Life before the Pharaohs

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 23 Jan 2024

Enough sites have now been excavated to provide convincing evidence of the very earliest inhabitants of prehistoric Egypt, writes Zahi Hawass

Narmer palette
Narmer palette


Several important sites from the Neolithic and Predynastic periods in Egypt have been excavated, and enough has been recovered to paint a hazy picture of life before the moment when prehistory became history. 

In the north, the well-excavated site of Merimde Beni Salama has long been used to illustrate the northern Neolithic sequence, along with material from the Fayoum (the oasis west of Cairo). In the Nile Valley, settlement remains from several key sites near the Qena Bend (where Luxor is now located) provide evidence for life in the south.

The earliest known farming settlement in Egypt is Merimde Beni Salama, which lies at the western edge of the Delta, 37 miles northwest of Cairo. This is one of my favourite sites in Egypt, because I excavated here early in my career in 1977. 

The site was occupied as early as the Middle Paleolithic, and reached its height during the Neolithic Period. It was settled off and on for almost 900 years. The site covers 44 acres of high ground; at the zenith of its occupation, there were probably as many as 5,000 people living here. Its location is ideal, situated on a desert spur high enough to protect the inhabitants from the annual flood and cradled by the now-dry Rosetta branch of the Nile.

The earliest inhabitants lived in scattered wind-breaks or pole-framed huts; later, they built very small oval or horseshoe-shaped mud-brick and wickerwork huts, slightly sunken into the ground and arranged in groups. Outside the houses were hearths, grinding stones, lithic workshops, sunken water jars, and large oval or circular baskets used for storing grain. 

By about the mid-fifth century BCE, Merimde was a large village built of mud, with oval houses set along narrow streets. These houses have subterranean floors, walls made of mud tempered with straw, and roofs of branches and reeds. Inside the houses were hearths, grinding stones, and jars for storage set into the floor. Granaries in the form of baskets or clay-lined pits were outside, but clearly associated with individual dwellings.

The later inhabitants of Merimde lived in independent single-family units, but used communal threshing floors to prepare their grain for grinding. They cultivated emmer wheat, barley, lentils, and vetch, and herded sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. In addition to their domesticated animals, they ate desert game such as antelopes and gazelles and more than 20 different species of fish. They also hunted crocodiles, and a number of hippo leg bones have been found used as doorsteps, probably for ritual reasons such as the warding off of evil.

The Merimdens were expert potters, and the site has yielded countless pottery sherds from dishes, bowls, and jars, the most interesting of which had stood on appendages modelled to look like human feet. In addition, they made small figurines, which number among the earliest human representations from Egypt. Their tools and weapons were made of stone, ivory, bone, or horn. They wore jewellery such as pendants, beads, and rings, and carved vessels and mace heads out of various types of stone. The inhabitants traded with their neighbours, as shown by objects made of stone from far to the south, beads made from ostrich shell, and mollusk shells from the Mediterranean and Red seas.

Another of the areas in Egypt from which early settlement remains have been uncovered is Fayoum. This lies in the Western Desert not far from the Nile and is linked to the Nile Valley by a tributary of the river now called the Bahr Youssef. This flows into a large lake known as the Birket Qaroun. The shores of the lake were inviting to Neolithic peoples, who settled there as early as 5450 BCE.

The Fayoum Culture, which seems to be approximately contemporary with the latest phase at Merimde, was first discovered by Gertrude Caton-Thompson, a pioneering archaeologist and one of the first women to excavate in Egypt. She found groups of storage silos for grain (as many as 109 in one case), many of which were carefully lined with matting. The inhabitants of the area were growing barley, emmer wheat, and probably also flax. 

Like the Merimdens, they also herded sheep or goats, cattle, and pigs, and depended to a large extent on fishing. They made pottery, used stone tools, and traded with the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and the tribes to the south.

BADARIAN AND NAQADA I: In Upper Egypt, the earliest seutlements are found clustered around the Qena Bend, which swoops east in the southern part of the country. 

The earliest agricultural settlements are small and poorly documented, visible mainly through their associated cemeteries. The culture of this region, known as the Badarian, seems to date back to about 5000 BCE, but is not clearly visible before about 4400 BCE.

The Badarians lived in small villages, which they occupied for short times before moving to new sites close by. Their houses seem to have been of light, easily perishable materials such as wickerwork on a wooden frame. The locations of a number of villages in the low desert have been reconstructed mainly through finds of storage pits. It may be that there were more permanent settlements on the floodplain, now washed away or buried under layers of mud.

