Ancient Egyptian Ritual Image Predates the Rise of the Pharaohs
The ancient Egyptians built their first great monuments in stone beginning with the step pyramid of Djoser about 4,650 years ago. Well before that, around 6,000 years ago, a fine artist working in stone chipped out a carving of a pair of humans hunting an ostrich. One of the people is shown wearing an ostrich mask and the other is holding a bow.
Some rock carvings from prehistory, and they are known around the world through various times, are so sketchily done that it seems like modern archaeologists make guesses as to what the images portray.
But this work of art, discovered near a later necropolis at Aswan’s Qubbet el-Hawa or Hill of the Wind, more closely resembles just that: a work of art, though the elements have worn it down some. It also may have a spiritual theme.
During the time of the pharaohs, the Hill of the Wind had a necropolis for the city of Elephantine’s nobles. This city was situated on the island of Elephantine in the Nile River near Egypt’s southern border, with Nubia, now called the Sudan. This necropolis or cemetery, where officials and nobles were buried in mounds, is believed to have been in operation from 2200 BC to the 4 th century BC. The rock carving dates back well before that.
The image of the petroglyph in this photo may date back 6,000 years, to a time before pharaohs tried to cement their place in all eternity by building huge mortuary monuments, resting places for the afterlife. (University of Bonn photo)
When one thinks of the tombs and monuments of ancient Egypt, one may think of King Tutankhamun, the succession of Rameses, Queen Cleopatra or other pharaohs. But many noblemen and women of the various Egyptian states prepared for the afterlife by including in their tombs invocations of the gods and goddesses in the form of sculptures and paintings and foods and other materials meant to provide sustenance in the hereafter.
This rock carving dates to the New Stone Age or Neolithic. It may also be a form of invocation as it resembles the dancing-hunting of shamans or priests found in other Neolithic carvings. The Daily Mail reports that it may represent a link between shamanic practices and ancient Egyptian culture.
This is where the scientists from the University of Bonn discovered the spectacular rock art. Credit: Photo: David Sabel
Live Science quotes Ludwig Morenz, an Egyptologist at Bonn University in Germany, as saying the figure in the ostrich mask might represent a shaman. If so, the mask may have spiritual meaning. Researchers are puzzling over what exactly that meaning or belief may be, but they cite other Neolithic cultures in the Near East showing imagery of masked dancers, including Egypt’s neighboring cultures in Mesopotamia, Elam and Anatolia (modern Turkey). Morenz said images of masks have been discovered in all these places, and they may have had contact with Egyptians.
Morenz said, though, that he believes this image probably has nothing to do with a pharaonic necropolis.
"[In] ancient Egyptian culture, we know many, many masks, but they are basically all masks for the dead," Morenz told Live Science. "And here we have a mask culture which predates pharaonic culture.”
Researchers have estimated the date of the find based on its iconography and style.
Masks for living people became passé by the time of high Egyptian culture, the time when pharaohs united Egypt about 3100 BC.
This discovery is making a stir among Egyptologists. Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany named it as one of the 10 most important recent finds.
Top image: Researchers traced around the edges of the figures to reveal a hunter, a possible shaman (medicine man) and an ostrich, which are still hunted today by San people of Africa. If you look underneath the image, you can see some faint pecking in the rock that clearly show the prehistoric human and ostrich images. (Image by the University of Bonn)
By Mark Miller