Falcon shrine with cryptic message found in Egypt baffles archaeologist

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The falcon imagery seen at the Falcon Sanctuary of Berenice could signify a number of deities. This falcon sculpture comes from Edfu, a city on the Nile south of Luxor. (Image credit: Photograph by Ulrich Hollmann via Getty Images)

Egyptian archaeologists have discovered a 1,700-year-old “falcon sanctuary” with the remains of 15 headless falcons on a pedestal, as well as a stone monument depicting two unknown gods.

The sanctuary and the monument – which were found at Berenike, a ancient egyptian port on the Red Sea – were described in an article published in the October issue of American Journal of Archeology (opens in a new tab). An iron harpoon about 13 inches (34 centimeters) long was found near the pedestal, the researchers wrote in the study.

“The beheading of falcons seems to be a local gesture to complete a living offering to the shrine god”, David Frankfurt (opens in a new tab), a religion professor at Boston University who was not involved in the excavations, told Live Science in an email. “The votive sacrifice of a live animal usually involves some sort of killing or sprinkling of blood to show the devotee’s commitment.”

In another room of the sanctuary, archaeologists found a stele, or pillar, with a Greek inscription that translates to “It is improper to boil a head here”. It remains a mystery why the falcons were beheaded, why a stele was placed in a room prohibiting the boiling of heads, and why a harpoon was placed near the falcons.

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The stele represents three deities: Harpokrates [also spelled Harpocrates] of Koptos, who is a “child god”, and two enigmatic deities whose names are unclear. One has a “falcon head,” and the other is a goddess who wears a crown made of “cow horns and a sun disk,” the team wrote, noting that the falcon-headed god seems to be the most important of the three. displayed deities.

One possible explanation is that the 15 headless falcons were offerings made to deities, specifically the falcon-headed god. The harpoon may also have been an offering, the researchers have proposed.

“We hypothesize that the sacrificial animals were boiled before being presented to the god, perhaps to facilitate the plucking of their feathers, and that their heads were removed, in accordance with the prescription on the stele”, writes the team in its article.

The sanctuary also contained remains of fish, mammals, and bird eggshells. Some of them may also have been offerings, and feasting may have taken place at the shrine, the team noted.

At the time the sanctuary was in use, around the fourth century AD, the Roman Empire controlled Egypt, but their control was waning.

In Berenike, the team found inscriptions written by the Blemmyan kings. The Blemmyes were a semi-nomadic people who lived largely in present-day Sudan and parts of southern Egypt. Finds at Berenice suggest that the Blemmyes lived at Berenice between the fourth and sixth centuries AD, until they abandoned the site.

Religious implications

The shrine shows that ancient religious practices persisted even after the rise of Christianity, Frankfurter told Live Science. At the time the shrine was in use, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire.

“The Berenice Falcon Sanctuary, which still functioned as a ritual center at the end of the 4th century or later, shows once again that traditional Egyptian religion did not disappear with the rise of Christianity, but persisted and changed in many parts of Egypt through the efforts of local communities,” Frankfurter said.

A figurine of the child-deity Harpokrates, who is depicted here naked with a broken finger. This metal representation probably comes from the eastern delta, from Tanis, Egypt, and not from Berenike, like the temple described in this article. (Image credit: Rogers Fund, 1944; The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Having finds like these intact is rare, Salima Ikram (opens in a new tab), a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, told Live Science in an email. “What an incredible stroke of luck to find such deposits in situ!” said Ikram. “The distribution of falcons in the chamber is extraordinary, and the other objects, especially the stele, are wonderful.”

The decapitated falcons and the ban on boiling the heads raise a number of questions about the cults, rituals and various belief systems that have coalesced in Berenike, Ikram added.

“This discovery is a small but crucial piece of deciphering the complex religious beliefs and rituals that flourished in this port city,” Ikram said.

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