From Pits to Palaces Part 2: Naqada I Culture and Burial Practices

   Posted by: Keith Payne   

Categories: Pre-Dynastic, Tombs

The unification of Egypt is credited to Narmer, the traditional first king of a unified Egypt, who extended his pharaonic mace from his capitol at Hierakonpolis to smite the backward villages of Lower Egypt and rein them in to southern ways.

Well, maybe not exactly.

The unification of Egypt was a process, not a historical event that can be neatly situated into a single time and place, much less a single person.  But one thing is for certain, that process began to take recognizable shape at Hierakonpolis and the earliest roots of that development began with the Badarian culture.  As we shall see in this article, the Naqadian people would build on the material culture of the Badarians, mostly through innovation and improvement of existing types, and this process would plant the seeds for pharaonic Egypt first at Hierakonpolis.  But as sometimes happens, we are getting ahead of ourselves.


The Naqada I Period takes its name from the ancient city of Nubt, which was located in Upper Egypt near the locality of modern Qena, about 24 km north of Luxor.  Nubt itself takes its name from the ancient word for gold—nub—and may refer to its strategic location as a trading partner with the gold-rich Eastern Desert.  Naqada may also refer to the necropolis of that town, so we will have to be careful that we don’t confuse one for the other.  This should be simple enough, as the burial ground is divided into sections which we will discuss as we work our way through the history of that site in these articles.

For now, let’s begin with a general discussion of the Naqada I culture before we narrow our focus to particular cemeteries.  The Naqada I Period is subdivided into three phases, but for our discussion we will try to avoid such specificity as much as possible (although it’s not entirely avoidable).  The epoch runs from around 4000 BC to 3500 BC, although if you check several sources, you will likely get several sets of numbers.  The more we learn, the tighter those dates get, but just as we will simplify things by avoiding Naqada IA/IB/IC, we will likewise settle on a date that agrees with the most current thinking, so 4000 – to – 3500 BC it is.

It is during the Naqada I period that the people of Upper Egypt really begin to move into the north, settling first in areas south of the Delta, but moving increasingly into populated areas as the Naqada I and II Periods unfold.  But this is not just a period of expansion, it is also a time of consolidation.  What started as local autonomous villages in early prehistory began to form into chiefdoms in the Badarian Period, and during Naqada I these chiefdoms continued to develop toward more formalized states. As many as eight power centers—Abydos, Abadiya, Naqada, Gebelein, Hierakonpolis, Elkab, Edfu, and Elephantine—with local chieftains emerge during Naqada I.  Of these, only three—Abydos, Hierakonpolis, and Naqada—will survive as autonomous pre-states by the time of the early Naqada II Period (Andelkovic, 2011, pp. 28-9).

The Naqada I and Badarian material cultures did not vary much from one another, and in many cases the Naqada I culture built on and developed that of the Badarians.  However, it is overly simplistic to say that one emerged from the other, and their timelines cross in ways that are not always neat and orderly.  The Naqada I people, which for this purpose includes the townships of Naqada and Hierakonpolis as its major centers, innovated and improved on Badarian material culture, sometimes in ways that are readily apparent, and sometimes in ways that are more subtle and gradual.

Housing during the Naqada I Period is, like all periods during ancient Egypt, underrepresented for a variety of reasons, nearly all of them having to do with the construction material—primarily mud.  Housing continued to be constructed of mud and reed matting, with structural support provided by wooden posts.  Mud housing was fairly durable when it was dry, which was most of the time, but when it did rain, the rain came down in sheets and it was not unusual to find yourself and your neighbors crowded into the streets with your few belongings, watching helplessly as your homes literally melted and collapsed.    Even when the more durable mudbrick became the standard, a good rain or a shifting of the Nile during inundation could wipe out the structures of an entire village in a fairly short time.

The dwelling sites archaeologist have been able to recover, most of which tend to be in Lower Egypt, show that Naqada I villages were typically composed of small structures with their primary features being the hearth and a milling stone.  Most of the Delta villages were not laid out according to a particular plan, and with craft specialization still being in the future, no buildings seem to have been reserved for industrial purposes.  Some areas did show more sophistication than others.  Naqada I housing at Tell el-Farkha was already divided into distinct rooms, and some civic planning seems to have gone into village layout (Cialowicz, 2011, p. 55), but for the most part Lower Egypt was still fairly Neolithic when the Upper Egyptians began migrating northward.

