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449
THE USE OF BUCRANIA IN THE ARCHITECTURE
OF FIRST DYNASTY EGYPT
Renate Marian van Dijk
Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies
University of South Africa
PO Box 392
UNISA 0003
E-mail: [email protected]
(Received 03/09/2013: Revised 11/11/2013)
ABSTRACT
Bucrania, or bull skulls, were used as a decorative motif in the architecture of
First Dynasty Egypt. There is both archaeological and icongraphic evidence for
this – bucrania have been excavated in the mastabas of Saqqara, and there are
artefacts from the period with depictions of buildings surmounted by bucrania.
Comparative material, such as the bucrania found in situ at the burials of Kerma
and the practice of human sacrifice during the Egyptian First Dynasty, can be
examined to gain insight into the significance and deeper meaning of the
bucrania. This article will study the available evidence in an attempt to answer
how and why bucrania were used in the architecture of First Dynasty Egypt.
INTRODUCTION
In architecture, a bucranium (pl. bucrania) is a “carved decorative motif depicting the
skull of a bull” (Davies & Jokiniemi 2008:52). It can also refer to the skull and horn
cones of a real animal, or to a head modelled entirely from clay or plaster with real
horn cones. Bucrania have been found at sites across the ancient world,1 and their use
in architecture is particularly famous at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in modernday Turkey.2
Bucrania were also used in the architecture of Egypt, but this has been little
studied. The Lexikon der Ägyptologie contains an entry for “Bukranion” (Helck
1975:882-883), and Rice (1998:126-128) discusses the bucrania found around the
First Dynasty tombs at Saqqara in his study on the bull cult, but there are no works
1
2
See van Dijk (2011:11-38) for a discussion on bucrania in the ancient Near East.
See for example Hodder (2006).
ISSN 1013-8471
Journal for Semitics 22/2 (2013) 449-463
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R.M. van Dijk
focusing solely on Egyptian bucrania. While the evidence for the use of bucrania is
limited during later periods, there are examples from the First Dynasty from both the
archaeological and iconographic records. The First Dynasty only lasted about 200
years,3 and based on the amount of evidence for the use of bucrania in the architecture
of this period, it follows that bucrania were especially important during the First
Dynasty. This paper will therefore study the use of bucrania as decorative motifs in the
architecture of First Dynasty Egypt in an attempt to ascertain how and why they were
used. What kind of buildings did bucrania adorn and what was their function, purpose
or deeper meaning?
ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE
Bucrania were used to decorate mastabas in the First Dynasty necropolis at Saqqara.
The most elaborate decoration belonged to Tomb 3504.4 A low bench ran along the
base of the mastaba. Approximately 300 life-size bulls’ heads, modelled from clay and
with large natural horns, were mounted upon this platform (Emery 1954: Plate VIa&b;
VIIa&b). The bulls’ heads were arranged in a symmetrical pattern, each head held in
place by two wooden pegs. There were traces of blue and red paint on the bulls’ heads,
but it is uncertain if the heads were painted, or if these were splashes of paint from
when the structure itself was painted (Emery 1954:7-9).
Tomb 3504 can be dated to the reign of Djet,5 the fourth pharaoh of the First
Dynasty, by the labels and sealing impressions found within. The burial chamber was
restored and remodelled towards the end of the First Dynasty, which led Emery
(1954:6) to suggest that it was the burial place of “Uadji or some other important
member of his family”, and, because of its grandeur, it was thought to belong to Djet
himself (Emery 1955:3; Lauer 1976:88). It has also been identified as belonging to
Djet’s predecessor, Djer (e.g., Rykwert 1996:49). However, it cannot be the tomb of a
pharaoh, because the pharaohs of the First Dynasty were buried in the Umm el-Qa’ab
3
4
5
The exact length is difficult to ascertain due to a lack of accurate historical records from the
period. Estimates range from as short as 150 years (Wenke 2009:198) to as long as 240
(Wilkinson 1999:67).
