The Environment in Egyptian Prehistory – A Story in 3D Models!

The geography of the Nile Valley was instrumental in shaping Predynastic material culture, which often incorporates motifs drawn from the natural world. The recurring use of natural imagery in the decoration of Predynastic material culture illustrates the importance of the natural world to these people, providing us with a window into the thoughts and concerns of people living over five thousand years ago.

Thanks to the tenacious efforts of our photogrammetry team, we are excited to now present these objects in full 3D!

Painted Decoration – Creating Landscapes in Ceramic

 

Painted decoration was one of the most common ways of incorporating natural motifs on objects during the Predynastic. Painted decoration regularly included scenes of desert hills, plants and foliage, boats, and a variety of animals, alongside more abstract designs. Sculpted forms of plants and animals were also applied to objects, particularly ceramic vessels.

 

Boats and water are another motif regularly incorporated into Predynastic designs; the importance of river travel in Egypt cannot be understated. Travel by boat was much quicker than by land, facilitating communication, which in turn allowed individual groups and rulers to control larger territories and proto-states; the connections forged by the capability to travel by boat also assisted in the transmission of material and social culture.

 

The way in which these motifs were utilised also illustrates the way prehistoric people viewed the world; for example, in the decorated sherd above, the animals appear to be wearing some kind of collar. The emphasis of the conflict between the settled land of the Nile valley and the wild, untamed creatures of the adjacent deserts is a recurring theme in Predynastic art, and depictions of animals sometimes include collars or ‘leashes’ to indicate the imposition of human order and control over the natural world.

Representations of Animals

Predynastic material culture included objects made to resemble animals, or otherwise incorporating animalistic motifs in their design. Small figurines, such as the crocodile below, were made to resemble animals. They may have been purely decorative, or they might have had some religious or ritual purpose – unfortunately, that information has been lost to us.

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The ‘Hierakonpolis bird dagger’ (E.616)

 

This ‘bird dagger’ is one of the most unusual and unique objects in the Predynastic collection at the Garstang museum; it seems entirely impractical, and would not have functioned particularly well as a dagger. The blade has been crafted to resemble a wing, while the hilt bears more than a passing resemblance to a bird’s beak. The purpose of this object is unknown, but its form is very interesting – the use of avian motifs here is in an abstracted form, suggesting identifying features of the animal without appearing thereomorphic.

Animal Forms (Theriomorphism)

Some Predynastic objects do not simply incorporate animal motifs on their design, but were manufactured to resemble certain animals. These are known as theriomorphic objects. The forms of these artefacts are often impractical, and it is unclear whether they would have seen actual use or whether they were purely decorative.

 

Palettes are one of the most common forms of material culture that incorporated natural designs; palettes were often made to resemble birds, fish, turtles, goats, and other animals from the Nile Valley. They were used to grind pigments for cosmetics.

The Natural World

The historian Herodotus said that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”, and this was the case even in prehistory. When studying prehistoric artefacts, the lack of written evidence and poor survival of important archaeological features such as settlements, housing and clothing can distance the modern observer from the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the people who created these artefacts. By examining the recurring decorative motifs on Predynastic objects, we can begin to understand the way prehistoric people experienced the world; the things that were important to them, and the way they chose to display this importance.

If any of these objects piqued your interest, you can see them in person – visit the BEFORE EGYPT exhibition at the Victoria Gallery & Museum to discover more of our predynastic Egyptian collection.

By Christopher Bebbington (edited by Sarah McBride).

Photogrammetry Team: Ardern Hulme-Beaman, Sofie Kinzer, J.R. Peterson.

 

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Before Egypt: 3D Models

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With our upcoming exhibition launching soon, we thought it would be nice to put the ‘spotlight’ on a few of the objects that will be on display. Our photogrammetry team has been hard at work creating 3D models of many of the objects that will be on display, in order to provide access to the objects for anyone unable to visit the exhibition in person.

The first three of our models are now available to view on Sketchfab; each of these objects depicts an animal, which suggests the importance of the Nile Valley, and its flora and fauna, to the Predynastic Egyptian people living there. These objects serve to illustrate the three important environs within the Nile Valley – the land, the river, and the sky.