The lithic remains of the Naqada I culture that have been recovered from burials are both rare and remarkable.  As Beatrix Midant-Reynes observes:

Not many worked stone tools have been found in Naqada I graves , but the rarity of such finds was equaled by their quality.  These delicate and long bifacially flaked blades, some as much as 40 cm long, were regularly serrated.  Their most unusual feature was that they had all been polished before retouching.  This process was also used on beautiful daggers with bifurcated blades, which look ahead to the Old Kingdom forked instruments known as pesesh-kef used in the Opening of the Mouth funerary ceremony.  (2000, pp. 51-2)

The Naqadian culture seems to have had a liking for the rhomboidal shape, as both knives and cosmetic palettes often took this form.  Fishtail-shaped knives were also common.

In some cases, the Naqadians made adaptations to Badarian prototypes that were arguably more utilitarian than aesthetic.  Naqada I pottery became more abundant, being typically red-polished with the same black-top band that characterizes Badarian ceramics, but the thin walls and rippled surfaces of the latter disappear.  The effect is still attractive, but ruggedness seems to have replaced the delicate forms of the Badarians.  This increase in quantity at the expense of beauty may reflect the beginning of a shift toward mass production as we move toward Naqada II, when industry will increasingly move out of the home and into specialized industrial zones.

As the Naqada I Period advances, the black-topped red ware eventually disappears entirely, with white cross-lined red ware becoming more common.  Decorative motifs begin to appear on Naqadian pottery, with geometrical and animal forms being most common.  Less common but highly significant were the depictions of people, with two themes being pervasive: the successful hunt and the victorious warriors.  These images are particularly important as they are precursors to the wall art that will come to adorn tombs and temples, and the early forms of pharaonic imagery are already apparent.  Pots depicting mace-wielding authority figures towering over bound captives presage similar motifs which will last well into Egypt’s late antiquity (Hendrickx, 2011, pp. 76-7).

Craft specialization becomes much more pronounced during Naqada I and this is nowhere more evident than in the stoneware that comes from this period.  The early Naqadians were already showing mastery over hard and soft stone, turning out increasingly sophisticated works in greywacke, granite, porphyry, diorite, breccia, limestone, and alabaster (Midant-Reynes, 2000, p. 50).  Greywacke cosmetic palettes become especially popular during this period, but this time it is the more utilitarian forms of the Badarians that give way to increasingly decorative (but equally functional) forms such as rhomboid palettes with animal images outlined around the grinding bowl.  Another important piece of stoneware innovation is the disc-shaped maceheads which increasingly begin to appear in elite tombs, and which, as mentioned above, evoke royal authority in a way which will become standardized in pharaonic culture.

The importance of stonework cannot be overstated.  A general tendency throughout the Predynastic Period is for architecture to move away from non-durable shelter, such as mud and reed huts, in favor of more permanent mudbrick structures.  Even as mudbrick architecture becomes more complex, stonework continues to advance until the two converge at Saqqara, where Pharaoh Djoser decides to build his Palace for Eternity out of stone.  The forms will remain the same—stone columns and beams shaped in imitation of wood, even the bricks of his pyramid remain the size and shape of mudbrick.  But once the Egyptians begin their romance with stone architecture, the forms become ever grander in scope, even though housing and industrial buildings will remain mostly mudbrick.

Craft goods, particularly with regard to body adornment, continued to become more stylized during the Naqada I Period, with ivory and bone pins, combs, and forehead amulets becoming fashionable (Adams, 1988, pp. 59-60).  Bird- and human-headed hairpins were common, as were ivory tags and carved tusks which were grooved or perforated to be attached to leather strips.  The small cosmetic spoons which began to appear during the Badarian Period continued to show up as well.  Ivory figurines, previously limited mostly to fertility figures, became more diverse, but we will discuss these and their implications when we talk about Naqada I grave goods.

Metalwork during the Naqada I Period does not differ much from the Badarian Period, and continues to be mostly hammered works.  Copper harpoon tips become more common, but as with bone and ivory, the main expansion in copper craft seems to have been with regard to body adornment.  Copper combs, hairpins, beads, and bracelets begin to show up in elite tombs during the Naqada I Period.  Naqadian copper work seems to advance parallel to their expansion northward which put them increasingly in touch with copper-trading partners.

The Naqada I people kept domesticated goats, pigs, sheep, and cattle as seen by the clay figurines of these animals that were included in their grave goods.  Agriculture included barley and wheat, with bread, beer, and porridge being the staple of the Naqadian diet.

The Naqada I burials that are located near ancient Nubt are interspersed with Naqada II and III burials in two cemeteries—the main Naqada Period necropolis west of the area known as South Town, and a smaller cemetery sandwiched between two First and Second Dynasty necropolises further to the north.  These burials differed little from those of the Badarians.  Simple round or oval pits lined with a reed mat were the norm.  The deceased was placed in the grave on his left side, in a semi-contracted position with the head pointed south and facing west—a change from the earlier eastward orientation.  The body was covered by mats or animal skins.  Grave goods might be covered by a mat, and smaller items such as combs or amulets were placed close to the head, with larger vessels being placed closer to the chest and feet.

