Ancient Egypt: “Burying wild animals alongside the king is to assert his power”

This article is from the Special issue of Sciences et Avenir n ° 197 dated April-May 2019.

Stan Hendrickx is an archaeologist at the Media Arts and Design Faculty in Hasselt (Belgium). He is a specialist in iconography.

Sciences et Avenir: What type of objects have been discovered in the predynastic burials?

Stan Hendrickx: The objects and representations they wear have evolved over time. Between 4000 and 3500 BC, at the time known as Nagada I and at the beginning of Nagada II, we find many red ceramic vases decorated with parallel white lines, what is called the whitecross lined. Most often, these geometric decorations are not figurative, rather imitating patterns of basketry, with sometimes exceptions for scenes of hunting or victory, but which remain marginal. Then, around 3500 BC. AD, appears another type of decorated ceramic, produced from a marly clay which takes a grayer tint when fired. These are the vases that we see in all museums, the upper part of which is decorated with motifs painted in a purple-black color. The representations of boats, in particular, are numerous there, and it is thought that they may have a funerary symbolism.

So these are specific vases, created for funerary furniture?

No ! These objects were used in everyday life! It must be understood that for us, Westerners of the 21ste century, life and death are very different concepts, while in ancient Egypt there is no strict separation. Moreover, the sets never show funeral scenes. This kind of drawings exist but they are fakes, added at the end of the 19e century and early 20e century… on authentic vases. Some have even ended up in collections, such as the famous jar on display at the British Museum in Harrogate, which appears to represent the funeral of a deceased aboard a boat.

You mentioned the frequent presence of boats on the objects found in the graves …

One can think that from the predynastic period, the boat became a symbol of the passage towards the beyond, because it allows to cross the kingdom of the dead and to sail towards a new life. Throughout Egyptian civilization, it is aboard a boat that the deceased king will travel the sky in the company of the god Re. And it is probably for the “trip” of Pharaoh Khufu that a life-size boat was buried next to the great pyramid of Giza. Boats probably have another symbolic dimension, which is to assert royal, political and military power. On a Nubian bas-relief from the end of the 4the millennial discovered at Gebel Sheikh Suleiman and dismantled in the early 1960s to be exhibited at the Khartoum Museum (Sudan), we see a ship to which is attached a prisoner, while under the hull lie four dislocated bodies … It is a scene of military victory in which the king is not represented: the boat alone is enough to embody the power of the victor.

Are these representations therefore essentially symbolic?

Of course ! Likewise, in predynastic iconography, we frequently find hunting scenes without a hunter. For the Egyptians, the desert was chaos. Representing the hunt, burying wild animals, all this probably allowed to assert the power of an elite, and ultimately of a king capable of mastering this chaos. It is also for this reason that we find representations of crocodiles on rock frescoes located 50 kilometers from the Nile, alongside boats. We often tend to want to sketch a reality from the iconography that we discover. But the Egyptians did not seek to “photograph” the real. They probably saw no point in representing a reality they encountered every day. Moreover, this is also the case in our own history. Take the painting from 17e century! Considered to be very realistic, it is actually full of hidden symbols …

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