[This entry surveys the sources used in the writing of various “histories” of ancient Egypt (i.e., general, social, economic, art history, religious, military, etc.), and discusses problems inherent in interpreting this evidence. It comprises two articles:
For related discussions, see INTERPRETATION OF EVIDENCE.]
Archaeological and Artistic Evidence
The evidence used to construct a history of ancient Egypt consists of three types. The first and most immediate source is the inscriptional record of the Egyptian language; this only became accessible in the early nineteenth century when the translation of hieroglyphs became possible. The works of ancient Greek and Roman historians, as well as records and correspondence in various Near Eastern languages, supply considerable information and form a secondary textual source, although those sources usually contain an inherent cultural bias. The third source is nontextual evidence derived from the material remains and analyses of archeological excavation, supplemented by the graphic representations on tomb and temple walls. Artifacts and symbolic images provide resources for the study of Egyptian history even when they are not accompanied or amplified by written record.
The archeological evidence that contributes to a history of ancient Egypt consists of standing monuments, many never completely lost, and the material remains from excavations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From prehistoric sites, the physical evidence has been essentially in the form of Paleolithic stone tools. Later graves from the Predynastic period, along with the material preserved in them, give some indication of material wealth, the level of artistic crafts and their specialized development, population concentration, relative rank in society, and the appearance of a belief in an afterlife for which preparation had to be made. Early excavations were limited to graves and cemeteries; during the late twentieth century, scientific excavations of a limited number of settlements or villages have made it possible to postulate differing ranks and social classes, as well as the beginnings of a more complex and organized society that had rulers who were differentiated from those they ruled. Sophisticated scientific techniques have made it possible to identify the frequency and distribution of plant and animal components of the diet. Interpretation of the religious iconography frequently encountered from the Predynastic period is speculative and based on the design elements on pottery, as well as the physical appearance of clay figurines and other devices that may have been amuletic.
One of the difficulties encountered by archaeologists who study the remains of the historic period in ancient Egypt is the paucity of domestic architecture recovered by excavation. Tombs and temples were generally constructed of stone or cut into stone hillsides, whereas domestic architecture for both palaces and ordinary houses was usually made of unbaked mud bricks that have not survived in the archeological record. The Spanish word adobe, used to designate the building style in the American Southwest, is actually based on the word ṭube, Arabic for brick (Coptic, tōbe; ancient Egyptian, ḏbt), suggesting the use of similar architectural material. In the Early Dynastic period, funerary architecture was not always made of stone, however. In the first and second dynasties, archeological evidence includes royal or noble tombs that were also constructed of mud brick. The articulation and decoration of these structures for the protection of the burial suggest that their designs were based on houses or palaces for the living. The tomb goods included in these early burials of important people attest to well-developed standards of craftsmanship, particularly in the manufacture of a multitude of stone vessels of various types, but also in the manufacture of pottery, metalworking, ivory carving, and decorative glazing. Some few remains of furniture fragments also have been found.
The archeological material from the Old Kingdom is more extensive and contributes to a picture of the daily life of the ancient Egyptians of several classes. The necropolis (Gr., “city of the dead”) for the nobility was laid out in a regular pattern, suggesting the beginnings of organized city planning. Rare examples of royal furniture found there have been reconstructed from decayed remnants of wood and decorative elements of gold and other materials. The developing complexity of the funerary cult included objects of daily use supplemented with limestone statues that represented specialized workmen and women. The importance of these figures for the historical information they provide lies in the various craft activities portrayed in detail, such as the grinding of grain for bread and the straining of mash to make beer. Cooking, pottery making, and a variety of other crafts were regularly represented. These statues of working people portray ordinary persons carrying out the mundane tasks necessary to life in this world, although they were intended to provide for the good of a spirit in the next.
