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Predynastic Egyptian rock art as evidence for early elites’ rite of passage

L’art rupestre et les rites de passage des élites naissantes au Prédynastique égyptien
Francis David Lankester
p. 81-92

Résumés

L’art rupestre du Sahara égyptien, de la vallée du Nil et du désert oriental a maintes fois été interprété, de manière rétrospective, comme étant lié aux représentations pharaoniques par le biais de l’idéologie, la religion et même les composantes des fêtes pharaoniques telles que le Heb Sed (Červíček 1992-1993 ; Huyge 2002 ; Darnell 2009). Poursuivant cette réflexion, des auteurs ont également proposé de considérer les origines de la culture d’époque pharaonique comme descendant de celle des pasteurs ayant migré vers la vallée du Nil pour fuir l’environnement de plus en plus aride des régions sahariennes du Gilf Kebir et du Gebel Uweinat (D’Huy & Le Quellec 2009 ; Barta 2010 ; Caldwell 2013). Cette quête d’origines spécifiques semble ignorer les changements et dynamiques se manifestant dans le processus de formation de l’État en Égypte et lors des premières dynasties. Elle revient à faire entrer de force les éléments bien structurés du répertoire pharaonique dans un scénario culturel encore en gestation (Midant-Reynes 2000).
Une approche fondée sur l’anthropologie sociale peut fournir un cadre d’étude approprié pour l’interprétation de l’art rupestre égyptien. Les formes de rituels obéissent à des conventions et des obligations telles, qu’elles révèlent les valeurs profondes des acteurs impliqués (Turner 1995). Ces derniers expriment dans le rituel leurs motivations premières, et leur comportement rituel est le reflet des préoccupations du groupe. Les rituels les plus fréquents, et également les plus largement partagés, sont ceux qui s’appliquent aux rites de passage. Ils marquent chaque changement de lieu, d’état, de position sociale et d’âge (Van Gennep 1909). Ce processus est si universel qu’il suggère une logique culturelle unique pour réussir la rencontre de l’homme avec le supernaturel (Garwood 2011). Cependant, en dehors de deux exceptions notables (Tilley 1999 ; Holl 2004), les rites de passage ont rarement été associés à l’interprétation de l’art rupestre et, plus étonnamment, à l’archéologie en général.
Dans la perspective d’identifier potentiellement certaines scènes de rites de passage dans l’art rupestre préhistorique égyptien, il faut considérer le rôle crucial de la zone liminale. Dans cette zone, située entre le monde normé de l’ordre social et l’au-delà surnaturel, l’initié s’engage dans un dialogue avec le transcendantal ; il est alors confronté à l’intemporalité, à la sacralisation, et connecté avec la sublimité du cosmos dans un espace dépassant de loin l’échelle humaine. Les règles habituelles sont suspendues dans le domaine sacré et des formes monstrueuses, minimisées et/ou exagérées peuvent être générées. Avant tout, un rite de passage est un rite de passage (Turner 1995). L’acteur peut s’appuyer sur le pouvoir du royaume liminal, effectuant sa transformation en ré-entrant et en se ré-insérant dans un monde de normes sociales. Dans cet article, l’art rupestre de l’Égypte préhistorique – et en particulier du désert oriental – est présenté au travers de ce spectre analytique. Les pétroglyphes peuvent ainsi être replacés dans le processus par lequel les élites égyptiennes étaient légitimées après un voyage « au-delà », revenant en figures transformées et héroïques. Par conséquent, ils peuvent être analysés de manière synchronique ; un certain nombre de leurs caractéristiques – comme les traits exagérés de quelques représentations animales et l’intégration peu réaliste de bateaux dans des scènes de chasse – trouvent explication dans cette lecture.

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Texte intégral

Introduction: research approaches for interpreting the rock art of the Egyptian deserts

1Attempts have been made to interpret prehistoric rock art in the Egyptian Sahara, the Nile Valley and Eastern Desert within a framework derived from the dynastic era. This involves identifying ideology, religion and even original components of pharaonic festivals such as the Heb Sed through a retrospective approach (Červíček 1992-1993, 1994; Huyge 2002; Wilkinson 2003; Darnell 2009, 2011). Moreover, some recent papers have been published with the aim of locating the origins of pharaonic era culture among the cattle herders who migrated to the refuge of the Nile Valley from an environmentally deteriorating Sahara (D’Huy & Le Quellec 2009; Bárta 2010; Caldwell 2013).

