How can we write history or mythology when all we have is archaeology?!?

In my last post I gathered the handful of Graeco-Roman literary references to Harpocrates, the Horus-the-child deity.

But now we must venture behind the ancient world, into an area which few of us know well – ancient Egypt – and try to find some primary sources for the original Harpocrates, whatever his Egyptian name.  This leads us into unfamiliar territory, for me at least, and straight into a methodological problem.

Greek and Roman history and culture are known to us mainly from literary sources.  These reach us, because they were preserved by copying down through the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, and then by printing.  The archaeology and inscriptions supplement and correct this picture.  For mythology, we have a number of ancient handbooks of ancient myth, like the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus, whose narrative we can use as a frame for archaeology and inscriptions.  We also have sculptures, often with a label engraved on them, which tell us what we are looking at.

With ancient Egypt, the situation is very different.  We don’t have any ancient Egyptian literature transmitted like that.  We don’t have handbooks of ancient Egyptian mythology from ancient Egypt.

Before the hieroglyphics were deciphered by Champollion, our knowledge was based on shreds of knowledge that had made their way into Greek sources, such as Manetho.  It was a wretched level of knowledge, as anyone who reads literature written before the time of Champollion will quickly see.

Even so, the list of dynasties of kings that we use today is still mainly derived from Manetho.  Even shreds of literary knowledge give us something that the raw archaeology does not.  It tends to give us context.

But our real hard knowledge of ancient Egypt comes from archaeology; and from the inscriptions written upon that archaeology, supplemented by such literature as has survived on papyrus.

There are in fact some dribbling bits of literary material, recovered from tombs or rubbish dumps and preserved by the marvellous climate of Egypt.  Indeed one ancient Egyptian legend even managed to survive by copying: by being translated and adapted into Coptic as the Legend of Hilaria, a female monk!  But the literary side seems very weak.

The result of this is that descriptions of primary material for ancient Egypt quickly turn into catalogues of objects and sites, and the various ways in which the same item is depicted at various dates.  We end up with catalogues of lumps of rock.

There’s nothing at all wrong with this.  This is all good solid hard archaeology.  What it tells us, it tells us for certain.  That said, we must never forget the maxim, drummed into archaeology students, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence:  That you didn’t find it when you were digging is not evidence that it doesn’t exist.

These lumps of rock are our primary sources.

But … it is very much harder than many people suppose to write history, or mythology, when all you have is lumps of rock.  Even if these have useful inscriptions like “This is Ra, the sun god” on them, this tells you very little about Ra, or how Egyptians thought about him, or his cult.  Archaeology is often inscrutable. Men need stories; or rather, narratives.

Some may doubt that history from rocks is rather awkward.  To such honest gentlemen, allow me to recommend a perusal of the early volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History.  Those excellent, careful volumes are based solidly on the archaeology of Sumer, Akkad, and other long gone ancient societies, known to us only from the shovel; and they are hard reading, and harder to digest.

So … how do we proceed?  How do we learn about the mythology of Harpocrates, as he actually was in ancient Egypt?

Well, we cannot work with the ancient data in the same way that we did for classical sources.  We are, perforce, obliged to rely on the publications of specialists.  But … this does not mean that we forget what we just read.  We must read intelligently, always asking ourselves, “On what piece of data is this based, or can it be based?”

For the problem with writing history with rocks, is that you have to fill the gaps somehow.  “Maybe” is a powerful word.  Imagination you will have to use, for imagination is your only way to connect the rocks together.  This is not wrong; but it can mislead.

One way in which 19th century writers tend to misread ancient Egyptian material is by thinking with their 19th century church-going Victorian hats on.  If a temple is a religious site, they reason, then maybe we can compare it to a 19th century church or chapel, in order to obtain some enlightenment.  If the inscriptions say that the temples own land and farms, is this perhaps analogous to medieval monastic farming, or priories?  In consequence, everywhere in older books on ancient Egypt, there are attempts to understand ancient Egypt as if it was like Christianity.

The authors must have known this was not likely to be so; but they worked with the tools that they had.

