The Nebti name of Menes


One bright summer afternoon in the year 5263 B.C., a man stood on the cliffs high above the Nile Valley. He was slightly built and only a few inches over five feet in height; his brown body was naked except for a kilt of tanned hide. But he held himself proudly, for he was a tall man among his people, and a leader of men. The people he led clustered about him—women peering timidly out from a tangle of black hair, hushing the children in their arms; men bearing their weapons, bow and arrow and stone ax. The wind blew hot behind them; they had turned their backs on the desert. Once it had not been desert. Once, in the time of their ancestors, there had been water, and green growing things, and animals to kill for food. Now the god had withdrawn his hand from their homeland. And so they looked with bright apprehensive eyes into the new land below, a green slash of life cutting through the growing desolation all around. The leader’s keen vision saw the gleam of water and the flicker of birds’ wings; his hunter’s ears caught the far-off bellow of a hippopotamus. There was food below, and water; yet still the leader of the tribe hesitated. He knew the old life, with all its perils. Could he face the more chilling peril of the unknown and, unaware of destiny, take the first step toward the pyramids?

It is a pity that this picturesque episode must belong to fiction rather than history. Some of the details may be true. The first prehistoric cultures in Egypt are dated to around 5500 B.C., but not even the miracle of carbon 14 could give a date so specific as the one mentioned above. At some point in the remote past, man came out of the desert into the valley of the Nile and settled into small villages. He may have looked something like the leader of the tribe who, in a historical novel, would be christened Geb or Ab, or something equally monosyllabic and prehistoric. But it is unlikely that a single man with a vision initiated the transition from nomadic hunters to village farmers. The change took place over long centuries.

Admittedly, the signs of the great change are not dramatic when they are seen in dusty museum cases—flint knife blades and arrowheads, not very different at a casual glance from the crude tools of the hunters; tattered scraps of a woven basket that once held grain; the bones of a dog, appearing, to an untrained eye, like the bones of any wild beast. Yet the transition is more important than the pyramids and more exciting, in its implications, than the golden treasure of a Tutankhamon. We find ourselves here at the beginning of a long and momentous chapter in the great book of man. As the pages turn, we will meet kings and conquerors, poets and inventors. We will conjure up visions of treasure unsurpassed by the most luxuriant forms of imaginative fiction; we will encounter the darker aspects of the human spirit as well as its bright triumphs. Yet never again, perhaps, will we see the human animal take a step so gigantic as this first one, little known and poorly recorded as it is.

Scholars usually place the first “revolution” in man’s way of life between the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. These terms, which mean “Old Stone Age” and “New Stone Age,” were coined to describe a change in the techniques of working stone implements, but it is the least significant of the differences between the two periods. The wandering hunters of the Old Stone Age became the farmers and shepherds of the Neolithic. The permanent settlement of a tribe implies agriculture and domesticated animals, and perhaps pottery—though there is considerable variation from place to place—and people continued hunting and fishing even after other means of food production were developed. The evidence of the transitional period in the Nile Valley is almost nonexistent—so far. One suspects that something is bound to turn up eventually, but perhaps not in the Nile Valley itself; there were hunter-gatherers wandering around the Western Desert, and possible signs of at least semipermanent habitation there as early as nine thousand years ago. For our purposes, however, the oldest known predynastic cultures of Egypt date from approximately 5400 B.C.

Life in the early village cultures was not exactly luxurious. The houses were built of mud and sticks and consisted of a single dark room, unfloored and unventilated except for a smoke hole in the roof. The bodies of the dead were laid in shallow holes scooped in the sand, with no covering except straw mats or skins. But in the goods buried with them we may see the groping of the human spirit toward the concept of immortality. They could only postulate a continuance of the life they knew; so the hunter has his spear, the woman her beads (vanitas vanitatum, against the fleshless skull), and the pitiful child bones sometimes huddle against the dust of a once-cherished toy.