2The search for specific pharaonic origins ignores the dynamic changes which took place in the state formation and Early Dynastic periods. It has also been mainly undertaken by scholars specialising in the study of Dynastic Egypt. A large amount of archaeological material is available to place Egyptian petroglyphs in context. However, paradoxically, this has constituted both an opportunity and an obstacle. It has led to a strong tendency to retrospectively read back pharaonic motifs into the Predynastic and look for their origins there, since “...extrapolating backwards in time is an entirely admissible procedure for ancient Egyptian rock art” (Huyge 2002: 121). However, cautionary advice that, “we must be suspicious of such overt egyptological references and be careful not to force the well-structured elements of the Pharaonic repertoire on to a cultural scenario which was still in its early stages” (Midant-Reynes 2000: 191) has often not been heeded. This retrospective perspective ought to be seen as a last, not a first, resort.

3By contrast, an approach grounded in social anthropology has the potential to provide a useful framework for the interpretation of Egyptian rock art. This is fundamentally because forms of rituals are conventionalised and obligatory so that they reveal people’s values at a deep level (Turner 1967, 1990). People express in ritual what moves them most, and their ritual behaviour reveals what moves the group. The most prevalent, indeed almost ubiquitous, rituals are those which express rites of passage. They accompany almost every change of place, state, social position and age (Van Gennep 1909). Indeed, so universal is this process that it suggests a single cultural logic for managing human encounters with the supernatural and has been an important part of anthropologists’ examination of ritual, being widely applied in examining a range of cultural contexts (Garwood 2011). However, with two notable exceptions (Tilley 1999; Holl 2004), there has been little discussion of rites of passage relating to rock art or, perhaps surprisingly, in archaeology in general.

Theoretical framework: the rites of passage and the role of the liminal zone

4In potentially identifying rites of passage in prehistoric Egyptian rock art, the role of the liminal zone is crucial. Betwixt and between the normally ordered social world and the supernatural other/next world, the initiate engages with the transcendental, experiencing timelessness, sacralisation and connecting with the sublimity of the cosmos in an area overwhelming the human scale. It constitutes a sacred domain where the usual rules are suspended and monstrous, minimised and/or exaggerated forms can be generated. Above all, a rite of passage is fundamentally a rite of passage (Turner 1990, 1995). Its subjects can draw on the power of the liminal realm, and then complete their transformation on re-entering and re-engaging with the normal social world – in society akin to a house with a series of rooms and corridors with potentially hazardous passage between each (Garwood 2011: 262; tabl. 1). Here it is proposed that this can be seen in Egyptian prehistoric rock art of the Naqada culture period, and particularly in that of the Eastern Desert. We can place the petroglyphs in the process by which early Egyptian elites were legitimised by journeying ‘out there,’ returning as transformed and heroic figures. Thus, they can be studied in a synchronic manner and many of their features – such as exaggerated features in animal depictions and the unrealistic integration of boats into hunting scenes, can potentially be explained.

Table 1 – The three steps of the rites of passage, after P. Garwood (2011: 262)

Rites of Separation

Rites of Transformation (Liminality)

Rites of Reaggregation

Departure and disengagement from the social world; expressions of breach, separation, journey and transition/transformation

Engagement with the transcendental; experience/expressions of otherness, sublimity, order (cosmos), exaltation

Return to and re-engagement with the social world; expressions of return journey, sociality, vitality, profanity

Sacralisation of social action: increasing, solemnity, deference, passivity and submission to sacred authority

Communication/revelation of sacra, esoteric knowledge, cosmology and prominent display of symbols of condensation

Domination/conquest of the social by the sacred (expressions of transcendence and often ‘rebounding violence’)

Transition from linear time to cyclical time/atemporality

Timelessness, ‘deep time’ or cyclicity emphasised

Transition to and reassertion of linear time

Abandonment/symbolic negation of former social persona/state of being of the initiate

Transformation and sacralization of identity/personhood (the initiates)

Celebration and reification of the social persona/state of being attained by the initiated

