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Ancient Egypt: A predynastic battle scene on the handle of the knife of Gebel el Arak
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The Gebel el Arak knife
The Gebel el Arak knife
Source: University of Texas website

Late 4th millennium vase
Late 4th millennium vase
Source: Les merveilles du Louvre, Ed.Hachette


The Gebel el Arak knife

Depiction of a predynastic battle scene

Knife handle, Source: Black and white excerpt from a colour picture, 'Les merveilles du Louvre', Hachette

    This flint knife with a carved ivory handle was found near Denderah. It is one of the oldest examples of bas-relief carving. The whole knife is 25 cm, the handle about 10 cm long.

    It depicts two groups of ( or same) men fighting each other. Those with short cut hair attacking from the left are armed with clubs, maces and short bows, while the long haired group seem to be unarmed. This points to the attack being a raid against civilians. Apart from the hairlength there are few differences between the two groups: they all wear loincloths or penile sheaths, are barefoot and - as far as one can tell - beardless and have uncovered heads.
    The fallen seem to belong to the short haired attackers.

    Two different kinds of boats are shown. Those in the lower row have the crescent shape of Egyptian reed boats, while the flat keeled boats with the high prows and sterns look foreign; it has been suggested Mesopotamian. But there are Egyptian pictographs of such boats in both the eastern and western deserts as well as pictures on vases. The eastern desert rock-paintings pre-date similar Mesopotamian finds by generations.

    That there were contacts between Egypt and Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BCE is not doubted, but chances are slim that this battle scene depicts an incursion of Mesopotamians into Egypt as has been proposed by some: the garb worn by the fighters of either group is more similar to traditional African than Near Eastern attire.


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- Photo of the reverse side of the knife handle, showing Mesopotamian influence. Picture by Jon Bodsworth

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