The bones and their belongings can speak to us, sometimes with poignant clarity. And the mute stone and baked clay can speak as well, to those who know how to listen. So meager are the remains from this distant time, before the dawn of history, that archaeologists have developed ingenious techniques for wringing the greatest possible amount of information from each scrap. They rely upon the skills of many specialists—biologists, who can identify the species of the gnawed bones in the kitchen middens, geo-chemists, who analyze pottery, and paleobotanists, who ponder the withered grains left in the bottom of the granary basket by a thriftless ancient house wife. (Contrary to popular report, none of the “mummy seeds” found in Egypt has ever produced a living plant; there is a limit to the preservative qualities of even Egyptian soil.)

Most of the archaeological evidence from prehistoric Egypt comes from graves. There are a few village sites, and also the kitchen middens, an archaeological euphemism for garbage dumps. The prehistoric equivalents of beer cans and melon rinds are fish and animal bones, worn-out flint tools, and scraps of broken pottery. There must have been settlements of some sort near these ancient garbage dumps, but not many have survived. From these scanty remains Egyptologists have defined a number of predynastic cultures, interrelated, but each having its own typical assemblage (the collection of objects produced and used by the people of a given culture). In this period, such an assemblage might include flint weapons, beads and amulets, baskets, and pottery.

I have never been able to decide which is duller, flints or pottery; but I distinctly remember the appalling blankness that used to seize my mind when I was asked to identify bits of pottery during an examination. Probably this attests to my underdeveloped imagination, for pottery has been one of the most useful tools of the archaeologist. The ordinary house hold pot has no intrinsic value, so people throw it away when it breaks, and tomb robbers sneer at it. Though a pot can be smashed, its fragments are virtually indestructible. For this reason pottery is an invaluable clue to chronology, since it is seldom removed from the spot in which it was originally dumped. But it is fair to say that no one ever dreamed of the far-reaching implications of potsherds until Sir William Flinders Petrie started thinking about them.

It is fitting that Petrie’s should be the first name we mention, for he was truly the formidable figure in Egyptology. Some scholars call him the father of “scientific” archaeology (for certain dark reasons of my own, I prefer the adjective “critical”). To list his accomplishments in the methods of excavation alone would take pages, but even his pioneering work in technique was less important than his approach, rigorously logical and painstakingly exact. The new approach came from Petrie himself, not from his training; as he plaintively remarks, there was nobody around to train him. He arrived in Egypt at a time when Gaston Maspero, the dedicated French director of the Egyptian Antiquities Department, was beginning to insist upon rules and regulations in excavation, thus destroying all the fun of what had been a joyous free-for-all of plunder and wanton destruction. But Petrie, who carried on a loud private war with both native and foreign thieves, did not even think much of Maspero. Petrie had a marvelous gift of invective; his blasphemous comments upon inefficiency and crooked dealing were uttered in an elegant scholarly style, which gave them even greater force. In his autobiography, Petrie inveighs against other archaeologists, the Department of Antiquities, Maspero, the British Museum, the French in general, and a good many Egyptians in particular. This may suggest that it was Petrie, and not the rest of the world, who was out of step. He was; but only because he was leading the parade, and his contemporaries had not yet learned the precise and intricate measure of the movements he set. Very little of Petrie’s passion is personal; the people he damns to the lowest pits are those who, through stupidity or venality, allowed his precious antiquities to suffer. He liked most of the Egyptians he worked with, and won their affection and loyalty so completely that the men he trained in excavation, inhabitants of a village called Quft, supplied archaeological expeditions with headmen and diggers for many years.

The aspect of Petrie’s character that astounds us even more than his fanatical insistence on detail is his fantastic energy. He ranged over Egypt from the Delta to the cataracts of Nubia like a mythological dragon, gulping in raw material and ejecting it in the form of neat volumes that cataloged bones, stones, beads, and pots. The real proof of his genius is that stories are beginning to collect about him, as is the case with the absentminded scholars in other fields whose passion for their work leaves them little time for the unimportant amenities of everyday life. Petriehimself describes, with characteristic gusto, how he used to work naked in the stifling corridors of the pyramids like “the Japanese carpenter who had nothing on but a pair of spectacles, except that I do not need the spectacles.” He thought nothing of walking ten or twenty miles across the desert to collect the weekly payroll for his crew; and on one dig in Palestine he and his assistants had to get their drinking water from a well whose contents, in color and consistency, resembled thick split-pea soup. This was all to the good, Petrie comments blandly; in one dish they were getting not only water, but vegetables and meat as well.

