Ancient Egyptian Self-Presentation in Mining and Quarrying Expeditions outside Egypt
Egyptians who went beyond the Nile Valley on mining and quarrying expeditions carried Egypt in their hearts and minds and hoped to return there. Their behaviour was formed by what they knew and valued, and this found expression in the inscriptions and graffiti they inscribed in the wilderness. On the other hand, far away from Egypt’s strict constraints, they could also behave somewhat more freely than at home.
In this project, I examine the tension between these two factors. On the one hand, inscriptions at mines and quarries allowed people to appropriate privileges which they would not normally enjoy at home – for instance, often the expedition leaders added their own names, or figures, to the royal texts they were commissioned to inscribe, something which normally did not happen in Egypt.
On the other, people normally appropriated prestige in ways which were recognisable to those around them, and to potential visitors to the site, as prestigious in Egypt; for instance, stressing their connection to the king. Expedition leaders indeed stress how well they had served the king by generating their quota of raw materials, or even exceeding it, and by keeping all the expedition participants safe.
But even more frequently, they choose to highlight their standing at court, their accomplishments in their official careers, and the esteem in which the king held them.
This project has identified a unique group of inscriptions from Wadi Hammamat, from an expedition during the reign of Pepi I marking the royal jubilee. Several important expedition members had their sons’ names included in the official inscriptions commemorating this prestigious expedition. This marked stress on family relationships does not appear at any other Old Kingdom quarry; it may be due to the presence of a group of important officials with sons whose administrative careers they wished to forward.
Expedition participants omitted from the commemorative jubilee inscriptions, and others named in the official texts without their sons, organised inscriptions of their own at Wadi Hammamat, where they could highlight the family relationships and work connections they desired to emphasise, and include additional titles. This interplay between official expedition inscriptions and in formal inscriptions is also unusual at that period: the nearest parallel is at Wadi Maghara in the Sinai, but with a more limited corpus of texts.
Skilled workmen from the expeditions commemorated their presence in graffiti, such as a couple of cobblers at Wadi el-Hudi (probably someone helped them, since it is unlikely that cobblers were literate), or even left modest monuments, such as the stonemason Anhktify, who erected a stela with a request for offerings at the temple of Serabit el-Khadem near the turquoise mines (ca. 1808 BCE). Occasionally, they even appropriated royal iconography, such as a man named Iqer (“Excellent”) who represented himself in a graffito smiting a foreign enemy. Back home in Egypt, the image of smiting a foreign enemy was characteristic of, and restricted to, the pharaoh himself, and to anonymous soldiers in battle reliefs. Was Iqer boasting that he had distinguished himself against, say, an attack by marauders, or was this just wishful thinking?
Sinai inscription 22, an engraving at Wadi Maghara showing a man, woman and son, probably a family, walking and holding hands, is also highly unusual. Women, let alone children, are rarely depicted in mining inscriptions, which represent a male world of achievement, but the relief violates Egyptian artistic conventions in other ways: it is unusual for two-dimensional depictions of family groups to represent them walking in a row holding hands, and the woman is represented as taller than the man. She may be holding an offering,
One of the most intriguing rock inscriptions I have encountered comes from Wadi el-Hudi and represents three dog-handlers. (Dog-handlers were important members of the expedition since they hunted desert game, thus providing the expedition with fresh meat, and guarded the camp from robbers.) What are these men doing? (In general, people represented themselves in the most prestigious way available, so I suspect they could be cutting up food for a sacrifice rather than feeding their dogs.)
Egypt’s relations with her neighbours are also reflected in mining and quarrying inscriptions; in the second millennium BCE, at Serabit el Khadem, Semitic miners worked alongside the Egyptians; in the earlier part of this period they are mentioned on the commemorative stela erected by the expeditions, and their leader Khebded is even commemorated on the stelae and named, as are his leading men (in inscription Sinai 87, he is even depicted amongst, and almost identical to, a row of Egyptian bureaucrats. This is probably significant, though we do not know whether Khebded requested this image or whether the Egyptians initiated it, whether they included him as one of themselves or that was how he aspired to be.) It is highly unusual for a foreigner to be represented in such egalitarian and positive fashion in Egyptian art: mostly they were shown as smitten enemies or grovelling allies bringing tribute, with strong stress on Egyptian superiority rather than cooperation.
By contrast, in Nubia, local workers at mines and quarries are virtually invisible, mentioned only in passing as generating produce. Since these inscriptions come from the turquoise mines at Wadi el-Hudi (texts 4 and 143), maybe the Nubians excavated turquoise as tax. The autobiographical stela of Sihathor from Abydos, now in the British Museum (BM EA 569), mentions Nubian chiefs being forced to wash gold.
The unusual setting of mining and quarrying sites outside Egypt gave rise to new forms of confirming and expanding Egyptian identity and the ways in which it was represented, both in relation to the participants’ lives in Egypt and in relation to the foreigners they encountered. Additional nuances will emerge as this project continues.
This research is supported by the ISRAEL SCIENCE FOUNDATION (grant no 903/09).
(Panel of quotations)
“I completed my expedition in two months. I brought away the fixed amount which he had ordered me.” (Inscriptions of Sinai no. 139+141; expedition leader Amenemhet, year 7 Amenemhet III).
“I was not downcast at the head of my expedition. I arrived to seize a good opportunity. My craftsmen arrived quite complete, there was never a case of loss among them. My expedition rejoiced; there was none weary of heart, my payments… every day.” (Inscriptions of Sinai no. 140; 1910 to 1764 BCE; name of expedition leader and king unknown).
“….his beloved, possessor of his affection, the only useful one of the king of Upper Egypt, great one of the king of Lower Egypt, over the secrets of the House of Gold, favourite of…excellent leader of the lord of the Two Lands, watchful, free from bribery, who takes charge of the… who are upon.. favourite of the king of Upper Egypt in travelling over foreign countries in order to bring noble precious stones to his majesty, of whom it was said his advice is excellent…what his lord has ordered, who reached the top of the praised ones, he who is admitted to his lord before millions, who repeats good things to the lord of the Two Lands… the careful god’s treasurer Sebekotep.” (Inscription no. 405).