- The Gebel-Arak Knife -

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The 25.5 centimetre high knife of Gebel-Arak was purchased in the Middle Egyptian town of Gebel-Arak in 1894 and sold to the Louvre Museum in 1914. Its exact provenance is not known, but it is likely that it came from the vicinity of Gebel-Arak.

Dated to the Naqada II Period (between 3500 and 3100 BC), predating the Early Dynastic Period by several generations, it is one of the oldest prehistoric artefact of ancient Egypt, with some elements already in the typical ancient Egyptian style.

The knife itself is made of flint. One of its sides has been smoothed, the other has been worked on to have parallel running grooves. It does not appear to have been used much, which is taken as an indication that the knife had a ritual or symbolic purpose.

The 9 centimetre high knife handle is made of ivory, coming from a hippopotamus' tusks. Both sides are decorated with images in raised relief. It is principally these images that have interested historians ever since the knife was discovered.

One side is decorated with a battlefield scene. It is already in a style that can be recognised as Ancient Egyptian. In the two upper registers, groups of men are shown fighting each other. The fact that some of the warriors are bald and others are not has lead to the belief that the bald ones represent another ethnic group. In the lower registers, several boats are represented, one of which takes up almost the entire width of the handle. Between the boats, cadavers are lying on the ground or floating in the water. The battle appears to have gone bad for the people with shaven heads, for all cadavers are bald-headed.


The two sides of the Gebel-Arak knife.


Close-up on the decoration on both sides of the knife's handle. The presence of a typically Sumerian scene, a man separating two lions, seen in the image to the right, suggests some cultural influence of Sumer on Prehistoric Egypt.


The other side of the knife handle is decorated with hunting scenes. A man is shown wrestling with two lions. Both this theme and the way the man is represented are Sumerian in nature. The remaining part of this side of the handle is decorated with animals, some of which are hunting and devouring others. The latter theme would remain popular on palettes until the Early Dynastic Period.

The presence of the Sumerian-looking man holding two lions has, in combination with the battlefield scenes on the other side, caused many historians to speculate about a Sumerian conquest of Egypt or part of it during the Predynastic period. The same theme, but somewhat less elaborated, has also been found in a tomb of approximately the same period at Hierakonpolis, in the South of Egypt. This could imply that the Sumerian influence stretched far to the South of Egypt. There is, however, no archaeological evidence that would support a Sumerian invasion of Egypt, as has sometimes been proposed.

Alternatively, the scenes on the knife handle can be interpreted as being related to the knife's function: warfare and hunting. The battlefield scene can refer to a real battle, but it can also be of a more ritual nature, where the vanquished enemies are just enemies in general. The presence of a theme of Sumerian origin is likely to be the result of some cultural influence, as even at this early stage of its development, Egypt had direct or indirect contact with the cultures surrounding it.

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