Predynastic Egypt

PREDYNASTIC EGYPT

The Archeological Story

By R. Cedric Leonard


INTRODUCTION

Plato's assertion that the Egyptian priests kept records of their history going back in excess of 9,000 years has drawn citicism from scholars. Several have called Herodotus, Manetho, and even Plato, liars. There is little doubt that Manetho, Herodotus, even Plato's ancestor Solon, would be considered "credulous" by our modern standards. However, we have lately discovered king-lists, as well as other "historical" artifacts, which carry us back to a time well before the unification of Egypt ca. 3100 B.C..

Whether these extremely simplified records are expressing pure nonsense ("invented" history), myth (stories having some sort of historical core), or real history (actual fact) has been debated among scholars for years, and will certainly not be resolved here. However, artifacts predating king Menes (3,100 B.C.) by thousands of years have been discovered. Archeologists and Egyptologists are attempting to make some coherent sense of these, although much work needs to be done.

Professor Mallowan (1972) of the Asiatic archeology department of the University of London marvels at how "remarkably well the written evidence of an archaic document such as the Palermo Stone is confirmed . . . by the progressive circumstantial evidence of archeology." He allows that such documents have their flaws; but affirms that they are more than mere fabricated myths. This places the Egyptian king-lists used on this website on a reasonably substantial foundation.

THE PREHISTORIC EGYPTIAN TIME-LINE

  • Lower Paleolithic (300,000 - 35,000 B.C.)
  • Upper Paleolithic (35,000 - 10,000 B.C.)
  • Epipaleolithic Era (10,000 - 5,500 B.C.)
  • Predynastic Period (5,500 - 3,100 B.C.)


There have always been people in Egypt. Skeletal material and artifacts have been found dating back for more than 300,000 years; but the question revolves around civilization (Antiquity of Man). North Africa was being populated by Upper Paleolithic Man (including Cro-Magnoid types) beginning approximately 35,000 years ago (Raffaele, 2000). During our brief study it should be kept in mind that the Sahara Desert has grown to cover large areas of North Africa only during the last 5,000-6,000 years.

Toward the end of the Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago, a wet warming trend began. Rainfall became more abundant in North Africa during this period, which lasted several thousand years. Lakes and rivers dotted the landscape. The Sahara did not return to its formally arid state until roughly 5,000 years ago (Sahara Desert).

By the end of the Ice Age large brained, innovative type de Mechta humans had spread all over North Africa from the Atlantic coast all the way to the Nile Valley (Briggs, 1955; Coon, 1954; Hiernaux, 1975; Howe, 1967; Smith, 1975, et al.); and this region extended hundreds of miles southward beyond the now limiting presence of the desert sands. Thus, massive amounts of cultural material lies beneath those encroaching sand dunes.

So, we must picture the whole of North Africa southward at least to the Tropic of Cancer (possibly to the 20th parallel) as lush and green with abundant wildlife, lakes, flowing rivers, and having a fairly moderate climate with abundant annual rainfall. These rivers still run beneath the Saharan sands to this very day. This vast area was then populated with several strains of people, including one type who had possibly been "civilized" in Atlantis before ever arriving on the continent of Africa. (See Anthropology page.)

The surface has barely been scratched by archeologists in Egypt: principally because so many have spent lifetimes searching for dramatic or "glamorous" artifacts which draw so much attention (and money from museums). But other less dramatic archeological work is being done; yet we will not live to see the day when the Sahara sands are penetrated to the point where we will truly know what occurred and where in what we presently call predynastic Egypt.

By means of an "electromagnetic survey," ruins were recently discovered at the Fayyum oasis consisting of a network of walls and roads similar to those constructed during the Greco-Roman period. The city's foundations are being exhumed from beneath the sand, along with foundations of ovens and grain stores. The ruins consist of the remains of walls and houses made of dressed limestone, as well as large quantities of pottery, and dates are ranging around 7,000 B.P. (Egyptology Online)

Evidence of early settlements in Egypt where agriculture was practiced has been discovered in the north at Fayyum A and Merimda (Bard, 1994). The Fayyum A sites may represent one of the oldest Epipaleolithic economies in Egypt (see time-line above), and one that was at least partially based on cereal cultivation (Wenke et al., 1988). All the "official" king-lists have "kings" (chieftains?) ruling at this time.


