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Predynastic Period in Egypt › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2016
Female Figurine, Predynastic Egypt (Brooklyn Museum)
The Predynastic Period in Ancient Egypt is the time before recorded history from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic Age and on to the rise of the First Dynasty and is generally recognized as spanning the era from c. 6000-3150 BCE (though physical evidence argues for a longer history). While there are no written records from this period, archaeological excavations throughout Egypt have uncovered artifacts which tell their own story of the development of culture in the Nile River Valley. The periods of the Predynastic Period are named for the regions/ancient city sites in which these artifacts were found and do not reflect the names of the cultures who actually lived in those areas.
The Predynastic Period was given its name in the early days of archaeological expeditions in Egypt before many of the most important finds were discovered and catalogued which has led some scholars to argue over when, precisely, the Predynastic Period begins and, more importantly, ends. These scholars suggest the adoption of another designation, 'Protodynastic Period', for that span of time closer to the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BCE) or 'Zero Dynasty'. These designations are not universally agreed upon and 'Predynastic Period' is the term most commonly accepted for the period prior to the first historical dynasties.


In charting the history of ancient Egypt, scholars rely on archaeological evidence and ancient works such as the Egyptian dynastic chronology of Manetho, a scribe who wrote the Aegyptiaca, the History of Egypt, in the 3rd century BCE. The scholar Douglas J. Brewer describes the work: "Manetho's history was, in essence, a chronology of events arranged from oldest to most recent, according to the reign of a particular king" (8). Brewer continues on to describe the events which inspired Manetho to write his history:
The origin of the dynastic chronological system dates back to the time of Alexander the Great. After Alexander's death, his empire was divided among his generals, one of whom, Ptolemy, received the richest prize, Egypt.Under his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (c. 280 BC), an Egyptian priest named Manetho wrote a condensed history of his native land for the new Greek rulers. Manetho, a native of Sebennytus in the Delta, had been educated in the old scribal traditions. Although Egypt's priests were famous for handing out tidbits of information (often intentionally incorrect) to curious travellers, none had ever attempted to compile a complete history of Egypt, especially for foreigners (8).
Unfortunately, Manetho's original manuscript has been lost and the only record of his chronology is from the works of later historians such as Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE). This has led to some controversy over how accurate Manetho's chronology is but, even so, it is routinely consulted by scholars, archaeologists, and historians in charting the history of ancient Egypt. The following discussion of the Predynastic Period relies on archaeological finds over the past two hundred years and their interpretation by archaeologists and scholars but it should be noted that historical sequences did not seamlessly follow each other, like chapters in a book, as the dates given for these cultures suggest. Cultures overlapped and, according to some interpretations, 'different cultures' in the Predynastic Period can be seen as simply developments of a single culture.
Nile Delta

Nile Delta


The earliest evidence of human habitation in the region is thought by some to go back as far as 700,000 years. The oldest evidence of structures discovered thus far were found in the region of Wadi Halfa, ancient Nubia, in modern-day Sudan. These communities were built by a hunter-gatherer society who constructed mobile homes of flat sandstone floors most likely covered by animal skins or brush and perhaps held up by wooden stakes. The actual structures vanished centuries ago, of course, but man-made depressions in the earth, with stone floors, remained. These depressions were discovered by the Polish archaeologist Waldemar Chmielewski (1929-2004 CE) in the 1980's CE and were designated 'tent rings' in that they provided an area to set up a shelter which could easily be taken down and moved, similar to what one would find at a modern camp site. These rings are dated to the Late Paleolithic Age of approximately the 40th millenium BCE.
Hunter-Gatherer societies continued in the region throughout the periods now designated as those of the Arterian and Khormusan during which stone tools were manufactured with greater skill. The Halfan Culture then flourished c. 30,000 BCE in the region between Egypt and Nubia which gave way to the Qadan and Sebilian Cultures (c. 10,000 BCE) and the Harifan Culture from around the same time. All of these societies are characterized as hunter-gatherers who eventually became more sedentary and settled into more permanent communities centered around agriculture. Brewer writes:
One of the most intriguing mysteries of prehistoric Egypt is the transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic life, represented by the transformation from hunting and gathering to sedentary farming. We know very little about how and why this change occurred.Perhaps nowhere is this cultural transition more accessible than in the Fayyum depression (58).
The Fayyum depression (also known as the Faiyum Oasis) is a natural basin south-east of the Giza Plateau which gave rise to the culture known as Faiyum A (c. 9000-6000 BCE). These people inhabited the area around a large lake and relied on agriculture, hunting, and fishing for their living. Evidence of seasonal migration has been found but, for the most part, the area was continually inhabited. Among the earliest art works discovered from this period are pieces of faience which appears to have already been an industry as early as 5500 BCE at Abydos.


