By Matei T. Tichindelean, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles
Date: Naqada IB-IC, ca. 3900-3600 BCE
Provenance: Abydos, Umm el-Qaab Cemetery, Tomb U-380
Material: Fired Clay
Current Location: Egyptian Museum, Cairo, JE 99582
The C-ware, or white cross-lined ware vessel sheds light on aspects of ancient Egyptian society and provides us with a unique opportunity to study the interaction between people and the environment. It was Egyptologist Flinders Petrie who was among the first to produce a seriation (or dating sequence) of early Egyptian pottery. Petrie attributed this particular type of pottery to the Naqada I period (ca. 4000-3500 BCE). He described the vessel made of white cross-lined pottery as having a reddish-brown or dark red surface that is usually decorated with white-colored geometric features. Occasionally, this decoration combines geometric patterns with depictions of the Nile environment or surrounding desert. Geographically, white cross-lined pottery is restricted to Upper Egypt, especially around the region of Abydos and Naqada.
Found in 1993 in a tomb designated as U-380 in Umm el-Qaab Cemetery U at Abydos, this vessel rested in a prominent position next to the deceased individual’s right shoulder. The individual, who was laid to rest wrapped in mats, boasted a collection of fine pottery allowing archaeologists to date the tomb to the Naqada IB-IC period (ca. 3900-3600 BCE).
This vessel is usually interpreted as depicting a representation of the Nile valley. Vertically down the face of this particular white cross-lined vessel is a checkered rectangle thought to represent the Nile river. At the bottom, three hippopotami are depicted in a row: two facing right, and one facing left. A fourth hippopotamus is located perpendicularly to the left-facing hippo, almost as if he is standing along the abstract river feature. In regard to the decision-making of the craftsperson involved in the manufacture of this vessel, this depiction of the Nile river is of special interest. The top portion of this feature is divided into three vertical lines of smaller rectangles. However, about a quarter of the way down the vessel, the maker changed to a pattern of only two vertical lines of slightly larger rectangles. It is unclear whether this was a deliberate decision, or the craftsperson simply realized that the body of the vessel was not wide enough to continue with this pattern. Another interpretation could be that the maker intends to symbolically suggest the more dissected nature of the Nile Delta in the north (top of vessel) with more vertical divisions compared to the more linear nature of the river in the main valley area in the south (lower portion of the vessel).
On either side of the abstract river, there are three sets of zigzags depicted, most likely meant to represent the mountains and wadis abutting the river valley. On the obverse side of the river, almost as if standing in opposition, are five crocodiles. In order to represent the rough scales of the reptile, the craftsperson chose to etch a zigzag or chevron pattern on their backs.
Dangerous animals such as hippopotami and crocodiles are often represented on white cross-lined ware. Hippos are, in fact, the most popular wild animal to be represented on this type of ware. During the Naqada I period, hippo-shaped figurines, palettes, and vessels are often associated with qualities like fierceness and strength. Nonetheless, it is difficult to provide conclusive arguments in regard to what the décor of this dominant pottery type was trying to convey. It seems that given the comparanda and later iconographic motifs, the decoration conveys the notion of “control over chaos.” This theory proposes that representations of wild or mythical animals, which are often depicted lined up in a procession, are meant to symbolically portray a leader’s power over the unpredictability and peril of nature. In later periods, these themes and motifs observed on decorated pottery become an integral part of the institution of kingship.