Some reflections on the historiography of the early pharaohs. / by Bryce Hidysmith

Fake Sphinx with Dog  , Hebei Provience, China

Fake Sphinx with Dog, Hebei Provience, China

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Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt: from the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid is the few object-level works of history that have monopolized my attention for days at a time. The work serves as a useful description of the emergence of a culture’s self-consciousness, transitioning from mere geologic analysis to archaeological analysis, finally to historical analysis with the introduction of written records. It is the story of a population learning to coordinate in space and time. While it is a remarkable case study in its own right, it also takes a historiographic position that I haven’t seen personally otherwise. I’ve contrasted it in my mind with Toby Wilkinson’s Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, which I read in early high school. Wilkinson begins with the Narmer palette, described as the “first king of Egypt” before some cursory analysis of the pre-literate archaeological evidence which quickly bleeds into low-detail descriptions of tomb development in sedentary settlements, claiming that a set of wars broke out between different royal lines, with Narmer’s house as the victor, claiming after some surface level analysis of Egyptian riparian geography that Narmer’s kingship constituted the formation of the world’s first “nation-state.” I must admit that when I first read Wilkinson, I was almost entirely unable to parse out the projection of present concepts on the past. I did not have the idea that concept formation would itself be a historically instanced act.

In contrast to the pseudo-Washington or Napoleon of Wilkinson’s account, Narmer in Romer’s book only appears first one hundred and twenty-nine pages into the text, after a methodical chronology of the archaeological evidence, noting the remains of economic, religious, and military behavior as the various cultures of the Nile knit themselves together using all three of those subsystems and more. Simultaneously, Romer continuously notes that there was no concept of an Egypt to unite in the minds of either Narmer or his population, except retrospectively when people looked back on previous events and developed a sense of history. It seems worth noting that the idea of History, in terms of investigation as accomplished by Herotodus and many others was not active in the Egyptian context, and we may only speculate as to what other concept the Egyptians used to analyze their past, as it must not be analogous to the modern concept of history, nor the Classical Greek concept of investigation as understood by Herodotus, nor any other culturally bounded model. This section, from Chapter Six of Romer’s book, is characteristic of his perspective on the matter, describing the same tombs that are glossed over by Wilkinson as certainly representative of feudal houses analogous to those of the European middle ages:

Here, then, is the rub. Once archaeologists recognized that the Naqadans had begun to separate the communality of the earlier cemeteries into different types of grave that could be conveniently described as ‘rich’ or ‘poor’, ‘elite’ or ‘working class’, it was but a short step to create a sociology for the Naqadans based on the words used to describe their different tomb types and thus to bestow a kind of history on their graves. For the modern meaning of ‘elite’ signifies those ‘considered to be the best in their society because of their power, talent, or wealth’. And so this Naqadan ‘elite’ is easily portrayed as a class endowed with power and wealth, and as the conduit of social and economic progress. So with passing time, the term ‘elite’ has allowed the occupants of those tombs upon whom it is bestowed to assume a kind of personality. Just as a common Western notion of an individual is of a man who rules himself, so the bones and fragments found within the elite tombs have come to occupy, successively, the role of ‘chief’ then ‘local ruler’ and finally transmogrify to pharaoh.
So kings are crowned, the past is colonized and history becomes a soap opera; or at least it is transported into a universe where great tombs are jargonized as examples of ‘the conspicuous consumption of prestige commodities by an elite’, and ostrich eggs are ‘status symbols’, harpoon points ‘powerfacts’, and those tiny fragments of Afghan lapis flashing in the sand evidence that their owners once ‘dominated by the political advantage gained through exercising control over access to resources that can only be obtained through external trade’. That, though is just a history of consumer trends dressed up as old-fashioned anthropology. For there is no evidence whatever of militarism, politics or individuals at Hierakonpolis, nor even of a grand bureaucracy amongst the relics of the early Naqadans. No evidence, either, of commercial trade or of a Naqadan conception of ownership: terms such as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, therefore, may be inappropriate.
And yet there is still a history to be made of this most distant age, a history that is not based on modern society, but on the certainty of what survives.