At Hierakonpolis, social stratification and diversity is already more pronounced, and this trend will grow exponentially during Naqada II.  Hierakonpolis (ancient Nekhen) came to our attention in modern times following the discovery of the Narmer Palette and several mace-heads with the names of early proto-kings inscribed on them.  These discoveries were important in that they filled in some of the details of how the early dynasties formed.  However, some of our earlier assumptions were probably overly simplistic.  The Narmer Palette, for instance, is thought to show the union of Upper and Lower Egypt into a single kingdom as a historical event, mainly because for the first time we see a king wearing the crowns of both Upper and Lower Egypt.  But as stated in the introduction, the creation of a unified Egypt was not an event—it was a process which begins to take coherent shape at Hierakonpolis even at this early stage.

The true foundations of Protodynastic Egypt were not laid at the temple where Narmer’s Palette was found, we have to go further into the desert to find evidence of the first settlement which will grow into Upper Egypt’s first capital city.  Renee Friedman describes this early settlement, continuously occupied since the Badarian Period, as stretching more that 2.5 km along the desert edge and more than three km up the wadi into the low desert.  We can’t be sure how far it spanned toward the Nile as that area is long buried under the silt, the movements of the river’s bank over time forcing the township to occasionally relocate (Friedman, 2011, p. 34).  We know from excavations that the Naqada I people lived in houses probably not very different from the earlier Badarians, based on the arrangement of hearths and post holes.

As we discussed above, the primary difference between the Badarian and Naqada material cultures lies in innovation and improvement, and that is most evident in the number and type of grave goods (Midant-Reynes, 2000, pp. 47-8).  More and richer grave goods point to several things.  For one, they indicate a developing artisan class who is able to dedicate more time and resources to creating better goods.  For another, it shows that there is a growing elite class that is able to commission such goods, and that they could afford to invest more heavily in the afterlife.  We can’t say for certain whether the spiritual counterparts of these grave goods arrived on the Other Side, but the fact that their potential owners could afford to have them buried with them, and thus removed from the local economy, says a thing or two about the wealth and security of the elites.

But one particularly interesting element of grave goods was the ivory figurines found in Hierakonpolis graves.  As mentioned above, these were no longer limited to fertility figures.  Beginning in the late Naqada I Period, bearded male figurines begin to appear in burials, usually singly, but sometimes in pairs or more.  This in itself is not particularly outstanding, as we see new forms of bone and ivory craft goods appearing elsewhere during this time.  What is particularly of interest is the context.

These little bearded men do not just show up in elite graves, they sometimes show up in burials where other grave goods make it clear that the occupant was not otherwise wealthy.  Sometimes they are the only object, other than the occupant, found in the grave.  This makes it clear that material wealth is not the only requirement for having one of these little guys, or more than one—wealth did not even seem to be an indicator of who got more than one bearded man, as also indicated by—or by the lack of—other grave goods (Midant-Reynes, 2000, pp. 49-50).

We know from later pharaonic culture that beards are associated with authority.  The false beard was a part of the pharaoh’s wardrobe, even if the pharaoh happened to be a lady, as was the case with Hatshepsut!  So it is reasonable to think that the inclusion of a bearded figurine was a part of the display of authority that goes hand in hand with elite graves, but what are we to make of their presence in not-so-elite graves?  One possibility is that the craftsmen who made them kept a few back for themselves, but that would cheapen, so to speak, their ability to confer authority.  If they were badges of respect, just being able to make one for yourself did not entitle you to be buried with one any more than being able to make a bowling trophy entitles you to put one on your mantel.

If these statuettes were conferred as grave goods as a way of distinguishing one class of citizen from another, than their presence in non-wealthy graves can only mean that class stratification at Hierakonpolis, even this early, was already more complex than a division of haves and have-nots.  We already know there was a developing artisan class, since somebody had to be making these specialized goods.  When we get into the Naqada II period in the next article we will find that Egypt’s first temple would soon spring up in that very neighborhood, so it is very likely that a religious elite was already forming at Hierakonpolis during the later Naqada I Period.

These little bearded statuettes tell us that something special was taking place at Hierakonpolis, something not yet entirely evident by the tombs themselves, and only hinted at by the inclusion of more/better goods.  These statuettes show that social classes were breaking down into elements that were as specialized as the jobs they performed and the lives they led.  When we resume with the Naqada II Period at Hierakonpolis we will see that the growing diversity at this township would continue to manifest in burial practices as the powerful and important citizens began to plan for the afterlife not just with their grave goods, but with their graves themselves.

