Introduction to the Predynastic
The Predynastic period sits between the prehistoric and Dynastic periods. It was originally defined by Petrie as a phase that was more sophisticated than conventionally termed prehistoric periods. It is the period when increasingly complex economic and socio-cultural traditions began to evolve.
Mixed farming was now established in the Nile Valley and Delta, with the standard herd components of sheep, goat, pig and cattle, and a package of plants that included emmer wheat, barley, lentils, and flax, amongst others. In more marginal areas, like the Western Desert oases, nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralism was accompanied by hunting and the collection of wild plants. Social hierarchies from the Badarian onwards are inferred from increasing differences in the complexity, size and contents of burials and the development of funerary furnishings and specialized grave goods.
In Upper Egypt craft work was more elaborate and more technically efficient. During Naqada I the town of Naqada seems to have been the most important centre of Upper Egypt. Motifs painted on pottery indicate a symbolic belief system, with certain elements being picked out and repeated in the same style throughout Upper Egypt. Their widespread presence of these ceramics in graves implies the existence of a highly specialized sector who may not have been engaged in agricultural activities but were supported by the community in return for their products. This is in itself an expression of increasing economic and social complexity. The motifs on the vessels are very distinctive and may indicate a very widespread concept of belief.
Religious beliefs, and funerary traditions tied into these, become evident in the archaeological record and evolve over time. There have been suggestions of continuity between religious belief of the Predynastic and Dynastic periods, partly from rock art, partly from images on funerary ceramics. A number of writers have interpreted the imagery of boats in the Eastern Desert as indicating continuity with the incorporation of Old Kingdom and later sailing vessels into religious belief. The presence of boats buried in First Dynasty tombs at Abydos seems to imply an association between boats and funerary belief, when those buried presumably “planned to sail into the afterlife” (Vinson 19994, p.17), but these ideas may also extend back into the Predynastic. Naqada II vessels used exclusively in funerary contexts often show boat images and do appear to have a funerary connection (Vinson 1994, p.13). Rock art in the Eastern Desert, however, does not appear to be associated with any type of funerary site. If an association between rock art boats and funerary contexts is to be sought, perhaps it lies less in specifically funerary associations and more in the broader concept of religious life. The association in the Old Kingdom between boats and celestial bodies (e.g. the navigation of the heavens by the barque of Ra), might, at a push, indicate a tradition of celestial boats from the Predynastic into the Dynasty periods. It’s one theory. Vinson highlights the case of the Fifth Dynasty spell 263 from the pyramid of Unas. Unas is ferried from this world to the next by reed floats of heaven. Vinson suggests that this reference is an echo from prehistory due to the concern with boat forms which pre-date plans. He also points to the antelope headed ornament oat the bow of the special barque of the deity Sokar, which he says is reminiscent of the black ship in Tomb 100 (Vinson 1994, p.50).
At the same time, a different type of socioeconomic life appeared to evolve in Lower Egypt, without the sophisticated artistic expression and elaborate hierarchical burial traditions of Upper Egypt, and without any concentration of settlements. Increasing contacts between Egypt and other lands are evident from Naqada II/the Maadi-Buto periods onwards, when Hierakonpolis replaced Naqada as the most important of the main centres. By late Naqada II, Abydos had replaced Hierakonpolis and Naqada as the most important centre of power. Three major territories or polities were by now established, surrounding the centres of, from south to north, Hierakonpolis, Naqada and Abydos. Towards the end of Naqada II, Upper Egyptian traditions extend to the north, and the Lower Egyptian traditions of the Maadi-Buto phase are apparently replaced.
The unification of Egypt during the Naqada III period is still the subject of endless debate, but it is clear that Lower and Upper Egypt were unified under one leader. What is not clear is if that unification survived uninterrupted throughout the Early Dynastic period. There is some suggestion that there may have been one or more periods of division and re-unification before the establishment of the Old Kingdom in the Fourth Dynasty.
The role of the Eastern Desert is difficult to assess throughout this period, but the following attempts to pull together some of very little data available.
The Predynastic conventionally begins following the Badarian period, which was the last of the so-called prehistoric periods. It is divided into three separate phases. Although there have been suggestions for a modified break-down of the Predynastic, the main system used is that proposed by Kaiser in 1957, following in the footsteps of Petrie, on whose Sequence Date scheme it is based. For an overview of how and when the Predynastic dating schemes were developed, see the Predynastic Phases section in Appendix C.
