Early Dynastic period, overview (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Also known as the "Archaic", the Early Dynastic period consists of the 1st and 2nd Dynasties (circa 3050-2686 BC). What is now known as "Dynasty 0" should probably be placed in this period as well at the end of the Predynastic sequence. Kings of Dynasty 0, who preceded those of the 1st Dynasty, were buried at Abydos and the names of some of these rulers are known from inscriptions. The Early Dynastic state controlled a vast territory along the Nile from the Delta to the First Cataract, over 1,000km along the floodplain. With the 1st Dynasty, the focus of development shifted from south to north, and the early Egyptian state was a centrally controlled polity ruled by a (god-)king from the Memphis region. With the Early Dynastic state too, there came the emergence of ancient Egyptian civilization.

In Dynasty 0 and the early 1st Dynasty there is evidence of Egyptian expansion into Lower Nubia and a continued Egyptian presence in the northern Sinai and southern Palestine. The Egyptian presence in southern Palestine did not last through the Early Dynastic period, but with Egyptian penetration in Nubia, the indigenous A-Group culture comes to an end later in the 1st Dynasty. With the unification of Egypt into a large territorial state, the crown most likely wanted to control the trade through Nubia of exotic raw materials used to make luxury goods, which resulted in Egyptian military incursions in Lower Nubia. With the display of force by the Egyptians, A-Group peoples may simply have left Lower Nubia and gone elsewhere (to the south or desert regions), and there is no evidence of indigenous peoples living in Lower Nubia until the C-Group culture, beginning in the late Old Kingdom.

In Palestine fortified cities contemporary to the Egyptian 1st Dynasty were built in the north and south. At the site of ‘En Besor in southern Palestine, ninety fragments of Egyptian seal impressions have been found associated with a small mudbrick building and ceramics that are mainly Egyptian, including many fragments of bread molds. Made of local clay, the seal impressions are those of officials of four kings of the 1st Dynasty. This evidence suggests state-organized trade directed by Egyptian officials residing at this settlement during most of the 1st Dynasty. Such evidence in southern Palestine is missing during the 2nd Dynasty, however, and active contact may have broken off by then, as the sea trade with Lebanon intensified.

One result of the expansion of the Predynastic Nagada culture from southern Egypt to the north would have been a greatly elaborated (state) administration, and by the beginning of the 1st Dynasty this was managed in part by early writing, used on sealings and tags affixed to state goods. Such evidence also suggests a state taxation system in place in the early Dynasties. Early writing has a royal context and was an innovation of great importance to this state, which used writing for economic/administrative purposes and in royal art.

In the Memphis region graves and tombs are found beginning in the 1st Dynasty, which suggests the founding of the city at this time. Tombs of high officials are found at nearby North Saqqara, and officials and persons of all levels of status were buried at other sites in the Memphis region. Such burial evidence also suggests that the Memphis region was the administrative center of the state. Other towns must have developed or were founded as administrative centers of the state throughout Egypt. Although it has been suggested that ancient Egypt was a civilization without cities, this was certainly not the case. At sites such as Abydos, Hierakonpolis and Buto, there is some archaeological evidence for early towns, but most such towns are probably buried now under alluvium or modern settlements.

Most ancient Egyptians in the Early Dynastic period (and all later periods), however, were farmers who lived in small villages. Cereal agriculture was the economic base of the ancient Egyptian state, and by the Early Dynastic period simple basin irrigation may have been practiced which extended land under cultivation and increased yields. Huge agricultural surpluses were possible in this environment, and when such surpluses were controlled by the state they could support the flowering of Egyptian civilization that is seen in the 1st Dynasty.

Compared with the early cities of southern Mesopotamia, there is much less evidence in Early Dynastic Egypt for cult centers of the gods. Some of the inscribed labels from the 1st Dynasty have scenes with structures that are temples or shrines. Early writing also appears on some of the small votive artifacts that were probably offerings or donations to cult centers. Early Dynastic carved stone vessels were sometimes inscribed, and signs on some of these suggest that they may have come from cult centers. Such evidence points to the existence of cult temples outside of the royal mortuary cult, but there is very little archaeological evidence of this architecture. At Coptos, Abydos and Hierakonpolis, artifacts and deposits from early temples have been excavated, and at Hierakonpolis there is also structural evidence of an early temple consisting of a low oval revetment of sandstone blocks. Recent excavations by the German Archaeological Institute, Cairo (DAI) on Elephantine Island at the First Cataract have revealed the remains of a shrine dating to the Early Dynastic period, a fortress built during the 1st Dynasty and a large fortified wall encompassing the town in the 2nd Dynasty. The shrine is very simple, consisting only of some mudbrick structures less than 8m wide nestled into a natural niche formed by granite boulders.