The Land: E.4176

This black-topped red ware sherd is decorated with white crossed-line depictions of animals. The depiction of animals in Predynastic art often relates them to a fundamental struggle – the civilised order of humans triumphing over the wild beasts of the desert. In this case, the animal on the right appears to have a collar or leash of some kind around its neck, a sign of domestication.

The River: E.620

This carved stone crocodile was excavated by John Garstang at Hierakonpolis, and likely dates to the Early Dynastic Period. It is quite unusual in its form, particularly in the inclusion of a base for the crocodile to stand on. The pierced holes on the base of the object indicate it may have been worn (as an amulet or pendant of some kind), or it may have been suspended. Though John Garstang excavated primarily at the fort cemetery at Hierakonpolis, the unusual form of this object indicates it was likely excavated elsewhere.

The Sky: E.6111

This ceramic vessel also comes from Hierakonpolis, and is a unique object. Birds are commonly portrayed in Predynastic art, but they are never shown in flight – this vessel is the only known example. Though the decoration has faded over time, the distinctive and unusual forms of these flying birds are still clearly visible in their original red pigment.

Working With 3D Models

Exhibitions are limited in their scope; they run only for a short time, and even in large exhibitions, there is always a great deal of material that cannot be displayed – simply, there is never enough space! We hope that these 3D models will provide a means of access for anyone unable to make it to the exhibition, and for those who are coming, we hope this will whet your appetite! You can rotate the models, and zoom in and out to look at specific details; you can find out more information about the objects in the model descriptions and by clicking on the annotation points on each model.

We will continue uploading and sharing 3D models on our sketchfab page – check it out!

Christopher Bebbington.

Photogrammetry by: Sofia Kinzer, JR Peterson, Ardern Hulme-Beaman

 

Decorated Ware – A Landscape in Ceramic

D-Ware (or Decorated Ware) is a classification of Predynastic pottery originating from Flinders Petrie’s seriation of Predynastic material from Diospolis Parva. The characteristics of D-Ware are that it is made from Marl clay and decorated with red pigment, likely made from ochre. The vessels are decorated with numerous designs and motifs, ranging from abstract geometric patterns to depictions of humans, animals and the natural landscape of the Nile Valley. The majority of D-Ware vessels date to the Naqada IIC-IID and Naqada IIIA-IIIB periods, with most found across sites in Upper Egypt (though there is limited distribution through Middle Egypt, Lower Egypt and Nubia).

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Boats, plants, animals and human are all motifs regularly appearing on D-Ware vessels like this one (E.3030).

Geometric Designs

Certain forms of decoration on D-Ware vessels appear to be abstract – wavy lines, patterns or simple shapes. It is unclear whether these shapes may have communicated an idea or might represent something more concrete, as the vast temporal space between the manufacture of the vessels and their interpretation now prevents our understanding of the meanings behind these abstract shapes.

 

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The decoration on this vessel from Koshtamna consists only of a series of curved lines painted on all sides of the vessel (E.3045).

In some cases, it is possible that these shapes are an imitation of more expensive vessels – it is common, for example, to find Predynastic vessels with swirls, spirals and other decorations intended to imitate the patterning of stone vessels – a material that was less common, harder to procure and much more difficult to work with. Another possibility is that these vessels might still be representing aspects of the natural world – for example, it is not uncommon to find wavy-line decoration on D-Ware vessels reminiscent of the later hieroglyphic sign for the consonant value ‘n’, which represent water. Could this form of decoration be an attempt to depict water, or the River Nile – of central importance to Egyptian society throughout both history and prehistory?

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The swirling patterns on this vessel are an imitation of the patterning on stone vessels from the same time period (E.4762).

Depictions of Natural and Human Geography

A common motif is the inclusion of natural and human features in the landscape. For example, often one sees rows of black triangles taken to represent the desert hills surrounding the Nile Valley. In most cases, these are featured alongside depictions of animals, such as oryx, addax or ibex, and may indicate a spatial relationship between the grazing lands of these animals and the desert hills located nearby. Alternatively, the relationship between the depictions of geographical features and other parts of decoration on the vessel might be an early precursor to the strictly delineated registers of decoration found on later Egyptian material, such as stelae and tomb and temple wall inscriptions.

