Predynastic period, overview (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

The Predynastic period dates to the fourth millennium BC, when early farming communities first arose in the Egyptian Nile Valley. By the middle of this millennium social organization in some villages in Upper Egypt was becoming increasingly complex, and by 3000 BC the Early Dynastic state of Egypt had formed, unifing a large territory along the Nile from the northern Delta to Aswan at the First Cataract. During the Predynastic period cereal agriculture, which had been introduced earlier from southwest Asia, was adapted to the floodplain ecology of the lower Nile Valley, with enormous economic potential. By the end of the Predynastic period a simple form of irrigation agriculture may have been practiced which provided the economic base of the Dynastic state.

In the early fourth millennium BC two different cultures emerged: the Ma’adi culture of Lower Egypt and the Nagada culture of Upper Egypt. The Ma’adi culture, named after the site of Ma’adi located south of present-day Cairo, most likely evolved from indigenous Neolithic cultures. Sites with Ma’adi ceramics extend from Buto near the Mediterranean to south of Cairo, and into the Fayum region, but information regarding settlement patterns is fairly incomplete.

The Nagada culture of Upper Egypt is named after the largest known Predynastic site, Nagada. This is a different material culture from that in the north, and the origins of the Nagada culture are probably to be found among indigenous hunter-gatherers and fishermen living along the Nile. Archaeological evidence, mainly from cemeteries, suggests a core area of the Nagada culture that extended from Abydos in the north to Hierakonpolis in the south, but Nagada sites also exist on the east bank in the el-Badari region and in the Fayum. Major centers developed at Abydos, Nagada and Hierakonpolis (Nekhen). By the end of the Predynastic period (Nagada III), sites with Nagada culture ceramics are found in the northern Delta. In Lower Nubia there are numerous A-Group burials which contain many Nagada culture craft goods probably obtained through trade, but the A-Group seems to represent a different culture. Systematic study of the Predynastic began with Flinders Petrie’s excavations at Nagada in 1894-5. Relative dating of the Nagada culture has been based on a seriation of grave goods devised by Petrie, which he called "Sequence Dating" (SD). Petrie recognized three periods of the Predynastic: Amratian, Gerzean and Semainean. The Badarian, an earlier phase of the Predynastic, is known from Middle Egypt. More recently, this sequence has been modified by Werner Kaiser into three (slightly different) phases, Nagada I, II and III. Kings of a unified Egypt immediately preceding the 1st Dynasty are placed in what is called "Dynasty 0."


Calibrated radiocarbon dates of two charcoal samples from a Badarian site circa the mid-fifth millenium BC, excavated by Diane Holmes, suggest one of the earliest farming villages in the Nile Valley. Calibrated dates published by Fekri Hassan from three early Nagada (I) sites are circa 3800 BC, and dates of the Nagada II area of "South Town," the large town excavated by Petrie at Nagada, range from 3600 to 3300 BC. One calibrated date of 3100 BC has been recorded for a Nagada III tomb at Hierakonpolis. A chronology compiled by the late Klaus Baer, based on king lists, places the beginning of the 1st Dynasty at circa 3050 BC.

Predynastic sites in Egypt

Figure 2 Predynastic sites in Egypt

Archaeological evidence of Predynastic cultures

In Upper Egypt, one of the earliest archaeological surveys was conducted by Henri de Morgan for the Brooklyn Museum in 1906-7 and 1907-8. Surveying between Gebel es-Silsila (65km north of Aswan) and Esna, de Morgan excavated seven sites with Predynastic and Early Dynastic remains, including settlements as well as cemeteries. Fourteen additional Predynastic sites in the region were reported. More recent investigations have been done by Beatrix Midant-Reynes at one of these sites, el-Ada’ima.

Hierakonpolis is certainly the most important Predynastic site in the far south. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, excavations were conducted there by de Morgan, J.E.Quibell and F.W.Green, and John Garstang. The best known finds from this period are the maceheads of (King) Scorpion and Narmer, and the (Nagada II) "Decorated Tomb," with painted plaster walls. More recent investigations by the late Walter Fairservis and the late Michael Hoffman located over fifty Predynastic sites, including cemeteries, settlements and industrial sites for the production of pottery, beads, stone vases and beer. Hoffman excavated the remains of Predynastic houses, and a large oval courtyard may be the earliest evidence for a (Nagada II) temple complex. A cemetery area (Locality 6) contained large (Nagada III) tombs, up to 22.75 sqm in floor area, which possibly belonged to the late Predynastic rulers of Hierakonpolis.

