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The Oldest Gays in History
Ancient Egyptian sources are largely silent on the subject of same-sex love.
Our insights into the matter mostly come from just three areas:
• A myth about the gods Horus and Seth,
• A historical tale about Pharaoh Neferkare and his general Sasenet, and
• The tomb of court officials Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep.
In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, a myth with several versions, Seth and his nephew Horus vie for the throne of Egypt.
Seth tries and tries to get the better of Horus. At last, he decides to subjugate him by inebriating, seducing, and inseminating him.
‘How beautiful are your buttocks, how vital!’ This line, used by Seth on his nephew, is probably the oldest recorded chat-up, gay or straight, in all of history.
In the event, Horus is not all that drunk, and succeeds in catching Seth’s semen in his hand.
The next day, he shows his manky hand to his mother Isis, and then washes his hands in the Nile.
Together, Horus and Isis plot their revenge on Seth.
Horus goes to find Seth’s lunch and masturbates into his lettuce.
After enjoying his dressed salad, Seth puts his case before the tribunal of the gods, but, of course, Horus disputes his claim.
When Thoth calls forth their semen, that of Seth rises from the Nile, while that of Horus pours out of Seth’s mouth.
The myth suggests that, in Ancient Egypt as in Ancient Rome, the sticking point, if you’ll forgive the pun, was not so much with same-sex love per se, as with a male playing a passive or receptive role.
In 46 BCE, Cæsar was rumoured to have submitted to Nicomedes IV of Bithynia, and mocked as ‘Queen of Bithynia’. A popular quip ran: Gallias Caesar subegit, Caesarem Nicomedes (Caesar subjugated Gaul, and Nicomedes Caesar).
It is notable that Horus had no qualms about being seduced by Seth, or even with bedding him, but only with being inseminated by him.
From three extent fragments, it is possible to reconstruct the twenty-third century BCE story of the clandestine nocturnal visits paid by Pharaoh Neferkare (the long-reigning Pepi II) to General Sasenet.
One night, a spy observed Neferkare going on his own from the royal palace to Sasenet’s house.
Once before the house, Neferkare ‘threw a brick after stamping with his foot. Then a ladder was lowered to him (and) he climbed up.’
Neferkare spent four hours in the house with Sasenet, leaving only ‘after his majesty had done that which he had wanted to do with him’.
One fragment specifies that there was no woman, or wife, in Sasenet’s house, and the same incomplete sentence also contains the word ‘love’.
Lastly, the spy confirms to himself that ‘the rumours about [Neferkare] going out at night are true’.
Although the tale is censorious of Neferkare’s conduct, this is more because it does not befit a king and god than because it involves same-sex love.
In the twenty-fifth century BCE, Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep shared the title of ‘Overseer of the Manicurists’ at the court of Pharaoh Nyuserre Ini.
As with the Gentleman of the Bedchamber at the royal court of England, the title was much more prestigious than it sounds, since Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep would have been granted the rare privilege of touching the person of the pharaoh, and would have had unparalleled access to him.
When they died, Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were buried together in a mastaba tomb.
In this tomb, they are severally depicted embracing and, in one instance, even touching noses, which in Egyptian culture generally signified kissing.
That their wives and children also feature in the tomb has led some to conclude that they were brothers rather than lovers—but having a family of their own need not have precluded them from being lovers, and in the tomb they are represented in the same manner as husband and wife.
As far as the record goes, Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are, I think, the oldest gays in history.
Like all ancient peoples, the Egyptians valued fertility and dominance, and disapproved in particular of men who played a passive or receptive role.
But they did not have a rigid convention of sexuality as either heterosexual or homosexual, and, at least at certain times, and in certain strata, may have tolerated and even celebrated same-sex love.
Like all ancient peoples, the Egyptians valued fertility and dominance, and disapproved in particular of the passive or receptive male role. But they did not have a rigid convention of sexuality as either heterosexual or homosexual, and, at least at certain times, and in certain strata, may have tolerated and even celebrated same-sex love.
Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse and other books.
