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Women, Weaponry and Warfare in Ancient Egypt – R.Dean (2013)

Women, Weaponry and Warfare in Ancient Egypt:

A Brief Examination of Available Evidence 

Rebecca Dean

BA MA University of York

4th year PhD Student University of York

The subject of women involved in warfare in ancient Egypt is one that has been little-studied within the discipline of Egyptian archaeology in the past.  It is particularly noticeable that many previous works covering Egyptian warfare fail to make any mention of women in a military context.  Recent doctoral work by the author has endeavoured to remedy this state of affairs.[1]

With regard to the subject of ancient Egyptian women involved in warfare, it is worth scrutinising some of the female pharaohs, such as Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Tawosret, given the apparently warrior-like sensibilities of some of these female monarchs.  If such women could hold positions of political power, it is possible that some women may also have held positions of military power, or at least had some involvement in warfare.  It could certainly be argued that it is not a coincidence that one of the most important deities in ancient Egyptian religion was Sekhmet, the lioness goddess of warfare.  One of the earlier Egyptian goddesses, Neith, was also a deity of warfare and hunting, and was even represented by a symbol comprised of two arrows crossing a shield.[2]

There was a great emphasis in ancient Egyptian society on balance and duality within the universe.  One key example of this is the female deity Ma’at, who was the “symbol of cosmic order”, and was in charge of maintaining order and stopping chaos from taking over.[3]  Ma’at is a deity who personifies “truth, justice and the essential harmony of the universe”.[4]  Ma’at was key in judging the pharaoh in the afterlife; she “laid down the rules by which each king must govern”,[5] and the pharaohs’ were believed to rule through her authority.[6]

If a female deity held so much power in the ancient Egyptian belief system, it is possible to postulate that this could, at times, filter down into the society.  There is certainly evidence for female pharaohs and women who had some association with warfare.  Evidence for the involvement of ancient Egyptian women with warfare and/or weaponry comes from a range of artistic portrayals, textual sources, and artefactual sources, such as burial goods.  Some examples of these sources will be discussed below.

Firstly, it is worth examining evidence from female burials that contained weaponry.  In this instance, the involvement of women with weaponry, and therefore potentially with warfare, dates back to Predynastic Egypt.  Burials such as grave 1488 at Naqada revealed that women could be buried with functional weapons.  Petrie and Quibell state that the occupant of burial 1488 was definitely female, and that it contained two mace-heads: one piriform (pear-shaped) mace-head of alabaster and one conical (discoid) mace-head of syenite.[7]  In Petrie and Quibell’s work, there is no suggestion that either weapon was a votive object.  Similarly, a Predynastic Naqada burial, grave 1401, contained the body of an adult female accompanied by three stone mace-heads and a flint knife.[8]  It could well be that these maces were only votive objects, but it should also be considered that they could be functional weapons.  The potential for the functionality of these styles of mace-head were demonstrated by experimental archaeology carried out at the University of York in 2009, where replica Predynastic maces were used to strike pig heads in order to test the effectiveness of the mace as a weapon.[9]

At the same site as grave 1401 was yet another female weapons burial, grave 1417.  This grave is very interesting, as the grave goods not only included a painted limestone conical mace-head, but also several flint knives.[10] The burial also included an ivory comb, a bone comb, a bird top and a Hathor-head top,[11] which, along with the decorated limestone mace-head could potentially suggest that this burial was that of a high-status individual in the Predynastic Naqada society.[12]

Moving forward to examples from Dynastic Egypt, there is a particularly interesting 12th Dynasty Middle Kingdom burial at the site of Lisht: the burial of Senebtisi.  This burial contained an array of weaponry, which included an alabaster piriform mace with a gold-mounted shaft, a conical rock crystal mace-head,[13] and a several other weapons “to serve as talismans protecting her against the supernatural”.[14]  This refers to the ceremonial, non-combat staves that were found in the burial, but there was also present a dagger that appears to not be ceremonial, complete with a wooden sheath, and partially overlaid with gold foil.[15]  This dagger could potentially have been used as a functional weapon, but this theory has yet to be tested archaeologically.[16]  Hayes admits that it would have been possible for the alabaster mace to also have been actively used as a weapon,[17] but again this is a theory that requires testing through the use of experimental archaeology.

