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Ancient Egypt: A history in six objects

Week 1: Predynastic and Early Dynasty Egypt

Welcome to Week 1 of the course. This week's work forms the background
to our study of the dynastic age.
In approximately 3100 BCE the independent communities in the Nile
Valley and Delta united to form one state ruled by one king. This week we
will explore aspects of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods (the
times immediately before and immediately after the formation of the state).
We will start by considering the abundant natural resources which allowed
the united Egypt to become a wealthy land capable of creating monumental
stone buildings.

We will then examine our first object, a Predynastic pot recovered from a
cemetery. As this pot belongs to a non-literate age, we will speculate about
the meaning of the red images which decorate the outside of the pot. Why
were Egypt's dead being buried with grave goods?
As hieroglyphic writing developed at the time of unification, we will then
consider aspects of the hieroglyphic script. Finally, we will consider the
development of the Egyptology collection in the Manchester Museum.

1. Review the lengthy Chronology of the dynastic age, paying

particular attention to the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods. If
you find that the text is too small, try accessing the increased
contrast version.
2. Look at this week's map; this will introduce you to some important



Dynastic sites - Google

3. Read the Historical Overview of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic
Periods. You may find it helpful to use the Early Dynastic
Period King List as a reference.
The Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods
If you haven't already done this, please read the document: "Problems of
Dating", as this will help you interpret this overview.

The first evidence for farming in the Nile Valley comes from what is today
known as the Badarian cultural phase. The Badarian people lived in small
villages. They hunted and fished, but they also planted grain and lentils and
kept livestock. Their dead were buried in simple graves in desert
cemeteries. As the Badarian houses have more or less disappeared, much of
the evidence for their lives comes from these cemeteries. The inclusion of
grave goods (pottery, stone artefacts, tools, figurines and jewellery) in some
of their burials suggests that the Badarian peoples had a belief in life after
death. However, as this is a prehistoric culture (a culture without writing)
Egyptologists cannot be certain what they believed.
The Badarian cultural phase was followed by the Nagada cultural phase.
Egyptologists divide this into three consecutive periods of increasing
technological and political complexity: Nagada I, Nagada II and Nagada
III. The Nagada people lived in mud-brick villages, and in towns protected
by thick mud-brick walls. Their cemeteries show evidence of what appears
to be social stratification: the bodies in their "elite" graves were wrapped in
linen and placed in coffins, whereas the bodies in the other graves were not.
The Nagada culture spread through the Nile Valley and the Delta,
overwhelming all other cultures, until the final Nagada phase saw Egypt
occupied by a series of wealthy, independent towns and their surrounding
farming communities.
Legend tells how the southern warrior king Menes gathered an army and
fought his way northwards, to unite the land that we now call Egypt.
However there is no evidence to confirm that Menes existed, and it seems
likely that unification was a long drawn out process culminating in a series
of short battles as the southern kings united their land. With unification

came the development of writing (the hieroglyphic script). Egyptologists

can now read the words of the ancient Egyptians.
The earliest known king of the newly unified Egypt was King Narmer, who
is either classed as the last king of the Predynastic Dynasty 0, or the first
king of the Early Dynastic 1st Dynasty. Narmer's son Aha established a
fortified city known as White Walls at the junction of the Nile Valley and
the Delta. The city would gradually shift eastwards as the Nile changed its
course, eventually becoming known as Mennefer or, in Greek, Memphis.
While the elite bureaucrats of Memphis were interred in the western desert
at north Saqqara, most of their kings preferred to be buried in mudbrick
funerary complexes in the Abydos cemetery.
4. Watch a lecture exploring the Land of Egypt and its River.
5. Watch this week's Object Video: a decorated pot recovered from a
Predynastic cemetery (as shown above). If you would like to inspect
this week's object in more detail, you can view, pan and zoom around
a 3D model of thisDecorated Predynastic Pot. Please note that these
models do not appear to display well in some versions of Internet
Explorer. If you encounter issues browsing this model, please try
another browser such as Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome.




6. Then watch a supplementary discussion of Stone Working in Ancient
Egypt by technology expert Denys Stocks.
7. Read

the Object


Factsheet for








Predynastic Pot




number 5299:





Description: a pink/buff pottery jar with flat base and damage to the rim;
decorated with red painted images including a boat, birds and water.

The Predynastic Period was a non-literate (or prehistoric) age. In the
absence of writing, Egyptologists have to gain their information about the
Predynastic Period purely from archaeology: the artefacts and material
remains left behind by the long-dead Egyptians. Unfortunately, almost all
the domestic architecture from this period has now vanished, principally
because it was made from unfired mud-brick and other temporary
materials. In contrast, the cemeteries, which were dug in the hot, dry desert
sand, have survived. This means that Egyptologists draw a disproportionate
amount of their information about early Egypt from graves. Hierakonpolis
offers one of the few examples of a well-preserved Predynastic settlement
Using a classification system developed by the British Egyptologist
William Matthew Flinders Petrie, this weeks pot is classified as belonging
to the Naqada II cultural phase. To see a summary of Petries work, click
The Nagada II potters did not use a potters wheel. They made their
pink/buff coloured pottery by hand, firing it in a bonfire or kiln. They
decorated it in red, with what at first sight appear to be scenes of daily life,
although the fact that this type of pottery is invariably recovered from
graves suggests that this may be an over-simplification. Perhaps these
scenes represent the funerary ritual? Or aspects of the afterlife? There are
animals, birds and men, while boats complete with multiple oars, cabins,
crews and regional flags, sail on rivers of wavy lines. Boats will always
have a connection with wealth and power (only the very wealthy can afford

