Neolithic and Predynastic stone tools To Nile, flood history (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Neolithic and Predynastic stone tools

Despite the richness of material, the chipped stone artifacts of Neolithic and Predynastic Egypt have, until recently, been greatly ne glected. Earlier Egyptologists seldom had any detailed knowledge of lithic artifacts, so they tended to collect and describe only the more elaborate pieces. Moreover, they found stone tools to be less useful for dating purposes than pottery, so they only briefly discussed lithic finds. There were a few exceptions, notably Gertrude Caton Thompson who described the lithic finds from her excavations in the Fayum, Kharga Oasis and at Hemamieh, and S.A. Huzayyin, who wrote a detailed report on the flint artifacts from the Predynastic settlement at Armant.

A proper understanding of the stone artifacts from a site can only be achieved by studying all chipped stone, from recognizable tools to small waste chips. Statistical representativeness is very important. The tools and other pieces of chipped stone found at a site reveal information about how the occupants processed and used the stone, how they were related to other communities, whether they traded with other areas, and various other aspects.

Neolithic and Predynastic lithic assemblages vary both spatially and temporally. Each group had its own lithic tradition (or "industry"). Nevertheless, there is a certain progression, and a peak of technological excellence was attained in the late Predynastic and 1st Dynasty.

The known Neolithic sites of the Nile Valley occur in northern Egypt. Stone artifacts of the Fayum Neolithic are based on two main technologies: the production of flakes from simple cores with some of the flakes subsequently being shaped into tools, and the manufacture of tools by bifacial flaking. Modern excavations have shown that the tools consist primarily of simple flake tools, such as side-scrapers, notches, denticulates, and other flakes with ad hoc retouch ("retouched pieces"). Bifacial implements occur in much smaller numbers. Earlier researchers collected large numbers of bifacial tools, the main classes of which are polished and flaked axes, bifacial sickle blades, knife and symmetrical leaf-shaped implements, and an enormous diversity of concave-base projectile points ("arrowheads"). Other tool types characteristic of the Fayum Neolithic are scrapers on side-blow flakes, planes and ground celts.

The Neolithic settlement of Merimde Beni-salame on the western margin of the Delta has a stratigraphy which modern excavators have divided into five phases. The lithic artifacts of the first phase represent a flake-blade industry with flake and blade tools (mainly end-scrapers and side-scrapers, small perforators and various retouched pieces). The blades, however, are irregular specimens that are not the result of a separate blade technology. A few flake tools have bifacial edge retouch (i.e. retouch along one edge on both sides), while there are also some small nodules with bifacial retouch. One of these seems to have been shaped into an axe. True bifacial tools (with retouch entirely covering both sides) are rare, and consist of small leaf-shaped implements. One distinctive projectile point was found: it is a stemmed and barbed piece with lateral notches.

The lithic industry of Phases II-V at Merimde is very different. While there are some flake and blade tools (e.g. side-scrapers and elongate perforators), bifacial tools predominate. Particularly numerous are concave-base projectile points, bifacial sickles and axes with polished edges. Also present are bifacial drills and triangles.

The lithic industry represented at the Neolithic site of el-Omari, to the south of Cairo, is based primarily on flake technology. Tools, such as end-scrapers, notches, denticulates, perforators and retouched pieces, are common. Also present are a few tools made on fairly regular blades. These include handled knives (a type apparently unique to el-Omari), sickle blades and double-backed perforators. The fairly numerous bifacial tools are mainly flaked and polished axes, concave-base points, bifacial triangles and bifacial sickles.

The stone tool industries of the Fayum, Merimde and el-Omari span a period of more than a thousand years (circa 5,200-4,100 BC). Their chronological relationship to each other, however, has not been precisely determined. The Fayum Neolithic and the Merimde sequence are certainly early, while that of el-Omari seems younger, at least in part. Although each has its own distinctive lithic tradition, there are also clear points of similarity, particularly among the bifacial tools. The el-Omari industry shares similarities with both Merimde industries (Phase I, and Phases II-V). Despite a careful recent analysis of the finds from el-Omari, the site was excavated about fifty years ago and its chronological development is poorly understood. It may indeed span a period of several centuries, as a series of recently obtained radiocarbon dates suggests.

In the early fourth millennium BC, a new lithic tradition appeared in Lower Egypt: the Buto-Ma’adi industry. It is dominated by well-developed blade and bladelet technologies (the resulting blades and bladelets often showing a twisting around the long axis). The blades are large and fairly regular, and many were retouched into perforators, end-scrapers and backed pieces. The bladelets are also fairly regular, and they were frequently made into perforators and backed tools, though many were retouched into micro-end-scrapers. The industry, particularly at the site of Ma’adi, also contains a variety of well-made flake scrapers, including circular scrapers as well as a series of large scrapers of tabular form, which probably represent imports from the southern Levant. Bifacial technology is very rare in the Buto-Ma’adi industry, and many of the bifacial tools found at the site of Ma’adi may represent imports from Upper Egypt. There are a few concave-base points, knives and bifacial sickles. Axes are notable for their absence.

