Scorpion King (2/8)

The historical documentary series continues. This episode explores the legacy of the Scorpion King, an Egyptian ruler who predated the pharaohs.

Recent developments, such as the excavation of the king’s tomb, have revealed surprising new details about early Egyptian civilisation.

In southern Egypt in 1898, a British archaeologist named James Quibell discovered an ancient Egyptian macehead depicting a king by the name of ‘Scorpion’. The artefact, a ceremonial type of club, was dated to 200 years before the first dynasty of pharaohs. “The Scorpion mace head radically changed people’s perceptions,” says Dr Reńe Friedman. “It took them back to a time for which they have no texts.”

Little further evidence of the Scorpion King’s life was found until a few years ago, when Professor James Darnell discovered a set of rock carvings in the desert. Darnell believes these images depict the king’s success in unifying the rival cities of Upper Egypt. The carvings shed further light on the predynastic era, also known as ‘Dynasty 0’, and establish the Scorpion King as a key figure in the foundation of Egyptian civilisation.

If King Scorpion unified Upper Egypt, it is widely believed that his successor, King Narmer, united the whole country. This theory is based on a stone tablet dubbed ‘the first historical document in the world’, which depicts Narmer wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. Darnell believes that the macehead was created by Narmer to honour his “spiritual and political predecessor”, Scorpion – the man who paved the way to Egypt’s unification.

But the most remarkable breakthrough of all came when Professor G̈nther Dreyer of the German Archaeological Institute stumbled across the Scorpion King’s tomb in the middle of the desert.

Excavations revealed a 12-room structure filled with pottery stamped with the ‘Scorpion’ symbol. An ivory sceptre proved that this was the burial place of a king. Archaeologists believe the tomb was a prototype for later burial chambers. The stone mound that covered the site eventually developed into the step-like structure of the pyramids. “Without this period, we would not see the great volumes of
pyramids and tombs in the Valley of the Kings,” says Egyptologist Zahi Hawass. But the greatest surprise was the discovery inside the tomb of small ivory tags carved with hieroglyphics, which pre-date known forms of writing by at least 200 years.

Professor Dreyer believes these hieroglyphs are phonetic symbols that correspond to place names in Ancient Egypt. This appears to be prove that writing first developed in Egypt, rather than in Mesopotamia as previously thought. “We don’t know about events or persons without writing,” says Dreyer. “From King Scorpion’s tomb, we regained 250 years of the history of mankind.”

These revelations have shattered long-held notions about the rise of Egyptian civilisation – which was once thought to have been started by outsiders from Mesopotamia. It is now clear that this ancient society developed in North Africa over many hundreds of years. Moreover, recent excavations have uncovered evidence of thriving cities that pre-date even the Scorpion King.

Renée Friedman has found the ruins of a settlement dating back 700 years before the first pharaohs, where the remains of breweries, bakeries and potteries are visible. “No one had expected this kind of advanced civilisation at this period,” she says. There is even evidence that these pre-dynastic Egyptians built giant wooden burial chambers that were precursors of the pyramids. If this is the case, then the Scorpion King is an important link between two lost worlds.

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