Spatial and Verbal rhetorics of power: Constructing late old kingdom history

In: Journal of Egyptian History
Janet Richards University of Michigan

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In writing ancient Egyptian social and political history, we take for granted that we should privilege neither textual nor material cultural evidence; rather, we should weave narratives incorporating both strands in weights commensurate with the actual profile of available data in a specific time and place. The mosaic of data available from the later Old Kingdom provides an especially compelling rationale for adopting this multidimensional approach. Earlier accounts of this pivotal era in ancient Egyptian history have relied most heavily on textual evidence ‐ not least because for the first time there existed lengthy biographical inscriptions of government officials providing tantalizing detail on individual political careers and legitimizing verbal rhetoric regarding possible historical events. In this particular period, however, the amounts of such textual data are outweighed in sheer quantity by contemporary archaeological remains. I have previously argued that spatial patterning, both in the synchronic distribution of these remains and (perhaps more compellingly) in the shifts of these patterns over time, should play an equal or even more prominent role in writing a socio-political history of this particular period. A primary case study explored in this essay is the late Old Kingdom mortuary landscape at Abydos where new data has emerged strengthening the diachronic evidence for the manipulation of a spatial rhetoric of political ideology, providing further insight into ancient Egyptian elites’ responses to perceived or real crises in centralized control of the country. This phenomenon at Abydos was only one part of a broader program of materializing central authority throughout the Egyptian Nile Valley at a time when the verbal rhetoric of royal power was limited in voice, audience, and context.

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