Predynastic Egypt

Predynastic Egypt

How did Egypt become a monarchy? How did it reach the position where just one man could come to control the whole nation and devote its energies to building such a preposterous over-the-top tomb, as were the pyramids?

Sunset on the Nile

We can perhaps begin with geography. Egypt is a very unusual sort of country. It is basically a desert country, through which flows the river Nile, which produces a narrow strip of very fertile land. The Nile has the peculiar phenomenon of the annual inundation when the waters rise, and flood the adjacent land, and when they recede, they deposit a rich layer of amazing fertility. This is caused by the rainfall in its headwaters in the uplands of Ethiopia and East Africa, and this rain falls mostly in the rainy season, so that several months later, the level of the Nile rises in Egypt, only to fall when the rainfall ceases in Ethiopia. And this inundation brings down fertile silt, which provides the inundated fields with an incredible fertility.

Farming came late to Egypt. Whereas in Mesopotamia there was a gradual development from 10,000 BC onwards, it was not until around 5000 BC that the Nile valley began to fill up. At first there were herdsmen cropping their herds on the fringes of the Sahara desert, which still which was still watered and flourishing. But as the Sahara dried up, population concentrated in the Nile Valley, and from 4000 BC, the pace began to accelerate.

This period is normally known as the predynastic Era. The history of Egypt as determined by Manetho in the 3rd century BC begins with his first dynasty which marks both the time of when Upper and Lower Egypt were first united and the time when the earliest writing available to Manetho began. Our knowledge of the Predynastic period was first worked out by the remarkable figure of Flinders Petrie, one of the founders of modern archaeology who showed how it was possible to work out the story of the evolution of dynastic Egypt by studying the changes in pottery styles.

Sir Flinders Petrie, a respectable portrait, looking every bit the modern early 20th century establishment figure. Yet when he was in camp, the conditions were notoriously spartan.

William Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942) – eventually Sir William —is one of the great figures of archaeology. He was one of the most meticulous excavators ever, with the most enormous drive and energy. The living conditions at his camps were notoriously spartan – everyone ate out of tins, and he was withering in his contempt of excavators who did not come up to his standards, which meant virtually everybody. Nevertheless he put the study of Egyptology onto a firm basis.

When he first went out to Egypt, he surveyed the pyramids in the most meticulous survey ever conducted – all the crank theories of pyramidology are based on his surveys. And he then went on to excavate widely, being one of the first to realise the importance of pottery and to record its stratigraphy correctly. But his major discovery came at the site of Nagada (or Naqada) which lies on the west bank of the Nile, some 30 miles north of Luxor, and not far from Abydos, of which it was to some extent the prehistoric predecessor.

Here huge quantities of pottery sherds were scattered over a wide area, but the pottery types were unknown. Graves were being looted everywhere, so in 1892 Petrie launched a major excavation and eventually excavated 2149 graves spread over 17 acres. They were mostly simple rectangular pits containing crouched burials, but they were often accompanied by one or more pots; some of them of a superb quality, highly distinctive polished red jars with black tops.

Where did this pottery come from, and how was it to be dated? At first he thought that it was the product of a ‘New Race’ of invaders, and must belong to the First Intermediate period, around 2,000 BC. However a Frenchman called de Morgan suggested that it must be prehistoric. Could he possibly be right? Petrie therefore set about arranging all the pots in sequence and invented what he called sequence dating, arranging them in 50 different categories, labelled from 30 – 80, carefully leaving space before category 30 for future discoveries. He arranged them in three main periods which he called Amratean, Gerzean, and Semainean, which modern scholars have renamed Nagada 1 (4000 – 3600 BC) Nagada 2 (3600 – 3200 BC) and Nagada 3 (3200 – 2950 BC). At Nagada the prehistory of Egypt was discovered.


