The Hierakonpolis painting and the Gebel el Arak knife by the blog Sumerian Shakespeare.

Watercolour from Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis. Image source Quibell and Green 1902.

The following serves as an illustration of the pitfalls of writing beyond your knowledge base and also for talking to people who are experts in another area if you can’t be bothered doing the required amount of study yourself.  And incidentally, that free access to books online is pretty much useless when this only provides outdated research.

It is possibly also a recommendation not to write and drink at the same time.  But this is more of a guideline.

For some reason the amateur history blog Sumerian Shakespeare who writes up ancient Mesopotamian topics took it upon themselves to critique objects from Predynastic Egypt in two of their posts.  In the past I had assumed this blog was an adequate if unimaginative introduction to Mesopotamian culture for keen learners, but with the added bonus of nice pictures that are credited.  I have since altered this stance.

Now I find their blog shallowly researched, outdated, a bit racist, pseudo-archaeological nonsense that is effectively dressed up to look like ‘educated’ critique.

The Hierakonpolis painting and the Gebel el Arak knife
The overall premise of both blog articles by Sumerian Shakespeare is that while the Sumerians could not have settled Egypt and founded the Egyptian state (an outdated theory from the early 20th century) they could have mounted rustling expeditions … have a think about that … a rustling expedition ... or two. 

This glorious theory is supported by the fact that the two examples that they cite are contemporary and from the same region, Abydos …

Well … no … there is no evidence for where the knife came from.  It was purchased from a Cairo dealer by George Benedité for the Louvre collection, and is only reputedly from Gebel el Arak near Abydos.  In addition, the painting and knife are not contemporary.  The knife is dated to Naqada IIIA (c. 3350-3150 BCE), Tomb 100 at Hierakopolis is earlier and dated to Naqada IIC (c. 3500 BCE).  They are, at best, a hundred years apart, or likely more.

Master of animals on the Gebel el Arak knife. Image credit Wikipedia.

The critique of the Gebel el Arak knife (Aug 2016)
The knife is a flint blade with a carved ivory handle that has always attracted plenty of commentary, so this choice is rather predictable.  The post itself is basically introduced with the assertion that the writer decided to study the knife, because upon finding it in a web search of Sumerian images they were sure it was Sumerian, not Egyptian.  So like all good critical thinkers (from 1899) they set out to prove their theory was correct.

As is to be expected, a great deal of waffle about this object revolves around the master of animals figure between two lions that is on one side of the knife.  However, the writer immediately recognises him as the Sumerian shepherd king from Uruk in southern Mesopotamia.  Here we have a glorious example of early 20th century Biblical terminology being imposed on this early Mesopotamian motif, which is usually called a ‘priest-king’.

‘For a hundred years there has been a lot of scholarly debate about the identity of this man,
none of which is correct’… Cocky arse.

The Gebel el Arak knife handle. Image Wikipedia.

Once the writer has exhausted all the generic comparisons to 4th and 3rd millennium Sumerian glyptic to justify their claims, they arbitrarily switch sides of the knife and deal with the battle scene on the opposing side. This incidentally ignores the desert hunt imagery on the previous side.  And apparently on viewing the new scene, the penis sheaths worn by all combatants made them quite uncomfortable:

‘All of the soldiers wear penis sheathes. It’s beyond me why any man would wear this
ridiculous contraption, especially in combat – but there it is. I have to admit, I was very
disappointed to see the Sumerians thus attired. I always assumed that the Sumerians,
even at their most primitive, were more civilized than that.’

Then there is a lot of time wasted on describing the fighters – where the dominant figures with no hair are designated as Sumerians versus their opponents, the long haired Egyptians.  Let us just ignore that the fighting figures are equal in size and are all dressed in those penis sheaths. Then some considerable time is spent identifying the boats, basically still intended to prove that the boats on the lower part of the handle are all Sumerian, not Egyptian. 

To conclude the piece the writer backflips their entire argument and says that the knife cannot be Sumerian because a real battle between Egypt and the ‘marines’ of a Sumerian shepherd king is not possible.  They instead state that the artist copied details from Sumerian seals and artefacts, but did not understand all their iconography, so drew what they knew.  Which rather insanely explains away all the Predynastic Egyptian features of the knife. 

