THE PREDYNASTIC AND EARLY DYNASTIC Evidence of a sophisticated civilization begins to appear on the banks of the Nile around 3500 BCE. Painting and Sculpture: Among the earliest historical examples of Egyptian art are a wall painting that appears to record funerary practices, and a ceremonial stone palette carved on both sides, with scenes in relief commemorating the unification of Egypt. The oldest Egyptian art: The Pre-Dynastic, or prehistoric, beginnings of Egyptian civilization are chronologically vague. But tantalizing remains from around 3500 BCE attest to the existence of a sophisticated civilization on the banks of the Nile.
Beginning just before the Pre-Dynastic period, Egyptian culture was already beginning to resemble greatly the Pharaonic ages that would soon come after, and rapidly at that. In a transition period of a thousand years (about which little is still known), nearly all the Archetypal characteristics appeared, and beginning in 5500 BC we find evidence of organized, permanent settlements focused around agriculture.
Hunting was no longer a major support for existence now that the Egyptian diet was made up of domesticated cattle, sheep, pigs and goats, as well as cereal grains such as wheat and barley. Artifacts of stone were supplemented by those of metal, and the crafts of basketry, pottery, weaving, and the tanning of animal hides became part of the daily life. The transition from primitive nomadic tribes to traditional civilization was nearly complete.
One of the most interesting aspects of the transition period is the shift in burial customs. Previous to the permanent settlements, most burials were done where it was convenient, often in a centrally-located cemetery near to or inside the settlement, such as the cemeteries at Jebel Sahaba. As the seasonal hunting camps grew into more stable agricultural villages, burial sites and practices changed. Cemeteries and single graves were no longer located near the living, but were placed further and further away, both from the villages as well as the cultivated land, most often on the very edge of what would be considered the village's "territory." Even children, formerly buried under the floor of their home, were now relegated to these outer cemeteries.
The reasons for this are unknown, but a growing feeling of necrophobia, a fear of the dead, might be the cause, as is often the case in many cultures. Practices too, changed. Here we see the beginnings of the "life after death" beliefs that centuries later, would make the ancient Egyptians famous. The dead were buried with provisions for the journey into the next life, as well as pottery, jewelry, and other artifacts to help them enjoy it. Offerings of cereals, dried meat, and fruit were included, but hunting and farming implements were also common (presumably so the dead would not starve after having eaten all the offerings). Even then, the Egyptians believed that the next life would be very much like this one. Interestingly enough, the dead were buried in a fetal position, surrounded by the burial offerings and artifacts, facing west, all prepared for the journey to the world of the dead, where the sun shone after leaving the world of the living.
The Chalcolithic period, also called the "Primitive" Predynastic, marks the beginning of the true Predynastic cultures both in the north and in the south. The southern cultures, particularly that of the Badarian, were almost completely agrarian (farmers), but their northern counterparts, such as the Faiyum who were oasis dwellers, still relied on hunting and fishing for the majority of their diet. Predictably, the various craftworks developed along further lines at a rapid pace. Stoneworking, particularly that involved in the making of blades and points, reached a level almost that of the Old Kingdom industries that would follow. Furniture too, was a major object of creation, again, many artifacts already resembling what would come. Objects began to be made not only with a function, but also with an aesthetic value. Pottery was painted and decorated, particularly the black-topped clay pots and vases that this era is noted for; bone and ivory combs, figurines, and tableware, are found in great numbers, as is jewelry of all types and materials. It would seem that while the rest of the world at large was still in the darkness of primitivism, the Predynastic Egyptians were already creating a world of beauty.
Somewhere around 4500 BC is the start of the "Old" Predynastic, also known as the Amratian period, or simply as Naqada I, as most of the sites from this period date to around the same time as the occupation of the Naqada site. The change that is easiest to see in this period is in the pottery. Whereas before ceramics were decorated with simple bands of paint, these have clever geometric designs inspired by the world around the artist, as well as pictures of animals, either painted on or carved into the surface of the vessel. Shapes too, became more varied, both for practical reasons depending on what the vessel was used for, and aesthetic reasons. Decorative clay objects were also popular, particularly the "dancer" figurines, small painted figures of women with upraised arms. Yet perhaps the most important detail of all about this period is the development of true architecture. Like most of Egyptian culture, we have gleaned much of our knowledge from what the deceased were buried with, and in this case, we have several clay models of houses discovered in the graves that resemble the rectangular clay brick homes of the Old Kingdom. This shows that the idea of individual dwellings, towns, and "urban planning" started around 4500 BC!
