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Gebel El-Arak Knife
Ivory and flint knife dating from Egyptian prehistory
Gebel el-Arak Knife
The Gebel el-Arak knife (back and front), on display at the Musée du Louvre.
The Gebel el-Arak Knife, also Jebel el-Arak Knife, is an ivory and flint knife dating from the Naqada II period of Egyptian prehistory (3500--3200 BC), showing Mesopotamian influence. The knife was purchased in 1914 in Cairo by Georges Aaron Bénédite for the Louvre, where it is now on display in the Sully wing, room 20. At the time of its purchase, the knife handle was alleged by the seller to have been found at the site of Gebel el-Arak, but it is today believed to come from Abydos.
Purchase and origin
The Gebel el-Arak knife was bought for the Louvre by the philologist and Egyptologist Georges Aaron Bénédite in February 1914 from a private antique dealer, M. Nahman, in Cairo. Bénédite immediately recognised the artefact's extraordinary state of preservation as well as its archaic date. On 16 March 1914, he wrote to Charles Boreux, then head of the département des Antiquités égyptiennes of the Louvre, about the item the unsuspecting dealer had offered him. It was:
[...] an archaic flint knife with an ivory handle of the greatest beauty. This is the masterpiece of predynastic sculpture [...] executed with remarkable finesse and elegance. This is a work of great detail [...] and the interest of what is represented extends even beyond the artistic value of the artefact. On one side is a hunting scene; on the other a scene of war or a raid. At the top of the hunting scene [...] the hunter wears a large Chaldean garment: he head is covered by a hat like that of our Gudea [...] and he grasps two lions standing against him. You can judge the importance of this asiatic representation [...] we will own one of the most important prehistoric monuments, if not more. It is, in definitive, in tangible and summary form, the first chapter of the history of Egypt (emphasis in the original).
Mesopotamian king on the Gebel el-Arak knife
Gebel el-Arak Knife ivory handle (back), in the Departement of Pre-Dynastic Egyptian antiquities, Louvre Museum.
Similar portrait of a probable Uruk King-Priest with a brimmed round hat and large beard, excavated in Uruk and dated to 3300 BC. Louvre Museum.
At the time of purchase, its blade and handle were separated, as the seller did not realise that they fitted together. Boreux later proposed that the knife be restored, and that the blade and handle be joined together. This was done in March 1933 by Léon André, who worked mainly on consolidating the ensemble, and conserving the ivory handle. The most recent restoration of the knife was undertaken in 1997 by Agnès Cascio and Juliette Lévy.
At the time of its purchase by Bénédite, the knife handle was said by the dealer to have been found at the site of Gebel el-Arak ( ), a plateau near the village of Nag Hammadi, 40 kilometres (25 mi) south of Abydos. However, the knife's true provenance is indicated by Bénédite in his letter to Boreux. He wrote:
[...] the seller did not suspect that the flint [blade] belonged with the handle and presented it to me as witness of the recent finds from Abydos.
The blade of the knife is made of homogenous finely grained yellowish flint, a type of Egyptian flint called chert. Flint is widely available in Egypt, from Cairo to Esna, but the blades of ceremonial flint knives were exclusively made of caramel-colored chert, perhaps because this colour resembles that of metal. The blade was produced from the original stone in five stages:
Polishing of both sides of the blade. This operation is required before the ripple-flaking, see below. One side of the blade was left polished and did not receive further work, thus showing a smooth ground surface, maybe to imitate a metal blade.
Ripple-flaking on one side of the blade. This consists in uniformly removing long and thin strips of stone with parallel pressure flaking, creating a regular pattern of S undulations on the surface of the stone. Analysis of the shock waves on the surface of the blade reveals they were produced from the top to the bottom of the blade and from left to right, in a counterclockwise fashion. This work was probably made with pointed copper tools. The ripple-flaking of this side of the blade has no incidence on its sharpness, indicating that it may have served an artistic purpose.
Fine serration of the edge of the blade by micro-flaking. This step produces the sharpness of the blade.
