September 2018

At the beginning of September Paul Collins came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the influences that Uruk culture (in Mesopotamia) and Proto-Elamite culture (in Iran) had on Predynastic & Early Dynastic Egypt. He's not an egyptologist - his research interests include the material culture of ancient Iraq & Iran in the late 4th Millennium BCE, and the transmission of artistic forms across the Near East and Egypt.

He began with a discussion of historical explanations and ideas about these influences. It begins, as so much of Egyptology does, with Petrie whose work on pottery from Naqada is still the foundation of our understanding of the chronology of Predynastic Egypt today. Petrie also worked at Koptos and Abydos - the royal tombs at Abydos date to the Early Dynastic period. They are an expression of the great power of the Egyptian state at this time and the resources it commanded - including associated burials of sacrificial victims. The site of Hierakonpolis is another key site in early Egypt, including both a settlement and burials which also demonstrate a centralisation of regional power at the site. This is ancient Nekhen, which Renee Friedman talked to the EEG about in November 2014 (my write up).

The Scorpion Macehead

Scorpion Macehead

Several objects that define kingship in Egypt for a modern audience date to this period, and Collins showed us photographs of some of them. One is, of course, the Narmer palette with an early depiction of the smiting scene that kings used throughout the history of Pharaonic Egypt to show their power. The Scorpion macehead now in the Ashmolean shows the king taking part in an irrigation ceremony, another part of the iconography of kingship. But along with this imagery that becomes part of the canon of Egyptian iconography there are other images from this time period that don't seem to "fit". For instance the decoration on the Painted Tomb (Tomb 100) at Hierakonpolis includes motifs that don't show up later in Egyptian imagery - for example in middle left of the picture below you can see a man holding two beasts. This motif is also on the handle of a knife referred to as the Gebel al Arak knife. Another motif that shows up on both the Narmer palette and the Two Dog palette (see picture further below) as well as other places is that of serpopards - composite creatures with the body of a feline and the neck & head of a snake, often shown with entwined necks.

Pre-Dynastic Egypt Exhibit

The background to this display in the Ashmolean Museum is a replica of the Painted Tomb at Hierakonpolis

These motifs all fit better with the contemporary iconography of Mesopotamia, rather than with that of Egypt. And it's not just the imagery - the distinctive architecture of Predynastic Egypt with niches & buttresses also has similarities to contemporary Mesopotamian architecture. In an Egyptian context it's referred to as the palace facade, and is found both in archaeological evidence and in imagery (like the Horus name of the king which is enclosed in a representation of a palace facade). In the Mesopotamian context it's referred to as the temple facade, and is again found in both architecture and imagery.

So there is a cultural connection here to be explained, and Petrie provided a theory - that Egyptian civilisation as we usually think of it is the result of the movement of a new race into Egypt at the end of the Predynastic period, specifically a northern (white) race. As Collins pointed out these days that's a racist idea, but in the late 19th & early 20th Centuries this was standard scientific thinking. Petrie & other archaeologists did a lot of measuring of skulls and assigning them to races to see what a population consisted of. Of course they assigned those with larger brain cases to white "civilised" people, and used this to back up the idea of a new race arriving from the north.

Petrie's explanation was accepted well into the 1960s, but in the 1970s & 80s this changed and scholarship shifted to looking at internal developments. And once scholars were looking for it there was plenty of evidence that the motifs and imagery of Egyptian civilisation had grown out of older Predynastic imagery that reflected local culture and the local environment. So it is now accepted that Egyptian civilisation emerges from a long local tradition and was not imported by a new ruling class. There is, however, still a cultural connection with Mesopotamia that needs to be explained.