Badarian pottery is distinctive, as it is decorated with a rippled surface. Like their neighbours to the north, the early Upper Egyptians used stone tools and also made bracelets, beads, combs, and hairpins of bone and ivory. A characteristic artefact of this period is the slate palette, found in various shapes. Excavators have also unearthed some female statuettes of clay and ivory, as well as isolated bits of hammered copper. There are some imported artefacts, such as Red Sea shells, and their copper, as well as turquoise, may have come from the Eastern Desert or Sinai. 

Wheat, barley, lentils, and tubers were consumed by the Badarians and sheep or goats (which are hard to tell apart just from skeletal evidence) were herded and kept in circular pens. These people were not great hunters, but they did depend a great deal on fishing. Sites where the Badarian culture has been found stretch from the northern part of southern Egypt, around modern Sohag, to Al-Kab and Hierakonpolis in the south.

In 1892, British Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie, known as the Father of Egyptology, found an enormous cemetery of more than 3,000 graves at the site of Naqada in Upper Egypt. The artefacts in these graves were so different from what had been found before that he thought they were evidence of a great invasion: a “Dynastic Race” that had come into Egypt, conquered its inhabitants, and founded the Pharaonic state. It was only later that excavations uncovered the remains of the Badarian Culture, and we know now that Petrie’s Naqada Culture developed organically from what had come before and was native to Egypt.

Buried with the dead at Naqada were many objects used in life: distinctive pottery, slate palettes in the form of animals, bone or ivory combs and spoons, and beautifully knapped flint knives. The same types of artefacts were found soon after at other sites in Upper Egypt.

Petrie worked carefully to group the pottery found at Naqada Period sites and put them into chronological order. He ended up with three main periods: Naqada I, also known as Amratian; Nagada II, or Gerzean; and Naqada lIl. Later scholars have refined this dating system, breaking it down into smaller phases, but Petrie’s chronology has stood the test of time.

Naqada I grows very clearly out of the Badarian. The burials were larger, and some contained coffins of wood or clay. It is at Hierakonpolis that the largest and most elaborate tombs appear, providing clear evidence for increasing social stratification. Two tombs, probably of powerful chieftains, contained disc-shaped mace heads of porphyry.

Slate palettes in the form of ovals or animals are very characteristic of this period. These were used for grinding cosmetic pigments (black kohl from hematite, and green from malachite) and mixing it with fat for use as eye paint. Such makeup served to protect the eye from flying insects, ward off infection, and was used for ceremonial purposes. Although we have already seen that these palettes are also found in Lower Egypt, the earliest examples, which are rhomboidal in shape, appear in Upper Egypt.

Some pottery from this period is decorated with the figures of animals such as hippopotami, crocodiles, bovids, gazelles; exotic creatures such as giraffes; and stick-figure humans. The most elegant ware is red, with the figural decoration in white. Faience, made from crushed quartz pebbles, was first worked during this period. 

We know very little about the settlements of Naqada I. The buildings were made from mud and vegetal materials such as wood and reeds and have not survived well. The main features preserved from the few habitation sites identified are hearths and post-holes.



AADI CULTURE: While the Naqada Culture was predominant in Upper Egypt, the inhabitants of the Delta were developing their own distinctive culture, termed the Maadi Culture after a site near modern Cairo. In contrast to the evidence from the south, the northern Culture is represented best by settlement sites, with few cemeteries known.

Maadi is a huge site, but, like Meride, it covers a lot of ground because the inhabitants moved horizontally over time. A suburb of Cairo is now on top of this site.

The Maadi Culture shows clear links to the earlier material from Lower Egypt. The early dwellers at Maadi lived in oval huts made from wood and matting, with hearths both inside and outside. Vessels, some quite large, were sunk into the ground for storage. There is no evidence that the inhabitants of Maadi used stone or mud in their constructions. The most unusual structures found in the early levels were four large subterranean dwellings, which resemble structures from a contemporary culture based in Palestine.

Most of the food that the Maadi people ate came from cultivated cereal, lentils, and peas and domesticated cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. They also domesticated the donkey, which they may have used for long-distance trade. Their pottery was hand-made, but finished on a revolving base. In addition to jars and bowls in various shapes, there were some bird and boat-shaped vessels. Some locally-made pottery was copied from Upper Egyptian prototypes, and some vessels were imported from Palestine.

Maadi craftsmen were already expert stone workers, and made stone vessels, mostly of black basalt, as well as spindle whorls (they were already weaving cloth), beads, some tools, conical mace heads, and stone palettes.