Early Egyptian civilization was mainly expressed in monumental architecture of the mortuary cult, especially the royal tombs and funerary enclosures at Abydos and the large tombs of high officials at North Saqqara. Formal art styles, which are characteristically Egyptian, also emerged at the end of the Predynastic period and in the 1st Dynasty. What is characteristically Egyptian in the monumental architecture and commemorative art (such as the Narmer Palette) is reflective of full-time craftsmen and artisans supported by the crown. Artifacts of the highest quality of craftsmanship are found in royal and elite tombs of the period, including many copper tools and vessels. This was probably the result of royal expeditions to copper mines in the Eastern Desert and/or increased trade with copper-mining regions in the Negev/Sinai, and an expanded copper production industry in Egypt.

At North Saqqara, the large tombs of the 1st Dynasty provide evidence of an official class of a large state. These tombs would also have been the most important monuments of the state in the north and thus were symbolic of the centralized state ruled very effectively by the king and his administrators. That huge quantities of craft goods were going out of circulation in the economy and into tombs is indicative of the wealth of this early state, which was shared by a number of officials. Clearly, the mortuary cult was also of great importance to non-royalty and the elements of royal burials were emulated in more modest form in the exclusive cemetery at North Saqqara. Smaller tombs and simple pit graves dating to the 1st Dynasty are found throughout Egypt, which is not only evidence of social stratification but also demonstrates the importance of the mortuary cult for all classes. The simplest burials of this period are pits excavated in the low desert, without coffins and with only a few pots for grave goods.

In the south, Abydos was the most important cult center, where the kings of the 1st Dynasty were buried. From the very beginning of the Dynastic period the institution of kingship was a strong and powerful one, and it would remain so throughout the major historical periods. Nowhere else in the ancient Near East at this early date was kingship so important and central to control of the early state. Although it was previously thought that the kings of the 1st Dynasty were buried at North Saqqara, it is now clear that these tombs belonged to high officials and the Umm el-Qa’ab at Abydos is the burial place of the kings of the 1st Dynasty. Only at Abydos is there a small number of large tombs which correspond to the kings (and one queen) of this dynasty, and only at Abydos are there the remains of the funerary enclosures for all but one of the rulers of this dynasty, as has been demonstrated by David O’Connor’s recent excavations. Called "fortresses" by earlier excavators, the funerary enclosures may have been where the cults of each king were practiced by priests and personnel after the burial in the royal tomb, as was the custom at later royal mortuary complexes.

What is clearly evident in the Abydos royal cemetery is the ideology of kingship, as symbolized in the mortuary cult. Through ideology and its symbolic material form in tombs, widely held beliefs concerning death came to reflect the hierarchical social organization of the living and the state controlled by the king. This was a politically motivated transformation of the belief system with direct consequences in the socioeconomic system. The king was accorded the most elaborate burial, which was symbolic of his role as mediator between the powers of the netherworld and his deceased subjects, and a belief in an earthly and cosmic order would have provided a certain amount of social cohesiveness for the Early Dynastic state.

All of the 1st Dynasty tombs at Abydos have subsidiary burials in rows around the royal burials, and this is the only time in ancient Egypt when humans were sacrificed for royal burials. Perhaps officials, priests, retainers and women from the royal household were sacrificed to serve their king in the afterlife. The tomb of Djer has the most subsidiary burials-338, but the later royal burials have fewer. In later times, small servant statues may have become more acceptable substitutes.

The Abydos evidence demonstrates the huge expenditure of the state on the mortuary complexes, both tombs and funerary enclosures, of kings of the 1st Dynasty. These kings had control over vast resources: craft goods produced in court workshops, goods and materials imported in huge quantities from abroad, and probably conscripted labor (as well as labor that could be sacrificed for burial with the king). The paramount role of the king is certainly symbolized in these monuments, and the symbols of the royal mortuary cult which evolved at Abydos would become further elaborated in the pyramid complexes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

There is much less evidence for the kings of the 2nd Dynasty than those of the 1st Dynasty. Given what is known about the early Old Kingdom in the 3rd Dynasty, the 2nd Dynasty must have been when the economic and political foundations were put in place for the strongly centralized state which developed with truly vast resources. The only 2nd Dynasty monuments at Abydos are two tombs and two funerary enclosures which belonged to the last two kings of this dynasty, Peribsen and Khasekhemwy. Khasekhemwy’s tomb consists of one long gallery, divided into 58 rooms with a central burial chamber made of quarried limestone; this is the earliest known large construction in stone. Where the early kings of this dynasty were buried is uncertain, as there is no evidence of their tombs at Abydos. At Saqqara, two enormous series of underground galleries, each over 100m long, have been found south of Zoser’s Step Pyramid complex, and possibly two kings of this dynasty were buried there. Associated with these galleries are the seal impressions of the first three kings of the 2nd Dynasty (Hetepsekhemwy, Raneb and Nynetjer) and the third king might have been buried in a tomb consisting of galleries now beneath Zoser’s complex.