Again, from the same chapter:

Though scalped and smitten, the victims found in the Hierakonpolis cemetery appear to have received a normal burial. One young man who had been maced to death was carefully interred as part of a double burial: a woman whose skull had been similarly smashed had been laid down so that the wound was out of sight and her thick dark hair had been arranged across her face, away from the mass of blood and bone behind. Neither abused, nor shunned nor cast away, such tender burials do not fit the traditional historian’s category of ‘victim’; nor indeed do such burials in themselves show evidence of prehistoric ‘savagery’, let alone cannibalism. Nonetheless, the ancestors of pharaoh, whose culture is popularly associated with beauty, flowers and love songs, appear to have engaged in the brutal execution of some of their own people. Such acts, indeed, became a central image of pharaonic Egypt. Precisely the same cruel practices are pictured in some of the little drawings made in the age of the first kings, images that would be writ large throughout the following millennia on temple pylons where pharaoh smites his enemies by grabbing them by their hair and hitting the side of their heads with the same kind of mace which had done such damage to those poor Naqadans buried in a cemetery at Hierakonpolis.
That killings may have been conducted in early Naqadan times on a yet larger scale than the bodies in the cemetery suggest finds confirmation in the shape of a solitary human neck vertebra excavated inside the enclosure of one of the great tombs at Hierakonpolis. It bears the marks of a beheading that took place just before or shortly after death. Such a killing presages arrangements made half a millennium later at the tombs of Egypt’s first kings, where each royal vault would be surrounded by rows of modest, brick-lined graves like the cells of a honeycomb, each one specially designed, it would appear, to hold a victim dispatched at the time of the royal funeral.
Some of the same little drawings that record events in and around the early courts also hold scenes which show people being violently attacked and sometimes decapitated, and publicly displayed, and they appear to show this taking place in the presence of a king. One particularly violent tableau shows two seated figures who appear to have been partially scalped, their hair dropping down across their faces, their skulls above left round and bare. And of course, although the animals in these same small pictures are shown running free inside an oval courtyard, the physical remains at Hierakonpolis show that, in reality, the oval court had served as an abattoir, the artificially sloping floor a drain for running blood.
Like the moment at the beginning of Buñuel’s famous film where a cloud slides across the moon and a razor runs through a woman’s eye, the physical evidence of such events cuts us adrift from the pretty clichés of pharaonic history. And suddenly, we are in another world.

Compare, then, the opening of Chapter 2: “GOD INCARNATE” from Wilkinson, glossing over the archaeological chronology almost entirely.

The unification of Egypt in 2950 created the world’s first nation-state. Today, this form of political and social unit seems both natural and inevitable: our prosperity (or poverty), our rights and duties, our freedoms (or lack of them) are all profoundly affected by our nationality. With the exception of Antarctica, the entire surface of our planet is divided up into countries, numbering more than two hundred. Yet it was not always so. Before the late fourth millennium B.C., there were no such states. Identity and loyalty were based instead on family, community, or region. The concept of a nation-state—a political territory whose population shares a common identity—was the invention of the ancient Egyptians.
Beginning with Narmer, Egypt’s early kings found themselves the rulers of an entirely new form of polity, one bound together as much by governmental structures as by shared values. It was an unprecedented challenge: to foster a sense of nationhood among diverse people, spread out over an area extending from the first cataract to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The creation of a distinctive sense of Egyptianness ranks as one of the greatest achievements of Egypt’s early rulers. At its heart lay a large measure of self-interest. The doctrine of divine kingship defined pharaonic civilization, produced such iconic monuments as the pyramids, and inspired the great tombs and temples that stand to this day.

