Dawn of Egyptian Culture
Predynastic period 3.500 - 3.100 BC. By Ottar Vendel
The Earliest Cultures
South and North
The 42 provinces
The first fragments of "real" humans and an organized society are from Qadan (250 km south of Aswan) and date back to circa 13.000 to 9.000 BC. and have the first cemeteries with ritual burials.
A rudimentary agriculture is shown from all grinding stones and the great number of sickles. In some places fishing is decreasing since the cereal culture, possibly barley, plus hunting (the area by the Nile were then a savannah) gave a sufficient level of feeding.
Then, due to a slow change into a drier climate, agriculture was decreasing, and sickles are found more seldom. The fight for fertile land was then a fact for the inhabitants in the Nile Valley and in around 6.000 BC they organized themselves in tribes to protected their possessions. The small semi nomading groups of hunters and fishermen began to be stationary in villages and after the adoption of the "modern" agriculture in around 5.000 BC (like working together on irrigation projects etc), the base to the coming high culture was ready and the key word was - spare time. This was gained when the Nile was flooding and a good harvest didn't make it necessary to gather food and cattle breeding made hunting not a necessety. Some centers based on agriculture and some hunting/fishing grew to quite a substantial size, like the one excavated in the 1930s at Merimde.
At approximately the same time communities were developing by other rivers like Indus in today's India/Pakistan and the much closer by Eufrat and Tigris in Mesopotamia the place for the coming high culture of Sumeria. (See the history table for the region).
Archaeology in Egypt has revealed habitats (map at upper right) which had their own typical pottery, tools, weapons, burial customs etc. The cultures at the middle Egyptian town of Badari and a couple of minor at the southern delta, lived their own lives until the advanced civilization from the southern town of Nagada started to spread northwards. After almost a millennium it had reached up to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and wiped out the local cultures at Maadi and Omari which until then had influences from the region of today's southern Palestine.
The two geographical parts (southern - Upper, and northern - Lower Egypt) thus had a basically common culture just prior to unification. Some differences however were to a great extent preserved, like local gods and symbols, which had originated in the around forty small tribe areas (later to be Egyptian provinces) which were spread along both banks of the Nile.
Very important, not to say essential factors for creating this first national state in history were their common language and the developing of a writing system.
The two cultures
Prior to the unification in about 3.200 BC. the two main cultures in the north and south were clearly visible. They had different kings wearing different crowns and their main gods were worshipped in temples of a quite different style. The pottery in the north showed influences from the area of Palestine and Syria and in the south new designs were coming from Sumeria in the east such as cylinder seals to make impressions in clay. The north adopted a new architectural design in brickwork and began to make tomb buildings in a rectangular form (mastabas) with walls having fancy recesses, and this was also a cultural inport coming from the Sumerian culture. In the south the tombs for the upper classes did not change and were crude building hardly above ground i an elaborated traditional tribe style from the past.
Contradict to this is the depiction on the other side of the knife handle where a standing man holding two lions is dressed in a typically old Baby- lonian fashion with a long robe and a turban. He is wearing a full beard, and this is clearly not Egyptian. In about 1900 scholars made up the theory that invaders had penetrated the valley coming through the mountains from the Red Sea 120 km to the east, arriving right at the cradle of culture in Upper Egypt. How, and by what means they had transported themselves all the way from Sumeria wasn't quite clear, but this was yesterday's try to explain the culture influences from the east. This hypothesis is now aban-doned and the "invasion theory" has been changed to culture impulses made by trade. An influx of people (settlers) from the East, in a small scale, might have occurred, but physical evidence to back up this theory has not come up.
The beginning of History
In general the word "historical" means when a culture has developed a pictographic way of recording events and persons. In that sense Egypt's history began in about 3.200 BC when the first hieroglyphic writings come to light on small labels of wood and ivory.
The options are two: writing can in the earliest times have been made on material that has decayed, or the system has been imported from abroad. No traces outside or inside Egypt can confirm any of these suggestions.
Other ways of recording things is by sculpturing. From the primitive figures of wood, bone and clay appearing in tombs from about 4.500 BC (like the figurine above), next step was to master stone as stuff for artifacts. Cosmetic palettes (for creating eye shadowing make up) from graves were with time made in different shapes and pictures of animals and humans on them became more common.
There are a few outstanding remains in early stone sculpture but one exeption is the two colossi of the fertility god later to be Min which were found at Coptos. In these early days the god was shown as a bearded man without any hair (bald or possibly with his head shaven). Several small figurines looking like this have been found in tombs and in the temple yard at Hierakonpolis, an old fortified town in Upper Egypt built on an island in the Nile. The finds are dated to a few centuries prior to dynasty one in 3.200 BC.
A famous sculpture and with a similar look is a well preserved black stone sculpture now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford known as the Mac Gregor man.
These two examples show that handling and forming hard stone was well known even a couple of generations prior to the first dynasty.
In the 1890s some remarkable finds were made at the old town of Nekhen, called Hierakonpolis (Falcon City) by the Greeks. It was situated 140 km south of today’s Luxor (yesterday's Thebes) and placed upon a rocky plateau 400 m out in the flood plain from the western bank of the Nile, which made it easy to defend during the flooding season when it was surrounded by water. The foundations and remains of a royal palace told that this was the place where the earliest kings had resided. Under the ground outside the temple was a cache containing lots of remains from the earliest pharaohs, and it was obviously brought her for safe keeping from the cemetery at Abydos up north and possibly some other royal burial ground not yet found. Among the finds were several figures of clay, ceramics, ivory, stone and bone (picture below) and some types (possibly local) were never to be seen again in Egyptian art after the start of the first dynasty.
Some small figures made of ivory depicted a god with a broad beard and sometimes a helmet like cap on his head. He might be the god of fertility - Min, at least in the version with a bald head (see "Nagada" by the picture atop). If the female figurines are early prototypes for later goddesses is not known, but the sleeve-less cloak around one of them (above) is very unusual. (See the link "old king" in the text of king Ka below).