PREDYNASTIC EGYPT

Beginning just before the Predynastic period, Egyptian culture, in many ways, was already beginning to resemble the Pharaonic ages that would come soon afterward. In a transition period of a thousand years (about which little is still known), nearly all the archetypal Egyptian characteristics had appeared; and beginning in 5,500 B.C. we find evidence of organized, permanent settlements focused around agriculture and cattle herding.

The people who are believed to be the ancestors of the predynastic Egyptians were a people known as the Badarian people, who had settled in Upper Egypt on the eastern bank of the Nile near the village of Badari. Archeologists have found a series of occupational sites as well as numerous cemeteries. The Badarian people practised the cultivation of grain and domesticated certain animals. They founded numerous small villages in the flat desert near the fertile plain created by the Nile, and burial grounds were located on the outskirts of these villages.

Throughout most of its predynastic history Egypt encompassed a multiplicity of settlements which gradually became small tribal kingdoms. The Chalcolithic or "Copper" (also called the "Primitive") period, marks the beginning of the Predynastic cultures in both the north and south of Egypt. These kingdoms eventually evolved into two loosely confederated states, later known as Upper and Lower Egypt.

PROTO-PREDYNASTIC SEQUENCE

PERIOD CULTURE DATE B.C.
EPIPALEO-FAYYUM8,000-5,500
PRIMITIVEBADARIAN5,500-4,500
EARLYNAQADA I4,500-4,000
MIDDLENAQADA II4,000-3,500
LATENAQADA III3,500-3,000
Rough approximation of Protodynastic Timeline

Somewhere around 4,500 B.C. is the start of the Early Predynastic period known as the Amratian, 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 Naqada culture in the south and the Maadi culture in the north evolved in Egypt, both of which practiced agriculture. (Bard, 1994) However, such a statement tends to obscure agriculture processes and experiments in farming that were occurring millennia earlier (Butzer ,1990).

The Middle stage of the Predynastic period began around 4,000 B.C. and is often called 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. This would soon result in a truly mixed people and culture, that of the Late Predynastic, or Naqada III.

The Late stage of the Predynastic period began around 3,500 B.C., which is that which immediately preceded the famed First Dynasty, and the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under one ruler known as king Menes. Dates given by various authorities for this supposed event range from 3,000-3,400 B.C. However, some believe that kings Narmer and Menes were two different individuals, and that "unification" may have taken place a little earlier under king Narmer.




An Egyptian mace head, symbol of rulership, was found by archeologists Quibell and Green during their expedition of 1897-98 in the main deposit at Hierakonpolis. This main deposit also contained other artifacts from the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, among them a long narrow vase also showing the name of king Scorpion. Was this king Scorpion's mace head?


Ivory labels depicting hieroglyphic royal "names"

Bone and ivory labels suggest an early logographic writing system (pre-dating Mesopotamian writing by 200 years; Dreyer, 1998) that was used to catalogue King Scorpion's riches, keep track of taxes, and organize his administration, although at present such inscriptions are very difficult to read. (Raffaele, 2000) One such example of early writing is this ivory label from Abydos (left).

Ivory Label of King Zer

The so-called "Dynasty O"

Only a few royal names had originally been gleaned from the predynastic period by early Egyptologists, such as: Ka, Nebti, Horus, Suten, Bat, Ra, which happened to be recorded on a number of scarab beetles. (Budge, 1908) But later discoveries turned up "tags" made of ivory, bone, and wood which were used as labels for tax commodities paid to various local rulers. Taxing implies the existence of a "proto-state". Raffaele (2008) states, ". . . now we know that the Ancient Egyptian State and many of its features originated before the First Dynasty."

Others names are known from a single artifact or a few inscriptions, so a "line of succession" has been attempted, but varies from one authority to the next. It's important to note that even though they are called "dynasty 0 and 00" these are not actual dynasties of kings in the usual sense of the term. While the Palermo Stone king-list includes the annual levels of the Nile along with the number of years of each reign, these earlier artifacts often make reference to some important event (i.e., elements of "history") which occurred during a particular king's reign.

