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 Post subject: the ancient egyptian state
PostPosted: Tue Oct 10, 2017 11:02 pm 
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Fascinating and insightful, although I don’t necessarily agree with all the insights. Author Robert Wenke is a retired University of Washington professor; his book is multimodal, with the first section a general appreciation of Egyptian geography, Egyptian ecology, Pharaonic culture plus a discussion of the difficulties of doing fieldwork:

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Living conditions in the field vary from palatial to those that would violate the Geneva Convention’s rules on the treatment of prisoners of war…


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The Egyptian cobra (Naga haje) is particularly venomous and gives force to the quip that in some instances “a snake-bite emergency kit is a body bag”…


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Many archaeological staff members have done extensive research on the hypothesis that it is possible to have enthusiastic sexual encounters in excavation quarters without the whole expedition staff knowing about it; more research, no doubt, will be needed.


While this discussion has frequent moments of humor, it’s germane to the rest of the book; Wenke notes that field work is especially difficult in Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta), where groundwater is only a few feet below the surface and excavation requires extensive and expensive pumping; thus, archaeological results from Upper Egypt, where most sites are in the desert, may be over-emphasized in the record.

After this section, the rest of the work blends what is known about the origins of the ancient Egyptian state with what this means; i.e., how does the Egyptian state relate to other ancient states and how does it illustrate various ideological and philosophical positions. Back in the 1970s, when I was studying Egyptology at the University of Chicago, Marxist theory of history was very much in evidence and the development of ancient cultures in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China were attributed to the establishment of “hydraulic” states: networks of canals were necessary to bring river water to distant agricultural fields; individual or family effort was insufficient to construct and maintain such irrigation systems; and therefore states and state coercion was necessary to make people work on them. Wenke notes that archaeological results do not bear this out; there seems to have been plenty of undeveloped agricultural land not requiring irrigation available long after the Pharaonic state was established (he also notes that some Marxist historians have denounced this observation as a “capitalist plot”; Wenke generally approves of Marxist observations on the importance of economics in understanding past cultures but is condemnatory toward Marxist political ideology and has fulsome praise for capitalism – or more specifically free markets – as an agent of civilization).

At any rate, what seems to have happened in Egypt is Pleistocene hunter-fisher-foragers from the Sahara gradually moved into the Nile valley as the desert (then more savanna-like) dried up. They established agricultural communities which initially seemed pretty egalitarian; there are no differences in the size of houses or the possession of “luxury” goods. As what’s called the Predynastic period progresses, things change; some people have bigger houses and their houses and graves yield more possessions than the average. Wenke notes something interesting here; in almost all ancient cultures the transition to statehood is marked by a change in house styles; egalitarian agricultural communities use circular pit houses; once a state is established the house style changes to above-ground square or rectangular buildings with common walls. Some explanatory hypotheses for this have been proposed but nothing conclusive has been decided.

Some number of proto-states get established, at least in Upper Egypt. The Nile Valley lends itself to linear states; it’s easy to defend the narrow northern and southern boundaries and hard to outflank a position, due to the superiority of riverine over land transport. (As mentioned, it’s hard to figure out what might be going on in the Delta). This period is sometimes called the “Protodynastic”(as opposed to “Late Predynastic”), and some Egyptologists claim to be able to identify rulers and even sequence them, based on various objects with painted or carved symbols, usually of animals (“Scorpion” is believed to be the name or symbol of one of these kings).

Wenke notes that it’s been argued that some of the impetus for Egyptian civilization came from Mesopotamia (he generally uses the term “Southwest Asia” to describe Mesopotamia and the Levant; while this is technically correct it’s a little confusing at first since it’s not the way the area has generally been described). It’s been suggested, for example, that while there is plenty of documentation for the gradual development of writing in Sumer, writing seemed to appear ex nihilo in Egypt; thus, it was argued that the idea of writing must have been imported. Wenke finds studies that dispute this and suggest there was gradual writing development in Egypt as well; it’s just that early Egyptian writing was on wood or papyrus rather than clay and just less likely to be preserved. Similarly, the early Egyptian use of cylinder seals has been suggested as a link to Mesopotamia, with the argument that the Egyptians must have liked the idea of cylinder seals at first but quickly abandoned them because they were impractical on papyrus; however it’s noted that originally Egyptians used cylinder seals on things like clay jar and chest seals, where they were perfectly practical.

The Upper Egyptian proto-kingdoms eventually coalesce and move to “conquer” the North; Delta pottery and architectural styles are replaced by Upper Egyptian ones. It can’t be proved that an actual military conquest was involved, as opposed to cultural diffusion and replacement; but there’s a famous object, the Narmer Palette, that shows a person identified by the hieroglyphs nrmr, wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, and bashing another person on the head with a mace. The other side of the palette also shows nrmr (which means something like “chiseling catfish”); this time he’s wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt and apparently inspecting two rows of decapitated bodies. The not unreasonable interpretation of Egyptologists is the Narmer Palette commemorates a military conquest of the Delta by Upper Egypt (although a cosmetic mixing palette might seem like an odd thing to use to commemorate a historic event, there are other Egyptian examples).

The Egyptians had a long tradition – quoted by Herodotus and other classical authors – that the country was unified by a king named Menes. In Egyptology, the unification marks the beginning of the Early Dynastic period – the First and Second Dynasties. It’s possible that the unification happened more than once; i.e., that Lower and Upper Egypt united and split more than once in the Early Dynastic period. There’s very little in the way of historical evidence; the names of the kings and their sequence are known but there’s not much else (it’s interesting that none of the possible candidates for the last king of the Protodynastic or the first king of the Early Dynastic – Narmer, Aha, Ka, Iry-Hor – bear any resemblance to the name “Menes”). One exception to the general lack of data is a plaque of King Den, found at Abydos, showing him “smiting the East”, meaning Egypt had already begun an advance into the Levant; there’s also evidence (based on pottery styles) of an Early Dynastic Egyptian colony at Gaza. There’s similar evidence that Early Dynastic Egyptians had expanded past the First Nile Cataract at Aswan and established colonies and/or trading posts in Nubia. The Early Dynastic period shows evidence for human sacrifice, particularly to provide servants for the king in the afterlife; there are royal tombs at Abydos where it’s pretty clear that a number of people were entombed simultaneously, and there are a few depictions that seem to show human sacrifice. This seems to be another example of something early Egypt had in common with Sumer, where there are other tombs full of people who were pretty obviously buried alive; however, the Sumer tombs have been reinterpreted as belonging to high priestesses rather than kings.

The Early Dynastic kings seem to have ruled the whole country but remain relatively obscure; things really kick off with the Third Dynasty (some Egyptologists consider the Third Dynasty to be the last of the Early Dynastic period; others consider it the first of the Old Kingdom; Wenke goes with the later). The Third Dynasty Egyptians begin using stone for buildings and statuary - the last king of the Second Dynasty, Khasekhemwy, has a stone floor in his tomb and the earliest known statue from Egypt – but the Third Dynasty king Neterykhet/Djoser built the Step Pyramid as Saqqara, which was far and away the largest building in the world (although it was relatively quickly surpassed by the pyramids of Sneferu).

One of the paradoxes of Egypt is that while there’s a lot of information about how they were entombed there’s comparatively little about how they lived; this is related to current and ancient geography. The Upper Egyptians always built their tombs and associated buildings in the desert, to spare agricultural land; however Egyptian cities and towns evolved in the agricultural area. Thus, archaeology of Egyptian cities is always difficult, since people are still living at the sites. Archaeology in the Delta is doubly difficult, since both towns and graves are just barely above (if not actually in) groundwater. Once thing Wenke notes is the Nile provided readily available transport for the entire country; the ancient Egyptian word for “town” is related to the word for “boat dock”. Egyptologists have modeled the Old Kingdom economy as based on a single large administrative city roughly at the site of modern Cairo (usually known by the Greek name Memphis; the ancient name was “Inebhedi”, which means “White Wall”) and a series of small towns/villages spread out along the Nile, where ships could pick up and drop off agricultural and other products. However, Wenke notes recent excavations have discovered a settlement associated with the pyramid of Menkaure and which would have had a population of around 20000; this would have been one of the largest cities in the entire ancient world, much less just Egypt. Excavations in this and other urban areas disclose something interesting about Egyptian dietary habits; pigs are usually the most abundant animal remains found around houses; however, pigs are never shown in tomb paintings (while cattle, sheep and goats are common) and pig bones are never found in “funerary meals” left for the tomb inhabitant. Wenke suggests this might be evidence of the beginning of pork dietary taboos; in Old Kingdom Egypt it was apparently OK to eat pork in secular contexts but forbidden in sacred ones.

The Old Kingdom, the Sixth Dynasty, and Wenke’s study, all end with the reign of Pepi II. Pepi II seems to have had a very long reign, coming to the throne at age 6 and living to 94 (although it’s possible the papyrus documenting this might have “94” as miswriting for “54”). One way or another he seems to have ruled for a long time; it’s been argued that he gradually lost control with age and the country fell apart. Wenke concedes this as a possibility but also notes an alternative, that although royal power may have decreased the rest of the country continued without much disturbance.

The last part of The Ancient Egyptian State discusses the meaning of history and archaeology to modern people. Archaeology, like a lot of other disciplines, has been strongly affected by modern political theories, including Marxism and deconstructionism; and Wenke notes there are deconstructionist archaeologists who argue that since all science is subjective and based on opinion, archaeologists should abandon any pretense of objectivity and use their work to advance particular political objectives. As mentioned, while Wenke is sympathetic Marxist ideas stressing the importance of economics in human history he doesn’t have much use for Marxism as a political system, and he mentions the existence of deconstructionist archaeology without any praise or criticism.

This is already an unusually long review, and there are still a lot of insights and information in this excellent book that I have ignored or just glossed over. I highly recommend it, to people interested in Egyptology, archaeology in general, and the development of civilization. Maps and illustrations appropriate to the text; endnotes and an extensive bibliography.


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