We can see the growing sophistication of Egyptian society by charting the increasing professionalization of industry, which to archaeologists means studying the improvement of pottery techniques. In the early predynastic period (Naqada I) the pottery was made mostly from the alluvial clays laid down by the Nile, which were not very satisfactory. By Naqada II, clay was being brought in from the desert, which was a marl clay of superior quality: but it is more difficult to fire properly, which in turn implies specialist potters: complexity is increasing. By the end of Naqada II, such pots are even exported to the delta regions of the Nile, to the north.

But by far the best way of charting the concentration of power is by studying the tombs. In the early period, tombs were all very much the same. Then some tombs began to get pots in them —one had no less than 18 pots — and an ostrich eggshell. Then in Naqada II, some tombs begin to accumulate even more pots, and even more significantly instead of everyone being buried in the same cemetery, the upper echelons of society began to be buried in a separate cemetery, suggesting that we now move to a more rigid society where people were arranged in different castes, and the different castes used different cemeteries.


The first capital of the united country

However the next stage of development and the place where Egypt was first united as a single country was Hierakonpolis, 80 miles to the south. Here in 1896 two young associates of Petrie went to investigate a temple and under its floor they found a pit that contained the treasures from an earlier temple which had otherwise been completely destroyed; and from these the story of the emergence of the first dynasty has been concocted. Of particular importance are the “palettes”; these were flat plates for the grinding of beauty preparations, hugely enlarged to a foot or more in length and richly carved on both sides: clearly ‘ritual’ but ritual of the highest importance. After the excavations the finds were divided, thus the finest palette known as the Narmer Palette (below) is in the National Museum in Cairo whereas the second best, known as the Two Dog palette (above) is in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.


The Oxford palette is in fact the earlier, being quite unlike later Egyptian art, the last example of pre-pharaoh art, whereas the Narmer Palette is the first example of Pharaonic art and ideology. Both are carved on both sides. On the Two Dog palette, the art is totally chaotic; there are animals everywhere, fighting each other with no attempt to arrange them in registers. Admittedly most of the animals are in pairs with the two dogs on either side, with their heads forming the handles, and two long necked creatures adorning the front. But they are almost all four legged animals and there are none of the traditional Egyptian animals – the hawks and the ibises.

The Narmer palette however, is definitely ‘Egyptian’. On one side the principal figure is Pharaoh in traditional stance, wearing the white crown of upper Egypt, holding a kneeling captive by his hair, and about to smite him with a weapon in his right hand – the traditional figure of superiority that adorns Egyptian art for the next 3000 years, showing the decidedly bellicose side to Egyptian society. On the other side the figures are neatly arranged in three separate registers but the upper register shows the pharaoh wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt, preceded by men of high and distinctive rank, and rows of decapitated captives, their heads between their legs. A blood thirsty lot these Egyptians compared with the later Minoans!

The scene represents the crucial stage in the evolution of pharaonic Egypt – that is the union of the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt into a single dynasty. According to Manetho the first pharaoh was Menes, but the ruler figure on the Narmer palette is named as Narmer: presumably Narmer is Menes, and if so, is the first ruler of Egypt: the first pharaoh. Thus the two palettes in Cairo and Oxford encapsulate the story of how Egypt passed from prehistory to history.


Burial place of the first Pharaohs

The story then moves to yet another site, Abydos, 100 miles North of Luxor (The pronunciation appears to be uncertain: some call it Abbey-dos, others call it Abide-os). Abydos was the burial place of the last of the pre-dynastic rulers, and the first dynasty of Pharaohs so here we can see how power was being concentrated in the hands of just one man, the Pharaoh.

In the later periods, Abydos became one of the most important towns of the Middle and New Kingdoms, becoming the centre of the worship of the god Osiris, whose temple is a major tourist attraction today. However it is even more important as being the burial site of the pharaohs of the first two dynasties.

The early dynastic cemetery at Abydos was only discovered in the 1890s. The later Egyptians had lost all memory of its importance, indeed one of the ruined tombs was dug out in the Middle Kingdom and made into a small temple. It was decided that this must be the birthplace of Osiris, and the highlight of the annual Osiris festival was a grand procession from the temple to this new/old shrine a mile away.

