Blog Post #1: Narmer Palette, Scorpion Macehead, and Archaeological Interpretations

This first blog post relates to the understanding of how the history is reconstructed from what is found of archaeological remains, specifically that which is found on them. It is interesting how one can infer so much from such little details on small items found buried in the ground for centuries upon centuries. With more recent histories it is extremely simple in comparison as there is a translations of written documents as states began to develop non-pictograph related writing styles along with more detailed recorded histories than per-dynastic and dynastic Egyptians.

The first portion of this post pertains to the per-dynastic findings of bowls and grinding stones within the settlement camps discussed in class, as well as those found in burial sites. It is sort of mind blowing that we can infer the shift from hunter gatherers to more sedentary lifestyles simply from these remains. As for the complexity of societies, the comparison of upper Egyptian and lower Egyptian complexity via ceramics seemed really interesting. Mainly with the thought that different styles can be seen that home remedy fixes or creations were used depending on economic worth. In relation to economic worth it also caught my interest in how the variation in economic worth grew as communities became semi-sedentary.

Returning to the topic of the Narmer Palette is one we have recently learned about in lecture. The palette’s use of hieroglyphs to explain what is considered to be a story about the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.  Due to what is found on the palette the inference that under a person of great importance (Narmer) will came the assimilation of Lower Egypt with that of Upper Egypt. The Scorpion Macehead is the same concept that is incredibly interesting. The interesting difference  with the Macehead is that these inferences can be coherently created despite the remains being minimal. Regardless of the missing pieces of the story, the past is retold through the pictures.

It may not seem impressive to everyone, however it is pretty intriguing to me to compare it to historical research of the modern and per-renaissance eras since that is most of what I have studied so far. Those works simply require a knowledge of the language, and most of the work discovered is largely intact to a degree instead of suffering centuries of weathering from natural elements. It is just  that I found it somewhat impressive that these archaeologists can come to conclusions and create reconstructions from such limited materials  compared to something that else that I have previously learned about.

On the Origin of Fermentation and Mead in Egypt

The ancient Egyptians were known to be avid practitioners of fermentation. They purposefully created alcohol for the purpose of consumption. Fermentation occurs when unicellular organisms known as yeast consume sugars and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide over the course of several weeks. For example, beer is formed when sugars extracted from grains are consumed by yeast. Ancient Egyptian beer (not like the beer of today) was known to be produced on a large scale for sale and consumption. Evidence of industrial beer brewing facilities have been discovered at urban sites across the land including Hierakonpolis. Beer, however, was not the only fermented beverage to be had in ancient Egypt.  Also, I do not believe it is the oldest fermented beverage to be created in the region. The Egyptians were avid mead drinkers as well.

What is mead? Mead is essentially fermented honey. Honey is a naturally occurring and highly caloric food, which would prove to be of immense value in any ancient society.  This was no different in Egypt where honey became of great importance. It was even mentioned as a fermentable in the Hymn to Ninkasi, a poem for the goddess of fermentation. As further evidence for the significance of honey is the existence of an Egyptian god of fertility, Min, who was referred to as the “master of wild bees”. Also, manuscript evidence seems to point to royally commissioned honey hunting parties protected by guards of archers. Honey was domesticated in the form of beekeeping to increase access to the supply.

So how was mead discovered in ancient times? I’m going to suggest a hypothesis put forth by Ken Schramm about the origin of mead/fermentation as a happenstance discovery in Egypt based on the following premises: 1) Yeast cells are found everywhere in the wild, floating around in the air and in/on things and 2) Honey hunters went on expeditions to retrieve honey and required vessels for storage.

Imagine you are a honey hunter and you have an animal-skin for carrying your water for the long journey and you come across a nice fat beehive. Not wanting the honey to go to waste and realizing your water skin is not full, you decide to be as efficient as possible and fill your skin with honey to take back home. After you arrive home, you put the water skin in storage until the honey is required. However, after a few days you notice the skin started to swell up and you open it to find the honey has mixed with the leftover water in your animal skin and it is a little bubbly and churning You decide to take a drink of the sweet liquid and to your surprise it tastes wonderful and a little hot. After a few more gulps you start to feel a little funny and happy.