Details of the blade
Gebel el-Arak knife, ripple-flaked side of the blade
Gebel el-Arak knife, polished side of the blade
Detail of the serrations
Detail of the serrations
The blade of the Gebel el-Arak knife as well as of other ripple-flake knives of the same period are considered the high point of the silex tool making techniques. Specialists of the Predynastic period of Egypt, such as Béatrix Midant-Reynes, argue that the quality and amount of work required for the creation of the blade goes beyond what is required for a functional knife. Thus the purpose and value of the knife would be artistic, the blade being a demonstration of technical skills aiming at the beauty of the result. This hypothesis is strengthened by a detailed use-wear analysis of the blade which demonstrates that the knife has never been used.
The blade weights 92.3 grams, its precise dimensions are as follows:
18.8 centimetres (7.4 in)
Width of the blade at its center:
5.7 centimetres (2.2 in)
Thickness of the blade at its center:
0.6 centimetres (0.24 in)
Length of blade inside the handle:
2.8 centimetres (1.1 in)
Width of the blade inside the handle:
3.7 centimetres (1.5 in)
The handle is made of the ivory of an elephanttusk, and not from a hippopotamus canine tooth as was first thought. The handle was carved along the axis of the tusk, as evidenced by a dark spot located above the head of the "Master of Animals", which is the tip of pulp cavity of the tusk. Once extracted from the tusk, the handle was polished on both sides and hollowed out to receive the blade. The thickness of the handle around the tang of the blade varies from 2 to 3 millimetres (0.12 in), which explains that the ivory is cracked there, with some pieces lost. At the bottom of the handle, the edge was beveled, and probably received a crimp of precious metal that would have reinforced the assemblage of the handle with the blade. At the time of the purchase, Bénédite reported that he could see traces of gold leaf on the bottom of the handle, but this is now gone. The assemblage supports the hypothesis that the knife was not functional: the tang of the blade is too short and the handle too thin for the knife to have been practical.
details of the handle
back face of the handle
front face of the handle
side of the handle
side of the handle
The handle is richly carved in low relief with a scene of a battle on the side that would have faced a right-handed user and with mythological themes on the other side. This side has a knob in its centre through which a strap could be passed. As for the blade, a use-wear analysis of the knob demonstrated that it has never been used. The carvings were executed on the polished surface of the tusk with a silexmicroburin from top to bottom, one register after the other. The artisan first carved the main figures and then carved the places where the figures meet, such as the arms of the combatants. The depth of the carvings does not exceed 2 millimetres (0.079 in).
Some authors consider that the knob or boss had to be worn outward, which implies that the side with the knob should be considered at the front face, and the smooth side as the back face.
The precise dimensions of the handle are as follows:
9.5 centimetres (3.7 in)
Width of the basis:
4.2 centimetres (1.7 in)
1.2 centimetres (0.47 in)
Length of the knob:
2.0 centimetres (0.79 in)
Width of the knob:
1.3 centimetres (0.51 in)
Thickness of the knob:
1.0 centimetre (0.39 in)
Knife handle of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Outline of remaining designs
The knife handle of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (26.241.1) has similar imagery to the Gebel el-Arak Knife, although in much poorer condition, but confirming its authenticity. It shows a ship with raised bow and rounded ships (front), a column of armed soldiers and a row of sitting prisoners led by a standing man, in front of a decorated building (back).Metropolitan Museum of Art (26.241.1)
The handle of the knife is carved on both sides with finely executed figures arranged in five horizontal registers. The side of the handle with the knob shows Mesopotamian influence featuring the Master of Animals motif, very common in Mesopotamian art, in the form of a figure wearing Mesopotamian clothing flanked by two upright lions symbolising the Morning and Evening Stars (now both identified with the planet Venus). Robert du Mesnil du Buisson said the central figure is the god El.David Rohl identifies him with Meskiagkasher (Biblical Cush), who "journeyed upon the sea and came ashore at the mountains".Nicolas Grimal refrains from speculating on the identity of the ambiguous figure, referring to it as a "warrior". Modern scholarship generally attributes the back reliefs to Mesopotamian influence, and more specifically attribute the design of the clothed wrestler to the Mesopotamian "priest-king" Master of Animals images of the Late Uruk period. Similar portraits of men with beards and torus-like headgear also appear on numerous figurines of the Naqada I period and dated to 3800-3400 BCE. These figurines are generally carved on ivory tusks and seemingly wear long cloaks.
