On Sunday’s meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group we had a talk from Glenn Godenho about an egyptian tomb that he is involved in excavating & the things it can tell us about the First Intermediate Period in Ancient Egyptian history.
He started off by setting the First Intermediate Period in context – this is a stretch of time between the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom (around 2000BC). He sketched out the end of the Old Kingdom for us, starting from a high point (the time of the Giza pyramids in the 4th Dynasty) through to the 6th & 7th Dynasties. At the end of this time the power of the Pharaoh and the central government was in decline, and the power of regional governors was rising. Then there’s a 100 year period where there doesn’t seem to’ve been any effective central government at all – Egypt wasn’t a unified country & the local governors acted as Kings of their own region. This Intermediate Period ends when a Theban ruler (Thebes is next to modern-day Luxor) re-unifies the country & kicks off the Middle Kingdom.
Traditionally (in Egyptology) the First Intermediate Period was seen as a lawless time where society broke down and people fought each other or starved to death. Godenho talked about where this viewpoint comes from, and pointed out that actually it all seems to be poetic literature. And in fact the texts don’t even say they’re talking about this period, it’s much more “and back in the old days it was Bad, now it’s Good because our Pharaoh made it so”. Kind of the reverse of “the good old days” type of nostalgia that our culture has. He also told us that the Ancient Egyptians seem to’ve been masters of hyperbole about things like starvation – he quoted us some lines from a letter of a head of a household who’s away on business writing home to his family replying to letters where they’re complaining about how he needs to sort things out for them. It went something like this “And you shouldn’t say you are hungry unless it is real hunger. Why here the people are so hungry that they are even beginning to eat each other!”. And it’s clear from context that the letter writer doesn’t mean that for real, what he’s saying is “oh quit whining, it’s not that bad”. So a lot of the apocalyptic literature that may or may not be about the First Intermediate Period shouldn’t be read as historical truth, but as literature.
After giving us the historical context, and putting forward the idea of the First Intermediate Period as not being particularly lawless or bad to live in, Godenho then told us about his work on the tomb of Ankhtifi who was the ruler of an area of Upper Egypt during the First Intermediate Period. Ankhtifi ruled over the 3rd Nome which was an area just to the south of Thebes, and he later ruled over the 2nd Nome as well (to the south of the 3rd Nome). He was allied to one of the power centres in Lower Egypt to the north, against Thebes, and via his alliances controlled most of Upper Egypt (except the area Thebes ruled over). So it’s actually a surprise that not long after his death these alliances must’ve fallen to pieces and the Thebans were the ones that unified the country again – it’s not really known how that happened.
There are two strands to Godenho’s work on Ankhtifi’s tomb – the original reason they went to work on the tomb was to re-study the inscriptions inside which were originally published in the 1950s. These are full of things that appear to support the idea of a lawless time, with famine and war on-going. But Godenho talked us through several quotes from it and made it clear that this again is a piece of propaganda and poetry. I don’t remember all the quotes, but I do remember that each section is effectively Ankhtifi bragging about the wonderful things he achieved and each one ends with the line “For such a man am I”. It’s all about him being the perfect ruler – feeding the hungry and bringing peace to those at war and so on. So it shouldn’t be taken at face value, but it does still tell us things about the First Intermediate Period if we read between the lines. The primary theme that Godenho drew out was what he’d mentioned while he was putting this period in context – the central government is gone, and this local ruler is practically a King himself. For example in previous noble tombs the inscriptions would be telling us that “the Pharaoh ordered me, and I did it”, whereas Ankhtifi uses the more King-ly formulas of the gods putting him on earth to bring peace, or whatever.
The other strand of archaeological work is that they are excavating the area immediately outside the tomb – this was covered up over time, by a collapse of the hill the tomb is built into in ancient times (pre-Late Period) and by a wall around the tomb entrance in more modern times. And so the archaeology underneath has been protected from Victorian and earlier archaeologists, so there is a lot to learn. They’ve excavated half the site and found evidence for a forecourt with pillars, and places for the family to leave offerings. The layout is similar to a temple, where there is a walled off bit that it looks like it was restricted access – and there might even be a causeway running down towards a potential temple site nearer the Nile. So again there is a strong suggestion that Ankhtifi was set up as a Pharaoh would’ve been in the past, not as a noble.
After telling us about this Godenho finished up by discussing the lasting effects of the First Intermediate Period. The first & most obvious is that Thebes was not an important centre until after this time – and it’s this re-unification by a Theban ruler that raises it to prominence. From a tourist point of view this means that the First Intermediate Period can be thought of as responsible for Luxor & Karnak Temples. Another lasting effect is that after Ankhtifi (and his fellow local rulers) nobles regarded themselves differently with respect to the Pharaoh – and there was no going back to the time when it was just the Pharaoh in charge, the central government had lost some of its clout and the shine was taken off the godhood of the Pharaoh.
I really enjoyed this talk – Godenho was an excellent speaker. And it’s the sort of talk about Egypt that I enjoy most – some of the archaeology and some of the more complex ideas you can pull out of the details of the archaeology and by reading between the lines of the texts.