ALRI Ancient Egypt Course
Unit 2 Egypt from the Protodynastic to the Late Period
Click on images or
links for larger versions of the images.
Ancient Egypt developed along the Nile River, although there were some
smaller inhabited areas along the Red Sea and at Western Desert oases.
Archeologists work from the top down, uncovering more recent layers
first. Due to over-building, re-use, and intentional and
unintentional destruction, we often have much better information on the
top -- more recent -- levels. To understand what has happened, we
get to the bottom and then reverse direction, explaining the History
from the earliest to the latest -- like the Biblical "begats".
As we know from all those Cleopatra movies, cosmetics were very
important in Ancient Egypt. Organic and inorganic powders were
crushed and mixed with animal fats and applied to the skin and hair for
beautification and for medicinal purposes. In pre-, proto-, and
early dynastic times the pulverizing and mixing was done on stone
palettes that, over the centuries, transformed from simple rectangular
stones to highly ornate large ceremonial pieces. Early cosmetic
palettes provide a chronology of both ornamentation and of the
development of hieroglyphic writing.
Predynastic mace heads were shaped like a soup bowl but with no
depression on the inside. During the
protodynastic period those went out of style
and were replaced by periform (= pear shaped) mace heads like the ones
in the second image. Both styles were just glorified clubs,
but throughout the dynastic period, well after edged metal weapons came
into the area, maces remained the ceremonial weapon of choice used by
Pharaohs to smite their enemies.
Small image -- one of the guys. Already in proto-dynastic times,
small human figures were being placed in Egyptian graves. They had
various duties: be a stand-in for the deceased, be a servant or
worker, just be there as a friend, and most importantly (at least to
the real people around the Pharaohs), be a stand-in for a human
sacrifice. They are variously called shabtis, shawabtis, or
ushabtis or other versions of the same root. There is an Arabic
word that may be a cognate: shab (plural = shabab) that means guy (pl.,
guys). We might also call them "people" as in "have your people
call my people" (i.e., flunkies). For more info about all these
guys, go to http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/ushabti.htm.
Pharaohs liked to hunt lions, to be associated with lions, and to
be portrayed as lions (at least partially as lions), i.e.,
sphinxes. There were lions all along the Nile in those
days and even further north along the eastern Mediterranean
coast. Scat and pug marks attributed to lions were found in the
swamps around Ein Gedi on the Dead Sea as recently as the 1980s.
Imhotep! Imhotep! Imhotep! Imhotep!
the chant gets louder and louder as the minions of The Mummy call for their leader in
all the mummy movies ever made. The real historic Imhotep was an
old kingdom renaissance man who was eventually deified as the Egyptian
god of medicine -- one of his many skills. He is also credited
with inventing the Egyptian pyramid, because, as Djoser's architect, he
built this step-pyramid by stacking progressively smaller mastabas on top of each
other. A mastaba
(Arabic for bench) is a single level structure built over a tomb, and
it's what preceded the pyramids. Djoser was a 3rd Dynasty Pharaoh.
Sneferu was the founder of the 4th Dynasty and was Egypt's most
prolific builder of large pyramids. He had to keep trying until
he got it right. The beginning of his pyramid building is a bit
obscure. There are references to him completing the pyramid of
his father, Huni, but we don't know whether that pyramid was the one we
know as the "Broken Pyramid" or whether the Huni pyramid and the Broken
Pyramid are two different structures. We do know that the Broken
Pyramid was completed by Sneferu and that it fell down almost
immediately: the outer shell that made it a true (as opposed to
step) pyramid was not canted inward and, worse still, was built on
sand. His second attempt resulted in the "Bent Pyramid" which had
to be modified twice during construction to prevent it from being
another "broken" pyramid. Despite the problems of the Bent
Pyramid, it has retained more of its outer casing than any other large
pyramid (see image). His third pyramid is the Red Pyramid, which
is the first successful true pyramid -- even though the slope of the
sides is pretty shallow compared with the slopes of the three Great
Pyramids at Giza. A recent (July 2007) internet
search for the words Sneferu and Pyramid found more than 12000
internet sites that discuss his pyramids -- and that's only with one of
the several spellings of his name.
