Flint knife 1884.140.82

Flint knife from Kom Ombo, Egypt, 1884.140.82

Beth Asbury, Pitt Rivers Museum

Today, the flint knife, accession number 1884.140.82, lies in the bottom left corner of cabinet 81.A on the Lower Gallery. It is boldly labelled, ‘Flint Sacrificial Knife, found near Kom Ombos, Nile,’ possibly conjuring up images of messy ancient Egyptian human sacrifices in the minds of any children using the Clore Learning Balcony, where this case sits. It was on display in Bethnal Green and/or South Kensington Museum sometime before becoming part of the Museum’s founding collection because it is listed in Delivery Catalogue II, one of the two volumes compiled when the objects were packed for Oxford (Blackwood 1964: ii). It was presumably not displayed initially because it was later found, sometime before May 2001, when a note of what was written on it was added to the database, in the Flint Store with the flint ring, 1884.140.83.

The knife is 30.6 by 8.4 cm and has been dated by the Museum’s World Archaeology Researcher, Dr Alice Stevenson, to the Early Dynastic period of ancient Egypt (c. 2960-2649 BC [1]). This is based on its similarity to other examples from 1st Dynasty (c. 2960-2770 BC) tombs at Abydos, such as the one illustrated here [2], in Petrie (1925: Plate 6, Figure 1) and UC16205 in the Petrie Museum in London [3]. They are known as ‘comma-shaped’ knives (Graves-Brown 2010: 450-451, 534). There are 229 ancient Egyptian objects in the Museum’s founding collection, ranking it as the 17th out of 136 countries represented [4], but this knife is the only early period Egyptian object within that collection (Stevenson, pers. com.).

The knife is illustrated in Figure 14, Plate 33, of Pitt-Rivers’ important article, On the Discovery of Chert Implements in Stratified Gravel in the Nile Valley Near Thebes [5], a paper that he gave to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in June 1881 after a trip to Egypt earlier that year (Stevenson, no date). In it, Pitt-Rivers compares Egyptian flints to European ones from the Palaeolithic (Early Stone Age) period (1882: 384-385, 389) and describes his discovery of worked flints at deep, aged strata, not in tomb contexts or on the ground surface. His work was significant because the existence of a prehistoric Stone Age period in Egypt had not yet been accepted, even by prominent Egyptologists like Auguste Mariette, the head of the Antiquities Service there in 1858-1881 (Supreme Council of Antiquities, no date), who Pitt-Rivers mentions twice (1882: 384, 387). It was generally believed that flint tools were used in Egypt in conjunction with tomb building and mummification, and did not belong to any earlier phases of human activity in the area (Stevenson, no date).

Pitt-Rivers was one of the first people to study Predynastic period (c. 4000-2960 BC) flints (Graves-Brown 2010: 20). He had already learned how to knap flints himself and in his article he observes that the knapping of the flints he is able to study in situ in Egypt pointed in the opposite direction to where they were exposed, meaning that they were worked before they were deposited (1882: 389-390). He even makes sure he has a witness to back his observation (1882: 394-397). Although the exact date of the tombs nearby was unknown to Pitt-Rivers, the flints had to be very much older (1882: 390) (he discounts them having been buried at a later date and sinking down [1882: 392-3]) and in the Discussion at the end (1882: 399-400) he has accepted that they are Palaeolithic and therefore evidence of the prehistoric occupation of Egypt.

Pitt-Rivers also uses the article as a platform for a more general discussion of flint objects in Egypt, which is where his description and illustration of the flint knife comes in. The knife is the only ancient Egyptian object from this trip that he got from south of Luxor and one of the few that has its donor listed in the founding collection (Stevenson, no date). Pitt-Rivers specifically says in his paper that he acquired the knife from ‘Mr McCallum, the artist’ in 1874. I am certain that this is Andrew MacCallum (1821-1902), who in the same year accompanied Amelia Edwards on a trip in Egypt. Edwards published a book about her adventures on that trip called A Thousand Miles Up the Nile in 1877 and went on to found the Egypt Exploration Society in 1882 (Bierbrier 1995: 138, 265-266) [6]. In her book, Edwards refers to herself as ‘the Writer’ and to MacCallum as ‘the Painter’ (Rees 1998: 37-38). To add to the identity confusion he also uses the initials ‘A. M’C’ himself in a note he sends to Edwards and signs his surname ‘M’Callum’ in a letter to The Times newspaper, both reproduced in her book (2010: 481, 723).

