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The Turtle of Two Bowls

About 6,000 years ago, in a small village located along the Nile, a single artist, drawing upon thousands of years of inherited storytelling wisdom, created an earthenware masterpiece that would go on to become the most influential document in the history of human civilization. This artifact consisted of two distinctive clay bowls that fit together into what was ostensibly a Turtle:

Our anonymous potter’s creation was much more than a whimsical representation of a common, river-dwelling reptile.

At a functional level, the Turtle of Two Bowls (T2B) was a portable planetarium: its various surfaces of glazed, white-line pictures provided a 3-stage star-map of the turning sky. From this complex depiction of the rotating constellations, the potter created a reliable calendar whose multi-layered clockwork helped to synchronize and standardize the tribe’s most sacred ritual practices with the mechanics of heavenly signs.

Furthermore, although the refined alphabet was still several thousand years into its future, this 2-piece, state-of-the-art clay Turtle was the earliest complete draft (“Copy Zero”) of the Book of Genesis.

Within a few hundred years of its creation, however, T2B was no longer an heirloom to be passed down among shamanic witch doctors. Its dual, interconnected pieces had somehow been divided among separate custodians, and each bowl had ultimately been buried with its deceased owner into a discrete grave around the region of Abydos.

From that point forward, the Turtle-of-Two-Bowls was lost. Yet it was certainly not forgotten. The device’s incredible accuracy and magical image-making capabilities had by this time become quite legendary up and down the Nile River. The developing (and ossifying) hieroglyphs of Egypt owed their existence to the Turtle’s original forms, and the subsequent alphabet-based texts of both the Old and New Testaments would reverently refer to its transformative properties (O.T. Ezekiel and N.T. Revelation both speak of “the Four Living Creatures” ­ a direct reference to the turning clockwork of T2B).

Unsurprisingly, the unique mechanics of T2B would inspire many thousands of not-quite-accurate descendants: corruptions and counterfeits whose mediums ranged from carved slate palettes, chiseled temple walls, painted sarcophagi, inked papyri and scrolled parchment.

Then, toward the end of the 19th century CE, after thousands of years beneath the sands, the two pieces of the Turtle were unearthed in separate excavations. Although archaeologists soon realized that the two bowls were created by the same artist, the bowls themselves ended up in different museums, and for the past century have been largely ignored by Egyptologists, Biblical Scholars, and the general public alike.

This treatise seeks to reposition and restore the Turtle of Two Bowls to its central place among the masterpiece documents of the Human race.

Discovery and Documentation

On a little round ball called Earth...

...there's a river called the Nile that flows northward from the heart of Africa:

Just downstream from a great bend in the river is a place called Abydos:

In the Western desert, just beyond the edge of the cultivation, there are two archeaological sites that contain cemeteries from about 6,000 years ago.

These cemeteries are called Mahasna L, and Abydos U:

From Mahasna L was recovered the L(ower) Bowl, and from Abydos U was recovered the U(pper) Bowl.

The L-Bowl was documented by John Garstang in Mahasna and Bet Khallaf, 1903:

John Garstang
John Garstang

The L-Bowl was recovered from Mahasna Cemetery L, grave 209.

The L-Bowl is classified as white cross-lined C-ware pottery, and dated to the Naqada I-IIa period.

Here are a pair of photographs of the L-Bowl, from Plate III of Garstang's publication:

Here is some of Garstang’s commentary regarding the L-Bowl:

The L-Bowl was placed in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Its catalogue number is AM E.2785.

In 1993, Joan Crowfoot Payne published her Catalogue of the Predynastic Egyptian Collection in the Ashmolean Museum:

Joan Crowfoot Payne
Joan Crowfoot Payne

Here is how she described the L-Bowl:

Figure 27, page 389:
Site: Nag el-Alawna
Shape: oval bowl on four legs
Material: fine Nile (probably NB1)
Manufacture: handmade
Surface: red-coated; horizontal burnish inside and outside, with white painted decoration inside.

The U-Bowl was documented by Jacques de Morgan in Recherches sur les Origines de L’Egypte, 1896:

Jacques de Morgan
Jacques de Morgan

The U-Bowl is classified as a specimen of white cross-lined C-ware pottery.

It is dated to the Naqada I-IIa period.

It was recovered from Abydos Cemetery U, grave 264.

Here’s how de Morgan rendered the U-Bowl (Figure 5) on Plate II:

The U-Bowl was placed in the Cairo Museum. Its catalog number is CG 2076.

