Week 4: Architecture/Building Techniques and the Pre-burial Process

This week I found the building techniques by far the most interesting thing to read about. The ancient Egyptians built these extraordinary pyramids, temples, and buildings with very simple tools and techniques and they were built with precision. The manpower needed to achieve these structures is an amazing and impressive feat all by itself.  They knew about the wheel and still went along and used ramps and workmen to drag the blocks of stone to where they needed to be, using the wheel could have saved them time and would have required less manpower for the actual movement of the stone blocks; I wonder why they never implemented the wheel in their construction techniques or did they use it in other aspects of construction and there is just no evidence left today for us to find? Or was moving the blocks with workmen a guarantee that the blocks were safely moved with very little damage? The in depth description of the complex in Lehner’s article was interesting because it showed the exact layout of the complex and all the excavated building’s assumed functions. It showed that their settlement/complex schematic is similar to how we design cities today and it gives you a picture into the day-to-day lives of those who lived there.

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The Reign of a Pharaoh

What I take away from this week’s lectures/readings is the shear power that a Pharaoh and the rest of the bureaucracy that governs the state.  I was aware of the fact that the pyramids were constructed under the Pharaoh’s command and that it would typically be his tomb, but I was unaware of the outlying graves that were his political followers.

Another interesting aspect from the readings in particular was the fate of those who served some Pharaohs.  In particular around the 1st Dynasty when Pharaohs would have their servants sacrificed to serve them in the afterlife.  It would have been a tough life being a servant to a Pharaoh.  The vast number of possessions which were included in the pyramids for the Pharaoh is also an interesting concept.  I understand that the Egyptians were large believers in their life in the Underworld, but I like to believe there is more to the story of them keeping their possessions.  It would be nice to think that they preserved these goods for the future archaeologists to eventually find them, but then again that would be like grave-robbing which most pyramids were built to prevent.

After learning about how the political hierarchy in ancient Egypt, the fact that many of the viziers were buried around the Pharaoh tells me that the political power was intended to be kept localized as a single entity.  I would imagine that when a Pharaoh passed on, he imagined that he would continue to reign in the afterlife and thus wanted to keep his administration close as to not have to find them in the Underworld.  This is especially true with the fact that the servants were sacrificed as I mentioned before.  A Pharaoh could not have believed that he would have been stripped of power upon death and so I think it is absolutely plausible to believe that an “Underworld Hierarchy” could have been envisioned by the people of Egypt.

King Semerkhet’s Peculiar Tomb

The burial that sparked my interest at the Umm el-Qa’ab cemetery is the tomb of King Semerkhet.  It has several unique characteristics that suggest that King Semerkhet was very important to society.  However, not much is known about this king except that he had several disasters during his reign that make the size and superior quality of his tomb peculiar.  The first indication of his importance is the entrance into the tomb, which is a ramp instead of a staircase.  Since staircases are more common entrances to royal tombs, it is interesting as to why this one is a ramp.  Perhaps a ramp is more difficult to construct, showing that this king was superior to others in some way, or so the builder thought.

When excavators such as Flinders Petrie opened the tomb, it was “saturated ‘three feet’ deep with perfumed oil, still strongly scented after 5,000 years” (p. 113).  They determined that this oil was imported from a long distance away, most likely Palestine.  The use of such a large amount of oil makes me wonder why it was necessary to add this to the tomb.  It obviously shows that the king had high status since imported oil from far away is a luxury item, but why was the tomb drenched in it?  Was this done only to exaggerate the fact that the king had power, money, and resources to get such oil, or was there another symbolic reason?  It is also amazing how the scent was preserved so strongly in the tomb for so long.  This preservation must have been possible because it was contained in the air-tight tomb and no intruding air could wash the scent or contents away.

The tomb of King Semerkhet at the Umm el-Qa’ab cemetery is a rather unusual burial.  The first difference is the ramp that enters the tomb, as opposed to the usual staircase.  The other difference is the use of such a large amount of imported oil that still saturated the tomb 5,000 years later.  This indicates that long distance trade was very important and shows that the king had an especially high status even though other sources say differently.  It would be interesting to learn more about King Semerkhet’s reign and burial.


