Naqada III

Page Contents

5.1 Introduction

This section is somewhat different from its predecessors.  It moves beyond the purely archaeological and begins to take into account Ancient Egyptian historical references as it becomes necessary to analyse the changes that occurred in this area leading up to and immediately prior to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.  It is also necessary to look at concepts of state formation and unification and to consider the controversial nature of some of the evidence involved.

Naqada III is the last phase of the Naqadan period, formerly called the Semainean, and viewed by earlier writers, including Petrie, Derry and more recently by David Rohl, as the result of 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, became highly visible, with named kings heading powerful polities.  Naqada III 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 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 listing.

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.


5.2 The character of Egypt during Naqada III

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 specialisation
    • 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 (This). 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 ceaseted 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.

Hierakonpolis was particularly wealthy, but Abydos, which Manetho says was the home of the first kings, appears to have acquired particular status at this time, as is exemplified by Tomb 11.  Even though it was looted it still provides evidence of a very rich burial with beads of carnelian, garnet, turquoise, faience, gold and silver, artefacts made in exotic materials that could not be obtained locally, like lapis lazuli, ivory, obsidian and crystal, and a wooden bed with feet carved in the form of bulls heads. (Bard 2000).

Upper Egyptian symbols of power are clear from Naqada III contexts and include:

  • Elite burials, some very rich, with some indication of inheritable power
  • Palettes depicting single leaders with titles, in positions of strength and leadership
  • Artefacts later associated with power, including the macehead
  • The dynastic importance of Abydos

In Lower Egypt during this period the Cairo area continued to be occupied, as did the Western and Eastern Deltas, but the Faiyum Depression itself was not re-occupied:  “With regard to the cultural relationships between Upper and Lower Egypt at the earliest stages of social, economic and political complexity in Egypt, it is evident that the Faiyum had little importance” (Wenke and Brewer 1992, p.182).  There are three principal sites that date to the time just before Upper Egyptian traits start to appear significantly in Lower Egypt – Maadi and its two associated cemeteries, es-Saff and Heliopolis South.  These have already been discussed.  After this period, Buto continues to survive, albeit now with Naqadan materials, and Tell el-Farkha, after a brief break of occupation, resumes with Naqadan cultural traits.  The Eastern Delta becomes an important area, and Memphis and Saqqara, at the end of the Naqada III phase become the most important areas of Lower Egypt, and, following unification the political centre of Egypt as a whole.

The end of Naqada III is generally supposed to mark 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.

The First Dynasty followed the unification process, with King Narmer at its head.

There are both archaeological and historical approaches to searching for the processes underlying the events that lead to unification. 

Archaeologically, this process is most obviously traced in the replacement of Maadi-Buto traditions by those of Upper Egypt, but there is only very little other directly helpful evidence.  Archaeologically speaking, what we see is the introduction of Naqadan material culture (funerary items and finally funerary practise), which happens over a long period of time. At the end of Naqada II (IIc), Maadi ceases to be occupied, and there is a break in the occupation of Tell el-Farkha, although other sites, like Buto, carry on into Naqada III, albeit with a different material culture.  The nature of the replacement has been described in the Naqada II and III sections above.

The historical references to unification, both iconographic and written, tend to be somewhat confusing, but are helpful if not taken too literally.  The main components of this evidence are iconographic palettes, which appear to be narrative in composition (in particular the Palette of Narmer and the Libyan Palette), the stone Scorpion macehead, and the first registers on the Palermo Stone.  Others believe that the palettes are merely symbolic interpretations developed for political purposes by kings who ruled long after the unification, and archaeological evidence suggests that contact between Upper and Lower Egypt had proceeded long before actual unification, and this will be discussed below.

The argument that Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt were individual kingdoms has been undermined by recent archaeological work.  It has become clear that while there were a number of regional centres in Lower Egypt, these were not organised in the same way as in Upper Egypt, with no visible emphasis on individual power and elitism until the very late predynastic when there are some indications from the Eastern Delta cemeteries that there may have been social differentiation (Tassie and Van Wettering 2003a; 2003b).  Buto and Sais, and to an extent Maadi, were certainly big and important towns, but they were not representative of organised states, and show no signs of being an early kingdom.  And although there are similarities between the Maadi-Buto sites, there are also differences, and a recent study of lithics by Schmidt (1996) has shown significant regional variation in assemblages.  In Upper Egypt, we are also beginning to see greater regional variation in lithics (Holmes 1989) .

At the same time as observing that in pre-unification period (Naqada II-III), there were regional differences within both Upper and Lower Egypt, Kohler (1995) has pointed out that the differences between Upper and Lower Egypt may have been exaggerated by the funerary tradition of Upper Egypt, and that when we look purely at settlement evidence, we see much greater similarity in types and forms.  She suggests that the Upper Egyptian funerary tradition, with funerary items made specially to accompany the dead, may be disguising a much greater homogeneity in overall traditions than we have previously been able to see.  In other words, apart from the great funerary tradition, the cultural divisions between Upper and Lower Egypt may not have been anywhere near as great as once thought.

In a discussion about the development of Serekhs and the relevance of this to the subject of state formation, Jimenez-Serrano (2003) has determined that serekhs from Naqada III appear in Upper Egypt, Nubia and Lower Egypt but that there is considerable regional differentiation between them suggesting that these can be interpreted as “diverse political entities” (p.243).


5.3 Processes underway towards unification in Naqada III

As has been described, in the south, Upper Egypt, over the period of Naqada I and II, three main centres grew up in Upper Egypt along the Nile valley:  Naqada, Hierakonpolis and Abydos.  It appears that power shifted between these three, with Naqada being most important during the earliest Naqadan, but being overtaken by Hierakonpolis which was in its turn displaced by Abydos.  Evidence of this comes mainly from cemeteries, with the Naqada III burials in Cemetery U being the most elaborate.  The most frequently cited burial which exemplifies this wealth is U-j.  Eventually Memphis appears to have replaced all of these areas as the main centre of urban activity at the end of Naqada III when Egypt was unified under one king, with Abydos remaining the favoured place for royal burials.

There are three basic approaches to understanding the process of unification.  One sees replacement as a physical movement of people by military action or immigration.  The second sees a complex set of processes, some economic, leading to increased contact and interaction.  The third envisages a combination of a number of staged military and other processes.


5.3.1 Military Activity in Naqada III

The early interpretation of Naqada III and unification was the domination of the Dynastic race from the east (e.g. Petrie 1920, p.49, 1939, p.77; Emery 1967, p.38).  Motifs of high-ended boats carved onto wadi rock surfaces were one of the pieces of evidence used in this argument by, amongst others, Winkler (1938), who believed that Mesopotamia invaded Egypt via the Wadi Hammamat.  However, none of these images were at the Red Sea end of the Wadi and typological studies of the images show more differentiation than previously recognised (Mark, p.83).