Khufu was the son of Sneferu, and Khufu's pyramid is the biggest of
the big three at Giza. It's also known as The Great Pyramid of
Giza. A trend was clearly developing, which is why the Old
Kingdom was known as the Age of Pyramids. This pyramid alone used
more than two million blocks each weighing 1 - 1.5 tons, a good portion
of which were quarried more than 500 miles away. Modern science
has estimated the number of workers and the time necessary for building
this and other pyramids, but the estimates vary wildly: 350,000 men for
23 years, or 40,000 for 10 and a lot of other numbers in between.
Egypt Research Associates (AERA) Internet page at http://www.aeraweb.org/khufu_quarry.asp goes into a lot of
detail about the source of the main part of the stone from local
quarries. Another Internet site with information on the Khufu
Pyramid is at http://www.cheops-pyramide.ch/khufu-pyramid/khufu-numbers.html.
Khafre, the son of Khufu, built his own pyramid beside that of his
father. It is smaller, but it is the only one of the three Great
Pyramids at Giza to retain any of its casing -- near the top where it
inaccessible except by telescope. The Casings did not fall from
the Great Pyramids: rather they were mined away as material to build
Khafre is also the most likely builder of the Great Sphinx and it's
thought to be his face that adorns it. The Great Sphinx was the
largest monolithic sculpture in the world until the mid 8th century AD
when the amazing rock-cut Kailasa temple dedicated to Hindu god
Shiva was built in the
Ellora caves in Maharashtra, India (picture at
Both the Kailasa temple and the Great Sphinx were built by carving away
stone until only the sculpture remained -- they both therefore stand in
very large man-made depressions. The Sphinx was actually
harder to carve because the quality and hardness of stone varied from
one place to the next: the softer parts were the trickiest and required
the most care in stone-carving so that they would not shatter and fall
away. Some stone experts speculate that a soft section in front
the hind-quarters is the reason that the body of the Sphinx is so
long: the carvers wanted harder stone, from which to carve the
curves of the
giant backside, so the stretched out the body until they got to some
Menkaure's pyramid is the smallest of Giza's big three, but, being the
clever son of Khafre, grandson of Khufu, and great-grandson of Sneferu,
Menkaure built his pyramid on a natural rise on the Giza Plateau, and
its top is higher than the others.
Old Kingdom mastery of stone was not limited to huge architectural
works. Note the thinness of the sides of this 3rd Dynasty
There are still hippopotami in the Nile River. During the 1st
Dynasty, an ivory carver used a hippo tooth as raw material for this
big eared figure.
Pharaoh Khasekhem sits in the oldest known Egyptian royal sculpture --
Pharaoh Menkaure (of the third Giza Pyramid -- 4th Dynasty) with
goddesses Hathor (horns on her head) and the local goddess of the Hiu
nome or province (nome standard above her head).
Ka-Nefer, a 5th Dynasty bureaucrat.
The last Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom decentralized giving wide powers
to governors of the nomes. Soon the governors developed pharaonic
ambitions and the result was the 1st Intermediate Period. Central
authority lost control, and Egypt was in pieces. Things
didn't come back together again until the late 11th or early 12th
dynasty. "Pharaohs" of the intermediate period really only ruled
in their own localities, and there were times when more than one
claimant to the crowns were seated in their respective nomes.
In the first intermediate period, a phenomenon that Egyptologists call
"the democratization of the afterlife" occurred. Death rights and
grave goods that had previously been reserved to members of the
Pharaoh's family spread to all classes. Even lower class graves
now contained helpers, and tombs other than those of pharaohs could
contain boats to take the spirit of the deceased to the Pole
Star. The boats, of course, were models rather than the full size
boats found around the Giza pyramids, and the helpers were primitive
"action figures" rather than the real (dead) people who accompanied the
Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom.
Even Real Estate managers took workers (models) with them. Every
Egyptian firmly believed that he/she could "take it with him/her".