to own a boat) and with death (they remind us of the final journey over the
Nile, to the cemetery).
The pot would have been discovered in an elite grave whose deceased
owner would have been wrapped in linen strips and placed in a coffin made
of basketry, clay or wood. The grave itself may have been lined with mud
bricks. Other goods placed in the tomb might have included jewellery made
from metal (gold silver and copper) and semi-precious stones, stone vessels
and flint knives. A handful of iron beads recovered from Nagada graves
have been identified as meteoric iron:

Early Dynastic Stone Vessels

Stone vessel production started during the Predynastic age and continued
throughout the dynastic age. Most of vessels were made from Egyptian
calcite, but other materials were used. The stone vessels were included in
graves: given the time and skill involved in their manufacture, we must
assume that they were status symbols, designed to hold luxury products
such as unguents. Click here to look at the range of vessels
Initially the stone vessels were hollowed by hand, using stone borers and
sand as an abrasive. By the Early Dynastic Period vessels were being
manufactured with the aid of a drill. The experimental working of stone
vessels by technology expert Denys Stocks has shown that this would
involve the following stages:

The exterior of the vessel was shaped using flint chisels, punches and
The inside of the vessel was hollowed. For a straight-sided vessel, this
would involve the use of a tubular drill. A more bulbous vessel - a vessel
which required widening below the shoulder - would require the use of a
drill plus the use of a stone borer made from a figure-of-eight shaped
pebble held in a forked shaft.
8: Watch a lecture explaining how to write in Egyptian Hieroglyphs. You
may also find this interactive hieroglyph sheet or this printable sheet



9 Watch a presentation detailing the history of Egyptology at The
Manchester Museum. Please be aware that this presentation includes brief
images of human remains.
10 Complete the Week 1 Quiz: Early Egypt: The land and its resources.
11 Complete the Week 1 Activity.
.12 Discuss this week's content in the Week 1 Discussion Forum.
13 Read the Week 1 Summary.
Problems with Ancient Egyptian NamesHelp Center
Students sometimes find Egyptian personal names confusing because there
are variations in spelling, or variations in the actual names used, in different

reference sources. For example, the same king can be called, quite





This happens because the written Egyptian language (the hieroglyphic

script) used only consonants and pseudo-vowels. Vowels were added to the
words when people actually spoke, but as no one now speaks ancient
Egyptian (it is a "dead" language) we have little idea of the true
pronunciation of the ancient words. This writing system is similar to the
modern texting language used by many people today, where abbreviations
are understood and need no explanation.
The lack of vowels has led to a number of variant spellings and
pronunciations for the same name or word.
Throughout this course we shall be using the names in most common

There can also be problems with the names of the ancient archaeological
sites. Many ancient places were inhabited both during the Dynastic age and
during the Greco-Roman period, and they have survived as modern villages

or towns. Therefore, archaeological sites often have three equally valid


the original ancient Egyptian name,

the name that was used during the Greco-Roman Period,

a modern Arabic name, used today.

So, for example, the archaeological site that we today call Heliopolis was
known to the ancient Egyptians as Iunu, and to the Coptic Egyptians (and
in the Bible) as On. All of these names are correct.
Egyptologists tend to use these names in a fairly random way: sometimes
they will use a Greek name, sometimes a modern name and sometimes an
ancient name. Throughout this course we shall be using the names in most
common usage.
An additional difficulty may be cause by variations in the spelling of a
name (e.g. Saqqara /Sakkara, Gizeh/Giza). All of these variants are correct.
Problems of PreservationHelp Center
We know far more about the lives and deaths of the literate, tomb-building
elite (sometimes called nobles) than we do about the illiterate, almost
invisible peasants who lived in ancient Egypt. We also know far more about
those who lived towards the end of Egypts long history than we do about
the first Egyptians. There is evidence for at least 300 kings ruling
from c. 3050-30 BCE, but it is not until the New Kingdom, in c.1550 BCE,
that we have enough evidence to start seeing these kings as well-rounded
human beings Even then, we lack the personal documents (diaries, private
letters etc.) that would make these long-dead people truly come alive,
and we are handicapped by the tradition of preserving the memory of the

