Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Early Dynastic Status Symbols- stone in funerary contexts

W401b is a squat, breccia round-based bowl with lugs. It measures 18cm in height. The lugs have no holes through them, which may suggest that the vessel was unfinished, or its purpose was symbolic.

Vessels such of these would have been laborious to make and their manufacture may well have been a royal monopoly. Thus, it has been suggested that they are status symbols or ‘powerfacts’. They are only found in the graves of the wealthy and some even have gold leaf on them. A number are inscribed with the names of kings and from the names it appears that some kings took vessels of other kings for their own funerary complexes. It is also seems likely that kings may have given gifts of stone vessels to courtiers and members of their family.

This type of vessel dates from the Predynastic Naqada II Period to the 5th Dynasty, though is most common during the 1st to 3rd Dynasties, the heyday of Egyptian stone vessel production. It has been estimated that more than 40,000 stone vessels were put in the step pyramid at Saqqara alone! Large numbers have also been found at Abydos and smaller numbers elsewhere in Egypt. You can see more vessels of this date elsewhere in this gallery.
This example is made from limestone breccia. Pottery vessels are sometimes found with spiral patterns, like the one on the right, suggesting that they were copying breccia examples.

It is sometimes said that the reason why so many stone vessels are found in graves, particularly in the Early Dynastic Period, is because stone is an eternal material. It is therefore particularly suitable for burials. The vessels do not seem to have had an ‘everyday’ purpose. A number are not properly drilled out suggesting that they are only symbolic.

Red breccia is found at several sites on the west bank of the Nile. It’s use seems to have declined from the 4th Dynasty. It is only used occasionally in later periods. For the manufacture of stone vessels see Stocks 2013.

We do not know where in Egypt this object came from. Sir Henry Wellcome purchased it at auction in 1906 from the collection of Robert de Rustafjaell.

If you are interested in other stone vessels in the Egypt Centre, and even a podcast about ancient Egyptian stoneworking,  click here.

Further Reading
Aston, B. G. 1994. Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 5. Heidelberg

el-Khouli, A. Egyptian Stone Vessels. Predynastic Period to Dynasty III. Typology and Analysis, Mainz am Rhein, 1978 (3 vols.)

Stocks, D.A. 2013. Experiments in Egyptian Archaeology: Stoneworking Technology in Ancient Egypt

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