The best preserved funerary enclosure at Abydos belonged to Khasekemwy. Its niched inner walls are still preserved up to 10-11m in height and enclose an area circa 124x56m. In 1988 O’Connor discovered a large mound of sand and gravel covered with mudbrick, approximately square in plan, within this enclosure. This mound was located more or less in the same area as the Step Pyramid of Zoser’s complex at Saqqara (3rd Dynasty), which began as a low mastaba structure and only in its fourth stage was expanded to a stepped structure. Both complexes, of Khasekemwy and of Zoser, were surrounded by huge niched enclosure walls with only one entrance in the southeast. Zoser’s complex was constructed 40-50 years after Khasekemwy’s, and very possibly the mound at Abydos is evidence for a "proto-pyramid" structure. Thus at Abydos the evolution of the royal mortuary cult and its monumental form can clearly be seen, which by the 3rd Dynasty came to reflect a new order of royal control over vast resources and labor for the construction of the earliest monument in the world built entirely in stone.

Also recently discovered at Abydos are twelve boat burials, located just outside the northeast outer wall of Khasekhemwy’s enclosure. These burials consist of pits which contained wooden hulls of boats 18-21m long, but only about 50cm high. Associated pottery is Early Dynastic. Smaller boat burials have also been found with Early Dynastic tombs at Saqqara and Helwan, but their purpose is unknown. Those at Abydos are the earliest evidence of such burials associated with the royal mortuary cult. Later, at Giza in the 4th Dynasty, the most famous boat burials are the two undisturbed boats next to Khufu’s pyramid.

In the 2nd Dynasty, high officials of the state continued to be buried at North Saqqara. Near Unas’s pyramid (5 th Dynasty), James Quibell excavated five large subterranean tombs, the largest of which (Tomb 2302) consists of 27 rooms beneath a mudbrick superstructure. The 2nd Dynasty tombs were designed with rooms for funerary goods that were excavated deep in the bedrock where they were more protected from grave robbing than the earlier storage rooms in the superstructure. Niches placed on the east side of the superstructure (for offerings) in 2nd Dynasty tombs are a design feature that would be found in private tombs throughout the Old Kingdom. Later 2nd Dynasty tombs at Saqqara, which probably belonged to middle level officials, are similar in design to the standard mastaba tomb of the Old Kingdom, with a small mudbrick superstructure above a vertical shaft leading to the burial chamber.

Short wooden coffins for contracted burials, which were found only in elite tombs in the 1st Dynasty, are much more common in 2nd Dynasty tombs, such as those at Helwan. At Saqqara, Walter Emery found corpses wrapped in linen bandages soaked in resin, early evidence of some attempt to preserve the actual body before mummification techniques had been worked out. Such measures were necessitated by burial in a coffin, as opposed to Predynastic burials which were naturally dehydrated in warm sand in a pit in the desert. The increased use of wood and resin in middle status burials of the 2nd Dynasty probably also points to greatly increased contact and trade with Lebanon.

The architecture, art and associated beliefs of the early Old Kingdom clearly evolved from forms of the Early Dynastic period. This was a time of consolidation of the enormous gains of unification—which could easily have failed—when a state bureaucracy was successfully organized and expanded to bring the entire country under its control. This was done through taxation, to support the crown and its projects on a grand scale, which included expeditions for goods and materials to the Sinai, Palestine, Lebanon, Lower Nubia and the Eastern Desert. Conscription must also have been practiced, to build the large royal mortuary monuments and to supply soldiers for military expeditions. The use of early writing no doubt facilitated such state organization.

There were obvious rewards to being bureaucrats of the state, as is seen in the early cemeteries on both sides of the river in the Memphis region. Belief in the rewards of a mortuary cult, where huge quantities of goods were going out of circulation in the economy, was a cohesive factor which helped to integrate this society in both the north and south. In the early Dynasties when the crown began to exert enormous control over land, resources and labor, the ideology of the god-king legitimized such control and became increasingly powerful as a unifying belief system.

The flowering of early civilization in Egypt was the result of major transformations in sociopolitical and economic organization, and in the belief system. That this state was successful for a very long time—circa 800 years until the end of the Old Kingdom—is in part due to the enormous potential of cereal agriculture on the Nile floodplain, but it is also a result of Egyptian organizational skills and the strongly developed institution of kingship.

Next post:

Previous post: