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The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt was the first great flowering of Egyptian civilization when the architectural and cultural trends which we regard as characteristic of Ancient Egypt became all pervasive.  It was also a glorious golden era of ancient human culture and the accomplishments (and some of the individual figures) of the era are still well known.   Although the Fourth Dynasty  (2613 to 2494 BC) is perhaps the most famous period of the Old Kingdom thanks to the enormous pyramid shaped tombs which were built then, the subsequent Fifth Dynasty (2494 BC–ca. 2345 BC) was also an era of enormous wealth and success which witnessed a great expansion of trade and cultural connections (thanks to the development of large ocean-going boats).


A painting in Khuwy’s tomb displaying the graceful boats and gifted sailors of the 5th Dynasty (Ministry of Culture of Egypt)

All of this is back story to this amazing archaeological discovery which opened to the public earlier this year.  This is the tomb of Khuwy, a Fifth Dynasty nobleman who seemingly had some sort of close connection to Djedkare Isesi, the penultimate pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty.  The tomb was discovered near Saqqara, a vast necropolis just south of Cairo in early spring of this year (2019 AD).  Since the tomb was undisturbed for all of those centuries, the colors of the paint upon the wall are particularly fresh and vibrant (especially the reds greens and yellows).


Seated Khuwy accepting offerings

The L shaped tomb consists of a passageway to an antechamber. Beyond the antechamber lies the main chamber which features a painting of the seated Khuwy accepting offerings (above) such as the tasty cuts of beef which cattle farmers are cutting off of a slaughtered spotted cow in this vivid painting from 4300 years ago (below).  The mummified Khuwy was present as well, along with canopic jars containing several of his favorite internal organs, however the jars and the mummy were broken.

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So who exactly was Khuwy and how was he related to Pharaoh? Why are the paintings in this tomb executed in a fashion (and with fancy pigments) usually reserved for royalty?  What happened to Khuwy’s mummy and why isn’t there a picture of that wrapped-up spooky fellow in this October blog post?  The answers are not known yet but archaeologists (and others) are working on solving these ancient mysteries and Ferrebeekeeper will be sure to report if and when the secrets are revealed.

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)
Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Today we have a special treat: a painting of six geese from the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat at Meidum.  Nefermaat was the eldest son of the first wife of the pharaoh Sneferu (who founded the fourth dynasty– the greatest dynasty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom).  As the pharaoh’s oldest son, Nefermaat acted as vizier of Egypt, the prophet of the goddess Bastet, and the bearer of the royal seal.  Nefermaat’s own son Hemiunu was the architect of the great pyramids of Egypt!

Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

canvasThis extremely beautiful painting was crafted somewhere between 2600 and 2550 BC by an unknown artist or team of artists who carved out the shapes of the geese in a wall and then filled in the hollow outlines with colored paste.  For four and a half thousand years, the group of geese has kept its lifelike vibrancy. Discovered by the great French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette in 1871, the masterpiece is now in the Cairo museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a reproduction of the painting and their website explains the original context of the piece:

The geese were depicted below a scene showing men trapping birds in a clap net and offering them to the tomb’s owner. While it is not uncommon to find scenes of fowling in the marshes in Old Kingdom tombs, this example is one of the earliest and is notable for the extraordinary quality of the painting. The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.

The geese in the painting are commonly known as Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) which are members of the Tadorninae–the shelduck-sheldgoose subfamily (which means they are not exactly geese, taxonomically speaking).  Egyptian Geese are 63–73 cm long (25-29 inches) and they range through most of sub-Saharan Africa and up the Nile valley.  Domesticated by the ancient Egyptians in the depths of antiquity, the birds were also kept by the Greeks and Romans.  There are feral populations in England and the United States (where Egyptophiles keep the fowl as ornamental birds!).

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

An Electric Catfish (Malapterurus electricus)

The catfish family Malapteruridae, commonly known as the electric catfish consists of about twenty different species of fish indigenous to Africa.  Various species range from the Nile basin south deep into tropical Africa.  The largest species is Malapterurus electricus which grows to 39 inches long and weighs up to 40 pounds.  While most varieties of catfish have electroreceptive sense organs with which to determine the presence and nature of living things in dark and turbid underwater conditions, the electric catfish also possesses an electrogenic organ capable of producing a powerful jolt of electricity (up to 350 volts in some species).   This electricity is derived from anterior body musculature which lines the catfish’s body cavity.  The shock is powerful enough to knock over a grown man, although it has never been known to be fatal to humans.

A Drawing of the Front of the Palette of Narmer

Malapterurus electricus was well known to the ancient Egyptians.  One of the earliest artifacts to utilize hieroglyphs, the extraordinary Palette of Narmer, depicts the electric catfish in a central location on both sides.  The dense siltstone palette dates from 3100 BC and it depicts Egypt’s first pharaoh, King Narmer.  On the front of the palette, King Narmer is shown wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt–the desert fastnesses to the south.  On the palette’s back he is portrayed walking among beheaded enemies and wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt–the rich delta land of swamps and fertile black earth.  The object was found in Nechen, a community which had been inhabited for thousands of years before King Narmer united the two kingdoms.  Nechen later became a major center for the worship of Horace, the god of the pharaohs.

A Drawing of theback of the Palette of Narmer

Why is the catfish in such a prominent place on the palette?  King Narmer’s name was an elision of two hieroglyphs “n’r” and “mr”. N’r stands for catfish, and mr stands for chisel.  So the first godking of Egypt was literally named “Catfish-chisel” which is exactly what the symbol on the palette consists of.  Here is a longer account of the history and milieu of King Catfish from an Egyptian website (the site calls Nechen by its Greek name of Hierakonpolis).

P.S. In trying to get my electric catfish theme across, I failed to mention the beauty and intensity of the Palette of Narmer as both a historical document and as a work of art.  You should check out the link above or Google it.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2023