May 13, 2010


In nearly prehistoric times, the Nile valley was not a great place to live. Each summer, floodwaters filled the narrow gorge cliffto cliff. When they receded, the valley remained wet and marshy.
But it was a hunter’s paradise. The Nile was alive with fish. Papyrus thickets teemed with game birds. Antelopes, gazelles, oryxes, and wild bulls grazed in lush greenery near the cliffs. Crocodiles and hippos patrolled river shallows and muddy pools.

From 8000 to 5000 B.C.E., the Nile valley and surrounding deserts were much cooler and wetter than they are today. But the climate was changing rapidly, turning hotter and drier. The valley started drying out more quickly after the annual floods. Soon, some spots on the sandy plateaus that rose up to the cliffs were dry year-round.

Around 5000 B.C.E., people started living year-round in the Nile River valley. Great droughts in Asia had set masses of people adrift. These unwilling wanderers longed to resume the lifestyles they had left: agriculture (growing grains and other foodstuffs) and animal husbandry (tending herds of animals for meat, milk, hides, wool, and transportation). To them, the Nile valley looked very inviting.
Archaeologists have identified several Predynastic Egyptian cultures, named for modern towns where remains of ancient cultures were found. The Badarian culture arose about 5000 B.C.E. It was succeeded by the Amratian culture (also called Naqada I) about 4000 B.C.E.
The Early and Late Gerzean Periods (also called Naqada II) followed around 3500
B.C.E. and 3300 B.C.E.
Because these cultures did not leave written records, it can seem that Egyptian civilization sprang out of nowhere. But it was just that the ancient Egyptians had settled down and prospered in the Nile valley long before they learned to write. Archaeologists have uncovered enough physical evidence to piece together a general picture of early civilization in the valley. But over thousands of years, the Nile’s annual flood buried most evidence of Predynastic Egyptian life. What is known about these people comes mostly from cemeteries, pottery, tools, weapons, jewelry, and other metal objects.

Early Nile valley settlers carefully buried their dead in locations safe from the floodwaters. Archaeologists have discovered many cemeteries on high ground near the cliffs. Villages were located on “turtle-backs” (small rises of land) on the valley floor. Evidence of only a few valley floor settlements has survived, mostly by chance. By studying layers of mud, archaeologists and geologists have determined that many more settlements are buried deep beneath millennia of mud.
In the Delta, the Nile has gradually shifted eastward over thousands of years, wiping out signs of many important early settlements. Other ancient villages lie buried deep beneath modern towns and cities.
Many of these sites have been continuously inhabited for up to 8,000 years. Many ancient settlements were dismantled, brick by brick, by the Egyptians themselves. Most ancient buildings were made of sun-dried mud-brick. As mud-brick decays, it turns into sebakh—the organic debris of human occupation; it makes a cheap, handy compost and fertilizer.
Over the centuries, sebakh gatherers have removed all traces of entire ancient villages and towns.
Predynastic Egyptians lived in small, self-supporting villages on humps of dry land near the river’s edge, close to hunting and fishing grounds and to cultivated fields. They tended herds of animals.
They wove baskets and mats from papyrus and reeds. They grew wheat and barley,
storing the grains in pits lined with reed mats. They used milling and grinding stones and simple cooking equipment.
They protected their eyes from the harsh sun with “eye paint”: minerals mixed with oils and ground on stone palettes. They pressed cleansing oils from the wild castor plant. Compared to people in other parts of the ancient world, they enjoyed a good life. Food, both cultivated and wild, was usually plentiful.
They believed in an afterlife. They laid a dead person on his left side, knees touching his chin, wrapped him in a reed mat or animal skin, or placed him in a basket, and buried him in a shallow oval pit in the sand, facing west. Graves often included jars of beer and food, pottery, make-up palettes, weapons, personal ornaments, and small figurines symbolizing fertility or life. In the hot, dry sand, bodies dried out before they had a chance to rot, creating natural mummies.
Predynastic religion included animal cults. Animal cemeteries, located near human graves, included the bodies of dogs, jackals, sheep, and cows, wrapped in linen or matting and carefully buried.

During the Badarian era, perhaps about 100,000 people lived in what was to be Egypt. This increased to 250,000 people during the Amratian Period.
With more people to feed, better organization was necessary. Egypt always faced the danger of a low or high Nile (see page 7). When disaster struck, it took discipline, cooperation, and strong leadership to quickly restore food production and distribution.
Villages gradually banded together into confederations under strong chieftains. These regional alliances became the permanent administrative districts of dynastic Egypt. Egyptologists call these districts nomes, and their leaders, nomarchs.

During the late Gerzean era, important people such as nomarchs were buried in increasingly large, complex, rectangular mud-brick structures.
Ordinary people were still buried in simple pits in the sand. There is controversy among Egyptologists about what this two-tier burial system means. Sir Flinders Petrie (1852–1942), father of scientific archaeology, thought it meant that a “dynastic race” had invaded Egypt from the Near East or Nubia, taken over, and introduced writing and other cultural advances. Other scholars believe the social divisions were a natural part of cultural trends already in motion.
The later Gerzean Period saw increased political activity. The population continued to grow rapidly. Since there are no written records, little is known about how the nomes finally joined up, forming two distinct cultures in Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt: the Delta culture and the Naqada culture. By 3400 B.C.E. Egypt ended up with two kingdoms.
The Ta-Mehu culture in Lower Egypt’s Delta had its capital at Pe (later Buto). Its king wore a red crown (known as deshret). Its patroness was the cobra goddess Edjo (Wadjet) and its symbols were the papyrus and the bee. While there is no evidence that the ancient Egyptians called this the Red Land, modern scholars have referred to it that way.
The Ta-Shomu culture in the long, narrow gorge of Upper Egypt had its capital at Nekhen (later Hierkonpolis). Its king wore a tall, conical white crown (known as hedjet). Its patroness was the vulture goddess Nekhbet and its symbols were the lotus and the sedge (a kind of marsh grass). This culture has come to be known as the White Land.
There were struggles for dominance among factions within each of the two lands, and between Ta-Mehu and Ta-Shomu. An ambitious local chieftain arose in Ta-Shomu, and united its districts under his rule. He then did the same in Ta-Mehu. To piece together the story of Egypt’s unification, archaeologists have made many guesses based on a small number of objects: large commemorative palettes (shield-shaped stones) and ceremonial mace heads (hammer-like weapons) carved with scenes depicting political events.
The chieftain who united the two lands (in about 3100 to 3150 B.C.E.) is traditionally called Narmer. His triumphs are depicted on the Palette of Narmer, now in the Cairo Museum. On one side, Narmer wears the white crown as he slays his foes; on the other side he wears the red crown. After Narmer, Egyptian kings wore the combined double crown (known as sekhemty), and adopted names and titles that symbolized their dominion over the two lands.
No one knows who taught the inhabitants of the Nile valley to write. It might have been refugees from Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing, scratched into slabs of damp clay, bears little relation to Egyptian writing. But the idea of expressing ideas using symbols could have planted a seed. Hieroglyphics, Egyptian picture- writing, emerged during the late Predynatsic Period, and hieroglyphs are found in a tomb that has been dated to 3250 B.C.E.


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