Last Saturday one of our workers made an exciting discovery. An Egyptian dung beetle, also known as a scarab beetle, was found within a spoil heap of the Industrial Site that Diana and I are currently excavating. The beetle was already dead when discovered, but that did not reduce our excitement one bit! The presence of the scarab was a wonderful surprise, especially for Catharine and Diana, because even as veteran archaeologists in Egypt they had never come across one before. Intrigued, we asked two of our Egyptian team members, Wallah and Hassan, if they had seen a scarab beetle before. Hassan had seen many of them; however, surprisingly, this was Wallah’s first time so this was an interesting experience for her too.
Several species of the dung beetle, most notably the species Scarabaeus sacer, enjoyed a sacred status among the ancient Egyptians. The scarab beetle was one way the sun god Re could be represented. It was the sun god Re’s role in the daily cycle of renewal that the ancient Egyptians connected to the scarab beetle, whom they named Khepri. The god’s name is homophonous with a verb that means ‘to become’ and makes the connection to rebirth and resurrection. The link between a scarab beetle and the sun comes from the ancient Egyptians’ mistaken assumption that the young beetles hatching from dung balls were acts of self-creation. They also noticed that scarabs rolled their dung balls from east to west and understood this to be the explanation for how the sun moved across the sky: it was pushed by a giant scarab.
Back and base of scarab inscribed with Amenhotep III’s prenomen
Rogers Fund, 1911 (11.215.6)
The scarab became so important that the ancient Egyptians fashioned amulets in its image; these were popular charms from the end of the third millennium B.C. until the Ptolemaic Period (ca. 300 B.C.). Thousands of these amulets have been found, not only in Egypt but in the Near East and other lands around the Mediterranean Sea as well. They range from naturalistic forms carved in full detail to simplified shapes reduced to a general outline. The bases can display a variety of designs, including hieroglyphic inscriptions, royal names, divine figures, geometric or floral designs, humans, and animals. The sizes of scarabs also vary and can range from small, that is, between 1 and 3 cm, to large, with some examples over 10 cm long. Scarabs have been found in variety of materials, most commonly glazed steatite, but also faience (a type of ceramic that is also glazed), hard stones, and precious metals.
Commemorative scarab inscribed with a text about a lion hunt
Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926 (26.7.264)
Although the majority of scarabs were amulets, during the reign of Amenhotep III, our king, and his son, Amenhotep IV−the latter more commonly known as Akhenaten− large scarabs were commissioned to glorify the king and commemorate his accomplishments. Such scarabs were made to be distributed throughout Egypt and Egyptian territories, spreading news through their inscriptions. Texts recorded on these historical scarabs concern marriages, wild bull hunts, lion hunts, jubilees, and the creation of an artificial lake.
Surprisingly we have yet to find a scarab at Malqata. Perhaps one of these days we will get lucky!