Perception of Royalty

Ammar Zafar

In this exhibit, we will be exploring artifacts that pertain to the beginnings of royalty in both Egypt and Greece. Examining the Narmer Palette and the Mycenaean shaft graves will allow us to understand what these rulers meant to communicate through their burials.

Narmer Palette ca. 3100 BC (Image from StudyBlue)

This wonderfully detailed cosmetic palette was found in Hierakonopolis by James E. Quibell in 1894 (British Museum). Such palettes were used to grind cosmetics but this specific object is too large and ornate to have been used for this purpose. Since it was found as a grave good, we can examine it as having some ritual significance. This artifact dates from the beginning 1st Dynasty and has many different scenes, as is apparent from the picture on the right. One important piece is the naming convention for Narmer; the first syllable is represented as a catfish and continues a tradition of associating animals with kings (Wilkinson 25). This associates the king with the “dominant forces of the wild” and also connects him with the gods (Wilkinson 25). This notion of divine connection is extremely important to the Egyptian idea of kingship that was developing at this time. In order to solidify this new royal leadership, it was necessary to link the pharaoh with a larger tradition of worship and divinity; in accordance with this, later interpretations of Narmer’s name include Horus to tie him into this emerging tradition (Wilkinson 26).

Smiting Scene from Narmer Palette (Image from artofcounting.com)

Another important part of this piece is the ‘smiting scene’, pictured on the left. This is the first artistic example of xenophobia in a united Egypt, portraying a triumphant king striking down a defenseless Nubian (Wilkinson 29). If we think critically about the purpose of an object such as this palette, we can see that it is meant to convey very specific values about a king. It is meant as a piece of propaganda that shows the king as a divine ruler who smites the foreign enemies and unites all of Egypt.

The divinity of the ruler is by far the most important aspect of a royal Egyptian burial. Narmer is only the first in an incredibly long line of pharaohs, all of whom claim to be connected to an eternal tradition. Out of this develops a preoccupation with safely navigating the afterlife, a major theme in all Egyptian burials (as any viewer will observe from the other parts of this exhibit). The afterlife is strictly for royalty until the Middle Kingdom, when the dead are democratized and normal people have a chance as well. Propaganda is the other major piece of royal burials. Whether it is a cosmetic palette or a massive pyramid, the intention of these monuments and grave goods is to reinforce the supremacy of the ruling class with powerful imagery. The main purpose of the extravagant and divine imagery associated with the royal Egyptian dead is to solidify their position as rulers in life.

Death Mask of Agamemnon ca. 1550 – 1500 BC (Image from Wikimedia)

The Greeks do not have a long standing tradition of royalty like the Egyptians do. For this reason, there is far less evidence to draw upon in the later periods but there is some evidence from Grave Circle A at Mycenae. To provide historical context, this site is from the Middle Bronze Age of Greece which coincides with the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Arguably the most famous image from this site is that of the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’, pictured on the left. This gold mask was excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 and has been the subject of much debate ever since (Metropolitan Museum). There are arguments over the authenticity of the mask as it differs greatly from the other masks found with it and Schliemann is notorious for lying about some of his actions (Dickinson 299). Though this death mask likely did not actually belong to the Agamemnon of Homeric fame, it is indicative of the wealth of those buried in Grave Circle A.

The increasing wealth and care given to the bodies in the Mycenaean shaft graves is indicative of a ruling class since the very nature of the grave circle implies a distinction between these burials and normal burials (Graziadio 404-405). We already know that Mycenae had a ruling class and we can thus conclude that these tombs belong to that class. There are several key features here that show us how the early Greek ideas about royalty and class divisions were developing. One major one is the public assertion of family ties through reuse of graves, which is proof of the increasing importance of family ties (Graziadio 405). Another major feature is the increased amount of wealth found buried in the graves. There are funeral masks, gold jewelry, gold shrouds, ornate staffs and more (Graziadio 406). This display of wealth shows a desire to communicate one’s status through grave goods rather than through large temples. Mycenaean traditions do not continue in the context of a ruling class (since no such class exists for all of Greece) but instead lives on with the aristocracy. Aristocratic burials also tend to emphasize family ties and show of wealth in the form of grave goods. Though royalty does not continue to exist in the Egyptian sense, there is still an elite class that carries on these traditions.

At first glance, these two cultures do not have much in common in terms of perception of royalty because of the very different functions that the royalty served. Egyptian rulers were powerful singular figures that ruled through divine authority; for this reason, they chose to represent their social personas with extravagant temples and connections to a mythological tradition. The pharaoh had to control both Upper and Lower Egypt and thus had to appear very strong. This theme continues throughout Egyptian burial tradition. Elite Greek burials place more emphasis on family than the name of a singular person. This is due to the existence of an upper/ruling class rather than a monarchy like Egypt. The ruling class of Greece perpetuates itself through its reliance on family ties because these family ties lend them credence, similar to how divine right gives Egyptian pharaohs legitimacy. This is the connection between the social values projected by the royal dead in both Greece and Egypt: the desire to maintain the power of the rulers through burial practices.

The underlying theory of this exhibit is functionalism, as discussed earlier. Grave goods and mortuary complexes only represent what an individual wished to show about himself but functionalism allows us to extrapolate more from this. Through the functionalist lens, we can use physical evidence to infer social values by analyzing what these things were meant to represent. Misinterpretation is the biggest downfall of this view; for example, there is no way to know what the intention of the Narmer palette truly was or whether it represented societal views at all. Another theory that influences this exhibit is that of energy expenditure. This allows us to understand how socially important a person was by looking at how much energy was spent to bury them; this is useful when considering the ornate palaces and grave goods of the royal dead. Though we can never be entirely sure of what the rulers of the past wished to convey through their burials, we can illustrate a fairly clear picture through the archaeological evidence of this exhibit.

Bibliography:

  • British Museum. “Narmer Palette.” The British Museum. British Museum, n.d. Web.
  • Dickinson, Oliver. “The “Face of Agamemnon”” Hesperia 74.3 (2005): 299-308.JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/25067959>.
  • Graziadio, Giampaolo. “The Process of Social Stratification at Mycenae in the Shaft Grave Period: A Comparative Examination of the Evidence.” American Journal of Archaeology 95.3 (1991): 403-40. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/505489>.
  • Metropolitan Museum. “Reproduction of the Gold “Mask of Agamemnon”” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. Web.
  • Wilkinson, Toby. “What a King Is This: Narmer and the Concept of the Ruler.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 86 (2000): 23-32. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3822303>.