Sethe (1930) thought that a Deltaic kingdom was responsible for the conquest of Upper Egypt by Lower Egypt, a view that has been disproved since. Williams (1986) suggested on the basis of considerable wealth in the Cemetery L A-Group burials at Qustul, that Nubian rulers were responsible for the conquest of Upper and Lower Egypt. This is a view that has not gained wide acceptance.

It was next believed that Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt were two separate kingdoms, each with their own leadership and distinctive characteristics, and that Upper Egypt overpowered Lower Egypt and unified the two kingdoms. 

A more widely accepted military approach suggests, partly on the basis of interpretations of the Palette of Narmer, that a king of Upper Egypt was responsible for unifying Upper and Lower Egypt under one king, but that Egypt was more complex than two clearly defined kingdoms and that the process of unification was probably a series of military and other processes.   One of the best discussions of the Palette of Narmer is in Mark 1997 (p.88-121) and there is no need to duplicate the full extent of the discussions here.  However, the main (not absolute) agreement is that it does represent a triumph of a southern leader over northern lands.  The main differences of opinion lie in whether this was an actual event or a piece of late Predynastic propaganda depicting an idealised view of a single unification.  Alternative views based on this theme suggest that there may have been more than one attempt at unification (see below).

Reasons cited for military expansion include the need to expand due to population growth and the need to secure resources, and the desire of one leader who has consolidated power in the south to extend his leadership north as part of an expansionist strategy.  The military argument has been based on a number of factors:

  • Information implied in the Palette of Narmer and the Libyan Palette and in much later Egyptian traditions that military action took place
  • The Egyptian crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, both of which appear very early on in Egyptian iconography

Dynastic Egyptian “historical” accounts, some captured by Manetho and Herodotus

There is no ancient Egyptian myth of the origin of a unified state which is purely political or historical.  The only myths associated with the development of state are religious ones, the main one being the story of Horus and Seth and their territorial dispute, resolved by Geb.  This tells of a legal dispute which results in the reorganization of the Egyptian state which is at first allocated in two parts to each of them, and is then allocated as a single territory under Horus (Assman 1996, p.39).

However, as described above, recent studies (e.g. Kohler 1995, Holmes 1989, Schmidt 1996) now suggest that Egypt did not consist of two homogenous kingdoms, but of two geographical areas which shared some features, were different in other respects and showed regional variation throughout.  The realisation that Egypt was complex place at this time has let to more recent speculation about the processes involved in the replacement of Maadi-Buto features by Naqadan ones in Lower Egypt.

John Baines believes that the Delta should be seen as part and parcel of a unified Egypt by the time of Narmer and that the event depcted actually took place in Naqada III, probably as early as Naqada IIIa, demonstrated by the royal type symbols from Tom U-j.  He sees the process of systematic unification beginning as far back as Naqada II.  Most do not agree with this view because of the length of time for the transition which is implicit in the archaeological record.

Assman sees military force involved, but in a gradual way, as part of the process of state consolidation:  “the expansion of the Naqada culture can be read as a gradual conquest and subjection of more and more extensive areas of the Nile valley until the whole of Upper Egypt was under Naqadan control by 3900BCE” (Assman p.31).  Similarly, Kaiser believes that there was a physical expansion of the southern states into the north, which took the form of a process of assimilation and replacement, certainly involving political domination perhaps supported by military action to lead towards unification – the formation of one country with a capital city at Memphis.  

5.3.2 Non-Military Process in Naqada III

Recent studies suggest that Egypt was not two kingdoms but two geographical areas composed of, in the south, consolidated urban states which maintained regional differences, and in the case of the north, a less defined but still regionally differentiated set of communities.  Given this less clear cut picture, it is possible that there were other factors than a military conquest of the north by the south involved in the process that led up to unification. 

Although it is entirely possible that military action, both within Upper Egypt and in the final analysis, could have been involved as well, Kohler (1995) questions why, if the unification was achieved by military action, militarism and weaponry did not form part of the contemporary symbolic representation and grave goods.  There has been no sign of military activity in the archaeological record.

Looking at the Palette of Narmer, Frankfort (1948) does not question that it depicts conquest of the north by the south, and Marks (1997) also agrees that this is the most likely interpretation, but he suggests that this representation is symbolic, and derives not from historical fact but the Egyptian obsession with duality and balance in all things.  In other words he believes that the palette may be showing a symbolic re-writing of history rather than history itself.

Seeher, in a consideration of the nature of complex socio-economic systems, comments that “Archaeological evidence suggests a system much too complex for the southern expansion to be explained by military conquest alone, and the northern culture may have made important contributions to the unified polity which emerged” (Seeher 1991, p.318).  Hassan suggests that unification was actually “the culmination of the process of interregional integration through alliances and warfare that must have proceeded intermittently for at least 250 years or 10-12 generations” (Hassan 1988, p.175).

On the basis of archaeological evidence, Wildung (1984) describes a continuity of occupation and culture at Minshat Abu Omar as evidence that no military conflict took place, although this view is not undisputed.  Wildung believes, on the basis of work carried out at Minshat Abu Omar and Tell es-Sabaa Banat, that there was “never a real ‘unification’ in the sense of the final subjugation for the Delta and its neighbouring areas under the dominance of the king of Upper Egypt – as it is represented, for example, on the Narmer Palette.  He suggests that we should be much more prepared to accept the idea of a continuous cultural evolution of Egypt, which included the Delta as early as 3300BC.  The rise of the Egyptian state occurred at least from Naqada III as a broad-range evolution in the whole area of the later Kingdom and it seems to have been carried out harmoniously, without any major conflicts” (Wildung 1984, p.269).  Pottery spans a large period of time from Naqada II, through Naqada III, Dynasty 0 and First Dynasty “which proves the continuous use of the cemetery – and uninterrupted occupation of the settlement belonging to it.” (Wildung 1984, p.267).  “The representations of the ‘victory’ of the Upper Egyptian king over his ‘enemies’, for example on the Narmer Palette, are the heraldic fixation of the situation reached in ca. 3200BC, not a historical report of an authentic conquest of foreign “enemies” or internal “rebels” (Wildung 1984,p.269).  Similarly, Van den Brink (1989) points to a lack of destruction layers in Delta sites like Tell Fara’in and others.  “Possibly there was a more or less peaceful movement or migration(s) of Nagada culture peoples from south to north that may have been formalised by a later, or concurrent, military presence” (Bard 1994).

Non-military explanations for the change in material culture in Lower Egypt are many and varied, but all are necessarily processual, and do not depend on the existence of a single or series of events in time to explain unification.  Studies that show regional variation in Upper Egypt (e.g. Holmes 1989) could imply that the process of state formation leading to unification was by no means a simple set of dynamics, because Upper Egypt was apparently not as unified in its own right as previously believed.  Holmes’s work (1989) also suggests that the region of Middle Egypt had a more distinctive lithic assemblage than previously recognised and this might indicate a further complexity in the movement of Naqadan traits to the north. Trade in Naqada III

Trigger describes the process as a slow northward emigration of traders taking place over both Naqada II to III periods, due to the desire of the southern Naqadan states to establish direct trade relations with South West Asia (1993). 

