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Episode 8 - Egyptian Painted Pottery Cattle

Model of four cattle (made around 5,500 years ago). Painted clay, found at El Amra, southern Egypt

Mention excavation in Egypt, and most of us immediately see ourselves entering Tutankhamun's tomb, discovering the hidden treasures of the pharaohs and at a stroke rewriting history. Aspiring archaeologists should be warned that this happens only very rarely. Most archaeology is of course a slow dirty business, followed by even slower recording of what has been found. And the tone of archaeological reports has a deliberate, academic, almost clerical dryness, far removed from the riotous swagger of Indiana Jones.

In 1900, a member of the Egypt Exploration Society excavated a grave in southern Egypt. He soberly named his discovery Grave A23 and noted the contents:

'Body, male. Baton of clay painted in red stripes, with imitation mace-head of clay. Small red pottery box, four-sided, 9 inches x 6 inches. Leg bones of small animal. Pots and - stand of 4 clay cows.'

These four little clay cows are a long way from the glamour of the pharaohs, but you could argue that cows and what they represent have been far more important to human history. Babies have been reared on their milk, temples have been built to them, whole societies have been fed by them, economies have been built on them. Without cows there are no cowboys, and without cowboys no Wild West. Our world would have been a different and a duller place without the cow.

'They were a very important part of the Egyptian economy. It became essentially a symbol for life.' (Professor Fekri Hassan)

'It's not that easy for archaeologists to pin down how food processing worked in these early stages, but some of these artefacts can give us a good insight into it.' (Professor Martin Jones)

Four horned cows stand side by side upon fertile land. And indeed they've been grazing on their little patch of grass for about five and a half thousand years. They're ancient Egyptian, more ancient even than the pharaohs or the pyramids.

These cows are miniatures - small models, hand-moulded out of a single lump of Nile river clay. And on them you can still see very faint traces of black-and-white paint applied after the clay had been lightly baked. Like toy farm-animals of the sort most of us played with as children, they stand only a few inches high, and the clay base that they share is roughly the size of a dinner plate. These cows were buried with a man in a cemetery near a small village near El Amra in southern Egypt. Like all the objects I've chosen this week, these creatures speak of the consequences of climate change and human responses to it. They have a story to tell about their owner that stretches far beyond Grave A23.

All of the things found in this grave were intended to be useful in another world and, in a way never imagined by the people who placed them there, they are. But they're useful for us, not for the dead. Because they allow us unique insights into remote societies, their way of death casting light on their way of life, and perhaps even more important, they give us some idea not just of what people did but of what they thought and believed.

Most of what we know about early Egypt, that's Egypt before the pharaohs and the hieroglyphs, is based on burial objects that archaeologists have discovered, objects like these little cows. They come from a time when Egypt was populated only by small farming communities living along the Nile Valley. Compared to the spectacular gold and tomb ornaments of later Egypt, these little clay cows are a modest thing. Funerals at that point were simpler; they didn't involve embalming or mummifying; that kind of practice wouldn't come for another thousand years. Instead we find a simpler way of burying people.

The owner of our four clay cows would have been laid in an oval pit. He would have been placed in a crouched position, lying on a mat of rushes, facing the setting sun. And around him were his grave goods - items of value for his journey into the afterlife, five and a half thousand years ago; among them his four clay cows. Cow models like this one are quite common, so we can be fairly sure that cows must have played a significant part in Egyptian daily life - such an important part, in fact, that they couldn't be left behind when the owner passed through death and on into the afterlife. How did this humble beast become so important to human beings? Martin Jones, Professor of Archaeological Science at Cambridge University, is an expert in the archaeology of food:

'If we think of the human diet in two steps - one is with early modern humans, there is an enormous adventurous diversification. We were eating everything - seeds, fish, mammoths, birds - anything that moves we are finding a way to eat it. And then there is a second episode, which starts around ten thousand years ago, where we seem to home in on a small number of target species, particularly grass seeds (what we call cereals), underground tubers, and a small number of animals.'

The story begins over nine thousand years ago, in the vast expanses of the Sahara. In Egypt then, instead of today's landscape of arid desert, the Sahara was a lush, open savannah with gazelles, giraffes, zebras, elephant and wild cattle roaming through it - happy hunting for humans.

