0c. Egyptian Origins

Nekhen (later, Hieraconpolis), Upper Egypt, c. 3100 BC. King Narmer was triumphant, having united the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt and ushering in the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt. In his honor, a ceremonial palette was carved out of siltstone illustrating his glory, smiting foreign captives with a mace. At the top of the Narmer Palette is a serekh—a designed enclosure for a royal name—framing a catfish (n‘r in Egyptian) and a chisel (mr). Using the rebus principle, Narmer’s name was one of the first ever recorded.1

The Narmer Palette, c. 3050 BC, discovered by British archaeologists James E. Quibell and Frederick W. Green at the Temple of Horus at Nekhen, southern Egypt, in 1897-8. Now at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Click on the image to see it at full size and look for the catfish-chisel hieroglyphics between the bulls heads at the top on both sides, and to the right of the figure of Narmer on the top left of the recto (right image).

The southern Nile Valley was a prime location for civilization in the fourth millennium BC. The river’s periodic flooding provided exceedingly fertile soil, regularly replenished and desalinated. The lush valley formed a long, thin strip of green slicing through the harsh desert, keeping people close together, while the river itself and strong winds blowing south encouraged travel up and down by boat. And large gold deposits east of the Nile were mined for immense wealth.2 Abundant natural resources, population density, and valuable minerals created the necessary environment for a complex society with craft specialization and social stratification. All this was headed by powerful rulers charged with harnessing the human and natural capital for ever-increasing wealth and power. Conquest and cooperation coalesced villages into chiefdoms of increasing size, eventually becoming the Upper Egypt proto-state.

Upper Egypt is upriver and to the south of Lower Egypt, which is downriver and includes the Nile Delta. Confusing, I know.

Upper Egypt is upriver and to the south of Lower Egypt, which is downriver and includes the Nile Delta. Confusing, I know.

Authority here took on a deeply religious meaning, the divine rulers in the Naqada culture embodying the cosmic battle for order over chaos.3 The Delta communities were slower to aggregate as the southerners had done, and Upper Egypt moved to dominate Lower Egypt, even moving up the Mediterranean coast to establish provinces in present-day Israel. In the transition from the Naqada eras to the Egyptian empire, the first Predynastic pharaohs4 formed a centralized government, with needs both administrative and sacred. Narmer’s role as unifier may be legendary, but his role in the foundation of an enduring kingdom seems to be historical.

Writing first appears in Egypt in the late Predynastic Period as short inscriptions on various objects, often just a couple signs. Like in Sumer, early writing is restricted to simple identifications of people, places, and objects, and is not intended to be a reflection of speech. Grammar appears later, and passages of continuous text are not written until hundreds of years later in the 2600s BC.5 The signs used were iconic in character, depicting real world objects such as tools, animals, and people in a detailed and naturalistic manner. In fact, the hieroglyphic depiction of many everyday objects changed as the look of the actual objects changed over the centuries. Unlike the Sumerians, whose rudimentary pictographs looked little like their art, Egyptian hieroglyphics seem to have followed from an earlier prewriting tradition of art and glyph-drawing. Moreover, for their entire duration hieroglyphics retained their representational style and were used alongside and in tandem with painting and sculpture in the same style.

A long-running question of archaeologists and historians was did Egypt invent writing on its own or did it take the basic idea of writing—but not its symbols or mechanics—from Mesopotamia? Sumerian shows a progression from simple numbers and logograms to phonetic writing, but Egyptian hieroglyphics seemed to have emerged fully formed in the earliest then-known attestations. However, it is entirely possible that the earliest Egyptian writing was on perishable materials that didn’t survive. (More on that later.) Although there is no direct proof, other evidence for cultural borrowings from Mesopotamia by Egyptians (like the serpopard) lead many scholars to infer Egyptian adaptation of a Mesopotamian invention. However, some acknowledge a historic deference to an age-old theory of the common origin of all written languages, and that ideas of monogenesis may still hold sway.6 Despite earlier theories that the Chinese and Mesoamericans also were somehow inspired by the Mesopotamians, it’s now well established that they both independently invented writing, and others (like in the Indus Valley) may have, too. Couldn’t the Egyptians have as well?

Recent findings have shed new light on hieroglyphics’ earliest days. In 1988, a German team led by Dr. Günther Dreyer found a tomb they labeled Tomb U-j at Abydos dating to 3400-3200 BC.7 Inside, along with pottery and other goods, were 160 bone tags—small rectangular fragments with a hole punched in a top corner for tagging pieces of inventory, just like modern price tags. Most of the tags Dreyer published feature icons of animals, people, and objects, seeming to represent where the item was from or who donated it to the tomb. Dreyer noticed similarity between the signs on these tags and early hieroglyphics, and that some combinations of signs could be read phonetically as place names. Other tags with only one sign couldn’t be read phonetically, but seemed to use those symbols as identifying places symbolically as ideograms (icons that represent concepts, like the male/female symbols on restrooms, or symbols on a map). 43 tags have numerical markings representing quantities.

Pictographic and numerical bone tags.

If the signs are actually phonetic, as Dreyer claims, and if they come from the earlier end of the 3400-3200 BC range, these proto-hieroglyphics could predate the earliest proto-cuneiform to make them the very first writing. The tomb likely belonged to King Scorpion I, Iry’s predecessor, so called because his identifier was an icon of a scorpion. Identifying people with symbols was already in practice in Egypt, proving the capability of abstract thought required for writing. The use of quantitative tags demonstrates this as well. Newer discoveries have added to our knowledge of Egyptian unification under these early kings.8 Egypt at the time was experiencing the same shift toward, and with the same needs as, government bureaucracy in Sumer, the theorized impetus for writing. Much of the earliest Egyptian writing appears in tombs, speaking to the special significance of death and afterlife in Egyptian culture. Could writing have developed first during King Scorpion’s reign? Evidence of trade with Near East at this time seen in imported jars found in Tomb U-j creates an opportunity for one culture to learn writing from the other,9 but differences in material, appearance, and usage seem to reject this. (We’ll get to those differences shortly.) Recent scholars have concluded that, based on all current evidence, hieroglyphics arose independently.10

Next: Hieroglyphics

Notes   [ + ]

1. That distinction may go to an earlier pharaoh called Iry Hor.
2. Branislav Anđelković, “Political Organization of Egypt in the Predynastic Period” in Before the Pyramids.
3. Renee Friedman, “Hierakonpolis” in Before the Pyramids.
4. Grouped together in what’s now known as Dynasty 0, Egypt having 30 or so dynasties from Narmer’s successor Aha in Dynasty I to the Hellenistic takeover of Egypt by Alexander the Great in the 332 BC.
5. See John Baines, Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society, and Visual and Written Culture in Ancient Egypt. One of the earliest continuous texts is the Inscription of Metjen in the 3rd Dynasty.
6. Wayne M. Senner, “Theories and Myths on the Origins of Writing: A Historical Overview” in The Origins of Writing
7. The Oldest Writings, and Inventory Tags of Egypt, Richard Mattessich.
8. John Noble Wilford, “Carving of a King Could Rewrite History,” New York Times, April 16, 2002; Thomas H. Maugh II “The Real Scorpion King,” April 15, 2002.
9. Though the existence of direct communication between the two cultures is disputed: Henry George Fischer says there was direct contact (in “The Origin of Egyptian Hieroglyphics” in The Origins of Writing), while David Wengrow (in “The Invention of Writing in Egypt” in Before the Pyramids) says there wasn’t.
10. David Wengrow in “The Invention of Writing in Egypt,” citing Woods 2010.

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