Early Egypt

by Porin Šćukanec Rezniček

The Early Dynastic Period of Egypt (c. 3250-2686 BC) represents a period of state formation and political unification; when the ‘Two Lands’ of Upper and Lower Egypt become one – and thus began the civilization of Ancient Egypt.

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Figure 1: Ivory statue of a First Dynasty king wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt.

Before this unification Egypt was divided amongst many independent, smaller states controlled by local rulers. It is believed that king Narmer was the first to unite Egypt. This can be seen on the Narmer palette where on the recto he is wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, while on the verso he wears the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. The early kings, following Narmer, ruled from the city of Thinis and later Memphis, but one of the most significant sites from this period is Abydos the cemetery for the royal burials. Some of the earliest forms of writing are are preserved in tombs at Abydos (figure 3) and it is in the Early Dynastic period that these early symbols, become more uniform and complex, finally constituting a language just before the Old Kingdom.

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Figure 2: Tomb of Peribsen a ruler during the Second Dynasty, excavated in the 1909-10 season of EEF excavations by Edouard Naville.

One of the first excavators of Abydos was W.M. Flinders Petrie in 1899 as the director of an Egypt Exploration Fund excavation. During this time he uncovered royal tombs of the first dynasties which he subsequently published. He continued the excavations for several seasons, and also returned in the 1920s. The EES Lucy Gura Archive holds many photographs, plans, and drawings of Petrie’s excavations as well as further expeditions under the direction of Edouard Naville and Eric Peet.

The cemetery of Abydos includes the tombs of kings such as Djer, Djet, Merneith of the First Dynasty and Peribsen (figure 2) and Khasekhemwy of the Second Dynasty. Closer to the desert edge are their mortuary enclosures (the largest preserved being the Shunet el-Zebib of Khasekhemwy) which served as the location of their worship and cultic activity. Surrounding the enclosures and tombs were the subsidiary burials of servants, members of the royal family or harem who may have been sacrificed upon the death of the king/queen to accompany him/her to the afterlife. Similar subsidiary graves were also found at Saqqara and excavated under the direction of W.B. Emery on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society.

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Figure 3: A serekh containing the name of king Djer of the First Dynasty.

This period was not with conflict itself and it remained a struggle to maintain the unification of the ‘Two Lands’ throughout ancient Egyptian history. Many of the most famous elements of the ancient Egyptian civilization originated during the Early Dynastic Period including monumental architecture, mortuary complexes, mummification, coffins, hieroglyphs (figure 3) and more. These early developments contribute to the eternal feature of Egypt’s civilization that become so familiar to those studying Egyptian history.

Further Reading

Petrie, W.M.F. 1925. Tombs of the Courtiers and Oxyrhynkhos. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt

Petrie, W.M.F. 1900. The Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty: Part I. London: The Egypt Exploration Fund.

Petrie, W.M.F. 1901. The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties: Part II. London: The Egypt Exploration Fund.

Emery, W.B. 1954. Excavations at Sakkara: Great Tombs of the First Dynasty II. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.

Emery, W.B. 1958. Excavations at Sakkara: Great Tombs of the First Dynasty III. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.

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