Friday, 11 April 2014

Something I don’t know much about: Predynastic Pottery

Egypt Centre’s volunteer documentation assistants have just started audit checking a group of material from Armant. I have briefly blogged about it here, but I didn't explain how beautiful some of the pieces really are. Before I tell you about the Armant stuff, and particularly the pottery, a quick thank you to the volunteer documentation assistants, Richard, Olivia, Charlotte, Jessica and Lisa. They have been checking that the items in our store match the computer records, making sure they are photographed and not falling apart and adding information to the database!  While carrying out this they are learning a bit about museum documentation and are becoming adept at using the Modes Complete database. While most are Egyptology students, one is not.

Back to the Armant stuff. The pieces are all from the excavations cemeteries and settlement sites 1600-1900 which haven’t been published. We have possibly the most northern ‘Nubian’ A-group pottery in Egypt here in Swansea. The Armant material is largely Badarian (c.5500-4000 BC), A-group (c.3500-3000 BC) and includes the mysterious Saharan sherds. Some of the Badarian pieces are particularly amazing to look at. Granted, as this is real excavated and very old material, most of the pieces are fragmentary, but they are just soooooo fine.

The piece above (AR50/3257) is on display. It is Badarian black-topped polished brown ware, a precursor to the later Naqada black-topped red ware. The walls are finer than those of the later stuff. The thickness of the walls is all the more amazing as the piece, like of its date, is coil made. That is a long snake-shape is made (a coil) which is then twisted into a pot shape and smoothed down. The piece shines slightly as it has been polished by rubbing with a smooth stone. Egyptologists argue about how the black top was achieved but it was generally thought that it was placed upside down in the kiln, into the smouldering ashes. The piece in this photograph has been mended in antiquity showing that it must have been considered important to the Egyptians.

And here is a piece (503243) from Armant which has been decorated by impressing with a pointed instrument and then the holes filled with a white pigment. It was categorised by the excavators as A-group, though I am aware that some later Nubian pottery (C-group, 2300-1500 BC) as well as Petrie’s N-ware, also has this white pigment decoration. This, and other pieces have a dark brown, reddish fabric, which is like Petrie’s N-ware. N-ware, is generally believed to derive from Nubia. Unfortunately, I am not an expert on this so, if anyone has any thoughts I would be glad to hear. Whether, A, or C-group, this type of decoration is strongly reminiscent of Nubian wares. The other items found with the same grave context are largely fragments of finely made stone vessels, which would suggest, if Egyptian, an Early Dynastic date. There’s a good discussion on Petrie’s N-ware, with references, in Jane Roy’s, 2011. The Politics of Trade: Egypt and Lower Nubia in the 4th Millennium BC, 259-262.

If you want to know more about adult volunteering at the Egypt Centre click here.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Piggish Deities!

My last blog was about Ammut and whether or not she was really so bad. Part of Ammut is made-up of a hippopotamus, and for the Egyptians, hippos were ‘water pigs’. Pigs were thought of as devouring animals (de Velde 1992). Taweret (an amulet of her is shown on the left) is perhaps the archetypal hippopotamus goddess, though actually hippopotamus goddesses were often labeled as Isis, Ipy, Reret, etc. Reret actually means ‘the sow’.

Taweret is usually portrayed as a pregnant hippopotamus (or alternatively her large stomach and hanging breasts were intended to make her look fecund, like Hapi), but often with the back of a crocodile and paws of a lion. In the New Kingdom she often appears with Bes. Indeed in the Egypt Centre we have a pair of bed legs decorated with both Bes and Taweret. Her name means ‘the great one’ and she is connected with the northern sky. It is apposite that there is a hippopotamus goddess here since this area of the night sky was a watery one. She is also considered a protector of women and particularly associated with birth, not only of babies on this earth, but also of the deceased, reborn. She seems a good sort of deity, but, she could turn nasty! A statue of Taweret (Louvre E25479) has on it an inscription I am the sow who attacks with her voice and who devours’ (Vandier 1962, 199).  An inscription on a statue of Taweret in Aberdeen Anthropological Museum (B.1422/ABDUA:21491) reads ‘life and death are in her grasp’ (Gahlin 2007, 337).

Now this classification of hippos as water pigs brings in all sorts of possibilities for how Ammut would have been considered. It connects her with Shay (Shai, Shaii), Taweret, and Seth. In some cases she seems to have been interchanged with them.

Shay was associated with fate and destiny and is often present in the weighing of the heart scene, or in the scene of the mound. In the Greenfield Papyrus, for example, Shai is shown in place of Ammut, in the mound scene. On a 21st Dynasty Coffin (a bit like ours in the Egypt Centre) Brussels E.5884, a figure which looks like the Devourer (croc head, lion forepart and hippo hind end) is even labelled as Shai. Seeber (1976, 170 gives other examples). According to de Velde (1992) Shai can also mean pig or Seth.

And Seth could be shown as a pig. In the Book of Gates, gate 5, shows a pig labelled ‘Devourer’ (right). Now this sort of brings us back to the mound scene because Book of Gates gate 5, looks a bit like the mound scene. In fact both Book of Gates 5 and the mound scene are judgement scenes (Manassa 2007) thus one might expect to see a Devourer like Ammut here! This could also explain the Book of Gates scenes of judgement where the pig, an avatar of Seth, is shown in the solar barque with text suggesting that he has swallowed the Eye of Re (Manassa 2006, 125-126). The negative swallowing and subsequent regurgitation is a ‘prerequisite to the recreation of time’ (Manassa 2006, 126).

All these piggish deities seem interwoven. So is Taweret ever in judgement scenes? I don’t know of any scenes of her directly by the scales or in mound scenes. But she is shown in the night sky engaged in the tethering of Seth (or sometimes the leg of Osiris) so that renewal (of Osiris) is possible. For example below, she is shown from a scene of the tomb of Seti I. Seth, or his foreleg, is tethered to a mooring post in several of these depictions, and mooring posts are symbols of punishment. This isn’t exactly judgment but more a defeat of enemies, or a sacrifice, to make birth possible. So then, like Ammut, it seems she was also involved in the destruction of enemies as a prerequisite of rebirth.

What a tangled web!

Gahlin, L. 2007. ‘Creation Myths’ in The Egyptian World edited by T. Wilkinson, 296-310.

de Velde, H. 1992 ‘Some Egyptian Deities and Their Piggishness’ in The Intellectual Heritage of Egypt. Studies Presented to L Kákosy edited by U. Luft. Budapest. 571-578.(

Manassa, C. 2006. The Judgement Hall of Osiris in the Book of Gates. Revue d’Égyptologie 57, 109-150.

Manassa, C. 2007. The Late Egyptian Underworld: Sarcophagi and Related Texts from the Nectanebid Period. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Seeber, C. 1976. Untersuchungen zur Darstellung des Totengerichts im Alten Ägypten. München: Deutscher Kunstverlag.

Vandier, J. Une statuette de Toueris, Revue de Louvre 12 (1962) 199.