|The Pitt Rivers Egyptian flint knife|
Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum
“...the finest examples of such work that are known from any country or age” (Petrie 1896, 50)
The caramel-coloured flint portion of the Pitt-Rivers knife is distinctive and is of a type known in the literature as a ‘ripple-flaked knife’. At the time of the knife’s purchase its date was unknown, but in 1894 the pioneering archaeologist W.M.F. Petrie came across identical examples of unhafted flint implements in situ amongst the grave assemblages of a vast cemetery at Naqada. Petrie and Pitt-Rivers had been acquainted since at least 1877, when Petrie is known to have presented his research on British earthworks to the Royal Archaeological Institute (see Drower 1985, 25). The two men subsequently had a chance encounter in the shadow of the Great Pyramid in February 1881 (Burleigh and Clutton Brock 1982) and were certainly in correspondence until the General's death in 1900. Pitt-Rivers sent Petrie a drawing of his knife in 1895,  which Petrie then included in his excavation report on Naqada alongside the knives he had discovered. Such knives, along with distinctive pottery and other grave goods were so unusual, so ‘wholly un-Egyptian’ (Petrie 1896, 8), in comparison to what was then known that Petrie believed that they belonged to a ‘New Race’ who had invaded Egypt at the end of the Old Kingdom. It was Petrie’s rival, the Frenchman Jacques De Morgan, who argued that these remains did in fact belong to prehistoric times. Petrie, although dismissive of de Morgan’s scholarship and field practices, accepted this and he set about using the assemblages he discovered at Naqada to give a sequential structure to this newly identified prehistoric era. The period became known as the Predynastic (c. 4500 BC – 3100 BC) and it saw the rise of social complexity in the Egyptian Nile Valley, which culminated in the emergence of one of the world’s first territorial states.
The chronological framework Petrie created for Predynastic Egypt using pottery remains broadly correct today and the sequence is now generally referred to using phases named after the site of Naqada. Within this sequence ripple-flaked knives appear in graves corresponding to phase Naqada IIC/D (roughly 3600 to 3350 BC); they are often considered to be one of the ‘signature’ artefacts of this part of the Predynastic period.
Many of ripple-flake knives found in graves show little evidence of wear on the edges. Some, however, were ritually ‘killed’ during funerals and laid carefully in burials in two halves, such the example from Gerzeh grave 25, now in the Pitt Rivers Museum (1911.33.1). Those that were not treated in this way may have been in circulation for several generations, with some being later reworked to accommodate decorated handles. Dating those with handles is more difficult as most of the known examples were purchased on the art-market (see below), as indeed the Pitt-Rivers knife was originally. All that is known is that Chester had bought the knife from a dealer who reported its find spot to be Sheikh Hamada, near Sohag in Upper Egypt. Recently excavated pieces, however, provide possible dates around 3300 BC. Dates around 3100 BC are also likely and some may even have been accessible within temples of the Old Kingdom (Wengrow 2006, 176).
“The artistic and technical masterpieces of Man's work in flaking stone” (Knowles 1953, 105)
The ivory handle of the Pitt-Rivers knife itself is badly damaged, but six rows of animals depicted marching towards the flint portion of the knife with their heads held high can be seen. On the face without the boss are figures carved in relief of elephants on serpents, storks, a possible heron, lions followed by a dog, short and long-horned cattle, and what may be jackals. On the other face an ibis can be seen as well as deer, hartebeests, oryx and barabary sheep (Churcher 1984, 167–8).
To this day the Pitt-Rivers knife handle remains a rare specimen and only a few other comparable decorated ivory knife handles are known: one in the Brooklyn Museum; two in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Carnarvon and Metropolitan handles); one fragment in Berlin; one in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology; one in the Louvre (the Gebel el-Arak knife); one in the Cairo Museum (Gebel el-Tarif knife) some fragments from Hierakonpolis now in the Ashmolean (Whitehouse 2002); and more recently seven pieces have been excavated at Abydos, in a cemetery of elite individuals, in Upper Egypt (Dreyer 1999). Of these, the Brooklyn, Gebel el-Arak and the Carnarvon handles all depict a similar arrangement of animals as is seen on the Pitt-Rivers knife.
The knives with carved handles are often referred to as ceremonial objects that, together with ceremonial palettes and mace-heads, have been extensively discussed by scholars examining Egyptian state formation and the development of Egyptian representation and ideology (e.g. Asselberghs 1961; Baines 1995, 109–21l; Cialowicz 2001, 166–207; Davis 1992; Millet 1990; Wengrow 2006, 176–95). The decorative composition of the pieces has, in particular, excited debate concerning the influence of Mesopotamia on early Egypt. Henri Frankfort (1924), for instance, argued that the arrangement of animals on the knife handles was Mesopotamian in origin, whilst others (e.g. Teissier 1987, 33) have noted that the elephants on snakes motif that can be seen on the Pitt-Rivers knife handle (and also seen on the Brooklyn and Carnarvon ivories) is also derived from Mesopotamian glyptic art. The knives are, however, a distinctly Egyptian phenomenon and thus these objects demonstrate how elites along the Nile Valley creatively appropriated foreign motifs to augment the representation of indigenous elite ideology.
The Pitt-Rivers knife was purchased in 1974 by the British Museum (EA 68512 / 1974,0723.2) and can be seen today on display in the British Museum’s Early Egypt gallery (room 64).