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The Unification of Egypt: A View From A Backwater Town

8 January 2007

Dr. Patricia Podzorski is currently Curator of Egyptian Art at the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology and Associate Graduate Faculty in the Department of Art at the University of Memphis, in Memphis Tennessee.

 Dr. Podzorski opened her lecture with a review of the history of ancient Egypt prior to unification and advised that she would be talking not about elite Egyptians, but rather about the everyday people who inhabited Egypt just before, during and just after unification. She further noted that this first unification of Egypt was one of the most important socio-political events in Egypt’s history.  It brings to mind the well known Chinese adage, “may you live in interesting times”, for the unification which created the ancient Egypt we know, was certainly an “interesting time.” Whether individuals considered this “interesting time” a blessing or a curse, of course depended on how that individual was impacted personally.

 Egypt, located in the northeast corner of the African continent, was the only land route between western Asia and Africa.  The Nile River, which is navigable for much of its length, allowed interaction between these two evolving regions.

Egypt’s climate has changed quite radically over the last 11,000 years.  Between 9,000BC and 7500BC Egypt’s climate was wet and rainy.  For the next several millennia, the climate gradually dried until perhaps 4000BC, with the period between 5200BC and 3900BC the most severe drought phase. By the Predynastic period the climate was semi-arid and the landscape was savannah, with a wild animal population which included such creatures as lions, ostriches, gazelles, and elephants.Egypt is made up of two basic regions – the desert and the Nile river valley.  Beyond the river, the climate shifted over thousands of years from desert, to savannah, and back to desert.  Known to the ancients as “dšrt” (deshret), the “red land”, it was hot, dry and often hostile, but rich in natural resources such as gold, semi-precious and hard stones, and proved to be an ideal place for burying the dead.  The river valley, called by the ancient Egyptians, “kmt” (kemet) – the “black land”, was a fertile, well watered, alluvial plain full of animal and plant life which could sustain farming year round.  The river was Egypt’s only permanent source of water. When the river flooded between July and November, the waters brought rich silt to the flood plain.

This ancient land offered a wealth of resources which fostered the emerging nation.  Wild and riverine animals such as hippos, crocodiles, fish, water foul and small mammals all provided food.  Lions, wild cattle, giraffes, elephants and antelope lived on the savannah.  Domestic animals, most of western Asian origin, facilitated a pastoral life – goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, dogs and donkeys. Cattle, which may have been domesticated in north Africa, became especially important when the tax system was based on the size of ones herd. 

An abundance of plants, both wild and domesticated, were utilized by early Egyptians.  Reeds like papyrus were used for making paper and constructing light water craft, grasses were woven into baskets and wood from trees such as the acacia and sycamore fig were used for furniture, and building.  More exotic woods such as ebony and cedar were imported from Africa and Asia.  Wheat and barley, both domesticated in southwest Asia, grew well and abundantly in Egypt.  Fruits and vegetables, both native and imported added to the variety of food stuffs.  Flax, from which linen is made, was a particularly important crop, being the primary source of fiber for weaving fabric.

Local stone – sandstone, limestone, alabaster, granite, etc, was critical to building and Egypt had them in abundance.  Gemstones, both local and imported, provided unlimited options for embellishment.  Metals such as copper, gold, and lead, were available in the Egyptian desert and the Sinai.  Malachite, galena, and ochre were uses in making both paint and cosmetics.  Natron, a naturally occurring salt/soda mineral became of critical importance for ritual cleansing and mummification.

As a part of Africa, where there has been human habitation for as long as humans have existed, Egypt was a logical place for settlement.  The earliest evidence of humans are stone tools found along the Nile Valley from Cairo to Khartoum, which date to the Acheulean (part of the Paleolithic) Period – 300,000-100,000BC. 

As climate patterns shifted with the withdrawal of the glaciers, during which, as has already been noted, there was a period of greater moisture, followed by a gradual drying, a new archaeological period – the Epipaleolithic – emerged in northeast Africa.  It was a period of growing cultural complexity, and can be tracked through the changes which evolved in stone tool technology.  During these changing periods, people moved into and out of the Sahara, into and out of the Nile Valley and back and forth between southwest Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.  With these movements of people came the movement of ideas, objects and technologies. 