But in reality the term “religion” can blind, rather than illuminate.  In our own day, we are told that “all religions are the same”.  This is, of course, grotesquely untrue.[1] The consequences of our modern falsehood can be silly, or wicked; or merely amusing, as seen in the tax-efficient career of professional science fiction writer-turned-prophet, L. Ron Hubbard.

Failure to recognise this inevitably creates problems.  Some religions define their boundaries by their teaching.  Accept this and that, and you are in; reject it, and you are out.  So Christianity, and Islam.  But others define their boundaries by race, or a class, or a social group; if you are born one of us, you will always be one of us, and never mind what you think; if you are a foreigner, you will always be a dirty foreigner. So Hinduism.  And some which ought to be teaching-based insensibly slip into being class- or nation-based; so Ulster protestantism and catholicism.  Others again define their boundaries by what you do; do the rituals, and you are in; fail to do so, and you are out.

I once saw this point made as follows.

An ancient temple is not like a church.  If you worship the sun, your primary concern is that the sun comes up each morning, and that the drought does not kill everyone this year.  You carry out the rituals for a precise, practical purpose.  You are a priest: your job is to make sure that Ra comes over the horizon on schedule.  In a sense, you are like an engineer in a nuclear power station, rather than a preacher addressing a crowd.  Whether you believe in what you are doing is of no importance.  And obviously you don’t need a lot of space in which to do your deed.  You don’t need a load of peasants underfoot – you have work to do.

Now how accurate that view is, I cannot say.  But it does fit a lot of what we see, when we look at ancient temple monuments.  Obviously it involves a very different idea of “religion”.

We have to remember what we do not know; and look for evidence before we claim it.  And that may be hard to come by, when our evidence consists of rocks.  Let us not say, what we do not know.  Let us mark our speculation – which may be a very necessary way to tie the rocks together in some human-intelligible way – as being speculation.

None of this is intended as disparagement of archaeology.  It is a fine science.  Rather it is intended to highlight pitfalls into which we are certain to fall, unless we take steps to avoid them.  For us, the rocks are a means to an end.  The end is to learn about the myth of Harpocrates.

Enough, then, about the problems of archaeology as a source for mythology.  In my next post, I will see what I can determine, as best I can, about the ancient Egyptian Harpocrates.  It should be an interesting experience.

Seated figure of Harpocrates. Bronze, Egypt, Late Period, 664-323 BC. Brooklyn Museum 37.686E, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund. From here.
  1. [1]It is a distortion of a true observation, that all the sects of Christianity are much the same from a practical, legislative point of view.  The falsehood was to forget that this was not a statement about their nature, but only a pragmatic observation about their ability to function safely in the community.

14 thoughts on “How can we write history or mythology when all we have is archaeology?!?

  1. Hieroglyphic inscriptions and papyrus books can apparently get very long and wordy and informative. But I do not know as much about that side of Egyptology, because most of it is not easily available to non-specialists and is not in the public domain.

  2. Found a quote by a Richard Wilkinson, who notes that people don’t realize how much Egyptan art is “heavily influenced by, and on many occasions, made up of, hieroglyphic words and written signs.” Apparently Harpocrates s not the only example of a statue or drawing including a word as part of the iconography or symbolism!

  3. So there are rebus statues that depict Ramesses II while also depicting the sound signs for his name as sculptures, and there are literary visuals like a Hymn to Sobek using only words written in crocodile hieroglyphs. (Some texts deliberately are constructed to have different valid meanings when read in different directions.) Statues and paintings of Aten are actually depictions of the hieroglyph for the word light.

    I find this all very nifty. It was in an undergrad journal essay called “Art and Wrting in Ancient Egypt,” and at Concordia U’s — a place a lot less sketchy than!

    I wonder what else is hidden in plain sight in artwork. Or rather, what obvious features are not obvious to us?

  4. Looked up the Aten thing. His actual long name was Ra-Horakhty (Ra, Falcon/Horus of the Horizon). So the syllable hieroglyph for r is a Sun disk, and the hieroglyph for “Sun on the horizon” is a Sun disk with three little rays coming down from it. So yeah, the Aten pictures of the God are also spelling out his name. Pretty freaky.

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