I found the excavations of the area surrounding the Giza Necropolis to be very interesting.  For thousands of years we have been creating hypothesizing on how these pyramids were constructed.  Many of the theories assume that the Egyptian people were not skilled, organized, or civilized enough to construct these amazing tombs.  These excavations show us the ability of the ancient Egyptian bureaucracy.

We can see the long galleries that, most likely, housed hundreds or thousands of workers each.  We see evidence of the ovens that they used to bake their bread and the silos where they stored their grain.  We see a complex system of streets and the way that these streets divided the town into separate quarters.  We see common areas where people may have eaten their dinners together in the company of their friends and family.

I was surprised when I looked at the survey maps that were included in the excavation report.  What I saw where grids and squares.  It reminded me very much of our towns and cities today, especially from a bird’s eye view (like from in an airplane).  I realized that people have been changing the face of the earth since our existence, and we have preferred to do so in grids and squares.

I find this all very fascinating.  Through excavation we get to see a picture of how ancient people lived; their customs, their culture, their behaviors.  We can make educated guesses as to the purpose of certain events or patterns.  The idea that the pyramids on the plateau were constructed by aliens is just ridiculous.  These people are not looking at all the evidence.  They are not taking into account all of the information that we have on the culture, language, and religion of the ancient Egyptians.  As a scientist, the idea that the ancient Egyptians could not have created these structures, towns, and material culture, makes me kind of angry.

~Cristina M. Cao

Hieroglyphic Writing

Cemetery U at Abydos contains the earliest evidence for phonetic hieroglyphic writing in Ancient Egypt.  Recently, the Naqada IIIA tomb U-j was discovered at Cemetary U, contributing very important information to this research.  Commodity labels attached to oils and textiles tell the quantity or provenance of these goods, which suggests that commodities were imported from other parts of Egypt at the time.  Excavators have identified what they think are estate names of early rulers on ink inscriptions on ceramic vessels.  These inscriptions are a variety of specific signs in addition to a plant sign.  Hieroglyphic writing then became a system of administrative control.  Even though it was largely used for religion and administration, writing was also used in private circumstances like funerary inscriptions or to show ownership of estates or goods.

Hieroglyphic writing was a large part of the administration of the centralized bureaucracy in Egypt.  It was a way for the administration to collect revenue in the form of taxes and surplus gained from industries, as well as recording inventories and document expenses.  As far as early titles, one of the most important was a royal seal bearer, which appears in Dynasty 1 in the written form.  There may be evidence prior to this, such as royal seals from the Naqada IIIA/B site called Helwan.  Evidence also points out that there was a structured hierarchy by the Early Dynastic period that included defined institutions and allocated personnel.  The personnel described appear to have kinship relations with the ruler, which would have most likely granted them high social status.  They also may have acquired this special status through professional competence, ability, and skills.

Hieroglyphic writing was obviously a significant part of the bureaucracy in Ancient Egypt because it helped both administrations and private practices document and record necessary items.  Writing also probably strongly added to the increasing social complexity since not all people would be able to read or have the opportunity to learn how to read.

Week 3: Specialized Production and Trade

I always find it fascinating to read about ancient civilization’s engineering, architectural, and specialized production techniques because these people were ahead of their time, in my opinion, and I often wonder how they ever thought to invent or do these things. Kohler’s article discusses the specialized production of crafts and the trading of Ancient Egypt during the Neolithic, the Chalcolithic, and the Early Dynastic Periods. During the Neolithic, populations relied on animal husbandry, fishing, agriculture, and sometimes hunting to maintain their subsistence economy. In this kind of economy families produced enough product for their families alone. When the Chalcolithic began their economy became a wealth-and-staple-financed economy, with this economy the people were able to conduct specialized production techniques and produce product surpluses.