Naqada I (C.4000 - 2500 BC)
Naqada I was first recognized by Petrie, who named it the Amratian after the site where he recognized it, el-Amra. It was renamed by Kaiser in 1957, to emphasize the continuity between the three main Naqadan phases. It extends from Matmar in the North to Wadi Kubbaniya in the south.
The material culture was very similar indeed to the previous Badarian, and some writers have questioned the validity of separating it out from the Naqadan because the continuity is so evident, but there are enough differences to make the differentiation valid, the key ones being centralization of much larger permanent settlements on the banks of the Nile increased evidence for social stratification, improved craftsmanship, new styles of artistic expression and the concentration of the new sites much further to the south. Key differences include:
- Larger and wealthier graves as well as an increase in smaller and poorer graves
- More widespread distribution of material culture that clearly dates to Naqada I
- Larger and more permanent settlements
- A concentration of settlement around Naqada and Abydos (representing a shift to the south)
Improved stone working, including
o bifacial and flaking techniques
o the production of thinly ground pieces
o fish-tails and rhomboidal knives.
- Increasingly symbolic and artistic activities were apparently associated with an interest in an afterlife or the supernatural
- Increasingly complex slate palettes, which evolved from geometric forms to zoomorphic forms at the end of Naqada I
- The first disc-shaped maceheads
- Ivory combs which were carved with animal and bird motifs
- Human figurines formed in both pottery (68%) and ivory, modelled in either seated or standing positions
- Bone and ivory “tags” depicting bearded figures, with tanged bases, sometimes perforated
- Increasing amounts of disc-shaped maceheads
- Changes in pottery types
- A decline in the characteristic black-topped wares
- Continued use of red wares painted
- The introduction of white linear designs on red wares with geometric and
- Representational designs
- First faience working
- Early use of copper working with more varied forms appearing
- The first stone vessels
- Bone and ivory functional objects
Almost no metal was found in Naqada I, and very few settlement sites have been found. However, houses at El Hammamiya were 1-2m in diameter, one of which contained a hearth, and at Khattara “No actual built structure has survived from this date but the existence of numerous areas of earth rubble as well as post holes and hearths suggests that mud-brick buildings were already being constructed” (Midant-Reynes 1992/2000, p.183). At Hierakonpolis, a structure consisting of a kiln and a slightly depressed rectangular area was built on the ruins of earlier enclosures, with posts held into position with mortar. This combination of well-built permanent buildings and more temporary hut-type structure suggests that either
- Permanent settlements subsidized an economy with hunting parties who built temporary structures while away from their main bases
- Two types of community were living side by side in the Nile valley – one more sedentary than the other
As in the Badarian, items were often portable: “personal possessions of the Naqada I period, are characterized, above all, by their small size and ready portability. They suggest a lifestyle in which people moved around a great deal, where you had to be able to carry your worldly wealth with you, on your own body: in short, a rather nomadic existence” (Wilkinson 2003, p.93).
Due to very few settlement sites having been examined, the understanding of the economy is poor. However, from grave goods we know that goat, sheep, pig, geese and cattle were represented, and that the diet was supplemented by wild fauna – particularly gazelle and fish. Cereals included barley, emmer wheat, peas and vetch.
Wilkinson (2003) believes that the economy was based on seasonal usage of both Nile and Eastern Desert environments: “Taken together, the picture seems to have been one of seasonal occupation, with communities returning to their temporary settlements on a periodic basis, before leaving again some months later for pastures new” (Wilkinson 2003, p.94). He points to Eastern Desert rock art, dated by direct comparison to objects from Badarian Nile-side settlements which depict the hunting of Nile and desert species including hippopotamus, crocodile, elephant and gazelle, and which suggest that the use of boats were important.
Cattle herding required a degree of mobility as cattle need to moved to new pastures, and it is likely that the Nile-side areas were abandoned during floods when groups are likely to have moved into the Eastern Desert.
The first signs of trade over long distances date to Naqada I, suggested by grave-goods, which include vessels from Syria/Palestine, Nubia and Mesopotamia and Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan.