Remaining in the 12th Dynasty, an internment within the pyramid of Amenemhat III contained the remains of two middle-aged queens from Amenemhat III’s reign.  The queens were buried with granite and alabaster mace-heads.[18]  Again, these mace-heads could possibly have been used as functional weapons, a theory that could be tested in future research.[19]

In examining the involvement of ancient Egyptian women in warfare, one of the most important examples is that of Queen Ahhotep.  Queen Ahhotep was a highly significant figure in the events of the late 17th Dynasty-early 18th Dynasty, when some parts of Egypt were fighting the Hyksos rulers of the Second Intermediate Period.  Ahhotep’s burial provides some crucial evidence.  The queen’s burial goods included three daggers and thirteen axes[20] bearing both the names of Ahhotep’s sons, Ahmose I and his elder brother Kamose (Fig. 1).[21]

Some burial goods of Queen Ahhotep (Maspero 1901, 137)

Fig. 1. Some burial goods of Queen Ahhotep (Maspero 1901, 137)

Although these weapons, which also included a javelin head and an archer’s brace, could potentially be votive instruments, they were discovered along with some other objects that emphasise “the military character of the burial deposit associated with Queen Ahhotep”.[22]  These were three golden ‘Flies of Valour’ military decorations which were only awarded to someone who personally excelled in battle.[23]  A textual reference to Ahhotep’s military prowess will be discussed below.

A slightly different type of burial evidence for an ancient Egyptian woman being involved with a potentially military role comes from the Sixth Dynasty necropolis of Teti at Saqqara.[24]  At this site was the burial of the lady Merinebti.[25]  This lady also held several interesting titles, including ‘acquaintance of the king’ and ‘tenant landholder’.[26]  The ‘tenant landholder’ was usually responsible for the provisioning of the palace or temple.[27]  More recently, however, this title (ntj-š), which is traditionally translated as ‘tenant’, has been re-translated as ‘employee’ or ‘attendant’.[28]  Kanawati points out that this title is usually held by those who are described as providing protection for the king, and when portrayed they are carrying batons.[29]  Kanawati maintains that the tasks carried out by the ntj-š “clearly have no relationship to the work of a land tenant; they are those of a guard or specifically a bodyguard”.[30]  In the case of Merinebti, the term ntj-š does not have the feminine determinative t, with the hieroglyphic text simply translating as ‘guard’.[31]  Kanawati therefore determines that the title held by Merinebti was ‘female guard’.[32]

Unfortunately, the exact duties and responsibilities of any female holders of the title ntj-š are unclear.  Kanawati suggests that any women holding this title may well have served in some of the more restricted areas of the royal harem.[33]  Although there is no disputing the existence of this title, there is a surprising lack of evidence for any other examples, or for what exactly the role entailed.[34]  The example of Merinebti is particularly interesting as generally ‘guards’ would not be permitted to have their own individual tombs.[35]  The implication therefore is that Merinebti must have held a position of some power in order to have been granted her own tomb in a royal cemetery.[36]  There is no evidence with this example to suggest that Merinebti took part in combat or any other military endeavours, but the fact that she was granted what could be seen as a military title is significant within the subject addressed in this work.

Moving on to artistic evidence for ancient Egyptian woman utilising weaponry, or being involved in combat, one of the most fascinating examples of epigraphic evidence for this comes from east wall of the Fourth Dynasty tomb of Anta at Deshahsheh (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Siege at the town of Sati, from the tomb of Anta, Deshahsheh (Petrie 1898, pl. IV)

Fig. 2. Siege at the town of Sati, from the tomb of Anta, Deshahsheh (Petrie 1898, pl. IV)

This example displays clear evidence that ancient Egyptian women would involve themselves in combat if necessary.  This wall scene is discussed in some detail by Flinders Petrie, and seemingly “reveals epigraphic evidence for women fighting to defend a town”.[37]  The scene depicts the women of the town of Sati fighting of some Egyptian invaders and Bedawi auxiliary soldiers.[38]  In the uppermost register of the scene, a Sati woman stabs the chest of an invading Bedawi who had made his way up a siege ladder into the town enclosure.[39]  A second woman has forced a Bedawi auxiliary to surrender and break his bow.[40]

Looking at the next register down, the chief of the settlement is described as “tearing his hair out in despair at the loss of the town, whilst a woman is driving back a Bedawi who is trying to force his way into the enclosure”.[41]  This would seem to suggest that the defence of the town is left to the women, who get on with the job whilst the male chief is left to bemoan his fate.  The scene is full of examples of women taking an active combat role, with the third row showing two groups of women bringing down invaders, and the fourth row featuring another Sati woman who has managed to overpower a Bedawi, and has “lugged him over by the armpits”.[42]  It has therefore previously been suggested by the author that this incredibly striking wall scene shows that “women could engage in combat if necessary, and could be reasonably adept both with and without the aid of weaponry”.[43]

