Egypt: History - Predynastic Period

Predynastic (5,500 - 3,100 BC)

Beginning just before the Predynastic period, Egyptian culture was already beginning to resemble greatly the Pharaonic ages that would soon come after, and rapidly at that. In a transition period of a thousand years (about which little is still known), nearly all the archetypal characteristics appeared, and beginning in 5500 BC we find evidence of organized, permanent settlements focused around agriculture. Hunting was no longer a major support for existence now that the Egyptian diet was made up of domesticated cattle, sheep, pigs and goats, as well as cereal grains such as wheat and barley. Artifacts of stone were supplemented by those of metal, and the crafts of basketry, pottery, weaving, and the tanning of animal hides became part of the daily life. The transition from primitive nomadic tribes to traditional civilization was nearly complete.

One of the most interesting aspects of the transition period is the shift in burial customs. Previous to the permanent settlements, most burials were done where it was convenient, often in a centrally-located cemetery near to or inside the settlement, such as the cemeteries at Jebel Sahaba. As the seasonal hunting camps grew into more stable agricultural villages, burial sites and practices changed. Cemeteries and single graves were no longer located near the living, but were placed further and further away, both from the villages as well as the cultivated land, most often on the very edge of what would be considered the village's "territory." Even children, formerly buried under the floor of their home, were now relegated to these outer cemeteries. The reasons for this are unknown, but a growing feeling of necrophobia, a fear of the dead, might be the cause, as is often the case in many cultures. Practices too, changed. Here we see the beginnings of the "life after death" beliefs that centuries later, would make the ancient Egyptians famous. The dead were buried with provisions for the journey into the next life, as well as pottery, jewelry, and other artifacts to help them enjoy it. Offerings of cereals, dried meat, and fruit were included, but hunting and farming implements were also common (presumably so the dead would not starve after having eaten all the offerings). Even then, the Egyptians believed that the next life would be very much like this one. Interestingly enough, the dead were buried in a fetal position, surrounded by the burial offerings and artifacts, facing west, all prepared for the journey to the world of the dead, where the sun shone after leaving the world of the living.

The Chalcolithic period, also called the "Primitive" Predynastic, marks the beginning of the true Predynastic cultures both in the north and in the south. The southern cultures, particularly that of the Badarian, were almost completely agrarian (farmers), but their northern counterparts, such as the Faiyum who were oasis dwellers, still relied on hunting and fishing for the majority of their diet. Predictably, the various craftworks developed along further lines at a rapid pace. Stoneworking, particularly that involved in the making of blades and points, reached a level almost that of the Old Kingdom industries that would follow. Furniture too, was a major object of creation, again, many artifacts already resembling what would come. Objects began to be made not only with a function, but also with an aesthetic value. Pottery was painted and decorated, particularly the black-topped clay pots and vases that this era is noted for; bone and ivory combs, figurines, and tableware, are found in great numbers, as is jewelry of all types and materials. It would seem that while the rest of the world at large was still in the darkness of primitivism, the Predynastic Egyptians were already creating a world of beauty.

Somewhere around 4500 BC is the start of the "Old" Predynastic, also known as the Amratian period, or simply as Naqada I, as most of the sites from this period date to around the same time as the occupation of the Naqada site. The change that is easiest to see in this period is in the pottery. Whereas before ceramics were decorated with simple bands of paint, these have clever geometric designs inspired by the world around the artist, as well as pictures of animals, either painted on or carved into the surface of the vessel. Shapes too, became more varied, both for practical reasons depending on what the vessel was used for, and aesthetic reasons. Decorative clay objects were also popular, particularly the "dancer" figurines, small painted figures of women with upraised arms. Yet perhaps the most important detail of all about this period is the development of true architecture. Like most of Egyptian culture, we have gleaned much of our knowledge from what the deceased were buried with, and in this case, we have several clay models of houses discovered in the graves that resemble the rectangular clay brick homes of the Old Kingdom. This shows that the idea of individual dwellings, towns, and "urban planning" started around 4500 BC!

The third stage of the Predynastic period is dated to around 4000 BC and is labeled the Gerzean period or Naqada II. Amratian and Gerzean are vastly different from one another, and one can see the growing influence of the peoples of the North on those of the South. Soon this would result in a truly mixed people and culture, that of the Late Predynastic, or Naqada III. The greatest difference between the Amratian and the Gerzean peoples can be seen in their ceramics industries. While Amratian pottery did have some decorative aspects, its primary purpose was functional. Gerzean pottery, on the other hand, was developed along decorative lines. Gerzean pottery is adorned with organic-inspired geometric motifs, and highly realistic depictions of animals, people, and the many other things that surrounded the Gerzean people. There are more than a few surprises in the motifs, however. Unusual animals such as ostriches and ibexes give clues to a possibility that the Gerzeans hunted in the sub-desert, as such animals were not to be found near the Nile. We also find what are possibly the first representations of gods, almost always shown riding in boats and carrying standards that greatly resemble the later standards that would represent the various provinces of Egypt. It is possible too, that these are simply some form of historical records (visits of chieftains, battles, perhaps?), but as they are almost always painted on votive artifacts buried with the dead, the plausible explanation points to the sacred.