During Naqada I the town of Naqada itself rose to a position of prominence and individual towns began to evolve towards local polities. Wilkinson refers to it as “The heartland of the technological, social, ideological economic and political changes that led to statehood” (1999,2001, p.36-7). With its roots in the successful exploitation of the Nile Valley and the Eastern Desert (Wilkinson 2003), Naqada I was the first truly organized society in ancient Egypt. The presence of portable artefacts and the still somewhat ephemeral nature of settlements certainly offer some support for the idea that the Eastern Desert may have been used at this time by the occupants of the Nile banks, but it does not rule out that the Desert was used by other groups who lived alongside the Nile occupants.
Burials were subject organized patterns of deposition. Graves took the form of oval pits with the dead interred in a contracted position, head to the south, on their left hand sides. A mat was often placed under the body and sometimes a pillow of fabric or hide was placed under the head. Grave goods were interred with the body. The concern displayed not merely with the deposition of the dead, but also with funerary furnishings and grave goods indicate the increasing importance of religion.
Because of the differences between Upper and Lower Egypt, both in terms of cultural expression and survival, it is very difficult to compare them directly. Poor survival, which has already been discussed, becomes a particular problem when trying to gauge the impacts of Upper Egypt upon Lower Egypt and when trying to compare the two cultures directly: “once we reach the delta, our chances of finding sites with which to make a fair comparison with the south becomes very slim indeed” (Kemp 1989, p.43).
In the southwest to southeast orientated Wadi Deir Bolos (off which the Coptic Monastery of St Paul is located, and where Middle Palaeolithic and earlier Neolithic finds were discovered, described above), finds contemporary with Naqada I are possibly located on the main wadi deposits as well as on gravel at higher levels. Dittman (1993, p.150) describes this site, but although he labels the layers, he doesn’t name the site itself, and he gives no idnication about the components that make up the Neolithic assemblages. For the purposes of this paper, I have called the collapsed abri site in this wadi WDB-1. There are five stratified layers of site WDB-1, which produced carbon 14 dates that have been calibrated to provide a picture of four clearly distinguishable occupation periods (1993, p.151) of which that corresponding to Naqada I are the layers from the third period of occupation dating to c.2660 - 2390 BC, which have stratigraphic connections with WR-3 and WR-2,5 on the western side. Unfortunately Dittman doesn’t describe any of the archaeology from these layers (his focus is geomorphological).I know of no other archaeological data in the northern areas of the eastern Desert, which is where any overlap between occupation in the Delta and the Eastern Desert at this time might be observed.
However, it is clear that during Naqada II, the cultural profile of Lower Egypt began to change and it is against this backdrop that we begin to see increasing homogeneity throughout Egypt. A number of writers have suggested that these early signs of concentration of settlement around the Nile may have been motivated by changes in the climate: “The populations of Upper Egypt became concentrated in larger, densely occupied towns nearer the river. This was a key spur to the process of state formation, and seems to have been caused by climate change” (Rohls 2000, p.161). Similarly, Trigger (1983, p.68-69) and Endesfelder (1984, p.96) believe that the environmental conditions in Upper Egypt and the rich Nile ecology provided for increased productivity and specialization. Unless other data is discovered to change the picture, it appears that marginal areas like the Eastern and Western Deserts were excluded from these developments, although they may have interacted with the inhabitants of the Nile Valley to exchange resources and information.
This period will be discussed further in the context of rock art studies of the Rock Art pages. Even though there are no clear examples of Eastern Desert occupation at this time, it has been suggested that there are close similarities between Eastern Desert motifs and those on Naqada I ceramics.
In Naqada II we see increasingly interesting developments. The north and south developed independently, with the south, Upper Egypt, displaying very distinctive cultural elements like artistic activities, highly specialized craftsmanship and religious belief and practice. Only a few artefacts appearing in Upper Egypt and fewer in Lower Egypt indicate any contact between the two areas before Naqada II.