Having set the scene from the Egyptian perspective Collins now moved on to tell us about Mesopotamia during this time period (late 4th Millennium BCE). Mesopotamia is a Greek term for "land between rivers", and in the context of the ancient Near East it is a region that covers modern Iraq & eastern Syria. The key site in this period is Uruk, which is a city in southern Mesopotamia on the Euphrates river. This area of Mesopotamia is a vast river delta that is largely waterlogged. Transport is easy along the many river channels, although these are also prone to flooding. This is an environment with parallels to the Egyptian Delta. The river channels are also prone to flooding and will change course relatively often, as a result there are not many sites suitable for permanent settlement. Uruk is built on one of the more stable spots - today it is dry and far from the ocean, but when it was in its heyday it was on the river & closer to the open ocean. During the 4th Millennium BCE it was the largest concentrated urban settlement in the world.

Uruk was excavated in the early 20th Century. The main area of excavation was the centre of Uruk around the ziggurat (which is a structure from a later period than the late 4th Millennium BCE). There was a religious precinct around the ziggurat which does date back to the right period, that was called Eanna in later records. In this area of the city were several monumental buildings made of mudbrick. Collins demonstrated what he meant by "monumental" by showing us a plan of these buildings and then added the Parthenon onto the plan at the same scale. Each of these buildings was of a similar size to the Parthenon - built some 3000 years or more before it. They were made of very regular mudbricks, each about the size of a modern London brick. The structure was decorated with cone mosaics. These were made from clay cones which were baked & coloured on the flat end. Each cone was then pushed into the plaster. This isn't purely decorative, it also served to protect the mudbricks from the elements. The sheer amount of work required to build and then decorate buildings on this scale demonstrate the power available to make it happen.

During this period the society of Uruk began to develop technology for the administration of people and resources, and Collins talked us through some examples. One is the development of record keeping. First by collecting together tokens to represent the number of objects (or people etc), and then the development of proto-writing using a number of impressions in a clay tablet to represent the number plus a symbol to represent what was counted. Collins pointed out that these clay tablets with their grids of numbers are in their own way just like spreadsheets! Another technology was the use of a standard measure. This grew out of the practicalities of how bread was made - in Uruk bread was baked in pottery bowls called beveled rim bowls. These bowls were mass-produced in their thousands and discarded after use. As they were all the same size they became a standard measure, not just to measure out one portion of bread but a portion of other things too. The Uruk culture also began to use stamp seals to demonstrate ownership of goods or to control access to rooms.

Collins told us that at this time the hierarchy begins to be expressed through imagery. Simple stamp seals developed into cylinder seals which let the seal owner show off their status via more elaborate imagery. This sort of imagery also begins to appear on vessels, which have long registers of imagery that look almost like seals rolled out.

In the 4th Millennium BCE Uruk type features start to be found in places that are quite distant from Uruk itself. These sites in places like eastern Syria were excavated in the later 20th Century. Collins took us through a few examples to show us the different sorts of contexts that Uruk artifacts & technology show up in. The first place he talked about was Habuba Kabira in modern Syria. It's a long way north of Uruk on the Euphrates River, perhaps a week's journey at the time. It's also a very different environment to that of Uruk - instead of aluvial plain it is situated in a steppeland. The settlement here is laid out from scratch, in a similar layout to Uruk using the same standard Uruk mudbricks. The are monumental buildings just like those at Uruk, cone mosaics and all. It's a very large scale settlement, completely unlike anything in the local area at that date and uninhabited before the Uruk-type settlement is built. As Collins pointed out, the fact that the people of Uruk were able to do this demonstrates the incredible amount of power & resources at the disposal of their elites.

Hacinebi Tepe is a different sort of site where Uruk culture begins to show up around 3400 BCE. It's in the foothills of the Taurus mountains and there is a local settlement there that pre-dates the arrival of Uruk features. It is sophisticated and administratively organised in its own right before beveled rim bowls start to show up in some areas of the settlement. After this there are some specific areas of the settlement where the Uruk artifacts are found, and the two cultures appear to have co-existed side by side with no mixing for a long time.

Tel Brak (in modern Syria) was excavated in the late 1990s through to the 21st Century. It was very ancient by the late 4th Millennium BCE dating back to at least the 5th Millennium BCE. Again in the time period Collins was discussing Uruk pottery began to show up in the archaeological record of the city, and after this one area of the settlement has the features of late Uruk culture, with an Uruk style monumental building in another area of the settlement.

