Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/April 1900/Recent Years of Egyptian Exploration

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1404280Popular Science Monthly Volume 56 April 1900 — Recent Years of Egyptian Exploration1900William Matthew Flinders Petrie




APRIL, 1900.




FAMILIAR as we are with the methods of science—exact observation and record, comparison, and the strict weeding out of hypotheses—yet such methods have only gradually been applied to various branches of learning.

Geometry became a science long ago, zoölogy much later, medicine only a generation or two ago, and the history of man is but just being developed into a science. What was done for other sciences by the pioneers of the past is now being done in the present day for archæology. We now have to devise methods, to form a notation for recording facts, and to begin to lay out our groundwork of knowledge. With very few exceptions, it may be said of Egypt that there is no publication of monuments before this century that is of the least use, no record or dating of objects before 1860, and no comparison or study of the history of classes of products before 1890. Thus, the work of recent years in Egyptology is really the history of the formation of a science.

The great stride that has been made in the last six years is the opening up of prehistoric Egypt, leading us back some two thousand years before the time of the pyramid builders. Till recently, nothing was known before the age of the finest art and the greatest buildings, and it was a familiar puzzle how such a grand civilization could have left no traces of its rise. This was only a case of blindness on the part of explorers. Upper Egypt teems with prehistoric remains, but, as most of what appears is dug up by plunderers for the market, until there, is a demand for a class of objects, very little is seen of them. Now that the prehistoric has become fashionable, it is everywhere to be seen. The earlier diggers were dazzled by the polished colossi, the massive buildings, the brilliant sculptures of the well-known historic times, and they had no eyes for small graves, containing only a few jars or, at best, a flint knife.

The present position of the prehistory of Egypt is that we can now distinguish two separate cultures before the beginning of the Egyptian dynasties, and we can clearly trace a sequence of manufactures and art throughout long ages before the pyramid builders, or from say 6000 B.C., giving a continuous history of eight thousand years for man in Egypt. Continuous I say advisedly, for some of the prehistoric ways are those kept up to the present time.

In the earliest stage of this prehistoric culture metal was already used and pottery made. Why no ruder stages are found is perhaps explained by the fact that the alluvial deposits of the Nile do not seem to be much older than eight thousand years. The rate of deposit is well known—very closely one metre in a thousand years—and borings show only eight metres thick of Nile mud in the valley. Before that the country had enough rain to keep up the volume of the river, and it did not drop its mud. It must have run as a rapid stream through a barren land of sand and stones, which could not support any population except paleolithic hunters. With the further drying of the climate, the river lost so much velocity that its mud was deposited, and the fertile mud flats made cultivation and a higher civilization possible. At this point a people already using copper came into the country. Their bodies were buried in shallow, circular pit-graves, covered with goat skins, which were fastened rarely by a copper pin; before the face was placed a simple bowl of red and black pottery, and some of the valued malachite was placed in the hands. The body was sharply contracted, often with the knees almost touching the face, and the hands were usually in front of the face.

Very soon they developed their pottery into varied and graceful forms, and decorated it with patterns in white clay applied to the dark-red surface, but it continued to be entirely hand-made, without the use of the potter's wheel. The patterns, usually copied from basketwork, show the source of the forms of the cups and vases. The modern Kabyle, in the highlands of Algeria, has kept up the same patterns on hand-made pottery, and the same use of white clay on a red base. It is probably to a Libyan people that this civilization is first due, and the skulls of these prehistoric Egyptians are identical with those of the prehistoric Algerians from the dolmens and the modern Algerians. This first growth of the civilization not only developed pottery, but also the carving of stone vases entirely by hand. The principal type of these is the cylinder, with many small variations. Figures were carved in alabaster and bone, and modeled in clay and paste; these are rude, but show that the type of the race was fine, with a high forehead and pointed beard. The use of marks denoting property was common, and such marks seem to be the earliest stages of the system of signs which developed later into the alphabet. This civilization had apparently passed its best time, decoration had ceased on the pottery, when a change came over all classes of work.