Although it may be attributed to accidental situations of preservation, burials of the Middle Kingdom contain an increasingly representative range of artifacts. Complete examples of furniture of many types have been preserved. Elaborate jewelry of gold and semiprecious stones attests not only to an elite class but also to the highly skilled craftsmen who could produce such luxury goods in a society of highly specialized occupations. Besides the necessities of pottery and furniture, actual examples of tools, weapons, musical instruments, games, and clothing have been preserved. In the Middle Kingdom, the custom of including models of activities in the tomb furniture became more elaborate. Rather than limestone figures of single workers, complex representations made of plastered and painted wood serve to record many details of crafts and other activities.
The tomb of the nobleman Meketra and its contents, found in the Theban necropolis, serve as an excellent example of this tradition. Twenty-four models were found in this tomb. Of these, three were representations of offering bearers meant to serve as a part of the funeral preparations, and thus cannot be considered examples of daily life. An elaborate and detailed model depicting the master of the house counting his cattle was supplemented by one of the barn where the animals were tended and fed. A model butcher shop was found that showed where meat was prepared. A granary illustrated the storage of grain, and a brewing and baking establishment depicted its products. The finely detailed weaving and carpentry workshops furnish considerable information on the tools and procedures of both crafts. There were also two gardens, complete with water pools and model trees. The flotilla of model boats in this burial included large and small pleasure craft, separate kitchen craft, and specialized fishing boats. As a general observation, these miniature representations of daily life are fascinating for their detail, but their importance lies in the information they provide on aspects of daily life that would not have been included in any formal, written history.
From the Middle Kingdom onward, excavations have also provided information on some aspects of urban architecture and community organization, based on a limited number of preserved examples of villages, as well as fortifications. [See ILLAHUN.]
By the New Kingdom, the amount and kinds of material included in a burial had become so large and diverse that it is difficult to itemize all funerary goods. It is only necessary to recall the wealth of grave goods included in the tomb of Tutankhamun, a relatively minor ruler, to realize the importance of this aspect of the preparation necessary for the afterlife. From that tomb scholars can examine not only the wealth of decorative objects of gold, calcite (Egyptian alabaster) and other materials but also the king's actual clothing and footwear, his childhood and adult furniture, his toys, games, and weapons, wine jars, and food containers. While this material does not explain the causes for the social and political decline of the eighteenth dynasty, it provides invaluable evidence for the high level of material culture of that time.
The archaeological evidence from ancient Egypt is supplemented by material interred with the dead, but dating to the New Kingdom there are also preserved examples of palaces, towns, and cities (Malqata, Deir el-Medina, Tell el-Amarna) that have provided considerable information on social organization, lifestyle, personal religion, and various crafts.
Although the evidence for thirty centuries of dynastic Egyptian history derived from archaeological excavation and examination is uneven and might even be described as somewhat misleading because of the accidents of preservation, there is considerable physical evidence attesting to many aspects of ancient Egyptian life. It is also possible to deduce the basic outline of the way urban civilization developed, to have solid information about what people ate and wore, to understand how craftsmen worked and craftsmanship evolved, and to learn about other details.
To augment the archaeological evidence, considerable information can be derived from the decoration of monuments, primarily temples, and tombs, once the formalist nature of Egyptian representation is understood. Since Egyptian artistic practice was of symbolic intent, the interpretation of some of the reliefs and paintings is not a simple matter since scale, color, and position were all considered from a symbolic point of view, not as a realistic rendering of nature. With that understanding in mind, it is possible to derive a great amount of information from the two-dimensional designs concerning a wide variety of subjects. The decoration on temple walls, even without the aid of the written texts that explain or identify them, can convey information concerning aspects of ancient life, such as the appearance of religious ritual, foreign tribute or trade, costume, armament, transportation, and even provides information on some types of architecture, such as palace complexes, temples, and foreign fortifications.