They created full-time industries, regional centers, and workshops for pottery/ceramic products, making stone vessels and flint tools, and for other luxury goods. They began using the technique of metallurgy, mining, and smelting copper ore. During the early Dynastic they made various goods from agricultural produce, like textiles, oils, beer/wine, and bread. These populations imported many goods, like cooper ore and ingots, different types of wood, oils, wine, precious stones, gold, silver, exotic animal skins, etc. Their trade routes networked through the Mesopotamia, Levant, Anatolia, Nubia, and other parts of Africa, Sinai, and the Eastern Desert. Merchants and donkey caravans traveled these routes, and later routes to the Mediterranean and Levant were traveled by ship. They participated in direct, indirect, and down-the-line trading. These routes began to contribute and become very important for the sustainment of their economy.

I often wonder how these people began trading; did they just take their goods and start walking until they found other cities with something they wanted? Or did they begin trading only after other travelers came to their city and exchanged goods? I also wonder, when I read about their craft production and other techniques, about what event(s) led them to think or consider these techniques? Did some other population teach them? Were they accidents or chance occurrences, or did individuals think them up or engineer them? These are questions that we or I may never know the answers to, but I have read of other civilizations inventing and/or using the same or similar techniques (and others that may not have be seen in Ancient Egypt) as the populations of Ancient Egypt and they all seem to suggest that these same techniques developed independently within each civilizations. I find that a rather large coincidence that every civilization throughout their own growth/evolution all came up with almost identical techniques independently from one another. I would hope that further research of these civilizations would solve these questions, but I am unsure if it will be able to in the future.

Evidence of Warfare and State Formation

The idea that Egypt was unified through warfare between the Upper and Lower Egyptians seems be the dominant modern understanding of Egyptian Unification. The evidence of warfare seems to be lacking in the archeological record though. It seems like most of the evidence of warfare comes from artifacts such as the Narmer Palette that have multiple interpretations. It is admitted though, in Chapter 5 The Rise of Complex Society and Early Civilization, that a debate exists about whether the Narmer Palette even represents an actual historical event. Other than the palette though, and other artifacts, mentioned but not discussed, in the chapter, there is little evidence to support the idea that warfare was the unifying force in predynastic Egypt. According to Chapter 5, “sites in the Delta with destruction layers are lacking” (pg 107). If warfare were truly responsible as a unifying force between the south and the north, there would be archeological evidence to support this idea. Excavations would reveal evidence of conflict, which could come in many forms, such as burnt houses, burials with evidence of scavenger activity (suggesting remains left exposed for a period of time), tools of warfare i.e. weapons, as well as defensive tools such as fortifications. This evidence is either not talked about in the chapter or not present in the excavations, suggesting that while warfare may have been present in predynastic times, it might not have had as strong an influence on Egyptian unification as some suggest

I think the issue of how unification actually occurred, or at least could have occurred, is explained more thoroughly in the chapter of  Egyptian Archeology by Kohler, Chapter 3: Theories of State Formation. Kohler explains state formation and the processes involved in a broader context than mere violent conquest. Even if warfare was the origin of southern control over the north of egypt, processes of state formation were still essential for creating a unified culture that persisted for thousands of years. The important aspects of state formation that Kohler focuses on include, specialization in crafts, trade over long distances, social complexity, centralization and a state ideology (pg 38). All of these processes can be seen in the archeological record though. Craft specialization can be seen in the pottery assemblage as well as the “fishtail and rhomboidal flint knives [that] were manufactured by highly skilled flint knappers” (pg 39). Trade can be seen in the presence of copper from Palestine as well as gold and other resources from outside the Nile Valley. Social complexity and state ideology can both be demonstrated in the mortuary record, as well as centralization to some extent. Centralization is also indicated by the trade networks (pg 41) as well as the larger organization of the state. While state formation can clearly be demonstrated it is much more likely that it occurred through the processes discussed in Kohler, rather than as the result of warfare. Kohler’s processes can and have been found in the archeological record, and while warfare should (at least if it occurred) be present in the archeological record, this is not the case.

Warfare may have led to unification of upper and lower Egypt, but if it did, it seems like there would be more evidence. Warfare may be a common explanation for unification, but it doesn’t explain the larger processes necessary to form a state that could last for thousands of years. Warfare destroys rather than creates which is why it is interesting to see an explanation of state formation that shows the true complexity of forming a state. To some extent it might be that warfare as a form of chaos, was what the unification was opposed to, unification being seen as, along with the ruler, a representation of order.