The oldest distinct Predynastic lithic industry in Upper Egypt is the Badarian of the el-Badari region. Unfortunately, it is still essentially only known from the work of Guy Brunton and Gertrude Caton Thompson, and studies of the collections from their excavations. The Badarian is a generalized flake-blade industry, which in many ways recalls the lithic traditions of Lower Egypt. The main non-bifacial tools appear to be end-scrapers, perforators and retouched pieces. Worked tabular slabs of raw material also seem to be characteristic. The industry has a bifacial component comprising concave-base projectile points, bifacial sickles, bifacial triangles, small ovate axes and various other nonstandardized forms. While the basic classes overlap with those of the Neolithic of Lower Egypt, the Badarian tools display their own distinctive variations of form and flaking style. The concave-base points, for example, are generally much more refined in shape, with delicate narrow barbs and very flat, regular retouch.

In the el-Badari region, the Badarian industry is succeeded by the Mostagedda industry, which dates primarily to the Nagada II phase of the Upper Egyptian Predynastic sequence. In contrast to the continuum of small flakes and blades of the Badarian, the Mostagedda industry is characterized by large, regular blades, many of which were used for tool manufacture. The predominant blade tool categories are end-scrapers, truncations, backed pieces, sickle blades and retouched pieces. Also present are burins, perforators, blade knives and truncation knives, as well as large circular scrapers (made on cortex flakes and natural spalls). Additionally, there are distinctive heat-treated bladelets which were retouched into micro-end-scrapers and other simple tool forms. Bifacial tools occur, including bifacial knives, "fishtail" -shaped implements, bifacial sickles and concave-base points.

Stages in the manufacture of a Predynastic bifacial knife

Figure 84 Stages in the manufacture of a Predynastic bifacial knife

Moving southward, the next distinct lithic industry is in the area from Nag Hammadi to Armant. This industry is typified by assemblages from the Nagada region. It is predominantly a simple flake industry with the main tool types consisting of end-scrapers, burins, notches and retouched pieces. (Other tools include perforators, truncations, grand pergoirs and planes.) There is a small percentage of bifacial tools, which consist mostly of small axes with a distinctive (tranchet) preparation of the axe edge. A small proportion of regular blades and blade tools is added to the Nagada industry during the Nagada II phase.

The lithic industry of the Hierakonpolis region during the Nagada I phase is based on two major blank technologies: the production of flakes and a blade-bladelet technology yielding small blades and bladelets of moderate regularity. Both flakes and blades were retouched into burins, end-scrapers, notches and other tools (including a few truncations, denticulates, backed pieces and transverse arrowheads). Bifacial tools are rare, but include knife-like implements and winged drills. Also present is a heat-treated bladelet technology. Another technology which seems to appear in the late Nagada I is the limited production of bladelets of a slightly coarse gray variety of flint for conversion into small drill bits or "micro-drills." As in the Nagada industry, regular blades and tools on such blades are added to the inventory of the Hierakonpolis industry in the Nagada II phase.

The adoption of a regular blade technology in Nagada II times is a phenomenon observed throughout the Upper Egyptian Nile Valley. It may represent a technology derived from the Buto-Ma’adi industry of Lower Egypt, and there seem to be similarities between the Buto-Ma’adi blade and bladelet technologies and those of the Mostagedda industry of the el-Badari region. By the end of the Predynastic period, the Lower Egyptian blade technology had developed further to become even more standardized and regular than that of the earlier Buto-Ma’adi industry. Thus by the beginning of the 1st Dynasty (circa 3,100-3,000 BC), very regular blades and blade tools were being produced in both Upper and Lower Egypt.

Predynastic stone tools (a) notch; (b) truncation knife; (c) micro-end-scraper (on bladelet of heat- treated flint); (d) microdrill; (e) transverse arrowhead; (f) burin; (g) perforator; (h) sickle blade; (i) end-scraper on flake; (j) concave-base projectile point; (k) blade knife; (l) end-scraper on blade; (m) truncation with backing retouch

Figure 85 Predynastic stone tools (a) notch; (b) truncation knife; (c) micro-end-scraper (on bladelet of heat- treated flint); (d) microdrill; (e) transverse arrowhead; (f) burin; (g) perforator; (h) sickle blade; (i) end-scraper on flake; (j) concave-base projectile point; (k) blade knife; (l) end-scraper on blade; (m) truncation with backing retouch

The production of regular blades represents only one of several stone-working technologies that were practiced by craft specialists. The elaboration of stone tool techniques seen in the later Predynastic undoubtedly reflects a concomitant increase in the number of lithic artisans as Predynastic society became more differentiated.

The above discussion is based primarily on artifacts recovered from settlements. The spectacular implements, such as the fishtails and ripple-flaked knives that are generally regarded as so characteristic of the Predynastic, are in fact very rare and virtually all come from graves. Compared with the settlements, Predynastic cemeteries have yielded a more restricted number and range of stone artifacts. Among them is a relatively high proportion of bifacial tools, on which earlier excavators focused their attention, consequently biasing our view of Predynastic stone tools.