The second prehistoric civilization seems to have belonged to a people kindred to that of the first age, as much of the pottery continued unchanged, and only gradually faded away. But a new style arose of a hard, buff pottery, painted with patterns and subjects in red outline. Ships are represented with cabins on them, and rowed by a long bank of oars. The use of copper became more general, and gold and silver appear also. Spoons of ivory, and rarely of precious metals, were made, but hair combs, which were common before, ceased to be worn. Stone vases were commonly carved in a variety of hard and ornamental stones, but always of the barrel outline and not the early cylinder shapes. Flint-working reached the highest stage ever known in any country, the most perfect mastery of the material having been acquired. Though this civilization was in many respects higher than that which preceded it, yet it was lower artistically, the figures being ruder and always flat, instead of in the round. Also the use of signs was driven out, and disappeared in the later stage of this second period. The separation of these two different ages has been entirely reached by the classification of many hundreds of tombs, the original order of which could be traced by the relation of their contents. In this way a scale of sequence has been formed, which enables the range of any form of pottery or other object to be exactly stated, and every fact of connection discovered can be at once reduced to a numerical scale as definite as a scale of years. For the first time a regular system of notation has been devised for prehistoric remains, and future research in each country will be able to deal with such ages in as definite a manner as with historic times. The material for this study has come entirely from excavations of my own party at Nagada (1895), Abadiyeh, and Hu (1899); but great numbers of tombs of these same ages have been opened without record by M. de Morgan (1896–97), and by French and Arab speculators in antiquities.

The connection between these prehistoric ages and the early historic times of the dynastic kings of Egypt is yet obscure. The cemeteries which would have cleared this have unhappily been looted in the last few years without any record, and it is only the chance of some new discoveries that can be looked to for filling up the history. We can at least say that the pottery of the early kings is clearly derived from the later prehistoric types, and that much of the civilization was in common. But it is clear that the second prehistoric civilization was degrading and losing its artistic taste for fine work before the new wave of the dynastic or historic Egyptians came in upon it.

These early historic people are mainly known by the remains of the tombs of the early kings, found by M. Amelineau at Abydos (1896–'99), and probably the first stage of the same race is seen in the rude colossi of the god Min, which I found at Koptos (1894). Unhappily, the work at Abydos was not recorded, and it is not known now out of which of many kings' tombs, nor even out of which cemeteries, the objects have come. Hence scientific results are impossible, unless enough material has escaped the careless and ignorant workmen to reward more accurate reworking of the same ground. We can at present only glean a general picture of the early royal civilization from Abydos, supplemented by some splendid carvings of two reigns found at Hierakonpolis (1897–'98) by Mr. Quibell.

The burials continued to be in tombs of the same form—rectangular pits lined with brickwork and roofed over with beams and brushwood. But they were made larger, and, in the case of the royal tombs, great halls were formed about fifty by thirty-five feet, roofed with beams eighteen or twenty feet long. In these royal tombs were placed a profusion of vases of hard and beautiful stones, bowls of slate, and immense jars of alabaster; these contained the more valuable offerings of precious ointments and other funereal treasures. Besides these, there were hundreds of great jars of pottery, containing provision of bread, meats, dried fruits, water, beer, and wine. Doubtless there were many vases of metals, but these have been almost always robbed from the tomb anciently. Around the tomb were the small graves of the retainers of the king, each with a lesser store like that of their master. The royal tomb was denoted by a great tablet bearing the king's spiritual name by which he would be known in the future world. The private tombs had small tablets, about a foot and a half high, with the names of their occupants. As all these tablets show considerable weathering, it seems that they were placed visible above the tomb. Tombs of the subsequent kings were elaborated with small chambers around the great one, to contain the offerings, and even a long passage was formed with dozens of chambers along each side of it, each chamber containing a separate kind of offering.

Turning now to some of the remains of these kings during their life, we learn that they were occupied with frequent wars—the gradual consolidation of the kingdom of Egypt. One king will record the myriads of slain enemies, another gives a picture of a captive king brought before him with over a million living captives, the regular Egyptian notation for such large numbers being already complete. Another king shows his triumphal entry to the temple, with the slain enemies laid out before him. On other sculptures are shown the peaceful triumphs of canalization and reclamation of land, which are alluded to in the traditions of the early dynasties preserved by Greek historians. All these scenes are given us on the slate carvings and great mace heads covered with sculpture from Hierakonpolis.

Thus in these great discoveries of the last few years we can trace at least three successive peoples, and see the gradual rise of the arts, from the man who was buried in his goat skins, with one plain cup by him, up to the king who built great monuments and was surrounded by most sumptuous handiwork. We see the rise of the art of exquisite flint flaking, and the decline of that as copper came more commonly into use. We see at first the use of signs, later on disused by a second race, and then superseded by the elaborate hieroglyph system of the dynastic race.