During the period known as the Predynastic, the climate was wetter than it is today, and the culture in Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta) shared many elements with that of extreme southwestern Asia.  The ancient remains in the Delta are mostly habitation sites (towns).  In Upper Egypt and Sudan (including ancient Nubia) the cultures were more similar to each other than to the Delta and the ancient remains are mostly mortuary sites (cemeteries).

The beginning of agriculture in Egypt can be traced to about 5000BC where there is evidence of farming in both the Nile Delta and the Faiyum.  Between about 5300BC and 4000BC goats and sheep as well as domesticated wheat and barley make their appearance in these locations; however, it was perhaps a thousand years later (circa 4000BC) before domestic food production began in Upper Egypt.

The “Predynastic” as a recognizable cultural phase follows the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic in north Africa and appears first in Upper Egypt.  The precise time is debated by archaeologists, with proposed dates ranging from 5000BC, to 4800BC, to 4000BC.

The first person to create a relative chronology for the Predynastic period was William Matthew Flinders Petrie who developed a scheme for classifying and identifying each type of ceramic vessel encountered.  His typology, using fabric, decoration and date, established nine classes which are still in use by many Egyptologists today.  He defined the following:

·         C Ware – white cross-line, typical of the Amratian period, made from Nile silt

·         D Ware – decorated ware, typical of the Gerzean & Semainean periods, made from marl clay

·         B Ware – black-topped-red ware from all periods in the Predynastic but becoming rare toward the end of the period

·         P Ware – Polished red ware, from all periods made of both Nile silt and marl clay

·         W Ware – Wavy handled ware, which first appeared in the mid Gerzean & was made from marl clay

·         F Ware – Fancy ware, from all periods of the Predynastic, made of both fabrics

·         N Ware – incised black or Nubian ware, from various periods

·         R Ware – rough ware, crudely made from Nile silt during all periods

·         L Ware – late ware, which appeared during the Gerzean and continued later into the Predynastic period

Relative chronologies based on pottery are possible because the forms and styles of pottery vessels change over time. It can be assumed that a group of pots found together in one grave probably date to the same time.  By comparing the groups, or assemblages, of pots from many different graves, Petrie developed a seriation – sequences or series of pots – where relatively older forms were distinguished from relatively younger forms.

More recently, modern scientific methods such as carbon-14 have been used to give absolute dates to the Predynastic. In Egypt the time periods of the Predynastic are known for the following names which equate to locations where ancient material has been found.  The dates are those which will be used in this presentation.

·         Badarian – ca. 4500-3950BC

·         Naqada Ia-IIb – ca. 3950-3650BC (Amratian)

·         Naqada IIc-IId2 – ca. 3650-3300BC (Gerzean)

·         Naqada IIIa-IIIb – ca. 3300-3050BC (Semainean - sometimes referred to as Dynasty “0”)

·         Naqada IIIc-IIId – 3050 to perhaps 2500BC, also known as Dynasties, 1 through 4

The Badarian period is named after a site where their remains were first detected – el Badari, in Middle Egypt. The inhabitants were subsistence pastoralists or may have engaged in an early form of agriculture, perhaps growing wheat and/or barley.  Hemamieh was a large Badarian village was which was occupied into the Naqada II period and later.  Artifacts from this period were found in tombs and at habitation sites, and consist predominately of pottery, cosmetic palettes – narrow rectangles with notched ends – amulets, beads, stone tools and figurines – both male and female.  Badarian’s made pottery of several types but the most typical are: ripple-burnished vessels finished with slip and often black topped; red-polished ware finished with red slip; and rough ware.  All of the Badarian pottery was made from Nile silt.  The Badarians buried their dead in a flexed position, laid on a reed mat and perhaps covered with an animal skin or linen cloth.  Grave goods consisted of pottery and perhaps a few other items such as a cosmetic palette.  The materials from which these palettes are made came from the Eastern Desert, so it would appear that some form of trade was going on during this period.

