Who built Thebes of the seven gates?– Simple Predynastic lithic industies from Upper Egypt–

These are serrated artifacts (most probably sickles) from the famous Neolithic site of Naqada, Egypt (Ex old Belgian ollection of Maurice Exsteens; 1930’s). They belong to the Naqada II period, well known for the highest flint workmanship in Prehistory- the Gerzean knifes (http://lithiccastinglab.com/cast-page/2002maygerzean.htm).  While the Gerzean knifes are the tools of a rich elite, these sickles were everyone’s artifacts of daily work…


With the introduction of farming and herding in Egypt, and successful development of a Neolithic economy in the lower Nile Valley, the economic foundation of the pharaonic state was laid. But the Neolithic did not mean that the rise of Egyptian civilization was inevitable. Communities in Upper and Lower Egypt became more dependent on farming in the 4th millennium BC, but only in the Naqada culture of Upper Egypt did social and economic complexity follow the successful adaptation of a Neolithic economy.

By the mid-4th millennium BC Naqada culture began to spread northward through various mechanisms that are incompletely understood, and by the late 4th millennium it had replaced the Buto- Ma’adi culture in northern Egypt. Egyptian civilization had emerged by the first two dynasties (Early Dynastic Period), when the newly formed state was unified from the Delta to the First Cataract at Aswan, under one king and his administrative bureaucracy. The Early Dynastic Period was a time of consolidation of this large territorial polity, when state institutions became established, along with the complex economic and political relationships of the kingdom.

With the spread of Neolithic technology to Middle and Upper Egypt in the 5th millennium B.C, hunting and gathering as the main subsistence were gradually replaced by farming and herding. Although very little archaeological evidence survives, especially in Upper Egypt, agricultural villages began to appear by the 4th millennium bc, which is called the Predynastic Period. The Egyptian Nile Valley was an almost ideal environment for cereal agriculture , and eventually farmers would have been able to accumulate surpluses. Agricultural surpluses were probably used to feed farmers and their families throughout the year, and some seed would have been kept for planting the next crop. But surpluses beyond the necessities of subsistence could be used to obtain goods and materials not available in farmers’ villages. Although there is evidence of long-distance trade/exchange of exotic materials from before the Predynastic Period, this greatly increased in the 4th millennium bc, when craft production also increased – especially of artifacts such as jewelry, and carved stone palettes and vessels, which are found in elite burials of the Naqada culture in Upper Egypt. Archaeologists have defined two different Predynastic cultures, the Buto-Ma’adi culture of Lower Egypt, and the Naqada culture of Upper Egypt, based on the distribution of two very different ceramic traditions of the 4th millennium bc. In the north settlements are better preserved, while the southern Naqada culture is mainly known from its cemeteries, which are found in the low desert beyond the floodplain. Cultural differences went well beyond pottery types, however: the Naqada burials may symbolize increasing social complexity through time as the graves became more differentiated, in size and numbers of grave goods, whereas at Buto-Ma’adi sites burials are of a fairly simple type and seem to have had much less socio-cultural significance.

The oldest distinct Predynastic lithic industry in Upper Egypt is the Badarian of the el-Badari region. It flourished between 4400 and 4000 BC and might have already emerged by 5000 BC. It was first identified in El-Badari, Asyut Governorate. Unfortunately, it is still essentially only known from the work of Guy Brunton and Gertrude Caton Thompson from the 1920ies, and studies of the collections from their excavations.

About forty settlements and six hundred graves have been located. Social stratification has been inferred from the burying of more prosperous members of the community in a different part of the cemetery. The Badarian economy was based mostly on agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry.

The Badarian lithic industry is a generalized flake-blade industry, which in many ways recalls the lithic traditions of Lower Egypt.  The main non-bifacial tools appear to be end-scrapers, perforators and retouched pieces and sickles . Worked tabular slabs of raw material also seem to be characteristic.

