Borderscape Blog 5: Moving Beyond Textual Evidence (Part I)

Last week we discussed Pharaonic terminology for boundaries, highlighting how the Egyptian vocabulary focused more on the capacity for human action to change political boundaries than their permeability. This helps to demonstrate how different societies may conceptualize boundaries in diverse, culturally specific ways. All that being said, how the Pharaonic Egyptians defined their boundaries is only a small part of the story of the First Cataract borderscape. In this post, I want to highlight three problems related to approaching Pharaonic borderlands using terms like tash and djer: the temporal limitations of this evidence, its elite-focused perspective, and its necessarily Egyptocentric outlook on boundary-making.

But before I address these weaknesses, I should note that we as archaeologists are extremely fortunate to have any window at all into emic Pharaonic perspectives on boundaries. The mere fact that we can state that later Egyptian kings defined borders based on their ability to change them is a testament to the wealth of textual sources available to us. This is a luxury that many archaeologists or historians working in different time periods or other regions of the world simply do not have. It is not enough to come to a comprehensive understanding of a boundary or borderland, but it is an excellent place to start!

The Problem of Limited Evidence

The first problem with an approach focused solely on Egyptian vocabulary is that these terms are not necessarily static. Nearly all of the royal stelae, wisdom texts, or royal inscriptions that mention tashu and djeru come from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050-1650 BCE) or subsequent periods. In order for these meanings to be valid for our investigation, we would have to project them backwards into the Old Kingdom, Early Dynastic, and Predynastic Periods—an extremely fraught proposition, given that the political, economic, socio-cultural, and even environmental context of the First Cataract region changed fairly dramatically across this timeframe. In later periods, words like tash developed new meanings, as the term came to refer to areas or fields more generally even though it never lost its association with boundaries. All this is to say that the Egyptian vocabulary for boundaries operated in a dynamic, fluid context—and the meanings of these terms changed and developed over time. It is an incredibly obvious point to make, but we are only on firm ground discussing the meaning of tashu and djeru in periods where we have numerous stelae, inscriptions, or papyri that use these terms! There is little reason to think that the earliest Egyptian kings would have approached boundaries in an identical fashion to the imperial pharaohs of the 12th and 18th Dynasties. To put this in more modern terms, this would be comparable to arguing that understandings of borders in modern Germany hadn’t changed since the time of Charlemagne!

The Problem of an Elite Perspective

Another large problem with an approach to boundaries dominated by the Egyptian vocabulary is that it represents the viewpoint of only a tiny fraction of the Egyptian population. The vast majority of our sources that mention tashu or djeru come from royal stelae, wisdom literature that functioned to explain what it meant to be a good king, and biographical tomb inscriptions of the Egyptian elite. These sources, to put it lightly, are not unbiased—they are propagandistic texts that should be among the most prone to exaggerating the power and capacity of the Pharaonic state. Their intended audience was often limited to a combination of the divine and the minuscule segment of the Pharaonic population that could engage with such texts. To put this in perspective, most estimates place Pharaonic literacy rates at around 1% of the population.[1]

In short, it is clear that terms like tash and djer represents the royal view of Egyptian boundaries, not the viewpoint of the population at large. These terms were concerned with royal actions, not those of average Egyptians. Such top-down perspectives are important to consider—after all, such cultural perceptions informed the decision making of the most important elite authorities in the Pharaonic state. But they were certainly not the only ones making decisions that impacted the character of the First Cataract region! The actual, everyday habits of the people living there must have played a large role in determining the nature of this borderland.

The Problem of Egyptocentrism

Similarly and just as importantly, although the Pharaonic Egyptian elite made conscious, concrete efforts to create an ideological boundary in the First Cataract region, they were far from the only people active in the region. At all points in Pharaonic history, other groups inhabited the environs of the First Cataract as well. During our study period, the A-Group and later C-Group Nubian peoples were especially prominent, as well as many other nomads and/or pastoralists active in what are now the Western and Eastern Deserts. Caravan routes connected the Aswan region to oases in the Western Desert and mineral deposits in the Eastern Desert. There was regular contact southwards, much farther upstream along the Nile. Further to the east, the Red Sea was another avenue for trade and exchange. People were always moving through these landscapes!

Egyptian terminology like tash and djer can define the kinds of boundaries that Egyptian kings wished to impose upon these peoples (as well as their own), but entirely neglects how other societies viewed such attempts at boundary-making. Particularly during the earliest periods (and even to an extent during some later ones), it is questionable whether we should even see a rigid boundary here at all! Evaluating the First Cataract region from other perspectives (say, from an Early or Middle Nubian one) requires different kinds of evidence than textual sources, but is every bit as important as analyzing the boundary-making efforts of Egyptian kings.

Next week, we will discuss how archaeological approaches can help mitigate these three issues and encourage us towards a more holistic conception of the First Cataract borderscape.

[1] The monograph Visual and Written Culture in Ancient Egypt, John Baines (2007), Oxford: Oxford University Press remains an excellent starting place for those interested in approaches to literacy and the role of visual culture in the ancient Egyptian world. Be aware though that many of these articles were first published in the 1980s or 1990s, so some of these analyses requires a bit of updating!

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