On the west bank 9km southwest of Luxor is the Predynastic site of Armant. O.H.Myers excavated a Predynastic village and Predynastic Cemetery 1400-1500 here, with graves from all three Nagada phases. The grave goods from this cemetery were important for Kaiser’s revisions of Petrie’s Predynastic sequence. In the 1980s Polish archaeologists excavated a Predynastic settlement near this cemetery, but the only evidence of permanent architecture were circular structures built of large limestone slabs.

Located 28km northwest of Luxor, on the west bank, the three Predynastic cemeteries at Nagada were excavated by Petrie in 1894-5. With over 2,200 graves, these cemeteries, along with the estimated 1,000 burials excavated by Quibell at Ballas, just north of Nagada, form the largest known mortuary area in Predynastic Egypt. The small Cemetery T at Nagada (Nagada II-III) has been considered the burial place of Predynastic chieftains or kings. One well-preserved "royal" tomb with an elaborately niched mudbrick superstructure, excavated by Jacques de Morgan along with small graves with Early Dynastic grave goods, contained mud sealings of (King) Aha who reigned at the beginning of the 1st Dynasty. Two Predynastic settlements, "North Town" and "South Town," were also investigated by Petrie in the Nagada region. In the northern part of South Town Petrie found the remains of a thick mudbrick wall, which appeared to be a type of fortification.

Opposite Nagada are more Predynastic sites. Fernand Debono located a Predynastic village and graves near Lakeita, 33km southeast of Quft/Qift in the Wadi Hammamat. At Quft in the temple of Isis and Min, Petrie excavated a deposit with Predynastic potsherds, stone tools and maceheads.

About 45km northwest of Nagada, below the Qena bend of the Nile, a major Predynastic center was located at Hu, known as Diospolis Parva in Graeco-Roman times. In 1898-9, Petrie excavated six "prehistoric" cemeteries in the region, and he noted the remains of prehistoric villages. Cemetery H, near the village of Semaineh, was also where Petrie excavated burials with Nagada III grave goods; hence the term "Semainean" for his latest Predynastic phase.

This village was associated with the large Predynastic cemetery excavated by Petrie at Abadiya. On the east bank opposite Girga at Naga ed-Deir, a Predynastic cemetery (7000), with over 600 burials, was excavated by Albert Lythgoe in 1903-4. One large burial (7304) contained lapis lazuli beads and a cylinder seal with a (Jemdet Nasr-style) design, imported or emulating an artifact from a contemporaneous culture in southern Mesopotamia. Excavations were resumed in the region in 1910 by the Boston-Harvard Expedition.

Abydos was a major center of Predynastic culture in Upper Egypt. Diana Craig Patch’s recent investigations here of cemeteries and settlements show a change in settlement patterns through time, with some nucleation within the region by the end of the Nagada II phase. Predynastic cemeteries recorded in the Abydos region are in three areas, one near the Osiris temple, the others near the villages of el-Amra and el-Mahasna. In 1901, D.Randall-MacIver and A.C.Mace excavated (or estimated) more than 1,000 Predynastic and Early Dynastic burials near the village of el-Amra, from which the term Amratian (=Nagada I) is derived. Excavated at el-Amra was a unique clay model of a rectangular Predynastic house.

The Umm el-Qa’ab at Abydos is where the kings of the 1st Dynasty built their tombs and "funerary enclosures," walled constructions located along the edge of cultivation. Northeast of the royal tombs are smaller and less elaborate tombs (B group) excavated by Petrie, investigated more recently by Kaiser and Gunter Dreyer. Several of these tombs have been identified as belonging to three kings of Dynasty 0 and the first king of the 1st Dynasty A tomb (U-j) has also been excavated here with over 400 pots imported from Palestine and many bone labels with the earliest known hieroglyphs. This evidence, then, is of a royal cemetery dating to the end of the Predynastic (Nagada IIIa-b/Dynasty 0), possibly of kings whose descendants reigned in the 1st Dynasty.

In Middle Egypt, Predynastic sites are known from the el-Badari district, on the east bank of the Nile. The earliest class of pottery ("Badarian") from sites in this region is thought to be earlier than Petrie’s Predynastic classes from Upper Egypt, a chronology demonstrated by Gertrude Caton Thompson’s excavation of the stratified midden at Hemamieh. Guy Brunton also thought that the graves he excavated at Deir Tasa, containing stone celts and black incised pottery, represent an early phase of the Badarian. At el-Badari, the remains of small Predynastic settlements and cemeteries were located on spurs above the floodplain. At Hemamieh were the remains of hut and/or storage circles, and at Mostagedda, Brunton excavated several small Predynastic villages, consisting of hut circles and middens. A recent archaeological survey in the el-Badari district by Diane Holmes and Renee Friedman has led to the discovery of two Predynastic sites. The ceramics collected at these sites suggest that in the el-Badari district, the "Badarian" is not a cultural period which entirely preceded the Amratian (Nagada I), but perhaps one which chronologically overlaps the Amratian known farther south.


