CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1
FISH TAIL BIFACES
EGYPT
PREDYNASTIC NAQADA CULTURE
RITUAL OBJECTS

4,400 TO 3,050 YEARS AGO EST.
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Two views of an early style Fish Tail biface.
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FISH TAIL BIFACE
PREDYNASTIC--NAQADA CULTURE
EGYPT
BUFFALO MUSEUM OF SCIENCE COLLECTION

    This Fish Tail biface is a fairly complete example, except for a nick or two and a break on both tips of the "wings". But it's not nearly so well made as the two previous examples. In fact this one may have been made from a broken Gerzean knife. There is a remnant of an area of obvious surface polish near the upper left "wing" in the left side view. Polishing the surface was part of the manufacturing process used to make Gerzean knives. Polishing doesn't seem to have been a standard technique in the manufacture of Fish Tail bifaces. But a small percentage do have evidence of polishing. This example has the earlier style "U" shaped blade that probably dates to Predynastic Egypt (A.J. Arkell 1975 p.46). It measures 4 inches (10.2cm) long, 2 5/8 inches (6.6cm) wide and 3/16 of an inch (5mm) thick.

   The best examples of the flintknappers skill that has survived intact has come from the tombs. In fact the largest bifaces ever found in Egypt were found in tomb 1226 on the necropolis site of Helwan located 20 miles from Cairo near the ruins of Memphis. The 10,000 tombs that were excavated there contained the nobles of court and the upper class servants of royalty. Two very large ceremonial knives were discovered in tomb 1226 that measured about 19 1/2 inches (50cm) long. These are the largest so far recorded to date. They are made of a colorful stone and have curving blades that are approximately 3 inches (7.6cm) wide.

Working end of an early style Fish Tail biface.Working end of a later style Fish Tail biface.
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FISH TAIL BIFACES
PREDYNASTIC--NAQADA CULTURE
EGYPT
LEN & JANIE WEIDNER AND PRIVATE COLLECTIONS

   These pictures of the "working ends" of two Fish Tail bifaces show the two different basic styles. The one of the left with the "U" shaped "blade" is recognized as an earlier example than the one on the right with the "V" shaped "blade". In 1975 A.J. Arkell writes "The peculiar fish-tail knife continued to be made (longer than Gerzean knives), although the shape changed in a characteristic manner from a U to a V division of the "tail-fin" blade". 

   A large percentage of Fish Tail bifaces have also been found in tombs. Dr. Michael A. Hoffman wrote a description of them for me in the late 1980's: "Fish Tail bifaces are well known from Predynastic tombs and have occasionally been uncovered in settlement sites at Hierakonpolis. They are shaped like elongated triangles with deeply concave bases, are thin finely retouched objects and many of the earlier specimens display minute denticulation".

Early 1904 drawing of a later style Fish Tail biface.
FISH TAIL BIFACE
PREDYNASTIC--NAQADA CULTURE
EGYPT
ILLUSTRATION FROM 1904, "Flint Implements of the Fayum, Egypt---Annual Report of The Smithsonian Institution" by Heywood WalterSeton-Karr

   This is a drawing of the nearly complete example of a later form of a Fish Tail biface that Heywood Walter Seton-Karr describes in a "1904 Smithsonian Report" article called "Flint Implements of the Fayum". He describes this particular artifact as "No. 259 was picked up under a large rock by a Berber boy. M. Maspero says that these are now regarded as sacrificial knives, and they are so labeled in the Cairo Museum. The serrations pointing forward to keep the handle in place, are especially to be noted". But rather than hafting it in the "V" as he describes we now know that it would have been hafted on the single pointed end.

   Fish Tail bifaces have been considered to be some type of ritual object ever since the first examples were discovered and described. But it has only been recently that their specific purpose in ancient Predynastic culture has become known. Dr. Mike Hoffman writes---- "Originally thought to be spear points, discovery of a hafted specimen showed that the concave end faced outward while the pointed end was embedded in the handle. It is now believed that Fish Tails were used in the religious rite of symbolically opening the mouth of the dead just prior to burial so that the deceased's soul could receive sustenance in the tomb. A Fifth Dynasty papyrus (ca. 2400 B.C.) from Abusir refers to similar objects by the Old Egyptian term "Peshish Kef".

Close up of the edge of a Fish Tail biface.
CLICK ON PICTURE FOR VERY VERY LARGE IMAGE (67 Sec.)
FISH TAIL BIFACES
PREDYNASTIC--NAQADA CULTURE
EGYPT
PRIVATE COLLECTION

   This picture shows a very close-up image of a small area near the edge of a Fish Tail biface. The arrow is pointing to a thinning technique that was used once-in-awhile by ancient flintknappers in different areas of the world, especially by those who had copper tools. The person who made this Fish Tail biface removed part of a small "stack". The impact area is located at the end of the arrow. It would have been done by indirect percussion flaking. A little like using a hammer and chisel. The ancient flintknapper who made this piece was very skilled and maybe even a "perfectionist".

   Fish Tail bifaces or "Peshish Kef's" are unique in all the world. It would be interesting to know how these strange ritual items came into use, or when the first one was made. We can theorize that the first one may have been made of something other than stone. Maybe it was carved out of wood or ivory then it was decided that all the future examples would be made by flint-smiths. What we do know is that these objects represent some of the most skillfully made bifaces that have ever been found in any Stone Age culture anywhere in the world. They stand out as examples of important ritual objects from the past but they are also superbly crafted items that will impress people for countless years in the future.

"REFERENCES"

1904, "Flint Implements of the Fayum, Egypt---Annual Report of The Smithsonian Institution" by Heywood Walter ---------Seton-Karr, pp747-751.
1969, "The Excavations At Helwan", by Zaki Y. Saad, pp. 43, 128 &129.
1975, "The Prehistory of the Nile Valley", by A. J. Arkell, p. 46.
1984, "Egypt Before The Pharaohs", by Michael A. Hoffman, pp. 182-189.
1988, "The First Egyptians", by Michael A. Hoffman, pp. 33-46.
Personal communications with Michael A. Hoffman, PhD.---1985-1989.

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