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.
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.