British Museum blog

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

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. zankaj says:

    Reblogged this on Zankaj's Blog and commented:
    This is interesting.

    Like

  2. zankaj says:

    Very interesting. This is a great example and the oldest of where the phrase you stabbed me in the back, came from.

    Like

    • zsaid says:

      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.

      Like

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Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 380–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
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