Tag Archives: egypt

The Corruption of the Priesthood of Amen

Our talk about the taxation of Egyptian farmers and the lack of taxation of temple lands sparked my interest.  This got me thinking about the growing power, and eventual corruption, of the temples and priests that was mentioned.  I did some research and found that the corruption spanned many rulers, all of which had some part in the increasing power of the temple and priesthood of Amen.

To start, Amen-Re was considered the true father of the pharaoh, which helped legitimize the power the pharaohs held over Egypt.  The priests held a large amount of power with the general public, which they preserved by appearing as defenders and guardians of the oppressed people.  The kings tried to limit the power of the priests of Amen to simply religious affairs.  This was holding order until around 1498 BC, when Hatshepsut took control.

Hatshepsut was the only legitimate heir from the line of Amenhotep (his granddaughter, actually).  To become king, her half-brother Thutmose II became her husband.  When Thutmose II died, Hatshepsut took control; Thutmose III was still young and in the care of the priests of Amen (he was originally supposed to become a priest himself).  As time passed, many chose sides.  There were those who believed a woman could not be king and supported Thutmose III.  Hatshepsut also had her supporters, the priests of Amen.  To legitimize her claim to power, Hatshepsut had them declare her Pharaoh (the first woman to do this) and was from then on depicted with the masculine attributes of pharaohs.  Her supporters reaped the rewards of her power; the First Prophet of Amen became the administrator of the temple’s wealth, head of all the gods’ priests in Upper and Lower Egypt, and prefect of Thebes and vizier.  Hatshepsut also built the stunning temple Deirdre el Bahri, along with other smaller chapels.  This is where we see the priesthood and temples gaining undue power.

While Hatshepsut was ruling Egypt, Thutmose III had become head of the army, and eventually took control back from his mother.  His rule saw many conquests with much accompanying wealth.  This wealth was first distributed to the warriors/soldiers, then the priesthood of Amen took their share, and in the end not much was left for Pharaoh.  As their wealth and power increased, the power of the king decreased.  The priests were now starting to push the king out of power, turn him into a figurehead and maybe try to get rid of the position all together.  But still Thutmose III enlarged the temple’s landholdings and added to the Amen temple at Karnak.

A couple of pharaohs later (Amenhotep III) the worship of the red disc of the sun, Aten, gained popularity and followers.  When Amenhotep III died, his son was brought up devoted to Aten, not Amen.  As Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV’s name was changed to Ahkenaten and the funding to the temples of Amen subsequently stopped.  The wealth, land, and slaves that belonged to the temples were most likely seized by the king.  There was still a large public following of Amen, however, and the temples were eventually rebuilt by Ahkenaten’s son-in-law.  The co-regent also returned all of the confiscated wealth to the priesthood.

This corruption of the priesthood of Amen was fostered by many pharaohs, and it certainly did not end with Ahkenaten’s son-in-law.  While it appeared to come to a head in Hatshepsut’s time, the pharaohs before her are just as responsible.  Or perhaps it was an inevitable occurrence, with the state religion being so closely tied with the power of the Pharaoh, and so adamantly followed by the people in many aspects of their daily lives.


Foreign Mission Rights

In several readings and class lectures, the nationalities of archaeologists excavating the sites of ancient civilizations have been mentioned. In his February 4 lecture, Dr. Watrall (an American who has excavated in Egypt) mentioned the current involvement of the Germans in the excavations at Ma’adi, and we know that Flinders Petrie, who did a significant amount of work in Egypt, was British. While in the latter case of Petries’s work in Egypt, the involvement of the British has rather obvious reasons (Egypt was not yet fully independent from Britain), how did Dr. Watrall, the Germans, and other non-Egyptian teams come to work in Egypt? Further, who takes “ownership” of the items found during these excavations?