Then they end on their awkwardness with penises again.

‘That is why he shows them wearing penis sheathes like the Egyptians. (I was relieved
to know that my beloved Sumerians never wore these ridiculous accoutrements.)’

Watercolour from Tomb 100 Hierakonpolis. Image Quibell and Green 1902.

But it did not stop there and in February of this year Sumerian Shakespeare produced a sequel:

The critique of the Hierakonpolis tomb painting (Feb 2018)
With this piece a lot of time was again wasted by the writer in self satisfied waffle about their own ability to reinterpret ancient art, but when conclusions come they are odd and based on this person's intuitive perceptions of a modern painting of an ancient painting.  Admittedly these conclusions are entirely consistent with the previous ramble. 

The images they use are incidentally a watercolour and a line drawing from the original excavation report in around 1900-2.  Their only other literary source appears to be an article from 1962.  But they clearly ignored most of its content, as that article assumes the imagery is Predynastic Egyptian.  The haphazard narrative style is, like before, quite confusing and contradictory, as though they were just writing out their thought processes (at 2 am in the morning).

Anyway, some highlights

The writer claims that all the red figures in the painting are Sumerians, and the white figures are Egyptians … this assumption is based on schematic figures and goes against the Egyptian convention for the colour of people, red-brown was for Egyptian men, light colouring were used to depict Egyptian women.  Although, I am not confident to push that convention into the Predynastic.  However, the easiest way to find differentiation is to look at costume and hair.  They do not do this, and all figures in the drawing are, by the way, red-brown to dark brown.  

Watercolour from Tomb 100 Hierakonpolis. Image Quibell and Green 1902.

There is some fairly predictable use of the media worthy cliché about experts being baffled for 100 years … yes, that’s us … baffled by the image of goats encircling a wheel like enclosure. The writer calls this symbol a ‘carousel’ in what can only be a ludicrously subjective manner and uses condescending language inferring that the Egyptians kept trying to control nature well after everybody else had moved on like sensible people.

Regardless, the circular design that is called a carousel is probably an animal trap.  Traps or hides for wild animals were a common motif of control in Egyptian funerary art, early and later.

Apparently this trying to tame nature is why the master of animals was so compelling to the Egyptians … was it? … oh oh … wrong culture right there.

While the writer assumes control of wild nature was a compelling motif, they appear unaware that the Egyptians made a distinction between domesticated animals and the desert dwellers.  Symbolically speaking they were the difference between social order and chaos.  However, in ignorance of this, instead the writer states that the wild antelopes are all livestock … Egyptian livestock that is ripe for rustling ... so he is thinking quite subjectively and a fan of cowboy movies.

According to Sumerian Shakespeare the entire painting is about warfare brought about through a spot of livestock theft … They argue the painting illustrates the invasion of Egypt by a Sumerian expedition.  The flotilla of boats that dominate the composition are Sumerian boats and the red skinned Sumerians in long white skirts are the captains of the ships.  On the largest boat Sumerian warriors are surrounding and capturing an Egyptian leader who is in a pavilion.

Watercolour from Tomb 100 Hierakonpolis. Image Quibell and Green 1902.

Short pause as they talk about lord Hierakon and I wonder vaguely who he is?  Apparently the captive leader on this boat can’t be him … oh it is his tomb … gotcha … because he wouldn’t put a record of his own public embarrassment in his tomb.  Therefore it must be a neighbour who was attacked by the Sumerians ... seriously? … although another part of me is like, Lord Hierakon, eh … sounds sinister … wait, I’m thinking of the vampire lord.

Then the writer heads off at a tangent and compares this imagery to the battle scene from the Gebel el Arak knife and gives some scintillating commentary on that.  Apparently on the knife the Egyptians were also overwhelmed in an attack, by that shepherd king and his marines …  Reiterating that the bald figures are Sumerian and those with long hair are Egyptian ...  But I thought they decided it was all a dream?

Watercolour from Tomb 100 Hierakonpolis. Image Quibell and Green 1902.