The decoration of tombs informs scholars about fundamental funerary practices through illustrations of the rituals carried out, including the funeral procession, the presence of organized mourners, the material goods brought to furnish the tomb, the funerary banquet with relatives and mourners in attendance, the ritual carried out at the entrance of the tomb, as well as representations of the tomb entrance itself. Beyond the representations directly concerned with funerary practices, the depictions of daily life provide a veritable encyclopedia of crafts, agriculture, entertainment, and hunting. A mine of information is encoded in the wall designs of tombs—material that would not have been considered important enough to chronicle in any formal history or personal biography. This is one of the important legacies preserved in the tombs, not from any sense of preservation of history as it is now understood, but as a result of a belief in an afterlife for which preparation had to be made. From the New Kingdom, in the tomb of Rekmire, mayor of Thebes early in the eighteenth dynasty, a large number of crafts carried out in temple workshops are depicted. Of the many shown there, the production of a range of materials and objects, including sculpture, furniture, jewelry, leather goods, cordage, metal wares, and even mud brick is depicted; one specific example, the production of bronze doors is shown in some detail. From the smelting of the ores with the use of hide-covered pot-bellows to the pouring of the molten metal and the finished objects, the craft is visually explained on the walls of the tomb. This might be favorably compared to the sixteenth-century sculptor Benvenuto Cellini's detailed written description of the casting of his bronze statue of Perseus but for the difference in intention. From tombs of all periods, representations of activities provide a window on the world of ancient Egyptian life, preserved as they were through a belief in an afterlife.
Other artistic examples from ancient Egypt include the representation of exotic materials and animals (bears are one example not native to Egypt) on Old Kingdom temple walls, the depiction of the moving of a colossal statue in a tomb of the Middle Kingdom, the rewarding of nobles and military officers by the king on stelae and on tomb walls, and the bringing of exotic tribute (or trade) including ivory, gold, elephants, and ebony wood. The many representations of fauna in Egyptian art provide scholars with a vivid catalog of the animal life during ancient times, both foreign and domestic. The propagandistic displays on the walls of temples tend to concentrate on the deeds, real or alleged, of the king. Scenes of battle and conquest provide considerable detail concerning dress, armament, and transportation, both Egyptian and foreign. Tribute to the king, certain religious rituals for special feasts, and the role of the king in making offerings to the gods are all illustrated, but these often require a knowledge of the texts that accompany them to make them completely understandable.
Whereas written texts in the ancient Egyptian language provide an overall framework for the construction of history as well as many insights into political and social matters, it is the archaeological and artistic evidence that makes it possible to further an understanding of some aspects of the ancient culture never treated in the inscriptional material. In general, those aspects of daily life, represented in tombs, would never have merited inclusion in any kind of formal inscription. No inscription would explain the development of town or settlement layout and organization. The archaeological remains, the artistic representations, and the written texts serve to supplement one another. All three types of information are vital to a reconstruction of Egyptian history.
- The Archaeology, Geography and History of the Egyptian Delta in Pharaonic Lives. Oxford, 1989.
- Assmann, J., G. Burkhard, and V. Davies, eds. Problems and Priorities in Egyptian Archaeology. London, 1987.
- Bard, K. A. Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, London and New York, 1999.
- Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt, translated by Ian Shaw. Oxford, 1992.
- Kemp, Barry J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London, 1989.
- Schäfer, Heinrich. Principles of Egyptian Art, translated and edited by John Baines. Oxford, 1986.
William H. Peck
This entry will address textual evidence deemed of use to the modern historian, rather than any category viewed as historiographical by the ancients.
The Egyptian script, enumeration system, and celebratory art came into being toward the end of the fourth millennium BCE to serve the needs of the incipient civil service that constituted the new phenomenon of a nation-state government, centered on the equally new phenomenon of a divine ruler on earth. The visible recording of events in sequence derived only minimally (if at all) from any sense of historical process: rather, it provided the state with an extended and recorded memory, reaching back over generations—a prime concern for bureaucrats interested in statistical assessment, revenues, and long-term social trends. Taxes could be reckoned, commodities noted, and individuals identified at long range, even if the secretary had never laid eyes on either object or person. Out of these practical concerns grew the “document archive” (pr mdʒt) at the royal residence at Memphis.
