Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Science File

The Real Scorpion King

Archeological finds may push back the first known use of writing and rewrite the history of Egyptian civilization.

April 15, 2002|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The upcoming movie "The Scorpion King" is fiction, but recent archeological studies indicate there really was a King Scorpion in ancient Egypt and that he played a crucial role in uniting the country and building it into the world's first empire.

A depiction recently discovered in the Egyptian desert of the Scorpion King's victory in battle against the forces of chaos may be the oldest historical document ever found, some archeologists believe.

New discoveries in his tomb suggest that the first writing--one of the most important developments of civilization--may have occurred during his reign.

Moreover, his tomb in the desert at Abydos may be the rudimentary blueprint upon which subsequent rulers based their own designs, making it a crucial forerunner of the Great Pyramids at Giza.

In short, King Scorpion was one of the fathers of Egyptian civilization.

Great achievements for a man who for nearly 5,000 years was thought to be mythical.

Egypt Was Divided Into Two Kingdoms

King Scorpion dates from a time when Egypt was composed of two separate kingdoms. Upper Egypt surrounded the upper portion of the Nile; Lower Egypt stretched from just south of what is now Cairo northward to the Mediterranean Sea.

For millenniums, all the way back to the ancient Egyptian historian Manetho and the lists of kings found in Egyptian temples, the first true ruler of Egypt--the founder of the First Dynasty of pharaohs--has been listed as King Menes. It was Menes who was thought to have unified Upper and Lower Egypt.

But in 1898, excavations at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt revealed sacred objects dating back to the very beginnings of Egyptian civilization.

The most important of those objects was the so-called Narmer Palette, which depicted a king not mentioned in Egyptian histories.

This King Narmer--a name meaning "striking catfish"--was depicted wearing both the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt, suggesting it was he who had unified the two lands.

Some scholars believe that Narmer and Menes were the same person. Others claim Narmer was Menes' immediate predecessor and that his name was not included on the lists for reasons that are not yet known.

The argument has yet to be settled.

Mace Is Oldest Ever Discovered in Egypt

Also found in the 1898 excavations was a mace, the traditional symbol of kings.

The mace--the oldest ever found in Egypt--portrays a man wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, accompanied by the symbols for king and scorpion. In the absence of any supporting evidence, however, most archeologists had believed that this King Scorpion was a mythical figure.

One hundred years later, however, Gunter Dreyer of the German Archeological Institute discovered a tomb buried in the sands near Abydos, the Egyptian necropolis, or city of the dead, that he is confident is King Scorpion's.

The 12-room tomb is constructed of mud bricks and appears to be a downsized replica of Scorpion's palace.

Although the tomb had been pillaged and the mummy stolen, Dreyer found an ivory scepter, a clear indication that it was a royal tomb. Carbon-14 dating showed that the scepter dates from about 3250 BC, making it the oldest scepter found in Egypt.

One room in the tomb was filled with pottery shards, apparently from jars used to hold wine and other valuables for the afterlife. Inscribed on each of the jars in ink was the symbol of a scorpion.

Tags Could Be First Known Writing

Dreyer's most controversial find in the tomb was a series of 160 bone and ivory tags the size of postage stamps carved with simple pictures that Dreyer believes are primitive hieroglyphs.

If they are, in fact, writing, they predate the commonly accepted origin of cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia by 200 years.

"This totally refutes the accepted theory of the origin of writing," Dreyer said.

Renee Friedman of the British Museum speculates that King Scorpion ordered the development of writing to record the payment of taxes to the royal treasury.

Many of the tags, Dreyer says, are documentary records of linen and oil delivered to King Scorpion, short notes, numbers, lists of kings' names and names of institutions.

More recently, Yale University archeologist John Darnell and his wife Deborah have discovered a primitive scene carved on rocks near the Qena Bend of the Nile River that appears to commemorate a victory by King Scorpion, who already ruled the kingdoms of Abydos and Hierakonpolis, over the kingdom of Naqada--a city that worshipped Set, the god of chaos.

Carving May Signify an Early Unification

Darnell believes it is the oldest known historical document, and that it signifies the unification of Upper Egypt 150 years before Narmer unified the entire country.

Conquest of Naqada gave King Scorpion control not only of the Nile, but of crucial roads leading east to the Red Sea and west to the oases of the western desert.

The so-called Scorpion Tableau shows a figure wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, identified as King Scorpion, wielding a mace over a wild-haired captive next to a bull's head mounted on a stick.

"We are not sure how it is pronounced yet, but that symbol represents the name of Naqada's king," Darnell said.

Next to the figures is the image of a stork devouring a snake.

The stork represents Horus, the patron god of Abydos, while the snake is Set, the patron god of Naqada. This symbol later evolved into a common hieroglyphic symbolizing victory.

Before Dynasty One,There Was Dynasty Zero

"Before Dynasty One began with the unification of Egypt, there was a Dynasty Zero that began with the unification of the south," Darnell said.

"We knew it happened, but we didn't know how.

"Now, the discoveries about King Scorpion are giving us a handle on what really did happen," he said.

A documentary about the search for the Scorpion King will appear on the History Channel at 9 p.m. April 23.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|