What magic happened that turned the contents of your water skin into this elixir of the gods? We know now that a yeast culture must have been present in the animal skin that was then introduced to the buffet of sugar that honey provided. Fermentation occurred and mead was introduced to the population of Egypt. It would have been relatively simple to recreate the process and through time, perfect the art of fermentation of not only honey but other sugars as well.

Fermentation became ingrained in Egyptian society and later expanded to fermenting beer as a source of both income and calories. Many of these ancient practices are still happening today, although it looks much different now.

Side note: Mead would later be thought to be an aphrodisiac, probably because of the effects of alcohol and lowering the inhibition of selecting mates, which would improve chances of reproduction. It is rumored that the term “honeymoon” comes from the gift of mead at weddings to help the newlywed couple be more fertile for the month following the marriage.

Crane, E. (1999).  The World History of Bee Keeping and Honey Hunting. London: Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd.

Schramm, K.  (2003).The Compleat Meadmaker. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications.

Tombs of the Elite

The first thing  that interested me in the super tombs of the Hierakonpolis was their tremendous size.  One of the first super tombs unearthed in Hierakonpolis was 5.5 meters by 3 meters in size; it was the largest tomb to be discovered at the HK6 site that dated to the Naqada II period at that time. Later on large halls were excavated that were in close proximity to the super tombs. Now, when considering the fact that one of the largest structures unearthed at HK6 was 5.5 meters by 3 meters, the halls which were recorded as 15 meters by 10.5 meters practically dwarf the tombs themselves. Of the eight large halls that were discovered, each held a plethora of mortuary items that were both elegant and unique. In the majority of the  halls there were ceramics and ostrich eggs with carvings on them and palettes and many more items. One of these large halls even included the life size marble statue discussed in class. These structures that are tremendous in size prove the complexity of the people if they can become this deeply immersed in mortuary practices and privileges. But it even shows how incredibly important those people who live in the upper echelon of society were to the rest of their people.

Now, for me, the most important question is why. These super tombs and their surrounding structures were essentially the first of their kind. What happened in Hierakonpolis that made this upscale move to increase the mortuary importance of the elite? I mean,  even the animals of the elite were buried in structures around them. One of the animal tombs was even the final resting place of an elephant. I don’t care how much I love my mother, I am not digging an elephant grave next to hers just to honor her in the afterlife. So, why then did the people of Hierakonpolis decide to elate the levels of those dead elite beyond what they already were? Before Hierakonpolis, the elite were honored through mortuary practices, but nothing even close to this scale. At one time it was believed that mortuary practices of this large of a proportion didn’t even exist in the predynastic era, and yet here it is years before it was even considered possible. The fact that this happened is just such an interesting concept to me and I hope that someone else will find this subject as interesting as I do so they can help to point me in the right direction.

Ancient Egyptian Agriculture

Ancient Egyptians were craftier than a lot of people give them credit for. They were literally surrounded by countless miles of desert to both the East and West, yet they managed to survive the dry and arid climate in which they resided due in large part to a relatively thin sliver of water that runs directly through it all. As a modern first-world human who relies heavily on the intensive agricultural practices of big corporations for my own survival, its sometimes hard for me to fathom what went down alongside the Nile River thousands and thousands of years ago.

Contrary to the expansive desert climate that covers most of Egypt’s geography, the green and fertile soils that run parallel to the Nile River are an almost perfect place to plant crops. The annual flooding of the longest river in the world serves up new nutrients and fertilizes the soil – giving perfect growing conditions for a multitude of crops. Emmer wheat, barley, and flax were among the most popular and largely grown, but large quantities of beans, chick peas, garlic, fruits and vegetables also found their way into the yearly rotation along the banks of the Nile. With such rich and nutritionally dense soils, it only makes sense to start producing as many crops as the land along the river allowed in order to accommodate for the growing population. Naturally, the people of the land started to do so at a very large scale and have since been credited as one of the first group to ever do it.

Although it was a vital part to the ancient Egyptian’s survival and nutrition, agriculture was also important in religious and entertainment ceremonies. Flax, which was grown at a very large scale, was used for the production of fine linens and the creation of rope. Herbs, which were grown and found naturally in the surrounding areas, were used for medicine, embalming practices, and cooking recipes. But the weirdest one to me is that Ancient Egyptians would grow huge amounts of barley to create beer… which shouldn’t really be a big surprise to me, but it was such a shock the first time that I heard about it. Apparently the beer was used for religious purposes, social events, general nutrition, and a form of payment in some instances. I’m sure the beverage wasn’t even close to the strength that we have today, but it’s still impressive.

