Our knowledge of predynastic sites in northern Egypt is very limited, in part, because many of their settlements now lie below the water table or have been covered by later settlements. The settlements that have been discovered are characterized by simple, often undecorated red or black pottery. Early pottery is plain in shape without handles, spouts, or ornate lips. Later on, there is some variation from the plain open bowl shape, but no evidence of the fancy decorated pottery found in Upper Egyptian Neolithic cultures.
There is a gap of around 1,000 years between the Epipaleolithi settlements (of the Faiyum B or Quarian culture) in the Faiyum and the establishment of the earliest Neolithic settlements, at around 5500 BC. These early sites constitute the earliest fully Neolithic Culture in the Nile Valley.
Like the people of the Western Desert the Neolithic peoples of the Faiyum do not seem to have been fully sedentary (although granaries and hearths seem to have been more permanent). They had seasonal camps composed of mat or reed huts with communal underground granaries to exploit the resources of the area. The most obvious difference between the two cultures is the domestication of sheep and goats, and the farming of emmer wheat and six row barley.
Unlike other Neolithic cultures in the Nile Valley the Faiyum A culture never developed permanent agricultural villages, the only permanent features are hearths and granaries. The Faiyum was to some degree cut off from the Nile Valley cultures and lagged behind them in social and cultural development.
They used sickle flints set in wooden handles, large thick flaked tools, and winged arrowheads and leaf-shaped pieces. Pottery did not develop beyond fairly crude open pots made with chaff tempered clay, but there is evidence of linen woven from flax and imported beads and shells being used as adornments.
Wendorf and others have suggested, on the basis of differences in technology, pottery and tool use, that the Faiyum A culture did not derive from any local Paleolithic culture. Rather, the culture was formed by a group of settlers who may also have brought with them the prototype of the ancient Egyptian language. These settlers may have come from the Levant, they share some similar tools and domesticated the same animals.
Others (Hoffman, Hendrickx, and Vermeersch) still think the Faiyum A culture emerged from the peoples of the Saharan Neolithic culture with whom they also share many similarities. The evidence to date is not sufficient to confirm this issue one way or another.
The Merimde culture (located close to the apex of the Delta) is the earliest permanent settlement, dated to around 4800 or 4750 to 4300 or 4250 BC. It overlapped in time with the Faiyum A culture and (in its later stages) with the Badari culture in Upper Egypt.
The settlement consists of five levels or deposits representing three main cultural stages. The first stage is characterized by untempered, but sometimes polished, ceramics which were occasionally decorated with a herringbone pattern. Dwellings were flimsy, with little left but the imprint of hearths. Occupation was denser in higher land, with some evidence of semi-subterranean adobe huts, but dwellings remain very small. Lithics consisted of flakes and some bifacial retouched tools.
The second phase shows a marked increase in the density of occupation with wood and wicker oval houses with well-defined hearths, storage jars sunken into the clay floors, and large clay lined baskets which were used to store grain. Ceramics remained simple in form but were straw tempered and often polished, but not decorated. Stone tools were bifacial but concave based arrow heads appear for the first time along with bone, ivory, and shell artifacts. Cattle form a larger proportion of the domesticated animals, but hunting, fishing, and grain farming continue as before.
In the final phase, sometimes referred to as “classic Merimde”, large and well constructed oval houses are densely packed along narrow streets. Dwellings had their own granaries, sunken water jars, hearths and grinding stones, indicating that each family was an independent economic and social unit. Ceramics evolved towards closed shapes with polishing used to create decorative effects. For the first time dark red or black wares are created in a variety of forms, some with impressed or engraved decoration. There are also pottery figurines, some with holes to allow the application of hair or feathers thought to represent human hair and beards. A roughly cylindrical head, though to have at one time been attached to a wooden body, is the first representation of the human form to be discovered in Egypt.
All burials found so far were within the bounds of the settlement. Only adults were given a proper burial, children seem to have been simply thrown in rubbish pits. The orientation of the bodies is debated. It has been suggested that they were buried facing towards the hearths of their homes, but this is disputed by Kemp. Another possibility is that they were oriented towards the Nile, at least in earlier strata. What is certain, is that no grave goods were placed with the deceased except for a small number of mussel shells thought to be decorations sewn on to clothes. It may be that a formal cemetery once existed elsewhere but has been lost or destroyed. The people of the Maadi culture later reused the site as a cemetery.
The el Omari culture (named after its discoverer) inhabited a number of settlements in the area around Wadi Hof – Helwan during the period 4600 to 4350 BC. The settlements seem to have consisted of light constructions as little more than storage pits, post holes, and refuse pits were recovered. Pits lined with reed or matting were most likely granaries, although it has also been suggested they may have been subterranean dwellings.
Burials were found in both of the older settlements, some in granaries from an earlier period, others in shallow pits close to the houses. The burials themselves were oriented to the south with the deceased lying on their left side facing west (like those in Upper Egypt, but unlike Merimde). Burials did include grave goods, but usually only one pot. However, one burial contained a staff resembling the Ames scepter. It is likely that the deceased was a man of some importance, possibly a local chief or village leader.
Pottery was simple in form with an organic temper and often polished and decorated with a red coating. The tools closely resemble those found at Merimde, but they favored fishing (in addition to agriculture and animal husbandry) rather than desert hunting.
- Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
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- Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
- Hendrickx. S, Vermeersch, P (2000) “Prehistory”, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt Ed I. Shaw
- Trigger, B.G, Kemp, B.J, O’Connor. D, Lloyd. A.B (1983) Ancient Egypt, A Social History
Copyright J Hill 2016