Dynastic Social Hierarchy and thoughts on Settlement at Giza

I found the article by Lehner, on Pyramid Age Settlement at Giza, very interesting because it reminded me a lot of the experience I had at Morton Village earlier in the summer. One of the things I get asked all the time when I talk to people about our excavations is “What did you find”, which when most people ask, basically means they want to hear about the artifacts and material culture that we pulled out of the ground. Without having any background in archeology this is what most people seem to think archeologists do, i.e. pull artifacts out of the ground. It’s not so much what you find that is important though, but what it was used for, and how this relates to the lives of the people who used it. The article provided a thorough assessment of the work at Giza and a description of the excavations that explained how people might have lived there. The question of who lived at Giza is still open to interpretation, as Lehner explains, but at least we know how many people could have lived in the area surrounding the pyramids and what their lives would have been like in the process of building.

One of the most interesting things about the early dynastic period is the high level of social organization and structure. The stratification of society that is evident in the mortuary record is important to understanding Egyptian culture at the time. The complexity of their mortuary architecture couldn’t have been achieved without a large degree of organization and social complexity. One of the things that drew my attention was the way that the family of the pharaoh was given such importance that they were buried in association with the pharaoh and given the highest levels of honor, obviously behind that of the pharaoh. In such a complex hierarchical system it makes me wonder if the other family members of the king were also considered to be divine, or somehow related to divinity, through their relations to the current pharaoh or to the previous pharaohs.

At least one member of the pharaoh Djoser’s (from the 3rd dynasty) court, his architect Imhotep who designed Djoser’s step pyramid at Saqqara, was “later deified as the son of the god Ptah” (Chapter 6, p. 129). Furthermore, at Giza in the 4th dynasty, this stratification continues with the mastaba tombs where elites, i.e. viziers who were royal princes, were buried close to the king. According to the chapter this “probably reflects tight family control of the state” (p. 149). It leads to the question though, of what would have happened when a dynasty changed then, and how this tight family control would have shifted with the rule of a new king and kingly family. Would the old family have continued on as members of this new dynasty? Would they have been part of the court of the new king at all? Would they keep even some vestige of their place as elites? It is interesting to speculate on how these transitions could have occurred and why.

The most interesting thing to note though is that the leadership of Egypt is still maintained in the power of the pharaoh, i.e. the legitimacy of the position is maintained, despite changing dynasties and even multiple kings during some of the intermediate periods. Maybe part of what caused the change from the old kingdom to the first intermediate period was competition between displaced dynastic elites who, according to chapter 6, gained power as overseers and governors of the nomes and “these offices became inherited positions, along with the associated land, and governors also began to hold important priestly titles” (p. 160). As the decentralization occurred due to the diffusion of power among dynastic relations, this might have lead to increased complications in assessing who the pharaoh was, potentially leading to the end of the old kingdom…and maybe a similar process was at work during the end of the dynasties, but at a much smaller scale.