The people of Faiyum A built reed huts with underground cellars for storage of grains. Cattle, sheep, and goats were domesticated and baskets and pottery making developed. Centralized forms of tribal government began at this period with tribal chieftains assuming positions of power which may have been passed on to the next generation in a family or tribal unit.Communities grew from small tribes which traveled together to extended groups of different tribes living in one area continuously.


The Faiym A Culture gave rise to the Merimda (c. 5000-4000 BCE), so-called because of the discovery of artifacts at the site of that name on the western edge of the Nile Delta. According to scholar Margaret Bunson, the reed huts of the Faiyum A period gave way to "pole-framed huts, with wind-breaks, and some used semi-subterranean residences, building the walls high enough to stand above ground. Small, the habitations were laid out in rows, possibly part of a circular pattern. Granaries were composed of clay jars or baskets, buried up to the neck in the ground" (75). These developments were improved upon by the El-Omari Culture (c. 4000 BCE) who built oval huts of greater sophistication with walls of plastered mud. They developed blade tools and woven mats for floors and walls and more sophisticated ceramics. The Ma'adi and the Tasian Cultures developed about the same time as the El-Omari characterized by further developments in architecture and technology. They continued the practice of ceramics without ornamentation begun in the El-Omari period and made use of grindstones. Their greatest advance seems to have been in the area of architecture as they had large buildings constructed in their community with underground chambers, stairs, and hearths. Prior to the Ma'adi Culture, the deceased were buried in or near people's homes for the most part but, around c.4,000 BCE, cemeteries became more widely used. Bunson notes that "three cemeteries were in use during this sequence, as at Wadi Digla, although the remains of some unborn children were found in the settlement" (75). Improvements in storage jars and weaponry is also characteristic of this period.


All of these cultures grew and flourished in the region known as Lower Egypt (northern Egypt, closest to the Mediterranean Sea) while civilization in Upper Egypt developed later. The Badarian culture (c. 4500-4000 BCE) seems to have been an outgrowth of the Tasian, though this is disputed. Scholars who support the link between the two point to similarities in ceramics and other evidence such as tool-making while those who dismiss the claim argue that the Badarian was much more advanced and developed independently.
The people of the Badarian Culture lived in tents which were mobile, just like their ancient predecessors, but primarily favored stationary huts. They were farmers who grew wheat, barley, and herbs and supplemented their largely vegetarian diet through hunting. Domesticated animals also provided food and clothing as well as materials for tents. A large number of grave goods have been found from this period including weapons and tools such as throwing sticks, knives, arrowheads, and planes.People were buried in cemeteries and the bodies covered with animal hides and laid on mats of reeds. During this period food offerings and personal belongings were buried with the dead, indicating a shift in the belief structure (or at least in burialpractices) where now the dead were thought to need material goods in their journey to the afterlife. Ceramic work was greatly improved during the Badarian Culture and the pottery they produced was thinner and more finely crafted than earlier periods.