The fighting figurines are armed with flint knives, clubs and also pear-shaped maces, which are considered as an innovation introduced from Mesopotamia, replacing the initial Egyptian disked-shaped mace. Some authors have suggested that the reliefs represent a battle between warriors of the cities of Abydos and Hierakonpolis, the two main rival Egyptian cities of the period, and that the victor was Abydos, the presence of the lion-fighting Mesopotamian king remaining unexplained and attributed to artistic influence from Mesopotamia. In effect, most of Egypt became unified under rulers from Abydos during the Naqada III period.
This side of the handle also contains a "knob", a perforated suspension lug that would have supported the knife handle, keeping it level while resting on a level surface and also could have been used to thread a cord to hang it from the body as an ornament.
Another knife with very similar iconography, including depictions of warriors, prisoners and nearly identical types of ships can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Accession number: 26.241.1). Numerous objects from the Naqada II period are similar to the Gebel el-Arak Knife in style and content.
Shaven-headed attackers armed with maces and knives, against unarmed opponents with long hair, all wearing penile sheaths (Front, 1st register).
Long-haired man (center) using a knife against shaven-headed baton-wielding enemies (Front, 2nd register)
Shaven-headed man towing high-prowed boats, of a type seen on SumerianUruk period seals and artworks. Possibly part of the depiction of a naval battle. (Front, 3rd register)
Shaven-headed men drowning, in a possible depiction of a naval battle. (Front, 4th register)
Egyptian-type bow-shaped Nile boat. Possibly part of the depiction of a naval battle. (Front, 5th register)
Several of the themes and designs visible in the Gebel el-Arak knife, can also be seen in other contemporary Egyptian works of art, such as the fresco from Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis (c. 3500-3200 BCE), with the scene of the Master of animals, showing a man fighting against two lions, the individual fighting scenes or the boats. Stylistically, the Gebel el-Arak Knife belongs to an important group of Naqada II ivory carvings.
The first known Egyptian fresco, Tomb 100, Hierakonpolis, Naqada II culture (c. 3500-3200 BCE)
Today a total of 17 similar ceremonial knives with decorated handles are known. These knives comprise:
Ritual knife with animals
The ritual knife, dating to Naqada III period, with 227 sculpted animals, now on display at the Brooklyn Museum.
Knife handle detail with animals.
The ritual knife of the Brooklyn Museum, discovered by Jacques de Morgan in the Tomb 32 at Abu Zeidan near Edfu, and similar in size to the Gebel el-Arak knife. The handle of the knife, made of elephant ivory, is decorated with 227 animals carved in 10 registers on both faces. The figures are tightly packed and entirely cover the handle. They represent real animals, all depicted at approximatively the same size and arranged in processions by species: elephants (some walking on snakes), storks, lions, oryxes and bovids. Other less common animals interrupt the processions: a giraffe, a heron, a bustard and a dog chasing after an oryx. Finally, two electric cat fishes are represented on the outer margin of the handle. The only non-animal figure is a rosette, a royal symbol of mesopotamian origin found on Egyptian artifacts of the predynastic period and until the 1st dynasty, such as the Scorpion Macehead and Narmer palette. The decoration of the handle is very similar to that of a predynastic hair comb, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Pitt-Rivers knife, bought in the mid 19th century by Reverend G. Chester from an antique dealer who reported finding it in Sheikh Hamada, near Sohag in Upper Egypt. The knife dates back to the late predynastic period, from ca. 3300 BC to 3100 BC, and is now on display at the British Museum's Early Egypt gallery, room 64, under the catalog number EA 68512. The blade of the knife is virtually identical in style to that of the Gebel el-Arak knife, although slightly larger. The iconography of the handle is similar to that of the ritual knife, comprising six rows of wild animals carved in raised relief. The animals include elephants walking on snakes, storks, a heron, lions followed by a dog, short and long-horned cattle, perhaps jackals, an ibis, a deer, hartebeests, oryxes and a barbary sheep. Similar motifs are found on pottery and clay seals from funerary contexts of the predynastic and early dynastic periods, most notably in Abydos.
The Gebel-Tarif knife, dating to the Naqada III period. On one side, the handle of the knife shows two snakes encircling rosettes. The other side is arranged in four rows. The top and second rows depict scenes of predation with a leopard and a lion attacking ibexes. Beneath these is a domesticated heavy hunting dog wearing a collar pursued by a lion or another dog. Finally the bottom row represents a griffin and an ibex The knife is now in the Egyptian Museum under the catalog number CG 14265.