perfect, rather than the actual, king. We should never forget that what we
see is only a part of the evidence that once existed.
Our knowledge of ancient Egypt comes from two main sources. There are
flaws in both types of evidence.
1. Written Records
The surviving written records are just a fraction of the records that once
existed. The vast majority were written by and for the educated elite, and
they seldom deal with personal or day-to-day issues. Almost invariably
they exaggerate the deeds of the author. Autobiographies carved on tomb
walls, for example, set out to impress by stressing the virtues of the
deceased, while royal texts focus on the heroism of the king. In a land
entirely lacking our modern idea of accurate history, this was not seen as
deceitful or shameful. Writing was the gift of the gods and it carried its own
magic. Committing something to writing could actually make it real.
2. Archaeological Excavation.
The Egyptians built their houses, palaces and offices of mudbrick, placing
them close to water sources on the edge of the fertile land lining the Nile.
They built their tombs of stone in the hot, dry desert. Over the centuries the
mud-brick architecture has been lost while the tombs and graves have
survived. This means that todays archaeologists have developed a good
understanding of Egyptian expectations of life after death, but have
relatively little information about the routines of daily life. This is
particularly true of the earliest periods, which lack written records.
This enforced focus on death naturally gives the impression that the
Egyptians were preoccupied with thoughts of death. In fact the Egyptians
loved life. Their greatest hope was that they might continue to enjoy a near
identical, but even better, life beyond the grave.

Problems With DatingHelp Center

Egypts priests recorded the movements of the sun, moon and stars so that
they might make offerings to the gods at the correct time. Their
observations led to the development of a calendar with a year divided into
twelve months of thirty days plus a spare five days. There was no leap year.
Events were dated to the reign of the current king (Year 1 of Amenhotep,
Year 2 and so on) and, because every new reign was a new beginning, each
king marked his accession with a new Year 1.
Kings confirmed their right to rule by stressing continuity with a past that
stretched back, through a period of divine and semi-divine rule, to the very
creation of the world. King lists, lists of the kings and their reign lengths,
were recorded on papyrus and stone and stored in the state and temple
archives. The best-preserved king list is found on the wall of the Abydos
temple of the 19th Dynasty king Seti I. Here we can see the king and his
young son, Ramesses, offering before the names of their royal ancestors:
ancestors being a loose term, as Setis father was of non-royal birth. The
list is, however, incomplete as pharaohs who had failed to conform to
expectation were omitted.
Almost three thousand years after Egypt became one land, Ptolemy II
Philadelphos, a king of Macedonian heritage, ruled from Alexandria.
Determined to understand Egypts long history, Ptolemy commissioned the
priest Manetho of Sebennytos to consult the ancient records and compile a
list of kings. This Manetho did, organising his kings into dynasties: lines of
kings who were connected politically, but who were not necessarily blood
relatives. Manetho ended his history with the reign of Nectanebo, the final
king of Dynasty 30 and Egypts last native pharaoh.

Manethos History of Egypt was lost long ago but enough has survived,
embedded in the work of the writers Josephus (c. 70 CE), Africanus (c. 220
CE), Eusebius (c. 320 CE) and Syncellus (also known as George the Monk;
c. 800 CE), to allow modern historians to reconstruct it with a fair degree
of accuracy.
Egyptologists traditionally group Manethos dynasties into times of strong
rule and cultural achievement (the Early Dynastic Period, the Old, Middle
and New Kingdoms, the Late Period and the Greco-Roman Period)
separated by times of disunity and weak rule (the three Intermediate
Periods). This system has its drawbacks. First and foremost, it is too
simple: it is clear, for example, that the Intermediate Periods were not the
dark ages that the early Egyptologists imagined them to be. In addition,
not all Egyptologists are in agreement over the allocation of the dynasties
to the various periods (for example, many Egyptologists consider Dynasties
7 and 8 to belong to the First Intermediate Period rather than the Old
Kingdom). There are times when dynasties overlap, while some families
are split not only between dynasties, but also between Periods and
Despite all these problems, this system does offer the most accurate means
of referencing events within Egypt.
5300-3050 BCE: Predynastic Period
3050-2686 BCE: Early Dynastic Period (Dynasties 0-2)
2686-2160 BCE: Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3-8)
2160-2055 BCE: First Intermediate Period (Dynasties 7-early 11)
2055-1650 BCE: Middle Kingdom (Dynasties late 11-13)
1650-1550 BCE: Second Intermediate Period (Dynasties 14-17)

1550-1069 BCE: New Kingdom (Dynasties 18-20)

1069-664 BCE: Third Intermediate Period (Dynasties 21-25)
664-332 BCE: Late Period (Dynasties 26-31)
332 BCE -395 CE: Greco-Roman Period

It may be helpful to look at an example. Amenhotep III is classified as the

ninth king of the 18th Dynasty which itself belongs to the New Kingdom.
Historians are not certain of Amenhoteps precise dates (it is likely that he
ruled c. 1390-1352 BCE) and so cannot give an exact calendar date for the
wild bull hunt that is known to have occurred early in his reign. It is,
however, possible to give an exact regnal date: Amenhotep himself tells us
that the exciting hunt occurred in his regnal Year 2.
Readings and Resources
(1) Spend some time exploring the Hierakonpolis Online website:
(2) Here is a very useful publication, written by a variety of experts: Teeter,
E (ed) (2011), Before The Pyramids: The Origins Of Egyptian Civilization,
Oriental Institute Museum Publications 33, The Oriental Institute of the



Read Chapter 7: Material Culture of the Predynastic Period, by Alice

Stevenson. If you have time, read other chapters as well. And