The contents of this document archive, although no longer extant, constitute the ultimate derivation for a number of surviving texts. A set of ongoing annals (gnwt), which combined a graphic record of salient events for the year with inundation data, was the backbone of the archive. Reflections of this sequencing of years survive in the wooden and ivory labels or jar-inscriptions—from Saqqara, Abydos, Naqada, and elsewhere—used to identify and date the contents of storerooms. Toward the close of the Old Kingdom, the total list of such annals, or “year-rectangles” (indicative of the format), was “published” on stone as a pious act, but only fragments survive (Palermo Stone, Memphite, University College fragments). Another ongoing series was the “count records” (tnwt), the results of the biennial cattle census taken throughout the realm. Royal decisions were immediately committed to writing and sealed in the king's presence. These royal decrees (wḏ-nsw, often granting immunity from forms of government interference) and rescripts are occasionally preserved on stelae set up in temples benefiting from the exemption. Work-orders (wpt-nsw) and orders for conscription (srw) are often reproduced in the form of rock inscriptions by expedition leaders at the quarries and mines to which they were sent. These sometimes take the form of relief tableaux showing the king subduing the foreign lands. The royal archives also contained records of taxation, copies of all royal charters and “empowering”-documents (ʿ-nsw), and all property transfers (imyt-pr) made throughout the country. Presumably, documents relating to the complex system of offering-reversion and quasiscientific treatises (medical, pharmacopeic, and engineering) also found a place in this amazing library.
Royal stelae or inscriptions promoting the king, recording events, or enjoining loyalty are notably absent from the Old Kingdom. There is some indication that the walls of some parts of the pyramid complex (e.g., the causeway) were once inscribed with texts and reliefs recording specific events, but very little has survived.
Better preserved are private inscriptions from the Old Kingdom. The urge of self-promotion for the practical purpose of the survival of one's life-force and memory led at an early date to the inscribing of the deceased person's names and titles on a name stone or slab stela placed at the burial site. With the expansion of the private mastaba-tomb, mortuary formulae were added, and sometimes the contract with the mortuary priest(s) was inscribed on the walls for permanence. In order to influence the passerby to honor and intercede for the deceased, an address to the living came to be added, involving an argument as to why the living should make offering or repeat the formula. In this rhetorical exercise the deceased often presented his offices (iʒwt-ẖrt-nṯr) and the salient events of his life with the clear intent of creating a favorable impression on posterity. Such statements, whether at the Residence or in the provinces, provide the greatest source for the historian interested in political and social events of the Old Kingdom.
It is a moot point whether we should conjure up a distinction between a royal archive and a temple library, but collections of what appear to be religious writings did exist. These encompass the categories of “beatifications” (sʒḫw), “magic spells” (ḥkʒw), and “ritual-books” (ḥbw), all reflected in the secondary transfer as “Pyramid Texts” of this material to the walls of the corridors and burial chambers of the Old Kingdom kings from Unas to the ephemeral monarchs of the eighth dynasty. What the accounts and administrative records of a large institution of the Old Kingdom must have looked like is vouchsafed for us by the Abusir papyri, the “waste basket” of a scribe belonging to the temple of King Neferirkare Kakai of the fifth dynasty. Here are preserved such genres as “duty-table” (sšm-iʒt), “service regulation book” (sšm r imy-st-cʿ), salary sheets (a variety of terms), “(written) receipts” (sšp-ʒwt), “grain-distribution records” (sšm n swt), and “gift-receipt documents” (sš n nḏt-hr).
These rich archives were swept away and destroyed in the collapse of the Old Kingdom; what replaced them is difficult to ascertain. Presumably royal decrees continued to be issued, draft-lists and work-orders written up, and property transfers registered as far as possible. But the almost total absence of written sources from the Herakleopolitan regime prevents any certainty on this point.