They will begin their first steps out of pits and into palaces.


Below:  The from the walls of T100—The Painted Tomb—a Naqada II Proto-Palace of Eternity at Hierakonpolis


Works Cited


Adams, B. (1988). Predynastic Egypt. Oxford: Shire Publications

Andelkovic, B. (2011). Political organization of Egypt in the Predynastic Period. In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Cialowicz, K. (2011). Material culture of the Predynastic Period.  In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Friedman, R. (2011). Hierakonpolis. In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Hendrickx, S. (2011). Iconography of the predynastic and early dynastic periods. In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Midant-Reynes, B. (2000). The Naqada Period. In I. Shaw (Ed.), Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Vol. 1st). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Copyright by Keith Payne, 2012.  All rights reserved 

All photographs and images are copyrighted by the owners as indicated, all rights reserved.  Copyrighted images are used in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of copyright law.

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This entry was posted on Friday, September 14th, 2012 at 1:45 pm and is filed under Pre-Dynastic, Tombs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 comments so far

Susi Alt Leogrande

This is facinating. About time we got a detailed look into the beginnings of the more recognized Egyptian lifestyles and history.

Will you be putting more about the first temple?

September 14th, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Hi Susi 🙂

Yes! The next installment will deal almost exclusively with Hierakonpolis and I will give a detailed description of the temple area, HK29A. It is not the focus of the article, of course, that will be HK6, the elite cemetery. But, the more they learn about the complex around T23, T24, and structures 07 and D9, the more apparent it seems that there was an early mortuary complex there that serviced the entire elite cemetery. Again, not to be confused with HK29A, but it is natural to expect a variety of religious expression developing in what would become Egypt’s first true holy city, really even before Abydos.

There were two adolescent elephants buried in the area, one of which (T24) seems to have possibly been the focus of votive activity. In the very least they were examples of both the conspicuous consumption of the elites who were buried there, and were probably the forerunners of Dynastic-period menageries that demonstrated pharaonic power over primordial chaos—if the monarch could tame wild beasts, then he was an effective pharaoh. Of course we are not talking about pharaohs, yet. But the elites at Hierakonpolis were headed in that direction, WAY before Narmer came along, as in 400-500 years before.

In case you can’t tell, I am very excited to get the next article up! It is largely written, but I am waiting to hear back from the Hierakonpolis Expedition for permission to use some of their photos. The pictures I want to use have appeared elsewhere in media, but as near as I can tell there is no standard press package I can use, so I don’t want to be presumptuous I rely a lot on the “Fair Use” provision in copyright law, but I would much rather work with the team! I have been fortunate enough to do so with other groups and projects and it has always turned out well for everyone involved, so keep your fingers crossed!


September 14th, 2012 at 11:16 pm
Jean-Pierre Houdin

Hi Keith,

Thanks to you, I’m expanding my knowledge about Ancient Egypt…
Keep going, you are very good at that 😉


September 16th, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Hi Jean-Pierre,

Thank you 🙂

It is always a pleasure. I am sure that you know where this series is headed.. From Pit to Palaces, and from Palaces to Pyramids. And then eventually to the Valley of the Kings, but we will always return to Giza. That is the time and place that Em Hotep LOVES…


September 17th, 2012 at 5:20 am

Wow, what a fantastic blog! I’ll be reblogging you on my blog quite frequently, I should think! Keep it up! 🙂

September 20th, 2012 at 4:31 am

Thank you! I have been checking out your Emporium as well, good stuff, good stuff! 🙂


September 20th, 2012 at 11:03 am

Hi Keith

A very interesting summary. I’ve had a lifelong interest in Egypt, and am looking forward to the next segment. I’ve also enjoyed the work from Jean-Pierre about the building of Khufu’s pyramid

Keep up the good work!


September 25th, 2012 at 3:47 am

Hi Linda,

Thank you for reading 🙂

Jean-Pierre’s work will always be a major part of the focus for Em Hotep, and I think you will find that this series will merge very nicely with his work once we get to the Fourth Dynasty.

The next article, which will focus on Hierakonpolis during the Naqada II Period, will be up in a few days, so stay tuned!


September 25th, 2012 at 7:32 am

I’m really looking forward to that. Prehistoric and Old Kingdom is my biggest interest. I’ve been in all 3 of Seneferu’s main pyramids and Khafre’s when last in Egypt.(Khufu’s was closed) Jean-Pierre’s work on building from the outside in is the only thing that makes sense to me!


September 27th, 2012 at 7:42 am

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