The pre-dynastic period of ancient Egyptian history is the least known and the most complicated era.
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Pre-Dynastic – Archaic Egypt

Pre-Dynastic – Archaic Egypt

Pre-Dynastic – Archaic Egypt.

Pre-Dynastic Egypt

The pre-dynastic period of ancient Egyptian history is the least known and the most complicated era.

Pre-dynastic Egypt is made up of village communities, scattered along the banks of the Nile in the Nile valley and the Delta area, each of these communities would have had its own Chieftain. The houses and dwellings of these villages were made mainly of perishable or reusable materials, such as mud bricks and wickerwork, which of course have not survived. Artistic representations of these dwellings have survived and it is through these that we are able to get a picture of what they looked like.

These communities supported themselves with mixed farming and hunting and have moved away from the hunter/gatherer lifestyle to become settled farmers. Extensive trading both internal and external must also have been occurring, evidence of which exists in the materials of grave goods, artefacts and objects found in excavations.

Trade objects show a well-organised contact and dealings with Egypt’s neighbours.

Alabaster from Hat-nub in the Eastern Desert and Helwan.
Basalt from the Fayum.
Diorite from the Eastern Desert, Aswan and an area forty miles north-west of Abu Simbel in Nubia.
Breccia from Minia and Esna.
Dolomite from the Eastern Desert.
Schist and volcanic ash from the Wadi-el-Hammamat.
Marble from the Red Sea coast area.
Purple Porphyry from Gebel Dokhan (in the Eastern Desert).
Serpentine/Rock Crystal from the Eastern Desert.

Copper, Malachite and Turquoise from the Sinai.
Cypress and Cedar from the Lebanon and Syria.
Ebony.
Elephant Ivory from Africa.
Obsidian and Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan.
Shells from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

Egyptian stone vessels have been found in Byblos, Palestine, Crete, Mycenae and Asine in Greece.

The Badarian Period and Naqada I (c5000BC – 3400BC) periods represent a continuous period of growth and in ideas. The break comes between Naqada I and Naqada II, with the introduction (possibly) of the Dynastic Race. What we can say is that Naqada I and Naqada II are two separate and distinct periods.

During Naqada II advances in the manufacture of stone vessels, in pottery and metal goods can be seen. It is also at this time that silver objects have begun to appear. Silver is a very rare metal in Egypt, almost non-existent and was highly prized. Which would indicate trade connections allowing the raw materials to be brought into Egypt. Given the range of foreign materials used within Egypt at this time, it can hardly been seen as acting in isolation, and presumably must have been occurring from some period.

During the Naqada II period we also see the beginnings of the development of cities.

Examples of Badarian Period Artefacts

Top and Right: Badarian Black-topped earthenware
Left: Fertility Image

Badarian Period ArtefactsThe Badarian Period.

We know very little regarding the political and social organisation of this period, most of the evidence we have for this period, comes not from the towns and villages; which were made of perishable materials, but from the cemeteries and the items found within the graves.

In most of these communities the graves of the deceased where situated away from the living areas, the cultivated land, even at this early date, the decision to bury the dead in the desert had already been made.

The grave goods that are found within these early graves already show that within these communities, there was already some kind of universal belief in the existence of life after death. Goods, objects and artefacts were buried with the dead for use in the next life. These artefacts included: implements, personal adornments such as jewellery and make-up and food.

Most of the early graves were oval in shape and mostly contained one body, a single burial, although some had two bodies. Some of the larger graves are rectangular with rounded corners and at first the larger graves seem to have been reserved for the burial of women. In later periods these larger rectangular graves were used for the burial of men. It is unclear whether these larger graves for women are the result of any specific religious reason.

The bodies were contracted in the graves, the legs were pulled up towards the chin and the body was placed to lie on its left side with the head to the south and facing the west. This is important as it shows, even at this early period, that there was the belief that the West was the land of the dead. Sometimes the body was placed in some kind of coarse mat, or a basket woven of twigs or just an animal skin. In most cases there was normally some kind of organic object surrounding the corpse. (They were perhaps placed in this foetal position to reflect the idea of rebirth.)