The third stage of the Predynastic period is dated to around 4000 BC and is labeled the Gerzean period or Naqada II. Amratian and Gerzean are vastly different from one another, and one can see the growing influence of the peoples of the North on those of the South. Soon this would result in a truly mixed people and culture, that of the Late Predynastic, or Naqada III. The greatest difference between the Amratian and the Gerzean peoples can be seen in their ceramics industries. While Amratian pottery did have some decorative aspects, its primary purpose was functional. Gerzean pottery, on the other hand, was developed along decorative lines.
Gerzean pottery is adorned with organic-inspired geometric motifs, and highly realistic depictions of animals, people, and the many other things that surrounded the Gerzean people. There are more than a few surprises in the motifs, however. Unusual animals such as ostriches and ibexes give clues to a possibility that the Gerzeans hunted in the sub-desert, as such animals were not to be found near the Nile. We also find what are possibly the first representations of gods, almost always shown riding in boats and carrying standards that greatly resemble the later standards that would represent the various provinces of Egypt. It is possible too, that these are simply some form of historical records (visits of chieftains, battles, perhaps?), but as they are almost always painted on votive artifacts buried with the dead, the plausible explanation points to the sacred.
When compared to the Pharaonic periods, the Gerzean culture is not much dissimilar, having reached a high level of civilization, especially in is religious aspects, and particularly in those dealing with funerary customs. Amratian burials were most often simply a pit in the ground, covered over by a skin-covered framework, but with the Gerzean, tomb-building became a foreshadowing of what was to come, with furnished underground rooms, near replicas of the dwelling that the deceased had occupied in life. Amulets and other ceremonial objects, many of which depict the early animal-form gods of the Gerzeans, are also prolific in these tombs. The Gerzean form of the afterlife would eventually grow into the Cult of Osiris and the magnificent burials of the Dynasties.
Previously it was believed that the transition between Predynastic and Dynastic was the result of a brutal series of revolutions and warfare brought about as a result of the discovery of metallurgy and the new social structures such as cities, individual dwellings, and writing. Yet as more and more details of this time period are uncovered, we see that it was nothing of the sort, but rather the slow process of technological evolution. The above-mentioned new technologies could be Mesopotamian in origin, as they are found there earlier than they are in Egypt, yet there is little proof of this. About the only Mesopotamian artifacts found in Egypt proper are cylinder seals, and these only point to a strictly commercial-political connection. A few artifacts of Egyptian origin do bear Mesopotamian design traits, but again, this could be the result of an eager artist copying an imported artifact.
It is of course their writing system that is the Egyptian hallmark, but where did it begin, and when? Some have said that writing was imported, but after a brief study of the motifs found on ceramics from the Naqada periods we can discard this as only a remote possibility. The pottery motifs evolve distinctly over a period of time into a regular set of images that greatly resemble the traditional hieroglyphics. Already they show the fundamental principle of hieroglyphic writing, that of the combination of pictograms and phonograms. A pictogram is an actual representation of the item it represents. In such a system, the pictogram for a man is a picture of a human figure, the pictogram for water is a picture of water. A phonogram is a picture that stands not for its image, but for a sound or set of sounds. For example, the picture of a water bird might mean sa, and the word sa would not mean "bird" but "child," or sa even might be combined with other phonograms to create a larger word. Such systems of writing exist even today. Japanese, with its combination of a phonetic alphabet with a set of complex characters that can mean either a sound or an entire word, is a perfect example. These symbols found on pottery and other artifacts of the Amratian period might be writing, but by the Gerzean they most idefinitely are a form of writing.