Kohler studied local domestic ceramics from Buto and on the basis of her studies of both Buto and other sites, both contemporary and predating the Maadi-Buto complex she suggests that there is no dramatic cultural change visible in the ceramic record:  “If the material culture of domestic contexts –which probably mirrors best a cultural, social or even ethnic identity – shows identical traits, then the notion of Southern material replacing that of the North is unfounded” (Kohler 1995, p.84).  Kohler suggests that a population shift was visible in the abandonment of low desert settlements and cemeteries and the corresponding occupation of ‘possible commercial centres’ which were nearer to the Nile” (Kohler 1995, p.86). She suggests that this, rather than hostile action, could explain the abandonment of sites like Maadi. 

Perez-Lagarcha believes that it was intensified trading requirements that forced a change in Lower Egypt:  “It was possible to replace Maadi with other settlements that were closer to Palestine”  at the same time he explains the survival of Buto in terms of its strategic value: “Buto, for example, situated on the coast, could not be replaced” (1995b, p.49).

Jan Assman (1996) suggests that increased specialisation in the production of ceramics in Upper Egypt may have lead the Naqadan states to search for new customers for their wares – and that with Lower Egypt’s links to the Levant and beyond, the Lower Egyptian settlements would have provided perfect trading centres:  “The archaeological evidence might indicate not so much an ongoing process of migration and conquest as a constantly growing sales market for pottery and other cultural commodities for the Naqada region – that is, a Naqada economic network and eventual monopoly” (p.31).  This agrees with Perez-Lagarcha’s view (1995a, 1995b) that Maadi was a trading centre, thriving on Upper Egypt’s need for prestige goods.  However, he sees an expansion of Upper Egyptian traders into Lower Egypt with the establishment of trading posts further east in the Delta – the creation of which would have undermined the value and the former advantage that Maadi had.  He points to evidence of intensified contacts with Palestine during Naqada III including

  • Establishment of Eastern Delta sites
  • Changes in clay composition in Palestinian pots in Egypt which would have handled acidic contents like oil and wine
  • A marked increase of Palestinian products in Upper Egypt
  • W-Ware appearing across most of Egypt
  • Increase in settlements on the highlands of Canaan during EB1
  • Establishment of an Egyptian residence at En Bensor
  • Appearance of Palestinian seals in Egypt

Bard (1987) believes that trade was an important factor and suggests that competitive trade, including the block in the flow of goods, would have led to either warfare or coalition:  “Conflicts in trade, trade routes or access to resources inevitably arose in later Predynastic Egypt, leading to increased militarism of local leaders” (p.92).  It is more than likely that a combination of military and other processes combined at different times to move Egypt towards unification. 

Meza (2001) suggests that as a result of trade contacts “Mesopotamia was an important element in Egyptian social development” (p.3).

Tassie and Van Wettering (2003a) warn that “it is too simple to call sites where imported goods have been found ‘trade centres’ or connect them with the royal administration if serekhs were found” (p.504).  They believe that sites like Minshat Abu Omar may not have been set up specially to trade, but were in fact beneficiaries from a shift in politics and economics to the north: “the local elite at Minshat Abu Omar would probably have benefited from the central administration’s relations with the southern Levant” (p.504). Population Pressure in Naqada III

Population pressure as a means of explaining the urge to conquer the Delta, implies that land could no longer support the existing populations.  Writers who have suggested this include Service (1975), Bard (1994, 2001), Needler (1984) and Midant-Reynes (1992/2002).

Bard suggests that population pressure “reached a certain threshold in the major centre of Hierakonpolis in the South, given an increasingly circumscribed environment, there was nowhere to go but northward, to increase (agricultural) land holdings by conquest” (1994, 2001 p.94).

Needler (1984, p.30-31) suggested the north was dominated by the south because of a cocktail of politics, trade conflicts and population pressure.

Midant-Reynes (1992/2002) considered population pressure a motivation for Naqadan expansion: “More and more non-productive members of a growing population were grouped together in the agricultural regions of the flood plain, exerting demographic pressure which would provide a decisive impetus to the eventual process of Naqada expansion (p.237).

Butzer, however, does not consider population pressure to be a plausible explanation as he believes that the available land would have sustained the population (1976, p.85):  “It has become unduly fashionable for archaeologists and anthropologists to see population pressures and ecological stress as ‘prime movers’ in stimulating intensification of agricultural production and other technical and social innovation (p.100). Wilkinson agrees (1999, 2001, p.45). Establishment of Formalised Religion in Naqada III

Hassan (1992) believes that prehistoric rituals and belief had been focused on a goddess cult throughout Egypt, associated with vegetation, birth, death, and resurrection, and that the effect of rising elites and unification was to change the religion until a concept of divine kingship and the associated pantheon of gods emerged: “The transition from a tribal state to a state society was predicated upon the emergence of a religious myth that unified people from different lineages and legitimated allegiance to chiefs and kings from other lineages.  The transformation of tribal myths into a state myth involved the emphasis from locals deities to cosmic gods” (1992, p.308).  Hassan suggests that the king provided a focus for anxieties as a stable channel through which the Gods could communicate and with whom a dialogue could be established.  He was the apex between people and gods and the symbol for an eternal order. Ambitions of Kingship in Naqada III

Wilkinson (1999, 2001, p.50) suggests that the individual ambitions of a given king may, on the back of the ambitions of his predecessors’ achievements, have been a factor in the final push to unify the land.  This king may have been Narmer, or perhaps his predecessor Ka. The Establishment of a Centralised Administration in Memphis in Naqada III

Memphis acquired particular importance during this period.  Hassan believes that at around 3300BC environmental conditions would have contributed to this:  “A dramatic reduction in Nile flood discharge served as a catalyst promoting the fusions of two major political units in Upper Egypt, Hierakonpolis and Nagada.  Further expansion northward to control the rich granaries of Lower Egypt and the trade routes to the Near East lead to the graduation of power from south to north via Abydos to Memphis.”  (Hassan 1988, p.165-166).

Royal affiliations were visible in both the north and south.  While Memphis became the centre of government, royal burials still took place in the south at Abydos:  “Emery’s (1961) excavations of Early Dynastic tombs at North Saqqara, for example, revealed the lavish wealth of some segments of Lower Egyptian society, but the actual tombs of the First Dynasty rulers and of some of their successors appear to be at Abydos, in the area known as Umm el-Qa’ab” (Wenke 1991, p.303).  The rise of Memphis is significant:  “The Memphite area seems to have played a particularly important part in the process of state formation in Egypt.  To judge from excavated sites, the area was a heartland of the Lower Egyptian or Maadi ceramic tradition . . . . The greater Memphite area must have seen the first changes to this indigenous tradition caused by the northward expansion of the more advanced technologies from Upper Egypt” (Wilkinson 1996, p.31).  Memphis was strategically located in an ideal place to impose administrative control over the united country:  “With political and economic power, both regional and national, now concentrated in a single centre, the foundation and growth of Memphis must have had a considerable effect upon the demography of the surrounding area, as well as the socio-economic and political conditions in nearby communities” (Wilkinson 1996, p.31).