The consensus is that Egypt hadn't yet been unified, although this has been contested. Much smaller than modern Egypt, Upper Egypt probably extended southward only as far as Aswan. Rulers of individual areas were regional kings or chieftains, some ruling in the north and others in the south. Between nine and thirteen kings ruled from Heirakonpolis in Upper Egypt. King Narmer is sometimes thought of as identical to Aha-Menes; if so, Narmer (depicted on numerous labels) may actually belong to the First Dynasty.

There is a series of mostly unknown kings at the beginning of the 0 Dynasty who are known only from a single hieroglyph inscription. They include Ny-Hor, Hat-Hor, Pe-Hor, Djer-Hor, Iry-Hor, Ka-Hor, Hedjw-Hor, and several others. These are sometime called the "Hor" kings, or "followers of Horus" and are found mostly on ivory, bone, or wooden "tags" or labels.

Hieroglyph of King "Stork"
Hieroglyph of King "Dog"

Encountering such names as "Dog," "Catfish" and "Crocodile," one should realize that they are not really names as such, but rather are references to kings named by Egyptologists after the inscribed hieroglyphic symbol that often accompanied them. "Scorpion" is called Scorpion simply because he is represented by a tiny scorpion glyph; consequently later kings have more "normal" sounding names because we have more information about them. Maybe such rulers will someday be matched up with those on "official" king-lists.


An Earlier "Dynasty OO"?

One compilation of "royal names" has been recently evidenced and reconstructed by Dr. Günter Dreyer, Egyptologist at the German Archeological Institute in southern Egypt. Dreyer worked from inscriptions on various bone tags and ceramic vessels originating from several different sites, including the U cemetery of Abydos, on certain Naqada IId1-IIIa2 sealings, on the Tehenu Palette, and on the graffiti incised on the Coptos Colossi.

This fairly complete (but provisional) list includes the following probable royal names or rulers: Oryx, Shell, Fish, Elephant, Bull, Cattle-head standard (1), Stork, Dog, Cattle-head standard (2), Scorpion I, Falcon I, Min standard + plant, ?, Falcon II, Lion, Double Falcon, Irj-Hor, Ka, and Scorpion II. (Dreyer, 1998)

The first serious use of the term "Dynasty 00", by Edwin Van den Brink (1992) was related to the "members of the ruling class" buried in cemetery U at Abydos Umm el Qaab' who were believed to be "the predecessors of the Dynasty 0 Kings". Dreyer had already jokingly used the term to indicate the rulers earlier than Naqada IIIB Dynasty 0. For the present, however, Dreyer's "joke" remains the standard.

"Property of King Elephant": Dynasty 00
(Tree on the right is "property" symbol)

But we have only sketchy fragments of this complicated puzzle; and we must keep in mind that the unequal knowledge of the main sites of that period results in sometimes placing a heavy bias upon the reconstructions. In some cases, the evidence for violent competition amongst the early Upper Egypt chiefdoms or proto-states is, for now at least, based almost entirely on the iconography of certain of the artifacts.





A PREDYNASTIC SPHINX?

At present, Egyptologists are fairly agreed that the Sphinx was sculpted during the reign of Khephren; but this has not always been the case. According to several early Egyptologists (e.g., Wallis Budge, James H. Breasted, et al.), the Sphinx "was in existence in the days of Khafre, or Khephren, and it is probable . . . that it dates from the end of the archaic period" (Budge, 1904).

Inscribed objects far more ancient than Khephren are making a surprising contribution to this controversy. Amulets dating back to Predynastic Egypt were found in great numbers with depictions of a half-man half-lion. But was the Sphinx originally created with the head of an Egyptian king, or could it have been a lion?

Portion of King Aha-Menes label Corner of King Narmer label King Djet label, First Dynasty

Several early dynastic labels from Abydos show a large lion half-buried, with only paws and a large head visible! In one particular image the head is truly huge (center), yet features are somewhat indistinct. Has the Sphinx's original head since been re-carved into that of an Egyptian pharaoh, as suggested by Harvard University geologist, Colin Reader? (See Archeology page.)

