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Exploring the Origins of Egyptian Civilization: Protodynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt

[This is a lecture written for the course 'HIST 262: History of the Ancient Near East,' taught Fall 2023 at God's Bible School and College, a regionally accredited College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bibliographical material will be posted under Research on this site.]

By the time the Akkadians were establishing an empire in Mesopotamia, Egypt had already seen three distinct dynasties ruling a combined kingdom. Whereas in Mesopotamia there is seen the rise in city-states leading to empires, and indeed Mesopotamia saw an earlier rise in urbanism, dynastic Egypt is what can be termed a territorial state (Rothman 2004: 89) or kingdom, that is, a state based on geographical location which may include several cities, districts, towns, and villages. 

The Early Bronze Age in Egypt begins around 3100 (Snell 1998: xvii) with the Naqada IIC period, also known as Dynasty 0 (Braun 2011: 108). Although Egyptologists seldom use the Three Age system, for comparison purposes, the Early Bronze Age covers the Final Predynastic, Early Dynastic, and the Old Kingdom periods in Egypt (Snell 1998: xvii). The period prior to the Early Dynastic, or Archaic, is termed Predynastic, and while this term is used here, the obvious problem with this terminology is that everything before the dynastic periods should be considered “Predynastic” (Hendrickx 2006: 55), not just the pre- and early Naqada tradition, which is the limitations of the Predynastic. 

Egyptian Periods and Dynasties





Before Dynasties


4000-3000 B.C.


Archaic/Early Dynastic


3000-2700 B.C.





Old Kingdom


2700-2160 B.C.







Although, as stated above, the term ‘predynastic’ is problematic, it is a common term used in Egyptian chronology. The period includes early urbanization (Pedersen, Hein, and Anderssen 2010: 123), though, as in Mesopotamia, these urban centers existed independently from each other (Mączyńska 2013: 58), and a rise in local elites can be identified in the Naqada I period (Hassan, Serrano, and Tassie 2006: 693). When first discovered, Predynastic sites and artifacts were thought to be non-Egyptian in origin because of the extreme differences in artistic qualities (Teeter 2011: 9), and new discoveries are continuing to be found, changing an understanding of this period in Egyptian history (Hendrickx 2011: 16). 

The Predynastic period of Egypt can be broken down into five phases, namely the Badarian (Neolithic) from ca. 4400-3800 B.C., the Naqada IA-IIB from ca. 3800-3450 B.C., Naqada IIC-D from ca. 3450-3325 B.C., Naqada IIIA-B from ca. 3325-3085 B.C., and Naqada IIIC (First Dynasty) from 3085-2900 B.C. (Stevenson 2016: 424). Since this current study uses the Three Age System as a backdrop, the discussion here will be focused on Naqada IIC/III and following, or Dynasty 00 and Dynasty 0 (Hassan, Serrano, and Tassie 2006: 688). It should be noted that there appears to be little consensus on the dates and periods of these protodynasties with the only consistencies being the inclusions of both Iry-Hor and Ka when discussing Dynasty 0; Dynasty 00 is inconsistently used (Hendrickx 2006: 88). Because of these anomalies and inconsistencies, this period can better be termed simply ‘protodynastic’ (Hendrickx 2006: 56) or the earliest form of dynasties. 

At this period of time, the two lands of Egypt, Upper Egypt, found in the south and so named because the Nile river flows northward, and Lower Egypt, found in the north, were separated into three different regions, upper, middle, and lower. These regions consisted of hierarchical societies with differing social stratifications, prestige goods, interregional trade, and craft specialization (Hassan, Serrano, and Tassie 2006: 693). A number of protodynastic rulers existed here, and the lists can be confusing particularly as the evidence for some of these is insufficient when compared to others (Hassan, Serrano, and Tassie 2006: 690), and some may had simply been regional rulers rather than kings.

Two important novelties come from the Protodynastic period, namely the formation of proto-states and the first use of hieroglyphic writing (Stein 2011: 8). Concerning proto-states, there appeared in Upper Egypt a single economic and political unit formed from multiple nomes, or districts, under the rulership of the most powerful polity, likely Hierakonpolis or Abydos; although this proto-state was short lived, it was an important stage in the development of the later state (Anđelković 2011: 29), establishing what could be done with a more powerful and administratively successful leader.

By the time writing began to appear as rudimentary elements on objects, cultural, religious, and political concepts had been fully formed (Hoffmeier 1998: 254), these proto-hieroglyphs appearing on seals along with decorations (Raffaele 2003: 124). True hieroglyphs are later seen on small ivory tags, and these may be evidence of an elaborate bureaucracy (Stevenson 2016: 446).

Archaic/Early Dynastic 

The beginning of the third millennium B.C. saw a transformation in society from individual ruling communities to the first true territorial state headed by divine kingship (Stevenson 2016: 422), including the first dynasties. The first king to bring the entirety of the land together, at least according to later Egyptian records, is Narmer (Anđelković 2011: 25), but as seen above, the joining of Egyptian polities occurred much earlier, and the founding of the kingdom was much more complex than just one man.

Palette of Narmer, dating from about the 31st century B.C.