Extensive investigations starting in 2002 have revealed a lot about this oldest royal temple in Egypt, the Hierakonpolis center. It went through at least three big changes (enlargements) during the time prior to the union of the countries in around 3.200 BC. In the cemetery of the elite has been found quite elaborated tombs with offerings dating back as long as 3.700 BC. This unex-pected fact gives a time span which is half a millenium longer than previous estimated.
Where did the Egyptians come from?
Thousands of examinations over the years of skeletal remains from graves give the fact that the ancient Egyptians (as well as the present population) belonged to the so called Mediterranean type of the Caucasian people.
During the Natufian time around 12 000 years BC the way of making stone flakes for implements (Microburin technique) was very alike in northern Egypt and the area south of the Dead Sea in Palestine. Furthermore, an exchange of people is also confirmed through archaeology. Also dwellings like round huts partly dug into the ground are similar for these areas.
The influx of people to Egypt over the last 2.000 years has just slightly effected the bulk of the population, and scholars believe that the human stock of today is very much the same as it was in ancient times.
The complexion gets darker when going southwards, following the intensity of the sun, but without any changes towards Negroid looks. Regrettably nonsens about the origins of the Egyptians is today frequently spread through television, but a fact is that Egyptians (now and then) are not ralated to black sub-Saharans.
Thus the genetic laboratories of the Egyptian Museum and University of Cairo could in 2010 prove in consensus, that king Tutankhamon was of the West European DNA type R1b, which has no connection at all to black Africans or Asians.
The ancient Egyptians were in general slim hipped with rather broad shoulders and oval faces was in majority. They depicted themselves with long straight noses from the earliest times through portraits made in later periods. (Pictures right are from 1.500 and 3.200 BC).
The women hardly never got plump and had no tendency to a large behind like their black sisters further south did. Their hair color was usually black to dark brown.
More light skinned individuals were present especially in the coastal area west of the Nile delta among the Libyan tribes (see below).
Considering the homogeneity of the people a fair assumption is that most of the Egyptians have entered the Nile Valley from the north (and from the now gone savannas west of the river) and spread to the Red Sea in the east. In the south they stopped at the cataract of Aswan, where the fruitful shores of mud ended and were replaced by cliffs. This point was for thousands of years the natural lower border of Egypt, separating them from the black inhabitants further south by a vast stretch of wasteland.
Geography and climate
The first "cultural" remains found are, at the earliest, from around 13,000 BC. These traces are too few for making conclusions about those who left them. When the annual floods with its fertilizing mud started grass began to grow by the shores and hunters had possibility to get prey, and this did not begin to an extent until after the latest Ice Age as recent as around 8,000 BC.
The eastern part of today's Egypt is just the sterile Sahara desert. Archaeology has shown that long before and during the Later Stone Age (neoliticum, beginning around 6.000 B.C.) people lived here as hunters and had a type of culture which to a big part was very similar to the one by the Nile (Hoffman: Egypt Before the Pharaohs" 1979).
Furthermore, ancient rock art in the western mountains show hunters, pray and dometicated ani- mals, but the lack of dwelling and tombs makes it all difficult to date the single remains. Scholars estimate within a span of 10.000 to 3.000 years BC. Nontheless this clearly indicates that this region which then was a savannah, provided the Nile Valley with immigrants and possibly vice versa. As late as during the Old Kingdom these so called "sand dwellers" (Egyptian name) were many enough to disurb the state by the Nile which had to take military actions against them bringing back prisoners and live stock to Egypt.
In the ealiest days the people by the Nile were hunters too, but had additional skills compared to their neighbors in the deserts. They were used to water and used boats and rafts, could catch fowl, fish and hunted game like crocodiles and hippos.
In around 5,000 B.C. agriculture came to the Nile Valley and the population increased considerably. By this time the region had rain falls making the desert areas now flanking the river a grass land feeding animals like buffaloes, giraffes, gazelles, and present were also the feline predators lions and cheetas. Then the climate constantly got drier and at the beginning of dynastic times most of the big grass eaters were extinct. By 2,000 years BC rain falls did appear just occasion-ally and the nomads in the western savannas were the first ones to abandon their hunting grounds. Activities (like small scale agriculture) was from now on possible only in the big oases. To maintain the food supply (crops) the Egyptians had to store and transport water from the river and this could only be done through canal- and dam building in a huge scale. An firm organization was needed to realize this and the centralized power was established since the original tribe areas and their chiefs were inadequate in size to perform such a great task themselves.
The Eastern Mountains towards the Red Sea probably never had any vast grass areas like the western regions did. Living conditions here were more suitable for small live stock breeding with animals like goats and sheep. Pictorial remains from the inhabitants are remarkably many, and new ones are found by hundreds every year today (2007). These pictures have a significant and common motif which is lacking in the mountains west of the Nile - boats.
This area seems to have been fairly occupied at least until the end of the Old Kingdom. Thereafter the mountaineers probably got fewer and are not mentioned specifically in hieroglyphic texts any more. The Egyptian name meaning "easterners" (see text by the picture above) was used also to designate peoples coming from Asia, mostly those from the Middle East region.
The "real" Egyptians were the farmers by the Nile with their high and developed culture, and they always considered themselves a separate people from their close neighbors though we can assume that they shared the same language. These relatives disturbed the Egyptian trade routs through robbery etc. and this was the main reason for hostility between these cousins.
The Egyptian army was constantly kept alert by maintaining security for their export and import passing these areas. The Egyptian (slightly degrading) name for inhabitants here was "mountain dwellers" an analogue to the people in Sahara westbound being called "sand dwellers".
The Egyptian Eye Paint
The Sumerian connection
The scene on a knife handle mentioned above shows two types of boats. The ones with a high prows are believed to be from the northern delta - Lower Egypt - and made of papyrus. The Egyptians living there called their country "Ta-mehu", the land of the papyrus.
The others boats have their origin in southern - Upper Egypt - "Ta-schema", the land of the reed, and seem to be partly made of wood. The cabins are different too as shown in the "painted grave" from Hierakonpolis (see picture in chapter "The historical records" below).
The high prowed boats also occur in Sumeria but there is no evidence that they were brought to the Nile Valley by invaders or even was a cultural import for that matter, because the reed/papyrus material simply make this the only practical way of constructing such a boat.
