What Predynastic Ceramics Tell Us About Prehistoric Egypt


At our July Meeting, Dr. Patricia Podzorski, the assistant curator of the Museum of Art and Archaeology of the University of Missouri, Columbia Campus at delivered a lecture on a "work in progress" study of predynastic pottery from three sites in the Thebaid excavated by the Phoebe Hearst Expedition of the University of California, directed by George Reisner just after the turn of the century.

Dr. Podzorski reminded us that the even in the predynastic era (the thousand year period from about 4000-3000 B.C.E. ± 100 years) Egypt was marked by a geographical division of the country into the Delta and the Valley of the Nile. The Valley of the Nile itself is marked by two outstanding features, the cultivation area (those areas reached by river water) and the desert. The culture of the Nile Valley was shared with those peoples inhabiting lower Nubia (the area just south of Aswan) as well.

Pottery finds from this culture are dated by "relative chronology", first established by Sir Flinders Petrie, which indicates which ceramics are older in a sequence and "absolute chronology" through the use of Carbon-14 dating. The chronology of this period is separated into four divisions: the Badarian at about 4000 B.C.E. and lasted about 100 years; the Nagada I (Amratian) at 3900-2650 B.C.E., Nagada II (Gerzean) at 3650-3300 B.C.E. and finally the Nagada III (Samanian) at 3300-3100 B.C.E.. This was an era of small kingdoms slowly coalescing into two larger kingdoms (Upper and Lower Egypt) and leading to the unification of the whole country under Menes around 3100 B.C.E.

What is known from this period comes mainly from burials. It was marked by settled agriculture with plants (emmer wheat and barley) coming from Southwest Asia, and animal husbandry with sheep and goats from Southwest Asia and cattle as the African part of the equation. Dwellings were wattle and daub. Flax was woven into linen clothing. The material culture was marked by pottery; jewelry in carnelian, quartzite and azurite; reed basketry; tools and personal items were carved from wood, ivory and bone and fashioned from metal such as gold. silver and copper. Napped flint items such as knives were also produced. Stone vessels in a variety of hard (basalt or granite) and soft (limestone or calcite) stones were produced as well as figurines in clay and stone.

Ceramics are still designated by Petrie's classifi-cations (with modern additions). Red ware with black tops, red polished wares and white crossed-line pottery were characteristic of the Nagada I period. Wavy-handled jugs (of Syrio-Palestine origin) were imitated and red-lined decorated wares were also produced.
The materials Dr. Podzorski studied are in the Phoebe Hearst Museum collection. These pieces along with the copious notes of Dr. Reisner and his assistants, and over 20,000 photographs from the expeditions formed the basis for her study of these predynastic ceramics. Pottery from three sites were examined. El-Ahaiwah, Ballas and Shurafa were three plundered cemeteries in the Thebaid investigated by the expedition. The largest sampling comes from El-Ahaiwah, with 285 graves examined; Ballas provided sample from 250 graves (some brick-lined); and the smallest sampling came from Sharafa with only 31 graves.
In this corpus of material Dr. Podzorski found similar but not identical pottery, marked in many instances by its composition. Three types clays were found in these ceramics: Nile silt (with temper [fragments of limestone] , straw or dung added ? which when fired often leaves voids [holes from burned out straw, dung, or evaporated water] marl clay, or mixed silt and marl. Pottery types included rough ware (R-ware) which was coarsely thrown or hand made, red-line painted pottery and wavy-handled ware. These forms became streamlined over time becoming cylin der jars. Smooth hard wares were also produced from marl clay fabrics (S-ware). The cylinder forms were produced in Nile silt, not marl clay.

El-Ahaiwah had the most samples. Net painted cylinder jars were pro-duced from Nile silts. These forms become shortened in Nagada III and are produced in marl fabrics at Ballas. Some unusually tall forms appear at El-Ahaiwah.

Decorated wares (D-wares) show much variation, although they are quite rare. In Nagada II they are decorated from top to bottom. Ten design types have been identified by Dr. Podzorski from El-Ahaiwah and Ballas; there are no D-ware samples from Sharafa. The arc, splotch and squiggle are typical of the Nagada II while in the Nagada III six designs predominate com-posed of circles, spirals, dots and wavy lines. The wavy lines were the most popular. Bars, usually in sets of three, were popular at both El-Ahaiwah and Ballas. Dots in the form of ovals or rounds also formed part of the decorating scheme. The Comma line form runs vertically at Ballas but horizontally at El-Ahaiwah. In the Nagada III period the decoration was curtailed largely to the upper half of the ceramic with no rim decoration.

Pot marks in ink are rare; incised lines are more common. Few exist on ceramics from the Nagada II but about ten percent of the samples from the Nagada III have incised marks.
The Nile silt jars are roughly made and seem to be home-made products. The marl clays seem to be made by specialists and distributed widely as early as the Nagada I period. Representations of figures are more common in Nagada II than in Nagada III. The fabric compositions remain the same in Nagada III, but with less decoration.

The painting styles vary at each site but the ceramic composition appears to be the same. Dr. Podzorski notes that this raises some interesting issues for further study. Were these pots made at one location and then painted locally? Do the presence of pre-firing marks indicated that potters were working together and needed to separate their materials or are the marks needed for distribution purposes? Are differences in decorated wares indicative of a frontier?

These ceramic wares are found solely in mortuary contexts. The contents of these pots are questionable. Some of the cylinder jars contained only mud and ash. One common feature at the three sites were the placement of these jars in the graves.
 

  • Nancy Corbin
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