papyrus Lansing are from Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 2, Berkley: University of California Press, 1976, pp. 167 - 175.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Sphinx Dream Stela

Figure 1 - The Dream Stela of Tuthmose IV
     Over 3,000 years ago a young Egyptian prince fell asleep in the shadow of the Great Sphinx. At the time the sphinx was mostly covered with drifted sand that had been accumulating for over 1,000 years. The sphinx appeared in the prince's dream and promised that he would make the prince the next Pharaoh of Egypt if the prince would clear the sand away.

Figure 2 - Lunette of the Dream Stela
     This story is told on a stela located between the paws of the sphinx. It was allegedly erected there by the young prince after he became the Pharaoh Tuthmose IV of Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty. However, Breasted (Ancient Records, Vol. 2, pp. 322 - 324) and Erman both rejected this, claiming that the stela dates, most likely, to a later period (Dynasty 21or 22?) and might have been a restoration of the original stela erected by Tuthmose IV. Breasted also indicated that the entire story could be a fabrication invented by the local priesthood as a way of increasing the prestige of the god Harmakhis, since the same story was told about a prince named Amenemose, who was a son of Tuthmose I.
Figure 3 - Another view of the lunette of the stela

     In any event, the stele is made of red granite. The bottom half of the inscription has flaked off, while The lunette of the stele (see figures 2 and 3) shows Tuthmose as prince and as Pharaoh doing homage to Harmakhis in the form of a sphinx.

     The inscription (after a long series of titles and bombastic platitudes directed at the king) tells us that prince Tuthmose was out hunting and decided to rest in the shade of the sphinx.
The god Harmakhis appeared to the prince in a dream saying to Tuthmose that he would "give to thee my kingdom..." and that Tuthmose would "wear the white crown and the red crown..." provided that the prince would clear "the sand of this desert" from the god.

     The story is a wonderful folk tale from ancient times, but one wonders how much truth there is in it. Breasted's suspicion that the priests of Harmakhis made this story up is quite possible, although no proof either way is available.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Discovery from the War against the Hyksos

     A discovery has been made at Tel Habuwa east of the Suez canal that shows possible evidence of an Egyptian campaign there against the Hyksos.

     The discovery includes administrative buildings dating to the Hyksos and New Kingdom periods (some of them burned), as well as numerous bodies of men who died violently. Archaeologists think this may represent a battle in Ahmose's campaign against the Hyksos.

For more information, click on this link:

Friday, March 22, 2013

Nimrud Ivories (Cont.)

Fig. 1 - Human-headed Sphinx from Nimrud
     Sphinxes are a common theme in the Nimrud ivories. Some of the ivories show a sphinx with a lion's body and a ram's head (see the previous post) while others show a human headed lion (figure 1) or a hawk-headed lion.

Figure 2 - Two Hawk-headed Sphinxes Trampling Asiatics
     Like other examples from Nimrud, these ivories look Egyptian in their general motifs, but the details show clearly that they were not carved by Egyptian artists. In figure 1, the sphinx's double crown is represented in a way that shows the artist had never seen the Egyptian original. The sphinx wears a broad collar on his chest that also looks like the artist has never seen one in real life. Also note that the stripes on the "Nemes" headdress shows stripes that are vertical, unlike a "real" Nemes that had horozontal stripes. As noted in the previous post the foliage surrounding the sphinx looks very little like anything shown in Egyptian art.

     Figure two shows two hawk-headed sphinxes trampling Asiatics. This is interesting in that the artist that carved this ivory was himself an Asiaitic. The broad collar that adorns the body of the sphinx is shown much more accurately in this work of art, but the Nemes headdress is still all wrong. The solar disk on the head of the leftmost sphinx is a bit squat and looks more like an oval than a circle.

     These two pieces are beautiful works of art, and it is clear why the Assyrian kings were at pains to loot these carvings from the palaces of the cities they conquered. But these are not examples of Egyptian art.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Nimrud Ivories (Cont.)

Ivory Sphinx from Nimrud
     The Nimrud ivories commonly show sphinxes that look Egyptian at first glance, but when you take a close look at the sphinx, it becomes clear that the artist was not Egyptian.

     For instance, look at the photo to the left. On the surface it looks like a fairly normal Egyptian ram-headed sphinx, but there are a number of details that show us that the artist was non-Egyptian. For instance, look at the floral decoration on this panel, and particularly look at the tree to the right of the sphinx. Also notice the ram's headdress; it is not a "nemes", although the artist seems to have tried to make it look like one. Also note that the sphinx does not have an "Egyptian" eye. One last incorrect detail is the "double crown" on the sphinx's head. An Egyptian artist would not have represented the crown in this way.

     Having said all that, this is a beautiful work of art, but it is clearly not Egyptian art.

The Nimrud Ivories

     The Metropolitan Museum has a large collection of carved ivory plaques that were found in the Assyrian capital of Nimrud. These plaques were no doubt used as decorative devices on furniture in the royal palace.

     Nimrud, called Kalhu in ancient times, is first mentioned by Shalmaneser I (1272 - 1243 B. C.). Portions of the city were re-built by Ashurnasirpal II (883 - 859 B. C.). Later kings (Sargon and Sennacherib) built palaces at Nimrud.

Fig. 1 - Egyptianizing Carved Ivory from Nimrud
     The first excavator of this city was Austen Henry Layard, who spent several years working at the site between 1845 and 1851. Max Mallowan started excavating at Nimrud in 1949, and it was he who found a large percentage of the famous ivories that are now in the museums of the world.

Fig. 2 - Egyptianizing Carved Ivory from Nimrud
     While some of the ivories found were made by Assyrian artists and used Assyrian decorative motifs, many others were clearly made by non-assyrian artists. These plaques probably got to Nimrud either as tribute paid by foreign princes or as plunder from conquered cities. Many of these ivories have Egyptian themes, although they were not carved in Egypt. In fact, Phoenicia is a more likely origin for these particular ivories.

    If you take a look at the ivory shown here, which dates to the 9th or 8th century B. C., you can see the winged sun disk above the woman's head. The sun disk itself, has a uraeus (cobra) on both sides of it. This is, of course, a very common motif in Egyptian art. The woman herself holds a lotus flower in one hand; this is also a common motif in Egyptian art. In her other hand she holds a lion (?), which is not a common motif in Egyptian art. Also, her head dress sort of looks egyptian, but was clearly carved by a non-egyptian artist.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New Reference to Nefertiti Found

     KMT magazine (Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 2013, p. 34) is reporting this month that a special exhibit in Berlin is displaying a copy of a gaffito found at Dier el Bersheh, a few miles away from Akhenaten's capital of Amarna. This gaffito has a reference to Queen Nefertiti and is dated to year 16 of Akhenaten's reign.

     This is an interesting development as the previous last known reference to her was from year 12, which has led egyptologists to speculate for years that she died several years before her husband, Akhenaten.

     Other egyptologists have speculated that she "disappeared" around year 12 because she became her husband's co-regent under the name Smenkhare.