Pilum:Ancient Canal Builders II

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Ancient Canal Builders (Part II)

There is much in ancient history written of the canal and how it shaped the world and it's history. It is named in peace and war, both as a means for the prosperity of a kingdom and as a vengeance against the enemy be he a people or an inanimate object. To the Egyptians the Nile River was sacred. It was on the broad bosom of the Nile that sailed the vessel of the Goddess Isis in search of the body of Osirius.

Of the first great canal builder we know little except what is portrayed on a surprisingly detailed and beautifully carved mace head. This carving now resides in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. (1)

The great man is skillfully portrayed on the surface of the mace head in sharp relief. He is called by historians "King Scorpion" due to both a carved scorpion and a seven petaled lotus flower, which are placed close to his person. Historians believe that the combination of these two carvings must covey to the observer his name. We do not know of his history or of his greatest accomplishments beyond that which is carved into this remarkable work. However, in this writing it is exactly that carving that we are most concerned with. (2)

The man's image is portrayed as holding a hoe in both of his hands while wearing the great crown of Upper Egypt. His size is three times the size of the other figures on the carving, and he is shown receiving an offering of a basket of some produce by one man, while another offers him some other kind of produce. This figure stands on a bank probably of a canal, while standards are displayed before him while he is cooled by the fans of fan bearers. Below where he stands the workers , carved at one-third his size busily work on the canal banks, while perhaps a messenger from King Scorpion rushes to deliver to them a royal message. There is also here carved a palm tree and what may be simply a reed fence, but as the artist who carved this great royal mace has shown it, there is the possibility that it may be not a matted fence, but rather a canal gate, or sluice through which water is moved through, into and out of the canal proper.

The carving is very well done, and transmits to the viewer the many aspects of the scene; the workmen's efforts to complete their tasks, as well as the stature and bearing of a king. Further we may determine from the fact that the event is remembered in this way, that this activity had some great meaning for this mysterious man, warrior, king or pharaoh.

This carving then gives great meaning to the fact that canals were well known in history and that their construction and usage was of great value to the ancient world.

All we really know of the "Scorpion King" is that he was designated as a follower of Horus. He may have inherited, commanded, or conquered a portion of the Nile Delta, and on the site of ancient Thinia which is found near the present day Abydos, are some very old structures (monuments??) which carry the carved sign of the scorpion.

A later Egyptian King of the First Dynasty is also portrayed by Herodotus as a man who used canals for his own purposes. King Menes brought under one political unification the Valley of the Nile River, and also brought the Nile Delta area under his cognizance as well. It is said that this king who lived in approximately 3000 B. C. selected Memphis on the Nile as the place for his city. His view of the undertaking was to dig a completely new riverbed for the Nile, by damming the river some distance below Memphis and turning the entire river into another channel. Having provided a fertile bed for his people, from the old Nile Channel, it was here that he decided to built his city. Seeing the need for a reservoir of some size, Menes then caused a wide lake / reservoir to be dug further up the old Nile Channel from his city. When this project was completed he had the lake connected to the Nile River in it's new channel with a canal. Thus, the city of the King of Menes was within the protective confines of the Nile, lake and canal. These three construction projects provided a significant barrier against any attack by his enemies.

Herodotus informs us that he was told in all seriousness that not one of the three-hundred and fifty kings of Egypt who followed Menes was equal to him in their accomplishments.(3)

(To Be Continued)


(1), Robert Payne, "The Canal Builders, The Story Of Canal Engineers Through The Ages," The Macmillan Company, New York, 1959, Pages 10-12; (hereafter known as Payne);

(2), Payne, Page 11, Mace Head of King Scorpion;

(3), Payne, Page 12.

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