North of the el-Badari district, no Predynastic sites are known for over 300km. Archaeological evidence in the Fayum of both Nagada and Ma’adi culture wares now seems to suggest that this region was where peoples of the Predynastic cultures of Upper and Lower Egypt first came into contact. The best known Predynastic site in the Fayum region is the small cemetery at Gerza, from which the term Gerzean (Nagada II) is derived. Excavated by Petrie, this cemetery contained 288 burials with (Upper Egyptian) ceramics which are typically Nagada II. A later Predynastic cemetery with several hundred burials, excavated by Georg Moller, is located at Abusir el-Meleq, about 10km west of the present Nile. Ma’adi culture ceramics are found at the cemetery of es-Saff on the east bank opposite Gerza, and a site near Qasr Qarun in the southwestern region of the Fayum, excavated by Caton Thompson and E.W.Gardner in the 1930s.

Haraga, southeast of the village of Lahun, was excavated in 1913-14 by Reginald Engelbach. Two Predynastic cemeteries contained burials with (Upper Egyptian) Nagada II pottery, though some of the pottery from one cemetery (H) resembles Predynastic Lower Egyptian wares. At Sedment, southwest of Haraga, ceramics excavated by Petrie and Brunton included small Black-topped Red Ware jars (Nagada culture, in Cemetery J), but Ma’adi culture ceramics in circular pits (without burials) in another area.

In the Cairo region on the east bank, Predynastic evidence of a material culture different from that of Upper Egypt has been found at two major sites, el-Omari and Ma’adi. At el-Omari, an early Predynastic settlement was excavated by Fernand Debono. To the west was a village, "Omari A," where the dead were interred in houses, including oval structures and round, semi-subterranean ones. A second village had a separate cemetery, where each grave was covered with a mound of stones. Pottery at el-Omari consists of Ma’adi culture ceramics.

Four sites were excavated at Ma’adi by Cairo University archaeologists from 1930 to 1953, including a large settlement of over 40,000 sqm. More recent excavations have been conducted in the eastern part of the settlement by Italian archaeologists. Few grave goods were found in any of the 76 graves next to the Ma’adi settlement. In another cemetery at the mouth of the Wadi Digla ("Ma’adi South"), 468 human burials and 14 animal burials were excavated, consisting of simple oval pits with either a few pots or entirely without grave goods. Ma’adi culture ceramics have also been found at Tura, 2km south of Ma’adi, and at Heliopolis, now a district of Cairo, in a small early Predynastic cemetery. However, at Tura a large Nagada III/early 1st Dynasty cemetery was also excavated by Hermann Junker, with grave goods of typical Nagada III pots.

Evidence from the recent Ma’adi excavations suggests that through time occupation within the settlement shifted from east to west. There is no evidence of a planned settlement, nor are there any known areas of specialized activity. Houses consisted mainly of wattle and matting, sometimes covered with mud. Pottery from Ma’adi has datable parallels in Upper Egypt from the Nagada I and II phases, and the ceramic evidence suggests an end to occupation at Ma’adi by late Nagada II times (end of Nagada IIc). Most of the pottery excavated at Ma’adi is of a local ware not found in Upper Egypt. Recent investigations suggest that copper ore found throughout the site may have been used for pigment, and not for smelting.

Although archaeological evidence at Ma’adi and Ma’adi-related sites is mainly from settlements, unlike most of the surviving evidence of Nagada culture cemeteries in Upper Egypt, what is known about Ma’adi suggests a material culture very different from that in the south. The cemetery at Ma’adi, with its very simple human burials, is also very different from Predynastic cemeteries in Upper Egypt. Some contact with southwest Asia is demonstrated by the imported coarse-tempered ware at Ma’adi, which may have been a northern Egyptian center for trade with Palestine.

In the northeast Delta, surveys conducted by Dutch and Italian archaeologists in the 1980s have yielded evidence of a number of sites dating to the fourth and third millennia BC, and late Roman times. Excavations at Tell el-Farkha have demonstrated a clear break, with a change in pottery fabrics and stratigraphic evidence of settlement abandonment, between the Predynastic and Early Dynastic occupations. At Tell Ibrahim Awad the stratigraphy shows an uninterrupted sequence from the late Predynastic, with no mudbrick architecture, to the Early Dynastic, with substantial mudbrick architecture. The early pottery is comparable to the straw-tempered ware from Tell el-Fara’in/Buto, farther west in the Delta, but it disappears and is replaced by wares known from Nagada III and Early Dynastic sites in the Delta and the Nile Valley. At Minshat Abu Omar, circa 150km northeast of Cairo, a cemetery with Predynastic/Early Dynastic graves has been excavated by German archaeologists. Similar archaeological evidence is found at other sites in the northeast Delta: Tell el-Ginn, el-Husseiniya, Tell Samara, Gezira Sangaha, Kufur Nigm, Beni Amir, el-Beidha and Bubastis. With the exception of early Nagada culture pottery (Black-topped Red and White Cross-lined classes), all other southern Predynastic classes of pottery are present (Nagada II-III) and continue into the 1st Dynasty.