At the beginning of the 1900's archaeologists examined the skeletal remains of the earliest graves and found that the remains of the ruling class" indicated that they might have been of heavier stature than the Egyptians in general. This was the ground for the belief that these had come from outside the country.
Evidence of cultural influence from Sumeria before the unification is proven, but genetic influence to a notable extent is not.
The newcomers were believed to have brought a falcon god into Egypt and were called after him - "The followers of Horus". The physical statures of the oldest kings are not known, but remains and depictions of those from dynasties 0-4 tell that some were heavy-built with broad faces, but variations within the families were frequent.
The most significant influence from Sumeria was the facade of the royal palace. This was an insignia for the king, depicted in a stylized way and called a "serek". It came into use before dynasty 1, as did the new style of mud brick masonry in northern Egypt used in the mastaba-tombs.
Hieroglyphs - and Egyptian writing
An essential factor for the cultural development in the Nile valley was the invention of writing. This made it possible to pass knowledge to the next generation. The origin of the signs (known by their Greek name - hieroglyphs) is still a mystery and the grammatical system was complete already in the first dynasty without a trace of any developing stages. A theory is that it all had been brought to Egypt from outside, but this has not been confirmed. One possibility is that the earliest writing was made on material now totally decayed, but this is naturally hard to prove.
Over the years around 1,200 signs have been detected with a core of around 800 from which a selection of around 100 were more frequently in use.
When the Roman era was going towards its end a couple of hundred years AC the knowledge of hieroglyphs also came to an end and all writings on buildings, papyrus manuscripts etc became totally illegible. This would however, be restored some 1,500 years later starting in the year 1798 when a French military expedition invaded Egypt for both eco-political and cultural reasons.
Besides the troops there were 500 civilians scientists and engineers, geologists, painters and others. They constructed canals, made maps, documented temples, mummies, tombs and all interesting they found in this new culture. They noticed that almost everything from simple hand tools to large buildings were decorated with pictures of birds, flowers, people, frogs and many other things which were placed in rows or columns. This was the first organized attempt to pass the knowledge about them to Europe, and it was made by a man of great farseeing who was chief of the expedition. He was 29 years old and due to his ability in mathematics and leadership he had graduated as an officer of artillery at the age of 16 and got the rank of general at 24.
In a few yars he would be famous in European politics and known in history by just his first name - Napoleon.
It was covered with inscriptions in Egyptian using traditional hieroglyphs and a "short- hand" type called demotic plus Greek by their alphabet (picture right).
French scientists participating in the expe- dition could read the Greek part at once and it was a religious decree from the priests of Memphis (the capital) giving divine honors to their pharaoh Ptolmaios V, who ruled in Egypt between 205 and 180 B.C.
A fair assumption was now made that the content of the three texts was identical, and if so, it was a golden opportunity to descript the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.
A complete solution was now at hand and just a matter of time, and it should take - 23 years.
The French troops surrendered to the British two years later, and the stone was brought to London in the fall of 1802.
The best French linguist had been studying copies of the texts for some years but without any progress, and handed over the task the same year to a Swedish diplomat by the name David Åkerblad. He was an orientalist and linguistic genius who mastered (among others) the dead Coptic language, classic Greek and historical writing systems. He could within just a couple of months(!) make astonishing pro- gress by correcty identifying all personal names in the demotic section, like Ptolmaios, Cleopatra, Alexander, Berenike, Arsinoë plus the words "Alexandria", “Greek", "Egyptian" and "temple". His results also clearly showed that Coptic (in which the text was written) was a direct descendant of the dead Egyptian which could help to reconstruct old and lost sounds from the Nile Valley. For this purpose he made a list of 29 demotic letters which (later would show) rightly gave the sound values from 15 of them. This was a breakthrough which should turn out to be of great importance in breaking the code of the hieroglyphs.
Now the expectations from the public for a fast solution were high, but remarkably nothing of importance was achieved for almost two decades, though publications frequently came where the authors wrongly claimed they have solved the problem. Doing so would surely generate fame of historical proportions, and this fact made all sorts of scientists eager to win the race.
Seventeen years later (in 1819) the English polymath Thomas Young wrote an article where he claimed to have found all hieroglyphic letters. Through using them he had identified the name Ptolmaios from the Rosetta Stone.
He followed his own odd theory that all foreign names were written only with hieroglyphs having a sound value (letters), and Egyptian ones with ideograms (signs standing for ideas), but this should later turn out to be wrong. Consequently the scholars working according to this principle hit a dead end and further progress was halted for them.
One person who suspected the old Egyptian grammatical pat- tern to be quite different was the French linguist and librarian Jean-François Champollion.
He was a 29 years old teacher at the University of Grenoble and had worked with the hieroglypic riddle in periods for over ten years but had made few publications on the issue.
After reading Young's article he noticed that find-ing even a few sound values was no doubt a step forward, but far from the solution of the grammatical pattern of the Egyptian language. He now focused on the personal names within the ovals, so called "cartouches". By also choosing older texts copied from temples holding pure Egyptian names, he noticed that these were likely to contain both letters and ideograms. In some cases specific signs ocurred later to be known as guides about gender.
Then in the summer of 1822 he practically stumbled over the solution to the system by which the old Egyptian writing was built up. It was a seemingly random mixture of signs making parts of words (no vowels were written prior to the Greek period 200 BC) as well as groups and single signs which had an abstract meaning of themselves. Thus an eye could mean "see" and a picture of a vulture pronounced "ah", being the first sound of its name.
After presenting his result to the academic world in Paris, which gave him a positive response, he made a trip to Egypt to evaluate his theories on the site, and it was found to be correct.
A very early attempt to descript hieroglyphs was made during the 9th and 10th century. Then an Arab speaking writer and alchemist named Ibn Wahshiyah is said to have had some progress in finding Coptic words and sounds from hieroglyphic texts. His manuscripts were translated into English and published in London in 1806 but have never been referred to by scholars.
Since modern Egyptology started at the end of the 1800s, additional stones has constantly been added to the building of the Egyptian language and have been put in their proper floor, due to the fact that many changes were made during its long life of at least 3,500 years.
