Toward the end of the Upper Paleolithic, some important changes occurred in the cultures of Nubia and Upper Egypt, in which tools were made from blades and from geometric microliths on flakes in Mesolithic settlement camps that were larger than the hunting camps of the Paleolithic. Many grinding stones found in sites of the Afian culture in the Kom Ombo region (c.12,000 BCE) were worn from constant use; these, and microlithic sickle blades with lustrous edges were also discovered in the northern Nubian Qadanian (12,000–9000 BCE). The oldest cemetery in the Nile Valley (Gebel Sahaba) is associated with this culture. There, fifty-nine skeletons in contracted position (on the left side, with the head to the east) were unearthed. Some had flint points embedded in the bones as a result of a battle or a ritual. The Esnian Culture (11,000–10,000 BCE) was characterized by large camps, with numerous grinding stones and sickle blades. Around 9000 BCE, similar cultures waned, from climatic change, and the basis of human life in the Nile Valley became hunting and fishing until the end of the sixth millennium BCE.
The Early Khartoum culture occupied central Sudan (c.7400–4900 BCE). Found there were some seasonal camps and associated cemeteries (e.g., Khartoum Hospital, Saqqai) used by hunting-fishing-gathering groups; also stone tools, bone tools, and the oldest pottery in Africa (Wavy Line, Dotted Wavy Line). Later (c.4900–3800 BCE) in this same area, the Early Khartoum Neolithic (Kadero, Shaheinab) was based on animal husbandry (under Western Desert influence), although cultivation was unknown.
In the Nile Valley (6000–5000 BCE), the origins of a farming economy resulted from the joining of local traditions with outside influences that came from the Near East and the Sahara. Near Eastern influences include the appearance of cultivated wheat, flax, oats, and goats. Saharan influences include domesticated cattle and the cultivation of barley. Egyptian pottery of the time, like the flint technology, also shows influence from both directions. Movement into the Nile Valley from the adjacent desert is most probably explained by the drought periods of the Middle Holocene, which put pressure on the inhabitants of the Western and the Eastern Egyptian deserts, and even the Negev, to move toward the Nile, with all its swampy, miasmic problems.
Early Predynastic Period.
Both Upper Egypt, near Nubia, and Lower Egypt, near the Nile Delta and the Mediterranean, have yielded cultural materials of note.
In Lower Egypt, the oldest Predynastic culture (c.5200–4500 BCE), discovered by Gertrude Caton-Thompson (1934), became the subject of many research expeditions. Seasonal camps were localized on the banks of Lake Moeris and traces of Faiyuman habitation construction were found, with numerous fireplaces preserved, concentrated in the central part of the camps. Silos were dug into the ground lined with basketry, since the economy was based on cultivation: wheat, three varieties of barley, and flax (oldest evidence in Egypt). Animal husbandry (with some cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs) was less significant. Fishing in shallow flood basins had great importance, and a variety of animals was hunted. Simple wooden sickles with several blades, hollow-based arrowheads, numerous axes (made from flint, chert, dolerite, and limestone), grinders, scrapers, rubbers, and bone items (harpoons, pins, needles, awls) are known. Undecorated pottery was used, of red or black surface (smooth, rarely polished) and simple forms—hemispherical bowls, large ovoid vessels, flat plates, and small pots. Rare personal ornaments included Red Sea mussel and amazonite beads. Burials are unknown.
Merimde Beni Salama.