MacCallum was born in Nottingham and became known as a landscape painter, patronised even by Queen Victoria (de G.S. 1879 [7], Bierbrier 1995: 265, Long 2004). He was commissioned to decorate the interior of the first lecture theatre of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) in 1857 (Long 2004), so presumably circulated in similar society to Pitt-Rivers. MacCallum was in Egypt at the same time as Edwards in order to paint a large picture of one of the famous New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BC) temples at Abu Simbel in the far south (Rees 1998: 38, Edwards 2010: 134) and, according to Rees (1998: 38), already knew Edwards. ‘Egypt by 1873 was already thoroughly opened-up tourist territory’ (Rees 1998: 37) and MacCallum had been to Egypt three times, bringing useful experience to Edwards’ boat party (Edwards 2010: 134).

Edwards (2010: 348-349) describes how MacCallum often enjoyed going off on an ‘afternoon excursion…striking off generally into the desert; looking for onyxes and carnelians among the pebbles that here and there strew the surface of the sand.’ He later became a known collector of antiquities (de G.S. 1879) and Edwards mentions one occasion during their trip where he haggles for a small stuffed crocodile (Edwards 2010: 529). His biggest discovery, however, was a shrine or painted chamber at Abu Simbel (Bierbrier 1995: 266), which Edwards (2010: 476-520) dedicates a whole chapter to. She (2010: 519) records how, ‘the Painter wrote his name and ours, with the date (February 16th, 1874), on a space of blank wall over the inside of the doorway…On arriving at Korosko, where there is a post-office, he also despatched a letter to the “Times,” briefly recording the facts here related.’

Knowing this background makes it very exciting when Edwards (2010: 578) describes how, ‘between Kom Ombo and Silsilis we lost our Painter. Not that he either strayed or was stolen, but that, having accomplished the main object of his journey [work on his painting], he was glad to seize the first opportunity of getting back quickly to Cairo.’ Although it could never be proven, as he could have bought it anywhere on the trip or even from outside of Egypt at another time, it would be lovely to think that it was at this point in Edwards’ story that MacCallum haggled for, or found for himself, the Kom Ombo knife that he subsequently gave to Pitt-Rivers. Pitt-Rivers seems to have been very proud of his acquisition, describing it as, ‘a remarkable specimen of a flint knife…As a specimen of flint chipping it is unequalled’ (1882: 386).

Flint ring, possibly a bracelet, from Qurna, Luxor, Egypt, 1884.140.83

Along with the knife, Pitt-Rivers illustrated two flint bracelets from MacCallum in Figures 7 and 8, Plate 31, of his article. He (1882: 385-386) calls them ‘remarkable objects...excellent workmanship…found in one of the tombs near Koorneh…unique, so far as I know’ [8]. One of these, 1884.140.83, appears to have also become part of the Museum’s founding collection as it has a matching label [9], although a letter to Pitt-Rivers from MacCallum in 1896 (Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum PR Papers L1635) mentions that he gave him three flint bangles and knives (in the plural). As an unknown number of objects were kept in Pitt-Rivers’ houses in London and Dorset, and were not sent to Oxford (Petch 1999), and some artefacts were also moved to Dorset from South Kensington Museum after most of the objects in the founding collection were transferred to Oxford (Petch 2009), perhaps that is what happened to these other items.

Despite his admiration for it, Pitt-Rivers appears not to have been sure of what the knife was originally made for. In his article (1882: 386) he firstly writes that, ‘it has probably been one of [those] used by the Egyptians in embalming the dead.’ However, he later (1882: 398) says it is, ‘supposed to be a sacrificial knife.’ It is very unlikely that either of these uses is correct though as evidence for human sacrifice in ancient Egypt is rare and controversial, and the evisceration (removal of internal organs) of mummies may not have been practised until much later than this knife dates to. Let us discuss human sacrifice first, however.

In Abydos during the 1st and 2nd Dynasties (c. 2960-2770 BC and c. 2750-2649 BC) funerary enclosures for rulers were surrounded by subsidiary burials of people, ‘retainers’ (Wilkinson 2000: 32), some of who are suspected to have been ‘killed to accompany their master’ (Spencer 1993: 71-72). Petrie (1925: 8), for example, published a number of burials of people he believed had been buried alive and cited some apparently hastily built walls of the retainer tombs of Qa’a (c. 2807-2800 BC) and Khasekhemwy (c. 2687-2676 BC) as evidence that their occupants had been interred at the same time as those kings’ funerals took place. Spencer (1993: 79) likewise argues that the skeletons of these subsidiary burials, for example, around the tomb of Aha (c. 2960-2926 BC), were all of young people up to 25 years old, and because of their uniform ages at death, probably too much of a coincidence to have died naturally. The numbers of these apparently sacrificial burials reached a peak with Djer and Djet (c. 2926-2880 BC and 2880-2873 BC), he says (1993:79), whose retainers even had stelae with their names on.

