British Museum blog

Violence and climate change in prehistoric Egypt and Sudan

excavation at Jebel SahabaRenée Friedman, curator, British Museum

What started off two years ago as a rearrangement of a few cases in the Early Egypt Gallery (Room 64) to highlight new acquisitions has, thanks to the generosity of Raymond and Beverly Sackler, developed into a full-blown refurbishment with new themes and displays throughout. This has also given us the opportunity to integrate some of the recent research into the early, formative periods of Egyptian civilisation and present our better understanding of it.

Ancient Egyptian civilisation is the product of more than 5,000 years of development. The gallery focuses on the earliest, prehistoric, phases of this development from 8600 BC to 3100 BC when Egypt unified to become the world’s first nation state. It also highlights the advances in ideology and technology during the First and Second Dynasty that paved the way for the Pyramid Age of the Old Kingdom. To illustrate these stories we have created new displays of objects long held in the collection as well as a selection of materials only recently acquired.

Excavations at Jebel Sahaba, 1965 (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Excavations at Jebel Sahaba, 1965 (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Map of cemetery 117 at Jebel Sahaba. The red dots indicate those who experienced a violent death.

Map of cemetery 117 at Jebel Sahaba. The red dots indicate those who experienced a violent death. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Among the most exciting of the new acquisitions are the materials from the site of Jebel Sahaba, now in northern Sudan, which were donated to the Museum by Dr Fred Wendorf in 2002. Excavating here in 1965–66, as part of the UNESCO-funded campaign to salvage sites destined to be flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, Dr Wendorf found a cemetery (site 117) containing at least 61 individuals dating back to about 13,000 years ago. This discovery was of great significance for two reasons. First, as a designated graveyard, evidently used over several generations, it is one of the earliest formal cemeteries in the world. Prior to this discovery, only isolated graves, or clusters of up to three bodies had been known within the Nile Valley. But perhaps even more significant, of the 61 men, women and children buried at Jebel Sahaba, at least 45% of them died of inflicted wounds, making this the earliest evidence for inter-communal violence in the archaeological record. Chips and flakes of chert, the remnants of arrows or other weapons, were found mixed with and in some cases still embedded in the bones of 26 individuals, while cut marks were found on the bones of others.

Excavation photo of  the two victims of violence featured in Room 64 (burials 20 and 21). The pencils point to weapon fragments mixed with the bones. (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Excavation photo of the two victims of violence featured in Room 64 (burials 20 and 21). The pencils point to weapon fragments mixed with the bones. (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Scanning electron microscope image of a weapon fragment embedded in the pelvis bone of Burial 21, Jebel Sahaba

Scanning electron microscope image of a weapon fragment embedded in the pelvis bone of Burial 21, Jebel Sahaba

A special case displays two of the unfortunate victims (Burials 20 and 21) and the remains of the actual weapons that killed them, recreating the burials as they were found. This is the first time these skeletons have ever been publicly shown. Both were adult men, buried together in the standard flexed position, on their left side, on their left side, head east, facing south. A total of 19 weapon fragments were found in and among the bones of Burial 21 by the original excavators, including one still lodged in his pelvis. However, modern conservation of the bodies in preparation for the display has now made it possible to see at high magnification many more tiny chips. Ongoing research is also studying the velocity and directionality of the arrows and weapons based on cut marks and other micro-traces on the bones, potentially allowing us to recreate the lethal raid. Clearly, the conflict was brutal and seems to have been fairly constant, as healed injuries have also been observed.

The reasons for all of this violence most likely comes down to climate. The Ice Age glaciers covering much of Europe and North America at this time made the climate in Egypt and Sudan cold and arid. The only place to go was to the Nile, but its regime was erratic: depending on the exact dating, the river was either high and wild, or low and sluggish. Either way, there was little viable land on which to live, and resources must have been scarce. Competition for food may well have been the reason for the conflict as more groups clustered around the best fishing and gathering grounds and were unwilling or unable to move away. Two other cemeteries found by Dr Wendorf in the vicinity suggest that several other social units, or small tribes, also considered this area their home and this may have caused friction. However, the bodies in the other cemeteries show no evidence for the sustained violence seen in Cemetery 117, suggesting that this group was either very unlucky or that the cemetery was allocated specifically for those who died a violent death. As more research is carried out on the unique collection now housed in the Museum, we will certainly learn more about life in those precarious times.