At Merimde, another Predynastic culture (c.5000–4500 BCE) was found, at the south-western edge of the Delta, by H. Junker (1929–1939) and J. Eiwanger (1977–1983). Junker distinguished two main phases and one transitional; Eiwanger three phases (within five layers), emphasizing that their continuity is unclear. Phase I was related to the Palestinian Neolithic A, but a flake industry pointed to a local Epi-Paleolithic heritage. Well-fired pottery was made from untempered silt, polished dark pink, with incised herringbone decoration; a lighter smooth pottery was made with characteristic thick walls and some diversity of form (hemispherical bowls, plates, cups). Flint tools were made of blades and flakes with unifacial or, rarely, bifacial flaking (scrapers, borers, axes, and small arrowheads similar to Near Eastern patterns). There were also numerous grinders and rubbers. According to many scholars, the ceramic and flint-working technologies, the anthropomorphic and scarce zoomorphic figurines, and the domesticated animals point to Near Eastern roots for the first inhabitants. Phase II, despite continuity in many areas, offered numerous African characteristics. Phase III represents a regional culture similar to Faiyum A. The uninterrupted succession of layers indicate the development of single society. Numerous animal enclosures and small oval huts with fireplaces were partially dug into the ground. Technical advancement in ceramics and stoneworking and the presence of a workshop suggest craft specialization. There were also numerous products from bone, horn, ivory, terracotta, and shell. In Merimde, graves were found: small oval pits with contracted skeletons on their right sides, with heads to the south, wrapped in mats or skin. The economy was the same in all phases, with animal husbandry (cattle predominating from Phase II on; also sheep, pigs, goats, and dogs) and crop cultivation (wheat, probably barley, and sorghum), both still supplemented by hunting and gathering.
Known from a large site, the El Omari culture (c.4600–4400 BCE) is at the outlet of the Wadi Hof, north of Helwan. It was named after its discoverer and was investigated by P. Bovier-Lapierre and F. Debono. Oval, round, and irregular pits were found, dug out from the wadi deposit or cut into the cliff and lined with mats, clay, and wicker. The economy was based on the cultivation of wheat, barley, broad beans, peas, and flax; animal husbandry was based on cattle, goats, sheep, and especially pigs. Fishing was important but hunting and gathering less so. Red pottery from two kinds of local clays was straw-tempered, polished, and smoothed, showing similarity to Palestinian Neolithic A and B.
Distinguished by B. Ginter and J. K. Kozlowski, the Moerian culture was a later phase of the Neolithic in the Faiyum (c.4400–3800 BCE). It is characterized by a flint industry on blades and bladelets that were struck from small concretions, affiliated with the Epi-Paleolithic technological tradition of the Western Desert. Two-thirds of the tools are backed blades, micro-retouched blades and bladelets, retouched blades, and perforators. Pottery, tempered with organic material and sand, includes hemispherical bowls, S-profile vessels, and pots with cylindrical necks. The Moerian economy was based on animal husbandry, hunting, and fishing.
Lower Egyptian or Maadi culture.
The oldest phase (c.3800–3500 BCE) parallels the Naqada I culture, represented by the Naqada settlement (a suburb of Cairo) and the early graves from Wadi Digla investigated in 1930–1953. The economy was based on agriculture (wheat, barley, and flax); animal husbandry (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, and donkeys—used as a means of transportation—the oldest example of this in Egypt); and trade, supplemented by hunting and fishing. Three types of buildings occur: dwellings showing some similarities with the Chalcolithic stage of Beersheba culture. Possibly, the structures were built by arrivals from Palestine. The funerary rites differ from those of Upper Egypt, and animal burials were found (dogs, goats, and lambs). The material culture shows both Egyptian and Palestinian influences. Copper was important. Besides adornments, there were copper tools—fish-hooks, pins, needles, chisels, and axes/adzes—which probably played an important role (as in Palestine). Raw materials were imported, from Wadi Araba in the Sinai, in the form of ingots—three were found, of uniform weight—and ore. Trade, especially with Sinai and Palestine, included pottery, basalt vessels, copper, flint rocks, Canaanite flint blades, Red Sea shells, pigments, resins, oils, cedar wood(?), and asphalt. Exports included pottery, basalt vessels, flint objects, shells, and Nile fishes.
Upper Egyptian cultures.