Following the Badarian Period came the Amratian (also known as Naqada I) Period of c. 4000-3500 BCE which created more sophisticated dwellings which may have had windows and definitely had hearths, walls of wattle and daub, and windbreaks outside the main doorway. Ceramics were highly developed as were other artistic pursuits such as sculpting. The Blacktop Ware ceramics of the Badarian Culture gave way to red ceramics ornamented with images of people and animals. Sometime around 3500 BCE the practice of mummification began and grave goods continued to be left with the deceased. These advances were furthered by the Gerzean Culture (c. 3500-3200 BCE, also known as Naqada II) who initiated trade with other regions which inspired changes in the culture and their art. Bunson comments on this, writing :
Accelerated trade brought advances in the artistic skills of the people of this era, and Palestinian influences are evident in the pottery, which began to include tilted spouts and handles. A light-colored pottery emerged in Naqada II, composed of clay and calcium carbonate. Originally, the vessels had red patterns, changing to scenes of animals, boats, trees, and herds later on. It is probable that such pottery was mass-producred at certain settlements for trading purposes. Copper was evident in weapons and in jewelry, and the people of this sequence used gold foil and silver. Flint blades were sophisticated and beads and amulets were made out of metals and lapis lazuli (76).
Houses were made of sun-baked brick and the more expensive featured courtyards (an addition which would become commonplace in Egyptian homes later). Graves became more ornate with wood used in the graves of the more affluent and niches carved in the sides for votive offerings. The city of Abydos, north of Naqada, became an important burial site and large tombs (one with twelve rooms) were constructed which grew into a necropolis (a city of the dead). These tombs were originally built using mud bricks but, later (during the Third Dynasty) were constructed of large, carefully hewn, limestone; eventually the site would become the burial place for the kings of Egypt.


Even at this time, however, evidence suggests that people from around the country had their dead buried at Abydos and sent grave goods to honor their memory. The cities of Xois and Hierakonpolis were already considered old by this time and those of Thinis, Naqada, and Nekhen were developing quickly. Heiroglyphic script, developed at some point between c. 3400-3200 BCE, was used for keeping records but no complete sentences from this period have been found. The earliest Egyptian writing discovered thus far comes from Abydos at this time and was found on ceramics, clay seal impressions, and bone and ivory pieces. Evidence of complete sentences does not appear in Egypt until the reign of the king Peribsen in the Second Dynasty (c. 2890-c.2670 BCE).
This period led to that of the Naqada III (3200-3150 BCE) which, as noted above, is also sometimes referred to as Zero Dynasty or the Protodynastic Period. Following Naqada III the Early Dynastic Period, and the written history of Egypt, begins.
Narmer Palette

Narmer Palette


The Naqada III Period shows significant influence of the culture of Mesopotamia whose cities were in contact with the region through trade. The method of baking brick and building, as well as artifacts such as cylinder seals, symbolism on tomb walls, and designs on ceramics, and possibly even the basic form of ancient Egyptian religion can be traced back to Mesopotamian influence. Trade brought new ideas and values to Egypt along with the goods of the traders and an interesting blend of Nubian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian cultures was most likely the result (although this theory is routinely challenged by scholars of each respective culture). Monumental tombs at Abydos and the city of Hierakonpolis both show signs of Mesopotamian influence. Trade with Canaan resulted in Egyptian colonies sprouting up in what is now southern Israel and Canaanite influences can be determined through the ceramics of this period. Communities grew and flourished with trade and the populations of both Lower and Upper Egypt grew.


The small communities of brick homes and buildings grew into larger urban centers which soon attacked each other probably over trade goods and water supplies. The three major city-states of Upper Egypt at this time were Thinis, Naqada, and Nekhen. Thinis seems to have conquered Naqada and then absorbed Nekhen. These wars were fought by the Scorpion Kings, whose identity is contested, against others, most likely Ka and Narmer. According to some scholars, the last three kings of the Protodynastic Period were Scorpion I, Scorpion II, and Ka (also known as `Sekhen', which is a title, not a name) before the king Narmer conquered and unified lower and upper Egypt and established the first dynasty.
Narmer is now often identified with the king known as Menes from Manetho's chronology but this claim is not universally accepted. Menes' name is only found in Manetho's and the Turin King List chronology while Narmer has been identified as an actual Egyptian ruler through discovery of the Narmer Palette, a year marker bearing his name, and his tomb. Menes is said to have conquered the two lands of Egypt and built the city of Memphis as his capital while Narmer allegedly united the two lands peacefully. This is a curious conclusion to arrive at, however, since a king definitely identified as Narmer is depicted on the Narmer Palette, a two-foot (64 cm) inscribed slab, as a military leader conquering his enemies and subjugating the land.
No consensus has been reached on which of these claims is the more accurate or whether the two kings were actually the same person but most scholars favor the view that Narmer is the 'Menes' of Manetho's work. It is also claimed that Narmer was the last king of the Predynastic Period and Menes the first of the Early Dynastic and, further, that Menes was actually Hor-Aha, listed by Manetho as Menes' successor. Whichever is the case, once the great king (Narmer or Menes) united the two lands of Egypt, he established a central government and the era known as the Early Dynastic Period was begun which would initiate a culture lasting the next three thousand years.