Then we return to the Hierakonpolis painting and the scene of a man facing two lions that is in the upper left part of the painting, and without any pause for breath the writer says that this small scheme shows the lion pals of the Sumerians, because the lions are totally chilled and not hostile … muahaha … therefore they must be pets!

As the (il)logical extension of this idea, the armed male figure is therefore siccing (not my term) his lions on the antelopes! 

So there it is, in a nutshell.  

The second piece claims that on the Hierakonpolis tomb painting the Sumerians are rustling the Egyptian herds of domestic antelope with their highly trained pet lions.

‘That's it boys, saddle up the boats, we need to travel a few weeks with our trusty pet lions and rustle us some ibex in Egypt.’ ... (me btw)

After this bombshell, Sumerian Shakespeare puts some time into explaining with maps how the Sumerians might have travelled in boats all the way to Hierakonpolis (in inland Upper Egypt) … just to rustle some livestock …  I might add.  Then he backflips again by saying it couldn’t happen and the Egyptians just thought they were Sumerians … eh?

Basically the writer of these pieces can’t make up their mind whether the Sumerians could invade Egypt or not, and repeatedly contradict themselves.  After all, if it is too far to settle, invade, or whatever, it is also technically too far for spot rustling raids.  And how did they go with all those pet lions and antelopes on the long boat trip home?  

Did anybody get back alive?

Finally, to conclude both articles Sumerian Shakespeare ties it all seamlessly together with the pithy conclusion that these Sumerian rustling events on the Hierakonpolis painting and on the Gebel el Arak knife were so traumatic for the Predynastic Egyptian rulers that they caused political collaboration between tribal groups which resulted in state formation in Egypt …  

Now I really need a lie down.

Basically this was a farce from go to woah.  So lets get three points clear:

1)  Interconnections: In the 4th millennium Egypt did have long distance contact with the Near East and there is no question that early Egypt valued raw materials from much further east.  Even in the Predynastic they valued lapis lazuli highly, which will have come from northern Afghanistan to Egypt via overland or maritime trade routes. This relationship was most likely over land via Sinai, the Levant and Syria.  In the 4th millennium Egypt had a cultural presence in the southern Levant.

But the evidence favours connections to Susa in Iran, not necessarily Uruk period Sumer in Mesopotamia.  And this long distance trade does not prove direct contact with any of the intermediate cultures, but it infers the existence of trade routes and movement of objects and people in both directions.  It also infers they could have seen each other’s visual idiom, particularly administrative sealings.  
However, we have absolutely no archaeological evidence of intercontinental wars or invasions. This theory is an example of early 20th century colonialist thinking, stemming from the likes of Assyriologist A. H. Sayce and others of his generation who chose to trace the development of all western 'civilisation' from Babylon.

2)  The Hierakonpolis painting and the Gebel el Arak knife
Early ancient Egyptian iconography was complex and does not always mirror the imagery they produced in the pharaonic period.  However, some important themes about power survived into the Bronze Age and dominated state rhetoric, and they were formed in the Naqada period, when both the knife and painting were made.

The most important of these were the use of battle, prisoner taking and hunting scenes to show dominance over the forces of disorder.  The forces of disorder were always wild (not domestic) desert animals and human enemies.  These motifs were used in the Naqada period and the painting and knife examples discussed here have them.  Visual propaganda representing the ruling powers conquering chaos was common to Egyptian royal monuments and for high status tombs. 

Boating scenes were also dominant in both early and later Egyptian funerary art.  They painted these scenes of funerary barques and cult festivals in rich tombs and temples.  In the Naqada period they were also de rigueur on funerary and cult vases ... usually with specific details like pavilions, standards and palm fronds on the prows.  Just like those that are present on the knife and in the tomb painting.

The flotilla of boats in the Hierakonpolis painting is thought by experts to show a funerary or ritual procession.  With three female figures on the largest boat who could be gods or cult personnel.  The posture and dress of the figures have parallels with the depiction of female ritual figures at that time.  The boats on the painting and the knife are also pretty consistent with Predynastic boat imagery, but I understand that the writer got around that awkward issue by saying the Egyptian artists drew what they knew. 

