Predynastic Egypt

How Flinders Petrie discovered the prehistory of Egypt

Throughout the 19th century the history of dynastic Egypt was steadily elucidated, helped by the decipherment of the hieroglyphs with the aid of the Rosetta Stone.  But the trouble was that they couldn’t get  it to go back beyond the building of the pyramids in the 4th dynasty. What happened before that? How did Egypt come to be in a position to build the pyramids?

Following the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs in the early 19th century, the study of Egyptology leapt ahead by leaps and bounds, and  a full story or Egyptian history began to emerge. There was still one big problem:  how did the pyramids emerge? They come nearly at the beginning of the Egyptian story, in the old Kingdom.  The old Kingdom begins will be invention of hieroglyphs, which made history possible. But by this time, Egypt was already a sophisticated society already well down the path that led to the pyramids. If therefore we are to understand how this sophisticated society emerged, we need to know what happened before the beginning of the first Kingdom. In other words we need to study predynastic archaeology:  how did Egypt come to be in a position to build the pyramids?

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.

The elucidation of predynastic Egypt is due almost entirely to one man – William Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942) – eventually Sir William.  Petrie 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 20 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 they were 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 they 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.

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On to Naqada, to see  how Egyptian society became more complex – and  more unequal