For a full and detailed description of this tomb and finds associated with it, see Emery
(1954:5-127; see especially pp. 7-13 for the architecture).
Djet is the most common modern rendering of this pharaoh’s name, but Uadji, Wadji and
Zet are also used (Wilkinson 1999:73).
The use of bucrania in the architecture of First Dynasty Egypt
451
cemetery at Abydos.6 Hoffman (1980:287) identifies at least some of the Saqqara
tombs as the northern cenotaphs of the kings buried at Abydos. It is now generally
believed to have been built for Sekhem-Ka, royal treasurer during the reign of Djet
(e.g., Adams & Ciałowicz 1997:62; Rice 1999:177), but Morris (2007a) argues
convincingly against the common belief that many of the Saqqara tombs are those of
officials, and suggests rather that at least some of them should be assigned to high
ranking members of the royal family. In this capacity, they were meant “to function
less as tributes to their individual owners than as eternal reminders ... of the power and
glory of its [Egypt’s] holy family” (Morris 2007a:188).
Tomb 35077 dates to the reign of Djet’s son, Den,8 and most likely belonged to
Queen Hernieth, the wife of Djer, third king of the dynasty. Hernieth’s mastaba was
also decorated with a low bench upon which were moulded bulls’ heads with real
horns (Emery 1958: Plate 90b). Most of these bucrania had long been destroyed by the
time the tombs were excavated during the mid-1950s, but enough survived for
excavators to be able to reconstruct how they would have been arranged. The
superstructure was decorated with “palace façade” panelling, three small niches
separating larger niches. The bucrania were found only in the middle of the three
smaller niches (Emery 1958:75-6).
A similar low bench with bulls’ heads of sun-dried mud with real horns
surrounded the panelled facade of Tomb 3505.9 This tomb dates to the reign on Qa’a,
the final pharaoh of the First Dynasty, and Emery (1958:4) believed that the tomb
belonged to this pharaoh. It is now generally believed to have belonged to a priestly
noble named Merkha (Clayton 2001:25). Few of the bucrania survived until
excavation, but those preserved revealed that they were arranged in the same pattern
as those found around Tomb 3504 (Emery 1958:6).
Tomb 350610 dates to the reign of Den and was ascribed by Emery (1958:37) to “a
member of the royal family”. Scattered bulls’ horns were found around the tomb,
suggesting that bucrania also adorned the low bench surrounding this tomb (Emery
1958:44).
6
7
8
9
10
See Petrie (1900; 1901) for a full discussion and description of these tombs.
For a full description of this tomb and its associated finds, see Emery (1958:73-97).
Den is also known as Dewen or Udimu.
For a full description of this tomb and its associated finds, see Emery (1958:5-36).
For a full description of this tomb and its associated finds, see Emery (1958:37-72).
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R.M. van Dijk
These tombs were each surrounded by an enclosure wall, meaning that each
“herd” of bucrania decorating the low benches could only be viewed from close
proximity (Wengrow 2006:242). This suggests that the viewing of these bucrania
would have been a more intimate experience, and one which would have had a
profound effect on the viewer. According to Lauer (1976:88), the bucrania were either
“a symbolic offering or a magic protection”. In this regard, Pyramid Text 1266c,
which mentions a door which is “sealed with two evil eyes” (Mercer 1952:209), may
refer to bucrania adorning a doorway to offer protection (Blackman 2000:314), and
bucrania are today still hung above doorways in Egypt to protect the house from the
evil eye (Gordon & Schwabe 2004:33). Wengrow (2006:242) suggests that the killing
and consumption of the cattle which provided the bucrania or horn cones for these
tombs formed part of the rituals and ceremonies surrounding the building of the tomb.