No time of the Predynastic offers as many questions as the period of unification of southern and northern Egypt. Exactly who conquered whom is the first. Many sources point to the event as the victory of the south over the north, yet the resulting social system resembles more that of the north than the south. Kurt Sethe and Hermann Kees, among the first to draw conclusions about this period came up with a combination of both theories: that Egypt was first unified under the north, but for one reason or another collapsed and the power was picked up by the southern kings, who kept the original form of government set up by the north. Recent archaeological evidence is beginning to discredit this, but it still seems to be among the most logical explanations. Another theory is that the south conquered the north, but adopted much of the northern culture into their own. This is not unusual in the least when dealing with Egypt. The Ptolemies were the Greek rulers of Egypt after Alexander the Great , yet they absorbed as much of the Egyptian culture as they could, calling themselves Pharaohs and even being buried according to Egyptian custom instead of Greek.
Exactly who the first king of unified Egypt was is also difficult to say, or even when the actual unification occurred. The most powerful piece of data on this event is the Narmer Palette, a triangular piece of black basalt depicting a king whose name is given as Nar-Mer in the hieroglyphs. On the obverse he is shown wearing the white crown of the south and holding a mace about to crush the head of a northern foe, and on the reverse, the same figure is shown wearing the red crown of the north while a bull (a symbol of the pharaoh's power) rages below him, smashing the walls of a city and trampling yet another foe. Another artifact, the "Scorpion" Macehead, depicts a similar figure, only this time the name is given by the pictogram of a scorpion. This king-figure is called in many documents alternatively Narmer, or Aha , and if the historian Eratosthenes is to be believed, this is the legendary king Meni, or Menes . Whether "King Scorpion" is the same person as Narmer is a bit of contention, but the two are widely accepted to be the same. If these two artifacts, and others like them from the same period, do in fact depict this as the first king of unified Egypt, then the date for the Unification can be placed sometime between 3150 and 3110 BC.
Egyptian History & Art : The Oldest Egyptian Art
Prehistory begins with the beginning of traces of man-made objects
Art created before the existence of written records or documentation
Egyptian focus not on life, but on the afterlife in art, architecture, and living.
Based around the Nile: world’s longest river, 1-12 miles wide all along. Floods yearly (theme of continual rebirth) brings fertilizing silt into areas that would otherwise get no moisture. The flooding of the Nile is the most important factor of prosperity of Ancient Egypt. Drought shows gods displeasure, river is physical and symbolic meeting of heaven and earth.
Nile carried agricultural products and goods, also during floods floated huge blocks of stone to building sites
Pre-dynastic paintings from 3500 BCE. Already representing a funerary scene. Stick figures are reminiscent of Catal Hoyuk. Mesopotamian influences also evident.
Division between Upper and Lower Egypt was geographic as well as political. The Narmer “palette” dates this at 2920 BCE, but thought to have taken several centuries to complete. A palette was, in its simplest form, a surface to prepare eye makeup. [ used for protection
against the sun ]
Narmer’s Palette : Important as a document, but also as a template for representing the human figure that lasted for 3,000 years The goddess Hathor is at the top of both sides, represented as a cow with a woman’s face Motif on the back resembles the lower left group in the Hierakonpolis painting & became the formula for representing triumph of the god-kings over their enemies. The falcon represents Horus.
The elongated necks of two felines form the circular depression where the eye makeup would be placed. The intertwined necks may be a reference to Egypt’s unification. The dead are seen from above, as the bison were in the Altamira cave. Portraying the Human Figure: used a convention from Mesopotamia & also seen earlier head, legs, arms in profile
-- eyes, torso in frontal view Introduction of “registers” [ a kind of ground line ]
Palette of King Narmer from Hierakonpolis, Egypt ca. 3,000-2,920 B.C.E. slate approximately 25 in. high
Image gallery The Palette of King Narmer Hierakonpolis, Egypt, Predynastic 3000-2920 BC Predynastic Egypt was divided geographically and politically into two regions: Upper and Lower Egypt Upper Egypt was the southern, upstream part of the Nile Valley. It was dry, rocky, and culturally rustic. Lower Egypt in the Northern part of the Nile Valley was opulent, urban, and populated. The Palette of King Narmer is one of the earliest historical artworks preserved. It was, at one time, regarded as commemorating the foundation of the first of Egypt’s thirty-one dynasties around 2920 BC (the last ended in 332 BC) This image records the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt into the “Kingdom of Two Lands” at the very end of the Predynastic period. ANCIENT EGYPT Egyptians prepared eye makeup on tablets such as this for protecting their eyes against irritation and the sun’s glare. This palette is not only important because of its historical content, but it also serves as a blueprint of the formula for figure representation that characterized Egyptian art for three thousand years.
