Borderscape Blog 14: Boundary Stelae (Part I)

In one of our first blogs (ages ago now, it seems), we talked about how boundaries must be maintained and shaped after they were created in order to remain effective—forgive the pun, but they must be “borderscaped”! We will begin talking about some of the ways this might occur in the coming weeks, but for now, I want to take a closer look at one of the most iconic ways that Pharaonic Egyptians marked their boundaries: with so-called boundary stelae.

Boundary stelae might seem like they should be rather simple to understand—after all, the idea of using markers to demarcate a space is familiar to anyone that has ever drawn a line in the sand or piled a few rocks on top of one another while hiking. In reality, however, there are some important complexities that get to the heart of some of my favorite research questions: how did the ancient Egyptians conceptualize space, and might it be different from how we think about it today? In the following paragraphs, I’ll discuss boundary stelae used to mark internal administrative or property boundaries both as a way to delineate space, and as stages to showcase royal power. Next week, we will discuss boundary stelae founded near interpolity borders!  

Some boundary stelae clearly served to delineate specific space—most notably those that served as field markers. Certainly, boundaries played an important role as field markers, and at times there seem to have been fairly defined margins of agricultural lands—witness the inciting event in the plot of the famous Middle Kingdom text “The Eloquent Peasant”, where the antagonist Nemtynakht contrives to force the titular peasant-trader Khu-Inpu and his donkey onto his fields, so that he might seize the peasant’s goods when Khu-Inpu’s donkey munches a few ears of wheat. Other wisdom texts emphasize the importance of not shifting boundary markers, and a rare scene from the painted tomb chapel of Nebamun makes a similar point: there, we see a farmer exclaiming, “As the great god who is in the sky endures, this boundary stone is in its exact/correct standing-place.”[1] Certainly, once taxes were collected from individuals rather than through entire villages, there were clear incentives for both neighbors and tax collectors to have a pretty firm grasp of where each person’s plot began and ended.

The prevalence of boundary stones is debatable, however. Clearly, archaeological finds attest that some existed, but very rarely have such finds been found in situ. More frequently, stelae describing land grants, donations, or private transactions have been found in temple contexts—even when the land in question was not necessarily a donation to the temple! In fact, a key part of the vizier’s responsibilities was overseeing the surveying of land each year after the inundation receded.[2] Depending on the Nile’s flood, certain lands could be remarkably more or less fertile. Moreover, floodplain agriculture might have limited the utility of boundary stelae in precise places, and perhaps explains why more frequently agricultural land is documented in terms of total area rather than directly mapped. This is not to say there were not boundary stones in use—quite the contrary, there is indisputable evidence they were employed! However, the prevalence of this practice is less certain, and different communities may have chosen to organize themselves in different ways. Some might have been clearly defined linear plots, others may have been allocated on the basis of a particular year’s flood pattern.

Because donations, gifts, or land purchases were almost certainly documented in cadastral surveys in national or local administrative bureaus, the medium of stelae must have been quite important. Stone was correlated with permanence, and the presence of the king or various deities emphasized that they were backed with royal and divine power—in essence, that these entities could serve as guarantors of the contents of the stelae. Unlike with papyrus records, stelae were moments when the potency of the king and the gods could be grandiosely displayed.

Very infrequently, there is even mention of stelae being used to determine the edges of particular nomes or even cities, in the case of Akhenaten’s new capital at Amarna. However, the instances where such stelae are found or are mentioned are also instructive: they all functioned as ways for royal actors to demonstrate their power—to stage sovereignty, one might say. At Amarna, only six of the many boundary stelae actually relate to the precise boundaries of the city, the others all commemorate the act of founding such boundaries![3] In all cases, they served to showcase the potency of a king who was ostentatiously founding an entirely new royal capital. Whether or not Amarna was a few arourae larger or smaller was largely immaterial—the key point was that the king had intervened to create this new landscape.

One can make similar arguments related to the early 12th Dynasty stelae described (but not found) in the autobiographical inscription of Khnumhotep II that marked the edge of the Oryx Nome (the 16th Upper Egyptian Nome). These stelae seem to have been founded as part of some kind of royal ritual that allowed the king to make these boundaries effective, delineating both the agricultural margins of the nome as well as its water rights. Khnumhotep records that such rites were performed by Amenhotep I, Senwosret I, and Senwosret II.[4] Once again, it is the intervention of the king that looms large here, perhaps even more so than the precise boundaries of the nome.  Moreover, the political situation of the early Middle Kingdom is quite instructive—while nomarchs diminished in power elsewhere, the nomarchs of Middle Egypt were quite important figures. Some likely played a key role during the civil wars to reunite the country at the end of the First Intermediate Period. Against the backdrop of these complex political relationships, it becomes more understandable why we have reference to such royal boundary stelae in precisely this location, and not elsewhere in the Pharaonic state. Following this brief, all too short overview of those stelae that cover administrative or even field boundaries, we will return next week to discuss those stelae deployed on the margins of Pharaonic territory!

[1] For Nebamun, see Parkinson, R. The Painted Tomb Chapel of Nebamun. London: British Museum Press, 2008, 112-115, fig. 118-120.

[2] van den Boorn, G.P.F. 1988. The Duties of the Vizier: Civil Administration in the Early New Kingdom. London: Kegan Paul International, 146-171.

[3] Galán, J. Galán, J. Victory and Border: Terminology Related to Egyptian Imperialism in the XVIIIth Dynasty. Hildesheim: Gebrüder Gerstenberg, 1995, pp. 143-146.

[4] Le Guilloux, P. La Biographie de Khnoumhotep II: Prince de Beni Hassan: Texte hieroglyphique, transliteration, et traduction commentée. Angers: Association d’Égyptologie Isis, 2005.

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