One example of a woman displaying warrior-like qualities in art is Nefertiti, at times seen as a somewhat controversial figure.  A limestone block from the site of Amarna portrays Nefertiti, in the guise of a reigning monarch, standing on the deck of the royal barge and wielding a khopesh sword against a female prisoner (Fig. 3).[44]

Fig. 3. Nefertiti smiting a female prisoner with a khopesh (Captmondo 2007)

Fig. 3. Nefertiti smiting a female prisoner with a khopesh (Captmondo 2007)

In this scene, Nefertiti takes the pharaonic ‘warrior’ role, portrayed as she is wearing her characteristic blue crown, yet stripped to the waist and wearing the ceremonial male-style kilt of a pharaoh. This outfit corresponds directly to the execution that she is about to carry out, an act that was traditionally the domain of the pharaoh alone.[45]  In the art of the period, Nefertiti was generally depicted as “essentially feminine in her ways and dress except in this wholly symbolic scene of her kingship”.[46]  Smiting scenes were expressions of power, especially important at times of unification.[47]  A pharaoh wishing to show their strength and authority would be portrayed in smiting pose to display dominance, so it is extremely interesting that Nefertiti herself is portrayed in such a scene, suggesting she was a reigning monarch in her own right.  Certainly this carving could be seen as one of several pieces of evidence to support the theory that Nefertiti did in fact reign as pharaoh of Egypt at some stage, certainly as co-regent with her husband, and, possibly after his death, as sole ruler.[48]

As previous mentioned, these women were part of the 18th Dynasty, which has been dubbed by some as “A Dynasty of Formidable Females”.[49]  Whilst it could also be said that the 18th Dynasty was a Dynasty of formidable males, with pharaohs such as Amenhotep II and Tuthmosis III, the fact that there were so many examples of ‘formidable females’ in the 18th Dynasty, does highlight the importance of the 18th Dynasty in the study of women and power, and women and warfare in ancient Egypt.[50]

The final female pharaoh to be examined in relation to warfare or combat is a lady known as Tawosret.  Tawosret reigned as pharaoh at the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty, using the throne name Sit-Re.[51]  Tawosret appeared to fit in well with the ancient Egyptian concepts of gender duality, with some scholars feeling that Tawosret’s kingship was shown in such a way to display an “equivalent balance between masculine and feminine elements”.[52]  For instance, Tawosret wore the traditionally masculine blue helmet headdress, but chose to underline her status as a female pharaoh by adopting a feminine nomen and prenomen: she is named as the “daughter of Re, Lady of Ta-merit, Tauseret, chosen of Mut”.[53]

Tawosret is the most likely candidate for the identity of a lady depicted in a sketch found on a 19th Dynasty ostracon; the lady in the sketch is firing arrows from a moving chariot in combat with a chariot-riding enemy (Fig. 4).[54]

Fig. 4. Sketch of a woman, possibly Pharaoh Tawosret, riding a chariot in battle (Peck 1978, 158)

Fig. 4. Sketch of a woman, possibly Pharaoh Tawosret, riding a chariot in battle (Peck 1978, 158)

The lady’s pharaonic status is symbolised by the uraeus which is quite clearly and deliberately shown on her brow as she rides into battle in her chariot, wielding a large bow and firing a hail of arrows against a male opponent.[55]  This lady could potentially be a mythic goddess figure, but the dating of the sketch and the ureaus on the brow would suggest that it could well be a representation of Tawosret herself.  If it is indeed Tawosret in the sketch, then it is an excellent example of an ancient Egyptian woman utilising weaponry in a military situation.

As for textual sources, there are not as many of these as there are artistic or artefactual sources for the subject, but there are some examples availably.  Returning to the impressive figure that is Queen Ahhotep, she  is described very clearly in the Karnak Stele, which claims that, “She cared for her soldiers…she brought back her fugitives and gathered up her deserters.  She has pacified Egypt and expelled her rebels”.[56]  The available evidence suggests that Ahhotep was actively engaged in the planning of military engagements, as well as leading troops.  Ahhotep is supposed to have rallied her soldiers to continue fighting the enemy after her first-born son Kamose fell in battle, which apparently paved the way to the re-unification of Egypt.[57]  Certainly, the actions of Ahhotep described in the Karnak stele would justify her being buried with the prestigious military awards and the array of weaponry discussed above.

