By Siobhan Shinn
The First Intermediate Period is usually described as one of Egypt’s “dark ages” because Egypt lacked centralized control and a stable economy. It is usually considered to have spanned from 2160-2055 BC and incorporate dynasties seven to the first half of eleven. Many of these dynasties overlap and are believed to represent the families of different regional rulers. For example, dynasties nine and ten are undefined by specific rulers but are considered to have had their seat of power in Middle Egypt at Herakleopolis, while the 11th Dynasty reigned from Thebes in the south. It was the ruler Nebhepetra Mentuhotep II from the second half of the 11th Dynasty at Thebes who eventually re-united Egypt and began the Middle Kingdom.
A number of changes in artistic and architectural design occurred during the First Intermediate Period that define it as a time of localized power and regional style. These changes are reflected by the evolution in the size, plan and decoration of mastabas from the site of Dendereh in Upper Egypt. The First Intermediate Period cemetery of Dendereh was first investigated by Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie, and his wife Hilda in 1898 on behalf of The Egypt Exploration Fund.
Figure 1: Hilda Petrie, nee Urlin, dug with her husband Sir W. M. F. Petrie at the site of Dendereh. She was to accompany him on many future excavations and play an important role in his archaeological investigations. In this photo, she descends into a tomb at Dendereh during the 1898 field season.
Although little known, this excavation is one of the earliest undertaken by the Egyptian Exploration Fund, and yielded a great many fascinating results. Concerning the mastabas, Petrie was able to distinguish a two-stage evolution in tomb size, decoration and style that, in his opinion, reflected a trend of First Intermediate Period towns all over Egypt. Originally small, intricately carved and well designed, these mastabas developed, over the course of the First Intermediate Period into larger, less delicately decorated burials.
Figure 2: This relief from a First Intermediate Period tomb at Dendereh exemplifies the degradation of hieroglyphic form associated with the intermediate periods. Instead of being expertly carved in neat rows of small print, these hieroglyphs are clumsily engraved in a floating mass of uneven characters.
A good example of this is in the stylistic evolution of the hieroglyphs found decorating the mastabas at Dendereh. The skillful execution of hieroglyphic writing by professionally trained scribes devolved into cruder appearing signs by untrained carvers. Scholars have often seen this as a direct reflection of the local ruler’s inability to control and organize resources due to the lack of centralized power. Petrie, and others, have speculated this devolution in mastaba style happened because there was a lack of centralized control that negatively impacted national workshop production and product distribution. He even notes that with the ascendancy of Mentuhotep II and the reunification of Egypt, mastabas once again become smaller and more delicately made.
Figure 3: This stela, also from Dendereh, is from an earlier time in the First Intermediate Period provides stylistic comparison with figure 2.
Petrie, W.M.F. 1900. Dendereh1898. London: The Egypt Exploration Fund.