Griffiths JG (1960): The Conflict of Horus and Seth… Liverpool University Press.
Touch the above image to view a 1902 letter from T. M. Davis reporting on the discovery and donation of Egyptian antiquities, including the painted ostracon of Osiris.
Touch the above image to view Lyon’s Museum Diary entries discussing the deception of a dealer and the purchase of antiquities, including the stele exhibited (Lyon’s #2354).
Touch the above image to view Lyon’s Museum Diary entries discussing his visit to Reisner’s excavation camp, where he learned how to photograph and met T. M. Davis, the donor of many Egyptian antiquities, including the painted ostracon of Osiris.
Touch the above image to view an 1899 letter regarding the “Egyptian curiosities” to be exhibited in the Museum (which were ultimately accessioned into the Collection in 1931).
Ostracon from Ancient Egypt - History
2. Ramsesses: (" Born of Re" ) Fanbearer on the King’s Right hand, Royal Scribe, Generalissimo (of the Lord of the Two Lands), Bodily King’s Son, beloved of him Son of Ramses and Isetnofret. Heir to the throne from year 25 to year 50. Buried in KV5.
Sons depicted at Abu Simbel. On the left a prince from the smaller temple.
On the right a prince from the great temple.
3. Prehirwenemef: (" Re is with his strong arm" ) Fanbearer on the King’s Right hand, 1st Lieutenant of the Army, King’s Son of his Body, Master of the Horses, First charioteer of His Majesty. Son of Ramses and Nefertari. Depicted in the triumph that followed Kadesh. On a Karnak statue base there is mention of a woman named Wadjyt-kha’ti.
Amenhirkhepeshef, Ramesses, and Prehirwenemef at the Ramesseum
(Photo by Sesen)
4. Khaemwaset: (" Appearing in Thebes" ) King’s Son of his Body, Sem-Priest of Ptah, The Sem-priest controlling all clothing, High Priest of Ptah in Memphis, Executive at the Head of the Two Lands. Son of Ramses and Isetnofret. Crown Prince from year 50 to 55. One of the best known sons of Ramses. Known as one of the first archeologists. He was famous in ancient Egypt, and later featured as the hero Setne-Khaemwese in a cycle of stories written in the Late/Ptolemaic times. From documents and inscriptions Khaemwaset is known to have had two sons: Prince Ramesses (a sem-priest of Ptah) and Prince Hori (later High Priest of Ptah) and a daughter named Isetnofret. The name of Khaemwaset's wife (or wives) is not known to us. His grand-son Hori, son of HPM Hori later served as Vizier well into the 20th dynasty.
5. Mentu-hirkepeshef: (" Montu is with his strong arm" ) King’s Son of his Body, Master of the Horses, First Charioteer of his father, Royal Scribe. Also known from a Statue from Bubastis. He is called Mentu-hir-wenemef in an inscription from Luxor.
Mentu-hirkhepeshef was present at the battle of Kadesh in year 5 and the Battle of Dapur in year 10.
6. Nebenkhurru: King’s Son of his Body, Troopcommander. Prince Nebenkhurru was present at the battle of Kadesh and at a battle in the North (Qode).
7. Meryamun: (" Beloved of Amun" ) King’s Son of his Body. Also known as Ramesses-Meryamun. Present during the triumph after the battle of Qadesh, and the siege of the Syrian city of Dapur in year 10. Buried in KV5, where remains of his canopic jars were found.
Sons 3 to 7 at the Ramesseum (from right to left).
I.e. Prehirwenemef, Khaemwaset, Mentuhirkhepeshef, Nebenkhurru, and Meryamun.
(Photo by Sesen)
8. Amenemwia / Sethemwia: (" Amun / Seth in the divine barque" ) King’s Son of his Body. Present at the battle of Kadesh, siege of Dapur in year 10 and the siege of Qode (in Naharina in the North). Named Sethemwia at the town gate of Amara (in Nubia).