Working for Petrie must have been rather a strain. His eating habits, which he expected his students to emulate, were particularly difficult. A row of tin cans and a can opener were set out on a slab in the tomb, which served as the expedition dining room, and when Petrie had finished he left what remained in the can for the next diner. It is rumored that two of his students fell in love while nursing each other through simultaneous bouts of food poisoning.

I have no compunctions about repeating these tales, because in my opinion they add to, rather than detract from, the stature of a great scholar. Most of the major contributions to the sum of learning have been made by men who had something else on their minds besides the amount of salt in the soup.

Among Petrie’s many accomplishments was the classification of the prehistoric Egyptian cultures. He had no written material, and even the most basic chronological tool of the archaeologist, a stratified site, was lacking to him. Such sites are rare in Egypt but common in other parts of the Near East, where they have provided the best source of relative chronology. The best examples occur in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates, once the kingdom of Babylonia. Here the flat land is broken by steep-sided mounds, or tells, which were long regarded as man-made even before archaeologists started digging into them. The tells are city sites, representing centuries of continuous occupation. The earliest settlement was built on ground level. When it was destroyed, by armed conflict or by the natural processes of decay, the succeeding inhabitants leveled the ruined walls and built on top of them. Over the centuries the town grew higher and higher, perching upon the ruins of its ancestors. When an archaeologist digs such a site he can therefore assume that the town on the top of the heap is the latest in time, and the remains on the lowest level are the earliest. He can thus derive a “floating” chronology, which gives the sequence of the different cultures but not their absolute dates. He may number the cultures in order, or give them letters of the alphabet, working from the top down or the bottom up; and I, for one, wish he would get together with his associates and decide on a consistent method. The third level from the top of a mound called Tell Asmar may be referred to as Asmar III, or Asmar C—or Asmar VI, if the mound has nine levels. In order to pin down his floating chronology in terms of absolute time, the archaeologist must have at least one object that can be dated, either by an inscription upon it or by cross-reference with another culture whose absolute chronology has been fixed.

Petrie had no such site, and no reference books for cross-checking. A pioneer has to write his own books. All he had were graves—hundreds of them, scattered, and lacking any obvious relationship to one another or to anything else. The graves were only pits scooped out of the sand. They contained a variety of objects, though most of them had two things in common: bones and pottery. Yet Petrie dared to ask himself whether these holes in the ground could be arranged into a time sequence. That he ventured to ask the question at all is proof of his talent; that he could answer it, comes very close to genius.

The bones did not look promising, so Petrie turned to the pots. There were a lot of them, and—more important—they were not all alike. Pottery has another handy quality, in addition to the ones we have mentioned. It is subject to the dictates of fashion; it changes.

Taking a group of some seven hundred graves, Petrie, who had begun as a statistician, made an index slip for each grave. The slip was ruled in columns, one for each type of pot found in the grave. These had already been divided into a number of general categories by their appearance—red-polished ware, blacktopped ware, rough ware, and so on. As his starting point Petrie chose a type called “wavy-handled” (because it has wavy handles). These pots are derived from foreign types; we can trace their development from primitive prototypes in Palestine, but they appear fully formed in Egypt. The waves are ridges pressed into the ledge handle by the fingers of the potter; they enabled the carrier to get a better grip on the vessel.

In the earliest stage, these pots are globular, with pronounced handles and well-defined ridges. Later they become slimmer, with less prominent handles. In the last stage, the wavy-handled pot is a tall cylinder with a simple waved pattern—the remains of the original handle—around its upper section.

In defining these stages, Petrie made an assumption: that, as time went on, the features of a pottery type “degenerated” from functional to purely decorative. This assumption was supported by the change in the contents of the jars. At first they contained an aromatic ointment covered by a thin layer of clay. Then the ointment was replaced by scented clay. Last of all were the jars containing only solid clay. Here the notion of degeneration is more obvious, and it does not speak well for the predynastic Egyptians. As the relatives of the dead became more sophisticated, they decided that while they could certainly use the precious ointment themselves, its utility to the dead was only problematical. The poor corpse was not really cheated. Its needs could be served by magic, and the proper incantation could turn the clay into ghostly ointment. In later periods, this process of magical substitution reached its logical culmination; the dead were equipped for the hereafter by means of models, or even pictures, of the objects they would need.