Political Endeavors in the Unification

After reading “Theories of State Formation” by E. Christiana Kohler, I found the political views most interesting.  It has already been mentioned in both the readings and the lectures that there was no single moment in which both Upper and Lower Egypt were joined.  However, there were different factors (crafts, politics, social norms) that changed thus resulting in the unification.  The interest that I have in this week’s discussion is that of the political power that was maintained throughout the change.

I found that given the ever expanding trade routes and agricultural improvements, certain groups came into an area of power.  These individuals were referred to as elites by Kohler, but I like to visualize them as powerful businessmen.  I say this because they had control over there own personal wealth and were concerned with their own advancement as well as their kin.  However, as the political unification became apparent as well, the idea of a single entity governing both regions was formed, the Pharaoh.

The interesting part of the Pharaoh’s position was the initial split that was between Upper and Lower Egypt.  However, the split seems to merge as there is Narmer wearing both the red crown and the white crown as depicted by the Narmer palette.  As time went on, the country became whole and with it there existed a single governing Pharaoh.

Researching the different names of the Pharaohs that existed in ancient Egypt, many if not all adopted the name of a deity.  The reading suggested this as a way of showing superiority to the followers.  I would agree with this statement as it seems to me, in a time where magic was not easily disproved, the Pharaoh could declare himself to be a supreme being and none would question it.  This in turn, would cause the people of Egypt to respect the Pharaoh just by the fear that the position of Pharaoh puts on the people.

With all of the evidence suggesting the timeline of which the unification occurred, it is still obvious in many artifacts that they position of supreme authority was evident in both upper and lower Egypt and carried through even after Egypt was whole.

Social Evolution

I realize that the idea of social evolution has been abused and misused over time; however, I agree with the general concept.  I see how, throughout time and place, humankind has transitioned from a nomadic life style, to one of a more settled agricultural way of life.  Maybe it’s true that this linear perception of human history does not allow for the minutiae of variation to exist and thrive but this is exactly the “evolution” that I see occurring in the Nile Valley.

They transitioned slowly from a sparse set of traveling groups, into a more settled agricultural community with social stratification.  We can see the differences between elite and non elite through many avenues; most interesting to me were the grave goods, or lack of grave goods, that were buried with each.  Over time we see these groups of people creating a complex state with bureaucracy and means of production.  They begin to keep records and hold specialized jobs.

I have always found state formation to be interesting.  There is an assumption that each state has a group of homogeneous people who want the state to exist as it does.  Throughout history, however, we learn that this concept is often not true.  I think that states would operate more smoothly if this was the case; they would acquire more legitimacy from the citizens.  People would be adequately represented and more pleased with their means of government.  However, this is often impossible to accomplish because so many groups come together in the same areas, as was the case with the Nile Valley.

The last thing I wanted to comment on was the archaeologist’s recreation of the capital, Memphis.  I found it very interesting that, while the archaeological evidence from the city was very little, they were able to recreate and hypothesize certain things from the surrounding cemeteries.  The information that they theorized from these excavations is really quite specific and I find it fascinating that they could acquire so much information from cemeteries.  Also, my curiosity is peaked and I wish we could excavate Memphis, in spite of the “impenetrable silts” (Kohler, 13).

~Cristina M. Cao

The Contributions of Trade – Week 3 Blog

The Naqada’s practices are intriguing. The ceramics and the grave burials are probably of the most notable practices. Social complexity seems to be a reoccurring motif in both our lectures and the readings. I found myself wondering how the intricate social norms lead to the increase in political complexity. It’s amazing to think of how Naqada/Buto/Ma’adi et al. started – as in when they were primarily hunter gatherers. The increase in social complexity is [in my opinion] primarily linked to the ability to undergo agricultural practices. From what we have learned this is also a primary factor when you look at how the surplus of goods produced by the Nile River Valley contributes to the ability to trade. In order to have good trading practices you need someone to act as the moderator, which may have resulted in the establishment of formal rules.

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