The Predynastic Period is Egypt’s equivalent to the Neolithic period in Middle East. The period began around 6000 BC and it also includes the Protodynastic period. It was defined well before archaeological excavations took place. This period is divided into cultural periods and was given names after the place the settlements were found; most of the archaeological finds have been found in Upper Egypt. I believe it is important to look at this point in history, because no one really has any idea on how the people lived, worked and died. It is important to me because it is a chance to look at a part of history that I have never got the chance to look into in great detail. From this I hope to gain a better understanding into how one of the most culturally rich counties started and how it developed.
This will be the first part of two. Part one will cover the burial practises in this period and how it changed towards the end of the end of the Middle Kingdom and how they changed and when certain practices started to become standardised and what ones ether changed or were casted away. There is no surviving written work from prehistoric Egypt, which spans the period of the earliest human settlements to the beginning of the early dynastic period of Egypt in ca, 3100 BC. So we have to rely on the physical remains to give us the information we need of this period in Egypt. From the remains that have been found and from what we can tell is that the early Egyptians cared more about the physical body and its preservation when it came to burying their dead. Unlike the later periods, it is found that they did not follow a common practice. All the graves dating back to this period were found away from the settlements; this was because of the belief that if the dead were mistreated they would rise again.
All the Egyptians burials found were very simple in their design. The body would be put in a shallow oval-shaped pit, with very few burial goods placed around them. They were buried with some burial goods, but unlike in the later periods where they were more personal items, they were more concerned with what would be useful to them in the after life. These good would usually consist of object they would have used everyday in their normal life such as bowls, combs and other house hold items, even food. The richer of the Egyptians could afford to be buried with jewel, furniture and any other valuables, but this made them targets to tomb riders. The bodies recovered from the graves are always very well persevered, even before the mummification ritual was brought in. All the bodies that have been found still have most of their skin, teeth and even figure and toe nails preserved.
In a cemetery at Gebelein, Egypt, a naturally persevered body of an adult man was found dating to the Late predynastic period, around 3400 BC. The team that uncovered this grave the name Ginger to the body, because of his golden hair. The body was found tightly curled in the infantile position which is commonly found in other buries f dating to this period. The burial was also shaped like an oval, this combined with why Ginger was put in this position brings a theory that this was done because they believed that when you died and moved on to the after life that you were born again. And this was an attempt to imitate a mother’s womb so he would be reborn into the afterlife. The body was also found with, apart from the hair, his figure and toe nails perfectly persevered and even though the body had been heavily stained from being lying in sand for than 5,000 years, they could see that his skin would have been a yellowish – white skin. The reason why all the bodies found are this well persevered, even before human remains were mummified, they were placed in shallow graves, which had direct contact with the sand. This meant that any mostreter that would get in was absorbed by the hot sand that constitutes 75% of the human weight. If there is no moisture bacteria cannot breed, decay does not occur which means that the body is preserved. The burial goods that were found with him were the typical finds found in other graves of this status, bowls, combs and other house hold items. No jewellery or anything personal was found. That surest that he was just the avenger man with very little riches to his name.
In terms of archaeological remains and what they can tell us from this period, it shows that they were more cornered about their preparation for the next life rather than their current life, a lot like the Christians of today, but the Egyptians would think about what they would need in that next life, which is why in most graves you find just basic house hold items. They thought of the after life as a new life where they could do everything they didn’t get to do in their last, it was not until the later periods that view started to change. It was not until the Old Kingdom that burial customs developed, with the wealthier of the Egyptian citizens were buried in wooden or stone coffins, but the number of burial goods declined and were often just sets of copper model tools and some vessels. Wooden models became very popular in burials in the First intimidate period. The wooden models would often depict the activities that the dead were expected to continue doing in the after life and the objects of daily use were not found in the graves like with the early periods. By the end of the Middle Kingdom they introduced new objects into their burials; these were the shabits (funerary figurines) and the heart scarabs. This is also when we start to see objects that were used in daily life in grave goods again.
In conclusion during these early periods of Egyptian history, it seems that they were going though an identity crisis, from being more practical and simple to more advance and spiritual. There is still a clear difference between the rich and the poor, which you can see through the archaeology. And it was not until the New Kingdom that some of the burial practices became standardised and was used universally across Egypt. Part two will be covering the burials from the Second Intermediate Period (14th – 17th Dynasties) to the Late Period (26th – 31st Dynasties) looking at the same as this one and more on their view of the after life and what the archaeology can tell us about how it changed.
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Silverman. D. P. 1997. Ancient Egypt. London. Duncan Bairad Publishers.
Ginger. A Predynastic Egyptian. http://www.egyptorigins.org/ginger.htm (August 1st 2011)