Having established the earlier and later types of this particular pottery class, which he called “W,” Petrie had the beginning of a chronological sequence. Now he could begin to tie in the other pottery classes that were found in company with the wavy-handled examples. Some of the graves that contained wavy-handled pots also had pottery of a class that Petrie designated “L,” for “late,” because it continued in use up to historic times. This gave him a terminal point, since the examples of the “L” type that occurred in First Dynasty graves could be dated. In all Petrie worked with nine classes of prehistoric pottery. Besides the “L” and “W” classes he had a blacktopped red group (B), a red-polished (P), a rough (R), and others. Not all the graves contained all nine classes of pottery, but each grave contained at least two; if a grave did not have more than one class, it was useless for a comparative methodology, and Petrie did not include it within his corpus of examples.

Through correlation with the wavy-handled types Petrie was able to work out sequence patterns for the other classes of pottery. Of course, the chronological developments of various classes had to be consistent. For example, let us assume that subtypes 9–12 of wavy-handled pottery are consistently found with subtypes 1–3 of the red-polished ware. Then subtypes 4–6 of the red-polished ware cannot occur with the wavy-handled subtypes of an earlier date—subtypes 1–9. If they do, then something is wrong with the internal arrangement of one class or the other—or both. This is a very simplified example of the sort of cross-check Petrie had to make with nine different classes of pottery and seven hundred graves. And he had no computer! The logical processes involved are not especially profound, but the scope of the material is so broad that one’s imagination reels in considering it.

However, this was precisely the sort of problem at which Petrie excelled; as a recorder of multitudinous details, he was probably without a peer among archaeologists. He gave numbers to all the subtypes within his nine classes and wrote the numbers on his index slips, one slip for each grave. Having transformed his pots into mathematical symbols, he could juggle bits of paper rather than objects; we can picture him hovering over a big table spread with an intellectual meal of seven hundred index slips, rushing from one side of the table to the other in order to find the right spot for a particular slip, and feasting his eyes on a particularly consistent arrangement, like a gourmet at a seven-(or seven-hundred-) course dinner.

In the end, Petrie had a series of grave groups whose pottery formed a consistent and logical pattern. The pottery classes overlapped in time, naturally; one category might be in its last stages of development before another category came on the scene, and the oldest class might have vanished altogether before the latest one appeared. Yet the overlapping of classes was continuous, and there was never a point at which a comparative method, involving at least two types, could not be applied. Petrie had forced his scattered graves into a sequence, and the numbers he assigned to the grave groups were called “sequence dates,” for they had no connection with years B.C. There were fifty numbers in all, running from thirty to eighty; it was typical of Petrie that he left a range open for future discoveries that might antedate his earliest graves.

Petrie had developed a framework into which newly discovered graves could be fitted by a simple comparison of pottery types. There was still no way of dating prehistoric objects in terms of absolute time. However, the framework did provide a comparative chronology, and it was more capable of being broken down into broader subdivisions than single sequence dates. Certain groups of graves, and hence of sequence dates, formed distinctive assemblages, which had enough in common to be labeled as separate “cultures.”

The criteria used to distinguish cultures involve materials other than pottery—stone tools, weapons, ornaments, and so on. An increasing number of prehistoric village sites have turned up; the objects found at these sites also form coherent assemblages. At one of these sites, a discovery made in 1925 took Petrie’s work out of the realm of theory. Gertrude Caton-Thompson, working at Hememieh, found a stratified site, and there were Petrie’s prehistoric cultures in the sequence he had postulated. Below the earliest he had identified she found a still earlier culture, which was assigned sequence dates from the numbers the great pioneer had left open for just such an eventuality. Since Petrie’s day his work has been refined and to some extent revised, but the basic sequence remains.

Thanks to the work of Petrie and Caton-Thompson and their successors, we now have a very general picture of prehistoric life in ancient Egypt. Even at this early period we must distinguish between the two major geographical subdivisions of the country—Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.