5On journeying out of the Nile Valley, travellers entered the very different desert environment: from wet to dry, green to grey/yellow, abundant fauna and flora life to sparse life, flat and wide to constrained wadi routes. They represent opposing rhythms of life, differing sensoria; including the essential stillness, the potential for ‘night terrors’ in the midst of the desert far from the comfort of settlement life, and even different ‘temporal spaces’ away from normal time and routine in the valley. In this context, the desert rock art which constitutes the tools for making things sacred, and therefore effective, must in essence be ‘strange’ and ‘unusual’ in order to work. Hunters depart from the normal social world and out in the ‘wilderness’ they experience timelessness, otherness, symbolic communication and sacralisation of identity (Turner 1967: 107, 290). The emphasis is on being outside everyday life and time. Here in the space between this world and the next, the participants engage in a series of intensely emotional and physical acts and can achieve a sublimely real transformation of who they are. The symbols they use, the petroglyphs, are part of and represent this transformation. As a result, those who undertake the journey return are ‘special’ and possess new power, which includes the ability to dominate the normal/social world. This then feeds in to their political power.

6The predynastic petroglyphs which represent the participants’ sacra and cosmology are mostly distributed in an arc between Kom Ombo in the south and Qena in the north (Judd 2009; Lankester 2013), with some west of the Nile (Darnell 2009). The so-called Naqada cultural zone in the valley adjacent to the area of the petroglyphs comprises a dozen sites where elite burials, especially containing C and D (White Cross-Lined and Decorated) Ware (Graff 2009), dated to the Naqada I and II periods (c.a. 3800-3350 BC). The majority of the petroglyphs, which record the activity of those engaging in the rite of passage through journeying into the desert, may be assigned to Naqada I/early Naqada II (c.a. 3800-3500 BC; Lankester 2013). This is the period where elites were consolidating their power through prominent architecture and elaborate burials at locations such as Hierakonpolis, Mahasna, and Abydos (Friedman 2011). Hunting imagery is found in the Central Eastern Desert over millennia and in many dynastic tomb paintings. There are twelve examples of hunting hippopotami and crocodiles on the Naqada I-IIa C-Ware, and twenty vessels portraying hunting with dogs or by dogs alone (Graff 2009). This includes several with the prey being grasped, as occurs in the desert scenes. Dogs also occur quite frequently on later ivories, but usually at the end of a neat row of animals seemingly controlling them, and also on palettes and knife handles (Hendrickx 2011a).

7A connection with the desert hunting petroglyphs can be found at Hierakonpolis in the elite cemetery at HK6 (Naqada IIa). Fifty-eight complete animal burials have been located around the perimeter of the T6 tomb complex with pillared halls. Aurochs, elephants, hippopotami, a crocodile, hartebeest, leopard, baboons, sheep/goats, and dogs were present (Friedman 2011: 39). The elephants and aurochs were found wrapped in matting in their own tombs. The hartebeest, a young elephant and several baboons showed signs of healed fractures suggesting their maintenance in captivity for some time. There are also ostrich eggshells and Red Sea shells, perhaps constituting a ‘votive deposit,’ around a major tomb dated to Naqada IIa/b (c.a. 3650 BC) which is the period of some of the rock art (Lankester 2013). In addition, the remains of more than twenty ostrich eggs were recovered from the precinct of originally pillared buildings, some of which had been set up on display bases (Friedman 2005, 2007). They included one with a hunting scene, along with flint arrowheads and flint animals of Barbary sheep and ibex (Friedman 2011: 41). The considerable faunal remains at the Naqada IIb/c HK29A complex suggest butchery and feasting. They include the remains of cattle and wild animals including hippopotami, crocodile and large perch (Friedman 2009: 84). This prominence of wild fauna stands in stark contrast to the unimportance of game in food consumption in predynastic Egypt generally. Faunal remains from HK29A include 14.7% wild animals compared to 1.6% at Hierakonpolis excluding HK29A (Linseele & Van Neer 2009: 55). A similar ritual structure with remains of wild animals deposited around it, akin to that at Hierakonpolis, has been found at Mahasna dated to early Naqada II (Friedman 2009: 84).