9. Sety: King’s Son of his Body, First Officer of his father. His name is spelled Sutiy in his funerary equipment. Present during the triumph after the battle of Qadesh, and the siege of the Syrian city of Dapur in year 10. Buried in KV5, where two of his canopic jars were found. His tomb was inspected in year 53.
10. Setepenre: (" Chosen of Re" ) King’s Son of his Body. Present at the siege of the city of Darfur (yr.10). A doorway from Qantir (later usurped by son no. 39 Ramesses-Sethemnakht) lists Setepenre as the hereditary prince and count, real King’s son, beloved of him.
11. Meryre I: (" Beloved of Re" ) King’s Son of his Body. Son of Ramses and Nefertari. Present at the Battle of Kadesh (year 5) and the Siege of Qode (in Naharina). Depicted twice on the façade of the Hathor temple in Abu Simbel.
12. Horhirwenemef: (" Horus is strong with his arm" ) King’s Son of his Body. Shown presenting prisoners to his father after the Battle of Kadesh. He was present at the siege of Qode (in Naharina), as depicted in Luxor.
13. Merenptah: (" Beloved of Ptah" ) Hereditary Prince, King’s Son of his Body, Eldest King’s Son, Executive at the Head of the Two Lands., Generelissimo, Royal Scibe, Superintendant of the Seal. On a naophorous kneeling statue he is listed as Director for the Gods, Heir of Geb, Controller and Superintendant of his throne, Royal Scribe and Generalissimo, Senior King’s Son Ramessses-Merneptah. Son of Ramses and Isetnofret. Heir to the throne and for all intent and purpose regent during the last 10 years of his father’s reign. He became Generalissimo after year 50 and Heir to the throne in year 55
14. Amenhotep: (" Amun is pleased" ) King’s Son of his Body. Shown running and presenting prisoners to his father in a scene in Luxor.
15. Itamun: (or Ioti-Amun): (" Amun is the father" ) King’s Son of his Body. A letter from The superintendant of Cattle, Sunero to prince Khaemwaset mentions Prince Ioti-Amun. Khaemwaset had given an order: “Let search be made of these retainers the King’s Son Ioti-Amun, who are in the district of Ninsu (Heracleopolis), and they shall be made to name their companions (accomplices?)”. Further on in the letter Sunero writes: “Now, I reached the district of Ninsu and found the retainer of the General, Piay, along with Qenhirkhopshef, retainer of the King’s Son, Ioti-Amun, and they brought them back, 6 men of them, who had been in the prison of the son of the Chief of the Treasury. They pressed on southward to seize the others.”
16. Meryatum: (" Beloved of Atum" ) King’s Son of his Body, High Priest of Re in Heliopolis. There are statues of Meryatum in Berlis that list his titles as: Hereditary Prince and Count, Chief of the Seers in the mansion of the Phoenix (Bennu-bird), bodily King’s Son, beloved of him, Chief of Seers. Other titles mentioned: Setem-priest in the Horizon of Eternity, Eyes of the King at the head of his Two Lands, pure of hands in the House of Re, Charioteer of his father the victorious King, Horus Falcon, Beloved of Maat.
Son of Ramses and Nefertari according to the inscription on one of the Berlin Statues. Apparently visited the Sinai during the second decade of his father’s reign. He served as high priest for about 20 years. He was either buried in the Queens Valley or in KV5.
Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, reign of Ramesses II, 1279-1213 BC
Ostraca (singular, ostracon) are natural limestone flakes, common to the region of Thebes. The ancient Egyptians who lived there, particularly the artisans of the royal tombs, used them extensively as writing or drawing surfaces, both for practice and for instruction. Some are almost finished works of art others are clearly sketches. Whether passing idle time or practicing their technique, these pieces provide a rare look at an ancient artist at work. This ostracon is decorated with a scene of the king suckled by a goddess. Although his body is that of an adult, the king (identified by the inscriptions as Ramesses II) appears child size. The goddess wears a long garment of vulture's wings--she could be any of a number of protective mother or sky goddesses.
The Year in Review for 1987. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH (organizer) (February 24-April 17, 1988).
Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt
. The Cincinnati Art Museum (organizer) (October 19, 1996-January 15, 1997) The Brooklyn Museum (February 20-May 18, 1997).
I Faraoni. Palazzo Grassi spa, 30124 Venice, Italy (organizer) (September 8, 2002-July 6, 2003).
Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt. The Cleveland Museum of Art (organizer) (March 13-June 12, 2016).
First written record of Semitic alphabet, from 15th century BCE, found in Egypt
Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.
Newly deciphered Egyptian symbols on a 3,400-year-old limestone ostracon from Luxor’s Tomb of Senneferi appears to be the first written evidence of the ABC letter order of the early Semitic alphabet, according to a University of British Columbia Egyptologist.
In his article, “A Double Abecedary? Halaham and ‘Abgad on the TT99 Ostracon,” Prof. Thomas Schneider concludes that a small (approximately 10 x 10 centimeters, or about 4 x 4 inches) double-sided limestone flake was used by Egyptian scribes as a mnemonic device to remember the letter orders of not one, but two forms of early Semitic alphabets.
On one side of the flake is Schneider’s recent discovery: the transliteration into cursive Egyptian writing of the sounds that signify the beginnings of today’s Hebrew alphabet (Aleph, Bet, Gimel). On the other, a contemporary, though now lesser-known letter order, called “Halaḥam,” which was deciphered in 2015, on the same limestone flake, by Leiden University’s Dr. Ben Haring.
The limestone piece is dated to the Egyptian 18th dynasty, from the excavation of Theban Tomb 99 from the necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, known as the Tombs of the Nobles. Director of the Cambridge Theban Tombs Project Dr. Nigel Strudwick found the object back in 1995, in what he calls “a later tomb shaft,” dating to about 1450 BCE.
“The reason why the object is in the tomb is really unknown,” Strudwick told The Times of Israel. He said in terms of its context, it is possible that it was introduced into the shaft as late as 110 years ago, as the tomb was used as a house as late as 1907, he said.
“The ostrakon is, however, of roughly the same date as the tomb to judge from the handwriting style. So it could have been lying around somewhere in that area of the necropolis for 3,000+ years before it ended up where we found it,” said archaeologist Strudwick.
Tomb 99 has been identified as belonging to Senneferi (also known as Sennefer), who was active in 1420 BCE, according to writing found on Papyrus Louvre E3226. The ancient Egyptian noble was a known character, a mayor of Thebes, whose likeness is recorded in several statues. Likewise, he recorded his name when he stood a monument in the Temple to Hathor in the turquoise quarry site at Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai.
Coincidentally or not, the first inscriptions of the written Semitic alphabet, often called Proto-Canaanite, are found at this Sinai quarry site.
According to Hebrew University’s head of Egyptology, Prof. Orly Goldwasser, the origins of the Semitic alphabet came from Canaanite quarry workers at the Serabit el-Khadim site, who, while experts in extracting the precious blue-green stone, were illiterate.
After enviously watching their Egyptian colleagues worshipfully engraving their devotion to their gods through beautiful hieroglyphs, around 1800 BCE these workers decided to adapt the 1,000-odd Egyptian characters into phonetic symbols and essentially invented our alphabet, says Goldwasser.
Thus, Aleph, today the first letter of the alphabet, was named after their primary god, Aluf (meaning bull in Canaanite), and symbolized by an ox head. For the sound “B,” they used a house or bayit, explains Goldwasser, in a video that accompanied an Israel Museum exhibit.
Whether Senneferi, who arrived at the Serabit el-Khadim site several hundred years later, was aware of the Proto-Canaanite script is unknown.
However, says Goldwasser, “If it is indeed the same person, all we are able to carefully suggest is that he knew the Canaanite language, and that is one of the reasons he was there [at the quarry].”
Regardless, says Goldwasser, “He could not have learned the order of the alphabet from the Sinai inscriptions.”