In earlier times, archaeology in Egypt—and many other countries—was mostly a “free for all.” Indiana Jones–esque explorers, merchants, and anthropologists associated with the military took advantage of the lack of regulation and law enforcement and dug where they pleased, often taking priceless artifacts with them. For instance, after the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte, archaeologists associated with his military “took home hundreds of tons of Egyptian artifacts: columns, coffins, stone tablets, monumental statues” (emphasis mine), which today still remain in France, taking up “entire floors of the Louvre Museum” (National Geographic, 2013, p. 2).

Today, especially in light of the stealing and black market trade of antiquities, Egypt has a government agency dealing with all requests for archaeological missions. This agency, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, is the ultimate power in deciding all things related to Egyptian cultural heritage (http://www.sca-egypt.org). The homepage of its website states that it “formulates and implements all policies concerned with antiquities; issues guidelines and permits for the excavation, restoration, conservation, documentation, and study of sites and monuments; and manages a country-wide system of antiquities museums,” along with doing research, excavation, and conservation of its own (Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2013). The ministry’s website provides all of the forms and rules/regulations related to applying and obtaining permission for foreign missions.

In order to complete the application for a mission in Egypt, there are many conditions that must be met, some obvious (e.g., photocopy of passport, mission director and affiliated institution information), some less so (e.g. five photographs of each mission member, payment / room and board for the Egyptian inspectors that Egypt requires accompany each foreign mission, agreement not to excavate on Fridays). Additionally, mission areas are under stringent regulations: prior to receiving permission to dig, foreign missions must get detailed maps of their site of interest approved and may not stray from these areas—even renewing permissions is an extremely regulated process. Any discovered artifacts are the property of Egypt and no amount (even samples for analysis) may be removed from the country without express permission.

As of fall 2011, some of the countries performing excavation, conservation, or documentation work in Egypt were Japan, Germany, the United States, Spain, France, and Poland. Currently, the only areas open to new missions are the Delta, Western Desert, and Eastern Desert—all places extremely and immediately threatened by population growth and other factors. All of Upper Egypt is closed to new excavations, although some restoration, preservation, and documentation missions will be allowed.

Interestingly, Google returned hits for foreign archaeology in Sudan, Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece (countries I randomly chose), but I could not find any information on foreign mission in England or the United States. This leads me to believe—if there really are no foreign missions in the United States or England—that foreign archaeology is significantly intertwined with power relations. I would welcome any information from Dr. Watrall about this.





Predynastic Egypt Agriculture and Health

Some of the class lectures have talked at length about the development of agriculture in Egypt and the way agriculture fits into classifying predynastic Egypt.  This got me thinking about the effects agriculture would have on the overall health and nutrition of the population.  Could nutrition and health be analyzed through examination of human remains from burials?  With agriculture’s prominence, would the population see an increase in health due to a consistent supply of a variety of food?  Or would there be an increase in disease occurrences because the agriculture is ensuring a sedentary lifestyle?

The low floods and high floods of the Nile during predynastic Egypt are determinable by geological analysis of the soil and sediment layers.  I believe that these same seasons of famine could be mirrored in the remains of individuals, specifically the dentition.  Teeth will show striations, or lines/bands, that result from extreme fluxes in nutrients.  If Petrie’s sequence dating method, which correctly identified the timeline of ceramics in predynastic Egypt, is combined with radiocarbon dating, human remains from burials could be correctly placed in a timeline.  Further analysis of the remains would hopefully determine age at death for individuals.  Working backwards from these years, and using the standards for tooth formation and emergence, any bands on the teeth could provide estimates for years of high or low flooding.  These estimates could then be compared to those obtained geologically.  This method would only work if the famines brought about by the high and low flooding seasons were significant enough to cause malnutrition.

As far as nutrition is concerned, analysis of remains is a method of determining and comparing the health of pre-agriculture and post-agriculture Egyptians.  At first, it would seem that Egyptians received a better diet after agriculture was instated, considering they were producing, storing, and redistributing crops; however, they were at the mercy of the Nile.  An analysis and comparison of human remains from Fayum could shed some light on nutrition.  Fayum A was predynastic, and practiced full-time, settled agriculture.  Fayum B was truly Neolithic.  If remains, specifically dentition, from Fayum A and Fayum B were analyzed, then the prevalence of malnutrition could be compared between the two populations.  This is just one area, but other areas in Egypt could also be studied.