Prehistoric knife, Naqada II period, Petrie Museum UC 16294. The "snake twist around rosette" is another Mesopotamian motif.
The perfect similarity between the blades of these knives and that of the Gebel el-Arak led scholar Diane L. Holmes to propose that the knives were all produced by a small number of workshops in one area and may be the product of a few craftsmen who practised this extremely specialized skill over a period of a few generations.
^G. Bénédite: Le couteau de Gebel el-'Arak, Étude sur un nouvelle objet préhistorique acquis par le musée du Louvre, Fondation Eugène Piot, Monuments et mémoires, XXII, 1916 p. 1-34
^Archives de la Direction des Musées de France, AE 16, devis du 31 mars 1933
^Holmes, Diane L. (1992). "Archaeological Cultural Resources and Modern Land-use Activities: Some Observations Made during a Recent Survey in the Badari Region, Egypt". Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt. 29: 67-80. doi:10.2307/40000485. JSTOR40000485.
^Kelterborn, P. (1984). "Toward Replicating Egyptian Predynastic Flint Knives". Journal of Archaeological Science. 11 (6): 433-53. doi:10.1016/0305-4403(84)90023-2.
^Winifred Needler: Predynastic and Archaic Egypt in the Brooklyn Museum, 1984, p. 37 & 153, ISBN0872730999
^Francois Poplin: L'ivoire et la Pierre a Feu -- Le Couteau Predynastique en Hippopotame de Shiqmim et le Lion d'Aristote in La Pierre prehistorique, 1992, Laboratoire de Recherche des Musées de France, pp. 187-194, ISBN978-2-9506212-0-7
^Williams, Bruce; Logan, Thomas J.; Murnane, William J. (1987). "The Metropolitan Museum Knife Handle and Aspects of Pharaonic Imagery before Narmer". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 46 (4): 245. doi:10.1086/373253. ISSN0022-2968. JSTOR544868.
^ abWilliams, Bruce; Logan, Thomas J.; Murnane, William J. (1987). "The Metropolitan Museum Knife Handle and Aspects of Pharaonic Imagery before Narmer". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 46 (4): 245-285. doi:10.1086/373253. ISSN0022-2968. JSTOR544868.
^Williams, Bruce; Logan, Thomas J.; Murnane, William J. (1987). "The Metropolitan Museum Knife Handle and Aspects of Pharaonic Imagery before Narmer". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 46 (4): 245-285. doi:10.1086/373253. ISSN0022-2968. JSTOR544868.
^For an image of a similar high-prowed boat: Porada, Edith (1993). "Why Cylinder Seals? Engraved Cylindrical Seal Stones of the Ancient Near East, Fourth to First Millennium B.C.". The Art Bulletin. 75 (4): 566, image 8. doi:10.2307/3045984. ISSN0004-3079. JSTOR3045984.
^"The penis - sheath , common on the Hierakonpolis figurines Baumgartel did not discuss ( Quibell , Hierakonpolis I , pls . VII - VIII , X ) , occurs on both groups of fighting men on the Gebel el Arak Knife Handle (...) as well as the Bull Palette" in Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt. American Research Center in Egypt. 1988. p. 36.
^E. G. Dreyer: "Motive und Datierung der dekorierten prädynastischen Messergriffe", in L'Art de l'Ancien Empire égyptien, Actes du colloque organisé au musée du Louvre par le Service culturel les 3 et 4 avril 1998, 1999, p. 197-226, ISBN978-2110042644
^Whitehouse, H. (2002). "A Decorated Knife Handle from the 'Main Deposit' at Hierakonpolis". Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo. 48: 425-46.
^ abJohn Baines: Symbolic roles of canine figures on early monuments, Archéo-Nil: Revue de la société pour l'étude des cultures prépharaoniques de la vallée du Nil, 3, 57-74, 1993. Available online
^Williams, Bruce; Logan, Thomas J.; Murnane, William J. (1987). "The Metropolitan Museum Knife Handle and Aspects of Pharaonic Imagery before Narmer". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 46 (4): 245-285. doi:10.1086/373253.
^Holmes, Diane L. (1989). The Predynastic Lithic Industries of Upper Egypt: a Comparative Study of the Lithic Traditions of Badari, Naqada and Hierakonpolis. Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology. 33. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. p. 15. ISBN0860546012.
Grimal, Nicolas-Christophe (1992). A History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 29ff. ISBN0-631-19396-0.