The graves were only a few feet deep in the sand, the bodies were packed around with sand, this has a very profound effect on what happened to the body and the grave goods. The dryness of the sand been and excellent preservation material. The bodies became naturally dried or desiccated before they had time to decompose. These are sometimes called unintentional mummies (natural mummies), and where a result of natural causes rather than the deliberate attempt to make a mummy. It was this natural mummification that greatly influenced the later periods in the making and development of intentional mummies and the process of mummification.

The grave goods have been preserved as this dry environment produces a good climate for the preservation of materials whether made of metal or organic materials. A small pile of sand marked the grave or stones forming a conical shape, it is this perhaps in the Old Kingdom that provides the nucleus of the idea for building pyramids.

Flinders Petrie maintains that some of these early bodies were dismembered, in order to prevent the dead from acting against the living, although it remains inconclusive that they were dismembered.

The bodies were dressed in linen garments and a turban; they were also decorated with a bead belt and jewellery. The grave goods in this period are already very varied and we find: elegant ivory combs, cosmetic vases made from ivory or different stones, slate palettes at this stage the palettes are only small and would have been used for mixing cosmetics. During Naqada II, these slate palettes become much more ceremonial and larger.

Cosmetics have also been found in the graves of both men and women. Cosmetics were believed to be protective both in a practical sense and a magical sense. The most important of the cosmetics was green malachite, which would be worn on the eyelids; it would be mixed with fat or oil as an applicator, and would protect against the glare of the sun. Green is an important colour in ancient Egypt as it represented the symbol of renewing life.

Other grave goods include flint tools and nude female figures. These figures made from pottery are to be found in both male and female graves, they are thought to represent or connected with a mother goddess cult. Copper tools and beads; show us that even at this early date the ancient Egyptians were familiar with metal working techniques.

The pottery found in this period is at a level that is never attained in Egypt at any future date, the fine black-topped vases are distinctive of this period, the decorated ware. The graves also contained amulets, which is from the Arabic Hamulet, which means something that is borne or carried around. These were little pieces of magical jewellery, like charms or rabbits feet, which gave the wearer protection or luck; many of these were in the shape of animals, which indicates a probable worship of animals.

Near to the human cemeteries were the animal cemeteries, dogs, jackals, sheep, cows, all in lined or matting coverings buried in the sand. In later periods there are three types of animals that the ancient Egyptians buried, pets – honoured companions, the cult animals kept at the temple, and votive offerings (pilgrims to a temple could buy an animal which would be killed, mummified and buried on behalf of the person paying for the offering to the god).

Examples of Naqada I Artefacts

Top and Left: Naqada I Cosmetic Palettes
Right: Disc Macehead, Male Ivory Figurine, Vase and Dish
Bottom Left: Siltstone Bird Pectoral

Naqada I ArtefactsNaqada I

Similar kinds of grave and grave goods to those of the Badarian Period are found during Naqada I, but the types of grave goods indicate a more foreign influence on ideas and decorative iconography. It is also in this period that we find what Petrie calls the wavy handle pots, these provided the basis for the sequence dating that he devised.

The slate palettes go from being small squares to the shape of animals, other imported items, such as those made from turquoise and lapis lazuli; which came via trade from Afghanistan. (The trade route probably came down through Sinai.)

Naqada II

After around c3400BC we begin to see a difference in the makeup of the organisation of Egypt. The small villages along the Nile and the Delta gradually over time develop into two distinct kingdoms. The Chieftains of these different towns and villages presumably came into conflict with each other or came to agreements with each other, gradually banded together for greater protection and for the irrigation requirement of the Nile. They became united into two distinct kingdoms.

The Nomes, which is a Greek word, are similar to the counties of the UK and are geographical or political entities. Each of the two kingdoms has its own capital city, each with its own ruler or chieftain, and each with its own set of gods and goddesses.

