The Earliest Representations of Royal Power in Egypt: The Rock Drawings of Nag El-Hamdulab (Aswan)

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Sometime during the early 1890s, Archibald H. Sayce (1845-1933) made a sketch copy of a rock drawing at Gharb Aswan (Upper Egypt) that was subsequently included in a catalogue of inscriptions between Aswan and Kom Ombo published by de Morgan et al. (1894: 203) (Figure 1). At that moment, hardly anything was known about the earliest history of Egypt, and the Early Dynastic royal necropolis at Abydos would only be discovered a few years later. Famous documents such as the Narmer palette or the Scorpion mace head, both found at Hierakonpolis in 1898, had not yet been excavated. Consequently, Sayce had no documentation at his disposal that would have allowed him to recognise the early date of the scene, and he may not even have been aware that what he had copied was actually a very early royal representation. The brief description and rudimentary drawing of but a portion of the overall imagery at the site remained unnoticed for over a century until, in 2008, Nabil Swelim made available to one of the authors a photograph of a rock drawing (Figure 2), said to be from near Aswan (Hendrickx et al. 2009b). The photograph came from the unpublished documentation of the late Labib Habachi (1906-1984, see Kamil 2007), and a search of his archive kept at Chicago House in Luxor at the end of 2009 revealed a series of related photographs. Meanwhile, Maria C. Gatto had rediscovered the site itself (Hendrickx & Gatto 2009), thereby revealing that Sayce's imperfect hand copy did not concern a single rock art scene, but was rather an excerpt from one of a number of scenes located at short distances from each other. More recently, while working in the local ancient quarries, the QuarryScapes project encountered some of those drawings (Storemyr 2009). The ensemble of the site, presented here for the first time, makes up the most important iconographic source for the period of state formation in Egypt.


The rediscovered and newly discovered rock art sites that form the Nag el-Hamdulab ensemble are located on the rocks confining a sandy plain west of the village of Nag el-Hamdulab, on the west bank of the Nile, about 6km north of Aswan (Figure 3). Unfortunately, several inscription areas at the site have been heavily damaged during the last decades. At present, seven sites, most of them consisting of more than one tableau, are known at short distances from each other (Figure 4). Important portions of the lost or damaged tableaux--but unfortunately not all of the lost and damaged elements--may be reconstructed on the basis of photographic documentation from the Labib Habachi Archive. Stylistic and technical peculiarities suggest that all the main tableaux with human figures are the work of only one or two hands. All representations are pecked with a pointed implement; the contour lines of the individual representations are clearly delineated but a number of them were more elaborately worked by pecking the interior surface to achieve a flat, sunken surface (Figure 2).





The rock inscriptions at Nag el-Hamdulab comprise a series of discrete vignettes that represent elements of an overall cycle of images involving hunting, warfare, nautical festival events, and the regalia of political authority. An anonymous king wearing the White Crown appears in three tableaux and defines the context for all the discrete portions of the overall site.


Before discussing individual tableaux, a consideration of the chronological position of the Nag el-Hamdulab rock art is fundamental for understanding the ensemble, and has already received some discussion (Hendrickx & Gatto 2009; Hendrickx et al. in press). The royal scene at site 7 (Figure 2) shows several similarities to the Scorpion mace head (Oxford AM E.3632), the Narmer mace head (Oxford AM E. …