Another textual source refers to one of ancient Egypt’s most well-known female figures: the pharaoh Hatshepsut.  Traditionally, earlier scholars such as John Wilson and Leonard Cottrell believed that Hatshepsut had no interest in warfare and carried out no military campaigns during her reign.[58]  In relation to military endeavours, Hatshepsut was often compared unfavourably with her co-regent and successor Tuthmosis III.[59]  However, there are some pieces of evidence that do point to Hatshepsut’s involvement in warfare to some extent.  One important piece is a rock inscription written by Hatshepsut’s royal treasurer at the site of Sehēl (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Graffiti of Ty at Sehēl, referring to Hatshepsut’s military endeavours (Habachi 1957, 100)

Fig. 5. Graffiti of Ty at Sehēl, referring to Hatshepsut’s military endeavours (Habachi 1957, 100)

The inscription states that:

“‘I followed the good god, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ka-(ma)-re, given life.  I saw him overthrowing the (Nubian) nomads, their chiefs being brought to him as prisoners.  I saw him destroying the land of Nubia, while I was in the following of his Majesty.  Behold I am a king’s messenger, doing what is said.’  Made by the draughtsman of Amun, Amenmose” (Habachi 1957, 99-100).

Ka-(ma)-re, also written as Maat-kare, was Hatshepsut’s throne name.  The use of the masculine pronoun here is not unusual, as during her reign Hatshepsut often alternated between referring to herself as ‘she’ and ‘he’ in official inscriptions, and here the military nature of this passage apparently called for the use of ‘he’.[60]  As this text depicts Hatshepsut as leading campaigns herself, and taking an active role in warfare and military campaigns, its importance cannot be overestimated.  It is of course arguable that this is exaggeration on the part of Hatshepsut, a pharaoh overstating her bravado before her subjects.  However the same could certainly be said about any number of Egypt’s pharaohs who proclaimed to the world their prowess in battle and success in war.  One particularly interesting example of this would be Ramesses II with his version of the Battle of Kadesh.  Compared to the account given by his Hittite opponents, Ramesses II’s interpretation of the events could be seen as “an exercise in blatant embellishment and hyperbole”.[61]

This text also demonstrates that it was not unknown for the use of masculine pronouns to refer to women in a military context.  It could be argued that this might well explain the seeming ‘lack’ of women in a military context in the historical record; it is possible that women were more involved in military situations than previously thought, and that male pronouns were used to denote women in some of these textual sources, as seen with the Sehēl inscription discussed above.[62]

In conclusion, it would seem that whilst women did not frequently take part in combat or warfare, there is certainly evidence that they did so on occasion.  It is evident that women throughout ancient Egyptian society have not been as thoroughly studied as they perhaps should have been, and examining Egyptian warfare in relation to women has proved particularly frustrating at times, again due to a lack of study on the subject.  There is, however, a reasonable amount of evidence of women being involved in warfare or utilising weaponry in some way, the prime examples being the Predynastic mace-head female burials, the scene of the siege of Sati in the tomb at Deshahsheh, and the depictions of Nefertiti and other women rulers bearing arms.  Some of these examples have yet to be examined to their full potential, although some steps have been made to rectify this (for example, the previously mentioned doctoral work carried out by the author).  There is certainly plenty of potential for further research within this intriguing subject.

Bibliography

E.J. Baumgartel, 1970, Petrie’s Naqada Excavation: A Supplement, London

J.H. Breasted, 1906, re-issue 1962, Ancient Records of Egypt, III, New York

Callender, 1988, ‘A Critical Examination of the Reign of Hatshepsut’, Ancient History 18 (2), pp86-102

Cottrell, 1968, Warrior Pharaohs, London

R.A. Dean, 2009, The Mace in Pharaonic Egypt: A Multidisciplinary Study Incorporating a Literary Review, a Catalogue of Unpublished Material, and the Results of Experimental Archaeology, unpublished MA dissertation, University of York

A. Dean, 2013, Women, Weaponry and Warfare: A Multidisciplinary Study of the Use of Weapons by Women in Dynastic Egypt, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of York

Fletcher, 2004, The Search for Nefertiti, London

Habachi, 1957, ‘Two Graffiti at Sehēl from the Reign of Queen Hatshepsut’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 16 (2), pp88-104

W.C. Hayes, 1978, The Scepter of Egypt: Part I, New York

Jánosi, 1992, ‘The Queens Ahhotep I and Ahhotep II and Egypt’s Foreign Relations’, Journal of Ancient Chronology 5, pp99-105

Kanawati, 2001, ‘A Female Guard Buried In The Teti Cemetery’, The Australian Centre for Egyptology 12, pp65-70