Ironically, what does proliferate during the centuries of anarchy and illiteracy following the sixth dynasty is the biographical statement. Slab stelae, tomb inscriptions, and graffiti in quarries and along transit corridors broadcast the acceptable character of the time (self-reliant, skilled in rhetoric) and not infrequently record in passing a historical event. Since the latter are most often recounted from a personal or parochial point of view, their evidential value in reconstructing the broader picture often depends on shrewd guesswork. When inscriptions of royal authorship first make their appearance in the eleventh dynasty, they are set in a continuum of biographical statements stretching back to a point before the family seized the cartouche. In the same vein as the stelae of commoners, they dwell on the king's self-reliance, his ability to speak with his mouth and act with his arm, and his piety. By the twelfth dynasty, the type has developed into an important historical source, the formal “royal séance” (ḥmst-nsw) at which the king delivers a speech (biography, apologia, or anouncement) to his court; these survive in numerous stelae, with or without the identifying genre label. One of the important innovations of the Middle Kingdom was the “day-book” (hrwyt), a calendrically arranged journal noting receipts and disbursements, arrivals and departures, and other events of immediate interest. Large institutions like the king's house, the courts of law, government departments, the temples, and presumably the army kept such journals, and from them derives much of the material found in embellished form on stelae.
The New Kingdom carried on and developed many of the document types and recording techniques devised by the twelfth dynasty. The royal archive (ḫʒ n sšw) of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties was a repository for decrees, speeches at séances, “ex cathedra” palace orders (ḏdt m ḥm n stp-sʒ), communiqués (wsty), royal encyclicals (wstn), the journal of the king's house, inventories and inspectors' reports (sipty), work assignments and regulations (sḥnt), memoranda (sḫʒ) and the like. The vizier's archives (ḫʒ n sšw n ṯʒty) undoubtedly would have overlapped with and duplicated much that was in the king's library, but they also contained property transfers, transcripts of trials (smtr), depositions (ʿwt ḏdt.n N), the criminal register (šfdw n ḫbnty), petitions, provincial reports, census lists, and nome records (sš n spʒt). Royal correspondence was written out and (presumably) copies were kept in “the office of the letters of pharaoh” (st nʒ šʿwt) pr-ʿʒ). Related institutions kept documentation pertinent to their spheres of interest: the treasury archives held treasury records of imposts, quotas, and other forms of taxation (sšw n pr-ḥd), inventories (ipw), lists of taxable individuals, and the land-cadaster of Egypt (dnyt nt Kmt); the “office of the granaries of pharaoh” kept grain assessments and tax assessors' journals (sšw n tʒ šnwt), inventories, registers of grain receipts (ʿwty n šsp it), and conscription records of cultivators (ʿwty mrt); the army kept draft lists and other documentation relating to equipment and personnel (sšw n pʒ mšʿ).
While the rich contents of these repositories survive only spottily in papyrus form in the original format, they provided the source material for large numbers of “historical” stelae. Often the genre title occurs in the text. Thus “royal decrees,” promulgated much as in the Old Kingdom, and speeches at “royal sittings” with or without dated introductions, found their way into stelae of the same name. Military extracts from the day-books, quoted verbatim (as often in Thutmose III's “annals”), or embellished (Amenophis II, Thutmose IV), provide the factual grist or sometimes simply the inspiration for the “victory stela” (wḏ n nḫtw) or simply “victories” (nḫtw), a free-wheeling textual treatment, often lyrical and metrically arranged, bombastically celebrating the mighty deeds of the king in peace and war. Also subsumed under the broad rubric “victory stela” are several topoi, smacking of artificiality, within which a dated historical event is treated expansively: the arrival of the messenger with bad news, the king brooding far into the night over the state of the land, the council of state advising the sovereign badly, the dream of pharaoh, god's benediction and blessing.
These topoi, all infelicitously grouped by modern scholars under the term Königsnovelle (a genre that does not exist), in their singular preoccupation with adulating the monarch conjure up the stilted atmosphere of a court orality. The latter gave rise early in the eighteenth dynasty to a species of text dubbed by the ancients “the collection of deeds” (sḥwy n spw), in which the accomplishments of pharaoh (often historically verifiable) are passed in review by an unidentified speaker who addresses the reader in a chatty manner (cf. the Armant Stela [Thutmose III] and the sphinx stelae [Amenophis II]). In the nineteenth dynasty the adulatory function is served by the so-called Rhetorical Stelae, songs to be sung to the accompaniment of the harp, in which the metrically arranged stanzas each end in the cartouches of the reigning pharaoh. The content is high-flown, laden with strained figures of speech, and largely divorced from historical reality. Possibly emanating from the same circle of oral or written composition within a court context are such genres as dated adulation of the king, the god's address to the king, the king's apologia to the god, and the widespread “adoration” (dwʒ), a hymn of praise to god or king.