In 1913, Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing published his Catalouge General des Antiquites Egyptiennes du Musee du Caire, Vol. LXVI:

Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing
Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing

Here is how von Bissing described the U-Bowl (translation by Google):

Dish with flat bottom, round, sloping wall. Rim expansive.

2076. Outside: In sketchy outline, a standing man grasping a quadruped (head missing) by the tail. Behind it the rest of a quadruped and further a curved line. - Inside: At the bottom a scorpion, seen from above; in the circle around him on the wall: a crocodile in top view, a fish (?), a gazelle, on the front of a young jumps, both in side view. Higher, arranged in circles: above the crocodile a ship with two pairs Rowing in front, a pair in the back and a longer rudder; in the middle a larger and two smaller cabins. Four branches (?) In the front of the ship, a tuft hanging from the beak. In front of it, in the water, which marks four long zig-zags running in different directions, a hippopotamus facing the ship, over which two fish swim; in front of these three waders over a small boat with oars. Next a fish, a small gazelle with a turned head - all in side view. Still further a turtle in top view, on the top hand a long, winding snake. Then the hest of a second boat with drooping Tufts and (beyond the break) Rudder (?). Two lizards in a top view, heads downwards. - Glued together from two pieces, a triangular piece is missing. Plate VII Abydos. Height: 0.068 m, width above: 0.17 m.

In 2008, Rita Hartmann published the missing piece from the U-Bowl:

Hartmann, R. 2008. Two fragments of the white cross-lined ware from the cemetery U in Abydos to vessels from the Egyptian Museum Cairo. - In: Engel, E.- M., Müller, V. & Hartung, U. (eds.), Signs from the sand. Streiflichter from Egypt's history in honor of Günter Dreyer. Menes 5. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, pp. 163-182.


Pairing of the Two Bowls

In 1920, Sir William Flinders Petrie published Prehistoric Egypt.

W.M. Flinders Petrie
W.M. Flinders Petrie

On Plate XXIII of that document, Petrie placed his scale drawings of the Turtle of Two Bowls side by side in acknowledgment of the fact that they were produced by the same artist:

In 1968, Henry G. Fischer, working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, published a document entitled Ancient Egyptian Representations of Turtles.

Henry G. Fischer
Henry G. Fischer

On page 21, he referenced Petrie's drawings, and described both bowls together:

Discrepancies and Details

Before conducting an interpretive analysis of T2B, it is first necessary to identify discrepancies in the various scholars' renderings, and reconcile them into a master drawing that will be used from this point forward.

In his analysis of the U-Bowl, Fischer noted that "Petrie's drawing is more accurate than that of de Morgan".

I agree with Fischer, with the caveat that Petrie appears to have omitted the snake just to the left of the missing fragment.


de Morgan

With respect to details, I compare the U-Bowl's central scorpion, as rendered by Petrie and Hartmann:



I notice that Petrie draws the scorpion with four leg-pairs, while Hartmann renders each side with five legs. Since actual scorpions have four legs per side, I find Petrie's drawing more trustworthy.

With respect to the L-Bowl, I compare Petrie's drawing (left) with Crowfoot Payne's (right), and the actual photo from Garstang (below left):


Crowfoot Payne


I note that Crowfoot Payne seems to have reflected her drawing as though in a mirror, and, furthermore, has distorted the central image into a pair of "trussed geese". Petrie, in contrast, has preserved the actual orientation of the image, and his central figures appear to be far better differentiated. I interpret Petrie's duo as a "Trussed Goose" and a "Sitting Dog", which I believe is the original source for "The Contendings of Horus and Seth."

What's more, Petrie's human figures are far better realized. I interpret them as a Male with an erection (left), and a Female with a womb (right).

Thus, with respect to the detail and reliability of the drawings, it is Petrie's upon which I have based my analysis of the Turtle of Two Bowls.

Master Drawings

The following graphics represent my consolidated and finalized image set.

I have set the background colour to reddish-brown, and the glaze colour to pale yellow. I've based the majority of the image on Petrie's renderings, and added in the missing U-Bowl fragment as supplied by Hartmann. The finals are given here:


Celestial Concordances

Looking skyward from the village of Abydos, our Astronomer/Storyteller/Potter managed to depict an amazing variety of clockworks.





Shawn Postoff
Shawn Postoff as Sir Richard Wadd
Photo credit

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