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“Understanding Egypt: Language, Layers and Meaning in the Nile Valley” Carl Graves (EEG Meeting Talk)

On 4th October Carl Graves came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about the work he’s doing for his PhD on the landscape of the Nile Valley as interacted with & perceived by the ancient Egyptians. The concept of “landscape” is a technical term in geography, and so Graves spent the first half of his talk explaining this concept and its theoretical underpinnings so that they made sense to us, before moving on to talk about ancient Egypt.

He began by getting us all to stand up and look around the room and to think about the space we were in: had we been there before (most of us had), who the people were that we knew in the room, had anyone been there for other non-EEG events and so on. These memories and meanings that we attach to somewhere are what turns it from a space to a place. Later on in the talk he came back to the same idea using the difference between the idea of a house (which is really just a building) and a home (which is where you live, where your life is). Graves then used his own hometown of Withernsea in East Yorkshire to illustrate how landscape and identity are always changing over time. It’s easier to illustrate with a modern town as we have maps and satellite imagery to show what things used to be like as compared to now. So for instance 300 years ago Withernsea wasn’t on the coast, yet by the early 20th Century and the tourism boom it was coastal, and had a pier and a railway station. Both of those are long gone now, but the street names keep their ghosts alive: Pier Road, Station Road and Railway Crescent. And these sorts of things happened in ancient Egypt too – it’s just harder to discover because they didn’t leave us maps.

Why study landscapes? Graves’ answer to this is that it provides a big picture view of Egyptian society & life over time, rather than the details you get from texts & monuments & tombs. He talked about the generally accepted idea that 70% of all ancient Egyptian sites are undiscovered, largely because they are underneath the current urban landscape. One method of making further discoveries is one that the Egyptian government have tried in the past – displace the people and bulldoze their houses so that the antiquities underneath can be excavated and turned into tourist attractions. (This is the sort of thing Andrew Bednarski was talking to the EEG about last month). But this understandably antagonises people and makes them more likely to hide things or to dig up anything valuable looking themselves and sell it anonymously. One of the Egyptian scholars who studied at the EES in London this summer who works in the Suez Canal area has taken a different approach. In a similar way to how archaeology is handled in London he and his colleagues conduct mini-excavations whenever a piece of land is cleared for building work so that what’s under there is properly recorded before it’s covered up again. This leads to much better relations between the locals and the archaeologists, and there is also less illicit digging in the area. How does this tie into the study of landscape? Having an idea of the big picture lets you prioritise these mini-digs when resources are limited.

The next obvious question is what do we mean by “landscape” as a technical term. It’s quite a difficult term to define and Graves said that (particularly in Egyptology) it’s a relatively recent theoretical concept. The definition he gave us was from a US geographer who says that landscape is to do with a man-made or man-modified environment to create infrastructure or background for collective existence. One of the reasons that landscape is difficult to define is that the perception of landscape is personal – everyone’s meanings are different. For instance an artist or photographer will see the landscape primarily in terms of aesthetics, a farmer in terms of wealth or fertility and so on.

The personal, cultural and changing nature of landscape and its meaning make it difficult to discover what the ancient Egyptian landscape was like. But there are clear indications in the texts & so on that we have that nature and culture were linked in ancient Egypt. For instance deities were considered to inhabit particular features of the natural landscape (like Meretseger in the mountain above the Valley of the Kings, or a mountain at Abydos which is referred in texts as Anubis’s Mountain). And if you look at the decoration of tombs (such as that of Nebamun) you see nature and garden scenes appearing with symbolic meanings. Graves thinks it’s important to understand the ancient Egyptian landscape as it will cast more light on the everyday lives of the Egyptians. It also links together the ancient and modern uses of the Nile Valley, rather than keeping the separation between old (and interesting) vs. new (and irrelevant).

After a break for coffee and cake Graves moved on from the theoretical underpinnings of his research to the area of Egypt he has studied. This is the 16th Nome of ancient Egypt, the Oryx Nome. The ancient Egyptian bureaucracy divided the country into Nomes, which is roughly analogous to how the UK is divided into counties. Beni Hassan is often regarded as the capital of that Nome (although as Graves pointed out there has been no urban settlement discovered at Beni Hassan only a cemetery so this can’t be quite right).

Graves is particularly interested in the Middle Kingdom period in the 16th Nome, but in order to give us proper context for the physical side of the landscape of the area he started by looking at the geological history of the wider area. 7 million years ago the Nile Valley looked very like the Grand Canyon does today, only on a far larger scale. The Nile River was a local river running only through the area that would become Egypt, and had cut a channel through the rock down to a depth of 4km. At the time the Mediterranean basin was not a sea, when there was a tectonic shift that returned water to the basin it flooded into this canyon and filled it with sea water down as far as Aswan. Over time the canyon silted up, the cliffs on the banks of the Nile are the remains of the canyon walls with just a relatively little bit poking up above the surface.

The Nile as we know it, running from Ethiopia rather than just locally within Egypt, was formed during the Ice Age around 12,500 years ago. And then after the end of the Ice Age between around 10,000 years ago and 4,500 years ago was a period of wetter climate. The deserts that currently surround Egypt were fertile. The Old Kingdom period of Egyptian history is at the end of this wet period, and it’s the gradual reduction of fertile land concentrating the people into the Nile area that is key in forming Egyptian culture in the pre-Dynastic era & Old Kingdom.

The Nile and the flooding of the Nile are key to the ancient Egyptian landscape. The Nile flood changes the landscape every year, and the level of flooding is different each year. So some years houses might wash away, other years not enough silt would be deposited to make all the fields fertile. The course of the Nile might also change quite quickly with the channel easily jumping from one side of an island to another when the waters go down after the flood. Longer term the course of the Nile changes by 2-9km/1000 years, which is significant in an area like the 16th Nome where the land between the two cliff faces is only 20km wide. As a result of their landscape the ancient Egyptians would have different associations with urban settlements than we do. We see the urban landscape as something permanent. But the Egyptians were more likely to see it as moveable and temporary – their mudbrick structures might be washed away with the next flood and need rebuilding. Or the course of the river altered sufficiently that they needed to build new fishing quays closer to the new route.

As Graves is interested in a particular Nome he needs to know where this is located in the physical landscape of Egypt. The Egyptians didn’t leave us maps, so the evidence has to be gathered from the texts that do mention geography. One of these is a list of Nomes on the White Chapel of Senusret I (which is in Karnak Temple Open Air Museum) – these have the names of the Nomes and measurements, which are plausibly the distances along the Nile between the Nomes. Of course you can’t just look at the present day Nile and measure it, because variations in the course of the Nile will alter the distance between two points – you’d need to know the course the river took in Senusret I’s time to be accurate. However you can still get a reasonable idea of where the Nomes are from that.

There are 60 different tel sites across the area covered by the 16th Nome – a tel is a mound that has been created by human occupation of a site. (And Arabic placenames of the type Tel el-Amarna are referring to these mounds.) If you look at their layout in a satellite image then you can see they’re aligned with previous (or the current) paths of the Nile. When the Nile changed course they may’ve been abandoned or the settlement might’ve migrated closer to the Nile by stabilising the new land of the river bank with pottery & rubbish and then building on top of it. Obviously to discover what is under each tel and when it dates to you’d need to visit and at the very least do a surface inspection if not a full excavation. However by looking at available texts, the evidence gathered by previous archaeological surveys and the evidence of the Egyptian landscape Graves has possibly identified the sites of 4 towns that were important to the inhabitants of the 16th Nome during the Middle Kingdom.

There are four towns mentioned in inscriptions in the tombs of Beni Hassan (which was where the elite of the 16th Nome were buried during the Middle Kingdom), three of which are also mentioned in a 21st Dynasty papyrus called the Onomasticon of Amenope. Why is one of them not mentioned in the Onomasticon? There are a few possible reasons – maybe it wasn’t important to Amenope, maybe it vanished or changed name between the two sets of texts. And perhaps it also illustrates the way that the cultural differences between us & the Egyptians can trip us up when interpreting ancient texts. The Onomasticon of Amenope is a collection of lists of things, and one of the lists is at first glance a list of towns – that’s where you find three of these towns listed. But closer inspection the category being listed isn’t “town” as we think of it – there are sites we know had urban settlements during the 21st Dynasty that aren’t mentioned, and sites listed that don’t seem to have much, if any, urban settlement during this time period. Instead these are most likely to be quays. In our modern perception of landscape if we listed important places in the country we’d list the major urban settlements, in the Egyptian perception of landscape it was more interesting/useful to list places you would stop at along the Nile as you travelled.

The four towns he talked about were Hebenn, Her-wer, Neferusi and Menat-Khufu. I think he did show us where he thinks they were – but I didn’t make a note of that (and reproducing it from a scribbled drawing would be difficult anyway!). Hebenn was a royal foundation, which had a temple for the cult of Horus (the royal cult). Her-wer had no administrative importance, just religious significance. Neferusi was the local cult centre of Hathor, and was somehow linked to both Her-wer and to the south of the region – which links make it plausible that it’s in the southern part of the Nome. It was also an unlucky town – the site of a siege during Khamose’s battles against the Hyksos when Egypt was being re-unified at the start of the Middle Kingdom. And later destroyed during Piankhi’s time (the Kushite founder of the 25th Dynasty). Menat-Khufu is the town that wasn’t mentioned in the Onomaticon. It was the site from which the Eastern Desert was controlled, where the overseers of the desert region were based, and thus was probably on the Eastern side of the Nome.

Graves had no firm conclusions for the end of his talk (which he apologised for but I don’t think he needed to), but he had some concluding remarks. It’s clear that the Ancient Egyptians had a different perception of landscape to our own and recognised natural and cultural features in the landscape around them. They divided the landscape into categories that made sense in their own cultural context, but perhaps not in ours. By trying to understand the Egyptian perception of landscape archaeologists and historians can not only understand Egyptian culture more completely, but can also target their investigations to areas that are mostly likely to yield interesting results.

I’ve ended up writing a lot about this talk – the theoretical side of it was quite new to me, I’ve not thought about geography as an academic discipline since my GCSEs. And so I wanted to make sure I understood it, and remembered it, by writing it out in more detail. It was an interesting talk, although it did end up feeling like it was two separate parts – theory before coffee and Egypt after coffee.