The location of Memphis not far from Wadi Digla may also have been strategic:  “Wadi Digla may have served as a trade route between the Memphite region and the Near East, to judge from the unusual concentration of artefacts found” (Wilkinson 1996, p.89), perhaps building upon the existing relationships established by Maadi. Clarification of Unification in Naqada III

There is considerable scope, as additional information comes to light, for further debate on the subject of state formation and unification, with a view to developing models and concepts, and which explain how different factors work together to create change.  As Hassan (1988) states, unequivocally, “Models of the political evolution of Predynastic Egypt and state formation are still largely exploratory” (p.164).  It is also an opportunity for clarifying some of the issues that lie between pure archaeology and traditional Egyptology in looking at periods which overlap pre-historical, proto-historical and fully historical periods.

It should be understood that although there were a number of main states, clearly dominated by Abydos, there were probably also minor states that became subjects, even in Naqada III and certainly after unification: “The integration of villages into territorial political regions sp3t or nomes), well known in historical periods, may have very well existed in late Predynastic times.  It is generally held that Egypt consisted of provincial or petty states that more ore less correspond to th territorial extent of the historical nomes during the terminal Predynastic period” (Hassan, 1992, p.310).

It is quite likely that the process will never be perfectly understood:  “The actual process by which the Thinite rulers ultimately gained control over the whole country is unknown and is likely to remains so.  The possibility of military action should not be ruled out” (Wilkinson 1996, p.8).


5.5.4 Dating the Unification

Unification, as a milestone, is usually dated to the end of Naqada III, although as already discussed, it is clear that unification was a process rather than a milestone, and dating there becomes more complex than pulling a single date out of the chronological hat.

Wilkinson suggests that “The duration of the period immediately preceding the beginning of the First Dynasty . . . cannot be assessed with any degree of accuracy.  However, it seems unlikely that it lasted more than five or six generations, including two or three generations of kings comprising a ‘Dynasty’ ” (Wilkinson 1996, p.15). 

Hassan believes that the process took longer. “The rise of the Egyptian state was most likely not the result of a single battle, but the culmination of wars and alliances, as well as fragmentation and reunification over a period of at least 250 years (about 10-12 generations, perhaps beginning with a major kingdoms)” (Hassan 1992, p.311).

Kaiser (1964) believes, against the popular view, that the distribution of Upper Egyptian artefacts in Lower Egypt from Naqada II onwards indicates that the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt takes place by the First Dynasty.  By comparing the size of the Predynastic cemetery with that of the First Dynasty cemetery at Tura, Kaiser estimates that unification took place up to 150 years before the traditional date assigned on the basis of the Palette of Narmer.  Trigger has hypothesised in possible support of this theory (1983, p.46) that the brick-built tombs of Cemetery T at Naqada may represent kings of an early united Egypt, who were conquered in turn by Hierakonpolis, leading to a second unification.  Hassan (1992, p.311) also suggests that “there is no reason to believe that Egypt was united only once or that the unification extended to the whole Delta by 3000/2950BC”.

In a revision of his original dating sequences Kaiser (1990) added a further three sub-stages and extended his chronology to the end of Dynasty 1.  However, recently Hendrickx (1993, p.4-5) has questioned the validity of Naqada IId2 and Wilkinson 1996 has offered a new scheme.  Hassan, on the basis of radiocarbon (1985) dates Naqada III from c.3200-3050BC


5.5.5 The Economy in Naqada III

It has been made clear in the above discussions about unification that trade with both internal and external neighbours contributed to Egypt’s economy.  The 400 Palestinian vases, from example, from Abydos Tomb U-j indicate that trade routes existed at this time between Egypt and Palestine.

Possible mechanisms for trade were over land and sea.  Raw materials that were imported into Egypt during Naqada II include copper, possibly timber, obsidian, silver, lapis lazuli, pear-shaped maceheads, cylinder seals and palace fašade architecture.  Marks (1997) has analysed both evidence for trade and the trade routes that could have been used in some detail.  On the basis of pottery found in Upper Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, Mark (1997) suggests that there was a sea route between Egypt and northern Syria by Naqada IIc, and probably before, and that there was a land route leading from Mesopotamia through northern Syria, Palestine and from there to Egypt.  Tell Brak in northern Mesopotamia appears to have been a trading town for land-based trade at this time.  Mark finds no evidence for a southern sea route linking Egypt with the Persian Gulf. 

International excavations at Tel Erani and Ein Besor in Southern Palestine “indicate substantial Egyptian activity in southern Palestine during the late Predynastic to early Dynastic transition” (Wilkinson 1999, 2001, p.24) and this suggests to Wilkinson that “the phenomenon of a core and periphery associated with the rise of other early states was also a feature of state formation in Egypt” (p.24).

Expansion of agriculture – in terms of area cultivated and skills employed – implied by the first irrigation, if the Scorpion Macehead can be interpreted as showing irrigation.  Butzer explains the development of permanent agricultural settlements in specific areas of Egypt as a response to specific flooding processes of the Nile floodplain.  The narrower areas of floodplain were easier to irrigate using natural methods.  The easiest areas would have been the far south and the Nile’s eastern bank “where basins did not require transverse dikes and where basins filled and emptied like clockwork under natural conditions (Butzer 1976, p103).

Connections between Naqada III in Egypt and other areas.


5.5.6 Social and Political Organization in Naqada III

The Naqada III phase is characterized by increasing concentration of power at Abydos.  However, the number and distribution of serekhs suggest that there were a number of local leaders and/or kings at different times and in different places throughout Naqada III.

Sites in the Delta expanded and became more overtly dedicated to trade, taking advantage of their strategically useful position between the Levant and the rest of Egypt.

Regions may have been divided up in a way that formed the basis of the Nome system, which is certainly attested to from the Early Dynastic period.

Religion, administration and communication become integral to Egypt at this time, and are discussed in more detail below.


5.5.7 Religion in Naqada III

For the first time it is possible to get an initial idea of the late Predynastic religious ideas.  Interpreting iconography is fraught with difficulties: “Only a few of the historical deities of Egypt can be traced back for any distance into prehistory” (Hornung 1983, p171). However, analysis of the contemporary iconography does offer hints about both a belief system and a theology.

Gods that were to remain important throughout Dynastic Egypt’s 3000 years were already key in early Egypt at the end of the Predynastic early kings identified themselves with Horus.  However, deities are attested to from much earlier.