Nile, flood history

Unusually high or low Nile floods are not directly related to climatic changes in the Egyptian deserts, but to the monsoonal rains over Ethiopia and, to a lesser degree, the White Nile Basin. "Good" Nile floods were critical for agricultural productivity, while indifferent floods could lead to food shortfalls and unusually low ones might result in disastrous famines. Exceptionally high floods could be disastrous as well, by destroying irrigation works or natural levees and by keeping water on the fields too long, delaying planting and hence harvesting until early in the hot season, parching the crops and reducing yields. During the planting season, waterlogged soils teemed with parasites that attacked the sown seed.

The unpredictable rhythms of the Nile also affected hunting, fishing and gathering peoples during earlier times. The primary fish taken by prehistoric fishers all spawn on the flooded plain, so that good inundations assure plenty of fish, which become stranded in isolated pools as the floodwaters recede. Poor floods, on the other hand, spell a poor catch; with a few decades of declining floods, the Nile channel begins to entrench, eventually carving out a lower and narrower floodplain, that spawns even fewer fish. Other food resources also suffer with poor floods, as primary productivity declines and grazing animals find less grass, that also withers earlier, on a floodplain that has been incompletely inundated. The impact of unusually high floods must be inferential, but protracted flooding would probably allow predatory, juvenile Nile perch unusual opportunity to reduce fish stocks; increasingly stagnant waters would also be deleterious, while reducing nutritive grasses in favor of high cellulose plants, so providing poorer pasturage for game returning to the floodplain.

The prehistoric record of Nile behavior remains encoded in the concepts and nomenclature of geomorphology, which identifies dunes sands, channel beds, shore zones and, above all, the overbank silts that build up on an aggrading floodplain after each flood. A valley-margin lake fed primarily by the Nile seepage water and supporting rich diatom blooms may seem a good resource environment, but the chances are that the alkaline waters are barely potable and support little vegetation, much like the wave spillover ponds behind the beaches of modern Lake Turkana. Active accretion of overbank silts most probably signals abundant resources tied to good floods, while advancing valley-margin dunes may be symptomatic of indifferent floods, unable to support seepage vegetation or to rework wind-borne sand by undercutting and erosion. Silt encroachment high on the desert edge may or may not record unusually severe flooding, while evidence for even temporary channel entrenchment may reflect a run of particularly poor floods. The geological record must therefore be decoded in order to appreciate its geoarchaeological implications.

The Nilotic environment during the profusion of Late Paleolithic stone tool industries about 20,000-12,500 BP (years "before present") was unstable in terms of human ecology, with suites of good floods allowing fish, mammal and human populations to grow, but a few decades of Nile entrenchment provoking crises for all three. An incisive period of entrenchment perhaps 16,000 BP, coincident with a marked turnover of Late Paleolithic industries, possibly provoked social realignments and adaptive readjustments. A similar process may also have been underway toward 12,500 BP, when the Nile had begun to entrench, only to be overwhelmed by some 500 years of catastrophic flood events (the "Wild Nile"), 5-10m higher than usual. Then, after 12,000 BP, the configuration of the Nile floodplain was radically changed, as the Nile channel cut down by 25m or more, a crisis probably more serious than that of the Wild Nile. The subsequent Epi-paleolithic industries suggest some simplification and a redirection of subsistence patterns.

The semi-continuous, late prehistoric archaeological record of the Fayum offers an unusual opportunity to move beyond typological identification and simple models, contrasting the Qarunian stone tool industry with those of the Fayumian or Moerian, to examining elements that may be more sensitive to severe, periodic subsistence crises, as the lake level rose and fell in response to changing Nile flood volumes. Of interest is the first appearance of Predynastic materials, following a surge of Nile floods and then a spate of low floods circa 4,200-4,000 BC.

Information on flood history during the Dynastic period comes mainly, but not only, from textual sources. Nile flood levels declined markedly between the 1st and 4th Dynasties, especially at the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 2nd Dynasty. Here the records are supported by floodplain entrenchment in Nubia. During the 5th and 6th Dynasties, a rock causeway was built in the Fayum desert to bring quarried rock to a boat-loading ramp usable between 12 and 22m, implying a moderately high lake. The available physical evidence does not support a Nile flood crisis at the end of the 6th Dynasty, and the breakdown of the First Intermediate Period is better explained by the collapse of trading networks in the Near East, reinforcing the impacts of decentralization within Egypt.

During the 12th-13th Dynasties, the Fayum lake rose to unusually high levels on at least three occasions, confirming phenomenal floods recorded by late 12th Dynasty inscriptions at the Second Cataract. During the second half of the Ramesside period (circa 1,170-1,100 BC), the Nubian floodplain was again entrenched, at a time of spiraling food prices in Egypt. During the ninth century BC, flood levels were normal or high, as they were at the time of Herodotus. The food crisis of the twelfth century BC may have contributed to the destabilization of the New Kingdom.

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