Romer accentuates the alien, and while he hypothesizes potential aspects of causality such as the potential correlation between the Naqadan burials and later royal sacrifices, he does not speculate in an interpretive sense, only in a causal sense. It is not the historians task to project meaning onto the past, only to notice cause and effect. The projection of judgmental meaning is the task of the art critic, not of the historian, and the art critic at least has the sense to speak from a perspective that knows what audience an object was made for. Wilkinson grounds the past in the present, rather than grounding the past in the material, effectively forcing the reader to project the past social reality onto the present, rather than noticing that the only thing that such distant past as Hierakonpolis has in common with the present is the material reality. This is an understandable failing. Wilkinson writes in the contemporary intellectual climate, where all religious experience in the West is thought either to be Christian in an entirely abstract sense, or a mutation of the same. Intellectuals in the West do not understand that even among the self-styled Christians there are Pagans who handle snakes and are monotheist only in the sense that they think that other religions are demonic manifestations of negative forces and that they have found the true path. (The word for this, of course, is Henotheism, as coined by Schelling, but to give it the same term as the monotheism of Spinoza is a bit dreadful.) Additionally, under this “airport bookstore” ontology, all nations are an expression of the Platonic “Nation,” as understood by university educated Europeans. There are other traits to this simplification of the world, but the motivating fact seems important: it is assumed that all non-fiction in the English language today is self-help in one way or another, and our conception of self-help involves a sort of narcissistic assumption about the world best characterized by the aesthetic of The Secret. One interprets the facts of foreign contexts—either cultural or temporal—so that one can imitate the traits of persons that the author deems admirable. The present context is not assumed to be meaningfully different enough from the past context that the reason for a given behavior in a past context may have nothing to do with a present context.

The ontology of the Egyptians of the proton-pharoanic Naqadan culture and their contemporaries must be understood to be almost almost implausibly alien to current global perspectives. I am inclined to think that it is less represented in the literary genre of history, and more in the genre of mythology. Even if we are to update our normally unduly nationalistic conceptions of the middle ages and remember that the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Colombian Exchange was one still knit together by global exchange in Eurasia, Africa, and Oceania, the ancient world was distinct from more recent periods where some percentage of the population might be able to think of themselves as “modernized” and at the leading edge of what it meant to be human. China before the decline and fall of the Qing, for instance, is able to look at itself as the center of civilization when engaging in foreign relations with Japan or the West. Christendom is able to think of itself as the canonical perspective the same way as Dar-al-Islam is able to think of itself as the canonical perspective. But, in the most ancient civilizations, this does not appear to be so. They lack anything to compare themselves to. We are able to understand what something is to be “historic” but it is very strange to think of what it must be to live through those same historical events. Imagine, for instance, what it must have been like to be Sigmund Freud—was the identification that sexuality must exert considerable influence on the minds of humanity an insight? Can we imagine what it would have been for that concept to have been insightful? Think, then, also, of the implicit discovery of entropy by the first humans whose muscles tired or firewood ran out, and then the explicit conception of it by, let’s say Carnot, though like many 19th Century scientific concepts its provenance seems more complicated than might be assessed at a glance. The concept of history itself follows these strange rules as well. Humans reliably invent fictional pasts for their cultures, but one must be at a point in the psychological tech tree where one has storytellers capable of asserting compelling narratives about the past in order to produce such a narrative. There must have been times and places before the past itself was invented or identified. The world appears in these early civilizations to be a remarkably literal place, where the narratives of nations, states, ethnicity, and so on that modern historians love to impose do not seem to have additional cache beyond the material reality that they are able to influence. Such an Ontology is oriented around a world composed of forces in varying degrees of collaboration or competition. Zororastrianism, the Chinese concept of of Tian/天, the abortive Atenist religion, and proto-Judaism, allowed ideology to rise to a level of abstraction that reoriented the world into evaluatable contrasts between that which sided with the god of the reference frame in question and that which did not, rather than the indeterminate dynamism of multipolar material forces characteristic of earlier forms of paganism.