Pyrrhus › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 15 March 2016
Pyrrhus (Catalaon)
Pyrrhus (also Pyrrhos or Phyrrhus, c. 319 - 272 BCE ) was the king of Epirus in northern Greece between 306 and 302 BCE and again between 297 and 272 BCE. Winning great victories against the armies of Macedon and Rome, he is considered one of the finest military commanders in history and was favourably compared to Alexander the Great by such noted generals as Hannibal. Due to the large losses suffered during his battles he has famously given his name to the expression a 'Pyrrhic victory' which refers to any military success which comes at a high cost to the victor.


Plutarch (c. 45 - c. 125 CE), the Greek historian, wrote one of his Lives biographies on Pyrrhus and much of the information we have on the great general comes from this entertaining if at times unreliable source. For example, we are told, "Pyrrhus' features were more likely to inspire fear in the beholder than to impress him with a sense of majesty" ( Pyrrhus, 386).
Pyrrhus' position as heir to the Molossian throne of Epirus was put in serious jeopardy almost from his birth when, in c. 319 BCE, Cassander, king of Macedon, overthrew his father Aeacides. Pyrrhus was forced to seek refuge in Illyria where he was protected by Glaucias. In 306 BCE Pyrrhus was able to return to Epirus and claim his birth right. However, his reign as a minor was a short one as he was forced, once again, to flee his homeland in 302 BCE.


Pyrrhus fought in the protracted squabbles for control of Alexander ’s empire known as the Successor Wars and, fighting alongside Demetrios I Poliocretes of Macedon, he was involved in the Battle of Ipsos in 301 BCE. Then, as part of a bargain between Demetrios and Ptolemy I, Pyrrhus was given to the latter as a hostage and taken to Alexandria. Endearing himself to the ruler of the Egyptian slice of the empire and even marrying his step-daughter Antigone, Pyrrhus was permitted to return to Epirus in 297 BCE. Then, after eliminating his co-ruler Neoptolemus, Pyrrhus began to take control of his own destiny.


Pyrrhus famously made Dodona his religious centre and constructed a huge theatre with 17,000 seats and a colonnaded precinct there with many fine temples. He also organised a four-yearly athletic games, the festival of Naïa, in honour of Zeus.Pyrrhus expanded his kingdom into southern Illyria and absorbed several provinces such as Amphilochia, Parauaea, and Tymphaea which bordered with Macedonia. On the death of his wife Antigone Pyrrhus made marriages of diplomatic significance to the daughter of Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse (thus acquiring Corcyra and Leucas) and Audoleon, the ruler of Paeonia. An alliance with Bardylis, the Dardanian king, strengthened his position further.
Then, campaigning against Demetrios, Pyrrhus was able to gain the loyalty of the Macedonian army and so establish himself as the ruler of Macedon with his ally Lysimachus (another successor king) in 288 BCE. This situation only lasted a few years, though, after which time, the ambitious Lysimachus drove Pyrrhus out of Macedon in 284 BCE.