Mysterious ‘ugly’ scrawl
In 1905, famous Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie led an expedition to Sinai’s dusty Serabit el-Khadim. One day, Petrie’s wife Hilda, while walking through the ruins, stumbled, perhaps due to her floor-length starched white skirt, and noticed fallen stones inscribed with what she described as an “ugly” scrawl. They did not appear to her to be “real” hieroglyphs, explains Goldwasser in a 2010 Biblical Archaeology Review article, “How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs.”
In the article, Goldwasser notes, “the vast majority of the inscriptions in this alphabet come from the Serabit area — more than 30 of them. Only one has come from elsewhere in Egypt (the two-line Wadi el-Hôl inscription). Some few, very short inscriptions (most only a couple of letters) have been found in Canaan dating to the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age (c. 1750–1200 BCE).”
But although the Petries discovered the lettering and recognized that it was something other than the more elegant Egyptian script they were accustomed to, it was another decade until a noted Egyptologist named Sir Alan H. Gardiner cracked the code.
Using a little sphinx devoted to the goddess Hathor inscribed in two different scripts (Egyptian hieroglyphs and Canaanite letters) on two sides, Gardiner noticed a “repetitive group of signs as a series of four letters in an alphabetic script that represented a word in a Canaanite language: b-‘-l-t, vocalized as Baalat, ‘the Mistress,'” writes Goldwasser. The Canaanites addressed their goddess as Ba’alat, making the little sphinx statue into a Rosetta stone of sorts for Gardiner to finally decipher the Proto-Canaanite script.
Interestingly, she writes, “For a half millennium after its invention, this alphabet was rarely used — at least as far as it is reflected in the archaeological record.”
However, the paucity of archaeological evidence does not mean that the Canaanite language itself was not widely spoken in Egypt. It definitely was — and there is even fascinating evidence from the third millennium BCE that transliterated Canaanite spells were used on an Egyptian tomb, as discovered by Prof. Richard Steiner in 2002.
And now, with the Schneider and Haring decoding of the 15th century BCE ostracon, we see that the alphabet was also transliterated into Egyptian.
What exactly is on the ostracon?
Aleph is for ‘elta (lizard), Bet is for bibiya (snail), and Gimel is for grr (pigeon), according to Schneider’s new decoding of a side of the limestone flake.
The small ostracon bears ink inscriptions on both sides, which appear to be a list of words written in cursive hieratic Egyptian and hieroglyphs. Based on their sounds, researchers are concluding the lists are part of an abecedary, or alphabet primer.
“It is a partial double abecedary for two alphabetic ordering systems,” Schneider told The Times of Israel in an email exchange.
As evidenced in contemporary Ugaritic cuneiform tablets, there were originally two widely known contemporaneous letter orders in the numerous early Semitic languages.
“It is less clear whether this was for two different Semitic languages (in practical use, or in terms of the ordering principle),” he said.
In a 2015 article, Haring deciphered what researchers label the “obverse” side. Also written in both cursive hieratic Egyptian and hieroglyphs, the obverse side appears to record the first seven, or potentially more, letters of the halaḥam sequence, says Schneider.
“The obverse could reflect some form of North West Semitic close to early Aramaic,” Schneider said.
However, the reverse side, writes Schneider, “is less clear, with animal designations with equivalents in different languages.”
On both sides of the stone flake, it appears that the scribe uses two ways to transfer the alphabet — through cursive hieratic writing and a pictorial hieroglyph, which Schneider calls a “classifier.”
“The hieratic transcriptions clearly establish the acrostich [sequential order] of letter words. It is less clear what the function of the classifier hieroglyphs was. They could have been used in the traditional way to indicate the class of meaning of the foreign terms,” he writes.
Although the Proto-Canaanite script predates the dating of the ostracon, there is no evidence that the Egyptian scribe was aware of the forms of phonetic symbols (that we call letters today) — even though he may have accompanied his master at some point to the Serabit el-Khadim where they were invented hundreds of years earlier.
“We do not know whether the Proto-Sinaitic signs were already arranged in an ‘alphabetic’ way, and they were clearly no longer used during the time of this ostracon,” writes Schneider.
For what purpose?