However, after Naqada I, Upper Egyptian features began to appear in Lower Egypt and eventually, completely replaced Lower Egyptian elements. The most important of these sites in Upper Egypt were Naqada, Hierakonpolis and Abydos. Naqada had been at the height of its success, judging by graves and grave-goods in Naqada I, and was overtaken by Hierakonpolis, which was probably the dominant of the three proto-cities in Naqada II. Wilkinson (1999) describes them as “the centres of powerful territories, each ruled by a hereditary elite exercising authority on a regional basis.” The heads of these states are generally accepted as early kings, and some writers have gone as far as referring to Naqada II as Dynasty 00 to reflect this (with earlier phases of Naqada III more often referred to as Dynasty 0). Late Naqada II settlements were apparently contemporary with Maadi in the Western Delta, Sais and Buton in the central Delta and Minshat Abu Omar in the Eastern Delta, where there are regionally characteristic features but there are no signs of an evolving elitist, state-based, organization of the type emerging in Upper Egypt. Naqada II characteristics include a range of features which are related to Naqada I. The sites are located in the same areas and have many of the same features. However, they represent a change of direction, including:
- Increasing evolution of funerary practises, including
- Fewer burials
- Variation in type and form from simple poor grave to mudbrick-lined ones
- Increasing number of much richer graves of varied size and designs
- Rarely more than one person in each grave, but a greater number of multiple burials than in Naqada I
- Emergence of the coffin
- First attempts to wrap bodies
- Increasingly compartments provided for burial goods
- Increasingly formal pattern of deposition for grave goods
- Inclusion of fine flint knives
- Child burials in pottery vessels
- All burials were still underground at this stage
- Settlement patterns developing, including
- Larger settlements, and less of them with major settlements surrounded by a smaller ones which were clearly less important, but had their own cemeteries with their own important elites
- Consolidation of resources, people, power and prestige goods
- Shift of the main centre of power from Naqada to Hierakonpolis in the south, while both
- Naqada and Abydos continue to be secondary powers.
- New types of art and craft output
- New types of pottery, with new decorative styles
- Light coloured vessels painted in red with both geometric and representational images, with decoration following standardized and highly organized forms
- Use of marl for pottery making
- Development of improved stone-working skills (including large bifacial flakes)
- Zoomorphic stone palettes, decreasing throughout Naqada II, replaced at the end by fewer and simpler forms but with more complex and apparently iconographic relief decoration
- Establishment of a well defined copper industry (for the production of both tools and jewelry), with increased gold and silver working for jewelry and the use of open mould casting
- Further developments in the form of female figurines and bone and ivory tags
- Increase in amulets
- Replacement of disk shaped mace by pear-shaped form
- Increasing overseas contacts
- Wavy handled pottery imported and copied (apparently from Palestine dating to EBA1
- Vessels with tilted spouts
- Possibly Mesopotamian boats depicted on funerary pottery
- Cylinder seals (in the late Naqada II)
- Replacement of Lower Egyptian Maadian traits with Upper Egyptian ones (From final phase, Naqada IIc)
Overall, these features show an increasing interest in the arrangement of only a few select individuals, a growing focus on symbolic forms of expression, and increasing social stratification: “The wide range of types of funerary arrangement in Gerzean cemeteries . . . all reflect the growing complexity of the social structure, which has becoming both more diversified and more hierarchical” (Midant-Reynes 1992/2000 p.188). This was a time of massive growth in terms of social activity, foreign contacts, early urban development, cultural output, and territorial expansion, when the beginning of polities or states are clearly visible and the process of unification is in its incipient stages.
