History of Historical Writing/Archaic Historians of Egypt
Archaic Historians of Egypt
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The Palermo Stone
The Palermo Stone, the main fragment of seven surviving pieces of a larger stele, is generally considered Egypt's oldest historical document, dating from the end of the 5th dynasty (twenty-fifth century BC). It gives a list of the kings of Egypt, starting with the Gods and other mythical rulers, all the way down to the time of its making.
Context of Authorship
Its presumed purpose, both propagandistic and/or religious, is to document the ordered descent of power (in Egyptian, Ma'at, after the name of the Egyptian goddess Ma'at, who symbolized justice and order) from time immemorial to the then-living ruler who commissioned the work.
In terms of the actual writing process (of the papyrus from which the stone was carved), the nameless Egyptian historians assigned to the task must have worked backwards, probably using the archives of palaces and temples, or possibly even documentation from early tombs. Anachronistically, cartouches are provided for all of the kings, even including the mythical ones. This is one of the clues that the annal in its present form is a retrospective construction of the Fifth Dynasty rather than a record that was kept from the beginning of the First Dynasty.
Notice that this is in clear contrast to the way annals are normally authored, namely updated at regular intervals, as events warrant. Whether the authors intended to give the impression of an annal is not clear to us. The entries for the kings get sparser as they proceed into the past, and by the time they reach the time before the first dynasty, the time of Gods and Heroes, the contents is down to a bare recording of the name.
For our analysis, let us look at the types of information that the authors provide for the individual dynasties.
The Fifth Dynasty
For the Fifth Dynasty, the annal provides information about the stipends that the kings granted to the various temples, identified by the name of the Godhood and the location (e.g. Buto in Pernu, Nekhbet in the Sanctuary of the South). The donations fall into three categories:
- food (mainly bread and beer, occasionally animals such as oxen and geese), expressed as so-and-so many offerings per day;
- land, expressed as stat of land in a specific city or district (nome), which could then be used to grow the food;
- religious infrastructure, such as temples, altars or statues made of electrum.
The annal also specifies trade activities, such as imported amounts of myrrh and electrum. Furthermore, the annal mentions the jubilee of the inthronement of the king as the ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt. Finally, the annal gives the ordinal number for the census of the large cattle and the inundation level of the Nile in cubits, palms and fingers.
The Fourth Dynasty
For the Fourth Dynasty, the annal is only badly preserved; the portions we have included the jubilee of the inthronement of the king, the celebration of various religious festivals (e.g. the Sheshed Feast), and possibly some temple stipends (the text is very corrupted). The annal mentions the census of the large cattle as well as the inundation level of the Nile.
Interestingly, the annal of the Fourth also record the selection of the construction place for the pyramid of the pharao Shepseskaf called Shelter of Shepseskaf (although he eventually was buried in a mastaba).
With the founder of the Fourth Dynasty, Sneferu, the style of the annal changes. The annal is no longer reporting any stipends to the temples, but instead mentions military activities with numbers of prisoners and spoils, various state sponsored construction activities such as buildings and dewatowe ships, possibly for trade, and the birth of royal children. Famously, the annal also cites 40 ships worth of cedar wood traded with the Lebanon, which are then turned into the doors of the king's palace.
The Third and Second Dynasty
Suffice it to say that for the reign of Nynetier, the jubilee of the throne ascension is celebrated separately for Upper and Lower Egypt (only once in the same year), with a clear preponderance for the Lower Egypt jubilee. The census was for counting gold and land and bi-annually at that time. Occasionally a note mentions that a temple was layed out ("stretching of the cord for the house called XXX"), that shipbuilding took place or that cities we cannot identify were destroyed.
Only the reporting of the innundation levels of the Nile remain constant.
The First Dynasty
The annal for the First Dynasty becomes increasingly spartan. Some feasts are recorded as being celebrated for the first time. The smiting of enemies, some of which are unidentified and may indeed be legendary, and the hunting of hippos is recorded. Only the first census ever is mentioned, this time of the people in all nomes of the land. As the march back in time reaches the border to the mythical kings and gods, even the innundation levels of the Nile subside.
The First Kings and the Gods
The annal begins to meander from human history into the mythological in the very first entries. Even though the terrible state of perservation of the top part of the stele makes reconstruction difficult, many of the names clearly identify male divinities. In addition, they are listed in the order of the cosmogeny of the Ennead, that is, Shu, Seb, Set, Horus and Osiris, followed by sons of the aforementioned deities such as Thoth.
The annalistic text recorded on the Palermo Stone is the first historical text from Egypt. However, its purpose is not to reconstruct a foreign and distant past, but to display the continuity between the divine origins of kingship and the Fifth Dynasty rulership that commissioned the work. In this sense, it treats the historical information it deals with antiquarian, not critical.
While the authors must have done research to assemble the details the text refers to, there is no independent way to verify the correctness of their claims the farther one goes back in time; to give a (potentially hyper-critical) example, it is at least conceivable that the authors made up numbers for the Nile innudations for some of the years they did not possess levels for.
The information most likely to be correct are the donations to the various temples recorded for the time of the Fifth Dynasty; cf. the pain-staking detail of donations to various monestaries and churches in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. These events are most proximate to the authors; changing the amounts would have been a political act against (or for) the priesthoods; and future rulers would have been measured against these donation levels.
The Turin Papyrus, a list of Kings
The Turin King List is a Papyrus that contains a very complete list of the kings of Egypt, starting in mythical time with the king Gods and descending all the way into at least the 17th dynasty, where its current form breaks off (the papyrus had suffered since its discovery and fallen apart).
The purpose of the Turin king list is not quite clear; it forms the backside of an old document apparently used for taxation purposes. If it is but a copying exercise, then this would mean that there was a monument or other scroll playing the role of the original, and our historiographical interest shifts to the original authors that the Turin king list copies.
By itself, the notion of a king list is not that exceptional in Ancient Egypt; pharaos such as Seti I and Rameses II in their tombs in Abydos give lists of their predecessor kings. However, these lists are selective. They do not express all the ancestors or all the previous office holders, but only those that the pharao felt an especially strong connection with. To give a present-day analogy, this would be akin to American presidents seeing themselves in the tradition of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, but not, say Garfield or Fillmore. As in the American example, such cultic king lists pick and choose the famous and impressive pharaos from te known ones.
In contrast, the Turin King List provides a very complete list of the pharaos for the dynasties, including the invading Hyksos, not one of the fondest memory of the Egyptians. But it is this fact that allows us to consider it as an example of historical writing, rather than a mere source for the reconstruction of a chronology of the pharaos of Egypt; the completeness of the chronology overrules the cultic intentions.
The Biography of Methen
Dating from the Third Dynasty, the biography of Methen is a narrative of the important events in the life of an important dignitary and court official. The narrative is complicated to piece together, as it covers the walls of the mastaba of Methen at Saqqara, providing no apparent order to the individual subsections. It is clearly the oldest biography of Ancient Egypt and probably one of the oldest biographies we have.