It is likely that there was more than one hawk deity: “The ‘standards’ document the existence of early hawk cults, but they do not show whether the gods are Horus or other god cults” (Hornung 1983, p.171) although this is making an assumption, based on the close affiliation of deities with Dynastic nomes, that the figure-heads on the standards represent gods.  It is believed that Horus was associated with kingship from the earliest times – his representation on the serrekh of kingship dates from Naqada II onwards, and his later association with Hierakonpolis and his early appearance on representations of standards believed to be from Hierakonpolis seem to confirm this (David 2002, p.48).

Another early god was Seth.  Unlike Horus, the image used to depict Seth was unlike that of any other god or, for that matter, any recognisable animal in life.  Seth’s association with chaos and forceful domination in Dynastic times may have been a result of an association in Later Predynastic and Early Dynastic times of uprising and subdual.  Like Horus, but to a much lesser degree, he may have had some association with early kingship – the Old Kingdom kings Peribsen and Khasekhemwy both used him in their serekhs, indicating an early and important role for Seth.  An ivory artifact dating to Naqada I shows his distinctive features and he also appears on the Scorpion macehead (Wilkinson 2003).

Other early well known gods are Nekhebet and Min.  The vulture goddess Nekhebet is attested to from El Kab, the predynastic town opposite Hierakonpolis on the west bank of the river, and known in ancient times as Nekheb (David 2002, p.48).  Min was apparently sacred evening the Late Predynastic, to Coptos, where he was depicted as a fertility god.

A lesser known deity was Bat, who is also attested to from the earliest times.  Bat was an early cow goddess, distinguishable from Hathor because her horns turn inwards, not outwards.  She is mentioned textually for the first time in the Pyramid Texts, but it is thought that a number of Predynastic representations depict her.  It is likely that it is her head, rather than that of Hathor, a bovine head shown with human features, that is shown four times on the Palette of Narmer.

Apart from the deities as animal personifications, there are other clear indications of the linkage between humans and animals.  Obviously the earliest we see of these are in the rock paintings and simple carvings of the Badarian and the increasingly complex decorated vases and more sophisticated carvings of the Naqada I and II periods. Animal burials at both Upper and Lower Egyptian sites also indicate a reverence for animals that moves beyond simple respect for resources.  In Naqada III this fascination for animals and their power becomes more explicit on media like palettes where the king is sometimes equated with a lion or a bull, and birds of prey are shown as a force against enemies (see for example the Battlefield Palette and the Palette of Narmer).  Similarly, Naqada III and First Dynasty kings appear to have taken names of animals for their own names: e.g. Scorpion, Catfish, Kite, and Cobra.  Oddly, although the lion is frequently depicted as a dominant being, no known king took it as a name, and the symbol of a lion was not incorporated into early hieroglyphs.

An early stellar cult is possibly indicated by some early palettes, including the Gerzeh Palette.  Stellar worship is certainly a developed cult during the Old Kingdom.

There are aspects of Predynastic Egypt which have not yet emerged in the archaeological record.  For example, Jimenez-Serrano (2002) suggests that festivals, in particular the sed festival, has its origins in the predynastic period although the first depictions date to the First Dynasty.  He believes that the festival had an ultimately African origin “because many similar ceremonies were, and are, performed in African societies” (2003, p.77).  It was first attested at the time of Narmer and is then attested in nearly every First Dynasty reign, and was celebrated in Late Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods at Hierakonpolis, Abydos and Saqqara.   The absence of evidence of this and other festivals is no indication that they were not carried out – and, in fact, it is unlikely that they would have sprung up, fully evolved, in the First Dynasty.  It is worth remembering that a lot of information about social activities and behaviour are either lost or yet to be discovered.

In conclusion, as power was consolidated and society became more structured and complex, we can see the importance that was given to the association of men with animals and the development of individual deities who incorporated important concepts implying a desire to establish control and promote security.  These deities appear to have been initially very much associated with individual areas, but as David puts it (2002, p. 50) “as the political scene changed, and villages joined together to become larger units, the same process, syncretism, was probably reflected in the sphere of religion.  Local gods gradually evolved to become the deities of larger districts”.  These highly localised origins which become more widely adapted goes a long way to explaining a lot of the complexities of Dynastic religion and its sometimes conflicting beliefs.

5.5.8 Administration in Naqada III

The formal designation of the serekhs, which appears to have been associated both with the concepts of kingship/rulers and ownership dates to this time.  The serekh associates a name with the stylised representation of a palace fašade, the style of architecture associated with the earliest royal burials.

“Standards” – tall staffs with emblems at their heads are also depicted from this time, and are usually interpreted as symbolising a region’s name, like a local flag.  Again, this suggests that the concept of regional identity was important in Egypt at this time, probably for social, political and commercial reasons.  Standards are depicted on several palettes dating to this period (e.g. the Battlefield Palette) and on the Scorpion Macehead

There is clear indication from Naqada III that administration and accounting were essential elements of Egyptian organization at this time.  The most conspicuous evidence of formal administrative activity was found in Tomb U-j at Abydos, which contained labels which were originally attached to commodities, and had very early hieroglyphic symbols, not all of which can be translated.  Similarly, pot marks and serekhs on vessels indicate that ownership of and assignment of goods were important: “the growing identification of commodity assignments – both those destined traded within Egypt – by means of pot marks illustrates the growing obsession of the Upper Egyptian rulers with ownership, accounting and the detailed management of economic resources” (1999, 2001, p.44).

It is possible that the Nome system also dates to this time.  Helk (1974, p.199) argues that a minimum of sixteen Upper Egyptian and ten Lower Egyptian nomes had been established before the Third Dynasty, which suggest that most were established at least by Late Predynastic times:  “the ten oldest of the twenty Lower Egyptian nomes predate the third Dynasty and are significantly situated between the Delta distributaries” (Butzer 1976, p.94).  Butzer believes that the nomes were probably founded on the basis of natural basin-irrigation units as the agricultural landscape evolved (1776, p.103).

5.5.9 Art, Writing and Iconography in Naqada III

Kemp (198) points out that every piece of available evidence suggests, in spite of material and political differences, language throughout Egypt was probably the same (p.37).

One of the most fascinating things about the beginning of Naqada III is the clear evolution of different modes of communication.  The iconographic palettes form narratives using expressive images, symbols and the first hieroglyphs.  Abydos provides the earliest evidence of hieroglyphs used for labelling in tomb U-j, and symbolic pictograms were used to represent names and/or places.  Writing was established for communication for administrative purposes.  Serekhs were used for establishing ownership.  Iconography, including the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt were already incorporated into the rulers’ concepts of Egyptian power and identity.  Trigger (1983, p.37) suggests that although there are no stylistic similarities between Mesopotamian script and that of ancient Egypt, the idea of writing may well have come from Mesopotamia.  The advantages of it as an administrative tool must have been clear to anyone seeing it in operation.

