011： - King Den's Sandal Label
King Den's sandal label (made around 3000 BC). Hippopotamus ivory, found in Abydos, Egypt
There's a compelling showbiz mythology of the modern big city - the energy and the abundance, the proximity to culture and power, the streets that just might be paved with gold. We've seen it and we've loved it, on stage and on screen. But we all know that in reality big cities are noisy, potentially violent and alarmingly anonymous. We sometimes just can't cope with the sheer mass of people.
Apparently, if you look at how many numbers we're likely to store in our mobile phone, or how many names we're likely to list on a social networking site, it's very rare even for city dwellers to exceed a couple of hundred.
Social anthropologists delightedly point out that this is the size of the social group we'd have had to handle in a large Stone Age village. According to them, we're all still trying to cope with modern city life with a Stone Age social brain.
So how do you lead and control a city or a state where most people don't know each other, and you can only personally persuade a very small percentage of the inhabitants? It's the central theme of this week's programmes, and it's been the key political question for over five thousand years, since the growth of the world's first cities and states.
These grew up in the world's great fertile river valleys, the Euphrates, the Tigris and the Indus, but I want to start with the most famous river of them all, the Nile.
"There's no doubt that warfare and the coercive power of the king is very much at the heart of the regime from an early period." (Toby Wilkinson)
"It's a fine image of bashing - so it's violent, it's elegant, expressive, and it's beautiful as well." (Steve Bell)
Today's object shows us that in the Egypt of the pharaohs, the answer to the question of how to exert leadership and state control over a large population was quite simple: force.
If you're going to talk about the Egypt of the pharaohs, the British Museum gives you a spectacular choice - monumental sculptures, painted mummy cases, and much much more but, as we're talking about a society that was created by its river, I've chosen an object that came quite literally from the mud of the Nile.
It's made from a tusk of a hippo, and it belonged to one of Egypt's first pharaohs - King Den. Perversely for an object that's going to let us explore power on a massive scale, it is absolutely tiny.
I'm holding it now. It's about one and a half inches square, it's very thin and it looks and feels a bit like a modern-day business card. But, in fact, it's a label - a label that was once attached to a pair of shoes; not any old shoes - these were sandals of the highest status, because this little ivory plaque is a name tag for an Egyptian pharaoh, made to accompany him as he set off to the afterlife.
The nearest modern equivalent I can think of to this is the ID card that everybody working in an office now has to wear round their necks to get past the security check. It's not immediately clear who was meant to read these labels, whether they're aimed at the gods of the afterlife or perhaps the servants that might not know their way around.
The images themselves are made by scratching into the ivory and then rubbing a black resin into the incisions, so that you get a wonderful contrast between the black and the cream of the ivory. So, through this little ivory name tag, we're immediately close to these first kings of Egypt; rulers around 3000 BC, of a new kind of civilisation that would produce some of the greatest monumental art and architecture ever.
Before the first pharaohs, Egypt was very much a country divided, split between the east-west Mediterranean-facing strip of the Delta in the north, and the north-south string of settlements along the river itself. With the Nile flooding every year, harvests were plentiful, so there was enough food for a rapidly growing population and there was still some surplus to trade with. But there was absolutely no extra fertile land beyond the flooding area.
So, inevitably, people fought over what land was available. Conflict followed conflict, with those from the Delta eventually being conquered by the people from the south and, just before 3000 BC, Egypt was united. It's one of the earliest societies that we can think of as a state in the modern sense, and as one of its earliest leaders, King Den had to address all the problems of control and co-ordination that a modern state has to confront today.
You might not expect to discover how he did it from the label on his shoes, but Den's sandals were no ordinary shoes, they were very high status items - and the Keeper of the Sandals was one of the high court officials, so it's not so surprising that on the back of the label we have a clear statement of how this pharaoh exercised power. The model evolved in Den's Egypt five thousand years ago resonates uncannily around the world to this day.
On the other side from the sandals [in the museum] is their owner, dressed in a royal head-dress with a mace in one hand and a whip in the other. King Den stands in combat, authoritatively smiting an enemy who cowers at his feet. Of course the first thing we look for is his sandals but, disappointingly, he's barefoot.
This little label is the first image in our series of a ruler - and it's striking that, right at the beginning, the ruler wants to be shown as commander-in-chief, conquering his foe. This is how, from earliest times, power has been projected through images. There's something disturbingly familiar about this kind of image - it looks to us indeed a bit like a contemporary political cartoon, and so we showed it to the political cartoonist, Steve Bell, to ask him what he made of it:
"Well, looking at this tiny object now, it is a genuinely archetypal image of power - it's the exercise of power, it's somebody bossing it over somebody else. And this image of having a larger character dominating a smaller character is obviously not to do with physical size, it's to do with symbolic size, symbolic weight, and that even carries on into the world of naturalistic political cartoons to this very day. I did it myself only yesterday. You find that characters you focus on often you draw bigger, just because that's where the meaning is. Here we are - one of the earliest political images of all time - it is quite something. There're no laughs there - but that comes later!"
The label-maker's job 'was' deadly serious - to keep his leader looking invincible and semi-divine, and to show that Den was the only man who could guarantee what Egyptians, like everybody else, wanted from their rulers - law and order. Within the pharaoh's realm, everybody was expected to conform and to take on a clear Egyptian identity. The message of our sandal label is that the price of opposition was high and painful. And the message is carried not only in images but by writing - there are some early hieroglyphs scratched into the ivory.
The inscriptions give us the name of King Den and, between him and the enemy, are the chilling words 'they shall not exist'. This 'other' is going to be obliterated. Who he is we don't know but, to the right of the label, is an inscription which reads: 'the first occasion of smiting the east'. And, as the sandy ground beneath the figures rises to the right-hand side, it's been suggested that the enemy comes from the east, from Sinai. All the tricks of savage political propaganda are already here - the ruler calm and victorious, the alien misshapen, defeated enemy.
The area that this Egyptian state was able to coerce and control is staggering; at its height, it included virtually all the Nile Valley from the Delta to what is modern Sudan, as well as a huge area to the east up to the borders of Sinai. We asked archaeologist Toby Wilkinson what state building on this scale required:
"Well obviously this is an early period in Egypt's history, when the nation is still being consolidated, not so much territorially as ideologically and psychologically. And the king and his advisers are looking for ways to reinforce Egypt's sense of its own nationhood, and support for their regime.
And I think they realised, as world leaders have realised throughout history, that nothing binds a nation and a people together quite so effectively as a foreign war against a common enemy, whether that enemy is real or manufactured. And so warfare plays really a key role in, if you like, the consolidation of the Egyptian sense of their own nationhood."
It's a discouragingly familiar strategy. You win hearts and minds at home by focussing on the threats from abroad, but the weapons that you need to crush the enemy can come in handy when you're dealing with domestic opponents as well. The political rhetoric of foreign aggression is backed up by very brisk policing at home.
The apparatus of the modern state had been forged. And the enduring consequences were artistic as well as political. Only power of this order could organise the enormous building projects that these early pharaohs embarked on.
Den's elaborate tomb with granite shipped from hundreds of miles away, and the later, even grander pyramids, were possible only because of the extraordinary power the Egyptian pharaohs could exercise over the minds and the bodies of their subjects.
In the next programme, I'll be looking further east, beyond Sinai to Mesopotamia - modern-day Iraq. Two rivers there, not one, and not one great unitary state like Egypt, but competing groups of rich city states. But the same problems confront the rulers: how do you control these large, prosperous - but always turbulent - populations? And in part at least, they came up with the same answer: force.