The contemporary Maadi-Buto complex is exclusive to the north of Egypt and is named after two sites that belong to this complex. Maadi is located to the south of Cairo, and Buto is in the northern Delta, but there are numerous other sites in the Delta as well. Maadi-Buto sites dated to the first half of Naqada I and all of Naqada IIa-c. They are also contemporary with the Palestinian Late Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age (EBA) 1a. It was largely contemporary with the Ghassulian and Beersheba Chaloclithic and seems to have ended at the end of Palestine’s EBA1. A useful chronological framework has been formed for Maadi, Wadi Digla and Heliopolis. The earliest phase includes the last two sub-phases of Naqada I and is represented by Maadi and the earliest phase at Wadi Digla. The intermediate phase corresponds to Naqada IIab-IIcd is represented by Heliopolis, the later Wadi Digla phase and the earliest phase at Buto. The final phase is represented by Buto alone. In Lower Egypt, data at present, particularly from funerary contexts, does not suggest any great social complexity, unlike Upper Egyptian data which suggests “status display and rivalry” (Bard 1994) together with political activity and trade/exchange mechanisms particularly for prestige goods. The Lower Egyptian large sites exploited the Delta ecology very effectively, and were vastly different from the more urban and culturally expressive sites of Naqada I and early Naqada II, perhaps as a result of ecological factors and a lack of competition for land. Hoffman describes these differences in socio-economic terms: “From a materialistic point of view, the closest contrast between Upper and Lower Egypt at this time lay between a growing mercantilism in the north and a conspicuously consuming, politically orientated society to the south. In Lower Egypt, trade and metallurgy set the tone at strategically located sites like Maadi, while in Upper Egypt social status, burial, public ritual, and display dominated the Naqadan world view” (Hoffman 1979, p.212). Luxury goods, grave good and decoration were almost completely absent in Lower Egypt until Maadi, where they were still very pale by comparison with material produced by Upper Egypt. The spread of the Maadian material culture across the Delta suggests a greater uniformity of connections and co-operation across the Delta
Hassan’s review of ecological factors and led him to suggest that a need to pool resources in response to Nile fluctuations would cause villages and large settlements to have worked together on an inter-regional basis to share crops when conditions required it: “Once agriculture became the dominant mode of subsistence with an attendant reduction of spatial mobility, and enlargement of group size, and a simplification of the ecological network by focusing on a few resources, the economic system became vulnerable to periodic fluctuations in agricultural yield” (1988, p.165). He believes that these loose affiliations may have evolved slowly into regional states with both managerial and military components. The consequential impacts on the economy would have required leadership and would have led to the establishment of chiefs which in turn led to the need to reinforce political position in a number of both active and symbolic ways. It is possible that this happened in both Upper Egypt in Naqada I and in Maadi in Naqada II - perhaps this would account for some of the signs of increased ritual activity in the Maadi-Buto complex in terms of separate cemeteries with marked concern for the orientation of the dead and the presence of grave-goods in burials.
The expansion of settlement, and the more elaborate burial forms, arts and crafts, and signs of social stratification, all based around the Nile Valley, may indicate that occupation was forced to centralize around the river at this time, with desert subsistence strategies being abandoned. The climate change referred to is a decrease in rainfall at around this time, making the desert areas less appropriate for hunting and pasture. Certainly after Naqada I, the Eastern Desert appears to have become far less important in the lives of those who lived in the Nile Valley. The Eastern Desert was still exploited for its raw materials, but it does not appear to have been incorporated into the annual subsistence strategy visible in the Badarian (Majer 1992, p.130). Instead, it became important in another way – the vast east-west wadis that reach from the Red Sea to the Nile became important communication and access routes for foreign trade (Majer 1992, p.130).
There is evidence during Naqada II for increasing contact with Mesopotamia, and it has been argued by writers since the early 1920s that these contacts, particularly where Mesopotamian artefacts in Upper Egypt are found, are evidence for a connection with Mesopotamian travelers who came from the Persian Gulf, rounded the south of Saudi Arabia, and headed up the Red Sea, crossing to the Nile via the Wadi Hammamat. This connection was originally considered to be the chosen route for an invasion force (Kantor 1942; Winkler 1938, 1939; Petrie 1920), but other writers have more recently suggested that the same route could have been used to support trade links. Samuel Marks (1997) has reviewed all the available evidence and concluded on the basis of quite a considerable volume of data that no such route, either for invasion or trade, existed. Instead, he proposes a northern land and/or sea route which sees trade routed through Palestine and northern Syria. The data that Marks considers includes pottery, raw materials, cylinder seals and boat motifs from Naqada I and II contexts, and architectural features from the Early Dynastic. The Eastern Desert has been important in these discussions, because of the role that boat motifs carved into wadi rock surfaces have played in these discussions. For a good summary of the issues, see Marks 1997. Some of the details discussed by Marks are also discussed on the Eastern Desert Rock Art page on this site.
Trigger suggests that the exploitation of mineral resources supported a power-base of an emerging elite whose control over trade led to power struggles in Naqada II and III which, if true, points again to a change both in how the Eastern Desert was used and how it would have been perceived.
The earliest polities or “states” apparently benefited from locations near to the key routes of transportation and communication. Hierakonpolis, one of the most important centres of pre-unification Egypt, was ideally positioned to take advantage of this situation, located as it was not far from the entrance to Wadi Abbad. Naqada had the benefit of Wadi Hammamat for a Red Sea connection.
