by Elaine A. Evans, Curator/Adjunct Assistant Professor, McClung Museum, University of Tennessee
In 1994 the McClung Museum received two rare clay jar sealing fragments used on pottery jars. One is impressed with a Royal name of a king (Sealing 1) and one with the name of a high governmental official (Sealing 2). Both date to Dynasty I, circa 3200-2980 BC.
As the inscribed material found contemporary with them is meager, the importance of sealings cannot be underestimated. What is known about the system of produce storage in terms of governmental organization of the Early Dynastic Period has been greatly aided by the study of inscribed seals and other types of labels. The idea of capping a container and impressing the cap with a seal in an attempt to discourage thieves was an early development. Seals proved essential, as attested by their use throughout Egyptian history well into the Roman period.
The intent of this study is to establish what the newly acquired sealings can tell us about this early period, how they were made, their significance, and their provenance.
King Djer And Chancellor Hemaka
Sealing 1 measures 12.5 cm long x 9 cm wide x 5.5 cm high, and bears in relief the name of King Djer, or Zer-Ta (Figure 1).
Djer ruled a few decades after the unification of the two kingdoms of Egypt under one ruler. The chronological order of the first kings has been questioned, but Menes, or Narmer, is generally credited with initiating one central government, a momentous occurrence at the threshold of the historic period, and establishing a form of rule that lasted to the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great. In any event, Djer became the third king of Dynasty I, and reigned for about 50 years.
Sealing 2 measures 12 cm long x 7 cm wide x 4.5 cm high, and is impressed with the name of the great noble, Chancellor Hemaka, who held the highest official position under King Den, or Den-Setui (Figure 2).
King Den reigned possibly for 45 years as the fifth ruler of Dynasty I. The two kings were related—Djer was the grandfather of Den. Their long reigns seem to indicate that the throne was passed down from father to son, as has been documented for later periods.
This period at the dawn of pharaonic rule in the Nile Valley was marked by progress and great advancement, as is evident from the production of such objects as fine pottery, stone dishes, stelae, and in the architectural sophistication of the temples and tombs. Almost life-size statues of wood date to Djer’s reign, indicating that the arts were doing well. Under Den, the arts and crafts flourished, as did a well organized state. It was in this environment that Hemaka in his post as chancellor wielded his influence and no doubt made important contributions.
The titles of King Djer and Chancellor Hemaka (Note 1) on the Museum sealings reflect the establishment of a nation state and suggest the movement of goods under the royal seal of guarantee, verifying a structured governmental system already in place at the earliest part of the dynastic period. Part of these official operations included administrative business transactions, such as keeping track of the volume of sales and revenue by inventories, the dating and labeling of goods, and official jurisdiction over them. As an official seal of approval, sealings required a watchful bureaucracy under an all-powerful king. Therefore, in most governmental departments and in the religious bureaucracy, particular persons were chosen as “sealers.” Important officials were given titles such as “Divine Sealer” or “Sealer of the God.” One such official, whose responsibilities included the seal, was Chancellor Hemaka. In the tomb of Den at Abydos, for example, sealings were found with the name of “the royal seal-bearer, Hemaka.” Also, numerous jar sealings from Saqqara have Hemaka’s name in conjunction with the name of the same king.
The royal name of Djer, or Zer-Ta, on Sealing 1 is carried by three partial impressions of his serekh, placed next to each other in horizontal alignment along the top of one side with seven serekhs just below (Figure 1). The serekh was an emblem symbolizing the king as the god Horus, a very early falcon-god associated with the sun-god Re. It is composed of the facade paneling of a mastaba surmounted by a falcon, usually with a space for the king’s Horus name in hieroglyphs. This implies that the very first rulers of Egypt were considered divine, an idea expressed by their Horus-names. Djer was not the first king to use this device. It was favored for the names of all the kings of the Early Dynastic Period. The sign can be seen on a limestone mace-head found at Hierakonpolis belonging to a predecessor, King Narmer, who is believed the first to use it for his Horus name.
At Abydos in 1900, the eminent Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie found sealings impressed with the serekh of Djer (Note 2), which parallel Sealing 1. Also, in a mastaba at Giza, Petrie uncovered a narrow, blue glazed pottery bracelet belonging to the king, with 13 plaques of building facades, each surmounted by a falcon. He found a similar bracelet at Abydos, composed of turquoise and gold plaques. These present another form of the serekh associated with this king. They may have been among gifts given by the king to officials to honor their service and to maintain loyalty.
Sealing 2 shows balanced groupings of hieroglyphs (Figure 2). Their individual meanings are as follows:
|=||The name of the owner as Hemaka|
|=||The title “Administrator of a District”|
|=||An honorary title, “Director Who is in the Midst”|
|=||A place name (unknown), encircled by the usual
ovoid-shaped ring. On some other sealings the
place name is encircled by a scalloped or
crenellated frame, suggesting a walled enclosure.
In 1936, Walter B. Emery uncovered in a mastaba magazine at Saqqara several hundred red-ware wine jars with conical mud caps, with the names of Den and Hemaka impressed on their sealings and a few with only the name of Hemaka (Note 3). Some other pottery had flat-topped circular mud sealings, with only the name of Hemaka. This burial site was originally believed to have belonged to Hemaka, but more recently it has been identified as the northern tomb or cenotaph of King Den. However, at Abydos, Petrie found a number of sealings in which the arrangement of the glyphs closely parallel Sealing 2.
As in the making of sun-dried bricks, the base material used was Nile alluvium, or Nile mud. The properties of the mud and the shape of the sealings differ. Both sealings were simply formed; there are no signs of their having been made by a mold. Rather, the moist mud was shaped by hand, impressed, and the unbaked clay left in place on a jar to harden.