“It does puzzle me as to why someone in the necropolis should have been writing out the sequence that is suggested by Schneider and others,” said archaeologist Strudwick.
We also still do not know what why this limestone flake was written upon, says Schneider.
“It was not a full primer, so maybe [it is] just an attempt by a scribe to write down the alphabet sequences he had learned to memorize? The overall purpose of these sequences was the order foreign words and names, probably for administrative usage,” speculates Schneider.
In his article’s conclusion, Schneider writes, “Depending on who inscribed the ostracon, it points to the knowledge of the two Semitic alphabets either among the Theban artisans working on the tomb, or the multilingual scribal elite of the administration of the Egyptian state and its provinces around 1400 BCE.”
However, Hebrew University’s Goldwasser was more specific. In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, she writes that Schneider probably meant “two Semitic alphabet orders,” not alphabets.
From the ostracon, we learn that the two arrangements or orders of Semitic/Canaanite lettering were evidently known to the Egyptian scribe, says Goldwasser. “This is unsurprising,” writes Goldwasser.
At least in Egypt, at around the same time period, they are also attested in Ugaritic, an extinct Northwest Semitic language, which was spoken — and written in cuneiform — in the Syrian city of Ugarit, she continues.
“We are aware of not a few Egyptian scribes who apparently were fluent in Canaanite. There were many Canaanite Egyptians and ties between Egyptian cities and the cities on the Lebanon coast were strong,” writes Goldwasser.
At the same time, finding a “straightforward” explanation for these Canaanite letters in Egyptian is very difficult, she adds.
If Schneider and Haring are correct, she adds, this is the first evidence that not only were the Egyptians interested in writing down in Egyptian Canaanite words, but also knew the Canaanite letters — and in two orders.
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Ostracon from Ancient Egypt - History
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
os'-tra-ka: The word ostracon ("potsherd," Hebrew cheres) occurs in Job 2:8 (Septuagint), kai elaben ostrakon, "and he took him a potsherd." Earthen vessels were in universal use in antiquity (they are twice mentioned in the New Testament: skeue ostrakina (2 Cor 4:7 2 Tim 2:20)), and the broken fragments of them, which could be picked up almost anywhere, were made to serve various purposes. Upon the smoothest of these pieces of unglazed pottery the poorest might write in ink his memoranda, receipts, letters or texts.
1. Hebrew Ostraca:
A fortunate discovery at Samaria (1910), made among the ruins of Ahab's palace, has brought to light 75 Hebrew ostraca inscribed with ink, in the Phoenician character, with accounts and memoranda relating to private matters and dating probably from the time of Ahab. Their historical contribution, aside from the mention of many names of persons and places, is slender, but for ancient Hebrew writing and to a less extent for Hebrew words and forms they are of value, while the fact that in them we possess documents actually penned in Israel in the 9th century BC gives them extraordinary interest. The nature of ostraca tends to their preservation under conditions which would quickly destroy parchment, skin or papyrus, and this discovery in Israel encourages the hope of further and more significant finds.
2. Greek Ostraca:
Greek ostraca in large quantities have been found in Egypt, preserving documents of many kinds, chiefly tax receipts. The texts of some 2,000 of these have been published, principally by Wilcken (Griechische Ostraka, 2 volumes, 1899), and serve to illustrate in unexpected ways the everyday Greek speech of the common people of Egypt through the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine periods. Like the papyri, they help to throw light on New Testament syntax and lexicography, as well as on ancient life in general.
3. New Testament Ostraca:
It is said that Cleanthes the Stoic, being too poor to buy papyrus, used to write on ostraca, but no remains of classical literature have been found on the ostraca thus far discovered. In some instances, however, Christian literary texts are preserved upon ostraca. Some years ago Bouriant bought in Upper Egypt 20 ostraca, probably of the 7th century, inscribed with the Greek text of parts of the Gospels. The ostraca are of different sizes, and preserve among others one long continuous passage (Lk 22:40-71), which runs over 10 of the pieces. The ostraca contain from 2 to 9 verses each, and cover Mt 27:31,32 Mk 5:40,41 (9:3) 9:17,18,22 15:21 Lk 12:13-16 22:40-71 Jn 1:1-9 1:14-17 18:19-25 19:15-17. The texts are in 3 different hands, and attest the interest of the poor in the gospel in the century of the Arab conquest. Another late ostracon has a rough drawing labeled "St. Peter the evangelist," perhaps in allusion to the Gospel of Peter.
