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.

Filed under: Room 64, , , , , , , , , ,

Murder and mayhem in Predynastic Egypt

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handleRenee Friedman and Daniel Antoine, curators,
British Museum

Using some of the latest imaging technology we now know that about 5500 years ago (about 3500 BC) the natural mummy known as Gebelein Man was stabbed in the back.

The ability to determine the cause of death in ancient remains is rare enough, but because his skin and muscle tissue are so well preserved, further detective work has allowed us to trace the trajectory (from above) and estimate the size (about two centimetres across, maximum) of the implement responsible.

Based on this information, the murder weapon was most probably a dagger.

While a projectile point is also a possibility, it is unlikely that it could have been removed without causing further tissue damage, and the cut on his skin is not lacerated. Only if it were a broad-edged transverse arrowhead, like those carried by the men on the Hunters’ Palette, might this be possible.

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters' Palette

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters’ Palette.

While this type of arrowhead was common in Predynastic Egypt, it was rarely made in a size matching the wound in Gebelein Man’s left shoulder.

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handle

Composite image of a Predynastic silver dagger
blade and ivory handle.

We can probably also rule out flint knives, although they were prevalent throughout the Predynastic period (3800-3100 BC), with various examples displayed in the British Museum’s Room 64: Early Egypt gallery.

From their shape it is clear that they were mainly for cutting and slashing, using their edge rather than their point to inflict wounds. Most are also too wide to fit the forensic evidence from Gebelein Man. Instead, it seems most likely that he was done in by a metal blade.

Tools and weapons of metal (mainly copper but also silver) are rare in Predynastic Egypt mainly because implements of such valuable materials would have been recycled rather than discarded by the living and were among the first things to be robbed from the dead. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that copper was widely used at this time. For example, the central ridge depicted on the lances carried on the Hunters Palette (slightly later in date than Gebelein Man) indicate they were made of metal.

Six dagger blades of copper and silver have been preserved. Some still have their ivory handles, while all have a triangular blade with a mid-rib down the centre, and are 15-16.5 cm long with a maximum width of four-five cm. These blades are so far the best fit for the weapon used against Gebelein Man, and the two cm cut at the rib level suggest such a blade was plunged into his back for most of its length. The composite example shown here gives an idea of the original appearance, and evidence from one Predynastic cemetery suggests they were worn interlaced through armlets on the left upper arm for easy and rapid access.

We will never find the perpetrator responsible for Gebelein Man’s death, or determine his motives (revenge?, a hunting accident?, an act on the battlefield?), but the iconography and artefacts of Predynastic Egypt suggest it was not always a peaceful place.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters' palette.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters’ Palette.

Already 200-300 years before Gebelein Man met his end, scenes on pottery show human prisoners threatened with stone maces. Mace-heads of hard stone are well-known throughout the period. While they were probably used mainly in hunting, that they were also used against humans is clear from excavations in a cemetery at Hierakonpolis, contemporary with Gebelein Man, where several individuals suffered massive and fatal skull fractures inflicted by such an instrument. Further defensive wounds suggest these injuries were attained in battle.

These may have been minor skirmishes, but shortly after Gebelein Man died, scenes depicting pitched battles begin to appear.

While Gebelein Man may simply have been the unfortunate victim of interpersonal violence, he lived in a time when several regional centres in Upper Egypt, Gebelein being one of them, were beginning to vie for power and territory, in a process that ultimately led to the so-called unification of Egypt and the establishment of the Dynastic Egyptian nation state at about 3100 BC. Diplomacy may have been influential in this process, but there is no doubt that violence also played a major role, as the scene on the Battlefield Palette (about 3200 BC) leaves little to the imagination.

Was Gebelein Man a victim of his times? Recent research, suggesting that he was buried in a large well-endowed grave and with a number of lethal weapons of his own, only adds to the mystery that now surrounds him.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
Tweet using #murder3500BC and @britishmuseum
If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, ,

Virtual autopsy: discover how the ancient Egyptian Gebelein Man died

Scan of Gebelein Man shown on an autopsy tableDaniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology,
British Museum

In recent months the naturally-preserved mummy known as Gebelein Man (on display in Room 64, the Early Egypt gallery at the British Museum) has been revealing some of his long-held secrets.

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

He was buried in about 3500 BC (if not earlier) at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. Direct contact with the hot, dry sand naturally mummified his body, making him one of the best-preserved individuals from ancient Egypt. He has been in the British Museum collection for over 100 years and in 2012 he was taken out of the Museum for the first time to be CT scanned.

On the morning of 1 September this year, Gebelein Man was carefully packed and taken to the Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London. The detailed images and 3D models created from the high resolution X-rays taken there have allowed us to look inside his body and learn more about his life and his death in ways never before possible. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a well-preserved Predynastic mummy has ever been CT scanned.

Not only have we been able to discover that Gebelein Man was young when he died (18-21 years) but, unexpectedly, we have also learned that he died because he was stabbed in the back. The analysis of ancient human remains rarely reveals the cause of death but the cut on his back, as well as the damage to the underlying shoulder blade and rib, are characteristic of a single, fatal, penetrating wound.

With the help of the Interactive Institute, a virtual autopsy table (a new state-of-the-art interactive exhibit based on medical visualisation technology) is on show in Room 64 for a limited time (16 November to 16 December 2012) and will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves, using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture-based interface. Information points at relevant locations guide visitors to the more significant discoveries we have made.

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Come and explore Gebelein Man for yourself using the autopsy table and perhaps you will spot something we’ve missed.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
Tweet using #murder3500BC and @britishmuseum
If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , , ,

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