The last of the sites that Collins told us about was Godin Tepe which is in modern Iran. It sits on the trade routes to the east which would later become known as the Silk Road. The site is a circular fort that overlooks the valley - controlling passage along that route. It's a local settlement, almost all locally made except a few Uruk style vessels and administrative tools.

Collins summarised this last part of the talk by discussing how this evidence is interpreted. The various sites are "colonised" over a 500 year period, and to varying degrees. So clearly this is not one single expansion and perhaps not one explanation. The traditional explanation is control of trade, in particular of stone, metal and wood. But there's no real evidence in Uruk of this trade, so there must be some other explanation. Other possibilities include the idea that these settlements are something to do with textile production & trade. Uruk cylinder seals generally have designs related to labour on them, and they are often related to textile production so this must've been important to the economy of Uruk. It is also possible that these settlements were to exploit the pasturelands of the north, or perhaps a straightforward migration of people to establish a new colony (like the Greeks & Phoenicians did much later).

The key point is that southern Mesopotamia was the core of the Uruk culture settlements, with some further afield peripheral sites. Some of these were closer to Egypt and so provide routes for contact between the two cultures.

After a break for coffee and cake Collins returned to the connections between Egyptian culture and Uruk culture, first posing the question: Why would Egypt want connections with Mesopotamia? At the time Egypt had all the resources it needed to function and for the elites to express their power. The earliest evidence of a connection between the two regions comes from cylinder seals. These are by design small & portable, so their arrival in Egypt is possibly accidental and doesn't necessarily require the direct intervention of people. A seal could've fallen into goods that were being traded. These start showing up in the Egyptian archaeological record around 3000 BCE, in graves. They are decorated in the same way as the Mesopotamian ones. But whereas in Uruk they are administrative tools, in Egypt they are treated as exotic & precious objects. They appear in Egyptian graves in association with lapis lazuli beads, and Collins explained that this is the key to the Egyptian connection with Mesopotamia. Lapis lazuli is only found in Afghanistan and in both Egypt and Uruk it was associated with the gods as well as being immensely valuable due to its scarcity. So this is something that is worth trading for across such vast distances.

The imagery on the cylinder seals from Uruk parallel the "odd" imagery in Predynastic Egypt that Collins opened the talk with. The boxes that contained the lapis lazuli were almost certainly sealed with impressions from cylinder seals, which provides another route for this imagery to come to Egypt (as well as on the seals themselves). So by the association with lapis lazuli the imagery would become high status in its own right - and would be added to local Egyptian elite objects to express their "otherworldly" status. For instance the Mesopotamian style of art in long registers which developed out of seal impressions begins to show up in Egyptian art. Collins showed us examples of combs with parallel lines of animals - local African animals, but this new Mesopotamian layout.

"Two Dog Palette"

"Two Dog Palette"

Two Dog Palette, front (above) and reverse (below)

Critically there is no indication that the imagery is accompanied by people, or by the culture of Uruk. Instead the imagery is used in different ways and with different associations in the two cultures. For instance the serpopards on the Two Dog Palette (see above) are under the control of dogs, and on the Narmer Palette they are controlled by people. This is Egyptian royal propaganda - showing that these otherworldly and exotic beasts are under the control of the king.

Before he wrapped up his talk Collins fulfilled the promise of the title and told us a bit about Iran. Between 3200 & 2900 BCE the culture in the Zagros Mountains was that which we now call the Proto-Elamite culture. This region is also on the lapis lazuli trade route, so Collins said it was another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of evidence for the "odd" imagery in Predynastic Egypt. They made use of some of the Uruk administrative technology - archaeologists have found clay tablets with Proto-Elamite writing on them, which is a unique script that has not yet been deciphered. They also used cylinder seals. Interestingly the imagery on these seals does not include any human figures. When they wanted to represent human activities they would use an animal in the place of the figure of a person. Collins showed us examples which included a standing figure of a bull in a boat, and of a standing bull holding two lions in a similar pose to the one on the wall of the Painted Tomb at Hierakonpolis (see photo earlier in this post). And if you look at the reverse of the Two Dog Palette, near the bottom left is an animal standing up & playing some sort of flute - a piece of Proto-Elamite imagery in a very Egyptian piece of art.