Dynasty I

Still, the name of the first recognized king of the first dynasty of the united lands of Egypt is Narmer (Kahl 2006: 94), also known as Menes or Meni (Hassan, Serrano, and Tassie 2006: 688), though the attribution of the Menes of the ancient historian Manetho’s first king of his list of kings has also been attributed to Aha (Raffaele 2003: 106). The true identity of the first king of the first dynasty, as one might expect, is highly debated. Early tomb records give the two possibilities just mentioned, though the Palermo Stone listing Aha as the first king is broken and therefore difficult to interpret. Early Egyptians (Wilkinson 1999: 3) appear to favor Narmer as not only the first king of the first dynasty but also the last king of the Protodynastic period, and though his kingdom likely was not as large as later Egyptian dynasties had ruled, the Narmer Palette, a cosmetic palette depicting Narmer and dating quite early, shows the king wearing the crowns of both Upper and Lower Egypt, suggesting an early unification of the two lands (Hassan, Serrano, and Tassie 2006: 696).

Having successfully united the two lands of Egypt as a highly centralized government (Anđelković 2011: 30), the early kings of the first dynasty ruled from a court at Memphis, in Lower Egypt (Muhs 2016: 13), though their tombs are most likely located at Abydos (Hassan, Serrano, and Tassie 2006: 698), their ancestral burial ground. It should be noted that these Dynasty I kings did not create a kingdom by themselves. Instead, the achievements attributed to the first dynasty resulted from a rather long period of both social and political development (Wilkinson 1999: 12).

Interregional trade in the first dynasty continued from pre- and protodynastic times (Cohen 2016: 4) which had allowed for the exchange of prestige goods, gifts, and the sharing of cultural values (Hassan, Serrano, and Tassie 2006: 694). By Dynasty I, trade with southern Palestine had become a lucrative monopoly that would continue through the entirety of the Early Dynastic period (Wilkinson 1999: 134), but although trade would continue, the Egyptian kingdom would close its borders, building a fortress at Elephantine as a defense (Stevenson 2016: 449). This important trade was forcibly maintained through military activity in southern Palestine during the first dynastic period in the form of punitive raids in an attempt to ensure cooperation (Wilkinson 1999: 131), as well as a possible Egyptian colonial presence in the region (Cohen 2016: 5), likely related to control over copper mines in the Negev and the Sinai (Bietak 2007: 417).

Long-distance trade is also evident during the first dynasty, as evidenced by exotic materials in wealthy graves. These prestige materials included lapis lazuli from the Iranian region, silver from Anatolia, and obsidian possibly from Ethiopia (Wilkinson 1999: 137). Additionally, wooden chests of cedar wood (Stevenson 2016: 446) are likely from Lebanon (Mączyńska 2013: 173), though this is debated (Cichocki 2006: 366). 

Conversely, large amounts of Egyptian materials are found throughout southern Palestine, including at En Besor, Tel Erani, Nahal Tillah, and Tell el-Sakan (Cohen 2016: 4); these Egyptian materials suggest a rather active and in fact flourishing exchange system between the two regions (Cohen 2016: 5), even if forced. Of note, the silver trade between Byblos and Egypt appears to have ended early in the Early Dynastic period (Wilkinson 1999: 138).

Dynasty II

The second dynasty of archaic Egypt, the last part of the Naqada culture (Anđelković 2011: 30), was marred by rebellion, specifically in the north (Hoffmeier 1998: 256). This caused a declining interest in the southern Levant that lasted through the Old Kingdom of Egypt (Cohen 2016: 5), correlating with the Early Bronze II-III in Palestine. 

The dwindling of Egyptian interest in Palestine, and the issues of rebellion in the north, resulted in an aspect of unknown leadership for much of the second dynasty. Scholars are reasonably certain of the identity of the first five kings in the Second Dynasty, and they are reasonably certain of the last, but the kings in between are rather obscure, as well as to what extent they held authority, and in fact, it is possible that the rule was divided between differing kings (Wilkinson 1999: 69). These problems also resulted in the depopulating of some peripheral mining operations, specifically the carrying into Egypt of the local population of the Sinai and their replacement with the king’s men for the exploitation of the copper mines (Bietak 2007: 417). 

Even with problems, technological innovations continued, particularly as seen in the ceramic repertoire. Firstly, although the slow wheel had been used since the early Naqada III period, in the Second Dynasty period, the slow wheel became more prominent; Secondly, the great distribution of medium bowls, beer jars, and bread molds suggest that these food processing and serving ware had become affordable to the majority of the population (Hendrickx 2011: 96), suggesting resource stability, dietary changes, and both storage and processing innovations (Hendrickx 2011: 96). The fact that these innovations occurred when a significant drop in the annual flood levels are recorded (Wilkinson 1999: 69) says much about the early Egyptians.

By the end of the Second Dynasty, campaigns against the Lower Egyptian rebels quelled all major revolutionary aspects, setting a stage for later actions that would be needed to subjugate the Delta region (Wilkinson 1999: 43) and trade with the southern Levant, which had already diminished greatly, appears to have ceased altogether (Braun 1999: 105). Positively, whereas the kings of the First and early Second Dynasties were buried at Abydos, as noted above, and whereas a shift occurred during the Second Dynasty, at the end of the Second Dynasty, kings would once again be buried in their indigenous lands, though not to the same splendor as before (Bestock 2011: 143).


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