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This striking D-Ware pot includes zig-zag banding just below the rim, followed by “registers” of grazing animals, desert hills and river plants (E.3035).

A less common feature of decoration is the potential inclusion of human architectural elements. These ‘architectural elements’ are cross-hatched geometric shapes, in the form of structures tentatively identified as wattle-and-daub or matted constructions (potentially shrines or temples, although this is mostly conjecture). These structures, whatever their intended purpose, may be the origin of the so-called ‘façade’ style decoration found in Predynastic and Early Dynastic motifs and iconography.

More common than actual buildings is the inclusion of boats. The central importance of the Nile River in Egypt cannot be understated, and riverine trade would naturally have been a facet of Egyptian life as far back as the Predynastic period. The ubiquitous representations of boats on D-Ware vessels illustrate how important they were to the Egyptians; moreover, their regular inclusion alongside human figures may be representations of trade and exchange happening along the riverside, a scene that is familiar from later depictions in the Pharaonic Period.

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Boats are one of the most common features of decoration on D-Ware vessels, regularly appearing next to depictions of humans and animals (E.3038).

Depictions of Flora and Fauna

Flora and fauna are commonly depicted on D-Ware vessels; plants and other natural vegetation are regularly included, although identifying specific species of plant is difficult due to the abbreviated nature of the art style. The fauna depicted are usually oryx, ibex and other grazing animals, although ostriches are also very common. It has been suggested that the representation of these animals on D-Ware – particularly if that representation is alongside human figures, which are sometimes represented touching or otherwise in contact with the animals – might be an artistic trope, illustrating the triumph of human order over animalistic chaos. However, this is difficult to prove with any certainty, and while the motifs are abstract enough that it is unlikely that they are historical – referring to a specific hunt or a specific interaction between humans and animals – they may just act as a record of the daily activities of their Predynastic creators.

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Close-up detail of a D-Ware vessel. This is the only known example of D-Ware including the unusual motif of birds in flight (E.6111).

Depictions of Humans

Humans depicted on D-Ware tend to be shown in an abbreviated form that emphasises the general shape of the figure rather than individual details or characteristics, much like anthropomorphic Predynastic figurines. Likewise, there are numerous examples of female human figures depicted with their arms raised over their heads and their legs together, the same pose as is depicted in steatopygous figurines and in rock art in the Western desert. The exact meaning of this pose has been hotly debated. Older theories tended to focus on a divine reasoning, either participation in a mother goddess cult or some form of prayer, but this is generally less accepted now. Modern scholarship relates the pose to being a symbolic assumption of authority through taking on visual characteristics associated with bulls.

The inclusion of human figures in this style on D-Ware vessels might indicate people of importance – they are regularly included in scenes that also include boats, which suggests that those humans depicted in this way may have had a level of social responsibility relating to boats, and by extension, trade. This would match with depictions of similar figures on rock art, which show them surrounded and potentially in control of grazing animals.

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This vessel shows human figures interacting on a boat, with the figure on the left shown with legs together similar to steatopygous figurines. Unfortunately, much of the decoration has been damaged (E.3027).

A Window into Ancient Minds?

The choice of decoration used on this pottery allows archaeologists a glimpse into the meaningful motifs and semiotic communications that were utilised and understood by Predynastic Egyptians, and can assist with the identification of important cultural signifiers relevant to the daily life of these prehistoric people. The absence of textual evidence from the Predynastic necessitates a reliance on the visual themes and designs utilised in Egyptian material culture in order to envision and relate to their world, as they understood it.

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This collage image stitched together from multiple photographs shows off the entirety of the decoration of this D-Ware vessel (E.3030).

Chris Bebbington.

Reflections of the Natural World – Predynastic Palettes

Egyptian ‘cosmetic’ palettes are found during the Predynastic period, they are made of flat pieces of stone – often described as ‘slate’, but in actuality siltstone – on which pigmented material could be ground up and made into cosmetics. The palette is a curious piece of material culture in Egyptian history; they are found throughout both Egypt and Nubia, and take on various distinct forms and evolutions throughout the Predynastic Period. Despite their ubiquity in the burial context, palettes quickly vanish from the archaeological record during the Pharaonic Period, disappearing not only from the material culture of Pharaonic Egyptian burials from the 1st Dynasty onwards but also from later material culture found in Nubian C-group burials.