The Battlefield Palette (EA 20791)

The Battlefield Palette (EA 20791)

Of course, the Jebel Sahaba people were not the only victims of violence. The newly refurbished gallery also features the return of the popular virtual autopsy table allowing a deeper look into Gebelein Man and his unfortunate end. For the actual remains of this remarkably well preserved natural mummy, the new display aims to recreate his grave as accurately as the surviving records allow. Sir Wallis Budge, Keeper of the Egyptian Department from 1894 to 1924, claims to have witnessed the excavation of Gebelein Man in 1899 and relates that the grave was covered by stone slabs and the body was surrounded by pots and other objects. Simulating some stone slabs was no problem, but it proved impossible to determine which items came specifically from his grave. Those now accompanying him do at least come from Gebelein and date to about 3500 BC, the time we think that Gebelein Man lived. This was a period when several regional centres were beginning to vie for power and territory, leading ultimately to the unification of Egypt some 400 years later. Violence no doubt played a role in this process (as made clear by the intricately carved Battlefield palette, soon to be reunited with its mending piece on long term loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and the stab wound in Gebelein Man’s back may mark him as an unfortunate victim of his times.

Ivory gaming piece (EA 64093). Catering for the royal afterlife, board games and playing pieces for Mehen, the snake game, were some of the objects placed in the tombs of the First Dynasty kings.

Ivory gaming piece (EA 64093). Catering for the royal afterlife, board games and playing pieces for Mehen, the snake game, were some of the objects placed in the tombs of the First Dynasty kings.

This period was not all murder and mayhem. Other themes in the gallery include how climate change has preserved for us a glimpse at the very beginnings of ancient Egyptian civilisation in the lives of herders living in what is now the Sahara desert from about 8600 BC until the drying climate forced them to the Nile. There they adopted farming, setting in motion the social and technological developments that led directly to the advent of Dynastic Egyptian civilisation in around 3100 BC. The gallery includes displays illustrating afterlife beliefs, early gods, the first writing and technological innovations, as well as a look at the sumptuous afterlife of the First Dynasty kings.

Ceramic mask recently found at Hierakonpolis, displayed in cast in Room 64, courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition.

Ceramic mask recently found at Hierakonpolis, displayed in cast in Room 64, courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition.

Working on the gallery, through the kindness of Tom and Linda Heagy, I have also been able to integrate some of the recent discoveries (in pictures and casts) from the British Museum-sponsored excavations at the site of Hierakonpolis, a major site of the formative predynastic period. Findings there are helping to chart the development of some of the characteristics that came to typify ancient Egyptian civilisation. Current research at other early sites also feature, thanks to the cooperation of many colleagues, too numerous to name, who so kindly supplied information and photographs, often at short notice. Through the display, I hope visitors will gain a better understanding of Egypt at its origin – a fascinating laboratory of dynamic experimentation – and the debt that the Egyptians of later times owed to their early ancestors.

Correction: The post was edited on 7 August 2014 to correct an error in the description of the position of Burials 20 and 21 in paragraph 4. It now reads ‘head south, facing east’ instead of ‘head east, facing south.’


Room 64, Early Egypt, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery

A recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display.

Further details about human remains at the British Museum.

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3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. David says:

    If lying on left side and head is pointing south, the face must be pointing west…? Are there really distinct cultural differences involved in the burial process whereby some ancient Nubians buried their dead with their head to the north and facing east while some Pan Grave ceremonies indicate the deceased lying on right side, head north and facing west?

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  2. Arthur says:

    There are several beautiful items displayed in this post. Why don’t they mention specifics of where each item was found or its date. Please list the date in which each artefact is made.

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  3. Nick Thorpe says:

    Surely the major difficulty with assessing this climate change theory (or the highly implausible ‘race war’ idea presented in ‘The Independent’) is that the evidence for the date of Jebel Sahaba is minimal. There is only a single radiocarbon date, from which the 13,000 BP given here comes. Recent apatite radiocarbon dates (an alternative to collagen) range from 11,600-7200 BP, with the dates from bones (11-10,000 BP) being thought to be more reliable than those from teeth. Since the apatite dates were undertaken because insufficient collagen survived for AMS dates, I wonder how reliable the 13,000 BP date is.

    In any case, this hardly suggests that a short-lived event of any kind was responsible for this cemetery. I have suggested that this may be a special-purpose cemetery for those who died unexpectedly in some way, e.g. violently. Until we have better evidence of other contemporary cemeteries it is very difficult to say how unusual this site is.

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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