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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Egypt Centre Collection Blog: The Predynastic Period in the Egypt Centre

Monday, 14 October 2019

The Predynastic Period in the Egypt Centre

This past Thursday, I started my new course entitled A History of Egypt though the Egypt Centre. This ten-week course consists of PowerPoint lectures (first hour) briefly summarising the periods under discussion, followed by a handling session (second hour) of five–six objects in the Egypt Centre collection (fig. 1). Over the next ten weeks, this blog will will present objects from the classes. While this week's post is written by me, subsequent entries will be written by different members of the class, some of whom are Swansea University students, Egypt Centre volunteers, and members of the public. As their knowledge and learning abilities vary, the posts will likely present quite different perspectives on the classes. Since these differences and views are valued, the entries will undergo as little editing as possible!

Fig. 1: Examining a cast of the Battlefield Palette (EC641)

In the first class, participants had the opportunity to handle five objects dating to the Predynastic Period: EC641, a plaster cast of the Battlefield Palette (Ashmolean Museum 1892.1171), W150 (a Predynastic figure), W151 (basalt vessel), W152 (diorite macehead), and a D-Ware pot (W5308). The D-Ware pot has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, while the Battlefield Palette (fig. 2) is well-known in Egyptological literature. Therefore, this post will focus briefly on the remaining three objects, particularly the Predynastic figure.

Fig. 2: Cast of the Battlefield Palette

W151 is a black basalt ovoid vase with two pierced lugs on a small circular foot, which was excavated by Guy Brunton (1878–1948) at Mostagedda in 1929. The label accompanying the object when it arrived in Swansea had the number "29/11729", which gives the year of excavation (1929) and the number of the tomb (11729). 11729 is described by Brunton (1937, 74, pl. 42) as being a "grave covered with matting laid on sticks. Finer matting on and under the body". It is also noted that the body belonged to a male and that the tomb was previously looted. This would explain why the vase was heavily broken and repaired before entering the Wellcome Collection in 1930 (fig. 3). W151 is perhaps a type 2d vase, which is said by Mallory-Greenough (2002, 70) to date to Naqada I–II Period. These tend to occur in wealthy burials.

Fig. 3: Basalt vase

W152, a diorite disc macehead, also originates from Brunton's 1929 excavations at Mostagedda (fig. 4). It was found in tomb 1854 "with a flint knife, in front of the arms of an undisturbed male, and was also broken in two" (Brunton 1937, 89). Maceheads were used as weapons and in ceremonies, with many images showing kings killing their enemies with such objects. They may either have been attached to a leather thong, or put on a wooden/ivory/horn shaft. The disk-shaped macehead seems to have been generally earlier than the pear-shaped macehead. Both date from the Predynastic to early Dynastic times (4000–3000 BC) and are commonly found in graves. They often seem to have been deliberately broken before being put into the graves.

Fig.4: Diorite macehead

The most intriguing object from the first week's handling session was W150, a Predynastic stone figure. W150 measures 29cm high and is hollow up to a third of its height, wide enough to permit the statue to be mounted on a pole or other support (Bosse-Griffiths 1975; Hendrickx 2014–2015, 230–233, fig. 4). The drilling is not perfect, thus suggesting that the item was made in antiquity. However, a small hole in the top of the head appears more modern (figs. 5–6). The first reference to this object occurs in the 1913 sale catalogue of items belonging to Robert De Rustafjael. Lot 219 is described as: "A very remarkable and exceedingly early penate figure in hard white stone, 12in high; the body cylindrical and with a wide raised band at the base; the head is of rudimentary type, the eyes shown by incised lines, the ears projecting and badly formed. A small hole is drilled at the top of the head; and the base is widely hollowed out to a depth of about 3 ½ inches. Similar objects in ivory and wood are known and have been described as "Staffs of Office", "Magic Wands", etc; very rare; possibly unique of this size; for a similar object see lot 761". The figure was later resold and purchased by Henry Wellcome at auction in May 1919 (Glendining's auction 05 May 1919, Lot 812).

Fig. 5: Predynastic stone figure

W150 appears to be one of a type of object more commonly made from hippopotamus ivory. These items are usually hollow, have a loop at the end, and may have a human head. Hendrickx and Eyckerman (2011) have produced a recent study on them. However, those with human heads (Hendrickx and Eykerman's type A.5) usually have a pierced head. They are sometimes categorised in the same object group as "tags" made from bone or ivory. The tusk-like shape of our example may be related to the pairs of decorated ivory tusks found in Naqada I and II graves (4000–3200 BC). Usually, one is solid and one is hollow and it has been suggested that these tusks represent a male and female respectively. A pair of tusks was found in a woman's grave at el-Mahasna near Abydos (Baumgartel 1960, 60).

Fig. 6: Head of W150

It has been suggested that because this object is unusual it is a fake. While we are not certain, the fact that our item is made from stone need not mean it is a fake. There is also a similar breccia figure from Gebelein (Musée des Confluences, Lyon 900000171; Hendrickx and Eyckerman 2011: 510; Hendrickx et al., 2014–2015, 229–230, figs. 2–3). As always, we welcome any feedback readers may have on the objects!

Baumgartel, E. J. (1947–1960) The cultures of prehistoric Egypt. 2 vols. Oxford: Griffith Institute; Oxford University Press.
Bosse-Griffiths, K. (1975) 'A Prehistoric stone figure from Egypt'. In Symposium international sur Les religions de la prehistoire: Valcamonica, 18–23 septembre 1972, ed. E. Anati. Capo di Ponte: Centro camuno di studi preistorici. 313–316.
Hendrickx, S. and M. Eyckerman (2011) 'Tusks and tags: between the hippopotamus and the Naqada plant'. In Proceedings of the Third International Conference "Origin of the state: predynastic and early dynastic Egypt", London, 27th July–1st August 2008, ed. R. F. Friedman and P. N. Fiske. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 205. Leuven: Peeters.
Hendrickx, S., K. E. Piquette, M. Eyckerman, K. Madrigal, and C. Graves-Brown (2014–2015) 'The origin and early significance of the White Crown'. Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 70–71: 227–238.
Mallory-Greenough, L. M. (2002) 'The geographical, spatial, and temporal distribution of Predynastic and First Dynasty basalt vessels'. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 88: 67–93.
Messrs. Glendining and Co., Ltd. (1919) Catalogue of the fine collection of Oriental ivories, lacquer, bronzes, tsuba, etc. The property of the estate of the Honble, J. I. Fellows, deceased; G. H. Naunton, Esq., Tunstall Behrens, Esq., and others. London: Messrs. Glendining and Co., Ltd.
Sotheby, Wilkinson, & Hodge (1913) Catalogue of the remaining part of the valuable collection of Egyptian antiquities formed by Robert de Rustafjaell, Esq. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge. 
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