The historical records
During the 1990s old sites of archaeological interest were dug up again after 100 years, and new methods brought a fresh light to old conclusions made by scholars of yesterday. We have reason to believe that prior to the unification progress in various sectors of society like agriculture, breeding of cattle, metalwork, etc was the same in the delta as in the valley itself. Unfortunately knowledge of the north is practically nothing from this period, but from the south the development can be well observed through the advances of modern archaeology. The first areas with centralized power, "mini kingdoms", were placed around the big "knee" of the Nile, where the water strikes hard rocks of granite and has to make a right (eastern) turn. These main areas were at This (north of Abydos), Nagada and above all Hierakonpolis 40 km south of today's Luxor. (See map at top of page).
At Hierakonpolis a huge fortified area with a temple was dug up in the 1890s. Luckily many objects from the oldest times to the sixth dynasty were found in a cache called "the Main Deposit" in the temple yard. The town was situated on an island in the Nile and thus easy to protect, because armed struggle for power was significant for this time, at least from evidence in remains like grave goods and inscriptions. Then the oldest royal graves were dug out at Abydos further north, and in less than ten years Egyptian history had been pushed back several centuries. These lucky strikes revealed unknown kings from before the unification and one of them was King Scorpion II (menu left). He was portrayed on a big ceremonial mace head of stone that was found beside other inscribed objects from other rulers. Yet all these were overshadowed by the most famous find - the big slate palette of king Narmer (below). This was a green unbroken 60 cm high ceremonial palette for grinding makeup, and it's now a masterpiece in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The oldest of them was the so called "Horus Name" which is attested for as far back as when writing began and it was from the beginning connected to the falcon god Hor (Greek: Horus) which stood for the king himself as a person. The bird was usually put atop of a rectangular box (a so called serek seen in the picture left) which symbolized the royal palace and its fancy mud brick facade, and gates, shown in stripes and squares at the bottom. The picture left shows the Horus name of king Qaa of the first dynasty.
The well known name "Pharaoh" is a late Greek corruption of two Egyptian words meaning - great house. From the Greek period (200s BC) and onwards it was used in writing, just with phonetic hieroglyphs and letters without having a symbol of its own, and in a context like today's words "His Majesty".
The Nomen was given to the king to be when he was born, and was thus realy a personal name by which he was called by his family members. From dynasty four the prefix "Son of Re" was added by a goose (son of) and the solar disk for Re. It was written within a cartouche from the third dynasty and onwards. Sometimes the words "The Good God" could be written just before the name to put a divine touch to the name of the human person who could be called Senwosret, Seti or Amenemhet. The picture right shows this type of personal name from dynasty six, simply saying - Pepi son of Re.
The question over the years has been if tradition is right about a single military attack from the south invading the north, and the answer is most likely - it's not. Narmer isn't the only king who showed himself as the winner smiting enemies and wearing both crowns, because so did Scorpion. And if Menes wasn't identical with any of those, we have three kings as the presumed founders of dynasty number one. The theory that's most likely is that it took a long time - maybe generations, to make Egypt one, and thus we have a possible founder who was the first to rule over the whole Nile valley. King Aha (see dynasty 1) is a strong candidate for this post since he is the first one to be present with substantial monuments in both parts of the country.
The Egyptian canons
The sources to help Egyptologists to establish the order of kings and time span of ruling from these early days, are rather scarce. One of the reasons are that no written documents from outside Egypt exists, and that is of course due to the fact that during this era writing was in its infancy and only in Sumeria had people reached the same state of technique. The other reason is that the Egyptians were not very keen on recording their history as a long time span, they generally took the short time view and noted events that had passed during the year or a single reign. Fortunately there are a few exceptions from this pattern that bring some light over the earliest dynasties. Apart from single notes, carvings on potsherds etc, the main records are:
The only one of these records that was made to give a correct version of the history, is the list of Manetho. The others were all made for different purposes, not entirely known.
The Palermo and Cairo stones are possibly in a class all by themselves, and so is the Canon of Turin, written on papyrus. The lists from Karnak and Abydos are both parts of temple decora-tions and obviously some kings are deliberately omitted for being either too insignificant or politically incorrect in some way.
The Sakkara list on the other hand, is the only "private" record of substance, coming from a tomb of a caretaker of cults for dead kings.
By combining these records scholars have got a rather good picture of the order of kings, but the time span for the earliest dynasties and the order of some rulers (from dynasties 2 and 3) is still a subject of discussion.
The Palermo stone was a part of a bigger stone slab on which the Egyptians recorded the events for each year for the earliest kings, and the present one during its making - the fifth dynasty. In the top row kings from before the unification are noted and if they have existed they are the oldest persons on earth recorded by their names. In this case the kings from Lower Egypt are those who have been saved for later times, and in a another similar stone (more damaged) called the Cairo stone, the rulers from Upper Egypt are depicted but the part with their names is missing. Notable is that these stones are the oldest records of its kind, and the recording was made at least 600 years after the unification in around 3.200 BC by the mythical king Menes.
In about 3.200 BC Upper and Lower Egypt were united, thereby cre- ating a nation of a 1.200 km fertile strip of land alongside the river Nile, from Aswan in the south to the Mediterranean Sea in the north.
Two nations became one under a divine king ruling from a new found- ed capital by the name Ineb Hedj ("The White Walls") which later was changed by the Greeks to Memphis. Thereby the first national state on earth was created, and it lasted for 3.500 years, a record that's unlikely to ever be beaten.
From the oldest times the two parts had been divided into around 42 provinces (nomes) and these local areas with their own capitals and gods, were in function as long as the Egyptian history lasted and the local tribe-leaders became governors workig for the state.
Manetho was a Greek speaking Egyptian priest and historian living in the 200s BC. He made a huge work of the Egyptian history (original lost) and wrote that the unification was made by a king called Menes coming from Thinis (This), a place just north of Abydos in Upper Egypt (see map left). He should thus be the founder of the first of 30 dynasties in which Manetho divided the Egyptian history.
The road to unification seemed to have been a short and straight one, and this was common belief into the mid 1900s. However science has developed much in the field of Egyptology and we now know that the process ending with the unification was a long chain of steps that lasted for many years, maybe generations.
