Second Intermediate Period

By Stephanie Boonstra

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Figure 1: Pay-day for the crew of workmen at Balabish. This archive image shows head excavator, Gerald Avery Wainwright, seated behind a desk while the workers await payment while holding their excavation tools.

The Second Intermediate Period of Egypt was a time of disunity, fragmentation, and war in Egypt and remains one of its most obscure periods. Regional variation and a strong foreign presence and influence are especially visible in the diverse material culture, and particularly burial customs, during this period. The exact start date of the Second Intermediate Period is widely debated; however, the period generally covers the time from the end of the Twelfth Dynasty (after the pharaoh Amenemhat III) until the reign of king Ahmose. During the 13th Dynasty a major shift occurred when the capital of Egypt moved from Itj-tawy in the Memphis-Fayum region to the south at Thebes. The political history of this period is complex and incomplete with many of the names and details of kings missing from the archaeological and historical record, but it is known that the centralized power of Egypt faltered and the country fragmented. A line of kings (the 14-15th Dynasties) from the Levant (modern Israel/Palestine) called the Hyksos ruled from the Nile Delta. Little is known about these kings due to a dearth of texts relating to them but excavations in the Delta continue to illuminate this group. Their burials and material culture were a distinct Levantine-Egyptian hybrid of features, with scarabs being the amulet of choice.

In the south, native Egyptian kings ruled from Thebes (16-17th Dynasties). The material culture of these Egyptians also differed greatly from those of the Middle Kingdom Egyptians. Notably, a completely different shape of coffin was introduced, changing from the rectangular box-shape of the Old and Middle Kingdom to an anthropoid shape.

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Figure 2: Pan-grave burial from Wainwright’s excavations at Balabish. The body is in a contracted position with only one pot in the burial, a standard burial for this cemetery.​

It is thought that the Theban Egyptians employed Nubians as mercenaries during the Second Intermediate Period and many burials, believed to be of these semi-nomadic Nubians, have been discovered in southern Egypt. Sir W.M. Flinders Petrie discovered these peculiar graves while excavating at Abadiyeh and Hu at the end of the 1800s. The graves tended to be shallow, oval pits (although deeper pits were found by Gerald A. Wainwright at Balabish in the 1920s) that contained one body in a contracted position (a position not seen in Egyptian burials since the predynastic period!) usually with only sparse burial goods. These goods, if present, tended to only be vessels and shell or bead jewellery. Occasionally, painted animal skulls and reused objects from previous periods were also found in the assemblage. The Nubians’ relatively low status is visible in these burials, called pan-graves by archaeologists. What made these burials so unique according to Petrie was the bizarre pottery found within, which Petrie called ‘barbaric’. These graves have been linked to the Nubians because they were only found in the south of Egypt and they closely resembled burials excavated in Nubia (modern northern Sudan).

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Figure 3: Left, one of over a hundred painted animal skulls from the pan-grave cemetery Hu. Right, a selection of pan-grave bowls excavated at Hu, Cemetery X. These bowls are entirely different from Egyptian pottery of the period and Petrie considered this form to be ‘barbaric’.

This period of fragmentation and foreign influence came to a halt when Theban king Ahmose expelled the Hyksos kings from the north of Egypt and ushered in the start of the New Kingdom, a period of imperialism, monumental building, and great power.

Further Reading:

Petrie, W.M.F., 1901. Diospolis Parva: The Cemeteries of Abadiyeh and Hu 1898-9. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.

Ryholt, K.S.B., 1997. The Political Situation in Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period c. 1880-1550 B.C. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Wainwright, G.A., 1920. Balabish. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.

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