A book written by the British Egyptologist, Walter B. Emery (1961), depicts numerous early labels bearing similar images: a wooden label from Abydos (p.52); an ivory label of Zer from Abydos (p.59); an inscribed palette of Zer from Saqqara (p.60); a wooden label of Udimu from Abydos (p.76); an ivory label of Semerkhet from Abydos (p. 86). In all of these inscriptions only the "foreparts" (head, shoulders, and paws) are shown, as if the posterior was for some reason not visible. (vide McBride, 2008.)

The image on the Palette of Zer found at Saqqara by Prof. Emery is particularly striking: the Egyptian-style headdress (the "nemes" headcloth) seems to be in evidence, yet the face is definitely that of a beast. This raises the question: is the "headdress" depicted thereon possibly a lion's mane? This startling depiction—a fairly large, crude picture; not merely a glyph—causes one to wonder if the headdress adopted by later Egyptian kings was itself an imitation of the lion's flowing mane. But, why is the back portion of the beast consistantly not in evidence? Was its posterior buried in sand?

Portion of the Palette of Zer (redrawn)

The "foreparts" of a lion eventually became a standard glyph, as one can observe on this very page (black palette: top-right; ivory label: center-left). So, why only the lion's "foreparts"? Were the archaic Egyptians so used to seeing the Sphinx rear portions obscurred by sand, exhibiting only a lion's foreparts, that they eventually adopted the image as a standard glyph? Numerous examples can be found on the Egyptologist Francesco Raffaele's website. This would seem to push the origin of the Sphinx back to at least the Predynastic period.

All these things, when considered together, would seem to indicate that civilization along the Nile Valley goes back thousands of years into the past—perhaps millenia beyond the Dynastic period. It is entirely possible that Herodotus, Manetho and Plato were not so far wrong as some modern scholars would have us believe. Regardless of the confidence of modern Egyptologists, the last page has not been written on predynastic Egypt.

REFERENCES

Bard, Kathryn,"The Egyptian Predynastic: A review of the Evidence," JFA, Vol. 21, No. 3, 265-288, 1994.
Briggs, L. Cabot, "The Stone Age Races of Northwest Africa," Bulletin of the American School of Prehistoric Research, No. 18, Cambridge, 1955.
Budge, E.A. Wallis, "The Gods of the Egyptians," 1904 (Dover edition, New York, 1969).
Budge, E. A. Wallis, "The Book of the Kings of Egypt," Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., London, 1908.
Butzer, Karl W., "A human Ecosystem Framework for Archaeology," in Emilio F. Moran, ed., The Ecosystem Approach in Anthropology. From Concept to Practice, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1990.
Dreyer, Gunter, Umm el-Qaab I, Mainz, 1998.
Emery, Walter. B., "Archaic Egypt: Culture and Civilization in Egypt Five Thousand Years Ago," Edinburgh, 1961.
Hassan, Fekri A., "The Predynastic of Egypt," JWP, No. 2, 135-185, 1988.
Hiernaux, Jean, "The People of Africa," Charles Schribner's Sons, New York, 1975.
Hoffman, M., "Egypt before the Pharaohs," New York, 1979 (1990).
Howe, Bruce, "The Palaeolithic of Tangier, Morocco," Bulletin of the American School of Pre-historic Research, No. 22, Cambridge, 1967.
Mallowan, M. E. L., in Editorial Forward of W. B. Emery's "Archaic Egypt," Pelican Books, Great Britain, 1972.
McBride, Angus, "The Sphinx Enigma," SHEMU journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, January 2008.
Raffaele, Francesco, "Early Egypt: Corpus of First Dynasty Ivory and Wooden Labels," ONLINE, 2008.
Schoch, Robert M., "Redating the Great Sphinx of Gizeh," KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 1992.
Smith, Philip E. L., "Stone Age Man on the Nile," Scientific American, Vol. 235, No. 2, August 1976.
Van den Brink, Edwin C. M., "Preliminary Report on the Excavations at Tell Ibrahim Awad, Seasons 1988-1990," in Brink ed., The Nile Delta in Transition, The Israel Exploration Society, 43-68, 1992.
Wenke, Robert J., Janet E. Long, and Paul E. Buck, "Epipaleolithic and Neolithic Subsistence and Settlement in the Fayyum Oasis of Egypt," Journal of Field Archaeology 15, 29-51, 1988.

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