In the south the religious center was Nekhen (Greek: Hierakonpolis) where the falcon goddess Nekhbet was the patroness of the country. Her northern counterpart was the cobra goddess Wadjet residing in Buto in the delta, and she was the guardian of Lower Egypt.
After the unification the royal burials took place in the south (at Aydos) for the two first dynasties, and thereafter in the capital Memphis (and its burial ground Sakkara). Thousands of graves from ordinary people (most of them in Upper Egypt) were dug up by archaeologists in the late 1800s and the change in burial traditions indicated a change in society as the years passed. From using burials in a round or oval pit, indicating a reed hut, the tombs turned into square constructions, sometimes walled under ground with wooden planks or sun dried bricks walls and with a mound of sand or lose stones atop. This was the proof that the herdsmen and hunters of the Nile Valley started to be settled as farmers living in permanent houses at the edge between the desert and the fertile soil.
The royal cemetery at Abydos
Having reached this far in history (~ 3.150 BC), the burial customs and design of the tombs had gone through considerable changes since a few generations back. The uppermost classes (the royal court and high officials) began to use cemeteries of their own and elaborated their tombs to a form called mastaba which became the normal type for centuries to come. The two royal cemeteries were located at Abydos in Upper Egypt, and at Sakkara, by the new common capital Memphis in the north. The oldest tombs in Abydos go back before the unification, and kings like Iry-Hor and Ka are unlikely to have more than one place for their final rest. The dualism of the king's office makes it difficult for Egyptologists, and it's quite possible that the regents had two graves - one in the south at Abydos, and the other at the capital Memphis. But where the body of the king was actually buried is anybody's guess.
About seven rulers from the second dynasty are without monuments at Abydos, and are most likely buried in Sakkara. From the third dynasty and onwards the Abydos cemetery wasn't used for royal burials.
Another fact is that the tombs in the south were all considerably smaller and cruder than those in the north. But inscribed remains with the names of the kings and side burials (of retainers) were more frequent in the south, where also half a dozen large enclosed areas were built, obviously for ceremonies in the cults of the dead pharaohs. The tombs at Abydos were irre-gular rectangular constructions, built on sand and gravel nearly two kilometers from the Nile. They were obviously built to be under ground, perhaps with a low wall on the surface imitating the form of the house the king had resided in during his reign. In Memphis on the other hand, they were fancy rectangular mud brick mastabas in a northern fashion with slightly sloping walls above ground, and with time with larger underground chambers hewn down into the bedrock. They stood right on the high escarpment overlooking the Nile Valley and the capital below and some of them were decorated with symmetrical patterns painted in bright colors.
The style with sloping walls and recesses (see picture below) was an influence from the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, and went out of fashion at the end of the second dynasty. By that time the royal court and the administration had moved permanently to Memphis and the southern burial ground was abandoned for good.
When looking at the style of tombs from royalties and high officials it's not difficult to conclude that they were reflections of their residences during their earthly life. All the rooms filled with gifts and all kinds of supplies for the next life, were in life various store rooms for the big household. The dead shouldn't miss anything from his former life and therefore he also had his bathroom and lavatory. The chamber with his mummy was of course his bedroom where he now could sleep for eternal times. As to his harem and other employees in housekeeping it's clear that parts of the staff of the first kings were sacrificed and followed their master into the next world, but this tradition disappeared rather quickly. During the first dynasty lots of large mastaba graves were built in Sakkara, but their contents (in some unique cases undisturbed for nearly 5.000 years) do not point out for sure that the monument was a tomb for a king. Names of high officials and kings have been found, and if the owners were officials, the tombs were much bigger and more elaborated than those of the kings in Abydos. It doesn't seem logical to us, but we don't know the Egyptians' reflections about it, so this issue has to be unanswered for the time being.
The great mastabas in SakkaraWhen the first dynasty kings built their tombs in Abydos, things were also happening in the capital Memphis at the burial ground in Sakkara. On the high desert edge overlooking the capital and the fertile valley, about 20 large mastabas were built during the c. 175 years of the first dynasty. The size, type and technical improvements shown in these have no counterparts in Abydos, and some archaeologists, among them the one the who dug out most of them, thought that these were the tombs where the kings had been buried. Today the opinion is different due to the fact that more and more of old monuments (except royal tombs) have been uncovered in Abydos such as large enclosed areas with thick brick walls and a dozen boat graves from the oldest dynasties. Nevertheless the Sakkara tombs shows astonishing improvements as the tombs through the years got an increasing part under ground in the bedrock. Furthermore we have the fact that some monuments had side burials for servants. The one with the most (dated to the reign of Djer) had 62. During the reign of Káa the first self supporting vault ever known in the history of architecture was built.
The general answer to the question who were the owners of these great tombs is: high officials. For the first and last time in Egyptian history the royal court had been overshadowed in tomb prosperity by bureaucrats, if this is the right answer. Royal power thus did not gain land from the high officials in the first 150 years of the existence of the united Egyptian state. It's interesting to make a comparison between monuments from the first king Aha. The difference between one of his three separate chambers that made his monument in Abydos, and a mastaba from Memphis' cemetery.
During the second dynasty the Egyptians had performed with brilliant skill in working in hard stone. The statue of Khasekhemwy from dynasty two is so far the best example of this achievement, with shaped and polished surfaces in hard stone. On the east bank of the Nile opposite Sakkara, dozens of graves from wealthy non-royal inhabitants of Memphis were buried in tombs where the substructures were built of large blocks of fine shaped stones. Notable is that in these days the hardest metal known by the Egyptians was copper and at this time bronze came into use (a bowl from Khasekhemwy is known) and to cut out the bedrock they had to use implements made of hard stone (dolerite). This was the only way they could work for a thousand years(!) when finally tools made of the new hard metal
Noticing the quality of these tombs of lower officials, archaeologists had reason to believe that the three first kings of the second dynasty whose tombs were not to be found at the cemetery in Abydos - Raneb, Nynetjer and Hetepsekhemwy had their last resting places hidden somewhere under the sand in Sakkara, and finds from the beginning of the twentieth century seem to con- firm this suggestion. There the building of tombs had taken a new big step downwards under ground, and the developing of new technique in cutting stone and tunneling in the bedrock made it possible to elaborate the final resting places of the kings. A new era had begun and the Egyptians were able to master the hardest of stones to make anything from small statuettes to huge monuments.