Flint knife from Abydos, Egypt (scale 1:2) (Petrie 1902: Plate 17, Figure 38). See note 11

Reisner (1936: 108, 116, 121) agrees that the subsidiary burials around the tombs of Semerkhet (c. 2807-2800 BC) and Qa’a (68 and 26, respectively) were of people buried alive or put to death, and calls such burials, sati-burials. His (1936: 108, 118) evidence is that these burials are ‘in such close contact with the main tomb that they seem to be part of it’ and even that they were ‘certainly under the superstructure of the main tomb,’ and therefore had to have been interred at the same time as those kings were. However, he (1936: 118) disagrees with Petrie’s evidence of the hastily built walls, arguing that even if the blocks of graves were made at the same time, the burials could still have been made one at a time later on. He (1936: 108, 116, 120-21) identifies four different types of subsidiary burial and, unlike Spencer, argues that those around the tombs of Djer and Djet (317 and 174, respectively) are not so clear and could be family burials laid out by the heads of those families or the king, although he does not discount the possibility that some were sati-burials.

Although our flint knife is of the Early Dynastic period and similar to others found from that time in Abydos, there is nothing to show that this specific knife, or type of knife, was connected to these deaths. The practice, if it did exist, seems to have been the ruler’s prerogative only, and it cannot be proven that the people buried with them were not volunteers or that they did not commit suicide (Wilkinson 2000: 31) after all. Arguments that the later ancient Egyptians were against murder, even by their sacrosanct king, is based on the character, Djedi’s, retorts to Cheops in the fourth story of the 13th Dynasty (c. 1803-1649 BC) text known as Papyrus Westcar, where it is implied that he should know better than to kill his subjects or treat them badly (Parkinson 1997: 112-116, 124: note 37, Parkinson 2002: 50).

As for whether the knife was used in mummification, it is true that despite the ancient Egyptians having copper and bronze tools, flint knives seem to have been the preferred choice, perhaps because of their extreme sharpness or the heavily ritualised and strong tradition behind the embalming procedure (Pitt Rivers 1882: 384, Brier 1996: 63). Sadly, the ancient Egyptians did not leave an explanation of the procedure themselves and the main written source is Herodotus (2. 85-90), supplemented by Diodorus (1. 91 and 19. 98-99) and a few other Classical authors, all of whom were writing a long time after the technique passed its peak [10]. Herodotus’ (2. 85-88) account says that after the initial mourning rituals, the embalmers showed the relatives wooden ‘sample corpses’ to help them decide which method they wanted. In the first method, the brain was taken out with a hook, the side of the body cut with an Ethiopian stone and viscera removed. Diodorus (1. 91) says the ‘scribe’ marked the place for the incision and the ‘slitter’ did the cutting, but was then chased away with stones for harming one of his ‘tribe.’

Porphyry (4. 10) says the dead person’s entrails were put in a box and held up to the sun, and is the only ancient source to mention the canopic chest (Brier 1996: 77). The oldest example of such a chest is that of Queen Hetepheres (Ikram 1998: 277, Peck 1998: 23) of the 4th Dynasty (c. 2575-2465 BC), much later than our flint knife. Before this clear evidence of evisceration being performed, not enough survives for anyone to be confident about what exactly was done with the body when a person died, other than that it was often wrapped with linen (Peck 1998: 23-24). At Hierakonpolis, for example, several burials of the Naqada IIB period (c. 3650-3300 BC), including two intact ones (B71 and B85), have been found with evidence for the partial wrapping of the body, especially the head and hands, with linen, but it is not clear if this was just to help keep the bones articulated or was a precursor for the more elaborate preservation techniques used later (Friedman 1999: 7). This also makes it difficult to say for certain then, that Pitt-Rivers’ flint knife was used in mummification.