Further insight into the meaning or symbolism behind the use of bucrania to
decorate the First Dynasty mastabas at Saqqara may be gained from a comparison of
the similar use at Kerma, a site in Upper Nubia on the east bank of the Nile near the
Third Cataract. From the Egyptian Old Kingdom until the Second Intermediate Period,
it was almost certainly the capital of the kingdom of Kush, the major trading partner,
and sometime adversary, to the south of Egypt (Wilkinson 2005:124). From the Late
Neolithic pre-Kerma Period (c.3500-2500 B.C.E.), social stratification is increasingly
displayed through the wealth of grave goods in the burials at the necropolis of Kerma.
Cattle remains and bucrania have been found in association with the richer burials.
The earliest known bucranium from the Kerma region dates to circa 5700 B.C.E. and
was found surmounting a child’s grave in the cemetery at el-Barga (Chaix, Dubosson
& Honeffer 2012:192). There was a development over time in the treatment of the
bucrania at Kerma. The Early Kerma (c. 2500-2050 B.C.E.) bucrania included their
nasal bones, but the Middle Kerma (c. 2050-1750 B.C.E.) bucrania were buried with
the lower part of the skull cut in half. By the Late Kerma Period (c. 1500-1100 B.C.E.)
only the horns and the top of the skull were present (Castillos 2003:119). Their
presence was also quite rare during the Early Kerma Period, but by the Middle Kerma
they had become common (Chaix, Dubboson & Honeggar 2012:192). Many of the
elite of the Late Kerma Period were interred in enormous tombs which had large
numbers of bucrania arranged around their south side (Edwards 2004:91). Grave 253
contained 4899 bucrania (Chaix, Dubosson & Honegger 2012: 193). This suggests
that wealth in cattle was significant to Kerma’s social elite (Mitchell 2005:75). The
The use of bucrania in the architecture of First Dynasty Egypt
453
large amount of bucrania simultaneously deposited with the burials suggests a massive
slaughter of cattle for funerary or mortuary rites (Chaix 2001:369). According to Bray
(2003:49), these bucrania indicate “large funerary feasts conducted before the burial of
Kerma kings and elite”. This display of wealth and power would have been “a means
of establishing one’s authority over an alliance network” (Chaix et al. 2012:209).
The bucrania used to decorate the tombs at Saqqara may then similarly also
represent funerary or mortuary rites associated with the interment of the deceased,
rather than rituals associated with the building of the tomb. It is curious though that
the tombs decorated with such a display of wealth and power are thought to not be
those of the pharaohs themselves. The tombs of the pharaohs at Um el-Qa’ab show no
remaining traces of surface structures. Although the superstructures of these tombs
may have been simple tumuli (Wengrow 2006:252), O’Connor (2009:151) suggests
that, because contemporary tombs “of importance” from other sites in Egypt, such as
Saqqara, Helwan and Tarkhan, all have rather significant superstructures, the Umm elQa’ab tombs, being those of the pharaoh, would also have had superstructures. If such
superstructures did exist, it is possible that they were decorated with bucrania, and that
these, like the superstructures themselves, have not survived to today.
The large-scale use of bucrania in tomb architecture at Saqqara appears to have
been very limited, being restricted to the reigns of three pharaohs – Djet, Den and
Qa’a. But Tomb 3038,11 dating to the reign of Den’s successor, Anedjib,12 and thought
to belong to the high official Nebetka (Rice 2003a:131), contained the burial of a
bucranium in one of the niches of the superstructure (Emery 1949: 92; Plate 27B).
This recalls a bucranium discovered beneath the southern altar close to the base of
Djoser’s Step Pyramid in the South Court Complex at Saqqara (Firth, Quibell & Lauer
1935a:70; Firth, Quibell & Lauer 1935b: Plate 73). The Step Pyramid bucranium dates
to the Third Dynasty, and, although it is associated with an altar rather than with a
tomb, its burial points to a similar, if not shared tradition roughly 200 years later. The
burial of the bucranium in Tomb 3038 suggests a continuation in the ideology behind
the sacrifice, if not in the large-scale sacrifice itself.