The mixture of various races was surmised long ago from the varied portraiture of the early times. It is now shown more plainly than ever on these early monuments. We see represented the king of the dynastic type, a scribe with long, wavy hair, a chief of the dynastic shaven-headed type, another with long, lank hair, and another with a beard, while the enemies are shown with curly hair and narrow beards like Bedouin. Four different peoples are here in union against a fifth. And this diversity of peoples lasts on long into the historic times. After several centuries of a united Egypt, under the pyramid builders, we find that some people buried in the old contracted position, others cut up the body and wrapped every bone separately in cloth, while others embalmed the body whole. Thus great diversity of belief and custom still prevailed for perhaps a thousand years after the unification of Egypt. So useless is it to think of "the ancient Egyptians" as an unmixed race gradually rising into "a consciousness of nationality."

The excavations at Deshasheh in 1897, which first showed me the diversity of burials, also showed that the type of the race had already become unified by intermixture, and that, strange to say, four thousand years later, after untold crossings with many invaders, the type was unchanged. Later work at Dendereh and elsewhere has pointed to the conclusion that a mixture of a new race is subdued to the type of the country by the effect of climate and surroundings within a few centuries.

Turning now to the purely classical Egyptian work, the principal discoveries of the last few years have given us new leading examples in every line. The great copper statue of King Pepy, with his son, dates from before 3000 B.C. It is over life size, and entirely wrought in hammered copper, showing a complete mastery in metal work of the highest artistic power. Probably of the same age is a head of a figure of the sacred hawk, wrought hollow in a single mass of hammered gold, weighing over a pound; this again shows work of noble dignity and power. Both of these were found at Hierakonpolis in 1898, and are now in the Cairo Museum.

Some centuries later was made the exquisite jewelry found at Dahshur in the graves of three princesses. This is a revelation of the delicacy possible in goldsmith's work. The soldering of the minute parts of the gold is absolutely invisible. The figures of hawks are made up of dozens of microscopic pieces of colored stone—lazuli, turquoise, carnelian—every one cut to the forms of the feathers, and every piece having a tiny cell of soldered gold strip to hold it in place, yet the whole bird only about half an inch high. The finest colored enameling ever made would be child's play compared with a piece of this early jewelry. The exquisite grace of form, harmony of coloring, and sense of perfection leave the mind richer by a fresh emotion, after seeing such a new world of skill. Coming down to about 1500 b. c., a large work has been done in the last six years in clearing the temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, on the western side of Thebes. That great ruler had there commemorated the events of her reign, particularly the expedition to the south of the Red Sea to obtain the plants of the sacred incense and other valued products. The attention shown to exact figuring of plants and animals makes this valuable as a record of natural history. This clearance has been made by Dr. Naville for the English fund. Meanwhile, Franco-Egyptian officials have been clearing out the Temple of Karnak, on the opposite bank, but with disastrous effect. The huge columns, built poorly of small blocks by Rameses II, stand now below the level of the inundation, and, after removing the earth accumulated around them, the Nile water has free circulation. This has dissolved the mortar so much that nine of these Titanic columns of the Great Hall fell last year, and three more threaten to follow them.

The Valley of the Tombs of the Kings has been prohibited ground to foreign explorers for over forty years, although the official department never did any work there. The native plunderers, however, turned up many years ago the beautiful chair of Queen Hatshepsut, and lately they found the entry to still unopened royal tombs. The secret passed—for a consideration—to the Department of Antiquities, and two royal tombs were opened. These contained the bodies of several kings of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties—one undisturbed, the others moved from elsewhere. With these was a crowd of objects of funereal furniture. Unhappily, nothing is published in detail of any official discoveries; with the exception of the first find of the Dahshur jewelry, there has never been any full account issued of the great discoveries in the most important sites, which are reserved to the Government. The great group of kings found at Deir el Bahri, the great necropolis of the priests of Amen, the second find of Dahshur jewelry, the second group of royal mummies, of all these we know nothing but what has appeared in newspapers, or some partial account of one branch of the subject. Hardly any publication has ever appeared, such as the English societies issue every year about the produce of their excavations.