Collins concluded his talk by summing up all the threads of evidence. He said that in this period there is a sense of Mesopotamian and Proto-Elamite culture feeding into Egypt as part of the elite culture. When the Uruk culture ceases to be an international phenomenon at the end of the 4th Millennium BCE Egypt also abandons the Mesopotamian & Proto-Elamite flavoured imagery. In the Early Dynastic period there is a gap in imports of lapis lazuli to Egypt and Collins said that this lack of trade with the East meant that the imagery was also not reaching Egypt. So this period of the late 4th Millennium BCE was a unique moment where the expansion of southern Mesopotamian culture fed into the emerging Egyptian elite culture as exotic status symbols.

This was a really interesting talk - Collins gave us a view of the world outside Egypt's borders that early Egyptian culture was interacting with. And he also showed how the early Egyptian elites had something in common with more modern people - the impulse to use Mesopotamian imagery in their time sounds like it was born from much the same impulse as the Egyptianising architecture & design of the 19th & 20th Centuries in the West.

At the beginning of June Vincent Oeters returned to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about some of his own work at Saqqara on a Ramesside era tomb chapel. This work is part of a long term on-going project which has been excavating south of the Causeway of Unas since 1975. Initially the project was a collaboration between the Museum at Leiden and the Egypt Exploration Society, then after 1998 the EES were no longer involved and the University of Leiden replaced them. Since 2015 the Turin Museum have also been part of the project.

Before telling us about the tomb chapel of Tatia, Oeters told us about the overall project. The genesis of the project was in the 1950s when the Museum began to investigate three statues which had been in the collection since 1828. They arrived without provenance, but were believed to be from Saqqara. The statues depict two people - Maya, the Overseer of the Treasury and Overseer of Works during the reign of Tutankhamun, and Merit, his wife who was a Chantress of Amun. One statue is of both of them, one is of him alone and one of her alone. On the map of Saqqara drawn by Lepsius in 1843 there is a tomb of Maya marked, and so the Museum wanted to excavate in that area - it took several years to get funding and the necessary permissions but they finally started work in 1975. Tombs have been discovered in their concession since 1975, although the tomb of Maya wasn't discovered until 1986. The first to be found was actually even more well known as it was the tomb that Horemheb was building for himself before he became Pharaoh.

Annotated satellite image of the tombs of Horemheb, Meryneith, Maya, Pay, Khay II and Tatia
made by me using an image from Google maps and information from Oeters's slides.

The tomb chapel of Tatia was found in 2009, which is the year that Oeters started work with the project. The team were excavating between the tombs of Horemheb, Meryneith and Pay. They first found a tomb belonging to a man named Khay (the second of that name in the area, so referred to as Khay II). Then as they were looking for a shaft from the substructure of another tomb (to avoid having to constantly go in & out of the temple part of the superstructure) they came across a slab which had no apparent text. When they uncovered the bottom of it there was an inscription - and Oeters was given this to study for his Master's thesis. It is the stela of a man called Tatia. It wasn't intact when discovered, but when they looked in their stores there were some previously excavated fragments that filled some of the gaps.

There are several scenes on this stela - there is a scene of Tatia in front of Osiris, there is a scene of Tatia about to slaughter an oryx (a sort of antelope associated with Seth) as a sacrifice in front of Re-Horakhty and a scene of Tatia and his wife receiving offerings with family members sitting in front of them. The scene of Tatia slaughtering an oryx is particularly interesting as it is a unique representation of a private individual performing this ritual, as far as Oeters can tell - normally this sort of scene has the Pharaoh performing this ritual. This is also the only scene in all the depictions of Tatia where he is wearing a wig, rather than being shown with a clean shaven bald head. This must have some significance, but Oeters is still trying to find out what that might be.

