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“The Lion in Ancient Egypt: An Elite Phenomenon?” Lyn Stagg (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Lyn Stagg came to talk to the Essex Egyptology Group about her research into the iconography & symbolism of lions in early Egypt. The era she is interested in is pre-Old Kingdom Egypt – including the pre-dynastic eras and the early dynastic (Dynasties 0-2). The generally repeated “explanation” of lion symbolism during that era is that the lion represented the King, based on the ideas of archaeologists in the 19th Century. Stagg felt that it was worth revisiting the lion artifacts that we have from this period of Egyptian history and seeing what conclusions can be drawn from a more modern assessment of them.

She started by giving us some context for early Egypt, and for the provenance & original excavation of the objects she’s been re-examining. Generally the Egyptian state is thought to’ve come into existence at the start of Dynasty I with Narmer, but Stagg believes there’s evidence of the state existing prior to that, although it didn’t cover all the territory that the later state would. Most of the objects found in the 19th Century and early 20th Century (where we know anything at all) come from Upper Egypt. Three main centres are Nubt (or Naqada – which gives its name to several important cultures of pre-dynastic Egypt), Abydos (where the early Dynastic Pharaohs are buried) and Hierakonopolis (where a great number of ivory objects from pre-dynastic Egypt were found, now in the Ashmolean Museum). She also discussed a couple of more recently discovered caches of pre-dynastic & early dynastic objects from sites in the Nile Delta.

The objects that have been discovered have been found in one of two contexts. The first of these is in graves, and for more modern excavations (starting roughly from Petrie) we have records of what the context of the objects was. Sadly a lot of objects come from earlier “excavations”, or from subsequent excavation of previously “excavated” graves. I put excavations in scare quotes in that sentence because in the bulk of the 19th Century the people digging up the graves were more interested in getting valuable things to sell (or display in their museums) than they were in seeing what could be learnt from the whole site. So many objects were removed, and we no longer necessarily know even where they came from (other than perhaps something like “a grave at Abydos”) or were moved around whilst more obviously valuable things were removed. There was also some deliberate destruction of sites by the excavators – once they had the stuff they were interested in they smashed other artifacts to keep prices high for these “rare” objects.

The other context in which objects were found was in caches in temples. The most famous of these is the Main Deposit in Hierakonopolis that I mentioned above. Many ivory and other objects were discovered (a lot of them in a poor state) in a foundation deposit for an Old Kingdom temple – amongst the associated objects were the Narmer palette (not in the actual deposit) and the King Scorpion macehead. Stagg said that these objects were discovered in a state that suggests they were carefully placed in the deposit, for instance even though the statues had all fallen over they were still all facing in the same direction. This careful placement indicates that even if they were no longer used ritual objects they were still treated with respect. The two more recent discoveries in the Nile Delta are similar foundation deposits in later temples, and she also mentioned a Middle Kingdom temple near Saqqara which similarly had some earlier objects.

Stagg also noted that dating these objects is problematic. Often there isn’t enough provenance for any of the objects to securely date any of them. So the dating is pretty circular – they are dated by comparing the style of the objects with other objects. So the assumption that objects of the same date will look the same is used to show that objects that look the same come from the same date.

Another context for evidence about lion symbolism in early Egypt doesn’t come from objects, it comes from animal burials. Cemeteries have been discovered from pre-dynastic times which contain burials of animals – in particular wild desert animals rather than domesticated ones (c.f. later animal burials at places like Saqqara). These animals include lions – and the individual animals show signs of having been captured and then kept for a while before being killed & buried. For instance they have broken legs which have had time to heal before they were killed. The animals are buried in shrouds, often with items in their graves (sometimes including human figurines). Clearly there is some ritual purpose to this, although it’s not known what this was (and probably will never be known). However it is clear that the lion was an important animal in some aspect of early Egyptian belief systems.