Many of the royal temples of the nineteenth dynasty at Thebes were explored by the English in 1896. The Ramesseum was completely examined, through all the maze of stone chambers around it. But the most important result was the magnificent tablet of black granite, about ten feet high and five wide, covered on one side with an inscription of Amen Hotep III, and on the other side with an inscription of Merenptah. The latter account, of about 1200 B.C., mentions the war with the "People of Israel"; this is the only naming of Israel on Egyptian records, and is several centuries earlier than any Assyrian record of the Hebrews. It has, of course, given rise to much discussion, which is too lengthy to state here.

One of the most important results of historical Egyptian times is the light thrown on prehistoric Greek ages. The pottery known as "Mykenæan" since the discoveries of Schliemann in the Peloponnesus was first dated in Egypt at Gurob in 1889; next were found hundreds of vase fragments at Tell el Amarna in 1892; and since then several Egyptian kings' names have been found on objects in Greece, along with such pottery. The whole of this evidence shows that the grand age of prehistoric Greece, which can well compare with the art of classical Greece, began about 1600 B.C., was at its highest point about 1400 B.C., and became decadent about 1200 B.C., before its overthrow by the Dorian invasion.

Besides this dating, Greece is indebted to Egypt for the preservation of the oldest texts of its classics. Fragments of Plato almost contemporary with his lifetime, pages of Thucydides, whole books of the Iliad, and the celebrated recent publications of Bacchylides and Herondas, all are due to Egypt. Moreover, of Christian times we have a leaf of an early collection of Sayings of Jesus, a leaf of gospel about two centuries older than any other biblical manuscript, and a host of documents bearing on early Christianity, such as the Gospel of Peter and other apocryphal writings which were later banned by the Church.

Now it may be asked how all these discoveries are made—indeed, many people take for granted that some government kindly pays for it all. On the contrary, the only official influences are a severe check on such scientific work. While a native Egyptian can plunder tombs with but little hindrance, any one desiring to preserve objects and promote knowledge must (after obtaining the permission of the Egyptian Government for the exact place he wants to work) be officially inspected at his own expense (a matter of twenty or thirty pounds a season), and then, after all, give up to the Government half of all he finds, without any recompense. The English Government long ago gave up all claim for British subjects to occupy any post in the Cairo Museum, thus putting a decisive bar on the hopes of would-be students and hindering the object very effectually.

In face of all these disadvantages, work has yet been carried on by the Egypt Exploration Fund and by the Egyptian Research Account; both rely on English and American support, and the latter body is intended expressly to help students in training. Besides these, private work has been carried on during several years by two or three other explorers, partly at their own cost, partly helped by friends. The two societies above named have kept to the principles that everything shall be published as soon as possible, and that all the antiquities removed from Egypt shall be divided among public museums as gifts in return for the support from various places, nothing ever being sold publicly or privately. In this way several centers in America send large annual contributions, have representatives on the London Committee of the Exploration Fund, and receive their share for museums every year.

Besides this organizing of ways and means, there is quite as important organization needed in the excavations. At present most of the above-named work is done by a corps of men who have been engaged at it for many years. They leave their homes and assemble as soon as the winter begins; any dealing in antiquities or misconduct since the last season excludes them from rejoining. They each know their work, what to preserve, how to leave everything intact in the ground where found, and how best to manage different kinds of excavating. With such men it is always possible to screw more information out of a site, however much it may have been already wrecked in ancient or modern times. And it is far safer to leave such men unwatched, with the certainty that they will receive a fair value for all they find, than it is to drive a gang under the lash, on bare wages, without rewards to keep them from pilfering. The English system means mutual confidence and good faith; the native and French system of force means the destruction of both information and antiquities.

And yet besides this there is the essential business of observing and recording. Every hole dug must have a meaning and be understood, as to the date of the ground at different levels and the nature of the place. Everything must be spelled out as the work advances; any difficulties that can not be explained must be tried with all possible hypotheses; each detail must either fall into place as agreeing with what is known, or be built in as a new piece of knowledge.

Twenty years ago nothing was known of the date of any Egyptian manufactures, not even of pottery or beads, which are the commonest. Now, at present it is seldom that anything is found which can not be dated tolerably near by, and in some classes of remains the century or even the reign can be stated at once, without a single word to show it. The science of Egyptian archæology is now in being.

In this, therefore, as in many other matters, the Anglo-Saxon taste for private enterprise is the ruling power, and in spite of political obstacles and of taxation, which are happily unknown in other sciences, the private work of individuals has quietly traced out the foundations of one of the earliest civilizations of mankind.