A gap between hunting imagery in rock art and the faunal remains in excavations

8It must be noted that the frequency of desert animal images does not necessarily match faunal remains in the valley. For example, gazelles are portrayed extremely rarely in the rock art, although it was a popular food item (Linseele & Van Neer 2009: 51) and there are no ibex burials at Hierakonpolis, despite the presence of over 500 petroglyphs of this animal in the desert (Lankester 2013). The gazelle does not have to drink from standing water, so hunters would have found it out in the desert, but it is rarely depicted in the rock art. On the other hand, ibex, the most common animal in the rock art, is not present in the Nile Valley burials. Many of the wild animals such as the single hartebeest and aurochs, the riverine hippopotami and crocodile, in addition to the domestic dogs, sheep and cattle could have been caught in or near the Nile. The leopard and elephant buried at HK6 could have been traded up from Nubia. Therefore, the only definite products, rather than images, of the desert employed ritually are the ostrich eggs. Additionally, figures wearing feathers, probably from ostriches, are commonly seen on C and D-Ware pottery, on palettes and in the rock art.

9We have evidence of feasting from Hierakonpolis and Mahasna, with some of the meat being provided by hunting gazelles at a distance from the Nile Valley. Many rock art scenes record hunters with bows and/or dogs which are often chase a combination of asses, ibex, antelope such as gerenuk, ostriches and cattle. Dogs are portrayed hunting in a pack and grasping prey such as wild ass (fig. 1). In the Baramiya-9 tableau both bovids and a crocodile are controlled by a leash or lasso among the chase scene (fig. 2; Fuchs 1989).

Figure 1 – Hunting with dogs scene, Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

Figure 1 – Hunting with dogs scene, Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

© F. Lankester

Figure 2 – Hunting tableau showing animal control Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

Figure 2 – Hunting tableau showing animal control Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

© F. Lankester

10At other sites ‘dancing’ figures with arms raised above the head and incurved appear to influence wild animals. For example, at Umm Salam-35 figures standing amongst a mixed group of animals exercise control both literally with a rope and by the power of the ‘dance’ (fig. 3), whereas in real life the animals would have scattered on their detection of humans approaching. However, we do not see those animals which are chased or controlled in the rock art, with the possible exception of cattle (since wild and domestic bones can be confused), echoed in faunal remains in the Nile Valley.

Figure 3 – Animal control scene Wadi Umm Salam-35, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

Figure 3 – Animal control scene Wadi Umm Salam-35, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

© F. Lankester

11The hunters rarely appear to be successful in capturing their quarry, either alive or dead, yet portray themselves, in petroglyphs and on pottery, hunting, controlling and dominating a range of wild animals. That the hunters are from the valley elite, and not specialists, is suggested by their portrayal often wearing plumes, their association with boats and their standing in vessels. The so-called ‘chieftains’ at Abu Wasil-10/RME-26 (fig. 4) wear plumes, hold bows in front of the chest and stand in a large boat. This combination, in addition to representation in a larger scale compared to the other three figures, suggests their importance. The Naqada elite were not hunting specialists, so we should not be surprised at the lack of successful hunt completions. The experience of hunting and the journey out into the desert environment appears to have been much more important than an actual kill. In this regard, the rock art scenes never show the hunt’s result, with not a single depiction of animals being struck by missiles or lying dead. It is the chase plus the attack and control of animals in the context of a hunt which is shown, rather than taking captured animals back to the Nile Valley. Moreover, the scenes contain small groups of hunters. There are no depictions of ‘support staff,’ guides, supplies or transport by donkey train assisting the elite hunters. If there had been, rather than staff and donkeys being dismissed as unimportant and therefore not noted, we would see the result in faunal remains in the Nile Valley.

Figure 4 – ‘Chieftains’ at RME-26/Wadi Abu Wasil-10, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

Figure 4 – ‘Chieftains’ at RME-26/Wadi Abu Wasil-10, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

© F. Lankester

Desert expeditions: the journey out there

12By Naqada I (c.a. 3800 BC) Nile Valley dwellers were a settled community, and hunting had declined in importance from 10% of meat consumption during the Badarian era to 1% in Naqada I (Hendrickx 2011a: 237). However, images of hunting are noted on many artefacts from elite tombs of the period (Hendrickx 2011b). Scenes on C and D-Ware pottery are mirrored by the importance of hunting in the desert rock art where men with dogs and missile weapons, dogs alone, and even boats combine to run down prey (fig. 5). Often the animals are portrayed very unrealistically: elephants with ears above the head, asses with free-flowing manes, ibex with exaggeratedly long horns, and giraffe with elongated hooves and tufted tails (fig. 6). Indeed, the petroglyph animals are most often depicted in an unrealistic manner. Why are the animals portrayals strange and unusual? Because to be effective in a liminal area they must be out of the ordinary. The environment in which they were made was very different from their comforting, familiar riverside with the repeated rhythm of the seasons and the annual inundation, while the desert silence would have presented a different sensorium. Modern travellers into the desert experience a dramatic dichotomy between noisy civilisation and the wilderness. But we should not underestimate the contrast that ancient people felt. The absolute silence of the desert, in which a person could feel almost at one with the environment, would have been punctuated by the excitement of the sudden sighting of the quarry, followed by the adrenalin-pumped chase.