It was in Sakkara, the necropolis of the capital Memphis this great leap forward was taken and the site had been used as a burial ground even before the founding of the town itself. Making an estimation that only one person was buried every year (a very low figure) the total of tombs would still be 3.000(!) waiting to be excavated. No doubt there is still a lot to be revealed from the sand in this old cemetery, where new finds come to surface regularly.
In 1901 the Italian archaeologist Barsanti made a scoop when he by coincidence practically stumbled down into a vast underground gallery of rooms going out from a long corridor ending with a grave chamber (see picture above).
Clay stoppers from storage jars revealed the owner's name - pharaoh Hotepsekhemwy, the first king of the second dynasty.
Egyptologists now had an example that cutting stone and tunneling the bedrock was well advanced at this early state of Egyptian history. A few decades later another gallery of similar shape was found c. 150 meters to the east. Lots of remains from later times were found within it, but remaining clues told that this was the tomb of pharaoh Nynetjer, the third king of the same dynasty. The tomb of the ruler thought to have been in charge between these two - Raneb, hasn't been found yet, but there is a fitting space between the found galleries that is suitable to contain this monument.
There is no trace of the tomb from the following king from dynasty two - Sened, who according to Manetho had a long reign of well over 40 years. But 100 m north of Hotepsekhemwy's galleries is a much bigger one with a length of 350 m and now within the enclosure wall of the later grave complex of pharaoh Djoser. This, not so well examined, large gallery is most likely what is left of the tomb of Sened. Unfortunately no structures above ground remains from these three underground tombs, and we don't know if they had mastaba-like buildings or not.
Further reading about these kings can be found in the chapter of the dynasties 1-2. (Menu above).
3.500 - 3.200 BC.
In Upper Egypt urban areas, "proto kingdoms", emerged around
places like Hierakonpolis, Nagada, and Abydos (This).
Knowledge about Lower Egypt from this time
is still awaiting to be developed
The archaeological remains
In the 1990s some astonishing finds were made at the old royal cemetery at Abydos. When ex- cavating the area north of the tombs from the first dynasty and just before, a vast burial ground of older date was found. The place has been called "Cemetery U" (picture below) and over a dozen tombs of substance were dug out by the German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo (DAIK).
These new-found monuments were older than those from Cemetery B to the south, where pharaohs from the first dynasty had their last resting places.
With a few exceptions the older tombs consisted of only one chamber and those with elabo- rated structures like a couple of connecting store rooms, are probably made close to the first dynasty. With one possible exception (see tomb J above and Scorpion I) there were no traces of names to identify the buried by name, but in this early state of hieroglyphic writing it's possible that the Egyptians weren't able to make phonetic signs of their rulers' names.
Sereks showing the palace facade of the king's residence in some cases with a long necked bird on top, have been found on small ivory tags.
An estimation of the time span during which the grave yard was in use, makes a couple of centuries a fair guess. If they were just local kings or ruled over greater areas is not known, but it shows that the unification was a process that took generations to achieve.
dozens of royal marks are known
from various places and some from
Pharaohs known by names are:
Crocodile, Scorpion I & II, Iryhor, Ka and Menes.
They can be read about through the menu left.
This ruler is known only from a few remains, and especially an impression coming from a cylinder seal (link above) found in the wealthy large tomb 414 at Tarkhan.
When it was excavated in 1912, regrettably not a single remain was found of the deceased him- self. The motif on this remarkable impression is water waves with crocodiles, but unfortunately the owner has not left a name to identify himself. There is something that might point out his pro- venance though - in the seal is a standard depicted with a crocodile having two objects standing on its back. This can be a hint that he was a ruler from the only nome (province) in the country with this animal as its symbol (picture below right). It was the 6th nome of Upper Egypt, right at the upper part of the "knee" of the Nile, today known as the "Quena Bend". The capital here was Iunet Tantere, later to be Dendera.
In a short distance to the south is the old town of Coptos known for its early advanced culture with monumental stone statues, around 2,6 m in height, manufactured before the first dynasty. This region has a strategic location, because from here go the paths between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. The road from today's Quift (Coptos), is called Wadi Hammamat, and coils through 120 km of sterile desert mountains, but 5000 years ago conditions may have been different. A theory among scientists is that cultural influences (like cylinder seals) possibly came to Egypt from Sumeria by this route before the first dynasty. If this was the case, the leader of this region would surely have been the first to observe all news coming from abroad, and maybe the local chief "Crocodile" was that person.
When the proto-kingdoms slowly were formed in the early times the urban centers were Hierakonpolis, Nagada and This (Thinis) and possibly leaving the "in between" Dendera region more or less independent in the middle right by today's "Quena bend". (Kemp 1991, p. 34, Manley 1996 p. 22). A fact is that this province and its capital is one of the few in Egypt to have a long tradition of a crocodile cult and the age of the cemeteries goes way back beyond the first dynasty. The chief ruling this stretch of land could thus make a mini-kingdom of his own and might be an explanation to the elusive ruler which we for practical reasons call "Pharaoh Crocodile". Another possible site is the Faiyum basin with its old veneration of the crocodile god Sobek and its location next door to Tarkhan and the national capital to be (Memphis). But the standards of the nomes in this region have never included a crocodile.
A tomb at Helwan east of Memphis has revealed an unique cylinder seal showing a crocodile and an empty serek with the Horus falcon (picture above far left, colors not genuine). Its age has been estimated to the period just prior to the unification and this can be King Crocodile showing himself in the new cylinder style manner.
Also occurring is a male figure (the king himself?) with up-raised arms and two long-necked fantasy animals (or possibly giraffes) flanking two trees. The latter motif is found on old cosmetic palettes from before the unification. Crocodiles on the other hand, do not occur on these palettes where several other types of animals (wild, domesticated and fantasy) often were depicted.