4. Coptic Ostraca:
Coptic ostraca, too, are numerous, especially from the Byzantine period, and of even more interest for Christian history than the Greek. A Sa`idic ostracon preserves the pericope on the woman taken in adultery (Jn 7:53 through 8:11), which is otherwise unattested in the Sa`idic New Testament. A Christian hymn to Mary, akin to the canticles of Luke, and some Christian letters have been found. The work of W.E. Crum on the Coptic ostraca is of especial importance. See, further, Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 1910 Lyon, Harvard Theol. Review, January, 1911.
Edgar J. Goodspeed Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'ostraca'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE 1915.
© International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE)
Through gemstones, a glimpse into ancient Egyptian civilization
On the second day of fieldwork in Abydos, Egypt, Penn doctoral student Shelby Justl stumbled upon something rare: an inscribed piece of ancient limestone called an ostracon. “You rarely find writing in Egyptian archaeology. Writing is either on papyrus, which decays easily, or on stone that fades over time,” she explains. “I translated the text and determined this was a land-transfer document, a bill of sale of two arouras of land.”
Another ostracon had previously surfaced in Abydos, on the site of an ancient town call Wah-Sut. The archaeological team that made the discovery knew the text mentioned gold, but Justl translated it in full. “It was a receipt,” she says, “recording a delivery of raw gold, red jasper, and lapis lazuli, listing the exact quantities of each material.”
Though the first inscription was intriguing, the second one hooked Justl. The receipt confirmed the arrival of large quantities of semiprecious stones coming from far away, but it also raised many questions. In ancient Egypt, how were the stones transported from mines to towns? Who was receiving them? And who controlled this semiprecious stone industry? Justl has spent the bulk of her Ph.D. research delving into these questions, and with guidance from her advisor, Penn archaeologist Joseph Wegner, and a trip to the British Museum last summer, she may finally have some answers.
Amara West at the British Museum
Justl didn’t start her time in Penn’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations thinking she would study semiprecious stones. Her master’s work had been on production of faience, a bright blue, glazed ceramic material. But fieldwork in Egypt in 2014 shifted her trajectory, and for the past few years she’s focused on how ancient Egypt managed and processed materials like red jasper and carnelian.
It’s well-documented that the Egyptians held these particular gems in high esteem, says Wegner, associate curator of the Penn Museum’s Egyptian Section. “Certain amulets were supposed to be made from carnelian or jasper,” he says, “to protect against evil spirits or for other religious reasons. They were also markers of social status. It wasn’t easy to acquire jewelry in ancient times, and the people who owned these items were making statements about their wealth and social position. Many also envisioned taking them into the afterlife.”
Red jasper is opaque, a dark reddish-brown, and the slightly translucent carnelian is orange-red. Given the stones’ splendor, it’s not hard to grasp their place of honor in such a society. From there, it’s also not a far leap to understanding why large quantities are not often discovered. Unlike with pottery fragments, typically on the larger side archaeologically speaking, remnants of red jasper and carnelian are minuscule. Though they do get collected during excavations, the particulars around each discovery are often sparse.
To do the project she envisioned, Justl needed a large, well-labeled, provenanced collection of these semiprecious stones. Then she learned about an ongoing British Museum excavation at Amara West, a site in present-day Sudan known during ancient times as Kush. Amara West served as the capital of Kush during the reigns of Seti I and Ramses II, from 1290 to 1213 B.C.E. Here, these pharaohs installed an official called the deputy of Kush to act as the local authority.
