Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dating the Predynastic for beginners - Part 1

I'd be grateful to hear from anyone who is a relative beginner in the field of Predynastic archaeology and who, most importantly, has struggled to get to grips with the chronology of the Predynastic in the past. If you could let me know if this post is helpful, or simply makes life more confusing than ever I would be sincerely glad to hear from you. I have tried very hard to explain the development of dating systems in Egypt, but it isn't exactly straight forward. Part 2 (scientific dating) will be posted in the next few days.

Unfortunately I was unable to attend the first part of Dr Kathryn Piquette’s Bloomsbury lecture on Predynastic cultures in Egypt because I was traveling back from north Wales at the time, so I only caught the second part, which was on the following day. Obviously it makes no sense to write up one half of a lecture, although I very much enjoyed what I heard. But I thought it worth picking up on one of the issues that Kathryn and members of her course raised - the apparently conflicting dates for the earlier Predynastic period in various different books.

I thought that it might be worth sitting down and writing a top-level summary of how dating works, and why the confusion arises, in case anyone else out there is experiencing similar difficulties with the whole concept of dates in the Predynastic. So here it is.

I am going to tackle this in two parts, because it is by far too long a topic to deal with on one post, and there are a number of levels of confusion.

There are two ways of trying to put sites into chronological sequences - relative dating and absolute (also known as scientific) dating. In this post I am going to look at relative dating and how it evolved because it was the way in which the Predynastic in Egypt was first organized into manageable chronological chunks. These were originally proposed by Petrie and still form the backbone of the chronology used for the Predynastic today, so it is important to understand some of the ideas behind them.

Relative dating uses concepts of style, technique, form, decoration etc to put buildings, artefacts and other indicators into a relative sequence. The most basic form of relative dating is to understand that the further down something is the older it must be. An excavation digs from the top down, from the modern to the ancient. By analysing the contents at different layers it is possible to use certain diagnostic features to suggest that, for example, a vase with a wavy handle is always at a lower level than a vase with a different sort of wavy handle, and that this means that the one sort will always be older than the other. When results like this are validated by repeated excavation, the vases can be used to date similar layers at other sites, enabling entire sequences of relative dates to be constructed. The items associated with the vases and the types of site at which they are found can then be analyzed. Pottery in one type of burial will predate pottery in a different type of burial, so it should be possible to chart the development of burial types by using the pottery as chronological markers.

Petrie did something very like this using pottery from graves to develop a chronology for Upper Egyptian cemeteries. He called his system Sequence Dating and he based his sequence dates (S.D.s) on “classes” of pottery. The pottery, decorated and undecorated, was described according to certain diagnostic variables which he believed he could track over time at the cemeteries that he was excavating. He could then group them together in a relative sequence. He produced 50 S.D. dates, starting at S.D.30 in case any older cultures came to light. He showed great insight because the Badarian was later discovered and he used the reserved S.D.s to put the Badarian into the relative sequence (SD 21-29). He further grouped these under five main headings, named after sites he had excavated:

  • Badarian - SD 21-29
  • Amratian - SD 30-34 (earlier) and SD 34-37 (later)
  • Gerzean - SD 38-44
  • Semainean - SD 45-60
  • Late - SD 61-78
  • First Dynasty - SD 78-82
Petrie first outlined this system in 1920, based on excavation of 900 graves at the site of Naqada, but revised it himself a few years later. Since then it has been revised further by different writers - initially by Kantor in 1944, who effectively removed the Semainean, and then by Kaiser in the 1950s, the 1960s and then again in 1990.

In 1957 Kaiser, on the basis of his studies at Armant, recognized the validity of Petrie’s basic model, but saw far more continuity than Petrie had recognized between Amratian, Gerzean and later phases. On the basis of this he divided his three phases into eleven sub-phases.

Kaiser's system is still based on the proportion of which types of Petrie's classes of pottery are represented in graves, in order to refine Petrie's system.

The main weakness of Kaiser’s 1957 model based on the site of Armant, is that Naqada III, the critical period for discussions about unification, is very poorly represented at Armant, because it and other cemeteries were largely abandoned at the end of Naqada II, and it was not at all clearly defined. However, perhaps the biggest problem with Kaiser’s sequence was how it was used. Although it was based on one site his sequence has been used as the basis for dating sites from all over Egypt, which disguises the possibility that there were regionally distinct chronological sequences.

