All great things have humble beginnings. Whether its a first step that marks the start of a long adventurous journey or if its the first stone block that sets the foundation for a great pyramid.

Ancient Egypt was a remarkably long-lasting civilization which underwent many different periods over a span of 3000-4000 years, depending on where you decide to put the starting point. In this article we’ve collected some information and facts concerning the history of predynastic and prehistoric Egypt.

Historical map of Ancient Egypt with most important sites, with rivers and lakes.

Historical map of Ancient Egypt with most important sites, with rivers and lakes. – CC 4.0 Wikimedia

Historians and egyptologists generally divide predynastic Egypt into different cultural periods named after the type of settlement and location of the archeological sites. The most well-known cultures, in chronological order, of Predynastic Egypt are the Merimde, El Omari and Maadi of Lower Egypt and the Tasian, Badarian, Naqada, Amratian, Gerzean of Upper Egypt.

These individual “cultures” should not be interpreted as separate entities in reality, they are but posterior divisions made by historians to get a better understanding of the period. As for example the Badarian culture which succeeded the Tasian culture were so similar that many scholars consider them one continuous period.

During this same time the Sahara keeps getting drier which most likely forced human settlements to gradually move closer to the Nile. By the early dynastic period, the terrain of the sahara is close to what we have today, namely a huge arid desert.

Moreover it is in Upper Egypt where we’ve found the majority of the artefacts, archeological finds and remnants of predynastic Egypt. This is because the Delta region and sites of Lower Egypt has been buried under heavy depositions of silt amassed from the Nile River.



There is little archeological findings from the period of 9000 to 6000 BCE. It is around 6000 BCE that these above mentioned neolithic cultures and settlements appear dispersed along the Nile river ranging from Upper to Lower Egypt.

Burials

The most common types of burials were shallow pits dug into the desert sand. Moreover the bodies were most often covered with linen, skins, reed mats or with stone slabs. The bodies were also placed facing the west and around him/her were placed the many things that he/she might need in the afterlife, most common being pottery for food purposes.

  • It is in the predynastic period that we find the ancient Egyptians experimenting with “proto-mummification” as they used resins and wrappings to preserve deceased bodies.
  • The burials of early predynastic Egypt show little differentiation of wealth and status and seem to belong to a peasant culture without central political organization.
  • In the Amratian period, there has been observed an acceleration of funerary trends, where some (few) individuals would be buried in bigger and loftier tombs, like Cemetery T at Naqada and Tomb 100 (the so-called Painted Tomb) found at Hierakonpolis.
  • Gerzean (Naqada II) cemeteries had many different types of graves, ranging from small oval/round pits with meagre offerings to more elaborate burials with specific compartments for offerings.
  • The first tombs of the early kings, dynasties 0-1, have been found in the city of Abydos. From dynasty 0, we have the tombs of Narmer, Ka, Aha and Iryhor in the vicinity of each other in the royal cemetery of Abydos.

Notable Kings/Pharaohs/Queens

Before Egypt was united into a single country, Egypt was divided into two main parts, Upper and Lower Egypt. Though the term dynasty 0 has become established when discussing the kings of the predynastic period, it should be noted that the reign and actual existence of these kings is less certain than later dynasties.

Dynasty 0

Some of these names/individuals may have been contemporaries, while some may never have existed at all.

  • Scorpion II
  • Ka
  • Iry-Hor
  • King Narmer, who unites Upper and Lower Egypt into one single nation, thus beginning the first dynasty.

Notable Temples, Monuments and Works of Art

Royal cemetery of Abydos, where the tombs of many of the kings of the 0-2 dynasties are found.

Artefacts

  • The Scorpion Macehead that shows king Scorpion wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt may be from the late predynastic and/or the protodynastic period (Naqada III).
  • The Two Dog Palette (Naqada III, height 42 cm, width 22 cm)
  • Battlefield Palette (Naqada III)
  • The Towns Palette (Naqada III)
  • The Hunters’ Palette (Naqada III)
  • The Gebel Arak knife handle, (Nagada III) shows a master of animals in between two beasts, most likely influenced by the art of Mesoptamian civilizations.
  • The Narmer Palette, which depicts King Narmer smiting and subduing his enemies and uniting Egypt.