In Amara West, “the museum had unearthed 78 semiprecious stone items,” Justl says. “That’s a large quantity. Most often, you’ll only find a few. Sixty-seven of these stones contained data describing where they had been found.” They hadn’t yet been photographed or catalogued, so during the summer of 2018, Justl spent a month in London studying the materials.
Control by the pharaohs
Sifting through the British Museum’s items—mostly jewelry like earrings and necklaces—she learned that more than 70% of the stones with recorded locations had been found in just three areas: the palace of the deputy of Kush facilities behind his palace, used either for storage or production and facilities behind a nearby temple, also used for storage or production.
This told Justl a great deal about the stones’ import. “The storage facilities are positioned as close to the palace and to the temple as they could be,” she says. “It suggests these are valuable items and indicates closely supervised management.”
For Justl, it crystallized the idea that processing and distribution of semiprecious stones happened mostly in capital cities controlled by the pharaoh and government, where the stones could be protected. Archaeological reports from Amara West dating back as early as 1938 strengthened the theory. Elsewhere, tomb scenes confirmed that part of the tribute the deputy of Kush sent to the pharaoh in the Egyptian capital included valuable stones like carnelian and jasper.
What Justl doesn’t yet know, and what may never become clear, is the degree to which ordinary citizens had access to semiprecious stones, given the evidence pointing to their place in the lives of society’s elite. Difficulties addressing this result partially from lack of access to pertinent ancient sites. In Abydos, for example, the modern town lies atop the ancient one. Beyond that, the historical record in general is incomplete, primarily chronicling activities of the pharaoh, the government, and the elite, with much less about common citizens.
“I’m still pursuing this question,” Justl says. “Where Amara West has a concentration of semiprecious stones within the temple and palace economies, at some other sites, it could be a household industry.” This may not, however, indicate that workers had better access to the gems, she adds, noting that “it probably means the stones were still controlled and distributed by the pharaoh and temples, with people simply working at workshops in their homes.”
Despite the unanswered questions, this research brings into greater focus a historical period important to a modern picture of what ancient civilization was like. “It’s helping us understand how ancient Egypt worked as a society,” Wegner says, “the economic and administrative side, the complexity of the culture.”
Funding for this work came from the 2018 Penn Museum Summer Research and Field Work Funds.
Ostracon in limestone, of rectangular shape inscribed with 31 lines of hieratic text praising the king as he appears on the war-chariot, inked on two sides (15 on recto, 16 on verso): Ancient Egyptian, Upper Egypt, Thebes, New Kingdom, late 19th Dynasty, c.1900 BC
Style / Culture
Thebes, Upper Egypt, ANCIENT EGYPT
Rhind, Alexander Henry, 1833 - 1863
Ancient Egypt Rediscovered (08 Feb 2019)
National Museum of Scotland
Egyptian Gallery, 2003 - 2008 (2003 - 2008)
Royal Scottish Museum
Ancient Egypt (29 Jul 2011)
National Museum of Scotland
A. Erman, 'Hieratische Ostraka', ZAS 18 (1880), pp. 93-6.
W. R. Dawson & T. E. Peet, 'The So-Called Poem on the King’s Chariot', Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 19 (1933), pp. 167-74.
B. Manley, 'The King of Egypt Upon His Chariot, a Poem (Ostracon NMS A.1956.319)', Cosmos 24 (2008), pp. 107-118.
C. Manassa, 'The Chariot that Plunders Foreign Lands: "The Hymn to the King in His Chariot"' in Chasing Chariots: Proceedings of the first international chariot conference (Cairo 2012), Eds. A. J. Veldmeijer & S. Ikram.
Bill Manley (2014) 'A Very Bright Poet, a Long Time Ago: considerations of language, meaning and the mind during the Bronze Age'. In A Good Scribe and an Exceedingly Wise Man: Studies in Honour of W.J.Tait edited by A.M. Dodson, J.J. Johnston and W.Monkhouse. GHP Egyptology 21.
Pietri, Renaud (c. 2015) 'The Chariot in egyptian mind' PhD thesis at Montpellier University and the Ecole du Louvre .
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