A special type of royal text with a long history is the dedicatory inscription. These almost always begin with the phrase “He made it as his monument for god X, making for him a …,” followed by the name of the object, or building, or sometimes the deed that the king has performed. Such texts can be brief and formulaic, or lengthy and highly embellished.
A New Kingdom innovation is the elaborate textual “gloss” designed to accompany relief scenes commemorating and celebrating military victories. These were almost always confined to the exterior walls of temples for the edification and admonition of the laity, who were not allowed to enter the sacred precincts. The combined scene and text undergoes an evolution during the eighteenth through twentieth dynasties: an increasing degree of complexity and an enlarged sequence of scenes are introduced, tracing in cartoon fashion the various steps in a campaign. Associated with such scenes are toponym lists that purport to record all the settlements conquered by the contemporary pharaoh.
Of sources preserved (or reflecting originals) on papyrus, letters are the most numerous. These range from letters of royal authorship to those of the barely literate, and they are germane to political, social, and economic history. Of particular importance for international relations during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries are the collections of royal correspondence and treaties comprising the Amarna Letters (Amenophis III, Akhenaten), the Boghaz Keui cache (Ramesses II and his family and court), and occasional letters from Ugarit (Merenptah and Beya). Model letters and miscellanies, designed to inculcate penmanship, style, and vocabulary, yield circumstantial evidence on administration and society. The economic historian is well served by the fortunate preservation, especially from the twentieth dynasty, of half a dozen papyri and hundreds of fragments and ostraca bearing on the assessment of revenues (Papyrus Wilbour, Papyrus Prachow, Papyrus Rheinhardt), grain receipts (Papyrus Amiens, the Turin “Taxation” Papyrus), and lists of imposts (Turin Canon, recto). The ostraca from the workmen's village at Deir el-Medina, which span seven or eight generations, are of very great value for socio-economic history as well as for the light they shed on the political vicissitudes of the time. Trial transcripts bearing on cases of treason (the attempt on the life of Ramesses III) and tomb robberies and the like (Papyrus Abbott and related documents), as well as indictments and official reports (the Turin “strike” Papyrus and “pseudo-reports” such as Wenamun and the Moscow Letter), provide vivid if circumstantial evidence regarding the stressful times preceding the end of the New Kingdom.
With the abandonment of Thebes as a district headquarters of the central government at the beginning of the twenty-first dynasty, the temple of Amun and its satellite shrines ceased to be a center for the celebration of events in relief and stela. The so-called Third Intermediate Period (c.1070–711 BCE), with the advent of Libyan dynasties, witnessed an abeyance in the committing of the mighty acts of king (or god) to publication in stela form. In the absence of stelae, the historian is thrown back on a type of document that, though not unknown in the New Kingdom, comes into its own in the twenty-first and twenty-second dynasties—the statue inscription. These, being of private authorship, show a rather narrow focus in that they highlight the lineage and occasionally the accomplishments of their owners, without much regard to a broader, national picture of history. The historian complements their meager offerings with such equally sparse sources as the quai inscriptions (records of inundations) at Thebes, a smattering of formulaic inscriptions from Tanis and Bubastis, and the stelae from the Memphite Serapeum, which provide a loose continuum from the New Kingdom into the Late period.
The Kushite–Saite revival (twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth dynasties, c.711–525 BCE) looked to the past for models but failed to revive its salient spirit. There is a marginal increase during this period in “historical” stelae, but the motivation for their inscripturation is piety rather than an intent to make facts public. Some were erected in temple contexts, but others are in desert areas (Dahshur stelae of Taharqa and Psamtik I), sparsely frequented frontiers (Aswan, Psamtik II), or funerary contexts (the Serapeum).
