What Predynastic Ceramics Tell Us About PrehistoricEgypt

At our July Meeting, Dr. Patricia Podzorski,the assistant curator of the Museum of Art and Archaeology of the Universityof Missouri, Columbia Campus at delivered a lecture on a "work in progress"study of predynastic pottery from three sites in the Thebaid excavatedby the Phoebe Hearst Expedition of the University of California, directedby George Reisner just after the turn of the century.

Dr. Podzorski reminded us that the even in thepredynastic era (the thousand year period from about 4000-3000 B.C.E. ±100 years) Egypt was marked by a geographical division of the country intothe Delta and the Valley of the Nile. The Valley of the Nile itself ismarked by two outstanding features, the cultivation area (those areas reachedby river water) and the desert. The culture of the Nile Valley was sharedwith those peoples inhabiting lower Nubia (the area just south of Aswan)as well.

Pottery finds from this culture are dated by "relativechronology", first established by Sir Flinders Petrie, which indicateswhich ceramics are older in a sequence and "absolute chronology" throughthe use of Carbon-14 dating. The chronology of this period is separatedinto four divisions: the Badarian at about 4000 B.C.E. and lasted about100 years; the Nagada I (Amratian) at 3900-2650 B.C.E., Nagada II (Gerzean)at 3650-3300 B.C.E. and finally the Nagada III (Samanian) at 3300-3100B.C.E.. This was an era of small kingdoms slowly coalescing into two largerkingdoms (Upper and Lower Egypt) and leading to the unification of thewhole country under Menes around 3100 B.C.E.

What is known from this period comes mainly fromburials. It was marked by settled agriculture with plants (emmer wheatand barley) coming from Southwest Asia, and animal husbandry with sheepand goats from Southwest Asia and cattle as the African part of the equation.Dwellings were wattle and daub. Flax was woven into linen clothing. Thematerial culture was marked by pottery; jewelry in carnelian, quartziteand azurite; reed basketry; tools and personal items were carved from wood,ivory and bone and fashioned from metal such as gold. silver and copper.Napped flint items such as knives were also produced. Stone vessels ina variety of hard (basalt or granite) and soft (limestone or calcite) stoneswere produced as well as figurines in clay and stone.

Ceramics are still designated by Petrie's classifi-cations(with modern additions). Red ware with black tops, red polished wares andwhite crossed-line pottery were characteristic of the Nagada I period.Wavy-handled jugs (of Syrio-Palestine origin) were imitated and red-lineddecorated wares were also produced.
The materials Dr. Podzorski studied are in thePhoebe Hearst Museum collection. These pieces along with the copious notesof Dr. Reisner and his assistants, and over 20,000 photographs from theexpeditions formed the basis for her study of these predynastic ceramics.Pottery from three sites were examined. El-Ahaiwah, Ballas and Shurafawere three plundered cemeteries in the Thebaid investigated by the expedition.The largest sampling comes from El-Ahaiwah, with 285 graves examined; Ballasprovided sample from 250 graves (some brick-lined); and the smallest samplingcame from Sharafa with only 31 graves.
In this corpus of material Dr. Podzorski foundsimilar but not identical pottery, marked in many instances by its composition.Three types clays were found in these ceramics: Nile silt (with temper[fragments of limestone] , straw or dung added ? which when fired oftenleaves voids [holes from burned out straw, dung, or evaporated water] marlclay, or mixed silt and marl. Pottery types included rough ware (R-ware)which was coarsely thrown or hand made, red-line painted pottery and wavy-handledware. These forms became streamlined over time becoming cylin der jars.Smooth hard wares were also produced from marl clay fabrics (S-ware). Thecylinder forms were produced in Nile silt, not marl clay.

El-Ahaiwah had the most samples. Net painted cylinderjars were pro-duced from Nile silts. These forms become shortened in NagadaIII and are produced in marl fabrics at Ballas. Some unusually tall formsappear at El-Ahaiwah.

Decorated wares (D-wares) show much variation,although they are quite rare. In Nagada II they are decorated from topto bottom. Ten design types have been identified by Dr. Podzorski fromEl-Ahaiwah and Ballas; there are no D-ware samples from Sharafa. The arc,splotch and squiggle are typical of the Nagada II while in the Nagada IIIsix designs predominate com-posed of circles, spirals, dots and wavy lines.The wavy lines were the most popular. Bars, usually in sets of three, werepopular at both El-Ahaiwah and Ballas. Dots in the form of ovals or roundsalso formed part of the decorating scheme. The Comma line form runs verticallyat Ballas but horizontally at El-Ahaiwah. In the Nagada III period thedecoration was curtailed largely to the upper half of the ceramic withno rim decoration.

Pot marks in ink are rare; incised lines are morecommon. Few exist on ceramics from the Nagada II but about ten percentof the samples from the Nagada III have incised marks.
The Nile silt jars are roughly made and seemto be home-made products. The marl clays seem to be made by specialistsand distributed widely as early as the Nagada I period. Representationsof figures are more common in Nagada II than in Nagada III. The fabriccompositions remain the same in Nagada III, but with less decoration.

The painting styles vary at each site but theceramic composition appears to be the same. Dr. Podzorski notes that thisraises some interesting issues for further study. Were these pots madeat one location and then painted locally? Do the presence of pre-firingmarks indicated that potters were working together and needed to separatetheir materials or are the marks needed for distribution purposes? Aredifferences in decorated wares indicative of a frontier?

These ceramic wares are found solely in mortuarycontexts. The contents of these pots are questionable. Some of the cylinderjars contained only mud and ash. One common feature at the three siteswere the placement of these jars in the graves.

  • Nancy Corbin
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