Art and iconography were used for communicating ideas and accounts of historical events as a narrative.  This is at its most clear in the form of the decorated palettes which have registers, symbols and hieroglyphs:  “By the end of the Predynastic period, many of the characteristics of Egyptian art had already been canonised, including the conventions of representation, the hierarchical scaling of figures, the use of registers to order the composition, and the attributes of kinship.  However, the roots of royal iconography – and of the ideology it expresses – go back much further” (Wilkinson 1999, 2001, p.31).  Examples include the Palette of Narmer, the Libyan/Tjehenu Palette, the Battlefield Palette and the Scorpion Macehead.  In a discussion of the Battlefield Palette, John Baines suggests that a key message of the iconography was “a strong sense of ‘self and other’ that clustered around the institution of kingship” (1999, p.3) and that this was part of a larger sense of Egypt defining itself a single entity which was confronted with diversity beyond its borders (p.9).

Of all the “mysteries” of the Egypt, the only one I find a genuine puzzle is the origin of hieroglyphic writing.  As Wenke says “hieroglyphic writing first appeared in such a developed form that we cannot see the full transition from what was probably pictographic writing first expressed on papyrus” (1999, p.46).   The first symbols that represent hieroglyphic signs appear on Naqada II pottery in tombs – for example, the zigzag lines depicting water.  The first examples of actual hieroglyphs, in a very early form, are the 150 labels from tomb U-j in Abydos, which appear to have been used for accounting.  However, where they were developed from or how they evolved is far from clear.  Some writers see an implicitly Mesopotamian origin for the idea of writing.  However, as Quirke points out: “The idea for such a system, for a script, develops apparently a little earlier in Mesopotamia, although there too the record of this fourth millennium revolution remains confined to an extremely small body of evidence.  Although Mesopotamian writing probably appeared earlier than Egyptian hieroglyphs, the differences between the two scripts make a direct link unlikely” (1996, p.12).  Unlike other scripts, although the more “user friendly” version, hieratic, was developed, the pictorial nature of the language survived millennia in a way that was, pictorially at least, quite remarkably unchanged.

5.5.10 The First Rulers – Naqada III/Dynasty 0/the Protodynastic

The Naqada III period is sometimes, very misleadingly, referred to as Dynasty 0, because this is the first time that rulers, possibly regional kings, become visible in the archaeological record.  There are considerable problems with the naming of these early rulers, and it is important to remember that many of them were probably in power at the same time, rather than ruling consecutively as they usually did in Dynastic Egypt.  These were the rulers who had consolidated their power by the end of Naqada II and were continuing to express their power in Naqada III.

Wilkinson 1999 (p.53-59) has attempted to make some sense of the evidence and suggests that there is evidence for regional rulers as follows.

  • Iry-Hor
    • Buried at the rich Tomb B 1/2 at Abydos
    • However, his name is not associated with a Serekh, so he may not be royal
  • Unnamed king with 3-mace Serekh
    • Serekh known from Eastern Delta and Tura
    • Only known in Lower Egypt
  • Unnamed king with indicpherable Serekh
    • Known only from Armant
    • Serekh inscription very crude
  • Scorpion
    • The scene of a figure wearing the white crown of Lower Egypt is shown engaged in activities is shown on the Scorpion Macehead found at Hierakonpolis
    • But there is no serekh, just a rosette symbol
      • The rosette symbol on the palette of Narmer is associated with a lesser personage than the king
      • May have been contemporary with Narmer
      • Scorpion Macehead and Palette of Narmer thought to date to the same time, and may even have been produced by the same craftsmen
      • Elise Baumgartel believes that in fact the scorpion and rosette, which are taken to symbolise his name, may in fact be titles and that this is a representation of Narmer himself
    • There is no evidence for his burial, unless it was the un-inscribed Tomb B50.
  • Crocodile
    • Known from Tarkhan
    • Again, may be contemporary with Narmer
  • Ka
    • Buried in Tomb B7/9
    • Name enclosed in a serekh
    • Name found in Israel, E. Delta, Abydos and Helwan
    • “The horizontal stratigraphy of the royal burials at Abydos and the ceramic evidence . . . make it fairly certain that Narmer was immediately preceded (as ruler of This, and perhaps as King of all of Egypt) by the king whose names shows a pair of arms, the hieroglyph later read as K3.
  • Narmer
    • Credited by ancient Egyptian writings with the unification at around 3000BC.
    • He was buried at Abydos
    • Inscriptions of his name are found all over Egypt and in Israel.

5.5.6. Naqada III Sites in Upper and Lower Egypt

In Lower Egypt the Naqada III phase is represented by a number of sites.  The last Maadi-Buto phase at Tell Fara’in (Buto) mixes with Naqada IId and Naqada III elements.  Midant-Reynes describes it as “an extremely important time of transition, eventually merging with the homogenized culture of the Protodynastic period” (1992/2000 p.220).  This site was the only one in the Western Delta known to have maintained its own personality on meeting the Naqadan culture.  All other sites in the Delta ceased to display the components typical of Maadian material culture.  The most important Lower Egyptian sites are Tarkhan, Tell el-Fara’in, Helwan, Abu Rawash, Tura, Memphis and Saqqara. Upper Egypt

Abydos is at its richest in Naqada III, and took over from Hierakonpolis as the most important of the consolidated regional states.  An interesting but not generally accepted theory from Vandier (1952 613-614) is that Abydos was not a third power in Upper Egypt, but a second town of inhabitants of Hierakonpolis, who established Abydos in the process of state consolidation and to secure territories to the north.  Manetho says that the first kings came from Abydos, and there is certainly evidence to support him, in the form of very rich burials and the fact that the early kings of the Protodynastic period were buried here.  The use of Cemetery U follows something of a hiatus in Naqada II, when burials are not well represented here.  In Naqada III it was used exclusively for higher status burials.  The most remarkable of the Naqada III tombs is tomb U-j, which has often been suggested as one of the first royal tombs.  It was mudbrick-lined with multiple chambers and had over 400 Palestinian imported vessels, bone labels with the earliest known writing and an ivory sceptre: “the tomb is by far the largest of its date anywhere in Egypt, suggesting the strong possibility that its ownere exercised rule or at least hegemony over much, if not all, of the Nile valley” (Wilkinson 1999, 2001, p.41).  Another rich tomb is Tomb U-s, lined with mudbricks, and containing vessels with inscriptions with some of the earliest serekh marks. 

Hierakonpolis was apparently dominant prior to the late Naqada III, when it was replaced in importance and power by Abydos, in spite of the fact that it is generally considered to be the driving force behind the drive towards unification.  However, it continued to thrive, and a new temple was built here which was even more ambitious than the one built in Naqada II.  This is where the Palette of Narmer and the Scorpion and Narmer maceheads were found.  The local deity sacred to Hierakonpolis continued to be Horus, but cattle burials were also made here, indicating the importance of the cattle cult in Egypt at this time.  Trigger (1983, p49) has suggested that the Hierakonpolis rulers “became clients of the kings who founded the First Dynasty and that these kings were descended from local rulers whose tombs have gone unrecorded or unrecognised at Abydos”.

