Den’s Shen in the BM. The first known : from 2,950 B.C.

So here’s a new post to keep some blog momentum up, following the excitement of the conference last week and the publication of my latest article (1) related to the shen and the encircling protection of the pharaoh by the falcon god Horus. (The post with the relevant textual proof of concept is  here. Check it out if you haven’t seen PT534 before).

I don’t have any particular bee in my bonnet this week to write about to be honest, as I’m winding down after the CREXIII conference, at the end of a verrrry long term and for the Easter holiday, so I thought I would just pick out at random a shen related image from my files and post it and write about it.

So, quite aptly, the first image I found in my shen files was Den’s Shen, the first ever shen known. It comes from the pharaoh Den’s Early Dynastic royal tomb excavated by Flinders Petrie at Abydos. Abydos is in Upper Egypt, about 40 miles north of Luxor. The cluster of royal tombs there are about 1km into the western desert, away from the Nile valley. Abydos is the ancient burial ground of the earliest pharaohs of all Egypt.

The earliest shen ring known in Egyptian iconography. From an ivory tag discovered by Flinders Petrie at the tomb of Den, Abydos.

Petrie found this ivory tag or fragment of a small ivory box lid in Den’s tomb there, and as it carries the king’s name we can date it to the middle of the First Dynasty,  about 2,950 B.C. Already we can see that the full form of the shen, with a circular loop and little tied ropes at the base, is shown, alongside a patterned box with the pharaoh’s name inside known as a ‘serekh’. In the First Dynasty and later on, the king’s name was contained inside this ‘palace facade’ decorated rectangle that was used  to signify and protect the king’s name, long before the cartouche came into use at the end of the Third Dynasty. The cartouche is of course an extended shen ring, so it is possible that the shen here already represented the same encircling royal protection that the cartouche did later on. The lines on the serekh represent the characteristic niched walls of the palaces and mastaba tombs of the nobles and royals at the time. People would have recognized this as a royal motif and would have recognized the king’s name by it, even if they couldn’t read it. On top of the serekh, as was usual, is the falcon god Horus, protector of the king and emblem of the king’s original center of power, the town of Hierakonpolis, about 40 miles south of Luxor. Although his body has broken off we can still see his characteristic legs and claws on top.

Also here we can see the hieroglyph for gold on the right center ‘nub’. It looks like a basket with a cloth draped over it, and it may refer to an item of king’s gold or to the nearby town of Nubt, the town of gold, as it was close to the gold mines in the eastern desert.  The ureaus snake above was another symbol of protection for the pharaoh and of the sun god Ra. It has other meanings as well so it is difficult to interpret exactly what it meant in this context. All in all this is some sort of tag or fragment of a small box lid with many significant symbols related to the pharaoh and protection and gold. Den’s shen. The first ever.

Here is a link to the British Museum catalogue for this item museum number E35552. The description incorrectly refers to the shen as meaning ‘eternity’. The meaning of the shen is in fact closer to ‘enduring royal encircling protection’, or eternal royal encircling protection. The entry is also incorrect as it states that the arrangement on this tag was influenced by similar glyphs at the Step Pyramid, whereas of course the Third Dynasty step pyramid of Djoser was built long after this tag or lid was made.

1.
Lightbody, D.
2012 The Encircling Protection of Horus in Proceedings of the XIIth Annual Current Researches in Egyptology Conference, University of Durham, Oxford: Oxbow

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