Were the lion & lion objects associated with the elite? One of the first things Stagg was looking at was what sort of graves (so far as one can tell) the lion objects were found in. For this she was building heavily on earlier work which had surveyed the excavate & published graves – looking at what sorts of grave goods were found in them. I got a little lost following this section of the talk but I think this is the gist of it: in the earliest periods a wide cross-section of graves had what might be thought of as “nice things” in them. Good quality pottery or other objects – whether as part of the funerary rituals or as objects they’d owned in life isn’t clear. Later, around the transition from what we call pre-dynastic to what we call early dynastic the range of graves with high quality goods in narrows. This is due to the development of an elite class who appropriate these types of goods to themselves as status indicators. I think this is part of why Stagg believes that the Egyptian state developed prior to Dynasty 1 – there’s clearly a stratification of society developing before that. The lion objects are found in these higher status graves, indicating an association with the elite.

But are they associated with the Pharaoh, as is the conventional wisdom? To look at this she talked about the cemeteries at Abydos where the early Pharaohs are buried. Their tombs are surrounded by the tombs of the elite of their court, and in some cases by a series of graves of young men aged 20-25 (perhaps human sacrifice as part of the funerary ritual for the Pharaoh – possibly taking his servants to the afterlife). There are no lion objects found in the Pharaohs’ graves, but there are some from the graves of the elite, which would seem to indicate the lion isn’t associated particularly with the Pharaoh during this period. However it’s hard to draw firm conclusions – the Pharaohs’ graves have been disturbed more than the elite graves and there’re fewer of them in total, so perhaps it’s just that no lions have been found rather than none were there originally.

Stagg also talked about the iconography of the lion during this era of Egyptian history. She briefly talked about representations of the lion hunting other animals, or being subdued by people (in Master of the Beasts representations). While talking about these she pointed out how little of the decorative arts of the era survive – we have pots, and photographs of the Painted Tomb of Hierakonopolis, and the Gebelin shroud (now in the Turin Museum). But there are indications that other walls may’ve been painted, and probably other shrouds were decorated too – and none of these survives, so we don’t really know much about that sort of representation of the lion (or anything else).

The two classes of objects that she is most interested in are knife handles and lions in the round. The knife handles are decorated with rows of beasts, and there are common features across several handles. The lions are normally in row 3, sometimes a row of just lions, sometimes with other beasts – like long-horned cattle. And sometimes with an elephant standing on two snakes. It seems clear that there is an underlying symbolism, that’s more than just “it looks pretty”. One suggestion is that the rows somehow correspond to layers of society, but Stagg suggested that feels forced to her. Her preferred explanation is to return to the old idea that the animals represent groups of people, clans or cities or families or something – totems, if you like. Again it’s something we’ll probably never know for sure – but given the varying numbers of lions it seems unlikely that the lion was associated solely with the Pharaoh.

There have been approximately 100 lions in the round discovered from early Egypt, ranging from ~1cm long to ~66cm. A survey of them in the 1990s found that five were fakes, and ~25 had no provenance at all. So there’s only really 70 that have any context, and even then there’s apparently only 1 that has completely secure context. They have been found both in temples & in graves, and also near graves but buried on their own (in a deliberate & organised way). The ones from temples are thought to’ve been votive offerings, and the small ones from graves are often thought to’ve been game pieces. Stagg was unconvinced by this last – she said that the evidence for this comes from 3rd Dynasty reliefs showing a game played with lion game pieces. But there is no evidence for this game existing earlier (which doesn’t mean it didn’t, but it’s not promising). And the lions aren’t found associated with game boards. The larger lions might’ve been temple or shrine guardians. She said this on the basis of some representations of shrines on early Egyptian objects (including a knife handle) which had lions in front of or underneath the shrine.

Her conclusions were mostly that there is a lot that we don’t know about these lions and their place in early Egyptian belief systems and iconography. But there is evidence that lion symbolism was important, and associated with the elite. However it’s definitely not as simple as the lion being the royal beast, and she thinks that has more to do with the preoccupations of the 19th Century archaeologists than any actual evidence from the objects themselves.

It was an interesting talk about an era of Egypt we don’t often get talks about, but I did sometimes have trouble following the narrative thread through the talk. Hopefully this write up hasn’t mangled the points Lyn Stagg was making!