Naqada I-IIa, the next earliest phase of the Predynastic, was first identified by Flinders Petrie and James Quibell as the Amratian period.  It is attested in both Middle and Upper Egypt at sites such as Naga-ed-Der, Ballâs South, Naqada Southtown and Heirakonpolis.  Its inhabitants were early agriculturists.  The most common artifact left by the people of this period is pottery, found in both burials and at habitation sites.  Stone vessels became more common during this period, although not in great numbers.  Cosmetic palettes of a distinctive diamond shape, beads made of such materials as carnelian, steatite and garnet, amulets, figurines, stone tools and stone weapons, specifically disk shaped mace heads made from diorite, all survive from the Naqada I-IIa period. 

C-Ware – White cross-line - is considered to by typical pottery of the Naqada I-IIa period. It is not the most common type but its use was restricted in time to this period.  It is made from Nile silt with a red slip and painted designs in white which are strongly geometric.Other pottery types found during this period include black-topped-red ware, rough ware and red polished ware, all made from Nile silt as well.

Naqada I-IIa people buried their dead in a flexed position and, as with the Badarians, laid on a reed mat and covered with or wrapped in linen cloth and perhaps an animal skin.  The number of grave goods in Naqada I-IIa burials varies in number – some with few, others with many.  As in the previous period, pottery and cosmetic palettes are readily evident as grave goods. Also as earlier, materials for cosmetic palettes came from the Eastern Desert, as did garnet, so trade/barter clearly continued.

The disparity in grave goods during this period likely reflects a growing social hierarchy and an identifiable social stratification.  The presence of high status, elite burials is indicated by the quality and quantity of the grave goods. Additionally sometimes these elite graves were located in a separate section in the cemeteries, with Hierakonpolis possibly being the first to have established such an elite cemetery.  Toby Wilkinson has theorized that the powerful elites had arisen at Abydos, Abadiya, Naqada and Hierakonpolis, by the late Naqada I period.

The next (middle) phase of the Predynastic, the Naqada IIb-IId period, was first identified by Petrie and Quibell, and dubbed the Gerzean period by them.  During this period the culture expanded out of Middle and Upper Egypt toward Lower Egypt and Nubia. The inhabitants were fully dependent on agriculture and clustered around large and important settlement sites. The people of the Naqada IIb-IId period left us pottery, stone vessels, cosmetic palettes, beads, amulets, figurines, stone tools and weapons, and metal tools.  The pottery from this period is predominately D Ware, B ware, W ware and Rough ware. Pottery and cosmetic palettes, now in animal forms such as double bird heads, elephants and fish, continued to be the most common grave goods, and food offerings seem to have been included. 

D-Ware – Decorated - is considered to be typical of the Naqada IIb-IId period.Again, the type is not the  most common. Designs in red pigment are painted on light colored pottery made from marl clay rather than dark Nile silt.  The motifs do not continue the geometric style of the C-Ware, although they are somewhat abstract.  Human and animals forms are presented as simple silhouettes.

Naqada IIb-IId burials are almost identical to those of the two preceding periods, however the size of many graves increased and the shape of the graves was regularized into a rectangle.  By this period the elite members of the society were being buried in separate cemeteries at large sites such as This, Abydos and Hierakonpolis.  In Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis was found the earliest known painted tomb decoration (now lost).  It contained a series of scenes that included smiting scenes and boats similar to those found painted on D Ware jars.  

The Naqada IIb-IId people had access to trade goods from a large part of western Asia by this period – material for palettes from the Eastern Desert, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, obsidian from Turkey, copper ores and turquoise from the Sinai. Dr. Wilkinson theorized that there were only three major power centers in this period – Abydos, Naqada and Hierakonpolis.