Local leaders -- all claiming at least the prerogatives if not the
titles of pharaohs -- fought each for power, and they apparently
thought the struggles would continue in the afterlife.
The small grave figures of the 1st Intermediate Period continued to be
used in the Middle Kingdom and beyond.
Fertility dolls, Middle Kingdom.
Naturalistic Middle Kingdom images replaced the idealized portrait
sculpture of the Old Kingdom.
Middle Kingdom sculpture, both in reliefs and in the round, achieved a
higher level of fineness and detail than that of any other ancient
The late 12th Dynasty was the height of Egyptian stone sculpture.
Image of the Crocodile god, Sobek.
Size isn't everything. The 4th Dynasty Giza Pyramids (Old
Kingdom) were the Egyptian maximum in size, and the shrinking continued
into the Middle Kingdom. Pyramids now were also built of less
durable material, like this, which is mostly of mud brick.
Nevertheless, that's a lot of bricks.
of the afterlife also meant that tomb reliefs could show something
other than the Pharaoh smiting his enemies. River and
agricultural scenes like these became common.
The religious complexes in Thebes (modern Luxor -- the Luxor and Karnak
temple sites) didn't reach their height until the New Kingdom, but,
already in the Middle Kingdom, Pharaohs were building shrines
there. Unfortunately, most of them were replaced with much larger
temples. Middle Kingdom shrines were unceremoniously demolished
and their stones were used mostly for fill in the interior of the huge
New Kingdom pylons (= gateways). Ironically, that saved the
artwork. Modern archeologists found the stones during excavations
and painstakingly put some Middle Kingdom shrines back together again
in the Open Air Museum at Karnak.
Another Middle Kingdom shrine reconstructed in the Karnak Open Air
During the Middle kingdom (part of the 11th, and the 12th and 13th
Dynasties) many "Asiatics" started to move into the eastern side of the
Nile delta. Although there is still some discussion about their
geographic and ethnic origins, it is now generally thought that they
were from ancient Palestine (i.e., Philistines). Although quite
advanced the Egyptians of that time were still in the age of copper
weapons. The Asiatics, on the other hand, were already in their
Bronze Age and, more importantly, they had already invested in chariot
technology. The Egyptians were still fighting on foot.
Although some sources talk of an invasion, in fact, the Asiatics just
moved in and were initially accepted by the Egyptians, who called the
leaders of the Asiatics heqa khasewet,
"foreign rulers" in ancient Egyptian. When the Greeks later wrote
their histories of the time, they corrupted the Egyptian name to
"Hyksos" and that's the name for them that came down to us. (The
"Asiatic" designation is from the 18th or 19th century.)
Eventually a Hyksos power center emerged at Avaris, and that became the
Hyksos capital from which they ruled as the "Pharaohs" of the 15th and
possibly 16th Dynasties (based on contradictory
king lists) during the Second
As noted above, the Hyksos had superior edged weapons and
chariots, which allowed them to take over when their numbers were
sufficient. They first took the Delta and later were able to
control the trade routes all the way down into Nubia. Egyptians
still held many centers along the Nile, but the all important trade
routes to the east through the Delta and to the south (where Nubian
gold came from) were denied to them.
The Egyptians -- especially those around Thebes -- quickly adopted
Hyksos military technology and within a short time they had improved on
the Hyksos chariot. The Egyptian chariot was sturdier and could
carry two fighters, one of which would drive while the other used a
composite bow. The Egyptians also placed a wider axle at the back
of the chariot, greatly increasing its stability, and used sturdier
six-spoked wheels that wouldn't snap on sharp turns. All in
all, the Egyptians picked up a lot of technology from the
Asiatics in this period.
