5000-year-old carving depicts Egypt's earliest known pharaoh

The pharaohs ruled Egypt for over three thousand years, and the story of the very last pharaoh - you might know her as Cleopatra - is famous to this day. But what about the very first pharaohs?

It's hard to comprehend just how long-lived the Egyptian state really was. It will be another thousand years before we're as far removed from Cleopatra as she was from her earliest predecessors, and so it's understandable that the earliest Egyptian rulers remain shrouded in legends and conjecture, known only from a handful of frustratingly incomplete sources.

Here's what we know: around 3050 BCE, the northern kingdom of Lower Egypt and the southern kingdom of Upper Egypt (so named because of where they were located along the north-flowing Nile) were united into a single entity. This was symbolized by the first pharaoh of the united Egypt - who was known as Narmer or Menes, depending on which source you go by - combining the white crown ("hedjet") of Upper Egypt and the red crown ("deshret") of Lower Egypt.

Whether Narmer's predecessors, the rulers of Upper Egypt right before that unification, should also be considered pharaohs is a matter of some debate, but new research by Yale archaeologists adds some weight to their regal credentials. They have worked painstakingly to restore and interpret a find first made fifty years ago at the Upper Egypt site of Nag el-Hamdulab.

The carving, which you can see up top, dates back to 3200 BCE and features the earliest known depiction of the white crown, meaning this is also the earliest known depiction of an Egyptian ruler. Even better, the carving fits perfectly with some of the key existing sources for Egypt's most ancient history. As other records would predict, this carving features not just the recognizable white crown but also the ruler's retinue, known as "the Following of Horus."

John Coleman Darnell, the director of the Yale Egyptological Institute, explains the significance of the find:

"The Nag el-Hamdulab scenes are unique, and bridge the world of the ritual Predynastic Jubilee in which images of power-predominately boats and animals-are the chief elements, and the world of the royal pharaonic Jubilee, in which the image of the human ruler dominates the events. The Nag el-Hamdulab cycle of images reveal the emergence of the ruler as supreme human priest and incarnate manifestation of human and divine power."

So what does the carving predict, precisely? According to Darnell, the hieroglyphic inscription indicates that this may actually have been a record of tax collection by the ruler over Upper Egypt's territory, being essentially a record of ancient economic control.

Via Yale University.