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Friday 8th March 2019

Topic: The Treatment of Prisoners in the New Kingdom (Guest Speaker Dr Marta Valerio)

Chair: Jen Turner

This week we had the pleasure of welcoming Dr Marta Valerio from Turin to tell us about her doctoral research on the treatment of prisoners of war during the New Kingdom, and their impact on the Egyptian economic system and society. The ‘journey’ of the prisoners was explored through various written and iconographic sources within the New Kingdom period, detailing the transition from initial capture through to their altered status in ancient Egypt, from ‘enemy’ to ‘resource’ of the state. This included analysis of evidence from funerary contexts, temple reliefs, and objects such as the Narmer mace head and statues and stelae that relate to the treatment of prisoners.

Various iconographic sources were discussed – in many cases, it was noted that the artistic representations of battle scenes, prisoners being captured or the procession of prisoners being brought back to Egypt, demonstrated the different treatment of prisoners between the Egyptian soldiers and the pharaoh. It was discussed to what extent this is a reflection of existing artistic decorum in which it is only the king as the highest authority figure who can be represented with different equipment and in a different composition relating to the spoils of war, or whether this reflects real practice within the military. The primary focus of depicting the pharaoh as victorious was also considered for its influence on how the prisoners are represented.

The iconographical representations of the physical restraint of prisoners through manacles, handcuffs and ropes can also be attested in written sources, however it was noted that surviving examples of such restraints were extremely rare. The representations of prisoners being branded or tattooed, found on the ‘registration scene’ of Sea Peoples from Medinet Habu, was discussed at length. In particular, this scene raised many questions about identity and the ideological significance of such marking/branding of foreign peoples. As with the other iconographic depictions, the group considered to what extent such scenes reflected reality, and how far we can interpret such scenes.

The terminology used to refer to the prisoner (such as skr-ˁnḫ or ḥȝḳ) could also refer to the collective booty or spoils from a battle, and thus the identity of the prisoners as individuals (and as a group) was obscured. The group discussed the transition of the prisoners into society, at which point they can then be referred to in written sources as ḥm or mrt. Again modern translations and interpretations of these terms has involved debate over renderings such as ‘slave’ or ‘servant’, though this is also still relevant to modern discussions. The terms ‘prisoner’ and ‘prison’, for instance, are modern loaded terms that may shape how we view and understand the ancient transition process of foreign captives into society. This transition was further explored by considering their conversion to workers within the Egyptian economy, particularly in temples performing varied manual labour. The evidence of surviving prisoners also being given to high status officials as ‘rewards’ further fuelled the group’s discussion of identity and status of these individuals.

Though the surviving evidence and depiction of prisoners is insightful of the Egyptian view of other ethnicities and the kings’ responsibility to uphold Maat through foreign invasion and suppression, the ‘real’ treatment of the prisoners is much harder to ascertain. Marta emphasised that the sources’ reliability and agendas make it difficult to define their social status, working conditions and identity or ethnic base. In addition, the complexity of the terminology further obscures the understanding of the prisoners’ function within ancient Egyptian society. Marta’s future research will further consider their role in the Egyptian economy, the process of acculturation (both in how to define this, and to explore how fast this process could have taken place), and to provide comparisons of the treatment of prisoners in other contemporary ancient societies.

Thank you to Marta for a really fascinating talk!

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