Egyptology was still very much in its infancy in Pitt-Rivers’ time, so he can be forgiven for not knowing what the knife was for. We now know that flint and chert were used to make tools from the Lower Palaeolithic to Dynastic period in Egypt and that they are some of the finest examples produced in the world (Teeter 2011: 202). Some were produced by professionals for specialist jobs, like butchering and harvesting, and many others were ‘produced by ordinary people on the spot’ (Teeter 2011: 202). My first thoughts upon looking at our knife were that it appears to have no handle, and therefore impossible to hold and impractical, but perhaps this was because it was never made to be used and was instead a high status, not utilitarian, object for a high status person. Presumably great skill was needed to knap a curved flint blade, especially of this size, and these initial thoughts seem largely to be the case. Some flint artefacts, like fish-tail knives and ripple-flaked knives, were prestige items, and their development reflected the growth of a new social, and probably religious, elite at this time, who could control and consume the production of such things (Teeter 2011: 202, Hendrickx 2011: 93-94).

The function of ripple-flaked knives appears to have been ‘purely ceremonial’ and some may have been considered to have magical powers as they were found deliberately broken before being deposited in graves (Teeter 2011: 221). The finer examples of flint tools found in graves are often made of caramel-coloured flint, a bit like our knife is, perhaps chosen to imitate metal (Stevenson 2011: 72). Stone may also have been favoured because of the Egyptians’ awareness of its durability, making it a particularly suitable material to make grave goods with (Graves-Brown 2010: 125). Stone knives appeared in Early Dynastic graves into the Middle Kingdom (c. 2030-1802 BC) (Graves-Brown 2010: 125) and a tomb scene at Beni Hasan shows curved blades, not dissimilar to our flint knife, still being manufactured during that period (Teeter 2011: 202).

Despite appearances, our flint knife may actually have had a handle. An example of a comma-shaped knife from a 1st Dynasty tomb at Abusir el-Meleq had a wooden haft (Graves-Brown 2010: 450-451) and a fish-tail knife of the Naqada I-IIA period found recently at Hierakonpolis shows they could have been hafted with reeds and leather (Teeter 2011: 219). Other organic materials, which would also be less likely to survive, like ivory or bone, could have been used as well (Teeter 2011: 220). Lastly, these knives may have been made because people liked the way they looked too:

‘Although the relevance of the aesthetic aspect is difficult to evaluate for the Predynastic mind, it nevertheless is to be accepted as an aspect of craft specialisation, if only because of the high technical skills required to produce these objects’ (Hendrickx 2011: 94).

Having established that the knife is very unlikely to have been connected to human sacrifice or mummification, the label so neatly handwritten across its middle is unfortunately misleading. However, as with other objects in the collection, the labels, even outdated ones, are important to the Museum. As the introductory guide book discusses, old labels are retained, ‘for the glimpses they offer into the mindset of the first Museum staff, as well as into the history of anthropology…if we changed them it would change the feel of the whole Museum…[and] it is not feasible to change all the out-of-date names’ (Pitt Rivers Museum 2009: 15). I am pleased to have contributed to what is now known of this attractive object though and have found myself a new Egyptology hero in Andrew MacCallum to take an interest in.

I owe many thanks to Dr Alice Stevenson, World Archaeology Researcher at the Pitt Rivers Museum, for kindly providing me with a copy of Pitt-Rivers’ article on chert in Egypt, Caroline Graves-Brown’s thesis, bringing my attention to the UC16205 knife in the Petrie Museum and the finds at Hierakonpolis, and for lots of other helpful suggestions and recommendations. Thanks also go to Dr Joanna Kyffin at the Egypt Exploration Society for her permission to reproduce the line drawing of the knife found by Petrie at Abydos. 

[1] The chronology used is that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as of August 2010.
[2] This knife was found in the Osiris Temenos at Abydos and although Petrie (1902: 11) does not provide a specific date for it, he does illustrate it with other flint knives without handles belonging to the first half of the 1st Dynasty, and later dates the identical one mentioned, also from Abydos, to the 1st Dynasty (Petrie 1925: 6 and Plate 6, Figure 1).
[3] Search for UC16205 here.
[4] See the statistics here.
[5] Flint is a form of chert, see here.
[6] Edwards even wrote to Pitt-Rivers (L563) looking for financial support for the Society (originally called the Egypt Exploration Fund) in 1888 (Stevenson, no date).
[7] I would have been really pleased if the author of this article had been the Egyptologist, Anna (Nina) de Garis Davies, and the ‘s’ of these initials to have been a typo. Although the QWERTY keyboard was invented in 1868 (Computer Hope 2012), Nina de Garis Davies was not born until 1881 (Bierbrier 1995: 117), two years after this article was written.
[8] Petrie (1902: 16) later found a grave at Abydos, M14, containing eight flint bracelets, but did not publish any illustrations of them in his field report.
[9] A bow (1884.15.106) and spear (1884.19.160) collected by MacCallum in Sudan were also acquired by Pitt-Rivers, and an Egyptian tablet and set of canopic jars of his made their way to the British Museum in London (Bierbrier 1995: 265-266).
[10] The mummification process is further discussed on my object biography of Canopic Jars 1884.57.13 - .17.1 and 1884.67.28.
[11] Figure 3 is courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