The Naqada IIIa-IIIb period, designated by Petrie as the Semainean, saw the culture fully established from the Delta through Upper Egypt.  The period has sometimes been called “Dynasty 0,” as objects with serekhs holding the names of rulers appeared during this period.  The population was fully dependent on agriculture, with large, important settlements controlling and regulating society. In addition to major centers of the former period, Qustul in Nubia emerged as an important center.  Artifacts left by the Naqada IIIa-IIIb peoples include pottery, stone vessels, cosmetic palettes, beads, amulets, figurines, stone tools and weapons and metal tools.  D Ware pottery evolved new designs, W ware developed into cylinder jars, Rough ware continued to be used for utilitarian purposes, and a smooth ware (known as S Ware), made from hard marl clay and often used for storage jars, became common.  Burials during this period followed the pattern established during the earlier Naqada periods but the sizes of the rectangular graves increased yet again.  A new tomb form, the side chamber or recessed chamber tomb made its appearance during the Naqada IIIa period and continued into the Dynastic period.  As was previously observed, the quantity and quality of grave goods varied in accordance with the social status of the deceased.  Pottery and cosmetic palettes continued to be the predominate offering, with most palettes being simple geometric shapes, but with a few extraordinary pieces – such as the jackal-shaped palette in the Phoebe Hearst Museum collection – found in some elite graves.  Trade with the Eastern Desert as well as western Asia continued, and gold from Nubia became more abundant.  By the early Naqada III period there were probably only two major power centers in Egypt – This/Abydos and Hierakonpolis.  Naqada had probably been absorbed into This/Abydos.

The Naqada IIIc1-IIIc2 period is synonymous with the beginning of Dynasty 1. Naqada IIIc appears to correspond with the initial unification of Egypt under a single ruler and which continued into the IIId. Cylinder jars, Smooth ware, and Rough ware were all in common use, but decorated ware slowly disappeared from the archaeological assemblage.  Cosmetic palettes decreased in number but a few rare and extraordinary pieces, such as the Narmer Palette, were found in ceremonial and/or religious contexts indicating a transition or perhaps an expansion in use and purpose.  The most common burials used in this period followed a form similar to earlier Naqada periods, with a few, rare, ceramic coffins making an appearance.  Most graves contained only a small number of goods. Few burials contained elaborate greave assemblages.

Dr. Podzorski then discussed the specific archaeological evidence from northern cemetery at Ballâs, and traced the transitions that occurred throughout the Naqada and into the early dynastic periods as reflected at this site.  This cemetery was excavated by the University of California Egyptian Expedition funded by Phoebe A. Hearst and directed by George A. Reisner.  The work was conducted by Albert M. Lythgoe between 25 December 1900 and the end of January 1901. The northern cemetery at Ballâs was located on a wide gravel terrace some distance from the limestone cliffs to the west. 250 graves were excavated in three primary areas.  About 80% of the burials at this site date from Naqada III, including part of Dynasty I, and the remaining 20% date from Naqada I and II.  The oldest remains were found in the eastern section of the cemetery.  The Khôr section produced graves dating to the mid-to-late Naqada I through II periods, and some of the richest graves came from this section which may identify it as the elite burial ground at Ballâs.  The northwestern section of the cemetery contained the latest burials found at north Ballâs, dating from late Naqada II through Naqada IIIc. 

The Naqada I and IIa graves are the earliest found and only a handful have been identified from this period. They are irregular, roundish, with either a single or multiple burials in each pit.  Typical grave goods include diamond and animal-shaped palettes, red polished and black-topped-red pottery jars and bowls.  Tomb B17, for example, contained the remains of a man and a child as well as a small fish palette, a hippo palette, red polished and black-topped-red pottery and a comb under the hand of the adult male.

The Naqada IIb-IId tombs at Ballâs are larger, generally oval or sub-rectangular in shape and often include multiple interments.  Pottery buried with these individuals includes red painted marl clay vessels (D Ware), Wavy handled wares, storage jars, cosmetic palettes in more complex forms, and a variety of other objects.  Tomb B4 is an example of a smaller grave of the period.  It contained a Decorated ware jar, two Rough ware jars, two Rough ware bowls and a boat model painted with red and blue stripes on the exterior and with a hollow interior fitted with a hole in the center to support a mast, perhaps.