The Egyptians also improved archery technology. The Egyptian
composite bow had a 50% range advantage over the earlier stave bow
(made of a single piece of wood) and the introduction of recurved bows
increased the initial velocity of the arrows giving them a flatter
trajectory. Archers in those days fired at individual targets and
did not fire the arching volleys introduced by Roman auxiliary
formations and used so devastatingly by the British on St. Crispin's
Hyksos burials were much more simple than what had evolved among
the Egyptians. This warrior was burried with his weapons and a
few grave goods. The weapons tell the story of why the Egyptians
were able to expel the Hyksos
The sword in the hand
of the dead Avaris warrior was made of solid copper. Remember
that the Hyksos had arrived in the area with bronze weapons. By
the end of the 2nd Intermediate Period most Hyksos weapons had reverted
to copper technology either because the had lost bronze technology, or
because the had lost their source of tin that was needed to make
bronze, or because they had gotten soft and lazy and complacent.
The Egyptians had plenty of local tin, and they had been busy making
lots of bronze weapons -- occupied people seldom get soft or lazy or
Ahmosis of Thebes defeating the Hyksos using newly acquired military
technology. No mere smiter he. Ahmose founded the 18th
A faience hippo from the 2nd Intermediate Period. Male Hippos
were considered to be dangerous and monstrous. Females were
equally dangerous, but they were revered for their motherliness and
protectiveness of their babies. There was even a hippo goddess of
motherhood and childbirth named Taweret. Read about her at http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/taweret.htm.
The New Kingdom was essentially the Theban monarchy writ large.
It was the high point of ancient Egyptian history and produced many of
the well known pharaohs.
Fully aware that the tombs of earlier dynasty pharaohs had been
plundered, the Theban kings of the New Kingdom stopped building great
monuments to mark their tombs. In fact, they tried to hide them
away in the remote valleys on the west side of the Nile opposite
Thebes. They also collected mummies from earlier royal tombs that had
been despoiled and reburied them in two New Kingdom tombs in the Valley
of the Kings. (But their precautions didn't prevent their tombs
Since the pyramid was no longer a royal prerogative,
it was adopted by the lower ranks. Lower rank pyramids were
either free standing with an entrance to the funerary chapel or were
built on the roof of funerary chapels. The ancient Romans also
later used Pyramids on some of their tombs and one big one -- that of
Cestius -- is still built into Rome's Aurelian walls on the south side
of the city next to the Ostia Gate. A picture of the 35 meter Pyramid
of Cestius is at http://www.romaturismo.com/operatoriprofessionali/medi/Img1057.jpg.
Thutmosis II the 4th Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty died and left his
kingdom to his minor son, Thutmosis III. His will made his chief
wife (who was not the mother of Thutmosis III) regent. Shortly
thereafter, maybe in the first year after the death of Thutmosis II,
She took over and started to rule as Pharaoh. She ruled for 22
years and was Egypt's most successful and longest ruling female
Pharaoh (except for some of those foreign girls, the Cleopatras).
To validate her claim to the pharaonic crowns, Hatsheptut embarked on
huge building programs. She mad major additions to Luxor and
Karnak (mostly defaced by Thutmosis III) including this small red
quartzite chapel that originally stood in one of the Karnak
courtyards. It was demolished by her successors and used as fill
in the cores of their monuments, but modern archeologists have
recovered the blocks and recently rebuilt it in the Karnak Open Air
Hatshepsut erected four large obelisks at Karnak, but only this one is
still standing. Its 100 foot twin is shattered on the ground
nearby. Two much larger ones have gone missing. This one is
the second tallest standing obelisk in the world, overtopped only by
the one in Lateran square in Rome. Thutmosis III didn't
destroy this obelisk, but he did build structures immediately adjacent
to it that hid her name. A picture of the taller obelisk in Rome
is at http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/imagenes_vaticano/vatican18_11.jpg,
where it, frankly, seems dwarfed by surrounding Vatican Renaissance
Hatshepsut's temple at Dayr al-Bahri is her crowning architectural
achievement. It was designed for her by Senenmut, who was her
architect and perhaps her lover: there are images of the two of them
that show intimacy but not compromise. Her successor, Thutmose
III greatly damaged and defaced the temple, but modern archeologists
been restoring it for decades. It's on every tourist's itinerary
-- and, because it's a masterpiece, it deserves to be. The temple is
not her tomb: that was identified elsewhere, but her body wasn't in it.