Tatia's titles were Priest of the Front of Ptah, With Access to the Gold House, Chief of the Goldsmiths. The first of these titles means that he was a priest who walked at the front of a procession, in front of the barque bearing the (statue of) the god Ptah. Three of the family members depicted also have names & titles - two of his sons were stablemasters and another son was also a Priest of the Front of Ptah and Goldsmith.

As they continued to excavate the area where the stela was found they uncovered a door jamb and eventually found all of a very small tomb chapel. Oeters was able to persuade the field directors to let him include the whole chapel in his Master's research. The door jambs of the chapel show a bald individual in a praising gesture, doubtless the tomb owner. On the south wall there is a relief of a harpist, a flute player and 3 seated figures (who are singers). There is a part of text still visible above the reliefs which is the words of a song - including the phrase "may Tatia live 110 years". The west wall of the chapel has a large gap where the stela would fit. Adjacent to the stela a relief was depicted on both sides of Tatia as a sem-priest before an offering table. This wall also shows signs of reuse of the tomb-chapel after Tatia's time - remains of mudbrick were found on top of what remains of the original chapel wall. The north wall has a scene of a funeral - the top of it is missing and the part that remains is very damaged. It depicts the mummy in front of the tomb being held by a priest whilst a sem-priest performs the opening of the mouth ritual.

The burial shaft was found nearby, but had been robbed in antiquity. Oeters told us that the robbers had built a mudbrick wall in & around the top of the shaft to stop the sand falling in whilst they were robbing the tomb. Under this wall were some intact bowls and dishes which had been preserved by the wall. The shaft itself is at a different angle to the tomb chapel - so it would seem to be an older one that Tatia reused. The shaft is 5.25m deep, with two chambers at the bottom, one to the north with a mummy niche and one to the south of the shaft. There were several breakthroughs to other tombs. The tomb was probably not properly finished before Tatia was buried in it - the floor is not the same level throughout, which it would've been if the tomb builders had finished their work. There were two fragments of papyrus found while clearing the shaft belonging to a man namer Suner, thus it seems likely that they just blew in from the surrounding area rather than having been placed in there with Tatia.

Tatia's tomb chapel is not the only small chapel in the area. There seems to have been a second wave of use of the site with several small 19th Dynasty chapels amongst & to the south of the larger 18th Dynasty ones. There are no hieroglyphs on the other small chapels, so they remain anonymous.

As part of his investigation of Tatia's chapel & stela Oeters tried to find parallels with other stelae. This isn't as straightforward to do as one might think - there isn't a convenient list or database, so he had to spend quite a bit of time searching to make sure he didn't miss any out. Eventually he looked at more than 900 stelae of the New Kingdom to compare to Tatia's stela. All of those that have direct parallels to the scenes seem to come from Saqqara and date to the same period.

Oeters also tried to find other references to Tatia, which lead him to another New Kingdom tomb at the Teti cemetery at Saqqara. This tomb belongs to a man called Mose, Scribe of the Treasury of Ptah. His tomb is famous for a text in it that details a legal dispute over the land of Mose's mother, which dates him & his family to the second half of the reign of Ramesses II. In this tomb there is also a scene of three couples receiving offerings - Mose & his wife, Mose's parents and a man called Tatia & his wife. Not only is Tatia a rare name, but also this Tatia has the same titles as the Tatia whose chapel Oeters was investigating. So it's very likely to be the same man. At the point at which he wrote up his Master's thesis Oeters believed the most plausible explanation was that Mose & Tatia were brothers. Between the two tombs he was able to draw up a conjectured family tree of three generations.

The titles held by Tatia are also rare. Oeters has only found five instances of Priest of the Front of Ptah, and they are all from tombs in that part of Saqqara. This indicates that the burials are clustered by profession rather than by family - which fits with Mose's tomb being elsewhere in Saqqara. As well as Tatia & his son, Khay II (the owner of the nearby tomb discovered just before Tatia's tomb) was one of these priests. Another was a man called Ny and the last was named Khaempet (and his stela is in the Louvre).