Naqada IIIa1 is a transitional period which is difficult to distinguish from Naqada IId2. The principle differences involve changes in pottery types and styles and the emergence of side chambers in a few tombs.

During Naqada IIIa2 graves had a regular, rectangular shape. Side chamber tombs occurred but never frequently.  Multiple burials became rare.  Typical pottery offerings included marl clay storage jars, slipped and burnished bowls, and cylinder jars with varied linear decoration around the upper shoulder and neck.  Palettes are mostly simple geometric shapes with an occasional notable exception. For example, Tomb B222 contained, in addition to the remains of the deceased, a lion palette, small marl clay jars, and storage jars made from Nile silt.

Naqada IIIb is represented at Ballâs by burials which contained predominately cylinder jars, smooth orange storage jars, and cosmetic palettes in simple geometric forms.   A new ceramic form appeared during this period – the offering stand or tray table, which was the precursor to the later alabaster offering tables which appear in early dynastic and Old Kingdom tombs and offering scenes.

Naqada IIIc and later NIIIb saw a notable decrease in the amount of grave goods. Those goods which were included with burials are often plain.  A new form of globular jar did appear during this period.

Having looked at the tombs at north Ballâs which date from the early and late Predynastic, Dr. Podzorski noted some statistics of interest.











1/53 – 13/53

1/53 – 8/53

1/53 – 8/53














1-6 –(more in late NII than in early Nll)

1-6 (greater early)

Fewer than in earlier periods


·          Frequency - simple count of number of objects in each tomb.

·          Diversity - compares the range of types in each tomb against a standard list of 53 elements for the cemetery as a whole.

Dr. Podzorski noted the following conclusions:

·         The cemeteries in north Ballâs showed a steady increase in the quantity, variety and diversity of grave goods.  This trend began in the late Naqada I, continued into the Naqada II and through the end of Naqada IIIa2.

·         The early Naqada IIIb seems to have continued the trend for a larger number of grave goods, but diversity and variety declined.  A critical shift began in the late Naqada IIIB and continued into Naqada IIIc.  By the end of the Naqada III period – early into the Dynastic period – the diversity and richness of grave goods reached the lowest levels recorded for this site.

·         The presence of many smaller and less well furnished graves along with a few large, rich graves demonstrates the development of local elites early in the Naqada II period, thus demonstrating at least two social levels reflected in the cemetery.

·         Naqada IIIa2 (Dynasty “0”) had a few graves with unusual features which, again, points to local elites.

·         Based on dating of the ceramics from the northern cemetery at Ballâs, it was in use during Dynasty 1.

·         Per Wilkinson, social conditions during the Naqada II period allowed for the development of cemeteries reserved fro local elites.  The Khôr cemetery at Ballâs, which contained some of the most unusual grave goods (cylinder seal, large clay model boat, ripple-flaked knife) may represent a local expression of this phenomena.

·         Wilkinson also proposed that the polity centered at Abydos/This had eclipsed the group centered at Naqada (which is closest to Ballâs) by the Naqada IIIa period.  At the northern cemetery at Ballâs, the largest tomb at the site, which dates to Naqada IIIa2, contained a brick lining, which would seem to indicate that a local elite was present and effective at Ballâs at the time.

·         Grave goods were diminishing in the Naqada IIIb period, and by Naqada IIIc – the period which equates with the emergence of Dynasty 1 - it is clear that this was a trend.  This may reflect a central authority gaining tight control over elite commodities, the elimination of local elites, or of elites being drawn away from their home regions to live, die and be buried closer to the new source of power – the king.

From the early to the late Predynastic period we have seen an increase in social, political, technological and cultural complexity all of which contributed to a change in social structure and the emergence of an elite, probably ruling class as evidenced by the establishment of elite cemeteries and the small number of individuals buried in larger and larger tombs with very large funerary assemblages. By this time rulers may well have been considered at least semi-divine.  The ultimate conclusion of this evolving system was the unification of Egypt under a single, very powerful king.