‘Wonderful things’ was Howard Carter’s answer to Lord Carnarvon’s question whether he could see anything. It was 25 November 1922. The first of the stones sealing the entrance had been removed. The interior was packed with the richest imaginable grave-goods. Carter had found the intact tomb of a New Kingdom pharaoh: the Tomb of Tutankhamun.
In the century since, the contents of the tomb have become probably the most famous archaeological treasures ever found. The alabaster statues, busts, chests, and jars; the animal sculptures and golden goddesses; the jewellery of gold, chalcedony, cornelian, feldspar, lapis-lazuli, and turquoise; the delicate furniture finished with gold plate and inlaid with ivory, ebony, glass-paste, glazed terracotta, and semi-precious stones; above all, the sequence of mummy cases and the fabulous golden death-mask. And so much more: 5,000 objects in all. But most of this was bling. These were the essential trappings of divine kingship 3,300 years ago. They elevated pharaoh above all mortals, the blaze of shininess and bright colour with which he was decked out transforming him into a living sun-god. Even when the objects were functional — and most were not — it was the display that mattered.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the richness and to miss what are perhaps the most important discoveries of all. Piled up in the corner of the antechamber were four dismantled chariots. Two more were found elsewhere in the tomb. Notable, too, was an array of weaponry that included high-tech composite bows.
These discoveries bear testimony to a military revolution that transformed Ancient Egypt into an aggressive, predatory, expansionist imperial power. Old Kingdom, old tech For over a thousand years, from c.3150 to 1990 BC — and despite phenomenal achievements like the building of the Pyramids and the Sphinx — the Egyptian military system was remarkable chiefly for its austerity and conservatism.
Stone relief-sculptures from the time of King Narmer (c.3150 BC) onwards depict Old Kingdom soldiers. They are shown virtually naked, without armour, often without shields, and equipped with simple weapons – spears, maces, and clubs. Nothing much seems to have changed when, during the XII Dynasty (c.1991-1802 BC), the feudal-type warlord Prince Emsah was laid to rest with a unit of painted wooden soldiers to guard him. They comprised Egyptian infantry with spears and shields, supported by Nubian auxiliary archers with simple stave bows; no one wears armour; everyone fights on foot.
The Past | April/May 2021