Figure 5 – Boat involved in hunting, Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

Figure 5 – Boat involved in hunting, Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

© F. Lankester

Figure 6 – Giraffe with elongated tails and hooves, Wadi Umm Salam-14, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

Figure 6 – Giraffe with elongated tails and hooves, Wadi Umm Salam-14, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

© F. Lankester

13Hunting expeditions involved moving from one realm, with the ordered activities of agricultural life, into another realm remote and outside the regular temporality of life by the Nile. To the sedentary valley inhabitants the desert would have represented ‘out there,’ an area of mystery and wonder which was symbolically remote from everyday life. The hunters departed from the normal social world and in the wilderness experienced timelessness, otherness, symbolic communication through the rock art, and sacralisation of their identity as “Hunting in sedentary societies acquires value above and beyond its subsistence role as transgression of boundaries” (Hamilakis 2003: 240). Only a limited number of elite persons would have dared and been permitted to undertake the journey. Both their departure and return would probably have been publicly witnessed. This return would have been calculated to impress and instil wonder, with the hunters displaying new feathers and prestige products from the desert, quarry and distant sea.

14The vast majority of predynastic Egyptians were peasants tied to the yearly agricultural cycle with evidence of exotic products and remains of feasting only in elite contexts. Those who undertook the journeys could be seen as completing superhuman tasks. The hunters returned as special persons; as heroes with power having overcome the wild, and now with enhanced authority to dominate the normal social, ordered world. Their return was perhaps then celebrated with feasting, as seen from faunal evidence from Mahasna and Hierakonpolis which included wild desert and dangerous riverine animals, plus large perch and catfish appropriate to large-scale figures with appropriately god-like appetites (Anderson 2006; Friedman 2011). The resources, which could have included ostrich eggs, carnelian, greywacke for palettes, and gold, as well as live game, represented an ‘ideological currency.’ The possession of valuables indicating special skill and therefore worthiness of respect could be ‘spent’ on rituals in sight of the mass of the population as part of a process by which the authority of the elite was produced, reproduced and legitimated. These expeditions into another realm would also have reinforced confidence and solidarity of the elites, small in number, against the immensely greater number of ordinary farming folk. With the precipitate decline in hunting from the Badarian period and the mass of the population accustomed to life in their village, this positioned the leaders even further apart from the led, for now they claimed power over the land of the wild, the dangerous and the dead.

Associations of hunting, boats and ‘dancing figures’

15Notably, at 67 of the 106 sites (65%) where human figures are clearly engaged in hunting there is also a close relationship with boats. Therefore, there is a strong correlation between hunting images and those of boats specifically, and animal images and boats generally. In addition, the ‘dancing’ figure-with arms raised above the head and incurved, is seen at 27 (25% of Predynastic sites, Lankester 2013), almost always associated with animal petroglyphs, and present particularly at the largest predynastic sites. At only three sites boat images are not in the scene with the ‘dancing’ figures, although they may be present at the site or nearby. Both the C and D-Ware ceramics combine boats with desert-based animals and examples of hunting/control. Although the images on the C-Ware are mainly of plants, riverine animals and hunting, desert fauna are additionally well represented. There are also half a dozen pottery vessels with boats. Five of the latter have animal depictions, four of them showing desert species (Graff 2009). In addition, the Ashmolean red-polished clay box with charcoal drawings, dated to Naqada Ic/IIa, combines a ‘two frond’ boat with crocodile on one side, hippopotamus and possibly giraffes or antelope on the other (Randall-MacIver & Mace 1902: pl. XII, 10-13).