The long necked beasts possibly symbolize the two nations with the growing
His countryman Gunter Dreyer takes another view and interprets the mud-seal impression from the Tarkhan tomb as a mark from a "real" king over some area simultaneously with the rulers from Hierakonpolis in the south and in This downstream (north). He made his conclusion after studying infrared photographs and other compara- tive objects. He also estimates king Crocodile's reign to be contemporary to those of Narmer and Iryhor. Since no tomb of Crocodile has been found at Abydos among the other early rulers buried there, he might have been an opponent to these kings. If that's the case king Crocodile's tomb might still await to be found somewhere, possibly around Dendera in his own province.
The fact that both Crocodile's and Narmer's sealing were found in the same Tarkhan tomb does not have to be puzzling and plausible explanations can be made.
If the tomb belonged to a nome governor or someone else of high rank, and this is highly prob- able, surely both Narmer and Crocodile would have paid tribute to the deceased by sending funeral gifts. Sealings from both kings would in that case be present in the tomb, and exactly this is what was found. Since Narmer seems to have been the most powerful of the two, it is likely that his gifts were more in numbers, and just so was the case when the remains from the tomb were analysed.
The historical scenario here described is of course made up, but the physical details are all correct and fit together. In other words: it's quite possible that something like this once happened and was revealed 5000 years later when the 6 square meters of tomb 414 at Tarkhan was investigated in 1913.
There are two other finds from Tharkan (tombs 315 and 1549) found by Flinders Petrie during the same season (picture right). On two cylin- drical vases (Petrie Mueum in London) sereks were roughly painted and in 1992 these were considered to be depictions of King Crocodile by the German Egyptologist Gunter Dreyer.
This interpretation is highly questionable (to this author at least) and the objects rather look like a plucked goose (left version) than a crocodile with a figure possibly looking like a stylized water wave (right). The goose was an "ordinary" hieroglyph and appears in the king lists made half a millennium later in the cartouche of king Sened from the second dynasty.
It would take over 1.400 years before the crocodile became the insignia and name of a king in Egypt again. A row of pharaohs took this animal to their hearts and titles during the troublesome period of dynasty 13 at the end of the Middle Kingdom.
In the early 1990s an elaborated tomb (right) marked with "J" was exca- vated in Abydos (picture right). It was found in the oldest part of the burial site at the so called Cemetery U 150 meters north of the ones from Narmer and Aha. The construction was built of dried mud bricks and the walls were rather thin compared to the monuments of the fol- lowers. The size (7,5 x 10 m) told that the owner had been a person of very great importance. The original structure was the burial chamber in the upper right corner and nine offering rooms connected to one an- other (and the grave chamber) by narrow slits, probably symbolizing doors. The tomb was later enlarged with two rooms built in two stages, at the south long the side. The date of this extension is not known, but it was probably made close to in time, or even just when the original monument was finished, and found too small to contain all the funeral gifts.
The grave goods found within it were remarkable and a big surprise for the excavators: images of scorpions in a royal fashion and lots of jars imported from northern Palestine 1000 km to the north-east possibly to have contained wine. Some were attached with small ivory tags depicting birds and other animals and one obviously marked with the name of the town Bast (Greek: Bubastis, see picture left). That town was situated in the mid-east delta in Lower Egypt 550 km away at the northern end of the Nile Valley. Obviously parts of the provisions for the owner came from there, stored in these imported jars. The archaeologists working at the site were from the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo (DAIK) under the super- vision of Günther Dreyer. He put forward the theory that this could be the tomb of a pharaoh he called Scorpion I, due to the fact that his "name" or rather insignia had been found.
Another thing is that among several depictions and sculptures of a scorpion at the Main Deposit at Hierakon- polis, nobody can tell if it's made for Scorpion 1 or 2.
A royal scorpion penetrating into the pro- vince of Nubia is known from some illu- startions and a carved similar motif on a limestone urn is in the picture right. The crests upon which the falcons (the king) sit has been a symbol of this province since earliest times. The three birds at the bottom seem domesticated and duck-like, possibly applying to the inhabitants in the region. They are here flanked by bows from archers.
Other scorpions of glazed pottery, ivory and limestone were also present in the great find at Hierkonpolis, and some can be seen here.
Scorpion II is the king famous for his two ceremonial mace-heads made of stone, found in the last decade of the 1800s in the so called Main Deposit within the old temple area of Hierakonpolis. Though badly damaged, the visible parts are extraordinary records from this early time in Egyptian history. The motif from the smallest one is shown in picture right with the animal in question in front of the king's face, reconstructed by the Egyptologist Arkell from the remains on the damaged artifact (in picture right). Looking at the drawing from the original (in picture below right) the image of a scorpion is highly disputable and a crocodile's tail hanging down is another sugg- estion. In that case it can be connected to another shadowy ruler from the same period of time. (See Crocodile from menu left).
The biggest and most famous is on the other hand of good quality in the parts remaining of a magnificent big mace head earlier mentioned. It's today exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford England.
His tomb has not been detected so far (year 2001) but there is a possibility that his last resting place was in the four-chamber grave (B 50) just 30 meters south-west of Narmer's in the old part of the royal cemetery at Abydos, or identical to the tomb thought to be from his namesake number one. The B 50 monument is placed right in the center of the tombs from the pharaohs of the first dynasty, but has regrettably not left a single shred of evidence to make an identification of the owner.
Another possibility is that he was not buried in the area at all because he was a ruler from Hierakonpolis further to the south, and not connected to kings from Abydos (This). If so his tomb might still be hidden under the sand in the Hierakonpolis area.
Other remains of Scorpion II are sparse and only a few names in sereks painted on pots can possibly be attested him. An exception is a rather anonymous statuette in a German collection, which is the only of its kind known where he (or his double number one) is seen in a 3D way.
He has got the regent number II because remains from a supposed older tomb called U-j (see Scorpion I above) at the same burial ground (Abydos) has brought to light objects with incised scorpions. The excavator's theory is that the owner could have been an earlier ruler with the same "name". It might also be the fact that the tomb U-j was the last resting place for the only pharaoh wearing that name. The mace heads found should in that case originally have been put in his grave and later transported to the temple area of Hierakonpolis for safe keeping. The content of his tomb found in the 1990s were thus the leftovers from robbers. This scenario might have been the fact for the remains from Abydos of Narmer as well. (See Scorpion I from the menu left and text above).
