An ancient king—heralded by standard bearers and trailing a retinue of soldiers, fan bearers, powerful beasts and deities—projects power and military might in elaborate scenes carved into the very rock in the Egyptian desert.
Rock art tableaux at the ancient site of Nag el-Hamdulab, created some 5000 years ago, are thought to have been done by the hands of professional artists close to the royal court. They are the earliest known depictions of a pharaoh wearing the “white crown” of dynastic power, and they represent the transition between pre-Dynastic Egypt’s religious processions into the tax-collecting tour of a triumphant monarch.
Interpreted and presented for the first time by an international team of experts in the journal Antiquity, the “most important iconographic source for the period of state formation in Egypt” is revealed through symbols of power and ritual across seven sites on the west bank of the Nile.
Study authors Stan Hendrickx, John Coleman Darnell, and Maria Carmela Gatto explore the historical significance of the rock art gallery at the sandy site, west of Nag el-Hamdulab village, about six kilometers (3.7 miles) north of Aswan, in Egypt.
Hendrickx, Darnell and Gatto date the creation of the images to a time just before Narmer, unifier of Egypt and founder of the First Dynasty.
The Discovery of Lost Symbols in the Desert
British Assyriologist and linguist, Archibald H. Sayce stumbled upon some of the rock art in the early 1890s, and recorded his find through simple drawings. The sketches and the rocks themselves would not be examined again for over a century, until 2008, when the site was rediscovered by archaeologists. The old sketches and the newly identified tableaux—seven in all, forming an ancient gallery of scenes—when brought together presented a unique record of a royal celebration and tax collection dating between 3200 and 3100 BC.
Hieroglyphic texts beneath the carefully pecked images explain the intent of the scenes. John Coleman Darnell, director of the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt, and professor of Egyptology told YaleNews that the Nag el-Hamdulab cycle is significant as it’s the first of such images with hieroglyphic annotation.
The team of international researchers, including Egyptologists and archaeologists from institutions in America, Europe and Egypt have used high-tech digital reconstruction to analyze the images and texts.
Showcasing a series of vignettes, the rock art inscriptions of Nag el-Hamdulab represent a cycle. Interpreting the images, archaeologists believe the scenes of hunting, animals, boats, warfare, soldiers, prisoners, and an anonymous king wearing the White Crown are highly symbolic.
Though the scenes have been heavily damaged within recent history, the styles and techniques of the artists are evident, and suggest to researchers that all the works were the creations of only one or two individuals, and that it was created with an overarching ‘grand scheme’, and was not added to, piecemeal, over time.
The Grand Scheme: The Power of the King
The seven independent scenes at Nag el-Hamdulab are highly symbolic, culminating in a final message of royal power in Egypt.
Antiquity reports that the scene at Site 1 is dominated by boats. Near several reed boats a figure wearing feathers lies prostrate—possibly a prisoner or a foreign ally. Three prisoners follow a boat (they’re shown with their hands bound behind their backs and ropes around their necks.) It is the boats which symbolize power and military might, rather than humans.
Sites 2 through 5 are located very close to each other, nestled within cliffs at the center of the Nag el-Hamdulab plain.
The first tableaux has a military theme wherein bowmen and prisoners are seen next to a boat upon which two figures stand. The two elevated figures each hold a staff. Who they are or what they represent is unclear. A unique individual stands between bowmen. His arm is shown bent behind his back, and his other arm is “upturned before the chest, in a manner unlike any other representation at Nag el-Hamdulab.” Before the boat stands a single bowman with a very large bow. Bows were symbols of power and could be found often in Egyptian art appearing by themselves without an archer.
The second tableaux at Site 2 shows boats with many oarsmen and oars. An ancient sickle-shaped boat has a unique element – it is decorated with a bull standard. The king wears the White Crown or hedjet, the tall crown of Upper Egypt. In front of the king a dog is seen, a canine deity related to hunting and warfare, and his name “Wepwawet” means “the opener of ways” meaning the choices of life or the paths to death and the underworld.
Animals, Feasts and Sacrifices: The Dance of the Old Kingdom
Site 3 has been mostly destroyed, and is only available via archive photographs. In the two scenes at the site the presence of a boat forms a connection to the other locations, but the king here is portrayed as a powerful ruler, rather than a symbolic religious placeholder. A man leads a wild bull or calf, and this is followed by the image of a large knife, suggesting that these are sacrificial animals for offerings.
A feast is presented in the rock art at Site 4. The festival scene shows brewing, and a figure sitting and drinking. What is thought to be a Nubian figure (by his distinctive bow) is depicted as bigger, perhaps signifying an important presence of Nubians in the Aswan region during pre-Dynastic times, the study notes.
Site 5 is unfortunately heavily damaged, but an interesting depiction of a bull’s head and a female dancer can be seen. The dancer sports a long braid, the end of which has an oval shape that is said to be a weighted ball or disc found in hairstyles of female dancers during the Old Kingdom, effectively dating the scene. The bull and dancer communicate the rituals of hunting, butchering, feasting, music and dance of the Old Kingdom.
A scene of cattle being controlled by humans and dogs is shown at Site 6. This isolated tableau in the south of Nag el-Hamdulab highlights both wild and domesticated animals. The researchers note that hunting was important iconography of the pre-Dynastic era; it was part of an elite lifestyle and done not necessarily for survival, but for important festivals or burials. The hunting scenes are said to represent the wealth of local, likely Nubian, cattle-herding groups.
A Culmination: The Divine King Brings Order to Chaos
Site 7 is believed to be the most important of the series, the culmination of the cycle. Composed of four tableaux, one the largest of them all, the pecked rock images depict many boats in a row, with one notably higher than the others. An obvious ruler figure is followed by a fan bearer, and is preceded by standard bearers and a canine. This king figure stands on a decorated cabin, wears the White Crown, and holds a scepter. He is flanked by standards of falcons and bull horns, royal symbols. A shrine, or divine boat, is seen below this, lending the scene a religious context. Four bearded men tow the divine boat with a rope. The ritual procession is under the supervision of the king, and represents royal power.
Other scenes portray groups of animals—real and mythological—such as dogs, lions, ostriches, ibex, and animals whose heads radiate strange lines.
“Antiquity writes, “The ultimate meaning of the tableau is the royal, human assurance of control, the triumph of order over chaos on a cosmic level, referring eventually also to regeneration. The link between site 7 and those previously described is not only made by the royal image, the boats, and the concept of ritual processions, but also by a small—and unfortunately poorly preserved—hunting scene close to the royal boat procession.”
In all, researchers believe these rare panels are meant to highlight and extol the power of the first Egyptian pharaohs and their grand tax collection tours. Symbolic images drive home the royal domination over humans and a chaotic natural world. This ensemble sheds light on very early state formation in Egypt.
Featured image: A pecked petroglyph of a reed boat I the Nag el-Hamdulab cycle in Egypt. Credit: Stan Hendrickx, John Coleman Darnell & Maria Carmela Gatto