In 1990 Kaiser again revised his chronology, adding a further three subdivisions and extending Naqada III to the end of the First Dynasty. In the new version, Naqada IIIb is further subdivided into IIIb1 and IIIb2, and Naqada IIIc is now divided into IIIc1, IIIc2, IIIc3.

Kaiser’s scheme looks like this:

  • Badarian
  • Naqada Ia, Ib, Ic
  • Naqada IIa, IIb, IIc, IId1, IId2
  • Naqada IIIa1, IIIa2, IIIb
As you can see, it looks radically different from Petrie’s sequence at first glance but it is actually based on Petrie's system. Naqada I equates to the Amratian and Naqada II equates to the Gerzean. The real departures from Petrie’s scheme take place at the end of Naqada II and the whole of Naqada II. As I said above, the names were changed to emphasise the continuity throughout the Naqada period, rather than keeping a system which emphasised differences. The Badarian remains unchanged because it is deemed to be of sufficient difference from the Naqadan period to retain its original label.

The first source of confusion with the dating of the Predynastic lies in the way in which different writers drift between Petrie’s terminology and Kaiser’s. Although you will rarely see the Semainean referred to, unless you are reading Petrie’s own material or an early work, many authors still adopt the terms Amratian and Gerzean rather than using the newer system. So terminologies can end up being mixed within the same book or even document.

Kaiser’s were not the only attempts to revise Petrie’s chronology. Although I won’t be covering them here, other schemes were put forward by Barry Kemp (1982) Stan Hendrickx (1993) and Toby Wilkinson (1996).

Although either one of Kaiser’s two systems is usually the preferred scheme, very few authors actually mention which they are using in their work. This should be borne in mind if dating schemes in one piece of work don‘t seem to quite match up with those in another.

Another source of confusion is that Petrie’s Badarian, Amratian and Gerzean (modern Badarian, Naqada I and Naqada II) are only relevant for Upper Egypt. A completely different and partially contemporary tradition was evolving in the north, in the Faiyum Depression and the Delta. An early farming economy grew up at sites like the Faiyum, Merimde Beni Salama and Sais, all bearing a strong resemblence to each other and known in the Faiyum as the Faiyum Neolithic. This tradition was eventually followed by a more clearly defined and complex set of towns located in the Delta. These were named the Maadian, a label which was then changed first to the Maadi-Buto period and more recently the Lower Egyptian. You might stumble across any of these in the Predynastic literature. More confusing terminology.

Towards the end of Naqada II / the Lower Egyptian phase, Naqada II traditions begin to be practised in the north. For example, some cemeteries have both Lower Egyptian and Naqadan type graves with grave goods.. The term Naqada III represents the period when Naqadan traits had completely eliminated Lower Egyptian ones, and is therefore applied to both Upper and Lower Egypt. In 1964 Kaiser moved his attention to the cemetery at Tura in Lower Egypt. At this site the identified three periods. His work here has often been used to tie in the Upper and Lower Egyptian sequences to synchronize the two areas, which has been helpful.Kaiser's Naqada III, of course, extends into the early Dynastic period, overlapping with the Early Dynastic technology - Dynasty 0 and 1.

As if all of the above was not enough, it has now been recognized that there were things going on in Egypt outside either the Nile Valley or the Delta - in the desert and in the oases. If you’ve ever looked at some of these in books you may well have wondered how on earth it all fits, chronologically, with the rest of the Predynastic. Happily, some of it simply predates the Badarian and has its own set of terminologies. However, that is not always the case. Although the period during which the desert was green enough to be occupied comes to an end during the Badarian, it is often treated as an entity apart, rather than an overlapping occupation which may have had connections with the Badarian. A key site which you’ve probably heard of is Napta Playa - multi phase sites divided into numerous sub-periods and sometimes called the Western Desert Neolithic. Similarly, the Sheik Muftah period in Dakheleh Oasis begins at the same time as the Badarian but survives through to the Old Kingdom.

