Carved around 3200 BCE, this unique record of a royal celebration at the dawn of the Egyptian dynastic period was found at a site discovered almost a half-century ago by Egyptologist Labib Habachi at Nag el-Hamdulab, on the West Bank of the Nile to the north of Aswan.
The site had been partially damaged in recent years, and the Yale-led team -- which also included Egyptologists from the University of Bologna, Italy and the Provinciale Hogeschool of Limburg, Belgium -- relied on Habachi's photos (now stored with the Epigraphic Survey in Luxor) and cutting-edge digital methodology to reconstruct and analyze the images and hieroglyphic text inscribed in several areas within the larger site.
According to Maria Carmela Gatto, director of the project, the group of images and the short inscription represent the earliest depiction of a royal Jubilee, complete with all the identifying elements of the Early Dynastic period known from later documents, such as the so-called Palermo Stone (Egyptian royal annals from the First through the Fifth Dynasties): an Egyptian ruler wearing a recognizable Egyptian crown, and an inscription alluding to "the Following of Horus," i.e., the royal court.
John Coleman Darnell, director of the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt, professor of Egyptology, and chair of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization Department, whose important discovery of a Middle Kingdom city in the Egyptian Western Desert was reported a year ago, says: "The Nag el-Hamdulab scenes are unique, and bridge the world of the ritual Predynastic Jubilee in which images of power -- predominately boats and animals -- are the chief elements, and the world of the royal pharaonic Jubilee, in which the image of the human ruler dominates the events. The Nag el-Hamdulab cycle of images reveal the emergence of the ruler as supreme human priest and incarnate manifestation of human and divine power.
Furthermore, he notes, "The Nag el-Hamdulab cycle is the last of the old nautical Jubilee cycles of the Predyanstic Period, and the first of the pharaonic cycles over which the king, wearing the regalia of kingship -- here the oldest form of the White Crown -- presides. The Nag el-Hamdulab cycle is also the first of such images with a hieroglyphic annotation."
Darnell translated the text, in which a reference to a vessel of the "Following" (from the "Following of Horus") leads him to speculate that the inscription is the earliest record of Egyptian tax collection and the first expression of royal economic control over Egypt and "perhaps at least some portion of northern Nubia."
Darnell, Stan Hendrickx of Belgium and Gatto date the Nag el-Hamdulab cycle of images to the late Naqada period, around 3200 BCE, the time between the beginning of Dynasty 0 and Narmer, first ruler of Dynasty 1. Darnell, who has considerable experience with early Egyptian rock inscriptions, said the latest finding from Nag el-Hamdulab is so important that it already figures in a new documentary series from Germany, which will soon be available worldwide.
The Aswan-Kom Ombo Archaeological Project -- AKAP -- is a joint venture between Yale and the University of Bologna, led by Gatto and Antonio Curci, with an international research team from Europe, America and Egypt that includes Hendrickx and Darnell. Now in its seventh season, the project aims to survey and rescue the archaeology of the region between Aswan and Kom Ombo, in the southern part of Upper Egypt.