In order to comprehend this terminology, the reader must adjust to what may seem a piece of striking illogic: Upper Egypt is the valley of the Nile, from the Cairo region south, and Lower Egypt is the Delta. The illogic is only illusory; it arises from the fact that the Nile flows from south to north, and the region nearest the source is properly “upper” in relation to the mouth of the river. Since the Delta is at the top of modern maps, with the river hanging down like a tail, most people find the Upper Egypt–Lower Egypt concept hard to keep in mind. I don’t blame them. It was years before I could read “Upper Egypt” without making a conscious mental effort to remember where it was. All I can do, however, is sympathize, because the names are often used by archaeologists, and there is no changing them now. To confuse the issue still more, some scholars believe that in ancient times Upper Egypt ended near Assiut, with Lower Egypt being everything north of that city.

The two regions differ from each other in many ways, the most obvious being that of physical topography. Upper Egypt is a fantastic country—five hundred miles long by perhaps five miles wide. On either side of the river is a narrow strip of fertile black soil, bounded by sand and by the steep cliffs of the desert plateau through which the river has, through immemorial ages, carved and deepened its channel. The line between living and dead land is sharply defined; one may stand today with one foot on the sand and the other on the green-growing fields. The ancient Egyptians were keenly conscious of the difference between the “black land” and the barren “red land,” and these two terms occur frequently in their literature. The black land was precious and cherished. Temples, palaces, and towns were built whenever possible on the wasteland of sand, which lay between the fertile strip and the barrier of cliffs, so that not an inch of cultivable soil would be wasted. The two narrow ribbons of black land, one on either side of the river, have always supported a disproportionately large population, when one considers the actual acreage under cultivation. In ancient times this situation was possible because of the unfailing fertility of the soil, which was the result of a unique phenomenon—the annual flood, which deposited not only water but also nutrient silt upon the fields. Other rivers perform this obliging ser vice, but never with the regularity of the Nile; so predictable was the Nile rise that the ancient Egyptians called one of their seasons “Inundation,” for during those months the land was always under water, soaking up the life-giving nutrients that the river had taken up in its northward flow.

The idea of automated irrigation may sound paradisaical to a farmer, but it was not so easy as one might suppose. The height of the river varied from year to year, and a difference of inches might mean the difference between famine or prosperity. Further, the water had to be directed to the proper place during the dry months, which are very dry indeed.

When the Nile nears the Mediterranean, it breaks up into several branches whose beds form the large river Delta. In ancient times this land was swamp, thick with reed and papyrus and teeming with bird and animal life. There was no need for irrigation or inundation here; the problem was that of too much water.

There was a contrast between the Delta and the river valley in psychological, as well as physical, terms. The Delta bordered on the sea, which was the ancient highway of commerce and conquest; the valley was isolated on both sides by wild deserts and wilder people.

It would seem logical, then, that the Delta region developed earlier, and more quickly, than did the south. This doesn’t seem to have been the case. However, we know more about Upper Egypt than about the Delta. Material that survived in the hot, dry air of Upper Egypt rotted away in the Delta swamps. This fact affects archaeological knowledge in two ways; not only is there less material to be found in Lower Egypt, but also less work has been done there. It is frustrating to excavate in a region where you have to work in water up to your knees, and infuriating to get only indistinguishable lumps of rotted material for your pains. It is no wonder that archaeologists prefer to breathe the salubrious desert air of the south, which has preserved even such fragile objects as textiles and painted reliefs. However, long-suffering scholars have in recent years worked extensively in the Delta, and the picture is constantly being revised.

The sea—the “Great Green,” as the Egyptians called it—may be a high road for contacts between peoples, but it may also be a barrier. An island is hard to invade, and in one sense all of Egypt was an “island” society. The sea protected it on the north, and inhospitable deserts deterred invasion on both sides. Conquest from the south was hampered because of the nature of the river upstream from Egypt. From Aswan north to the Mediterranean the Nile was and is easily navigable, but south of Aswan there was a cataract region, a stretch of river filled with rocks and waterfalls, which rendered the passage of ships difficult and peril-filled. This situation has changed since the construction of the Aswan dams, but during the period that is the subject of this book there were five more cataracts south of Aswan, some even more dangerous than the first. The first cataract was, for many years, the southern boundary of ancient Egypt.