Finally, what about Dynasty 0? And even worse, Dynasty 00? Dynasty 0 was the first of the two terms to be coined. It was designed to do what Kaiser's re-naming of the Amratian and Gerzean achieved - the sense of continuity rather than discontinuity. The First Dynasty was not born out of a void and the term Dynasty 0 is intended to communicate the idea that things happened during Naqada III which directly influenced the early Pharaonic age. Naqada III is a multi-phase period which is contemporary with the terms Dynasty 00, Dynasty 0 and Dynasty 1. Dynasty 00 is the period immediately pre-dating Dynasty 0. It is a very unpopular term amongst many Egyptologists, but it regularly puts in an appearence. One problem with it is the word "dynasty" because there is no evidence that any of the leaders represented were actually related. A second problem is that in Dynasty 00 the individuals suggested to be leaders were probably geographically apart and some of them could have been contemporary with each other. It would be reinventing the wheel to try to do a better job of doing a proper analysis of these terms than Francesco Rafaelle - to reead more about them see his page on the subject.

Feel free to scream at this point.

So just to recap, here are the main sources of confusion regarding the terminology of the relative dating system which was built on the back of Petrie’s sequence for Upper Egypt.

I said that the major sources of confusion for that system were that:

  • Two sets of terminology are still in use for Upper Egypt (Amratian = Naqada I and Gerzean = Naqada II)
  • Petrie’s original sequence has been refined several times and a number of different schemes exist. Although Kaiser’s 1956 and 1990 versions are the most commonly used, it is rare that an author will say which scheme is in use
  • A different set of terms is used to describe the technology and tradition of Lower Egypt during the Upper Egyptian periods of the Badarian, Naqada I and Naqada II., with which they were contemporary.
  • Contemporary prehistoric cultures outside the Nile Valley in Egypt are usually treated completely separately, although there is often chronological overlap with the Badarian.
  • Dynasty 0 (and even worse, Dynasty 00) are attempts to link in the Predynastic with the Dynastic - but some parts of these periods are very poorly understood and it is almost certain that they don't represent true dynasties and that some of them were contemporary leaders in different areas.
  • Before radiocarbon dating it was impossible to know exactly how long these periods lasted, and how far back in time they extended.

Do let me know if you can think of any others!

Thankfully we do now have radiocarbon dating, and at least that has helped to settle some of the questions about the duration of the periods and the chronological overlaps between different cultures. But you can guess that it is not a bed of roses! Radiocarbon dating will be dealt with in my next post on the subject.


John said...

As an armchair egyptologist/archaeologist, I have not much experience with Pre-Dynastic Egypt (popular sources being heavily weighted to New Kingdom), so I am a good example of a "relative beginner".

The only major confusion for me was the reference early on to "The main weakness of Kaiser’s 1957 model..." and then later "Kaiser’s 1956 and 1990 versions are the most commonly used..."?

I liked the chronological table but would have liked it split up a bit more into "actual date" [BC?], Petrie's Scheme [for legacy material], Kaiser '57 and Kaiser '90.

Wilkinson's Chronological Table [T. Wilkinson in M.D.A.I.K. 56 , 2000 p. 39] on this Francesco Rafaelle page is interesting because it gives the sites/artifacts that support the chronologies, as well as, a location reference, but may be a bit too cluttered for the novice.

Andie said...

Hello John

Thank you very much for the comment - seriously appreciated. I'll wait to collect a few more creative criticisms and then rewrite the piece. I am very grateful that you took the time - and I can see that you're absolutely right too.

All the very best

Anonymous said...

Like John I am an armchair egyptologist, however my prefered period is pre-dynastic / early dynastic. So I am quite familar with the dating models. My personal preference has always been Kaiser's early model, I find the revised model too complicated!

Initially when dynasties 0 and 00 were used I disliked the terms but now I think they are a good way to show a continuity. They go some way to prevent the (still common) misconception that Dyanstic Egypt just started from out of nowhere.

My main gripe is that books do not state which model they are going to use, and that they should have an easy reference table in the appendices to show correlation with the other main models.

Very helpful piece though Andy - I think I will use this as my easy reference!

Anonymous said...

Sad to disappoint you, but I'm not a "lover" of Egypt before Narmer and after Nectanebo II, as hystory (it's my "crazy opinion") began with Sumerians and ends with Persian Empire fall. :-)

I read an article similar to your post on "Pharaon Magazine" (yes, it's written pharaon: "italianized" english word, because in italian pharaoh is "faraone"): this kind of articles are useful to help to diradate fog in my mind about Predynastic.

I'm not expert on this argument, but, as organic chemist, I can say that's impossible to date pottery with radiocarbon (everyone who can tell I'm wrong is welcome), so I think relative datation will survive along.

Dating said...

Very helpful piece though Andy - I think I will use this as my easy reference!