With the complexity of the cultural succession in this southern region, several systems of relative chronology have been proposed by Egyptologists. W. M. Flinders Petrie (1901) divided the Predynastic period into 80 Sequence Datings (S.D.): 1–29 were reserved for earlier cultures that were not known at that time; 30–37 were identified by the term Amratian; 38–62 were called Gerzean; and 63–76 were Semainean. The lack of uniform typological criteria, the incorrect evaluation of Wavy-handled pottery, and the failure to take horizontal stratigraphy into account, caused eventual criticism. W. Kaiser (1957) then offered his system, based on the horizontal distribution of pottery classes and types of objects within Cemetery 1400–1500 at Armant; emphasizing the evolutionary character of the Naqada culture, he divided it into three periods, within which he distinguished eleven (later fifteen) subperiods. Based on a larger number of cemeteries, S. Hendrickx (1996) has proposed a modification of the system—taking into account the local differentiation—and extending his modification to the second dynasty.
Discovered by G. Brunton, the paucity of data made it impossible to determine whether Tasa was a separate culture, a preliminary phase, or a mutation of the Badarian culture (c.4300–3700 BCE). Its originality was manifested in the simple pottery (deep bowls and pots) of brown and grey-black; black or brownish-black polished beakers, decorated with incised lines filled with a white paste, constitute a special group. Tasa may have occupied part of central and southern Egypt to the Armant region, whereas the Badari essentially occupied the northern part of Upper Egypt (Matmar-Qau); some sites in the South, in the Wadi Hammamat, and on the Red Sea coast may indicate that the Badarian were relatively mobile. The economy was based on crops (wheat and barley), animal husbandry (goats, cattle, and sheep), and hunting. In Hemmamiya are found pear-shaped grain silos (3 meters/10 feet deep), lined with mats or baskets, and nearby are huts, fireplaces, and animal enclosures. The best-known artifactual inventory comes from the graves of the extramural cemeteries, where, besides pottery, hollow-based arrowheads were found, as well as sawedged sickle blades, stone axes, bone needles, pins, awls, and combs; ivory bracelets, beads, rings, vessels, spoons, and combs; cosmetic palettes, shell and stone beads, ear and nose studs, amulets, and clay boat models. Copper was rare but the presence of turquoise and seashells indicates trade contacts along the Red Sea coast. The origin of the Badarian culture is unknown, but some features can be traced to Palestine (ceramic decoration called “rippling,” crop cultivation, animal husbandry), the Western Desert oases (flint-tool techniques, animal husbandry), and Nubia (pottery decorations, animal husbandry). The Badarians seem to have combined various local traditions in forming the first stage of Upper Egyptian culture.
(Amratian; c.3900–3550 BCE). The region of Naqada-Mashasna, beyond the range of Badari, was the core area with the oldest finds and the largest population density (e.g., Ballas, Diospolis Parva, el-Amra, Abydos). Naqada I and Badari had coexisted, but in a later phase, the Amratian formed the first culture that spread over all of Upper Egypt. The majority of the information on this culture derives from its cemeteries, since its settlements are poorly preserved. Agriculture and animal husbandry had developed, but they were still supplemented by hunting and fishing. The funerary rituals were similar to those of Badari, but the average graves were richer and all status levels were still buried together. Gradually, at Hierakonpolis, only the few wealthy had larger, and richer, graves. In Hemmamiya, houses and the first above-ground granaries were found.
The existence of a Lower Egyptian kingdom at this period is not probable, but head coverings similar to the Red Crown of Lower Egypt were worn by some figures in rock engravings and paintings (from both the Eastern and Western Deserts); they may be local chiefs. From this period come the first attempts at Egyptian faience and there was some slight increase in copper objects—pins, needles, beads, bracelets, awls, and rings. Models made from cheap materials were deposited in graves (mace heads, knives, boats). Trade intensified in all directions but objects characteristic of Naqada I have been found mostly to the south in Nubia, very rarely to the northern region of the Delta and Sinai. The increase in trade was accompanied by social stratification, still progressing slowly, and the development of local elites.
Middle Predynastic Period.
Lower Egyptian culture.
(Maadi-Buto; c.3500–3200 BCE). The second phase of Lower Egyptian culture includes the last period at Maadi, the youngest graves at Wadi Digla, the cemetery at Heliopolis, and the oldest layer at Buto; the third phase occurs only at Buto. Among the most important finds from archaeological work in Buto were the discoveries associated with the expansion of the Naqada culture. In the first layer (contemporary to Naqada IIB), structures had walls of wattle and daub. Pottery consisted of vessels typical of the Delta and others of clearly foreign provenience. Layer III a was transitional, containing constructions and artifacts characteristic of Lower Egyptian Culture and the beginning of Naqada II D2. Layers III b—f and IV had exclusively Naqadian materials (II D2—first dynasty).
(Gerzean; c.3550–3200 BCE). The most important sites are Hierakonpolis, Naqada, el-Amra, Mahasna, Abydos, Matmar, Gerza, and Minshat Abu Omar. Most characteristic of this phase is the expansion to the north—Naqada II, emerging from the regions of Naqada I, gradually led to the cultural unification of all Egypt. The expansion into the northern part of Middle Egypt began in Naqada IIC; the expansion into the Delta was no later than Naqada II D1. It was primarily a territorial occupation, secondarily securing trade routes to the east. The basic principles of the equipment of Egyptian graves originated in this period, with the quantity and quality of grave goods reflecting the growing Naqada culture's social stratification. Separate necropolises appeared, containing exclusively large and rich graves. Graves of the elite are known from Abydos, Minshat Abu Omar, Diospolis Parva, and Hierakonpolis, testifying about social development and the creation of centers of authority. Although buildings are not well known from the period, the models of houses discovered in graves depict rectangular brick buildings, with wooden beams (lintels) over the doors. New kinds of pottery were made of tempered silt. Decorated pottery had scenes of birds and animals, triangles symbolizing the desert, and plants. Others with the portrayal of boats with human figures may point to the existence of rituals that involve the leaders/chiefs of clans/tribes. The oldest preserved Egyptian wall painting, at Hierakonpolis, may therefore be confirmed, since it shows hunting, triumph, and rites associated with boats. Such scenes in a grave context suggest the beginnings of the custom of “taking” symbolic and real events of life into the next world.
Conical mace heads were replaced by pear-shaped mace heads, which, beginning in mid-Naqada II, become symbols of authority—one of the attributes of power in Egypt's royal iconography. The production of copper increased in importance, as did that of gold and silver. In general, metal was sought after, probably a sign of status. Flint was still the most important material for tool production, but techniques had advanced; in addition to traditional tools made from flakes, a new technique appeared—production of long blades, later processed by bifacial retouching (ripple-flake). The number of personal adornments of bone, ivory, and semiprecious stones increased markedly, as did bracelets, rings, beads, pendants, and amulets. The rich material culture indicates that groups of highly specialized craftsmen existed. Centers of production, such as Hierakonpolis, plus a relatively small number of workshops distributed products throughout Egypt.
The first Egyptian cities developed as the residences of the elite. There, the majority of craftsmen also lived. The cities soon played a central role for the larger surrounding territory. For example, Naqada (Eg., Nubt, “city of gold”) developed significantly in this period, based on trade in gold and copper from mines in the Eastern Desert. Changes in the environment and in society also transformed Hierakonpolis (Eg., Nekhen), regarded by the ancients as the capital of the Upper Egyptian state, into a major political and economic center. Naqada is equidistant (about 100 kilometers/64 miles in a straight line) from Hierakonpolis and Abydos, and other important population centers were grouped in their immediate vicinity. Strong economic centers of local authority arose and trade was conducted in every direction. Contacts with the Levant are indicated by small quantities of Palestinian pottery in Upper Egypt, as well as by the presence of Naqada II products in the Palestine region. Contacts with Sumer and Elam are yet debatable. Although raw materials (obsidian, lapis lazuli), products (cylinder seals), and certain art motifs (a hero strangling a lion) of Mesopotamia or Elam appeared, their presence in Egypt may be the result of a series of indirect trade contacts, not from regular exchange. Sources have been identified, other than those previously supposed, for at least some of the imported goods. For example, obsidian tools were regarded as proof of connections between the Nile Valley and the Near East, but new analyses have shown beyond a doubt that that obsidian was acquired in Ethiopia. Contacts to the south are better confirmed: found in Upper Egypt was pottery characteristic of Nubian Group A (made of silt, with a large number of admixtures, and decorated with ornaments filled with white). Many Gerzean period products were also found in Nubia.