Yet, from reading Romer I am more interested in the earlier Pagan form, a mental state which could never be verified to have existed empirically, but which I am rationally confident enough must have once existed to wildly speculate on its alien characteristics. Though this is a qualitative judgement, the atavism of the earliest Mediterranean civilizations strikes me as remarkable in that they lacks comparison with anything other than their own self in its method of thought. Again, they had not defined the past yet, as described above, but it also goes to reason that there must be a time when humanity had not defined far in relation to near, nor abstract in relation to concrete. There seems to be no realm of ideas distinct from the realm of matter, the whole system is an interplay of one unified material, sometimes orderly and sometimes chaotic. The prime materialist mentality begins to write through pictures. The mentality produces art in direct representation, with abstraction emerging as the Bronze Age peoples produce further means of comparison between objects, subjects, and such abstract things as gods that defy the necessary assumptions about ontological categories requisite to run self-documenting thought processes. The striking contrast of the archaeological sites that precede the Narmer Palette is not that they are somehow more primitive in social dynamic or strategy than those that one might see hundreds of years later—we can assume that the humans of these days were physiologically modern—but rather that the dynamics that have emerged seem to lack performativity for anything external to the polity in question. Provided that there is nothing that can accurately be described as external, this is not an insane way to architect a mind. It seems that if I am interpreting this “prime material” mentality correctly, the Egyptians circa Naqada were likely not even seeing their mind as distinct from their body, which is another way of saying that there is no phenomenological difference internally experienced between map and territory, for there is no way of comparing a mental abstraction and a bodily sensation. This lack of performativity for an outside perceptor, however, has dark effects. If one is able to unite a small polity through the awe of human sacrifice, there is not much in the way of deliberation about whether or not this is the correct thing to do, it is simply how things have been done. Such extreme behavior seems likely the norm when the map and the territory treated as one and the same. It is likely that this sort of mentality is present in all ahistorical peoples, as to lack history is to lack the deliberation over whether or not the present state of play is justified under the laws that one believes. Of course, as I write this here, I have to remember that I am still projecting an entirely unscholarly voice onto a silent, preliterate set of circumstances. Still, it is easier to assume, via negativa, that the types of social self consciousness common to later periods are absent from the forms of proto-civilizations. We can assume that the mechanisms of model-based socially self conscious comparison do not emerge from an absence of stimulus. The assumption of their absence is, I think, a far more simple and compelling answer to the nature of the distinct traits of the Bronze Age than the answer given by Julian Jaynes, and to summarize I believe that the stimuli that are the most relevant are the conception of historical continuity through storytelling, representational image-object distinction, and the invention of an abstract “higher power” to define the tangible world in relation to some other world, perhaps one that could be, but isn’t yet.

While I would like to explore all of these lines of reasoning in much greater detail at a future date, I am compelled right now not by their content but by the confusion of the contemporary historian as they attempt to make the past accessible to a contemporary audience. Perhaps, with luck, one can launder the past and assemble the bleached scraps of incidental record and artifact into commentary fit for the moral palette of one’s community, contextualized either as a high culture from which we have fallen, or a barbarity from which we have risen. But, this is of course a lie, and will accomplish nothing more than the gratification of fashionable sensibility by presenting the past as a different country where deed and thought are both magically accomplished differently. Perhaps that lie is noble if the gratification of fashionable sensibility allows one to bury a past that should remain dead, but if I am to guess it normally just bolsters the sense of the living that they are somehow special, enfranchised in the best of all possible worlds, chosen to prosper. The truth, if it can be summed up in a judgement at all, is that the past was indeed foreign, but that the parts of it that are not part of the same historical continuity as the observer of the past are so terribly foreign that they cannot be summed up in moralistic terms.

Postscript: As pointed out to me by Baeo Maltinsky and Patrick Mellor, from a certain historical completionist perspective, Romer’s book is even incomplete, given that it only covers known continuities of archaeological evidence, disregarding such examples as the abortive stone age Qadan Culture. However, these omissions are entirely correct if one tracks Romer’s responsibility as simply charting the evolution of what we moderns have now come to call “Ancient Egypt.”

A word of thanks to Madeline, who introduced me to the text over lunch a perhaps six months ago.