After 22 years of totally subordinate "co-pharaohship", Thutmose became
a real pharaoh when Hatshepsut died. He then ruled independently
for an additional 32 years. About 20 years into his reign he
started his campaign to efface Hatshepsut's name and images. This
was not the pique of a long suppressed boy king, but rather was an
effort to ensure that his own heirs would inherit.
Akhenatum took the "-atum" off his name and replaced it with
"-aten". Aten was the god of the solar disk with whom Akhenaten
identified. His new religion was more that just a change of
worship to monotheism: he really portrayed himself as a manifestation
of Aten. His daily chariot ride from his outlying residence to
administrative palace in the center of his new desert
capital, Akhetaten (now called Amarna) was considered to be equivalent
to the daily passage of the sun overhead. Aten's temples were
open to the sky rather than being a succession of smaller and darker
rooms until the cult image was reached in a small totally dark room
that only the high priests could enter. In Aten worship, everyone
had access to the sun -- and could view the daily chariot-passage of
Akhenaten. His wife Neferiti and their seven (or six) daughters
were also on public display.
Images of Akhenaten and his family show a refreshing intimacy.
The wife and kids are not tiny figures at the feet of the Pharaoh but
rather are shown in normal size, kids climbing on the parents as they
do. There is, however, a grotesqueness in the bodies and
physiognomies of all the family members. This is often attributed
"Amarna style", but there clearly is some truth the idea that this
long-interbred family was congenitally deformed.
During the "Amarna Period" household altars (at least in Amarna) to
local gods were replaced by altars showing Akhenaten and his family
being favored by the Aten solar disk.
Two of the daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
Another image of Nefertiti, who was, at least, a half sister of
Akhenaten -- some sources say full sister.
The famous bust of Nefertiti, plaster and paint over stone, is
still in the Berlin Museum despite Egyptian requests for its return or
at least for its loan for display in Egypt. The Germans clearly
don't trust the Egyptians to send it back if it ever were sent to Cairo
on loan. Said to be the epitome of beauty, but only if you like
the emaciated 20th century fashion-model look that sprang from this and
other ancient Egyptian skinny images.
"younger woman" found with the mummy of Queen Tiye, who may have been
Nefertiti's mother. Whether or not she's Nefertiti, the family
deformation of the skull is clearly present.
A very short-reigning pharaoh, Smenkhkare, about whom little is known,
is listed between Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. Images show a
feminized "Amarna" body type, and that has led a few Egyptologists to
speculate that Smenkhkare was really Nefertiti ruling as a man.
The confusion is compounded because Nefertiti and Smenkare have several
of their names in common. Most Egyptologists discount this
speculation, but nobody knows where Smenkhkare came from.
succeeded Smenkhkare and in short order changed his name to Tutankhamun
and moved the capital back to Thebes. This quick repudiation of
his father's new religion may have been because of agitation among the
Theban priestly class and dissatisfaction of the people with radical
Aten worship. There was also bound to be confusion and upset due
to the quick succession of successions: Akhenaten to Smenkhkare
to Tutankaten apparently in the space of a single year. The
priests could say that the old gods were angry. Tutankhamun was
not the son of Nefertiti, and may not even have been the son of
Akhenaten. The new blood apparently did him good, if we can
believe his statues. It's also possible, however, that he was
portrayed as a "conventional" pharaoh, i.e., that his images followed
previous Theban artistic conventions rather than the Amarna style.
Tutankhamun was really small potatoes as a pharaoh. His main
accomplishment, other than succumbing to pressure to repudiate
Akhenaten's religion, was being discovered in an undisturbed tomb in
the Valley of the Kings in 1922. He had a short and mediocre
reign and lived in a time when two moves of the capital would have
depleted the treasury. His grave goods were impressive,
especially all that gold. But think of what must have been buried
in and looted from the tombs of the really big pharaohs.
Ramesses II (the Great) was the biggest of the big. His grandiose
building programs are still visible from Abu Simbel through the central
Theban district and into the Delta. He was successful in war and
diplomacy and presided over Egypt for almost 66 years. He
is said to have regained Egypt's lost glory and prestige.