Until this time there is no difference in the burial customs between the ruling class and the general population. From now onwards there is a marked difference between the ruling class and the rest of the population.

This new type of tomb is called a mastaba tomb, which is from the Arabic meaning bench or bench shaped. These mastaba tombs had a substructure underground with a brick lined chamber, and superstructure above ground which was built of mud brick and later built of stone; this represents the next stage in development from the early pit graves. The body is now placed in the substructure chamber, because the body is no longer packed around with sand, the body decomposes and you no longer find the natural mummies that occurred earlier. The ordinary people continued to be buried in pit graves.

The Two Kingdoms

The two kingdoms that developed from this time are called the Red Land and the White Land.

Red Land

In the north in the Delta, the capital is known by the later title of Buto, and is made of two distinct areas one called Pe and one called Dep. The ancient goddess worshipped, a cobra goddess called Edjo or Wadjet.

Sites that are within the Delta area are much less well preserved that sites of comparable ages in the south of Egypt.

White Land

The capital of the White Land is at Nekhen or more often known by its Greek name Hieraconpolis. Rene Freedman who is director of excavations for this area has turned up some interesting finds, including early mummies, which throw up into question of when they were first introduced. This area is also made up of two areas, Nekhen and Nekheb.

The Englishman Green and Quibel excavated this site during the early part of the 20th century; they discovered a great group of votive offerings in the temple including the Narmer Palette. Towards the end of the 19th century, a famous tomb was found; the decorated Tomb number 100, the scenes that were found on the walls were recorded by the archaeologists, the tomb has subsequently been lost but represents the earliest of the decorated tombs.

In the part of Hieraconpolis called Nekheb, was the place of the cult centre of a vulture Goddess Nekbet. She was the parallel of the goddess of Red Land.

Examples of Naqada II Artefacts

Top: Naqada II Vase, Combs
Middle Left: Tomb Scene, Wooden Staff, Astrological Cosmetic Palette
Middle Right: Gebel el-Arak Knife Handle, Macehead
Bottom: Naqada II Grave Reonstruction

Naqada II ArtefactsFunerary Evidence

Why did the ancient Egyptians seem to revere the dead so much? There is no written evidence of why this was, though one possibility was that they were afraid of the dead, that the dead could take revenge on the living; that they still had a power to influence the material world. This took the form of placating the dead, the elaborate graves and grave good were all designed to keep the dead happy and to prevent them wreaking havoc back on earth.

Another possible explanation was that the dead were seen as a means of contact between the gods and the living and could intercede with the gods on behalf of the living.

Magic

Magic plays a very big part in Egyptian religion, this can be found from the Badarian Period onwards. Magic in the terms of Egyptian religion is being able to achieve a result through actions that are carried out on an object that is within your possession. Magic existed on all levels; there was state magic that could influence the outcome of state events, down to personal magic.

Amulets

They were provided to give power to the deceased in the tomb in which they were placed. The animal amulets may have been there to provide a food supply, the figurines would come to life using magic, others were animals that were strong or cunning and may have been used to improve the prowess of the deceased in hunting in the afterlife.

The female figurines found in the graves of both male and female are thought to represent a major mother goddess, which we no longer know the name of. Women may have used them as requests for children or pleas to the mother goddess to be reborn in the next world. Other figures are also found in the grave, which are also connected with birth, for example hippopotamus’s, which was a symbol of fertility and rebirth; there are also cattle on trays, which were either a magical source of food or to ensure the fertility of the herds.

We have little information on how these ancient communities worshipped their gods and goddesses on a daily basis, there are no other religious building other than the graves surviving from this period.

Each village would probably have had its own local deity or group of gods, in the village would have been a dwelling made of fragile materials such as wood, in which the statue of the god would live, much the same as the people themselves lived. The local chieftain probably brought food, drink and other offerings for the god and placed them in this chapel on behalf of the local community. In return the gods would be expected to care for the community, to overcome enemies. These rituals may have gone on a daily basis; in later periods these rituals may have been translated in the larger temples in which the king and the high priest performed the offerings to the gods.