Finally, the master of animals on each of these examples is the main argument for foreign influences or presence on the painting and the knife, (high prowed boats being another), because the master of animals was not a feature of pharaonic Egyptian iconography.  But in the mid 4th millennium it was not an overly dominant motif in Sumer either.  It comes properly into vogue in Mesopotamia in the early 3rd millennium.  In the 4th millennium it was a motif from Susa in Iran. 

3)  Writing style: The language employed in this blog is problematic at best.  The choice of words has a distinctly black and white/primitive versus civilised tone which contaminates both entire pieces.  Nothing is impartial about their writing.   

The writer employs an array of loaded modern American film-media language to gleeful effect, such as ‘rustling’, `bad guys’, ‘homeland defence’, ‘action hero’, ‘marines’, ‘soldiers’ and ‘seaborne invasion’.  By doing this they manipulate the perception of the reader in very inappropriate directions.

If you don’t want to read the originals, I will cut it down to essentials:

The Egyptians were the bad guys and they wore creepy penis thingys.

‘For the record, the Sumerians never wore this ridiculous apparatus. It was much too primitive and barbaric for the Sumerians. In my opinion, it proves that the Sumerians were far more civilized 
than the Egyptians during this period of history. There, I said it. Someone had to say it.’


To sum up, as I said at the beginning, I would generally recommend reading more widely before deciding it was a good idea to produce such incoherent, longwinded and culturally ignorant trash, and then, to publish them on the internet.  However, it did give us a running gag around the house for about 24 hours.  A good hearty laugh about rustling antelopes with your trusty pet lions is never a bad thing...  (edit) it turns out we are still getting the odd laugh out of it.

So, to close … a word or two of advice.  An uninformed opinion is pretty much valueless to humanity, whether you are talking about history, archaeology, politics or dental procedures ...  Don’t publish it ...  Another basic rule of thumb for coherent historical reasoning is, if a reading resource is more than 60 years old it is best to avoid relying on it.  Equally, scrolling through pop history sites on the internet at 2am in the morning is not a basis for sound research.  These pieces of writing are living proof of the pitfalls of these methods.

Andrea Sinclair

Louvre knife
Sumerian Shakespeare
Gebel el Arak-

Sources/further reading
The research they seem to have cherry picked:
Case, H. and J. Crowfoot Payne. 1962. ‘Tomb 100: The Decorated Tomb at Hierakonpolis’. JEA 48.
The out of Babylon/Sumer theory
Sayce, A. H. 1903. The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia. (p 23)
Waddell, L. A. 1929. The Makers of Civilization in Race and History. (all)
Possibly this dreadful article
Comte Mesnil de Buisson. 1968.  ‘Le décor asiatique du couteau de Gebel el-Arak’. BIFAO 68.

Better literature on these topics
Hendrickx, S. and M. Eyckerman. 2012. ‘Visual Representation and State development in Egypt’. Archaeo-Nil 22.
Hendrickx, S. and M. Eykerman.  2015. ‘Les animaux sauvages dans l’Egypt prédynastique’. Apprivoiser le sauvage/Taming the Wild, editors B. Massiera, B. Mathieu and F. Rouffet.
Philip, G. 2002. ‘Contacts between the ‘Uruk’ World and the Levant during the Fourth Millennium BC: Evidence and Interpretation’. Artefacts of Complexity: Tracking the Uruk in the Near East, editor N. Postgate. BSA Iraq.
Pittman, H. 1996. Constructing Context: The Gebel el-Arak Knife. The Greater Mesopotamian and Egyptian Interaction in the Late Fourth Millennium B.C.E.  The Study of the Ancient Near East in the Twenty-First Century, editors J.S. Cooper and G.M. Schwartz.
Teissier, B. 1987. ‘Glyptic Evidence for a Connection between Iran, Syro-Palestine and Egypt in the 4th and 3rd Millennia'. Iran 25.
Trost, F. 2012. ‘Das Berühmte Grabe 100 von Hierakonpolis’. Almogaren XLIII. 

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