Naqada III and Unification (Late Predynastic)
Naqada III is the last phase of the Naqadan period, formerly called the Semainean. It incorporates the period during which Egypt was unifed under one ruler. A number of writers, including Petrie, Derry and more recently by David Rohl, have considered some of the changes at this time of having been influenced by an invasion from the east. However, it is now usually considered to be an indigenous evolution from earlier periods, the result of social and possibly economic changes and innovation. Ecological changes may have been associated with these first signs of social change. It is the period that features in all discussions regarding state formation.
Naqada III is the period during which the process of state formation, which had begun to take place in Naqada II, reached an apex. Named kings heading powerful polities have been identified. Naqada IIIb is often referred to as ‘Dynasty 0’ to reflect the presence of kings at the head of influential states, although, in fact, the kings involved would not have been a part of a single unified dynasty. They would more probably have been completely unrelated and very possibly in competition with each other. Kings names are inscribed in the form of serekhs on a variety of surfaces including pottery and tombs. Wilkinson (1999) lists these early Kings as the un-named owner of Abydos tomb B1/2 whom some interpret as Iry-Hor, King A, King B, Scorpion and/or Crocodile, and Ka. Others favour a slightly different scheme.
Naqada III extends all over Egypt and is characterized by some sensational firsts:
- The first hieroglyphs
- The first graphical narratives on palettes
- The first regular use of serekhs
- The first truly royal cemeteries
- Possibly, the first irrigation
Power shifted to Abydos from Hierakonpolis, but it seems clear that there were three regional kingdoms at this time. Key characteristics of Naqada III include:
- Increasing size of a small number of important tombs
- Establishment of cemeteries which contain only elite burials
- Establishment of a royal cemetery at Abydos
- Appearance of very rich tombs (the ultimate being U-j)
- Increasing social differentiation, visible in cemeteries
- Mudbrick architecture
- Appearance of palace-fašade architecture associated with large mastaba tombs
- Probably, the first formalised state rulers
- Use of Serekhs to identify kingship/rule and ownership
- Extension of power base further into Nubia
- Increasing craft specialization
- Decrease in production of decorated pottery
- Increased use of copper
- Beginning of seal-making
- Increase in use of faience
- Apparent increase in trade relations
- Increase in administrative sophistication
- Possibly, the start of irrigation schemes
- Earliest hieroglyphic representations
- Palettes with iconographic narratives
- Use of exotic goods from overseas
- Carved ivory knife handles
- Mesopotamian motifs on palettes
- Palestinian pottery
- Changes in the toolkit
In Upper Egypt, the main sites for this period are Hierakonpolis, Elkab and Abydos. Naqada appears to have undergone a considerable change in fortune and status. Naqada III burials are much poorer than Naqada II burials, and this may indicate that a) Naqada ceased to be as politically important and/or economically wealthy, or that b) it was absorbed by another polity – probably Hierakonpolis or Abydos - and that its elite were either downsized in terms of influence, or the key members moved the new polity centre (Bard 2000).
Although the Upper Egyptian sites of Hierakonpolis, Elkab, Abydos and Naqada are the most obvious candidates for the status of polity at this time, they were almost certainly not the only ones: “we can suspect that there were others either already in existence (e.g. one based at Thinis) or still at an even earlier stage of formation (perhaps at Maadi and Buto in the Delta, Abadiya in Upper Egypt and Qustul in Lower Nubia). The internal warfare pursued most vigorously from the south terminated this polycentral period of political growth” (Kemp 1989, p.52). Hassan (1992) suggests that the provincial states could have corresponded “to the territorial extent of the historic nomes during the terminal Predynastic (so-called Dynasty 0 or Naqada III)” (p.310). It is possible that populations began to concentrate themselves around administrative centres, like Abydos where there were “royal” burials, at this time.
The end of Naqada III, Kaiser’s Naqada IIIc1-3 (Kaiser 1990), is generally supposed to overlap with the First Dynasty, and therefore incorporates the unification of Egypt – a time when Upper and Lower Egypt became one unified country, at around 3100-2800BC (Hassan 1992), or “at some point between the lifetime of the owner of Tomb U-j at Abydos and the beginning of the reign of Narmer” (Wilkinson 1996, p.13). However, although it is clear that by the Old Kingdom Egypt was unified under one king, it is by no means clear that there was a single unifying event, as implied by some writers. It is perhaps more probable that there was, instead, a process of change, beginning much earlier than the so-called unification. It is even possible that there was more than one attempt at unification. Similarly, it is uncertain whether unification was achieved solely by military means in an act or acts of conquest of one different culture over another, or whether Egypt had achieved a high degree of homogeneity on its own by this time.