But around eight thousand years ago, the rains that nourished this landscape dried up. Without rain, the land began to turn to the desert that we know today, leaving people and animals to seek ever-dwindling sources of water. This dramatic change of environment meant that people had to find an alternative to hunting.

Somehow they found a way to tame wild cattle. No longer did they just chase them, one by one, they learnt how to gather and manage herds, with which they travelled and from which they could live. Cows became almost literally the lifeblood of these new communities. The needs of fresh water and pasture for the cattle now determined the very rhythm of life as both human and animal activity became ever more intertwined. What role did these early Egyptian cattle play in this sort of society? What did they keep cows for? Professor Fekri Hassan has excavated and studied many of these early Egyptian graves:

'These people had farming villages, and I happen to have excavated sites in the Naqada region. And we found remains of animal enclosures, as well as evidence for the consumption of cattle. We found the bones of these animals. And these items, these models of cattle, were probably produced a millennium or more after cattle were introduced into Egypt.'

Study of the bones of these cattle from ancient times shows the ages at which the animals were killed. Surprisingly, many of them were old, at least too old if they were being kept only for food. So unless the early Egyptians enjoyed very tough steak, these are not in our sense beef cattle. And they must have been kept alive for other reasons - perhaps to carry water or possessions on journeys. But it seems more likely they were tapped for blood which, if you drink it or add it to stews, gives you essential extra protein - it's something we find in many parts of the world, and it's still done today by the nomadic peoples in Kenya.

So are our four cows a walking blood bank? The more obvious answer, that they were dairy cows, we can probably rule out, because for several reasons milk was unfortunately off the menu. Not only did these early domesticated cows produce very little milk but, more importantly for humans, drinking cows' milk is very much an acquired skill. Martin Jones again:

'There are a range of other foods that our distant ancestors would not have eaten as readily as we do, something as commoplace as milk is something that we have had to evolve to tolerate, because milk is biologically designed just for very young mammals, and we needed to genetically evolve in order to tolerate drinking milk as adults, and indeed a great number of modern peoples around the world don't have that tolerance of drinking milk as adults.'

So, drinking cows' milk would probably have made these early Egyptians very ill, but they and many other populations eventually adapted. We're not only what we eat, we are essentially what our ancestors - with great difficulty - 'learned' to eat.

But in early Egypt cows were probably also kept as a kind of insurance policy. If crops or the immediate surroundings were damaged by fire, communities could always fall back on the cow for nourishment as a last resort; perhaps not the best thing to eat, but always there. They were also socially and ceremonially significant but, as Fekri Hassan explains, their importance went even deeper:

'Cattle have always had religious significance, both the bulls and the cows; it's related mostly to life. In the desert a cow was the source of life. And we have many representations in rock art, where we see cows with their calves in a more-or-less a religious scene - and we also see human female figurines, also modelled from clay, with raised arms as if they were horns. So it seems to me that cattle were quite important in religious ideology.'

The cattle in front of me don't show any outward signs of being particularly special. On closer inspection, however, they don't look like the cows you find on the farm today, anywhere across Europe, North America or the Middle East. Their horns are strikingly different - they curve forwards and much lower than any cows that we know, and that's because they're not like the cows that we know.

All the cows alive in the world today descend from Asia. Our Egyptian model cows look different from the ones we know today because they were descended from native African cattle, which have now become extinct.

Along the Nile Valley, the cow eventually transformed human existence, and in fact became so much a central part of the Egyptian world that it even inspired worship. We all need our gods to be close to what we eat. Whether this cow worship started as early as the time of our little model cows is still a matter of debate, but in later Egyptian mythology the cow takes on a prominent role in religion, worshipped as the powerful cow goddess Bat. She is typically shown with the face of a woman and the ears and horns of a cow. And we can see just how far cattle have gained in status, by the fact that subsequently, Egyptian kings were honoured with the title Bull of his Mother - the cow had come to be seen as the creator of the pharaohs.

In the next programme, I'm moving from cows to corn - but I'm staying with the gods - this time, the all-powerful god of maize, in Mexico.

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