Every time I think I have a general understanding of how primitive Egyptians lived, something new always pops up and completely changes everything.

Curiosity Regarding Egypt’s Unification

For years curiosity about Egypt has lingered in my mind. I knew all of the basics that every person learns – that there were pyramids and pharaohs and the Nile River. However, I have finally learned that there is so much more to the Egyptian historical record than just these things. What has intrigued me the most within the past few lectures are the three items that are viewed as “evidence for political control” in contribution to Upper and Lower Egypt’s unification. I for one did not even know that Egypt had been separated in the past, but now that I do I am extremely curious about the separation and more importantly how the two became one, and what these artifacts mean in respect to the unification.

In reference to the three items – Narmer Palette, Scorpion Macehead and Towns Palette – I have many thoughts. Now that we know that the stories these artifacts supposedly tell are not one-hundred percent accurate based on the archaeological record, I am anxious to know what these truly signify. I believe that the stories that we are told these express are relevant to what was really being portrayed, meaning that these events did happen. I would love to know, however,  what their absolute significance in Egypt’s history are if they are not the “actual” unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Taking into consideration the Narmer Palette, for example. We are told that this scene is showing Narmer destroying Buto and in turn taking control over the north, making this “the unification moment.” We know of course that there is not a specific unification moment, but I do wonder if this is still a significant event that assisted in the siege, if it was a siege at all. Knowing that Buto was the capitol of Lower Egypt, I cannot see why this wouldn’t take precedence over other instances which had happened prior. The palette is, in fact, showing a ruler taking over others, and if the dates are relevant, I wonder if this was one of many major events that assisted in the unification.

The Scorpion Macehead makes similar ideas cross my mind, but with one significant difference that I cannot help but notice. The difference is in reference to the Rekhyt birds that are shown. It is easy to jump to conclusions based on the depiction that they (the districts which the birds symbolize) are being sieged, but, what if they are going with the ruler willingly? What if, instead of being unwillingly taken over, the districts of Lower Egypt are choosing to join Upper Egypt. There are plenty of factors that could lead to this decision: resources, agriculture, trade, anything that we have seen cause unification of cultures in the past.

Of course there is no true way to find perfect answers on the matter without a time machine, but I do hope that within my lifetime more answers are found on this subject because my curiosity will forever linger.

The Actual Egyptian Past

            I’m writing this blog post to comment on the ideas that we’ve all had thrown into our head as children about Egypt. The idea of pyramids, mummies, and pharaohs have been ingrained into us since we were small and none of us ever questioned that there was more to the story until we were much older. I admit that Egypt has always fascinated me based on the hypocritical stories I’ve been told but I have often wondered what it was really like. This class has taught me more about Egypt in a few short weeks than I’ve learned in my entire life.

            While Egypt did have all the things I’ve heard before it also had a much more rich history than I’d known. I had no idea Egypt was split in to Lower and Upper parts or that the Nile ran North instead of South. I didn’t know that all along the Nile the agriculture was so good (then and now) – depending on the flood season (which I also didn’t know about) – and I didn’t know there were so many archaeological sites to be explored – like Buto and Hierakonpolis. It intrigues me that there are so many periods in Egypt’s history that I never knew about – like the Predynastic period we’ve been learning about or Naqada II. Egypt has so much more to offer than the romanticized version everyone knows, like the lineage of pharaohs and how some are left off records because they weren’t liked and how there are glorious temples filled with information that aren’t the great pyramids.

            To me learning about this part of Egypt should be known to everyone – as fun as learning about finding lost, mummified kings learning about how the Egyptians really lived is just as enticing. More people should know about how Upper Egypt took control of Lower Egypt – I want to find out how that happened and who started it and why. And afterwards how did everything work? Who got along with whom – or did they not? What was different about all the separate dynasties – was it who was ruling or how their agriculture worked? More people need to know this – or should want to know this – and the information should be made easier to obtain. This class has honestly opened my eyes to how misled I’ve been and, even if we’re only on the subject for a little while longer, I enjoy going to class to learn more about Egypt’s past.