Animal Forms

Palettes come in a variety of forms. In the Badarian to early Naqada I Period, they were primarily simplistic rectangular pieces of siltstone, clearly a form more suited to functionality than aesthetic value. In the later Naqada I, II & III periods, however, palette forms change to become predominantly shaped into forms reminiscent of animals. Of these zoomorphic palettes, the most common representations include fish, birds and turtles, though there are also more unusual examples such as hippopotami and gazelles.

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Predynastic oblong palette from the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery (E.5308a).

 

The Nubian A-Group also had their own distinctive cosmetic palettes, though there is evidence of importation of Egyptian palettes as well. These palettes were usually made from quartz, rather than siltstone, with most Egyptian siltstone palettes being found in the northern regions, closer to the First Cataract. Nubian palettes have similar feature to their Egyptian neighbours, though often of simpler geometric shapes rather than zoomorphic forms; there is evidence of use from observable malachite residue on many palettes, and they were usually deposited in burial contexts.

The Importance of Iconography

Animal iconography is used across all mediums of Predynastic art, including ceramic vessels, taking the recognisable forms of turtles, birds, fish, hippopotami and other animals found represented in cosmetic palettes. Perhaps the most obvious form of animal representation in Predynastic vessels are theriomorphic stone and ceramic vessels, such as those found in Cemetery T at Naqada and in the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. Similar zoomorphic material is found on a range of objects of beautification and personal adornment, including ivory bangles and combs with carved tops in the form of bull horns or birds, as well as on prehistoric graffiti across the breadth of Egypt.

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Predynastic fish-shaped palette (E. 5318).

 

The use of animal iconography across Predynastic material culture illustrates the importance of these animals to the Egyptian people at this time. These recurring motifs indicate that the fauna of the Nile Valley was of great importance to Predynastic Egyptians, and while any symbolic or religious associations can only be conjectured about, the actual animals themselves played a key part in the visual landscape that prehistoric Egyptians inhabited. As well as illustrating the Preydnastic fascination with the native fauna, palettes also indicate the importance of cosmetics and beautification in Predynastic society, as well as providing evidence for trade between regions in Upper Egypt and A-Group sites in the Sudan.

Christopher Bebbington.

Burials and Grave Goods in the Predynastic – You Can Take It With You!

Typically, the modern audience associates burial and funerary ritual in ancient Egypt with the iconic imagery of the Pharaonic period – meticulously mummified bodies locked away deep in tombs filled with ancient treasures. However, the practice of preserving the body after death and providing assemblages of burial objects dates much earlier, going as far back as at least c. 6000 years ago. These early burials – such as the iconic Gebelein Predynastic “mummies” – did not go through a deliberate process of preservation, but instead were naturally desiccated by the desert environment that they were buried in.

The lack of written language and knowledge of Predynastic funerary ritual poses a problem for the modern Egyptologist – how to interpret the assemblages of goods that were deposited alongside the body. Without any literature to allow the Egyptians themselves to “tell” us why they included these objects in burials, we must carefully extrapolate and interpret the meanings and significance behind these objects. It is undeniable, however, that their inclusion in burials illustrates that these objects proved important in some fashion for the deceased.

Pottery

The most common grave good found in Predynastic burials is the simple pot. These come in various forms but decorated (or D-Ware) vessels are of particular interest. These vessels were painted with iconography and imagery reflective of the geography of the Nile Valley, the natural flora and fauna of the region, and human activities. Often, they include depictions of boats indicating the importance of riverine trade in the Predynastic.

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The decoration used on Predynastic D-Ware vessels gives modern scholars an insight into the motifs and iconography that were important or relevant to ancient Egyptian culture at this time (E.3033).

 

Generally, Predynastic burials contain numerous ceramics, often placed over the body or alongside it. Occasionally these vessels contain other grave goods, such as ceramic figurines. Whether the inclusion of these vessels indicates that they belonged to the deceased or their family is unclear; they may have been included in burials for a specific ritual purpose, or as goods that could be taken to the next life.

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Petrie’s C-Ware is named for the iconic white ‘crossed-line’ decoration which can be seen on this bowl. This is another common form of pottery decoration in the Predynastic (E.4195).

