“Ritual and Religion in Egyptian Mines and Quarries” Hannah Pethen (EEG Meeting Talk)

This Sunday’s talk at the Essex Egyptology Group was given by Hannah Pethen, on the subject of the ritual activities that took place at Ancient Egyptian mines & quarries. She had narrowed her focus a bit from the title of the talk – she restricted herself to the pre-New Kingdom era, and concentrated primarily on what’s known of the Middle Kingdom rituals after some introductory words about Old Kingdom & First Intermediate period evidence.

Old Kingdom mining expeditions generally left behind some text explaining that the Pharaoh had commanded this expedition to be undertaken – normally using the Horus name of the Pharaoh, and not the throne name (the latter is the form one sees in a cartouche). In the First Intermediate period the local rulers of an area start to send expeditions under their own authority, and so the Pharaoh isn’t mentioned at all. And during this period the officials who actually run the expedition start to leave their own names, and autobiographical details. In all cases the official concerned says that he did everything with the utmost efficiency and brought back even more precious minerals or stone than he was tasked to do, in less time, and all things were done better than they had ever been done before. He also claims to have a highly moral character – he has fed the hungry, clothed the naked &c &c – again this is better than all before him.

Pethen split the Middle Kingdom inscriptions into three classes – those that were royal, those that were personal to the officials of the expedition and those left by the rest of the expedition. The royal inscriptions don’t just say who the Pharaoh was who ordered the expedition, they also give a mythological justification for his right to the minerals being mined. This hinges round the Pharaoh’s identification with Horus, which ties in with it being the Horus name of the Pharaoh that is used. In the (Egyptian family tree of the gods that’s called the) Ennead Horus is the son of Isis and Osiris, who are the children of Nut and Geb, who are the children of Shu and Tefnut, who are the children of Atum the creator God (sometimes identified with Ra). So the Pharaoh as Horus, is the grandson of Geb (the earth God) and the great-great-grandson of Atum – and he inherits a right to the minerals in the earth from Atum via Geb. As well as this divine inheritance the Pharaoh (as a man) is depicted at the mines making offering via his Horus nature to Hathor – in this case Hathor is the Mistress of whichever mineral is being mined.

On the other side of the same stelae that carry the royal inscriptions are the personal inscriptions of the official running the expedition. These are much the same as the First Intermediate period inscriptions, and in both cases are very similar to the funerary inscriptions found in nobles’ tombs although there are no indications of burials associated with them at the mines. As well as the details of how the official was the best in the history of officials there are also offering formulae (again these are also found in funerary contexts) and threats of divine punishment to anyone who destroys the stela.

Those personal inscriptions may contain mention of other senior expedition members (or family members of the officials), but the rest of the expedition members are often immortalised on the edges of the stela. This list can be quite comprehensive – down to how many townsmen and donkeys – or just list a few, depending on the size of the stela. In some cases there are smaller stelae set up next to the main one, with the names of other expedition members. There are also places at some mines where illiterate members of various expeditions have left their mark – at one of the mines there is a rock that archaeologists call “little man rock” because it has a large number of small carvings of seated stick figure men. Pethen said these are believed to’ve been carved by ordinary expedition members.

Pethen also talked about the ritual structures at the various mines, and about the evidence for ritual practices. At some mines there are proper temple buildings – generally dedicated to Hathor, or to the local gods of the region the mine is in. There are also temples to Ptah (as he’s the patron god of craftsmen). Other mines have cairns nearby – mounds of stones with enclosure walls in front. These are built using a similar technique to dry stone walling, and the stelae discussed above are found set upright in the enclosure. I don’t think Pethen discussed what the royal-associated rituals were, but she said that the personal inscriptions often promise success to future expeditions if they recite the offering formula on the stela (and maybe leave an offering). So clearly there’s an expectation that some rituals will be performed as a normal part of the mining expedition.

This was a fascinating talk about a detail of Ancient Egyptian society that I’ve not really thought about before. It doesn’t surprise me that Egyptians had a mythology and rituals about mining, but I hadn’t ever read or heard anything about the specifics before.