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Chapter 6 Chapter 8

Egyptian Origins (7)
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Naqada I Settlements (4000-3500 BC)

Elite Tombs. A principal physical difference between the Badarian and the Naqada I periods, at least at the cross-over period about 4000 BC, is that Naqada I finds include "white cross-lined painted pottery." Why does this matter? White cross-lines are nice, especially if you have been spending a lot of time looking at pottery without them, but they hardly constitute a world-shattering difference.

What the white cross-lining often depicted means has sometimes been debated, but most scholars now agree that the designs, if representational, may be intended to show boats engaged in river trade. Already in Badarian sites there are ideas and products that are not local, so some commerce must have occurred, even though we know little about it. But the Naqada I materials suggest a good deal of commerce up and down the river, even in the absence of any central government to protect it from the thieving and unscrupulous. If the crossed lines indeed do represent this trade, the fact that it has become part of a decorative motif found on grave goods suggests an increase in its relevance to people.

The presence of extensive trade, if that is what the white cross-lined painted pottery is really about, makes us sit up and take notice for another reason beyond simply its increased scale, especially if distant trade is involved.

White cross-lines don't matter to us; trade does, and the Naqada I adaptation seems to have involved a lot of it, or anyway a lot more than the earlier, Badarian adaptation did. The white cross-lines suggest that they recognized how central trade could be.

Powerfacts. With Naqada I, the elaboration already characteristic of Badarian tombs gets more elaborate yet. Naqada I tombs have more materials and more elaborate ones, and, unlike Badarians, Naqada I people built not only "elite" tombs, but whole "elite" districts in their cemeteries. Perhaps most interesting, they produced what some archaeologists have called "powerfacts," objects intended as symbols of one's social position. A typical powerfact is a tool or weapon made of precious materials too fragile or too clumsy for actual use, but intended only (or almost only) for display.

In some parts of the world (such as among the ancient Maya) powerfacts take the form of "eccentric flints," virtuoso works of stone-chipping too fine or too strangely shaped to be useful except to show the skill of the craftsman. In the case of the Naqada I elite, we see beautifully produced mace heads of rare stone, a kind of object made as symbols of royal power in later centuries. [Note 9]

Near the Naqada I cemetery at Nekhen a kiln was been found that was used to produce a kind of "powerfactual" pottery: "Plum Red Ware," apparently intended only for use in elite burials. Indeed, Nekhen seems to have been a major production center for such materials. Also found at Nekhen was a locally made mace head made of porphyry. It was apparently intended for luxury display, since porphyry is a luxury material, a fine-grained igneous matrix containing large and conspicuous feldspar crystals.

Pottery Barons and the Funeral Business. The late Michael Alan Hoffman, the excavator of Nekhen and perhaps the leading specialist on predynastic Egypt, surmised that Nekhen not only had its own elite tombs, but, given the pottery production, was a center for elite burial goods to be shipped to other locations. He even proposed that, in general, there was in Naqada I a "relationship between the growth of the powerful elite and the production of fancy items for the mortuary cult" (1988: 41). In other words, a trading system seems to have existed by which elite people elsewhere "imported" expensive ceramics for their tombs from Nekhen, creating a profitable business in producing and distributing such wares, which "rich" people throughout a wide area used as symbols of their elite status. Indeed, it is possible that once the system got going, the very fact that an object came from Nekhen may have conferred on it an intangible value added in addition to its inherent worth.

By providing prized offerings for the deceased, the pottery barons encouraged and profited from the pervasive Egyptian belief that the dead could take their wealth with them into an afterlife. By successfully managing the production, transport, and exchange of their goods, the local "big men" gained leadership experience, acquired clients, and forged useful trading contacts with other population centers. [Hoffman 1983: 46]

As trade expanded, Hoffman argues, communities were able to expand, producing the substantial population growth seen in the Nekhen excavation over time. The population has been estimated at about 2,300 at the beginning of the Naqada I about 4000 BC, about 10,500 by the end of it in about 3500 BC (Hoffman 1983: 43). Much of this may have been natural growth in population, but some of it may also have been due to migration into the settlement from smaller hamlets nearby as the commercial success of the funeral-goods industry spilled over into a general prosperity. Farmers are limited in how far they can live from their fields, but to the extent that merchant or artisan alternatives were developing, people could have lived in more centralized settlements, and immigrating ex-farmers might have made up much of the "urban" population that seems to have been evolving. [Note 10] The full settlement area around the site has not been excavated, however, so there could be surprises. Hoffman writes that, when comparing late Naqada I settlements of Nekhen and Naqada to the settlements of "technologically similar" peoples elsewhere in the world, "we would expect centralized chiefdoms in control of hundreds of miles of territory, able to field large armies and engage in long-distance trade" [1988: 41]. So far the evidence from Naqada I sites is not enough to support that picture. We see rich graves, powerfactual mace heads, large-scale pottery production, apparently for burial use, growing populations, some arrows, and what appear [to Hoffman] to be "models of fortified towns" in some large tombs.

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