To Wheat or not to Wheat?

Sustenance is right up there on Maslow’s hierarch of needs. To put it simply, as if we didn’t realize this, humans need nutrition/calories… We need to eat. This need has played a major role in influencing hominin prehistory and history. Since the emergence of modern Homo sapiens at most 200,000 years ago up until about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago humans were relying on subsistence strategies vastly different from what the majority of our current cultures are relying on. For much of prehistory our ancestors and even early modern humans were hunter gatherers/foragers.

At around 10,000 years ago there was a major shift in the subsistence strategies that humans were so accustomed to. This period in time also coincides with major climate change and the end of the last ice age, but more importantly it also sees the emergence of agriculture for the known first time, in the Near East. As we learned from class lecture, “agriculture is cultivation of domesticated animals, plants, and fungi for food, fiber, and other products”.  The questions that arises from this is simply why after such a long time in existence did humans switch subsistence patterns and develop agriculture?

Well the answer might simply be the fact that the climate did change and patterns of subsistence needed to also change with the receding glaciers. This does pose an interesting question, however. If over the last one million years or so and roughly 10 glaciation events was it only until the end of the last ice age did agriculture practice develop? The cause might have been due to the fact that the previous ice age would have been about 100,000 years earlier, or more than half of the proposed time Homo sapiens sapiens were around. Although these humans would have possessed “advanced” tool assemblages and behaviors exhibiting group cooperation and symbolic thought, the capacity of humanity prior to the last ice age to develop agriculture might not have existed.

Of course even if the capacity of these anatomically modern humans was there to develop agricultural practice, would there have been a desire or need to do such? I feel it was not just solely the last glaciation that drove our ancestors from hunting/gathering/foraging to agriculture, but more of a need to help with carrying capacity. When looking at the theories of agriculture emergence I feel it was somehow more involved with the demographic model. This could be tricky to think about because it is kind of like asking what came first, the need to support a booming population, or agricultural practice developing and then population explosion because of the increase in available food?

We may never know the answers to these questions proposed in this blog post, but I would like to ask one more question to the group in conclusion, are we better off with the advent of agricultural practice? This can involve opinion, but there are some shocking changes that came along with the transition that may surprise you!

Pre-dynastic Ceramics: A Few Thoughts From Class Discussions

Regarding the past few weeks discussion regarding pre-dynastic Egypt, I am intrigued by the discussions in class about the ceramics that make up much of the archaeological record of the sites in lower and upper Egypt.  The images detailing the shapes, styles, and storage pits of the ceramics throughout the various sites presented so far leave me to thoughts as to the everyday use of the various pots, and the social organization of their use. 

For example, what denoted one pot from another in terms of being used as a liquid transporter, or vice versa a solid transporter?  Could some pots be used for both interchangeably?  Naturally, one would assume that certain styles and sizes of potteries would be preferred for certain goods, but that would be not likely universal amongst both the lower and upper Egypt polities and across the pre-dynastic periods.  Social status may also have determined what a pot was used for, as a more influential person may have had separate pots for every good they required stored, while the lesser influential may have had to use a single pot for what little they could store. 

Furthermore, how were certain goods, such as beer, wine, and other liquids would be kept stored for long periods, particularly in the storage pits in sites such as Ma’adi.  I ponder as to how the pots may have been sealed, possibly with some sort of sealant made of animal or plant matter.  If so, is there evidence of such sealants amongst the archaeological record?  For solid goods, were some stored within liquids to preserve them as well, or were the pots themselves stored within materials such as mud to preserve the goods they held?

The storage pits themselves intrigue me in terms of the way pots were arranged in them.  Was there particular layouts for solid or liquid goods?  Were some storage pits built specifically to store certain pots, whether it be due to size, contents, or style (as in, pots styled after another polity local or foreign that may have been part of a trading system)?  If so, what made a storage pit suitable for certain goods?  Perhaps depth of the pit, range of expose to light and other elements, and ease of access determined which goods went to which storage pit, particularly in sites with strong evidence of trading.

Naturally, not all of my questions can be answered, but I hope that perhaps some have already been, and that the work at the various pre-dynastic sites of Egypt make continue to reveal more.

ANP363 | Spring 2013