Pyrrhus would establish his reputation as a great commander not via the complicated machinations of the Successor Wars but through his victories against the Mediterranean's rising new power - Rome. The two were brought in conflict following Pyrrhus' ambitious plans to build an empire which included Magna Graecia and the old Greek colonies which had spread throughout Sicily and southern Italy. Plutarch reports Pyrrhus as follows, in conversation with the philosopher Kineas,
Sicily is near, and stretches out her hands to us, an island abounding in wealth and men, and very easy to conquer, for there is nothing there, Kineas, but faction, anarchy in her cities and excitable demagogues…and we will use this as a preliminary to great enterprises. For who could keep us away from Libya or Carthage …? ( Pyrrhus, 399)
To this end, and like his uncle before him, Pyrrhus responded to a call for help from Taras (modern-day Taranto) located in the heel of the Italian peninsula. The city was under imminent Roman attack and so Pyrrhus crossed the Adriatic with his army of 25,000 infantry in 280 BCE. Employing 20 war elephants and a superior cavalry force of 3,000 Pyrrhus won victories at Heraclea in 280 BCE and Ausculum in 279 BCE.
Pyrrhic War

Pyrrhic War

In these battles Pyrrhus employed several innovations. Knowing the weakness of the traditional Greek phalanx was its lack of mobility and difficulty in maintaining its formation, especially on rough ground, he effectively used local troops to fill gaps that occurred when the phalanx engaged the enemy. He also successfully guarded his flanks using the same local contingents.These light-armed troops ( thureophoros ), with their large oval shield for defence and javelin and sword for offence, would be later introduced by Pyrrhus into warfare in Greece. Another addition to the Greek way of fighting was to use cavalry armed with javelins (known as Tarentines thereafter) which greatly increased the mobility and attacking potential of his army. The victories, nevertheless, came at a high cost in lives to the victors and these battles were not decisive, hence the lasting expression 'a Pyrrhic victory'. Plutarch has Pyrrhus retort to a friend's congratulations on his victory, "One more victory like that over the Romans will destroy us completely!" ( Pyrrhus, 409)
A positive result of Pyrrhus' victories was that he gained many new allies amongst the southern Italian tribes, especially the Bruttians, Lokroi, Lucanians, Samnites, and such cities as Kroton. The Greek king remained in Italy even when the Macedonian throne once again came up for grabs following the death of Ptolemy Keraunos in 278 BCE. Pyrrhus, instead, turned his attention to a new threat - the Carthaginians.
Metope with Pyrrhus in Battle

Metope with Pyrrhus in Battle


Pyrrhus' decision to stay in Italy and help Syracuse quickly proved a wise one when he was made king of Sicily. However, in a long and ultimately futile siege campaign against Lilybaeum (modern-day Marsala) on the west coast of the island, the threat from Carthage became more pronounced – they were clearly not prepared to leave the field to Pyrrhus. The consequence of this was the Greek king became ever more tyrannical in the parts of the island under his control. This eventually provoked rebellion and Pyrrhus fled back to the Italian mainland. Here the commander met his old enemy, the Romans, once again, and this time he lost at the Battle of Maleventum (renamed by the Romans Beneventum) in 275 BCE. With his camp overrun, the loss of most of his elephants, and an enemy able to withstand enormous losses and still take the field again, it was time for Pyrrhus to leave Italy.


Pyrrhus sailed back to Greece having lost two-thirds of the army he had first taken to Italy. After a brief foray into Macedonia where he infamously looted the tombs at Aegae, in 273 BCE he made his base in the Peloponnese from where he hoped to wrest the throne of Macedon from Antigonas II Gonatas. However, Sparta, helped by defensive trenches, proved stubbornly resistant to his attacks even if he was aided by the exiled Spartan king Cleonymus. So, in 272 BCE, Pyrrhus instead turned north to Argos where he hoped to meet Antigonas in the field. Before this could happen though, Pyrrhus was killed in a bizarre incident in the city of Argos when, in the heat of battle, an old lady on a rooftop threw down a tile at his head. Dazed, the great commander was then ruthlessly slain by the enemy. It was an ignominious end to a general who had fought in so many battles and always done so by leading his men from the front in the most ferocious parts of the battlefield. As Plutarch stated, "the general opinion of him was that for warlike experience, daring and personal valour, he had no equal among the kings of his time" ( Pyrrhus, 414).


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