Further Reading
Bierbrier, M.I. 1995. Who Was Who in Egyptology (third edition), Egypt Exploration Society: London.
Blackwood, B.M. 1964. Handlist to Subject Index, Pitt Rivers Museum: unpublished.
Brier, B. 1996. Egyptian Mummies: Unravelling the Secrets of an Ancient Art, O’Mara: London.
Computer Hope 2012. Available at: www.computerhope.com/jargon/q/qwerty.htm (accessed on 5 April 2012).
de G.S., A. 1879. ‘Andrew M’Callum,’ The New York Times, April 13, 1879. Online edition: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F20B1FF9395A137B93C1A8178FD85F4D8784F9.
Diodorus of Sicily, Book 1, translated by C.H. Oldfather, 1933. Loeb Classical Library, Heinemann: London.
Edwards, A. 2010. A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Friedman, R. Maish, A., Fahmy, A.G., Darnell, J.C. and Johnson, E.D. 1999. ‘Preliminary Report on the Fieldwork at Hierakonpolis: 1996-1998,’ Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 36, 1-35.
Graves-Brown, C.A. 2010. The Ideological Significance of Flint in Dynastic Egypt (Volume 1), unpublished PhD thesis, University College London: London.
Hendrickx, S. 2011. ‘Iconography of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods,’ in Teeter, E. (ed.), Before the Pyramids, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Chicago.
Herodotus, The Histories, translated by R. Waterfield 1998, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Ikram, S. and Dodson, A. 1998. The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, Thames and Hudson: London.
Long, B.S. 2004. ‘MacCallum, Andrew (1821-1902),’ rev. Mary Guyatt, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press: Oxford. Online edition, May 2006: www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34675.
Parkinson, R.B. 1997. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems: 1940-1640 BC, Clarendon Press: Oxford.
Parkinson, R.B. 2002. Poetry and Culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: A Dark Side to Perfection, Continuum: London.
Peck, W.H. 1998. ‘Mummies of Ancient Egypt,’ in Cockburn, A., Cockburn, E. and Reyman, T.A. (eds.), Mummies, Disease and Ancient Cultures, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 15-37.
Petch, A. 1999. ‘Cataloguing the PRM founding Collection,’ Journal of Museum Ethnography 11, 95-104. Online here.
Petch, A. 2009. Founding Collection Introduction
Petrie, W.M.F. 1902. Abydos: Part I, Egypt Exploration Fund: London.
Petrie, F. 1925. Tombs of the Courtiers and Oxyrhynkhos, British School of Archaeology in Egypt, University College London: London.
Pitt Rivers, A. 1882. ‘On the Discovery of Chert Implements in Stratified Gravel in the Nile Valley Near Thebes,’ Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 11, 382-400. Online: www.jstor.org/stable/2841765.
Pitt Rivers Museum 2009. Pitt Rivers Museum: An Introduction, University of Oxford: Oxford.
Porphyry, De L’Abstinence, translated by M. Patillon and A. Segonds 1995, Les Belles Lettres: Paris.
Rees, J. 1998. Amelia Edwards: Traveller, Novelist and Egyptologist, Rubicon: London.
Reisner, G.A. 1936. The Development of the Egyptian Tomb Down to the Accession of Cheops, Harvard University Press: Cambridge.
Spencer, A.J. 1993. Early Egypt: The Rise of Civilisation in the Nile Valley, British Museum Press: London.
Stevenson, A. (no date). Pitt-Rivers and Egypt, online here.
Stevenson, A. 2011. ‘Material Culture of the Predynastic Period,’ in Teeter, E. (ed.), Before the Pyramids, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Chicago.
Supreme Council of Antiquities (no date). A Brief History of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA): 1858 to present. Available at: www.sca-egypt.org/eng/sca_history.htm (accessed on 6 April 2012).
Teeter, E. 2011. Before the Pyramids, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Chicago.
Wilkinson, T.A.H. 2000. ‘What a King is This: Narmer and the Concept of the Ruler,’ Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 86, 23-32.

May 2012.

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