Of greater importance to the historian of the eighth through sixth centuries BCE are private biographical statements, Demotic papyri, sources in Akkadian (Assyrian records) and Hebrew (the Bible and sundry ostraca from Samaria, Lachish, Arad, etc.), and Greek sources. Biographical texts dwell on internal matters and their owners' personal contributions to the life of the community, while Demotic texts provide evidence on society and economics. (The principal exception is the Demotic text Papyrus Rylands IX, a legal deposition that chronicles a single family's history from c.664 to 510 BCE). Akkadian and Hebrew texts provide a refreshing “outsiders” look at the true state of affairs in the Nile Valley, and often provide the sole source for major events in which Egypt participated. Beginning with the seventh century BCE, such Greek writers as Hecataeus, Herodotus, Solon, and Bacchylides begin to show a certain degree of reliability in the collective historical memory of things Egyptian.
For the period of Persian occupation (525–332 BCE), while Akkadian and biblical references are almost wholly lacking, private biography and demotica abound; Greek sources are on the increase, and Aramaic records put in their first appearance. Biographies are little changed in intent, format, and content. As before, their provenance is the temple ambulatory or the tomb, and they often link the owner's piety with real historical situations. Demotic business documents begin to shed considerable light on commercial practice, law, and social history; while the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine illumine such things as trade, race relations, administration, and social conditions during the fifth century BCE.
A king list had taken shape at least as early as the beginning of the second millennium BCE. Not only were royal names entered in sequence with lengths of reign, but annalistic and folkloric material was also occasionally inserted at appropriate points. The one pharaonic exemplar that survives (the Turin Canon of kings, c. 1250 BCE) shows rudimentary attempts to group kings into broad “houses” with summations of years. The king-list tradition informed other lists that were cultic (daily liturgy in the temple of Amun-Re), offertory (Abydos lists, Saqqara list), or celebratory (statue “parade” at the Min festival). The most complete (albeit garbled) king list now known is that preserved in the versions of the Epitome made of Manetho's Aegyptiaca (first quarter of the third century BCE). Close examination of the Epitome reveals that Manetho made use, somewhat uncritically, of a sizable body of folktales that had achieved acceptance in the temple libraries of his day, while ignoring the more sober and contemporary records that must still have stood on stelae throughout Egypt. Such folk interest in kings of the past had long since spawned a “literature” that existed both in writing and orality. The Middle Kingdom told yarns of Nebka, Djoser, Sneferu, Khufu, Pepy II, and the Akhtoys; the New Kingdom spun adventure tales highlighting the conquests of Thutmose III and Sesy-re (Ramesses II). The latter underwent a transmogrification in the Late period into Sesostris, a legendary conqueror who combines the exploits of twelfth, eighteenth, and nineteenth dynasty kings.
Problems relating to interpretation of textual sources place an unusually heavy burden on historians of ancient Egypt. Not only must they be completely conversant with the language(s) in which the material is written, but they must also have epigraphic skills and knowledge of cursive. Even so, in view of the fact that Egyptian grammar and syntax have been reconstructed inductively, getting the translation right often occupies more of a scholar's time than it would in classical or medieval history. Identifying genre, Sitz im Leben, and intended audience often demands introducing literary theory, form criticism, and orality theory into the discussion. Most, if not all, of the inscriptional evidence placed on view for public consumption lent itself to, and indeed was intended for, oral recitation; it was thus lyrical in formulation and displays all the earmarks of metrical and oral formulaic composition. The weight of texts not intended immediately for a public dissemination—contents of archives, business documents, letters, and so on—is often easier to control; but in light of the haphazardness of preservation, it is rare that scholars can use their data in statistical analyses. Since in many cases the contents of biographical statements and royal stelae originated in personal perorations, historians must also address matters of style and idiolect.
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Donald B. Redford