Buto – Maadi Culture

The predynastic settlement of Buto is in the northern delta, while Maadi was located in a suburb to the south of Cairo. The settlements are better preserved than those of their southern counterparts, but information from burials is less extensive (in part because cemeteries were located in places more prone to flooding). Both burial practices and ceramic traditions are notably different from the Naqada culture.


Maadi was occupied between around 3900 and 3500 BC. (roughly contemporary with Naqada I and II). The villagers farmed cereals and kept cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. There is little evidence of hunting, but they did fish. They also seem to be the earliest culture to domesticate the donkey, and traded widely with their neighbours in Palestine, the western Desert and Upper Egypt.

Maadi clappers. Louvre, copyright Guillaume Blanchard

Their houses were made of wood and matting, and little remains except the outline of the pits cut into the ground, hearths and post holes. The settlement consisted of a number of oval huts and rectangular structures, and storage pits. There were also subterranean structures which were around five meters in length, and sunken up to three meters into the ground. These are not found elsewhere in Egypt at this time, but are similar to houses found at Beersheba (in the Negev desert). A large rectangular stone lined structure sunk two meters into the ground in the western sector is unlike any other structure from the period. It has been suggested it was a store house. There is also a subterranean dwelling nearby with a stone lined, stepped entrance corridor and a oval vaulted chamber cut into the bedrock which resembles structures found in Beersheba. Large storage pits and jars located at each end of the settlement suggest that certain supplies were stored communally.

Maadi pottery largely consisted of undecorated globular jars and bowls of Nile clay ware, either red or black. They also imported oil, wine and resins in pots from Palestine and made their own copies of this foreign pottery. Large storage jars were placed in sunken pits inside dwellings, and they also used basalt vessels with lug handles and a ring base. They had few bifacially worked tools (unlike preceding neolithic cultures) but circular scrapers and l “Canaanite blades”, imported from Palestine, were found at the site along with disc-shaped maceheads. They imported copper, most likely to use as a pigment as there is no evidence of smelting. Greywacke palettes imported from Upper Egypt seem to have been a luxury item, while locally made limestone palettes were more numerous and clearly well used.

Stillborn infants and very young children were buried within the confines of the settlement, but everyone else was laid to rest in simple graves in cemeteries some distance away. Not every burial included grave goods, and many of those that did were simply provisioned with only a few undecorated pots. In many cases the orientation of the body was random, but towards the end of the period most were placed in a contracted position, on their right side, with their head to the south facing east. There were also a number of animals buried at the larger cemetery, possibly intended to house animals which were sacrificed as part of a funerary cult.


The settlement at Buto consists of seven distinct layers of occupation, allowing us to chart the development of the culture over the predynastic period. The first two layers consist simply of postholes and the remains of reed mats suggestive of lightweight structures built of papyrus and reed. Pottery in these layers resembles that of the Maadi culture, but also imitate Naqadan wavy handled wares. The lack of any black topped wares suggests these layers corresponded to Naqada II. The following layers represent a transitional phase with fewer Lower Egyptian pots and more late Naqada II pots.

The replacement of Lower Egyptian wares with the more sophisticated wares of Upper Egypt has been taken by some as evidence that the Naqada culture simply replaced that of Buto-Maadi. It has also been suggested by Kohler that both types of pottery were in common use, but the better quality goods were preferred for burial sites. Wilkinson notes that the Lower Egyptian style pottery was most likely produced locally by a specialised potter. The people at Buto may have adopted Naqada style pottery without adopting their culture. Artifacts from Buto also display trading contact with Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Dwellings in the earliest phase were built of wattle and daub, with mudbrick being adopted by the third layer. In the fifth layer we find the first large scale mudbrick buildings.

Other settlements

A predynastic settlement at Sais seems to have consisted of an early phase (contemporary with the Merimda period around 3,800 B.C.), a transitional phase when the site may have been abandoned, and a later phase (contemporary with the late Merimda and early Maadi period around 3,500 B.C.). Further excavation in this area may shed some light on the

  • Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
  • Byrnes, A “Chalcolithic (Maadi-Buto)” http://faiyum.com/html/chalcolithic__maadi-buto_.html#CemeteriesMaadi
  • Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
  • “Prehistory”, S. Hendrickx and P. Vermeersch, “The Naqada Period”, B. Midant-reynes, and “The emergence of the Egyptian State” K. Bard in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (2000) Ed I. Shaw

Copyright J Hill 2016