On the western fringe of the Delta, about 60km northwest of Cairo, is the large prehistoric site of Merimde Beni-salame. Junker dug here from 1928 to 1939, but most of the excavation notes were lost during the Second World War. Reported by Hassan, radiocarbon dates for Merimde are from the fifth millennium BC. Junker thought that the circa 160,000 sqm of settlement was occupied continuously, but it is more likely that there was horizontal movement of the site through time. Merimde burials were without grave goods, and many were of children. In the 1980s, more excavations were conducted at Merimde by Josef Eiwanger, between and to the north of the areas excavated by Junker. Eiwanger has identified five phases of occupation, with a discernible change in the stone tools and ceramics between the first and subsequent phases. Storage pits are known from the four later phases, and emmer wheat and barley were the most abundant plant remains.

At Tell el-Fara’in/Buto in the northern Delta, Thomas von der Way has excavated remains of a settlement from the later fourth millennium BC below levels dating to the third millennium BC. Most of the wares at Tell el-Fara’in were also found at Ma’adi. Above two layers with Lower Egyptian ceramics is a transitional layer with decreasing amounts of these ceramics and, for the first time, Nagada (IId) style pottery. Imported pottery includes Nagada culture classes and a ware known from northern Syria (‘Amuq F).

Archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates the existence of two different material cultures with different belief systems in Egypt in the fourth millennium BC: the Nagada culture of Upper Egypt and the Ma’adi culture of Lower Egypt. Evidence in Lower Egypt consists mainly of settlements with very simple burials, in contrast to Upper Egypt, where cemeteries with elaborate burials are found. The rich grave goods in several major cemeteries in Upper Egypt represent the acquired wealth of higher social strata, and these cemeteries were probably associated with centers of craft production. Trade and exchange of finished goods and luxury materials from the Eastern and Western Deserts and Nubia would also have taken place in such centers. In Lower Egypt, however, while excavated settlements permit a broader reconstruction of the prehistoric economy, there is little evidence for any great socioeconomic complexity.

State formation

Archaeological evidence points to the origins of the state which emerged by the 1st Dynasty in the Nagada culture of Upper Egypt, where grave types, pottery and artifacts demonstrate an evolution of form from the Predynastic to the 1st Dynasty. This cannot be demonstrated for the material culture of Lower Egypt, which was eventually displaced by that originating in Upper Egypt.

The highly differentiated burials in later Predynastic cemeteries of Upper Egypt (but not Lower Egypt), where elite burials contained great numbers of grave goods in sometimes exotic materials, such as gold and lapis lazuli, are symbolic of an increasingly hierarchical society. Such burials probably represent the earliest processes of competition and the aggrandizement of local polities in Upper Egypt as economic interaction occurred regionally. Control of the distribution of exotic raw materials and the production of prestigious craft goods would have reinforced the position of chiefs in Predynastic centers, and such goods were important symbols of status.

A motivating factor for Nagada culture expansion into northern Egypt would have been to directly control the lucrative trade with other regions in the eastern Mediterranean. But more importantly, large boats were the key to control and communication on the Nile and large-scale economic exchange. Timber for the construction of such boats (cedars) did not grow in Egypt, but came from Lebanon. Gold was an Upper (not Lower) Egyptian resource, along with various kinds of stone used for carved vessels and beads. Possibly there was first a more or less peaceful(?) movement or migration(s) of Nagada culture peoples from south to north, as suggested by archaeological evidence of Nagada culture in the Fayum region. The final unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under one rule may have been achieved through military conquest(s) in the north, but there is not much evidence for this aside from scenes carved on stylistically late Predynastic palettes. Possibly there was an earlier unification of Upper Egyptian polities, either by a series of alliances or through warfare.

By circa 3050 BC the Early Dynastic state had emerged in Egypt. One result of the expansion of Nagada culture throughout northern Egypt would have been a greatly elaborated (state) administration, and by the beginning of the 1st Dynasty this was managed in part by the invention of writing, used on sealings and tags affixed to state goods. The early Egyptian state was a centrally controlled polity ruled by a (god-)king from the newly founded capital of Memphis in the north, near Saqqara. What is truly unique about the early state in Egypt is the integration of rule over an extensive geographic region. There was undoubtedly heightened commercial contact with southwest Asia in the late fourth millennium BC, but the Early Dynastic state in Egypt was unique and indigenous in character.

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