The Hierarchy of the Gods.

At first these isolated villages seemed to have their own gods or groups of gods, in the same way politically that these villages came together so the same thing happened in religion. The process is called syncretism meaning coming together and forming ever-larger groups. If one tribe or district was conquered, the god of that district would be absorbed by the god of the more powerful district, who would take on the characteristics of the conquered god or sometimes as assistants or followers of the god, others of course just disappeared or were forgotten.

It was only during the Old Kingdom that any sort of structure was imposed, by the priests, on the Egyptian gods.

There is a theory that the gods of Egypt could be grouped into two main groups; the Cosmic Gods, the Sun, Moon, Sky etc and the tribal or local gods that had a local significance.

During this period there is a lot of evidence for a supreme mother goddess, who we no longer know the name of, she was represented as a cow or sometimes in human form with a cow head or just the horns of the cow. Depictions of this mother goddess can be found on decorated pottery. She also has a consort, a young man that is both her son and lover. It is possible that this male god is the fertility god known in later times as Min. Their union rejuvenated the land, brought about the crops, made the people fertile and maybe helped individuals to be reborn again in the next world.

The prominence of this mother goddess in pre-dynastic and early dynastic Egypt is thought to be the reason behind the large women’s graves that have been found. It is also thought that the size of the graves reflects the power and role of women in society.

Animal Cults.

Animal cults and cemeteries are also of major importance in this early period, yet we have very little information as too why they worshipped animals, yet it is a feature throughout the whole of Egyptian history. From the earliest animal cults to those of the Graeco-Roman period represents a 3000-year history of animal worship.

Some of the animals worshipped were helpful to mankind, cats for example are not found in this period and are found in much later times, but when they did they ridded the house of vermin and pests and where friendly, kind animals in the domestic setting.

Other animals were worshipped because they were feared, for example the lioness goddess Sekhmet, who was the bringer of plagues and the bringer of destruction, the ancient Egyptians worshipped Sekhmet as a goddess of medicine and healing. This was believed to placate the goddess and so avoid her destruction nature.

The Jackal is another animal that was also made into a god in this pre-dynastic period, the jackal ransacked and dug up graves and cemeteries. The ancient Egyptians turned the jackal into a god of embalming and mummification, in later times this god was called Anubis, once again in an effort to placate the animal and bring it under there control.

Some of the ancient Egyptian gods never had an animal form, Ma’at and Ptah being to examples. Some of the gods had a animal form, a half animal half human form, and a human form in various periods of ancient Egyptian history.

Most of the ancient Egyptian gods start out as being depicted fully as animals; it was believed the power of the god could be channelled through the animal. In later times it was this divine power that was associated with the animal that was worshipped.

Gradually, from as early as the pre-dynastic period, there comes about a process called anthropomorphisation in which the animal gods gradually take on human form or half animal half human form.

The Unification of Egypt.

The unification of Egypt, the uniting of the Two Lands; the Red Land and the White Land, occurred around c3100BC under the rule of the ruler of the Southern Kingdom. This ruler is who united the two lands is called Menes, he is also identified with two other rulers, Narmer and Hor Aha. Early Egyptologists thought that Menes and Narmer were the same person, however more recent opinions equate Menes with Hor Aha. Menes is credited with conquering the North and unifying the two lands into one kingdom. He is thought of as the 1st king of Dynasty I.

This event, the unification, is probably not without some background, involving skirmishes between the North and South over a long period prior to the final unification. An earlier king who is known as Scorpion, again a southern king, is thought to have taken some initial steps in unifying the two lands. The evidence for this comes from the Scorpion Mace head, which depicts the Scorpion King wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt.

The Narmer Palette.