Naqada clearly continued to have a role in Naqada III, but it lost the position it had had in Naqada I.  A continuing regard for its status is indicated by the fact that the probably wife of Narmer was buried here in the First Dynasty and Naqada’s regional deity, Seth, was later associated with the divine element of kingship.

At Armant Bard’s analysis of graves in Cemetery 1400-1500 (Bard 1994, 2000) shows that Naqada III graves were confined to the north of the cemetery and, unlike earlier burials, were quite closely clustered.  Innovations in grave goods included stone vessels and circular rectangular palettes. Lower Egypt

Abusir el-Maleq’s Naqada III phase evolved from Naqada II.

Tarkhan, on the west bank of the Nile (2km away), 60km south of Cairo and north of Abusir el-Maleq and el-Gerzeh (south of Helwan), dates to Naqada III and consists of large cemetery sites in two main areas – the hill sites and the valley sites.  Petrie excavated at Tarkhan between 1911 and 1923.  The site appears to have been established for the first time shortly before the First Dynasty, and the settlement remains are consistent with that date, together with large mastaba tombs, one with a palace fašade, in which inscriptions of the first First Dynasty king Narmer were found.  There was probably an important settlement located nearby, although this has not been located.  Ellis (1992) used statistical methods to determine social differences between men, women and children.  He assumed that the more energy expended on the tomb by its builders could be used as a measure to determine the social importance of the person buried.  The results suggested that female graves were the richest in terms of gravegoods deposited and that male graves were largest in size, and that the size differentiation between male graves was significant.  His studies also suggested the presence of a specific section of society at the west end of the valley cemetery, characterised by specific identifiably different assemblages which included stone vessels, ivory  pins, rectangular slate palettes and beads.  Wilkinson (1996) suggests that the construction of three large mastabas in a new location to the south of the main elite cemeteries “seem to mark the imposition of national authority, replacing the lower power structure, early in the First Dynasty” (1986, p.89).   No Naqada II pottery was found at Tarkhan.

Helwan is the biggest Early Dynastic cemetery and the site consists of several thousand graves 20km south of Cairo, near to the mouth of the Faiyum (29░51' N 31░22' E). The cemetery was started in the Late Predynastic and was used into the early Old Kingdom Periods.  Most of these graves date to the Early Dynastic Period (around 3000 BC). The site was excavated by Zaki Youssef Saad over ten seasons from 1942 to 1954, and was initially sponsored by King Faruk. Dr Christiana K÷hler (The Australian Centre for Egyptology) has been excavating at Helwan in recent years.  Most of the graves had been plundered, so the burials were far from intact, but in most graves the dead were usually placed in a contracted position, the orientation generally North-South.

Memphis was founded as the Egyptian administrative centre, and “represents the culmination of the unification process” (Wilkinson 1999, 2001 p.58).  North Saqqara was its principal cemetery, where high officials were buried, and Helwan may have acted as a secondary burial site for Memphis.

Buto at this time, represented as a clear continuity in Layer III from the Naqada II in Layer II in the site’s stratigraphy, had clear contacts with Syria and Palestine, exemplified by the appearance of spiral slipware and imported Palestinian vessels.  Wilkinson (1999, 2001, p.21) states that “There is no doubt that Buto provides unique evidence for technological and social changes which accompanied the rise of the Egyptian State”.

Eastern Delta Sites are important at this time. Minshat Abu Omar’s Naqada III burials were located at the north of the cemetery and consisted of graves deeper than those dating to Naqada II, with many more burial goods including Naqada III types of pottery, and copper objects. Tell el-Iswid South produced a settlement that spanned the late Predynastic to Early Dynastic transition, and Tell Ibrahim Awad has levels dating to the time of state formation which contain serekhs of Ka and Narmer.  Kafr Hassan Dawood (Hassan et al 2003), located in the Wadi Tumilat 40km west of Isimailia, has produced 745 graves that span the Proto and Early Dynastic. It is characterized by differentiation between graves, in terms of grave size and grave goods, and separation of elite and non-elite graves into different areas of the site - which has lead its excavators to conclude that the community “was characterized by marked social differentiation” (Hassan et al 2003, p.41) but that it lacks the signs of more conspicuous wealth at sites like Minshat Abu Omar and Tell Ibrahim Awad.  Hassan et al describe this site as “probably a village of between 200-400 people, with a chief at the head of a local hierarchy” (p.44).  Minshat Ezzat, 40km  south of Mansura was discovered in 1997 and was excavated between 1998 and 2002.  The cemetery contains both Protodynastic and Early Dynastic graves.  The 10 protodynastic graves have produced rectangular graves, one with five chambers and funerary equipment which included pottery and stone vessels and a decorated palette.  The settlement was to the east of the cemetery and contained mud walls which were beneath the level of the water table, consisting of rectangular rooms full of sherds and broken ovoid pots, hearths, sickle blades and 11 big storage pots, all of which date to Naqada IIIb (El-Baghdadi 2003 143-152).

In the Faiyum, the Qasr el-Sagha the sites VIIG/80 and VIIIG/80, described briefly by Kozlowski (1983) may date to this period or to the Protodynastic period.


5.6 The First Dynasty

Although this paper officially ceases with Unification, it would be incomplete without a brief mention of the First Dynasty. 

The First Dynasty was presided over by one king, whose territory included Lower and Upper Egypt, and “the foundation of Memphis as the national administrative centre really represents the culmination of the unification process” (Wilkinson 1999, p.58).  There were eight First Dynasty kings, (partly identified from a cache of stone vessels inscribed with serekhs) the first of whom it is now generally agreed, was Narmer, in spite of the fact that both the Abydos king list and Manetho list names the first king as Menes.  Prior to Narmer “it is likely that many of Narmer’s predecessors were no more than regional rulers” (Wilkinson 1996, p.11).  Although not much is known about Narmer it is likely that he was the ruler of Abydos, where he was buried.

The First Dynasty kings are known to us mainly from the Palermo Stone, which lists the names of the earliest kings.  Narmer was followed by Hor-Aha, Djer, Djet, Queen Merneith, Den, Anedjib, Semerkhet (not a certain identification) and Qaa.  