This change in ideology may be linked to another practice which seems to be
peculiar to First Dynasty Egypt: that of ritual death, the large-scale sacrifice of human
11
12
For a full description of this tomb and its associated finds, see Emery (1949:82-94).
Called Enezib by Emery (1949).
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R.M. van Dijk
life,13 a practice which is also known from the necropolis at Kerma, where the remains
of up to 400 human sacrifices were found in the great “royal” Tumuli during the
Classic Kerma Period (c. 1750-1580 B.C.E.) (Edwards 2004:84). Retainers were
buried in subsidiary graves in the tomb complexes of the First Dynasty pharaohs at
Umm el-Qa’ab. This practice started during the reign of Aha, the second pharaoh of
the dynasty. To the east of his tomb were 36 small graves14 which belonged to young
men aged 20-25 (van Dijk 2007:138). It reached its pinnacle during the reign of Djer,
Aha’s successor, whose tomb had 318 subsidiary graves with a further 269 graves
surrounding the funerary enclosure15 (Morris 2007b:16). By comparison, 174 retainers
were found around the tomb of Djer’s successor, Djet (Morris 2007b:20). The practice
of retainer sacrifice was discontinued with the end of the First Dynasty. The subsidiary
burial of retainers was not restricted to the burials of the pharaohs at Umm el-Qa’ab.
At Saqqara, 62 subsidiary graves were found around Tomb 3504 (Emery 1954:7), 20
around Tomb 3505, and 10 around Tomb 350616 (Wengrow 2006:243 note 23). Tomb
3507 is unusual in that there are no burials of retainers – the only subsidiary burial is
that of a dog (Emery 1958:78; Plate 91b). This dog may have been a favourite pet and
was presumably sacrificed to accompany Herneith in the afterlife (Rice 2006:45-47)
and/or to guard the tomb (Emery 1958:78).
The retainers buried around the tomb of Aha appear to have been strangled (Bard
2000:68), and it seems likely that at least some of those interred with later kings of the
First Dynasty were also put to death. The interred include courtiers, women from the
harem, craftsmen, specialists and various attendants of the pharaoh (Rice 2003a:133) –
an entourage intended to follow their king to the afterlife.17 At least seven lions were
interred around Aha’s burial at Umm el-Qa’ab. Lions were a high status animal, and
their burial in association with the retainers suggests a similar high status for the latter
(Bestock 2009:29). Human sacrifice is the ultimate display of the “right to control of
life and death” (Wengrow 2006:252), and therefore a potent display of the power of
13
14
15
16
17
Although there is limited evidence for small-scale human sacrifice in a cultic setting from
the Predynastic period (van Dijk 2007:137; Wilkinson 1999:265).
According to Wengrow (2006:252) there were 34 subsidiary burials.
Van Dijk (2007) gives the numbers as 317 and 242 respectively.
For a description of these ten burials and the grave goods found in them, see Emery
(1958:46-48).
During later periods, ushabtis were interred with the pharaoh to serve him in the afterlife,
symbolically taking the place of the individual they represented, and taking the actual place
of a human sacrifice.
The use of bucrania in the architecture of First Dynasty Egypt
455
the deceased. If the tombs at Saqqara are those of the elite, and not just the pharaohs,
they reveal that the nobility also claimed this power and also that they aspired to
eternal life (Wenke 2009:242).
Similarly to the human sacrifices, the cattle slaughtered to provide the bucrania
which decorated the tombs at Saqqara may have been meant to accompany the
deceased to the afterlife. They could have served as a herd for the afterlife, or they
could have been meant to offer protection to the deceased. At the same time, their
sacrifice would have been a show of the wealth and power of the deceased, made all
the more potent by their continued display around the tombs.
ICONOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE
Tarkhan seal impression
A seal impression in Grave 414 at Tarkhan (Petrie, Wainwright & Gardiner 1913;
Plate II:4) dating to the reign of Narmer bears a depiction of a building facade
surmounted by a bull’s head and surrounded by crocodiles over spirals, the latter
which symbolise waves.18 A crocodile on a standard next to the building can be
identified as Sobek, the sacred crocodile of the Fayum province, and Petrie,
Wainwright and Gardiner (1913:21) identify the seal which made this impression as
the “seal of the Fayum province”. Wilkinson (1999:295) believes the building facade
to represent a shrine dedicated to the god Sobek at Medinet el-Fayum.19
A different interpretation is that the building facade doesn’t represent a temple, but
a serekh20 belonging to Pharaoh Horus Crocodile, a “Gegenkönig” of Dynasty 0, a
local king of the Tarkhan area, and rival to the main Thinite dynasty (Dreyer 1992).
While the building facade on the Tarkhan impression is surmounted by a bucranium,
in most cases a serekh was surmounted by a falcon, representing Horus and the
pharaoh’s special association with this god. But as Wilkinson (1999:201) notes, “the
earliest serekhs were empty, the symbol alone conveying the necessary message of
18
19
20
This is a unique way of representing water. The usual wavy line can be traced back to plain
parallel lines (Petrie, Wainwright and Gardiner 1913:22).
Ancient Shedyet and Krokodilopolis.
In Egyptian hieroglyphs a serekh is a rectangular enclosure which represented a niched or
gated palace façade which contained a text within. The serekh was often surmounted by a
falcon, symbolising the god Horus, which indicated that the text represented a royal name.
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R.M. van Dijk
royal power.” In addition, early serekhs were not surmounted exclusively by Horus.
The Second Dynasty pharaoh Peribsen’s serekh was surmounted by the Seth animal,
and the serekh of his successor, Khasekhemwy, was surmounted by both the Horus
falcon and the Seth animal.21 Khasekhemwy’s name means “In Him the Two Powers
are Reconciled” (Rice 2003b:105) or “The Two Powerful Ones Appear” (Clayton
2001:26), and Rice (2003b:105) contends that the use of the images of these two gods
reflects a social struggle between two factions which were represented by these gods.
During the reign of Peribsen the supporters of Seth rose to power, and Khasekhemwy
reconciled the two factions. This may be related to the royal title “Lord of the Two
Lands”, which was first attested under the First Dynasty ruler, Anedjib (Wenke
2009:244). The pharaoh was seen as a manifestation of Horus, who usually
surmounted the serekh, and the king therefore claimed his power through Horus.
While Peribsen and Khasekhemwy were on the throne that power was also seen to
come from Seth. If the Tarkhan seal impression does represent a serekh, the question
is: what power is represented by the bull’s head which surmounts it?
The bull was used as a symbol of royal power from early in Egypt’s history.22
Narmer clearly equated himself with the bull on his famous palette (Egyptian
Museum, Cairo JE32169, CG14716), and therefore the bull was a sign of kingship
during his reign.23 According to Darnell (2002:14-19), part of the so-called Scorpion
Tableau at Gebel Tjauti in the Egyptian Western Desert,24 which dates to 200 years
before the reign of Narmer, depicts King Scorpion25 defeating a bound captive.
Between these two figures is a bucranium mounted on a pole. According to Darnell
(2010:26), the bound figure thus “appears to be labeled with a bull’s head”, but if the
bull’s head had been an identifier for this prisoner, following iconographic
conventions, it should have been placed in front of him (Hendrickx & Friedman
2003:101), and Hendrickx (2002:283) points out that “it is not obvious whether the
21
22
23
24
25
See Petrie (1901: Plates XXI-XXIV) for examples of these serekhs.
See Hendrickx (2002) and van Dijk (2011:96-106).
Indeed, Miller (1967:424) believes the bull on the Bull Palette (Louvre E 11255) to
represent Narmer on the basis of its similarity in depiction and iconography to the Narmer
Palette.