Palettes

Another very common grave good associated with the Predynastic is the cosmetic palette. These objects are most commonly made of siltstone (often described as ‘slate’) and come in a variety of forms. The Badarian and Naqada I period palettes are often simple oblong shapes on which pigmented material such as malachite could be ground up into cosmetic powder. In the later Naqada periods, however, palettes commonly took on a host of forms that reflected the fauna of the Nile Valley – common examples include turtles, fish and birds.

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Fish-shaped palettes are a very common feature of graves in the Predynastic, further illustrating the importance of the river Nile and the fauna around and within it during this formative period of Egyptian culture (E.5318).

The use of animal shapes in these palettes has clear parallels across the breadth of Predynastic Egyptian art. Animal iconography is commonly found on Predynastic decorated vessels, taking the recognisable forms of turtles, birds, fish, hippopotami and other animal forms, indicating the importance of the natural world and the flora and fauna of the Nile Valley to Predynastic Egyptian social groups. Notably, residue from cosmetics and evidence of wear has been found on numerous palettes, indicating that they were not just burial goods but also were used in life – whether specifically by the deceased, or by someone with a familial/social relation to them.

Figurines

One of the more unusual forms of burial good found in Predynastic graves is the anthropomorphic figurine. Usually made of ceramic, understanding the meaning of these figurines has posed a significant challenge to Egyptologists. The lack of defined facial features and individual, personal aspects in the form of the figurines suggests that they were not personal representation of the deceased; instead it has been theorised that they represented a deity (often characterised as a ‘fertility’ or ‘mother goddess’) or had a ritual meaning. It has been suggested that, alternatively, these figurines might have been ritually deposited (or even, in some cases, ritually broken) as part of the burial rites or as a display of mourning.

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Predynastic ceramic figurines usually include emphasis on the genitalia and a lack of decoration on the face. However, ivory statuettes such as this piece from the Louvre (E 11887) often have great deal of detail devoted to their facial features (photograph by Guillaume Blanchard, distributed under a CC A-SA 1.0 license).

Some of the most striking examples are the “steatopygous” female figurines (a word that refers to their large buttocks), which often have their arms raised over their heads. This gesture can be seen in representations of humans across Predynastic art, from figurines to decoration on vessels, to graffiti and art on cave walls. One interpretation of this gesture is that it refers to some kind of ritual behaviour or form of worship, and the presence of these figurines might indicate that the deceased had a personal connection with religious customs or divine spirituality.

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The depictions of humans on D-ware vessels can be strikingly similar to human-shaped figurines and Predynastic rock art (E.3027).

Personal Adornment and Miscellanea

 Objects found in Predynastic burials often reflect practices of personal adornment or status, such as the inclusion of imported beads of lapis lazuli from far as Afghanistan, obsidian from as far as Ethiopia and meteoric iron. These more luxurious and “high-status” objects may have been impersonated in other burials through the use of alternative materials – for example, bone and shell bracelets are a relatively common find and these may have been impersonations of objects of personal adornment made from a more affordable, readily-available material.

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This shell bracelet from Hierakonpolis illustrates how objects of personal adornment were made not only from luxurious precious metals and stones, but also more easily-accessible material (E.7262).

Other miscellaneous objects in burials may have reflected information about the individual, their status in society, or their social roles and relationships – for example, objects made of flint such as knives, scrapers and arrowheads may illustrate something particular about the deceased (although this is impossible to know for sure). These objects may have been included for a specific funerary purpose, but they may instead be objects that had a special significance for the deceased or for the larger community engaging with the funerary ritual.

Funerary Customs in the Predynastic

Burials are fundamental to our understanding of the Egyptian Predynastic, with cemeteries often the only archaeological sites that have survived. The study of these burials does not just tell us more about the funerary beliefs and burial culture of Predynastic Egyptians, but also illustrates the development of stratification and hierarchies in social groups, the themes and iconography that was important at this time, and the vast trade networks that existed even at this early point in human history. While the large tombs and detailed burial customs of Pharaonic Egypt are perhaps more famous and well-known, their rich lineage can be traced back to the simple pit burials of the Predynastic.

Chris Bebbington.