Sealing 1 is compact, slightly friable, contains fibrous strands, or vascular bundles (i.e., veins) from what appears to be a leaf tissue from a grass (Note 4), shell, sand grains, scattered traces of copper-bearing mineral grains, and a strand of brown hair imbedded at one end of the stamped side. In addition to quartz and mineral grains in the mud, there are areas of the underside interior grooves relatively free of mud, which probably washed away. Clusters of quartz and mineral grains held together by an unknown binder are visible. The color of the mud is closest to a pale yellowish-gray. The top surface of the roughly oval-shaped sealing is rounded and slightly pitched, creating two planes, uneven and worn smooth in areas. The rough underside has several long narrow shallow depressions made by narrow flat striated material, suggesting a fibrous plant had been placed on the jar mouth and the superimposed sealing caught the impressions. Often reed stoppers were used should anything break away from the sealing into the container.
Sealing 2 is more friable and less indurated than Sealing 1. Although it also contains organic fibers and sand grains similar to Sealing 1, there are more shell fragments and less vitreous quartz than Sealing 2, these less angular and more rounded than in Sealing 1. This shows the sealing clays to be different. However, the mud may have been gathered from the same location at another time or at a different location in the river or along its banks. The color of Sealing 2 is a pale pinkish-gray. The sealing is somewhat oval-shaped, with three sides broken away. Some of the edges of the impressions on the flat top surface are worn, and only one and about a half of the two impressions of Hemaka’s name are preserved. The underside is gnarled and uneven. There is evidence of a protective coating having been applied in the recent past. (Note 5)
The earliest implement for impressing royal titles on clay was a carved cylinder seal, a device already being used for jar sealings in Egypt in proto-Dynastic times and was being replaced by the scarab seal of the Middle Kingdom in Dynasty XII, 1991-1778 BC. Usually made of stone, the carved inscription on the cylinder was impressed into the moist clay as it rolled over it. Although such early seals to safeguard jars do not reflect any outside design influences, the idea of the cylinder seal was introduced to Egypt from Mesopotamia.
The mud sealing fragments continue to increase our knowledge of this dim period of political, technological, and creative changes that took place in the Early Dynastic Period.
Sealings safeguarded jar contents, deterring theft, particularly when being transported great distances. They also provided immediate identification to be understood by the servant classes. These functions call to mind a sealing process with little alteration that lasted throughout ancient Egyptian history.
The sealings may be considered significant in another respect as well—that is, their relation to the powerful impact the introduction of hieroglyphic writing had in advancing Egyptian culture. They date to the period when the first forms of writing were already established and “signs were already fully developed and differentiated” (Note 6).
The sealing of Djer presents a standard example of its type, and the sealing of Chancellor Hemaka clearly illustrates an advancement in clarity and composition from earlier writing forms. As Petrie pointed out, “It is not till the time of Den that a general coarse uniformity of style was fixed upon….” (Note 7) Also noted by Petrie was that “…the decorative quality of the seal was clearly a matter of first importance.” (Note 8) These compositional changes led to the eventual perfection of the glyphs found in seals of the Old Kingdom, 2780-2280 BC, or classical period. Centuries later that writing came closer to the “printing” process, when a colored substance was rubbed on a cylinder seal and rolled onto papyrus.
As to the provenance of the new acquisitions, the parallels that have been discussed certainly suggest Abydos in Upper Egypt, a site of possible early political and religious dominance. As has been indicated, sealings from Abydos compare to Sealing 2 and, in the case of Sealing 1, many objects associated with King Djer were uncovered at the same site. Also to be considered is the modern paper label pasted on the underside of each sealing. Sealing 1 has the name Zer-Ta written on its label, and on Sealing 2 is the name Den-Setui. The names were attached by a knowledgeable person who acquired the sealings in Egypt. However, these sealings would still need to be compared with excavated sealings from the site and analyzed through spectrographic and trace element analysis to pinpoint the region for the type of clay used. Although the mud could have come from a variety of locations, it was no doubt conveniently collected locally where the jars were being sealed. The results of such analysis would verify the provenance. Although the identity of the contents they sealed is still uncertain, it probably was wine, at least in the case of Sealing 2. We might suppose similar vineyards were producing wine, as were those belonging to a successor of Den, King Hetepnebwyyemef of Dynasty II. It is more than likely the Museum sealings were once part of the wine jars stored in magazines for funerary use at Abydos.
- I would like to extend my gratitude to Henry G. Fischer for his helpful suggestions and for his identification of the names of Djer and Hemaka on the sealings.
- The plant particles were examined through the courtesy of Gary D. Crites, Director, Ethnobotany Laboratory, McClung Museum, to whom I extend my thanks. Some of the fibers have evidence of being processed to better control the mud from cracking as it dried. Chaff (tibn) was often added to mud for this reason.
- W. M. Flinders Petrie: The Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty, Part II. London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1901, page 22; Plate XV, pages 105–106.
- Walter B. Emery: The Tomb of Hemaka. Cairo: Service des antiquités de l’Égypt, 1938, page 49ff.
- I wish to thank Otto C. Kopp, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for his kind assistance in examining the muds and providing his observations.
- Alan H. Gardiner: “Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing” in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (JEA), Volume II, 1915, pages 62-63.
- W. M. Flinders Petrie: The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties, Part II. London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1901, page 31.
- Petrie: The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties, II, page 52.
Select Web Resources
- Abydos, Egypt, Wikipedia
- Earliest Egyptian Glyphs by Larkin Mitchell, Archaeology, Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999