See Darnell (2002) for a full description and discussion of this and other rock inscriptions
in the Western Desert of Egypt.
This King Scorpion may have been the king buried in Tomb U-j at Abydos. Tomb U-j is
famous for containing the earliest examples of Egyptian writing, found on inscribed bone
labels and written with black ink on pottery vessels.
The use of bucrania in the architecture of First Dynasty Egypt
457
bucranium identifies the king, the prisoner, or represents an idea in itself”. A similar
depiction was found at Tomb U-j in Abydos, and Dreyer (1995:55; 1998:65-7, 85-6)
suggests it represents a royal name. There are, however, problems with this
hypothesis,26 and it may rather represent a specific place, deity or temple (Darnell
2002:16). If a deity is represented, the best candidate would be Bat, a celestial goddess
who was important in the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods.27 Hendrickx and
Friedman (2003:97-100) argue against the bull’s head representing the goddess Bat
and the seventh nome of Upper Egypt of which Bat was the local goddess, citing a
sherd from Hierakonpolis on which both a bull’s head which was shaped like that on
the Scorpion Tableau and the Bat emblem are incised and are clearly distinct. If the
bucrania depicted on the Scorpion Tableau at Gebel Tjauti and Tomb U-j at Abydos
do represent a particular place or temple, this location was presumably especially
associated with a bucranium. If this is the case, then the bucranium-topped building on
the Tarkhan seal may represent this place, and would therefore not represent a serekh.
Abydos label
A fragment of an ivory label excavated at Abydos and dating to the reign of Den, the
fifth king of the First Dynasty (Petrie 1901:VII:8), depicts a shrine (Lauer 1948:6) or
sacred enclosure (Petrie 1901:25) with a ram in it, and with a bucranium on the wall to
the left of the ram. The label is broken and the right-hand side of this enclosure is
missing, but it is possible that a second bucranium would have been found on a wall to
the right of the ram. This building is found within a settlement, identifiable by the
crenellated walls which are also found on the depictions of cities on the Narmer
Palette, Bull Palette, and City Palette (Egyptian Museum, Cairo, JE27434;
CG14238).28 A smaller fragment of a second label (Petrie 1901: VII:9) appears to bear
the same depiction.
According to the Palermo Stone, a large fragment of a stele which records the
royal annals of the Old Kingdom, Den visited Herakleopolis in the ninth year of his
reign (Wilkinson 2000:115). Wilkinson (1999:284-285, 296) suggests that the Abydos
label records this visit, suggesting that the ram in the enclosure represents Herishef,
26
27
28
See Hendrickx (2002:282-283) for a discussion on these problems.
See van Dijk (2011:189-191) for a discussion on Bat and her relationship with the goddess
Hathor during this period.
Also known as the Libyan Palette, the Siege Palette and the Tehenu Palette.
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R.M. van Dijk
the ram god whose main cult centre was at Herakleopolis, and identifying the building
surmounted by the bucranium as a cult centre at this site.
Although this seems the most plausible explanation, the identification of the
location shown on the label may not be that simple. The scene on the Narmer
Macehead (Ashmolean Museum AN1890-1908 E 3631), for example, has been
identified on the basis of the shrine with the heron and the enclosure of bubalis
antelopes (hartebeest) as both Buto (Millet 1990:56) and Hierakonpolis (Friedman
1996:33).
Furthermore, the question remains as to what the bucrania represent or symbolise.
If the Tarkhan seal impression depicts the shrine of Sobek at Medinet el-Fayum and
the Abydos label represents the cult centre at Herakleopolis, then the bucrania can
clearly not represent one specific location. This point is further illustrated by the fact
that bucrania were associated with multiple locations in later pharaonic Egypt. For
example, the later Fayum Shrine of Sobek was decorated with two bucrania (Brovarski
1984:997 Fig. 2) and a chapel in the back hall of the Temple of Seti I at Abydos
contains a relief sculpture of a shrine of a mummified hawk surmounted by a
bucranium (Caulfield 1902:Plate VII). According to Hendrickx (2002:280), bucrania
were “meant as an identification of the building, or as a general indication of its
importance”.