Unfortunately, there is even less information available about the use of the Eastern Desert at this time than during any of the previous periods. As with other periods, Dittman offers a description of a stratified site that I have called WDB-1, located in the Wadi Deir Bolos (near to the monastery of St Paul on the Red Sea coastal area). He does not describe the components which he has described as Neolithic, but he does say the layers (WR-2 and WR-1) that make up the fourth layer of occupation have been carbon-14 dated (and calibrated) to 2150 - 1920 BC, which is the last documentable phase of occupation that included earlier Middle Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Predynastic evidence (Dittman 1993, p.145-152).
The so-called Clayton Rings, enigmatic ceramic vessels open at both ends and surmounted by perforated ceramic disks appear to belong to the Late Predynastic/Early Dynastic period: “At present, three radiocarbon dates are associated with the Clayton rings, which places the Rings in the Late Predynastic or Early Dynastic 4400-4500 bp (c. 3100/3000 BC)” (Reimer WR). Clayton rings have been found throughout the Sahara, confined mainly to desert contexts, although only a few have been found in the Eastern Desert: “Sites with Clayton rings are spread over all desert areas of the Eastern Sahara. In the north, there are sites on the Limestone or Abu Muhariq Plateau between the oases and the Nile Valley. A disk on the southern plateau between Luxor and Kharga had already been published by Caton-Thompson in 1952. She also mentioned a number of other sites known from the literature or personal communication. To the west, there is the site of Mirmala 00/10 in the inhospitable dune fields of the Great Sand Sea near the Libyan border, and more than 200 km away from any settled area or source of water. In the south, two sites are known from Wadi Shaw in northern Sudan, and there are a number of new examples from the Nubian Nile. Clayton rings were also found in the Eastern Desert“ (Riemer WR). The Clayton Rings tend to be found in caches on rocky hills, which seems to indicate that they were stored in these areas. Clues as to their usage, therefore, continues to be elusive. Riemer interprets them as follows:
“It has generally been accepted that the Holocene wet period with episodic rainfalls ended after approximately 6000 bp (5000 BC). After this time, there was neither a revival of long-lasting rains over the desert nor a resettlement of the desert territories. The desert areas are nearly void of archaeological material dating to the period after 6000 bp (5000 BC) with the exception of the Clayton rings. These facts give rise to fundamental questions about the rings: What were people doing in the desert, some 2000 years after it had become hyper-arid; and how did they survive when living conditions were obviously not sufficient to support a resettlement of the desert?
Because of the general absence of other cultural material at the desert sites in which Clayton rings are found, these sites can be clearly identified as short-term transitory camps. Most probably the Clayton rings are part of special subsistence strategies or techniques for desert travel. Such techniques include the ability to transport enough water and food for the desert journey. It might be reasonable to suggest that the crossing of the desert was aided or at least initiated by the domestication of the wild donkey. Nevertheless, the distribution of Clayton rings over the inhospitable areas of the desert from Egypt to northern Sudan and to the western boundaries of the Great Sand Sea clearly shows that the people were well-prepared for such long distance desert travel.” (Riemer WR)
Although there is no reason to reject the idea that some rock art may date to this time, it is the only data available for a possible presence in the desert at this time, however transitory. This lack of other archaeological data does place doubt on the idea of an Eastern Desert invasion (either by the Eastern Desert Bedouin at that time, or by foreign elements).
Majer (1992, p.232) questions what happened to desert nomads who occupied the Eastern Desert during more environmentally favourable times. He suggests that deteriorating climatic conditions during Naqada III could have eroded the subsistence base of the pastoral nomads of the Eastern Desert, forcing a change in their economy. He suggests that on the one hand they may have been able to take advantage of their strategic position along routes connecting the Nile to the rich world beyond, acting as facilitators for trade; On the other hand they will have depended upon the resources of the Nile producers to survive. This may have permitted a symbiotic relationship between the two lifestyles, or something less amicable: “Expeditions from the valley could not operate in the Eastern Desert without dealing in some way with the nomads, there had to be either co-operation, co-option or coercion, or some combination of the three”. The relationship between fifteenth century monastery residents and Eastern Desert Bedouin offers a useful point of comparison - the monasteries were fortified to defend themselves against Bedouin raids, but both St. Anthony’s and St. Paul’s both fell to Bedouin incursions.