Image gallery The Palette of King Narmer Hierakonpolis, Egypt, Predynastic 3000-2920 BC The back of the palette depicts the king wearing the bowling-pin-shaped crown of Upper Egypt accompanied by an official who carries his sandals. The king is in the process of slaying his enemy and is significant in the pictorial formula for signifying the inevitable triumph of the Egyptian god-kings. The falcon is a symbol of Horus , the kings protector. Below the ground-line of the king are two of his fallen enemies. Above the king are the two heads of Hathor a goddess of favorable dispose to Narmer and shown as the cow with a woman’s face. Between these two faces is the hieroglyph of Narmer’s name with a frame representing the Royal Palace. ANCIENT EGYPT Symbolic of the unification Used to hold the eye makeup The front of the palette depicts the king wearing the red cobra crown of Lower Egypt. The bodies of the dead are seen from above, as each body is depicted with it’s head severed and neatly placed between its legs.
Image gallery People, boats, and animals. (detail of a watercolor copy of a wall painting From Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis, Egypt, Predynastic 3500-3200 BC The Predynastic period in Egyptian art refers to the earliest or Prehistoric art of Egypt. This particular image seems to be a funerary scene depicting people, animals and boats. These stick-like figures are very similar to those of the Neolithic paintings from Çatal Hüyük. Boats- symbolize the journey down the river of life and death ANCIENT EGYPT The lower center of this image depicts a heraldic grouping of two animals flanking a human figure. The image suggests an influence of Mesopotamian art. It is interesting to note that Mesopotamian culture could have made its way over a thousand miles up the Nile
Imhotep Pyramid and Mortuary of Djoser Saqqara, Egypt ca. 2,630-2,611 B.C.E. limestone
Image gallery Imhotep, Stepped Pyramid and mortuary precint of Djoser, Saquara Egypt Dynasty III Each person must provide for the happiness of his afterlife- would reproduce daily life in tombs for their Ka (spirit) to enjoy- blurring of line between life and death Tomb was like afterlife insurance 3000 BC -the start of the old kingdom Pharaoh was supreme ruler and a god- basis of all civilization and of artwork Knowledge of civilization rest solely in tombs Imhotep : Doctor, Architect, High Priest, Scribe and Vizier to King Djoser ANCIENT EGYPT Built on a mastaba , burial chamber deep underground with a shaft linking it to the pyramid, meant to serve as a great monument Part of a huge funerary district with temples and other buildings, scenes of religious celebration before and after death
Imhotep Pyramid and Mortuary of Djoser Saqqara, Egypt ca. 2,630-2,611 B.C.E. limestone
Image gallery Imhotep, restored plan Information goes here ANCIENT EGYPT
Imhotep Façade of the North Palace Mortuary of Djoser Saqqara, Egypt ca. 2,630-2,611 B.C.E. limestone
Image gallery Façade of the North Palace of the mortuary precint of Djoser, Saqqara, Egypt Dynasty III Ca. 2630-2611 This is an example of an engaged column Notice that they are less functional than they are decorative. ANCIENT EGYPT
Imhotep Columnar entrance to the Mortuary of Djoser Saqqara, Egypt ca. 2,630-2,611 B.C.E. limestone
Image gallery Columnar entrance corridor to the mortuary precinct of Djoser, Saqqara, Egypt Egyptian architecture began with mud bricks, wood, reeds- Imhotep (first artist whose name was part of recorded history) used cut stone masonry Style was similar to less enduring material- columns are always engaged rather than free-standing Now columns had an expressive purpose rather than just functional Tapering fluted columns were designed for harmony and elegance, not just to hold things up Images of Papyrus columns are associated with lower Egypt ANCIENT EGYPT
Tomb of Perneb (mastaba) from Saqqara, Egypt ca. 2,350-2,323 B.C.E. limestone approximately 16 ft. high