Interesting Facts

  • The earliest attestation of agriculture in Upper Egypt is found in the Badarian culture in the region of el-Badari.
  • When it comes to the understanding of the chronology of predynastic Egypt, Egyptologists owe a great deal to the modern methods of dating based on the analysis of physical and chemical phenomena, most notably thermoluminescence (TL) and radiocarbon (€-14) dating.
  • The boat becomes a popular motif in the representational art of Naqada culture, as it signifies the importance of the river when it comes to food (fish and wild fowl) and as the main channel of communication. Through the boat, the people of the Naqada culture obtained ivory, ebony, incense, gold, copper, stone, skins and more. The boat becomes a symbol of social status whereby the elite could gradually distinguish themselves from the rest of the populace.
  • Advances in stone working and carving techniques and technology has been observed during the Gerzean (Naqada II) period.
  • Senet or Senat, the worlds oldest board game is invented probably somewhere between 3500-3300 BCE.
  • Protodynastic period of Egypt refers to the very end of the predynastic period of Egypt. This is when the first initial steps are taken to establish the early dynastic period.
  • The hieroglyphic writing system is invented in the protodynastic period but symbols used on Gerzean (Naqada II) pottery resemble the traditional hieroglyph writing.
  • Painted pottery and figurines, ivory carvings and cosmetics in the form of slate palettes are found for the first time in predynastic Egypt.
  • Pieces of ivory inscribed with early hieroglyphs are found in Abydos dating back to the Naqada III period.
  • The desiccation (process of extreme drying) of the Sahara desert wasn’t fully complete in predynastic/historic Egypt.
  • The differences between the Badarian and Amratian cultures can be seen above all in changes in material culture, most notably the various details of the pottery.
  • The Nile valley of the Predynastic and later periods was a focal point in northern Africa for the development of agriculture and, later, urban societies like that of proto-dynastic and dynastic Egypt.
  • The beginnings of what came to be Egyptian art are partly found in cave paintings in the western desert of Wadi Sura (4500 – 3000 BCE)
  • Serekhs, a specific type of crest that contained a royal name, most often of a king, first appear somewhere in Naqada II (Gerzeh) – Naqada III cultures, around 3400-3200 BCE.
  • From the Badarian culture we have preserved a variety of art, for example woman figures of ivory, figures of animals like the hippopotamus. However the Badarian culture is perhaps best known for its black topped pottery.
  • One of the hallmarks of late predynastic “art” and artefacts are the so called ceremonial palettes often depicted animals in their natural habitat but also in the Naqada III cultures which made use of symbology to depict different events or phenomena, ranging from actual possible history that took place to mythological beings. The most notable ceremonial palettes from the predynastic period or protodynastic period are the Narmer Palette, the Scorpion Macehead, the Gebel Arak Knife, the Battlefield Palette to name a few. The original finding place(s) of the Naqada III decorated palettes is for the most part unknown. as nearly all of them have been obtained from antiquariate “secret” markets.
  • Naqada I pottery (4000 – 3500 BCE) is characterized by black topped red ware and vessels with white decorative motifs on a red polished body.
  • Naqada II or Gerzean pottery (3500 – 3200 BCE) is characterized by wavy handles, coarse utilitarian ware and decorations comprising brown paint on a cream background.
  • The pottery found in the Naqada III culture (3200 – 3000 BCE) is similar or precursory to the dynastic pottery that would emerge later on, like for example more elaborate grave goods and cylindrical jars.
  • It is in the Naqada III cultures that we see and find a lot of novel things that would later come to become normal in dynastic Egypt, this includes the first hieroglyphs, the regular use of inscribing the names of kings in serekhs, the first graphical narratives on ceremonial palettes, the first royal cemetery (in Abydos), and also one of the first irrigations in Egypt.

Conclusion

It is quite difficult to define exactly where and when predynastic Egypt begins and where it ends. While some phenomena and tendencies that are later found in the Old Kingdom and subsequent dynastic periods can be traced to Egyptian prehistory and predynasty, it isn’t always that easy. There are many scholars, egyptologists and theories that differ on what happened, when and how. It is however quite clear that the foundation of the rich civilization and culture of dynastic Egypt lies on many of these findings in prehistoric Upper and Lower Egypt.

References

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