The site was originally excavated, – though perhaps pillaged is perhaps the better word – by the French archaeologist Émile Amélineau, a Coptic scholar turned into something close to a grave robber. But in 1896 Petrie came along, took over his concession and re-excavated the site, excavating the spoil heaps that Amélineau has left behind him and succeeded in identifying the tombs of virtually all the pharaohs of the First Dynasty and also the last two pharaohs of the Second Dynasty. Since the 1970s the German Archaeological Institute and Pennsylvania Museum have been making equally important discoveries.

The early cemetery at Abydos. The graves of the pre-dynastic rulers are at the top. The latest and largest grave, that of Kharkhemwy, the last pharaoh of the second dynasty is at the bottom. The graves of the pharaohs of the first dynasty are in the middle.

There were several cemeteries at Abydos, spread over at least a millennium. The earliest known, cemetery U, begins in Naqada 1, and continues through into Naqada 2. It reached its climax in a very large grave which must surely be the burial place of some proto-Pharaoh, perhaps the Pharaoh known as King Scorpion. The grave had no less than 12 rooms, the burial chamber being surrounded by store rooms filled with nearly 400 wine jars, some of them coming from Palestine: it has been estimated that they would have held over 4000 litres of wine. Interestingly, some of them were marked by symbols which may represent the earliest stages of the hieroglyphic language. It is tempting to follow the usual argument that the great size of this grave represents a major step towards civilisation: it is certainly a major step forward towards inequality.


The next stage is Cemetery B, which marks the beginning of an unhappy experiment with large-scale human sacrifice. It contains just three burials. The first may be that of King Narmer, but it is the third which is the most notable for it marks the beginning of the dreadful habit of human sacrifice. This may be the grave of the second Pharaoh, King Aha, who had three large grave pits, one for the grave and two for storage. But adjacent to it is a double row containing 34 ancillary pits, each containing the body of a young man in a wooden coffin, presumably the graves of retainers who accompanied their Lord and master to the next world. It is I suppose some sort of breakthrough, some sign of a more hierarchical structure, where the King is able to decree that on his death his servants should accompany him to the next world.


The subsequent burials continued this habit, many of them in huge burial pits containing not only the magazines for food and drink, but also rows and rows of subsidiary rooms containing burials, mostly of young men. In one case, the tomb of King Djer, 318 attendants were burial with the king.

However the habit gradually dies out through the First Dynasty, and was down to a mere dozen ‘ancillary’ graves by the end of it. One cannot help thinking that this was fortunate. If the leading retainers, the rising young men of the next generation are required to accompany their master to the next world, then the next generation in this world loses its brightest and best, which does not bode well for the future. A similar custom is seen in the early stages of the empires of Ur and China, but in both cases it appears to have died out: is it perhaps an aberration of early empires?

Stastue of the god Min, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Further evidence for their increased engineering ability is to be found at Koptos, a site between Abydos and Luxor, where two 4m high statues were found by Petrie in 1894. These are statues of the great fertility god Min, portrayed as a potent sexual figure, with an erect phallus projecting out in front of him. The phallus has alas not survived, but there are cylindrical holes still in position, which must have held a majestic member. When they were excavated by Petrie in 1894, he brought them back to England and offered them to the British Museum. The British Museum however, was scandalised and refused to accept them but Oxford had fewer qualms so they are now in the Ashmolean Museum still awaiting restoration that part of his anatomy and that was the most vital. There is no sign of the shrine, though a round hut in the vicinity suggests that they may have stood in the open. But they give a good indication that the Egyptians already had the ability to carve huge statues 4 m high and transport them and erect them.

Egypt is now on the verge of the huge changes that resulted in the ability to build great pyramids. It is to these changes that we must now turn


On to The move to the North

24th August 2017