Since the Revolution the team have been excavating to the west of Tatia's tomb - in a burial shaft belonging to another tomb nearby more pieces of the wall of Tatia's tomb chapel were discovered. Oeters discovered these were part of the south wall, containing the start of the text of the song. There is still a chance of more pieces being discovered as there is an area to the south of Tatia's tomb (and north of Meryneith's tomb) which hasn't yet been excavated.

The excavation to the west of Tatia's tomb has also discovered a falcon statue. This was pretty exciting as it is the first animal statue the team has discovered since work on the site started in 1975! It's made of pretty poor quality limestone, and is also quite damaged, but it's still possible to make out a figure kneeling in front of the falcon. Oeters believes this statue was originally placed in Tatia's chapel, he has no concrete proof but he argues that the indirect evidence is convincing. It was found just behind Tatia's tomb chapel, and dates to the same era. Furthermore, there is a side annex to the south of the chapel proper which might be where the statue sat. There is a lot of falcon imagery on Tatia's stela, which is unique among the comparable stelae he's examined. And the limestone the falcon is made out of is the same sort of poor quality stone that the whole of Tatia's chapel is made from. He talked a little more about the limestone in the Q&A session at the end of the talk - in the 18th Dynasty the large tombs were built of mudbrick faced with good quality limestone, and between them they used up all the locally available good stone. By the time the 19th Dynasty tombs were built they had to make do with lower quality stone sourced from a little further away.

The last part of Oeters talk was about his investigation into the name Tatia, as it's a very unusual name for an Egyptian. He also used this part of the talk to illustrate how an archaeologist's theories can change significantly as more evidence comes to light. There is only one other place where there are references to Egyptians named Tatia - tomb TT106 in Luxor. This is the tomb of the Vizier Paser, who was vizier to Seti I and Ramesses II. There are two individuals depicted in this tomb called Tatia - 5 references to a Stablemaster Tatia who was brother of Paser, and 1 reference to a Tatia with no titles who was the grandfather of Paser. The name is spelt differently even within this one tomb, which leads Oeters to speculate that it could be a foreign name which has no standard spelling. The younger Tatia, the stablemaster, was particularly interesting to Oeters and he looked into the possibility that this was "his" Tatia from Saqqara. The dates of the two tombs make it possible that both these references are to a single individual who changes job and moves from Luxor to Saqqara. It's also notable that two of the children of Tatia named in the Saqqara tomb are stablemasters, and they are younger than the child who is a Priest of the Front of Ptah and Goldsmith like his father. So there might be a career path in this particular family - that the next step after stablemaster was to become this particular sort of priest, and to become a goldsmith. The stablemaster Tatia was named after his grandfather Tatia. There are also other names that overlap between the family members named in TT106 and on the reliefs in Tatia's tomb chapel and that of Mose.

This evidence completely contradicts Oeters's previous theory about Tatia's family relationships. If Tatia is Paser's brother, as seems very plausible, then he cannot also be Mose's brother as Paser & Mose have different parents. But it is still true that Tatia is portrayed in Mose's tomb in a context where only a member of Mose's immediate family would be depicted. Oeters now thinks that it is most likely that Mose is Tatia's brother-in-law, and is married to Tatia's sister. So this demonstrates that no matter how plausible your theory is, it can still be overturned by a new piece of evidence!

This was a fascinating talk which demonstrated how archaeologists go about investigating the artifacts they find, and the sort of range of information they can glean including information about wider Egyptian culture and information about the family relationships & career path of a specific individual.

For more information see this paper that Vincent Oeters has published on the subject:

Vincent Oeters – “The Tomb of Tatia, Wab-Priest of the Front of Ptah and Chief
of the Goldsmiths” in Verschoor V., Stuart A.J., Demarée C. (Eds.) Imaging and Imagining the Memphite Necropolis: Liber amicorum René van Walsem. Egyptologische Uitgaven no. 30 Leuven and Leiden: Peeters and NINO, 57-80.