The Narmer Palette, a triangular piece of black basalt, found in Hierakonpolis by J.E. Quibel in 1897-98, depicts a king who name is given as Mer-Mer. On one side the King is shown wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt and holding a mace about to crush the head of a northern foe. A group of hieroglyphs above the head of the captured northerner have been tentatively interpreted as meaning ‘Horus brings to the King captives of Lower Egypt’. On the reverse, the same figure is shown wearing the Red Crown of the North while a bull (a symbol of the kings power, one of the later royal titles was ‘Strong Bull of Horus’) rages below him, smashing the walls of a city and trampling another foe.

We see the King marching in processions with his officials and the standard bearers of his armies to view the bound and decapitated bodies of his northern enemies. He is depicted in conventional posture of a victorious pharaoh, which is thought to be the earliest occurrence of what was to become an ‘icon of mastery’ throughout the rest of Egyptian history.

The centre panel shows what is usually interpreted as evidence of the early Mesopotamian art in Egypt, two four legged serpopards, their necks entwined to form the cosmetic scoop, and held on leashes by two small retainers.

The Narmer Macehead.

The macehead shows Narmer wearing the Red Crown of the conquered north, seated on a throne and protected by the vulture goddess Nekhbet of Hierakonpolis. In front of him are the standard bearers of his army, a seated figure on a canopied palanquin; figures of captives and numerals and signs representing the number of men, oxen and goats captured in war. The seated figure is probably a woman, and it has been suggested that the figure is that of a captured northern princess whom the victorious king would take in marriage to consolidate the rule of the Two Lands. The macehead shows scenes of celebration of the hed-sed (jubilee) festival of renewal. A cow (possibly Hathor) and calf also have a prominent place in the iconography.

Dynasty I & II.

The two first Dynasties of Egypt are called by archaeologists and Egyptologists as the Archaic Period (further reading WB Emery – Archaic Egypt).

With the beginning of the 1st Dynasty, the kings establish a new capital, the southern rulers could no longer afford to rule from the south of Egypt. So a new capital situated in the north was required, not the old capital of the North – Buto, one in which they could control and rule both the north and the south. The city they established, at the apex of the Delta, we now know as Memphis, but its Egyptian name was White Walls. This city became one of the great cities of the ancient world, for thousands of years the Two Lands were ruled from here. However much of the city has been used in the building of Cairo. Menes found this city, he and his family made their main residence there, it became a great bureaucratic centre, for Egypt. The southern rules also kept an old southern religious centre in the south call This, which is near Abydos.

It is probable, by extrapolating backwards to assume, that there would have been a mud brick palace at White Walls, the palace was not only the royal residence but also an administrative centre. Some of the day to day running of the Two Lands was done from Memphis, others it was down to local areas - the Nomes. So there was a distinct provision for the administration of central and local government.

The divinity of the King is already established in the Archaic Period, the Egyptian king was a god on earth, he was supposedly half human (on the side of his mother) and half divine (on the side of his father), and he was uniquely placed to intercede with the gods and mankind. He is seen as the embodiment of the supreme state god Horus, when the king died he became Osiris, the King of the dead. (They would say Horus is dead, Horus is living, because the old king had died but a new king had taken his place.)

Already in this period the Queens of Egypt occupy and important place within the ancient Egyptian society. Descent and inheritance was passed down through the female line. The title Great Royal Wife, is thought to have a special role in the royal family, it is maintained that every king of Egypt was the offspring of a divine union between the chief state god (which varied for period to period) and the ruling kings principle wife. The god visited the Queen and she conceived the next ruler. The person that became the king’s principle wife had usually been the great royal daughter; this would have been the eldest daughter of the previous king and queen. In order to inherit the throne of Egypt the king had to marry the great royal daughter as the power to confer the right to rulership was passed down through the female side. In effect the King married his sister or half sister in order to become the rightful ruler. This only occurred within the royal family.

Many members of the king’s family were given positions as officials in various government departments. The most important of the positions was the vizier, the kings chief minister, he was almost a royal deputy in effect, and he wielded considerable amounts of power and influence. (Further reading Gay Robins – Women in Egypt.)

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