Late Predynastic (Protodynastic) Period.
Naqada III culture (c.3200–3050 BCE) was characterized by the abandonment or reduction in significance of certain population centers in Egypt's South (e.g., Matmar, Mahasna), the maintenance or even growth in significance of others (e.g., Hierakonpolis, Abydos), and the foundation of yet others (e.g., Elkab, Tarkhan, Tura). Social changes were of increasing importance, yet despite a certain variance in material culture, this period was a direct continuation of the Gerzean. A major settlement move from the desert to the vicinity of the Nile was necessary in Naqada III. Ecological changes that began in Naqada II were intensified, bringing with them a relative cessation in herding in favor of agriculture. Changes in the material culture indicate an accompanying alteration in the spiritual realm. Some objects were modified in shape, while their basic function was preserved; others, while their shape was preserved, had their functions changed—from utility to ritual-cult-symbolic (e.g., palettes). Pottery included decorated wares, cylindrical jars, cups, and large transport-storage jars, often with engraved and painted serekhs, indicating that the contents were intended for the royal court. The production of flint artifacts relatively decreased—due mainly to the expanded use of metal tools. The use of jewelry also increased, as did the role of sculpture and relief. In Coptos, no later than Narmer's time, three colossal statues of Min (4 meters/13 feet high) and three statues of lions (1.5 meters/4 feet long) were erected. Many items have elaborate scenes: palettes, ceremonial mace heads, and knife handles. In temple deposits at Hierakonpolis, Abydos, and Elephantine, a number of figurines—prisoners, children, women, scorpions, baboons—were made of various materials, some votive but some fragments of larger objects and furniture. They indicate development of the ritual-symbolic sphere—that associated with the centralization of authority.
Glyptics and writing became increasingly important, clearly developed under the influence of impulses from the Near East, passing through a brief phase of imitation, then ultimately containing typically Egyptian motifs and inscriptions. The role of long-distance trade, conducted in all the traditional directions, increased considerably. Contacts with Palestine and the Sinai intensified, showing the importance of this nearby northeastern region and its goods (wine, oil, resin, timber, copper). The Protodynastic colonization of northern Sinai and southern Canaan lasted until the mid-first dynasty. The kings known from this period ruled over all of Egypt—“Uj,” Iry-Hor(?), Ka, “Scorpion,” and Narmer—have been dated to Naqada IIIB–IIIC1 (c.3150–3050 BCE). Toward the end of the Protodynastic Dynasty “0,” probably in the reign of Narmer, the kingdom of the pharaohs was established, more or less in the form known from the Early Dynastic (Archaic) period. The gradual (not by conquest) formation of an Egyptian state was therefore the last stage, not the first, from which the civilization of the Nile Valley grew.
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- Adams, Barbara, and Krzysztof M. Cialowicz. Protodynastic Egypt. Shire Egyptology, 25. Buckinghamshire, 1997. Civilization and art from the last years of Naqada II to the middle of the first dynasty.
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- Vercoutter, Jean. L'Egypte et la vallée du Nil. vol. I: Des origines à la fin de l'Ancien Empire. Paris, 1992. The beginnings of Egyptian civilization, taking into account the development of art.
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Krzysztof M. Ciałowicz