When comparing human remains, we could also look for bone markers that indicate disease.  With the implementation of agriculture, the population is going to become sedentary (instead of nomadic).  This sedentary lifestyle could provide an environment for diseases.  The close proximity of individuals can cause problems involving the disposal of human waste, etc. that lead to thriving diseases.

All of this together provides a plethora of research options (that may or may not have been attempted already).  But it is very interesting to see the cross-over of cultural and physical anthropology, not to mention geology and many more scientific disciplines.

Gleaning Information From The Dead – The Gebelein Man

In class earlier this week Dr. Watrall had mentioned that since the predynastic period falls mostly before the introduction of any form of writing in Egypt, archaeologists dug up burials to learn more about the time period. Consequently, being that my academic field of interest is in mortuary practices, I became immediately intrigued. There was one burial in particular that Dr. Watrall mentioned, shown below, that sparked an interest on my part. This particular mummy, nicknamed “Ginger” for his red hair, is officially called the Gebelein Man for where he was found, at the site of Gebelein near Thebes in Egypt, and what he can tell us about predynastic culture is astounding.

Photo Source - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bm-ginger.jpgTaken in the British Museum

Photo Source – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bm-ginger.jpg 
Taken in the British Museum

At predynastic sites like Ma’adi, where the dead were buried outside, often in separate graveyards out in the desert, shallow graves were dug, filled with burial goods, and then filled in, sometimes topped with a small mound of sand. Being in contact with the hot desert sand dried the bodies out and that natural mummification is what allows us to observe these burials thousands of years later. The Gebelein Man is currently on exhibit at the British Museum, the grave goods displayed with him are from similar predynastic burials since the objects that accompanied him at his original burial site are unknown. Based on this burial though, archaeologists can infer much of how predynastic cultures viewed the world, the dead, and the afterlife.

The shallow graves were often oval or rectangle in shape, and lined with reed mats. The body was then placed on its side in the fetal position, hands clasped in front of the face. The body usually faced westward, the direction of the afterlife. The goods placed within the burial included pots filled with food for the afterlife, as well as tools made out of stone and flint. All of these factors indicate a special attention was paid to the afterlife and ensuring that the buried individual would have the means to reach it. Intentional, or artificial mummification, as seen in later periods of Egyptian history, was not practiced during the predynastic. All predynastic mummies discovered so far have been naturally mummified by the desert sand they were buried in.

Burials, no matter what culture they may belong to, offer a fantastic insight into the culture and society to which the deceased belonged. We can often tell how the deceased lived his/her life, his/her social status, as well as the deceased’s importance in life. All of this can be gathered from how the individual was buried, as well as what and how much burial goods accompanied the individual into the afterlife. The Gebelein Man tells us the predynastic Egyptians clearly held it a priority that their deceased make it into some sort of afterlife, and probably spent a good deal of limited resources to ensure their deceased a safe and easy passage. He also tells us what the predynastic Egyptians were eating at the time, based on residues left in the pots that once held food to see him into the afterlife.

Mummies like the Gebelein Man can also shed light on various diseases and other causes of death that may have afflicted the ancient Egyptians. It was recently discovered from a CAT Scan at Cromwell Hospital in London that the Gebelein Man was most likely murdered. Damage to his ribs, shoulder bone, and a mark on the flesh of his back indicate that he was stabbed from behind with a copper blade.

When looking into cultures with no written record, especially ones with very little structural remains like predynastic Egypt, burials provide key insights that might otherwise never be known. How a culture treats its dead can tell us a great deal about the culture, its ideals, beliefs, and structure. Well preserved and untouched burials like the Gebelein Man are especially helpful and act as portals back through time where ancient traditions can be observed just as they were practiced thousands of years ago.