Barriers, of water or desert, can keep out other things besides invading armies—trade, and new ideas, for instance. One theory of the beginning of history in Egypt maintains that the valley was developed more quickly than the Delta. If Egyptian civilization owes something to external stimulation, the stimuli could have been transmitted via the Red Sea route and brought overland across a well-known caravan route that leads from the sea to the region around modern Luxor. So far, excavation in the area has not turned up any physical proof of such contact. Another theory holds that the predynastic cultures of Nubia were much more advanced than earlier, Eurocentric scholars believed, and that they interacted with their kin to the north. A cemetery at Qustul, in Lower Nubia (that’s the region closer to Egypt than Upper Nubia), contained graves so large and so rich that the excavator, Bruce Williams, considered they must have belonged to great chiefs, or even kings. There is no sneaking around this by claiming that the graves belonged to Egyptians or Egyptian vassals; the artifacts were typical of the A-group Nubian culture, which in its later phases (you might have known there would be phases) was contemporaneous with the late predynastic in Egypt. Williams even put forth the daring suggestion that these Nubian rulers conquered southern Egypt and were the stimulus for, if not the actual founders of, pharaonic civilization. This theory is considered pretty far-out, and the sad thing is that with much of what was Lower Nubia now buried fathoms deep under Lake Nasser, there may never be a definitive answer.

When I was a graduate student—back in antedeluvian times—we were given neat lists of prehistoric cultures, one succeeding the other like steps on a ladder: Tasian, Badarian, Amratian, Gerzean, and Semainean in the south; Fayum A, Merimde, and Maadi in the north. Each culture had a few more amenities than the one that had preceded it, and the latest, Gerzean-Semainean, had achieved a fairly high standard of living for a predynastic society, with painted pottery, beautifully worked flint tools, stone vessels, metal, and neat houses.

These cultures were named after the type site, the place where that particular culture was first unearthed. This is a time-honored and hideously confusing device, as anyone who has encountered the Aurignacians and Levalloisians of European prehistory knows to his sorrow. It becomes even more confusing when archaeologists change their minds about the names—as they almost always do. Semainean was always a suspect culture; it is now generally believed to be a variant of the Gerzean. Tasian may not exist either, except as a form of the Badarian. Amratian is now generally referred to as Naqada I, and Gerzean is Naqada II and III, each with internal subdivisions; so according to some dating systems, late Gerzean (from about 3500 B.C.) is equivalent to Naqada IID–1 and D–2. You will be happy to hear that so far Badarian is still Badarian. It is the one Caton-Thompson found at Hememieh, underneath Petrie’s two major cultures—Amratian and Gerzean.

We may as well get all the names in while we’re at it; Naqada III is also known as the Protodynastic—as compared with the Predynastic in general—and in some quarters Naqada IIIC is referred to as Dynasty O. More about this ambiguous period later. (If you happen to run across a reference to Dynasty OO, take my advice and ignore it.)

Perhaps the most useful remark we can make about the predynastic cultures is that they are related to one another, not only chronologically but also causally; each has certain things in common with the one that followed it. In general, the nearer in time to the First Dynasty, the more complex the society—the more “civilized,” in our terms. Yet conventionally the beginning of civilization in Egypt does not occur until historic times, with the beginning of the First Dynasty. We are cautiously tiptoeing around the edges of a problem that is, in part, one of terminology; scholars are not as precise as they might be in defining words like culture and civilization. The two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but not all cultures are civilizations. Civilization itself may be used specifically, as in the phrases “Egyptian civilization” and “Chinese civilization,” or it may be used as an abstraction, to describe a state of affairs that is contrasted with barbarism. The lack of precision is regrettable; however, we may avoid a certain amount of confusion by restricting ourselves, at this point, to the second of the two meanings. We have been talking about prehistoric, or predynastic, cultures. Gerzean, Amratian, and the rest are not civilizations, nor are they “civilization.” At what point, then, does a culture acquire the traits that enable it to be considered a civilization?

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