Hierakonpolis carved tusk
A large carved hippopotamus tusk from the main deposit at Hierakonpolis (Quibell
1900: Plate XIV) depicts on both sides the long niched facade of a building which has
bucrania hanging above at least four doorways.29 The building may be identified as
either a palace or the enclosure wall of a temple (Hendrickx 2002:280). Raffaele
(2010:259 n65) suggests the building represents a tomb.
The carved tusk dates to Dynasty 0, showing that the use of bucrania as
architectural motifs, although becoming more impressive in the First Dynasty, had its
roots in predynastic times. Also, if Raffaele’s suggestion is correct, the use of bucrania
to decorate tombs predates those at Saqqara. However, it is uncertain what type of
29
Quibell (1900:7) calls these bucrania or rams’ skulls and Whitehouse (2004:1125) suggests
they may be the skulls of Barbary goats, but according to Hendrickx (2002:280) each is “a
bull’s head, or more probably a bucranium”.
The use of bucrania in the architecture of First Dynasty Egypt
459
building is depicted on the Hierakonpolis tusk, although only a building of great
importance would have been depicted with the extent of decoration it displays, let
alone been depicted at all. When the Tarkhan seal impression and the Abydos label are
considered, it is more likely that the building depicted on the carved tusk is also a
shrine and that the three pieces point to a common Pre- and Early Dynastic tradition in
which bucrania were used to decorate or mark shrines.
CONCLUSIONS
Bucrania were then used to decorate two different types of buildings during the First
Dynasty of Egypt – tombs and shrines. The archaeological evidence shows that tombs
were decorated with up to 300 bucrania. No archaeological evidence survives for the
use of bucrania in shrines, and the iconographic evidence is insufficient to deduce if a
specific amount of bucrania was typically used to decorate this type of building. The
Abydos label is broken, so it is uncertain whether the building depicted on it was
surmounted by one or more bucrania, the Tarkhan seal shows one bucranium
surmounting the building facade, and the carved hippopotamus tusk from Dynasty 0
Hierakonpolis shows multiple bucrania hanging above the doorways. The
iconographic examples from later Egyptian history, the Fayum Shrine of Sobek and
the chapel in the Temple of Seti I at Abydos, suggest that a more modest amount of
bucrania decorated shrines than did the First Dynasty mastabas at Saqqara. This may
point to a difference in the ideology behind the use of the bucrania. While the bucrania
decorating the tombs reflected the wealth and power of the deceased, the gods were
already known to be powerful, and such an ostentatious display may not have been
necessary for their shrines.
Still, that bucrania decorated the shrines as well as tombs reveals that they had
some deeper meaning. The bull was a symbol of strength and power, and the bucrania
may have been meant to afford protection to the buildings which they decorated. They
also would have functioned to mark the importance of these buildings. In the case of
the tombs, the bucrania may additionally have represented a herd which, like the
human sacrifice of the retainers, was to accompany the deceased to the afterlife.
The iconographic evidence for the use of bucrania during the First Dynasty, and
the later evidence, the Fayum Shrine of Sobek and the chapel in the Temple of Seti,
reveal a long and abiding tradition. The bucranium buried beneath the altar in Djoser’s
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Step Pyramid Complex may be related to the use of bucrania in shrines, as the altar
was obviously also related to the cult. At the same time, because this bucranium was
buried beneath the altar, it reflects a similar ideology to the burial of the single
bucranium in Tomb 3038 at Saqqara. The use of bucrania in architecture, and the
ideology behind this use, was therefore not restricted to the First Dynasty, although
the best and most potent evidence comes from this period.
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