16Images of boats are present at 187 sites (76%) in the Central Eastern Desert and most of the main wadis have boat images at three-quarters or more sites (Lankester 2013: 70). Boat petroglyphs dated to the predynastic are almost always shown without any visible means of propulsion, and crew which are rarely shown, are indicated by short lines (op. cit.: 72). Boats are often portrayed in a completely unrealistic context integrated into hunting scenes and intermixed with human hunters, dogs and their quarry. Vessels are also seen being dragged by human figures or with a tow rope, but with nobody manning it. Usually the number of draggers would be insufficient to pull a real boat on water or land (fig. 7). Many more are portrayed in the desert rather than near the River Nile, whereas we might expect a greater number by the cataracts and areas of shoals (op. cit.: 81) . The presence of boats in the desert as part of the dominant hunting motif and their ability to move through the desert suggest that they perform an important liminal function.

Figure 7 – Large boat with over seventy crew being dragged by seven stick figures, Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

Figure 7 – Large boat with over seventy crew being dragged by seven stick figures, Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt

© F. Lankester

17On the much more formalised D-ware pottery we have only five apparent desert hunting scenes, all involving only dog(s), in addition to three showing a riverine hunt (Graff 2009: 254, 256, 303, 346, 379-382). But it is only the manner of depiction which has changed from the earlier C-Ware and not the theme. There are 36 examples of men with throw-sticks, in addition to desert animals such as the ostrich, ibex and addax.

18Moreover, a pot from Abydos has a male figure standing behind a row of animals, appearing to shepherd them forward (op. cit.: 278), while in four cases a figure actually touches an addax and can be said to be in control of animals (op. cit.: 256, 258, 286, 297). An example from Gebelein has a male figure in front of a row of antelope holding a halter on the lead animal (op. cit.: 362). In addition, 145 of the D-Ware pots have depictions of desert animals. This suggests a continuation of the strong link between valley and desert influencing the work of the artists (op. cit.) and connects the D-Ware grave pottery with the desert petroglyph scenes. D-Ware pots show a restricted, extremely formalised repertoire, probably being made in a small number of locations (op. cit.). In this period only one (Sickle-hulled) boat type was considered appropriate for illustration on the pots, in contrast to the much more diverse representation on C-Ware and among much of the rock art. However, the importance of elite hunting expressed in the images on the pottery and by the petroglyphs remained highly significant.

19So-called ‘Dancing’ figures in the rock art, with the unique arms raised above the head and incurved stance, are often integrated into the animal and hunting scenes. The power of dance communicates in a multisensory, emotional, and symbolic manner and is a vehicle which incorporates inchoate ideas in a visible human form, appropriate to the liminal zone. It is a multisensory activity, framing and prolonging communication. “The sight of performers moving in time and space, the sounds of physical movement, the smell of physical exertion, the feeling of kinaesthetic activity or empathy, the touch of body to body or performing area, and the proxemic sense has the unique potential of going beyond many other audio-visual media of persuasion” (Garfinkel 2003: 59). Once the dance is over the participant feels restored and refreshed with inner tensions released (op. cit.: 59). We can suggest that early Naqada Egyptians connected the power of dance with control over the wild, represented by desert fauna as well as the crocodile and the hippopotamus, and with river vessels. These were included in the assemblages of necessary equipment for the elite deceased.

20On this theme, ‘dancing’ appears as an integral part of predynastic funerary practice as well as being present among the Eastern Desert petroglyphs. There are ‘dancing’ figures on C-Ware pottery in graves, including three scenes on provenanced pots from cemetery U at Abydos, one figure with arms raised (Graff 2009: 245, 247) and two un-provenanced pots having figures with arms raised from University College London and Brussels (op. cit.: 242, 243). There is also a Naqada IIc C-Ware bowl from Mahasna showing two dancers with outstretched arms associated with hippopotamus harpooning (op. cit.: 226). Different kinds of dancing are thus indicated in late Naqada I through IIc apart from the formalised D-Ware. On the D-Ware the large ‘arms raised’ figures have a variety of arm positions. This is also evident in (provenanced) figurines over a long period starting from Naqada I and perhaps earlier (Ucko 1968).

