Early Societies: Britain and the Ancient World

The First Civilisations

What does civilisation mean?

Use of the word 'civilisation' today implies the rule of law and respect for human rights. In this module I use the word civilisation to mean what it meant to the Ancient Greeks i.e. living in cities. Cities are concentrations of population where people practise trades and professions other than farming and where command of resources means that a separate culture can develop for the elite. Indeed when we talk of Ancient Egypt or of Ancient Rome we are almost always talking about the minority who formed the upper class: it is they who commissioned the artists, writers, architects and sculptors whose work gives their culture its particular style.

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The Origins of Ancient Egypt

The end result of competition is monopoly: in the case of the farming communities of Ancient Egypt it led to the emergence of two 'super-groups' whose final battle may be commemorated in the artefact called the Narmer palette. This is a grand sort of dish for mixing eye make-up, made for a temple and preserved because it was buried under the floor during some later disturbance. On one side a king whose standard is a hawk kills a rival. The rival is clearly the leader of the north or delta area of the Nile valley, symbolised by a human-headed lake from which papyrus plants grow. On the other side of the palette the same king goes in procession to view the decapitated bodies of his enemies. Behind him in both scenes walks his sandal-bearer, a man of great importance whose appearance reminds us of the humble origin of most high offices of state.

We know the name of the king whose victory is represented on this object because it recorded for us in the signs above his head. At the moment when Egypt becomes one country, writing is invented to help the king control the vastly increased resources now at his disposal. Yet it has another, perhaps even more important purpose: the signs have the power, not only to record events, but to make them happen, in other words to create an ideology.

Illustration: Ancient Egyptian Statue

Ancient Egyptian Statue

The serenity of this Egyptian official, shown cross-legged with a roll of papyrus across his lap, contrasts strongly with the energy of Ancient Greek statues. Placed within a tomb it was intended as substitute body for the soul of the dead, enabling the soul of the deceased to share in offerings of food and wine brought to the tomb by the living.

The earliest Egyptians had been buried out in the desert under simple mounds with the offerings laid at one end. The pyramids, huge as they are, represent no more than an elaboration of this simple concept.

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How did writing develop?

One of the mysteries about the Egyptian hieroglyphics is that they appear quite suddenly, leading some people to assume that the idea of writing was introduced from somewhere else, possibly Sumeria where a style of writing called cuneiform appeared at the same time. Actually the mystery is not very great. All that happened was that someone had the bright idea of putting together pictures representing objects with single syllable names (like 'bee', 'ewe' or 'tea' in English) so that they could spell longer words and ideas that weren't easily represented (like 'beauty').

NB the Ancient Egyptians never totally finished off this development. They kept a host of multi- syllable signs representing objects with longer names and continued using a mixture of these and the alphabetic signs (as in the name Tutankhamen).

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The nature of Egyptian civilisation

Much of what was characteristic of Ancient Egyptian civilisation is already present in the Narmer palette: a right way of doing things had now been established to which later generations would always try to return. This cosmic order which embraced gods and pharaohs, as well as ordinary people, was called ma'at. Infringements of ma'at would always result in disaster. Pharaohs could not succeed unless they ruled in accordance with maat; individuals could not hope for a happy life in this world or in the next unless they obeyed its code. What ma'at meant in practice we can see from the surviving monuments of Ancient Egypt. It was clearly the duty of the Pharaoh to build temples and ensure that the gods received the sacrifices on which their goodwill depended. It was to these projects that the most expensive materials and the greatest artistry was devoted. It was also the Pharaoh's duty to see that his subjects could go about their daily lives and enjoy the use of their property in peace and security. There were always chaotic forces in human nature as well as the universe which threatened to upset ma'at: thieves and robbers who threatened the community from within and enemy invaders who might attack it from without.

