The Unification of Egypt
(ref: "Upper and Lower Egypt", May 31)
- Dynasty 1 and 2
3100 - 2650 B.C.
early Egyptian state
- Dynasty 0 kings
3300 - 3100 B.C.
early states/complex chiefdoms
- Late Chalcolithic
3600 - 3300 B.C.
- Early Chalcolithic
4000 - 3600 B.C.
Naqada Ic, IIa,b
- Late Neolithic
4500 - 4000 B.C.
Badarian, Naqada Ia,b
The Egyptian Culture in prehistory
The archaeological remains discovered in Egypt from at least Neolithic
times are essentially characteristic of a single culture, hence one can
talk of the 'Egyptian Neolithic' culture and the 'Egyptian Late
Chalcolithic' culture. The functional and stylistic characteristics of the
commonly used ceramic and lithic artefacts are similar and should be seen
as representing a single cultural tradition. Regional variations do exist,
especially for the few artefacts of high artistic merit (over-represented
within Museum collections), but such regional variations can be largely
explained by the local environmental conditions and the availability of
source materials. This follows from the initial work of D. Holmes (for
lithics) and Kohler (for ceramics). Werner Kaiser generally agrees with
the idea of one prehistoric Egyptian culture, although only from the Late
Chalcolithic (Naqada IIc,d) period onwards. Terms such as the 'Delta'
culture and the 'Upper Egyptian' culture should be avoided as misleading,
as should the concept of cultural unification.
Increasing social complexity in Egyptian prehistory
Much has been written in recent years on the origin of the Egyptian state
and the unification of Egypt, so the following summary comes in part from
what has been stated by more learned scholars than myself. Egyptian
prehistoric society developed along a path of increasing social complexity
and social stratification as follows:
- Epipaleolithic bands,
- Neolithic egalitarian village communities,
- Early Chalcolithic simple chiefdoms
- Later Chalcolithic complex chiefdoms,
- Early regional states, and
- A single early Egyptian state.
Regional variations suggest that during any one time the peoples of the
Egyptian culture living along the Nile may have had slightly different
levels of social complexity, although the nature of communications along
the Nile river would have worked against any long term differences in
social complexity. The Neolithic villages of Upper Egypt would have traded
with similar villages in Lower Egypt, with no region being more backward
than another. Perhaps one excemption to this would have occured as the
complex chiefdoms of the Late Chalcolithic (typically at Naqada,
Hierakonpolis and Abydos) became more powerful and perhaps developed into
early regional states under a local king. It is possible, although I
believe unlikely, that these early regional states of Dynasty 0 were able
to extend their power over the complex chiefdoms of Middle and Lower Egypt.
Unfortunately insufficient work has been undertaken in these regions to
identify the rise of similar early regional states in Middle or Lower
Egypt, although some of the artefacts from Upper Egyptian sites could be
seen to support such a rise. Then for the change from these early
regional states to a single Egyptian state, it is reasonably clear that the
kings of the regional state at Abydos came to dominate all others and found
the first Egyptian dynasty.
The archaeological evidence would then support longer term social
developments by a decrease in regional variations between political
entities as differences between local village communities become
differences between regional chiefdoms until such differences disappear at
start of the unified political Egyptian state. In terms of settlement
hierarchies we should be able to see the increasing social complexity by
identifying small villages, large villages, towns and capital cities
(changes from a single to a four tier settlement hierarchy) at a particular
time period. Many other aspects of such changes will be evident through
the examination of evidence for trade, craft specialization, population
density and others.
Unification: Integration or Conquest?
There is no clear evidence for large scale military activity at the time of
unification of the Egyptian state. The evidence of the palettes and other
Dynasty 0 ceremonial objects should be interpreted as representations of
the king's/chief's ability to maintain power and order. For example the
Narmer palette could be interpreted as 'the king's power sentences a law
breaker to death', or 'the king wields power of the lawless to maintain
order'. Unfortunately we have insufficient knowledge of the cultural
meaning of this prehistoric pictorial narrative than we would like to have,
however it should not be seen as a depiction of an historical event. Now,
weapons have been found in Dynasty 0 and 1 contexts however these appear to
have been largely for hunting purposes (perhaps used for military as well
as hunting purposes). There is no evidence for a class of warriors in
prehistoric Egyptian society, and no burials that may be classified as
warrior graves. Although large numbers of prehistoric human remains were
uncovered from Dynasty 0 and 1 cemeteries, almost none showed signs of
violent death or possible battle injuries. The only remaining evidence for
a military conquest of Lower Egypt and the formation of the Egyptian state
is in later Egyptian sources which state Menes founded Egypt, and the
unreliability of this evidence for the prehistoric and early dynastic
period does not need to be repeated here.
If we apply the recent work of anthropologists (such as T. Earle,
Chiefdoms: Power, Economy and Ideology, p. 5) we can identify many
political strategies that elites have used to gain and extend power, and
although internal and external warfare cannot be ruled out there are many
other 'non-military' processes that could explain the change from chiefdom
to state. Seizing control of existing principles of legitimacy, are
creating or appropriating new principles of legitimacy would fit well into
our Dynasty 0 environment where the kings/chiefs competed to gain and
extend their power. Ideology then was a major factor in the rise of the
early Egyptian state. More importantly perhaps state formation should be
seen as one phase of a long process, starting during the Early Chalcolithic
period, where local elites increase, maintain and in some circumstances
loose their power.
The final unification of Egypt probably resulted from peaceful transition
as the elites of the regional states saw the advantages of integration
under a single strong legitimate king who could provide benefits resulting
from social order. It is possible that upon the death of a regional king
the elites sought integration with a neighbouring king through
intermarriage, or a negotiated rule. Alternatively internal disorder could
have led one elite group to seize power and hence allow a neighbouring
local king to legitimately take over in order to return order. There are
many more hypothetical circumstances that could have led to the final
change from regional states to single Egyptian state, but it is sufficient
to state that peaceful integration remains the most likely path.
Gregory P. GILBERT
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