The Antiquity of Man

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Mike Brass. 2000. Palermo Stone

[Note: The information below comes from the opening presentation given by Dr Toby Wilkinson (University of Cambridge) at the international Egyptology conference held at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, December 2000]

On the same day as the start of the conference, the 15th, precisely a century before (15th December 1900) Sir Flinders Petrie was excavating at Abydos. Abydos is also known as the "Mother of Pots". He was uncovering early monuments that dated to 500 years before the pyramids. He excavated objects naming the early kings; these names remained undecipherable until after the Palermo Stone was published. The first publication on the Palermo Stone appeared in 1902 by Heinrich Schäfer. The Stone is 25cm high and, although no petrological studies have been done to determine the type of stone, it is probably basalt.

The Palermo Stone was not excavated by Petrie. The first fragment was "discovered" in 1895 by a French scholar who visited the Palermo museum and recognised its significance. Subsequent to 1903, three more fragments have been unveiled (the fragment from 1910 is in the Cairo museum): fragment one had been used at some point as a doorstop, with the bottom of its front and almost all of its back worn away; fragment 2 had also originally been purchased on the black antiquities market in Egypt. It has proved impossible to trace the original place origin of these fragments. However, a further fragment was excavated at Memphis. In 1914, Petrie purchased another fragment on the antiquity market which is preserved just on both sides; it now sits at University College London, to whome Petrie presented it. Then in 1963 an additionl fragment was brought through the antiquity market and is now in the Cairo Museum.

The Stone is divided in to two registers. The top register is subdivided into departments, bearing the names of kings. Although the names can be deciphered with a reasonable degree of accuracy, their exact meaning remains uncertain. The second register refers to specific years, events and the height of the annual Nile flood.

Over 13 major studies have been undertaken on the Palermo Stone. The most recent study is by Toby Wilkinson who, for the first time, brought together and examined all 7 fragments as a whole.

Is the Palermo Stone a historical document ? The cited evidence by Egyptologists in favour of this interpretation is that the kings' names are compiled in their archaeological attested form. this means that the author had access to the inner historical documents of the government machinery, which were surviving 1st Dynasty records.

The counter evidence is that the author could have taken the information from the ivory tablets from the earlier tombs. The author started with predicted events at the start of the year to name the year; this is a similar arrangement to that seen on the ivory tablets. This means that the Palermo Stone was a pre-planned political history emphasising political, social and economic control. What about the military victories recorded on the Stone ? The king's sacred duty was to protect Egypt, and the iconography reflects this.

There are errors on the fragments. Cairo fragment 1 names "Jer" as a 1st Dynasty king, with a cartouche. Cartouches did not exist in the 1st Dynasty (they came into being from the 3rd Dynasty onwards). The scribe is attributing to earlier kings what was common practice in the 5th Dynasty.

The Palermo Stone was there for display purposes registering an ancestor cult charting an unbroken line of succession. It personifies Ma'at and promotes a particular ideology: a way into the minds of the Ancient Egyptian elite and represents what was deemed important in that particular era, the 5th Dynasty.

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