The Maadi people seem to have made rough limestone versions of these palettes locally, and imported more elegant examples in finer stone from the south. Flint technology focused on blades, in contrast to the core industry used earlier, and many tools imported from Palestine were found at the site. Other evidence of trade comes in the form of ivory combs brought from the south.

The Maadi people used significant amounts of copper, like their neighbours in Palestine, and the metal for both cultures probably came from the Sinai.



AQADA II: Back in Upper Egypt, the Nagada II period was one of accelerated change. 

Again, the main remains are mortuary, but important evidence for daily life comes from the town of Hierakonpolis (ancient Nekhen) on the west bank of the Nile about 40 miles south of the Qena Bend. Settled first in around 4000 BCE and occupied through to the Roman Period, this reached a peak in about 3500 BCE, at which time it was probably the largest town in Egypt. The predynastic remains here stretch for four km across the low desert. The site is rich in dwellings, industrial zones, and administrative buildings, and the earliest temple known from Egypt was found here.

At the edge of the predynastic town, an American expedition recently found the oldest standing house in Egypt, dating from about 3600 BCE. Well-preserved due to an accidental fire, this belonged to a potter who made cooking vessels at his kiln, only about five metres away. Semi-subterranean, it is rectangular and about four by 3.5 metres in size.

It was constructed of mud bricks in the lower parts with wooden posts hung with mats above. A mud platform inside held a hearth, and storage items were kept in a pot sunk into the floor. There seems to have been a porch or enclosure against one side of the house, and other buildings as well as animal pens formed part of the complex.

The kiln was a large circular platform of earth with eight to 10 shallow basins dug into it, where the fires to harden the pottery were set. It is likely that a spark from the kiln blew to the house, set it on fire, and burned it to the ground, destroying it for its owner but preserving it for us. An interesting note is the recovery of donkey bones from the animal pens, suggesting to the excavators that the potter may have traveled to sell his wares.

Also found at Hierakonpolis was the first industrial brewery in Egypt, in the form of huge vats for brewing over 300 gallons of beer a day. Egyptologists calculate that this would constitute the daily ration for over 200 people. It is also fascinating evidence for some sort of collective labour force, and indicates that a redistributive economy was in effect.

A new pottery style appears in Naqada II, in which elaborate images were painted in red on a cream background. This period saw an explosion in the working of various hard stones, with skilled craftsmen creating beautiful stone vessels. Cosmetic palettes became simpler in shape, but some were carved in relief. Mace heads became pear-shaped rather than discoid, and were clearly seen as symbols of power rather than simply as weapons. Copper was used for tools, and gold began to be used for luxury items. 

Social classes of high-ranking chieftains and skilled artisans exempted from subsistence work were clearly developing, and scholars believe that population centres were beginning to appear.



AQADA III: During the later Naqada II Period, the culture of Upper Egypt began to spread north until it had taken over the northern Maadi Culture entirely. 

The Nile Valley, particularly in the area close to the river, was dotted with a string of small villages and larger pseudo-urban centres. The inhabitants grew wheat and barley, flax, legumes, fruits such as watermelon and dates, and various vegetables. They herded cattle, goats, sheep and pigs, and kept dogs as pets. They also continued to eat lots of fish. Naqada and Hierakonpolis were joined by Abydos, later the burial place of the first kings of Egypt and the cult site of the god Osiris, to form the three main centres of population.

In the last phases of Egyptian prehistory, most Egyptians were farmers living in small villages, with urban centres beginning to coalesce. They practised simple basin irrigation to use the annual flood of the Nile to their best advantage. The chieftains, now really proto-kings, controlled huge agricultural surpluses.

The late predynastic settlement at Abydos lies at the edge of the floodplain, where a huge wadi leads deep into the desert. This is thought to have been a fairly extensive town, but unfortunately, it now lies under both the later town and the level of the modern groundwater.

Although no predynastic palaces have survived in the archaeological record, some scholars believe that their plans are reflected in mortuary architecture. One tomb at Abydos, perhaps belonging to a proto-king named Scorpion, has been convincingly interpreted by its excavator, Günter Dreyer, as a model dwelling, with the entrance leading to a transverse hall, then to a central hall. In an actual palace, this probably had a raised roof so that clerestory windows could let in light and air. 

To the left were storerooms, in which numerous jars inscribed with their contents and origins were found, and at the rear of the tomb were chambers corresponding to the private apartments. A separate entrance led to an area interpreted as either servants’ quarters or a kitchen.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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