The industry has a bifacial component comprising hollow-base projectile points, almost identical to the implements found during the Fayum Neolithic, bifacial sickles with very fine retouche, finely worked bifacial triangles of unknown function, small ovate axes and various other nonstandardized forms.

While the basic classes overlap with those of the Neolithic of Lower Egypt, the Badarian tools display their own distinctive variations of form and flaking style. The concave-base points, for example, are generally much more refined in shape, with delicate narrow barbs and very flat, regular retouch.

nagadeiiThe next cultural complex is named after the site of Naqada in upper Egypt, excavated by Flinders Petrie in 1895. The site is of special interest because Petrie found here for the first time tombs which are dateable to the time before the First Dynasty (earlier than 3000 BC). Petrie did not initially, and in the publication of his excavation, recognizes the age of the cemetery. He thought the tombs belong to a “New Race” which invaded Egypt in the First Intermediate Period.

Petrie was the first to produce a chronology for the Naqada Period. Using pottery he developed the sequence dates. Eventually he divided the Naqada period into three main periods:

  • Amratian (named after the cemetery near El-Amrah) sequence dates 31-37
  • Gerzean (after the cemetery near Gerzeh) sequence dates 38-62
  • Semainian (after the cemetery near Es-Semaina) sequence dates 63-76

Later Kaiser (Kaiser 1957) refined the sequence dates and divided the Naqada period into several Stufen (‘steps’ = phases).

Kaiser’s system remains in use in Upper Egypt with some slight modifications:

  • Naqada I a-b-c (about 4000 – 3500 BC)
  • Naqada II a-b-c (about 3500 – 3200 BC)
  • Naqada III a-b-c (about 3200 – 3000 BC)

Naqada I

The culture is still similar to the Badarian culture. The dead were buried in simple oval pits (some examples: Badari tomb 3731, Naqada tomb 1464, tomb 1613). Some larger tombs appear. Black-topped pottery is the typical ware and painted pottery appears.

The lithic remains of the Naqada I culture that have been recovered from burials are both rare and remarkable.  As Beatrix Midant-Reynes observes:

“Not many worked stone tools have been found in Naqada I graves, but the rarity of such finds was equaled by their quality.  These delicate and long bifacially flaked blades, some as much as 40 cm long, were regularly serrated.  Their most unusual feature was that they had all been polished before retouching.  This process was also used on beautiful daggers with bifurcated blades, which look ahead to the Old Kingdom forked instruments known as pesesh-kef used in the Opening of the Mouth funerary ceremony”.  The Naqadian culture seems to have had a liking for the rhomboidal shape, as both knives and cosmetic palettes often took this form.  Fishtail-shaped knives were also common.

Naqada II

The Naqada culture appears throughout Egypt. Some individuals are buried in larger; more elaborate tombs and new pottery types appear.

Naqada III

In Upper Egypt cemeteries include extremely wealthy burials, revealing stark social differences.

The adoption of a regular blade technology in Naqada II /III times is a phenomenon observed throughout the Upper Egyptian Nile Valley. It may represent a technology derived from the Buto-Ma’adi industry of Lower Egypt, and there seem to be similarities between the Buto-Ma’adi blade and bladelet technologies and those of the Mostagedda industry of the el-Badari region. By the end of the Predynastic period, the Lower Egyptian blade technology had developed further to become even more standardized and regular than that of the earlier Buto-Ma’adi industry. Thus by the beginning of the 1st Dynasty (circa 3,100-3,000 BC), very regular blades and blade tools were being produced in both Upper and Lower Egypt.

Bertolt Brecht

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.

Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Hollow based projectile point from the Fayum A Neolithic

Bifacial Knife from the Oasis Fayum

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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3 Responses to Who built Thebes of the seven gates?– Simple Predynastic lithic industies from Upper Egypt–

  1. Walter Lokau says:

    It has to be BERTOLT BRECHT – a widely spread mistake…

    In all other respects: Great Work!

  2. Katzman says:

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