As the ultimate guarantor of ma'at (and in a sense its embodiment) Pharaoh's life was infinitely precious. It is not surprising that he was treated like a god: without such a powerful authority at its centre there was always a danger that the state might fall apart. As in life, so in death: the more successful the state became, the greater the importance of the divine human being who held it together. So far from representing the megalomania of an individual, the pyramids were wholly practical in their intention. United with the gods yet still present in regal splendour within his tomb, the dead king would form an eternal link between Heaven and Earth, guaranteeing the survival of ma'at. So the pyramids grew in size as the administrators, who were the chief beneficiaries of the unified state, grew in power. Within a few generations of Narmer the greatest monument of the pre-industrial world was being created: the Great Pyramid of Gizeh. Despite its huge size recent experiments suggest that 20,000 men could have completed the Great Pyramid in under twenty years. From graffiti in the pyramid's upper chambers we know that the gangs of labourers who dragged the stones to the site competed with one another to prove which was the fittest and strongest. As each stage in the construction of the great monument was completed, the entire labour force would have celebrated. Their very success demonstrated the correctness of the beliefs which inspired them.

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People and events

The pyramid age or Old Kingdom lasted from 2686 to 2181 BC. At the end of this period it seems that there was a long succession of low Niles. Reserves of food were used up and individual areas were forced to protect themselves against famine. For a brief period the unified state disappears, but not the concept. The idea survives to be re-created in reality when the return of prosperity once again makes it possible. The second period of unity (circa 2040 to 1782 BC) is known as the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom is seen by many scholars as the 'classic' phase of Egyptian civilisation. It was followed by a longer interval of confusion and foreign invasion, which only ended when the south once more conquered the north and the invaders were expelled. There followed the era known to Egyptologists as the New Kingdom (1570 - 1070 BC) when Egyptian armies fight in Syria and in Nubia, and Egypt becomes a great power competing for dominance of the region with peoples like the Hittites of Anatolia and the Babylonians of modern day Iraq. This is the time of Tutankhamen and Ramesses II, the builder of the cliff temple of Abu Simbel. Neither of these kings were buried in pyramids. Seeing how the all too obvious tombs of their predecessors had been robbed during periods of disorder, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom ordered their last resting places to be tunnelled into the sides of a remote valley across the Nile from their ancestral home in southern Egypt (today called Luxor). Here, in 1922, Howard Carter found the treasure which made Tutankhamen famous.

For three thousand years the Egyptian way of life continued almost unchanged. Reliefs cut into the walls of the very last temples to be built in Egypt (circa 200 AD) show similar scenes to those depicted on the Narmer Palette, though by then the 'king' was a Roman emperor ruling from far away. During all this time the elite went on being mummified and being buried with the possessions they would need in the next life. Scrolls placed in their coffins declared that they were innocent of any offence against ma'at, and were therefore entitled to enter the fields of the blessed, ruled over by the god Osiris. Painted on the surrounding walls were scenes of the kind of after-life they hoped to enjoy: pictures of a daily existence recreated in such a wealth of detail that no ancient people is better known to us. It is this apparent intimacy, this sharing of their thoughts through images, which makes the Egyptians so special.

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Apart from the richness of his burial very little is known about Tutankhamen. He lived at the end of the so-called Amarna period (1377-1350 BC), when a king calling himself Akhenaten came to the throne who suffered from some kind of mental disease, perhaps the result of in-breeding in the royal family. This king transferred the capital of Egypt to a new city (modern site called Tel-el-Amarna, hence the name of the period) and closed the temples of all Egypt's traditional gods, making himself and his 'father' Aten (the sun's disc) the only approved objects of worship. He also had his strange physique (wide hips, long neck and almost female breasts) realistically represented in statues and reliefs, giving images of him and his family a bizarre and unique character.

In the Bronze Age such conduct on the part of a king can only have been seen as profoundly unlucky, especially in Egypt where (despite Akhenaten's claims) it was clearly against ma'at. As Akhenaten's brother (some experts think his son) Tutankhamen followed him on the throne. He was only nine years old at his accession and the adults controlling affairs moved quickly to restore normality. The temples were re-opened and expeditions were sent to Syria and Palestine which lay within Egyptian 'sphere of influence' at this time. Whether Tutankhamen took part in these is unknown but in any case he died about the age of eighteen of unknown causes. Two still-born children were found in his tomb and many of the objects show his affection for his wife Ankhesenamen who was certainly Akhenaten's daughter. After Tutankhamen's death she seems to have invited the king of the Hittites to send one of his sons to be her husband, presumably to avoid marrying a commoner. However this plot was betrayed and the prince murdered. Tutankhamen meanwhile was buried in a four-room tomb much too small for his splendid burial equipment. Ankhesenamen's tomb has never been found.