21We can observe that there is not an exact correspondence in the presence of the ‘dancing’ figures and their association with boats between the Nile Valley and the Central Eastern Desert. On Naqada I C-Ware pottery, none of the few ‘dancing’ figures are associated with, let alone stand in, a boat. The Ashmolean clay box with the ‘two fronds’ boat came from Mahasna, north-west of Abydos, while at Hierakonpolis, which is on the West Bank nearly opposite the entrance to Wadi Abbad/Kanais/Baramiya, there are ‘frond’ boats, but no ‘arms raised’ figures among the petroglyphs. Nor have any D-Ware pots with such figures been found there. The Naqada IIc T100 painting has sickle-shaped ‘Type I’ vessels (Lankester 2013: 10), animal control and dancers, albeit not with their arms raised and incurved above the head. Gebelein is located opposite the north-central part of the survey area and is the source of the linen found in an elite tomb which has hippopotamus hunting, boats, and a row of ‘arms raised’ figures among a group of other dancers. These not only suggests a communal dance, but are associated with boats, the presence of animals and their hunting. Most of the later D-Ware pots on which the mainly female large figures are illustrated come from archaeological sites south-east of, but near to, the Wadi Hammamat; such as Naqada, or to the north-east in the case of El Amrah, Semainah and Abydos (Graff 2009). The evidence for group dancing is sparse. But the Gebelein Linen, T100 painting from Hierakonpolis, some groups of female figures holding hands on D-Ware (Graff 2009) and the El Kab petroglyphs suggest that this was done, mainly by females, in the valley as a counterpart to the mostly male single figures in the desert rock art.

Conclusion: a new interpretation for the symbolic expressions of the empowerment of elites

22It is the subject matter rather than the existence of rock art in the Eastern Desert which excites comment. The presence of hunting scenes dating from a moister time period is not surprising, but their subject matter is. Rather than realistically showing wild animals being hunted, the petroglyphs most often depict fauna unrealistically and many times in association with, or integrated into, tableau containing boats and the ‘dancing’ figure. Not found in the Nile Valley outside of El Kab-the ‘gate to the wilderness,’ the integrated scenes and associations appear different to rock art near to settlements. These more commonly show cattle, and boats without the association to hunting (Judd 2009). The apparent ‘strangeness’ and unrealistic nature of the petroglyphs can be explained as showing the liminal zone between this world and the next.

23In utilising the liminal space members of the valley elites could go ‘out there’ to engage in hunting far away from the everyday environment. There they mastered the conditions and fauna, and probably sourced magical products such shells, ostrich eggs and feathers, greywacke for palettes, and gold (Lankester 2013). They returned to the valley settlements as heroic figures with supernatural power separating them even more in political stature from the mass of ordinary peasants. It is noteworthy that many of the images in the rock art are also shown, sometimes in different form rather than theme, on pottery found in graves in the Nile Valley. It is therefore likely that the desert was seen as the land of the dead as well as that of the wild. The power gained through the journey out there could be taken with the elites when they died and were buried with grave goods representing the combination of the desert and riverine motifs found in the rock art.

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Table des illustrations

URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/920/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 404k
Titre Figure 1 – Hunting with dogs scene, Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt
Crédits © F. Lankester
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/920/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
Titre Figure 2 – Hunting tableau showing animal control Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt
Crédits © F. Lankester
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/920/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,1M
Titre Figure 3 – Animal control scene Wadi Umm Salam-35, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt
Crédits © F. Lankester
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/920/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 920k
Titre Figure 4 – ‘Chieftains’ at RME-26/Wadi Abu Wasil-10, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt
Crédits © F. Lankester
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/920/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,0M
Titre Figure 5 – Boat involved in hunting, Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt
Crédits © F. Lankester
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/920/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,0M
Titre Figure 6 – Giraffe with elongated tails and hooves, Wadi Umm Salam-14, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt
Crédits © F. Lankester
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/920/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
Titre Figure 7 – Large boat with over seventy crew being dragged by seven stick figures, Wadi Baramiya-9, Central Eastern Desert, Egypt
Crédits © F. Lankester
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/920/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 928k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Francis David Lankester, « Predynastic Egyptian rock art as evidence for early elites’ rite of passage », Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 12 | 2016, 81-92.

Référence électronique

Francis David Lankester, « Predynastic Egyptian rock art as evidence for early elites’ rite of passage », Afrique : Archéologie & Arts [En ligne], 12 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2016, consulté le 20 juillet 2017. URL : http://aaa.revues.org/920 ; DOI : 10.4000/aaa.920

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Auteur

Francis David Lankester

frankfrankly101@gmail.com – Durham University, The Castle Palace Green, Durham DH1 3RW (UK)

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Droits d’auteur

CNRS - ArScAn. Cartographie d’après www.geoatlas.fr

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