Unfortunately it didn't survive him. It was all downhill after
Nefertari's Canopic Chest. Nefertari (Nefertari Merytmut) (c.
1300–1250 BC) was the Great Royal Wife (or principal wife) of Ramesses
the Great. Nefertari means Beautiful Companion. She is one of the best
known Egyptian queens, along with Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and Hatshepsut.
Her lavishly decorated tomb, QV66, is the largest and most spectacular
in the Valley of the Queens. By the time of the New Kingdom,
Canopic Jars had been replaced by Canopic Chests that had four
compartments to hold the viscera of the deceased. They are often
mounted on sledges although most of the royal sledges show no sign that
they ever were actually dragged anywhere.
Tutankhamun's Canopic chest was carved from a block of translucent
alabaster, and each of the four compartments had a lid that was carved
from alabaster in his image. The chest was enclosed in a golden
canopic shrine, a replica of which is shown in the second image.
The shrine was in a separate room next to the room in which Tutankhamun
An image of a Pharaoh and his wife receiving the blessing of the Aten
is shown of the seat back of the golden throne from Tutankhamun's
tomb. The Pharaoh is usually identified as Tutankhamun, but it is
in the Amarna style which he had long before repudiated along with the
Aten religion. The gold panel may be a re-used one from the time
ostentatious wooden New Kingdom chair.
What did well dressed Egyptians wear to ceremonial occasions? Pleats.
The sphinx remained a popular icon into the New Kingdom and
beyond. In fact religious pilgrimages often headed off to Giza to
the Great Sphinx. Pharaohs and high officials financed periodic
restorations and cleanings (and digging away blowing sand), and
affixed dedicatory plaques to the Sphinx and to the walls of the
depression in which it stands.
Cosmetics and beauty were still important both to men and women.
The image shows a New Kingdom wooden cosmetic spoon.
Hair and wig care was also a major concern. Wigs and hair
extenders were common either because it was cooler and more sanitary to
shave heads or because it allowed quick changes of
hairstyles. Multiple wigs in wicker boxes have been found
in some tombs and storerooms. On the other hand, folks also
appear to have been concerned about baldness: the so
called Ebers Papyrus (after one of its owners), one of the oldest known
medical texts lists several ointments (all disgusting) to cure
baldness. For information on the Ebers papyrus, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebers_papyrus.
Wigs were popular for a long time in ancient Egypt, at least among the
upper classes. The image shows an Old Kingdom Royal Wigmaker and
New Kingdom wig.
Third Intermediate Period. As noted above, things spiraled
downward after Ramesses II. After the death of Ramesses
XII, the last pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty, rival power structures
developed. Priests at Thebes were in competition the greatly
weakened pharaohs who moved their capital to Tanis in Lower
Egypt. The image is a priestly bureaucrat. Toward the end
of the Third Intermediate Period, Libyan influence started to be felt
in Lower Egypt.
"Libyans" in those days referred to the autochthonous peoples of North
Africa as opposed to Egyptians -- the most closely related group today
are the Berbers.
Mummification continued. Higher classes got good work (images),
and, as always, the lower classes got less than good work.
Theban gold work continued at a high level. This Intermediate
period was not particularly chaotic -- it merely was functioning with
Metallurgy was also flourishing in the Delta -- although gold, which
came from the south, was more rare. The silver plate is from
Bubastis, the cat city.
The Third Intermediate Period ended with the expulsion of Libyan
influence, but they were expelled by a non-Egyptian Kushite (Nubian)
dynasty. From here on out, it;s almost always foreigners in
control: Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, and then of course, the Greeks
(Ptolemaic Period) and the Romans (after the defeat of Antony and
A graphic showing the rise and fall of ancient Egypt
the degenerate Late Period, Egypt was more than competitive in the
arts. Or at least we have so absorbed the "elegance" of Egyptian
art that we consider it to be higher than that in other parts of the
A Bes bottle -- an ill child fed from a Bes bottle should get
well. If not, call a doctor.