The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt

By W. Stevenson Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
DYNASTIES I-II 3200-2780 B.C.1

THE kings of the First Dynasty achieved not only the military control of the whole country but developed a system of administration to govern it. This task, which depended upon the perfection of an irrigation system and the building and care of an elaborate network of dykes and canals necessary to make full use of the agricultural possibilities inherent in the annual inundation of the Nile, was facilitated by the use of the newly invented writing. At the same time that monumental architecture in brick was reaching the height of a development begun in Protodynastic times, the quarrymen had gained a considerable mastery of the cutting of large blocks of stone. This was evidently developed in the north, where throughout Egyptian history there was to be exploitation of the fine white limestone in the quarries of the eastern cliffs across the river from Memphis. In the early cemetery there at Helwan, large worked slabs of stone were used to line the burial chambers of some of the stairway tombs of the second half of Dynasty I.2 There is as yet less evidence for the use of worked stone in the much larger brick tombs which were being constructed on the western edge of the valley at Saqqara from the time of Aha, the second king of Dynasty I. However, at Saqqara large pits were for the first time excavated in the rock to contain the burial apartments. One of these in the reign of Zer, the third king of Dynasty I, had the central compartments lined with rough stone and roofed with stone slabs.3 These were not yet entered by a stairway, but this arrangement was introduced by the time of the fifth king, Wedymu, in the impressive substructure of another panelled brick tomb. The pit for the large central apartment was cut deep in the rock, and three side chambers were hollowed out of the rock. Large portcullis stones are preserved which blocked the door to one of these side rooms as well as the stairway, while two rectangular blocks may have formed part of the architraves to support the roof.4

Contemporaneously, granite slabs were being worked for the flooring of the burial chamber in the structure which Wedymu built in the old Thinite cemetery at Abydos. The ability to shape hard stone into vessels had reached such a point that the craftsman could turn out pieces like the curious schist bowl from the small tomb of Sabu at Saqqara (Plate 9A) of the time of Az-ib, Wedymu's successor.5 The vase-maker has played with the hard stone as though it were clay, turning in three-lipped pieces towards the central container and leaving the thin rim unsupported. This skill was to make possible the carving of raised reliefs in granite by the time of Khasekhemuwy, the last king of Dynasty II,6 in whose reign the Fifth-Dynasty Annals of the Palermo stone record the erection of a temple of stone. The technical competence displayed in the working of hard stone under Khasekhemuwy is hardly suggested by the few surviving examples of limestone reliefs, with the exception of the round-topped stela of King Zet (now called

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