This ruler is the oldest known by name who is buried in the royal cemetery of Abydos. He is believed to have reigned in around 3100 BC. The picture right shows what's left of the two chambers from his tomb. The southern one seems to have been extended in an irregular way with the original measures left only in the part facing north. Only the substructure of sun dried bricks remains and it's possible that no superstructure has ever existed.
The site was axcavated in 1902 by the English archaeologist Flinders Petrie and in the 1980s an expedition from the German Archaeology Institute in Cairo (DAIK) reexcavated the tomb using modern methods.
New remnants came to light and the there were found seal impressions and potsherds with Iryhor's personal insignia. Parts of a bed and a fine ivory fragment of a bed-foot made like a bull's leg were also among the new interesting finds.
The big jar with the carved in falcon (picture left), was unearthed in 1902 from chamber B 1, the supposed place of king's body. Then in the 1980s it produced an incised jar fragment and a astonishing eight ink inscriptions and a seal impression, plus remains holding the names of Narmer and Ka (JEA 1993). The amount of finds in such a small place was unexpected and the fragments with Narmer's name means that the tomb was opened at a later date (and restored?) and new offerings were placed within.
The reading of Iryhor's name is far from certain, and is interpreted by using the word for falcon god (Hor) who sits upon a sign for mouth (iry). Petrie interpreted the sign as Ro. No other ruler had the name of the falcon (the icon of the king himself) as an integrated part of his name, but it works well as an identification for this ancient leader. His place in the sequence of reign was given after king Ka by Petrie, despite the fact that this king had his name within a serek. He made the conclusion on mainly three facts:
1) The big jar with the name (above left) is of a later type that did not occur in the tomb of Ka.
2) The seal with the falcon and the mouth was very alike those of Narmer and Aha and not at all like Ka's more simple one.
3) The seal impression (of clay) was of yellow marl like the ones made in later times, but Ka's was of black mud.
Some Egyptologists don't recognize him as a real "king" at all mainly because of the absence of a serek or hieroglyphs indicating a royal title, the word "king" etc. The sign of the falcon and the mouth has been taken as the mark for the royal treasury and the jar type mentioned by Petrie occurs for the first time during the reign of Narmer. But since we now know (after the digging in the 1980s) that the tomb was reopened, this argument for Iryhor ruling after Ka is no longer valid.
The place and size of his tomb plus the (royal) falcon attribute and the tradition of the burial ground indicate the opposite though, and the serek might not have been invented yet as a symbol of the king himself.
Exactly where to put Iryhor's reign in the sequence of rulers is even harder to do today (year 2001) and an additional ruler from tomb U-j has entered the arena in the 1990s (see Scorpion I from menu left). The future hopefully will spread more light on this matter.
King Ka ruled a generation prior to dynasty I, and was buried in a double tomb at Abydos. where he is considered to have preceded king Narmer as king of This. This conclusion is based upon analysis of the ceramics and other offerings from his grave and its building style and position in the cemetery. Its feature (picture left) was very alike his supposed predecessor's king Iryhor both in position and shape, with two chambers beside each other in a "row" with pointing short sides and a gap between of a couple of meters. When it was excavated in 1902 lots of remains with the king's name came to light and the identification is thus clear.
He is a well-attested king and his remnants have been found as far north as the northeast delta in Lower Egypt plus Helwan opposite Memphis and Tarkhan at the level of the Faiyum basin. Findings connected to him has not been found south of Abydos (the area of the old capital of This). This indicates that he had no relationship to the (earlier?) rulers from Hierakonpolis. Among the finds from his tomb were several potsherds found with his "name", two raised arms, a sign later to mean "soul" and pronounced "ka". He had it written within a "serek", thought to be a depiction of the facade of the royal palace (picture right). He was the first pharaoh to adopt this sign and the falcon on its top, in this illustration (picture right) accompanied with the plant symbolizing Upper Egypt. Of the two chambers he is likely to have been buried in southern (B7) and the other (B9) was for offerings and supplies. He could possibly have been the father of Narmer, whose tomb was built in a similar style and size, and placed just 30 meters away. A small very realistic ivory statuette showing an anonymous old king might be a portrait of king Ka, but this is pure guesswork.
This pharaoh is the legendary king that came from the town of This (Tinis) in Upper Egypt and took over Lower Egypt (the North) by force. He then became the first king over the whole country and founded a new capital for the united Egypt - Memphis (egy. Menefer), just where the two states bordered on each other. According to archaeology this was supposed to have happened around 3200 BC.
His name was Meni (or Mena) in later Egyptian king-lists and the historian Manetho (200s BC) called him by the Greek form Menes in his work on the Egyptian history. He only appears by this name in king lists made over 1000 years later (see below), and not at all in any monuments from his own time.
Many scholars have tried to point out who he was and the candidates have mostly been Narmer and Aha. Narmer because he portrayed himself as the ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt on his famous green palette found within the temple area of the town of Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt (as seen above in the chapter "Historical Records").
King Aha, likely Narmer's son, on the other hand, was the first pharaoh who had monuments of substance over the whole country, and his large tomb constructions (with buried retainers for the first time) were in dimensions that far overshadowed his predecessors. He has also left a written sign interpreted by some as the word "men" (meaning: "established") written beside his ordinary name at one occasion. This once made him the favorite to be "Menes from Thinis" until the last decade of the 1900s when the old royal tombs in Abydos were re-excavated. Then came to light two remarkable seal impressions from the tombs of Den and Qaa, the fifth and eighth ruler of the first dynasty. The motif was a line of kings in a successive order, and both had Narmer as the founder of the first dynasty, followed by Aha. Analyzing the Egyptian tradition it looks like the deeds of Menes might be an amalgam of components from several chiefs and legends, and thus it may not be fruitful to identify him with a single historical person, though Narmer might have been the one to finished the job by uniting the to kingdoms.
A linguistic possibility for Narmer being Menes is that the two sound elements Nar and Mer might have been read in reverse order (common in later Egyptian history), making: Mernar, which gives a similarity to the sounds of Mena - Meni.
a united country under one divine king.
This phase in Egyptian history is called:
The Early Dynastic Period