Tombs from the late Predynastic are impressive in terms of content and size when compared with their predecessors, but as architectural entities are not in any way conspicuous or remarkable.  As Mark says “such tombs could easily have been supported by a regional economy” (1997, p.104).  However, First Dynasty tombs showed a significant evolution not only in terms of the monumental construction, often with palace fašade architecture, but in terms of the resource and ability needed to create them.  This is not confined to royal tombs, but to elite tombs in general.  Trigger (1983, p.56) suggests that the funerary practices in the First Dynasty reveal a political organization, consisting of the King, followed by High Officials, with craftsmen and retainers next, and the peasantry at the bottom of the ladder.  He says that cemeteries did not see the king differentiated in any very spectacular way – the king’s tomb was bigger  than those of lesser individuals, but not conspicuously different: “This suggests either that the power of the kings to appropriate resources for their own use was more limited in the Early Dynastic period than it was later on, or that the kings o this period did not choose to emphasize the differences between themselves and other leading men in this fashion” (p.56).  Titles focus on administrative roles, but appear to have been held by royalty and were apparently hereditary.

The establishment of a central administration was accompanied by changes: “With the First Dynasty the focus of development shifted from south to north, and the early Egyptian state was a centrally controlled polity ruled by a (god-) king from the Memphis regions” (Bard 2000, p.62).  No settlement site has yet been found at Memphis, which was called “White Walls” in historic times, but cemetery sites are very much in evidence.  Memphis was not located near particularly good land and seems to have been selected for its position as a communication apex, much as Cairo is today.  Abydos was the most important town in the south, and the First Dynasty kings were buried here, while high status officials were buried at Memphis, north Saqqara and perhaps other important individuals were buried at Tarkhan, with less important individuals being interred at Helwan.

Helwan is an interesting case study of the Early Dynastic period.  The largest of the Memphite cemeteries, its earliest phase dates back to Naqada IIa, and usage is well attested in Naqada IIIb, but most sites belong to Naqada III c and d.

The adoption of a tiered burial system for royalty at Abydos and bureaucrats at Saqqara is a clear indication of the importance of the bureaucracy in the management of a unified Egypt.  The labour invested in some of the First Dynasty non-royal tombs, for example at Tarkhan, is a reflection of how important the burial cult had become.  Even poorer individuals were being buried, as Kohler’s excavations at Helwan are demonstrating, indicating that even lower echelons in society wished to provide for and be provided for after death.

For “common” people pursuing agriculture, life would probably have gone on in much the same way following unification, with different administrations collecting the same types of taxes that the local rulers formerly collected, but perhaps with the growing requirement for corvee labour, as bigger building projects were required.  Unless they were taxed beyond their ability to grow produce for subsistence requirements, the everyday activities and standards of living of agricultural villages would have changed little.  For the agriculturalist, continuity, although hidden in the archaeological record, was probably the order of the day. 

Opportunities, however, would have emerged and provided additional layers and textures in peasant-level society as some left the fields to become specialist craftsmen, while others laboured in quarries and on buildings instead of in the fields.

Some predynastic towns were apparently abandoned during the Early Dynastic period.  This may have been due to a shifting towards new towns in the north, but there are other factors that could account for this abandonment.  Butzer believes that the environmental conditions of the time may have accounted for the abandonment of some sites, because at around c.3900BC onwards Egypt went into a period of increasing aridity. As Fagan (2004) has demonstrated, periods of climatic change can have a serious impact on settlement patterns, particularly on centralised settlements dependent on specific resources.

The A-Group of Nubia, who had been very wealthy for most of the Naqadan period, survived into the early First Dynasty, importing Egyptian products, but began to loose definition by the end of the First Dynasty, at time when imports also ceased. 

As a whole, the Early Dynastic period “appears to have been a time of great creativity and inventiveness, in the course of which the elite culture of Pharaonic Egypt can be seen taking shape.  While this creativity was to continue into the Third Dynasty, by the end of the Early Dynastic Period most of the principal elements of the court culture of the Old Kingdom were probably in place” (Trigger 1983, p.66) and then the Old Kingdom began.


5.7 Middle and Late Predynastic and Protodynastic:  Conclusions

The Maadian sites of Upper Egypt began to become invisible in the archaeological record as the Upper Egyptian material culture began to replace it, with the establishment of sites like el Gerzeh in the western Faiyum in the Naqada II period.  In Tell el Fara’in this is seen as a continuous, not an interrupted process.

The reason for this expansion north is poorly understood, but could have been for any number of reasons, and is probably a combination of several, including both ecological and political pressures. 

The expansion coincided with the visible emergence of powerful individuals associated with early “states” in Naqada III, and culminated with the disappearance of all Maadian traits and a process of homogenisation, a process still poorly understood. 

Eventually this small-state country, which was considerably more defined and advanced in Upper Egypt, appears to have been consolidated into three main areas: Nubia, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, each with its own internal divisions (Jimenez-Serrano 2003). This process of state development and advance upon, or cultural diffusion from Upper Egypt to Lower Egypt was followed at some point by an actual unification event, or a unification process, after which a clearly defined ‘royalty’ is identified in Memphis, Saqqara and Abydos.

However it happened, the development of states, their absorption of Lower Egypt and the unification of Egypt were likely to be caused over a long period of time: “The unification was not a single event; rather, it should be understood as a long process of integration which had conflicts and numerous centrifugal movements, whose cases would have diverse origins:  pest infections, invasions, debility of the central government and so on” (Jimenez-Serrano 2003, p.245). 

It is clear that none of this could have been achieved without the key achievements of previous centuries:

  • The early establishment of agriculture throughout Egypt, probably blending African and Near Eastern components
  • Skilled adaptation to local ecologies, using basin irrigation and continuing to provide economic stability by supplementing an increasingly sedentary lifestyle with the exploitation of both desert and riverine environments
  • Processes of polity creation and consolidation, and the establishment of powerful leaderships in Naqada I and II
  • The increasing importance of the Delta and the Maadi-Buto sites for trade and exchange
  • The establishment of a unified culture in Upper and Lower Egypt prior to unification, with the establishment of three main kingdoms, probably vying for supremacy
  • Increasing attention to administrative issues and the need to both document and communicate

The First Dynasty marks this time when the Nile valley and Delta were under the control of a single leadership, headed by a king.  The royal presence was divided between north and south with Memphis becoming the nation’s administrative centre, with its neighbouring cemeteries at Helwan and Saqqara being used for burial by senior officials, and Abydos being used as the royal burial ground.

As Butzer so eloquently puts it, the evolution throughout the Predynastic and into the Early Dynastic represents “an unexpected continuity in environmental exploitation strategies between prehistoric communities of the Pleistocene and the much more complex sophisticated cultures of historical times” (1976, p.111).  Even though the earlier Neolithic is somewhat fragmented, and the origins of cultures like the Faiyum Neolithic, the Merimden, the Omarian and the Badarian are still disputed, and there are a number of chronological gaps,  it is clear that a process of local adaptation and development eventually resulted in increasing centralisation throughout both Upper and Lower Egypt, the culminated in unification and the Dynastic age. By the Old Kingdom, there were around a million people living in Egypt (Grajetski 2003, p.viii), and the developing character of Ancient Egypt was firmly established.