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New alphabets for old

We can't easily translate Egyptian words into English a) because they didn't use vowels and b) because there are some Egyptian sounds which don't have exact equivalents in our alphabet eg ch, gh and the glottal stop '. However there are plenty of words in English which are not spelt the way they are spoken eg through, taught, these words remind us that the language we speak is a mixture - basically Saxon (Germanic) but with 'posh' Latin and Greek additions. Originally the gh sounds were pronounced and there are letters for them in the old Anglo-Saxon or Runic alphabet, but that wasn't the alphabet chosen by Alfred the Great when he authorised the keeping of a chronicle in English and himself translated the works of Roman authors; he chose the Latin alphabet, the alphabet of the church and civilisation. But Latin does not have letters for gh and ch and th, so the monks who did all the writing found the nearest equivalents. As we don't pronounce many of these sounds any more, its small wonder children have problems with spelling...

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The end of Ancient Egypt

Pharaonic art died out in the fourth century AD when pagan worship was banned throughout the Roman empire. Two centuries later the country was conquered by Muslim armies. Nevertheless the ordinary people went on living their ancestral life until the 1970's when the final completion of the Aswan High Dam brought the annual flooding of the Nile to an end.

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Other farming civilisations

The pattern of development followed in Ancient Egypt was parallelled in several other parts of the world where a combination of extreme fertility and good communications enabled 'super-communities' to arise. The best known of these were in Sumeria (southern Iraq), the Indus Valley (modern Pakistan) and in China. All of these cultures were based on cities, centres of religion and power where the elite chose to live. All of them kept written records, but whereas archaeologists can read Sumerian and Chinese writing, the signs used by the Indus Valley civilisation remain undeciphered. Nor have any scenes of warfare been found. This has led some scholars to conclude that the cities of the Indus Valley were 'democratic' communities, interested only in trade. This impression is contradicted by the presence of high walls and fortified gates and by the way the cities were carefully planned. The many features they share in common - including huge baths and elaborate sewage systems - suggest some powerful central authority as yet unknown. When deciphered the Indus system of writing may give us a very different picture of this apparently peaceful culture (compare the Maya).

Early China was certainly not peaceful. By around 2000 BC powerful kingdoms were emerging within the Yellow River region but it was too large for any single state to take control until the King of Qin declared himself first emperor - Shih Huang Ti - in 221 BC. Nevertheless, the tombs of the Shang dynasty (1700 - 1000 BC) near Anyang show striking similarities to those of the early kings of Egypt eg the sacrifice and burial of retainers to accompany the king in the afterlife.

Like China Sumeria lacked the natural defences that enabled Egypt to develop into a single unified state. At the time when Narmer was winning his final victory (circa 3000 BC) the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates was still divided amongst numerous independent cities, each with its own gods and temple-pyramid or ziggurat. According to the Bible one of the best known of these cities - Ur - was the home of Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people.

Around 2500 BC King Sargon of Akkad conquered the whole of Sumeria but this unity did not last long. Control of the region passed first to the kings of Babylon (circa 1800 BC), then the Hittites of Asia Minor (circa 1600 BC). It was back under Babylon around the time of Tutankhamen, then the Assyrians took over (circa 900 BC). A new empire based on Babylon followed (the era of Nebuchadnezzar) which was finally overthrown by the Persians under Cyrus the Great.

Due to a lack of stone for building and carving Sumerian art lacks the appeal and technical quality of the art of Ancient Egypt. However beautiful objects have been found in royal tombs at Ur. Here too, kings took their most treasured possessions with them to the grave, and not just these, but their wives, courtiers and servants also.

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