Lesko, 1996, The Remarkable Women of Ancient Egypt, Providence

A.C. Mace and H.E. Winlock, 1916a, ‘The Tomb of Senebtisi’, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 11 (12), pp257-259

A.C. Mace and H.E. Winlock, 1916b, The Tomb of Senebtisi at Lisht, New York

L.M. Mallory-Greenough, 2002, ‘The Geographical, Spatial, and Temporal Distribution of Predynastic and First Dynasty Basalt Vessels’, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 88, pp67-93

Maspero, G, 1901, History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria: Volume IV, Part A, London (available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17324/17324-h/17324-h.htm#linkimage-0043)

W.H. Peck, 1978, Egyptian Drawings, London

W.M.F. Petrie, 1898, Deshahsheh, London

W.M.F. Petrie and J.E. Quibell, 1896, Naqada and Ballas, London

D.B. Redford, 1967, History and Chronology of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Toronto

Samson, 2002, Nefertiti and Cleopatra: Queen-Monarchs of Ancient Egypt, New York

Shaw and P. Nicholson, 1997, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, London

Troy, 1986, Patterns of Queenship in ancient Egyptian myth and history, Uppsala

J.A. Wilson, 1951, The Culture of Ancient Egypt, Chicago

Online Sources

Captmondo, 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NefertitiRelief_SmitingSceneOnBoat-CloseUp.png, last accessed 25/05/2013

[1] Dean 2013

[2] Shaw and Nicholson 1997, 200; Lesko 1996, 7

[3] Fletcher 2004, 187

[4] Shaw and Nicholson 1997, 166

[5] Fletcher 2004, 187

[6] Shaw and Nicholson 1997, 166

[7] Petrie and Quibell 1896, 28

[8] Mallory-Greenough 2002, 89

[9] Dean 2009

[10] Baumgartel 1970, Pl. XLII

[11] Baumgartel 1970, Pl. XLII

[12] Dean 2013, 86

[13] Hayes 1978, 283; Mace and Winlock 1916b, 102-103; 106

[14] Mace and Winlock 1916a, 259; Mace and Winlock 1916b, 76-103; 104-105; Hayes 1978, 282-283

[15] Hayes 1978, 283; Mace and Winlock 1916b, 104

[16] Dean 2013, 96

[17] Hayes 1978, 282

[18] Fletcher 2004, 206

[19] Dean 2013, 87

[20] Lesko 1996, 13

[21] Jánosi 1992, 101

[22] Lesko 1996, 13

[23] Lesko 1996, 13

[24] Kanawati 2001; Dean 2013, 20

[25] Kanawati 2001, 66; Dean 2013, 20

[26] Kanawati 2001, 66; Dean 2013, 20

[27] Kanawati 2001, 66; Dean 2013, 20

[28] Kanawati 2001, 66

[29] Kanawati 2001, 66

[30] 2001, 66

[31] Kanawati 2001, 67

[32] Kanawati 2001, 67; Dean 2013, 20

[33] Kanawati 2001, 67

[34] Kanawati 2001, 67

[35] Kanawati 2001, 67

[36] Dean 2013, 20

[37] Dean 2009, 41; Dean 2013, 19

[38] Petrie 1898, 6; Dean 2009, 41, Dean 2013, 19

[39] Dean 2009, 41; Dean 2013, 19

[40] Petrie 1898, 6; Dean 2009, 41; Dean 2013, 19

[41] Petrie 1898, 6; Dean 2009, 41; Dean 2013, 19

[42] Petrie 1898, 6; Dean 2009, 41; Dean 2013, 19

[43] Dean 2009, 42; Dean 2013, 19-20

[44] Samson 2002, 25; Fletcher 2004, 74; Dean 2013, 38

[45] Fletcher 2004, 282; Samson 2002, 25; Lesko 1996, 21; Dean 2013, 42

[46] Samson 2002, 25

[47] Dean 2009, 15

[48] Dean 2013, 38

[49] Lesko 1996, 13

[50] Dean 2013, 31-32

[51] Fletcher 2004, 186; Lesko 1996, 25; Dean 2013, 43

[52] Troy 1986, 143

[53] Troy 1986, 143

[54] Peck 1978, 205

[55] Peck 1978, 159; Dean 2013, 43

[56] Breasted 1906, 29-32

[57] Redford 1967, 69; Dean 2013, 31

[58] Wilson 1951, 175; Cottrell 1968, 73

[59] Dean 2013, 33

[60] Callender 1988, 94

[61] Dean 2013, 35-36

[62] Dean 2013, 36

 

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