Information about the post-Badarian occupation of the Eastern Desert is much hazier. The patterns presented within the desert zones are quite unlike those within the Nile Valley. The data available is based on poor samples (number of sites, quality of data, span of distribution etc) and relates largely to subsistence and industrial activities. There is no sign of the Valley’s cemeteries or religious activities, and there is no sense that any communities were using the desert, even in terms of small mobile tribes, using the landscape on a permanent basis in the way that the modern Bedouin do today. This may be mis-representing the true situation, due to a lack of data. However, the pattern presented is one of fragmented use with periods of occupation and apparent abandonment over vast periods of time. There seems to be a clear division of desert use for early subsistence and later raw material exploitation, and it is probably at this time that the perception and differentiation between red and black earth became imbedded in the Egyptian psyche.
However, it is quite clear that the Eastern Desert was quite clearly used during the Predynastic period. It was certainly exploited for the stone that was used to manufacture Predynastic palettes, and it is quite likely that it was used up until the end of Naqada I for pasture. Prior to Naqada II, it seems probable that the Eastern Desert was used for pasturing herds of bovids and sheen/goat. There is evidence that settlement was permanent or semi-permanent during Naqada I, and it seems most likely that the desert was used by Nile Valley residents who took advantage of the desert on a seasonal basis. At the moment the available evidence suggests that it is less likely that the desert was used by separate groups who were based permanently in the desert on a nomadic basis - as demonstrated elsewhere in the Eastern Sahara, nomadic groups do leave plenty of archaeological evidence for their presence.
Beyond Naqada I there is very little evidence that the Eastern Desert was occupied, although that has not prevented speculation that the Eastern Desert was occupied at this time. Hoffman, for example, concludes (1979) that during the Predynastic, the Eastern Desert inhabitants could have been herders, farmers and watersmen. Hoffman believes that they could have had a prominent society, perhaps exchanging meat and dairy products and copper or exotic Red Sea shells in return for grain: “In one way, Winkler was probably right. the Easterners, although probably not invaders in the classic sense, were transhippers - middlemen - in an exchange system that by the middle to late fourth millennium B.C. was linking various economies of the ancient Middle East in a vast super-exchange network that revolved around symbolically prestigious, exotic goods, increasingly in demand by the emergent social and political elite” (p.247). Hoffman bases his ideas for a healthy Predynastic occupation of the Eastern desert on the basis of rock art, and extrapolates from there. He does not, however, address the fact that if they were watermen and traders it is strange that, as he pointed out with regard to Winkler’s arguments, there are no boats on or near the Red Sea coast. As with many well presented arguments regarding the Eastern Desert, Hoffman’s arguments are intriguing but speculative and are certainly not conclusive.
It is possible that the importance of Naqada itself during Naqada I was the result of the importance at that time of the Eastern Desert. The possible transfer of authority from Naqada to Hierakonpolis in Naqada II may be due to the decline of importance of the environmental and mineral resources at that time. It is difficult to tell. Naqada was still an important centre of settlement. In Naqada III, the centre of power again shifted, this time to Abydos. Naqada and Hierakonpolis were still important, but most of the research carried out on this period has been centred on the relationship between north and south, not on the relationship between the Nile and the deserts that border it.
The overall view of the desert’s usage at this time is one of decline, with the marginal areas used less as part of a daily subsistence pattern and more for individual use. This may have been a key factor in the change of perception of the Eastern Desert, and other marginal areas at this time. Instead of representing an extension of daily life, which thinking and acting were incorporated, it became at best a marginal periphery to life, and at worst, a place which represented threat. It is probably over the period of the Predynastic that the dichotomy between the red and the black earths developed in the ancient Egyptian thinking. The presence of burials on the peripheries of the red and black lands may also have rendered these transitional border liminal. this is pure speculation, but it is something to bear in mind when considering the role of the Eastern Desert in the Early Dynastic and Pharaonic periods.
Additional work in the Eastern Desert may, in time, fill out the picture.
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