When compared to the Pharaonic periods, the Gerzean culture is not much dissimilar, having reached a high level of civilization, especially in is religious aspects, and particularly in those dealing with funerary customs. Amratian burials were most often simply a pit in the ground, covered over by a skin-covered framework, but with the Gerzean, tomb-building became a foreshadowing of what was to come, with furnished underground rooms, near replicas of the dwelling that the deceased had occupied in life. Amulets and other ceremonial objects, many of which depict the early animal-form gods of the Gerzeans, are also prolific in these tombs. The Gerzean form of the afterlife would eventually grow into the Cult of Osiris and the magnificent burials of the Dynasties.

Previously it was believed that the transition between Predynastic and Dynastic was the result of a brutal series of revolutions and warfare brought about as a result of the discovery of metallurgy and the new social structures such as cities, individual dwellings, and writing. Yet as more and more details of this time period are uncovered, we see that it was nothing of the sort, but rather the slow process of technological evolution. The above-mentioned new technologies could be Mesopotamian in origin, as they are found there earlier than they are in Egypt, yet there is little proof of this. About the only Mesopotamian artifacts found in Egypt proper are cylinder seals, and these only point to a strictly commercial-political connection. A few artifacts of Egyptian origin do bear Mesopotamian design traits, but again, this could be the result of an eager artist copying an imported artifact.

It is of course their writing system that is the Egyptian hallmark, but where did it begin, and when? Some have said that writing was imported, but after a brief study of the motifs found on ceramics from the Naqada periods we can discard this as only a remote possibility. The pottery motifs evolve distinctly over a period of time into a regular set of images that greatly resemble the traditional hieroglyphics. Already they show the fundamental principle of hieroglyphic writing, that of the combination of pictograms and phonograms. A pictogram is an actual representation of the item it represents. In such a system, the pictogram for a man is a picture of a human figure, the pictogram for water is a picture of water. A phonogram is a picture that stands not for its image, but for a sound or set of sounds. For example, the picture of a water bird might mean sa, and the word sa would not mean "bird" but "child," or sa even might be combined with other phonograms to create a larger word. Such systems of writing exist even today. Japanese, with its combination of a phonetic alphabet with a set of complex characters that can mean either a sound or an entire word, is a perfect example. These symbols found on pottery and other artifacts of the Amratian period might be writing, but by the Gerzean they most definitely are a form of writing.

No time of the Predynastic offers as many questions as the period of unification of southern and northern Egypt. Exactly who conquered whom is the first. Many sources point to the event as the victory of the south over the north, yet the resulting social system resembles more that of the north than the south. Kurt Sethe and Hermann Kees, among the first to draw conclusions about this period came up with a combination of both theories: that Egypt was first unified under the north, but for one reason or another collapsed and the power was picked up by the southern kings, who kept the original form of government set up by the north. Recent archaeological evidence is beginning to discredit this, but it still seems to be among the most logical explanations. Another theory is that the south conquered the north, but adopted much of the northern culture into their own. This is not unusual in the least when dealing with Egypt. The Ptolemies were the Greek rulers of Egypt after Alexander the Great, yet they absorbed as much of the Egyptian culture as they could, calling themselves Pharaohs and even being buried according to Egyptian custom instead of Greek.

Exactly who the first king of unified Egypt was is also difficult to say, or even when the actual unification occurred. The most powerful piece of data on this event is the Narmer Palette, a triangular piece of black basalt depicting a king whose name is given as Nar-Mer in the hieroglyphs. On the obverse he is shown wearing the white crown of the south and holding a mace about to crush the head of a northern foe, and on the reverse, the same figure is shown wearing the red crown of the north while a bull (a symbol of the pharaoh's power) rages below him, smashing the walls of a city and trampling yet another foe. Another artifact, the "Scorpion" Macehead, depicts a similar figure, only this time the name is given by the pictogram of a scorpion. This king-figure is called in many documents alternatively Narmer, or Aha, and if the historian Eratosthenes is to be believed, this is the legendary king Meni, or Menes. Whether "King Scorpion" is the same person as Narmer is a bit of contention, but the two are widely accepted to be the same. If these two artifacts, and others like them from the same period, do in fact depict this as the first king of unified Egypt, then the date for the Unification can be placed sometime between 3150 and 3110 BC.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011