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Sources for trade between ancient Egypt and other lands

There is an almost blinding focus on kingship in much ancient Egyptian writing, especially in hieroglyphic inscriptions and formal art, because these serve the function of securing order (the order of kingship) for eternity. This complicates assessment of trade between ancient Egypt and other lands; for example, a depiction of the presentation of imports does not reveal the means by which they were secured, because the means would have no effect on the function of eternal presentation. Modern commentators sometimes refer to produce in such scenes as 'tribute', but there is no special word in the Egyptian language for imports delivered by tribute relations (that is, by obligation on a foreign ruler to deliver goods to Egypt for no return) - the translation violates the context of the ancient depiction, within which the means of acquisition do not need to be specified. Were they spoils of war? gifts in international relations? tribute from vassal states? items traded by market exchange? The answers are not provided from within the colourful depictions of the arrival of foreign goods and foreigners.


Some key sources for trade in the archaeological record

Consider the five categories of sources below: how much information on trade is it reasonable to expect from each? how do they complement one another? are they enough together to provide a rounded picture?

1. excavation of material not local to the findspot

Before this category can be considered, it is necessary to establish the regular production in the area of the findspot. Otherwise, a local item may be misidentified as foreign. Identifications as local/foreign are prone to change over time, as archaeologists build up a more detailed picture of the material culture of each area.



2. discovery of items locally made but imitating imports

These may be more significant than direct imports, inasmuch as they demonstrate a greater degree of interrelation and penetration of cultures. Reasons for imitation are likely to vary from case to case: over a longer period of time, the origin of a motif or form may be forgotten.



3. depiction of arrival of foreign goods

These are often considered the most attractive sources, as if an ancient photographic snapshot: however, they are not easy to read from a modern perspective, because the rules of formal art in ancient Egypt are so different from European perspectival art, and the purposes of that art are religious (to project order into eternity) and therefore far from the interests of the modern economic, social and political historian. They focus on the presentation of produce to the king and through him to the gods as an eternal act of good; therefore they omit crucial information required by the modern historian, notably (1) whether anything was sent in exchange, and (2) how often the event took place.


4. hieroglyphic inscriptions recording trade

See the notes for no.3 above.



5. manuscripts recording trade

In contrast to hieroglyphic inscriptions, where the primary purpose is the projection of perfect order into eternity, more day-to-day manuscripts from court life are more likely to reveal both sides.


Compare this with the Red Sea trade revealed by Greek ostraca from Koptos dating to the Roman Period


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