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When we look into the distant past, we often compare ourselves to ancient Greeks and Romans. But their peaks were actually closer in time to us than to the peak of the prior society that they compared themselves with: ancient Egypt.
A recent Nature paper had this dramatic graph, showing that most ancient civilizations had a key initial period of rapid increase in social complexity:
Thus in most regions, history can be divided into before and after the start of “civilization.” As writing also usually started around then, we know far less about “pre-historic” life. Those lives are even stranger to us than forager lives, as we have been returning to forager values lately as we’ve gotten rich. For example, before civilization they mostly didn’t have moralizing gods, and human sacrifice (of valued locals, not just enemies) was quite common.
The first known civilization started in Egypt, about 4800 years ago. To better see strange pre-history lives, I’ve listened to a lecture series on ancient Egypt, watched John Romer’s TV series, and read his book, A History of Ancient Egypt, Part I. Here is an interesting graph from that book:
Below the fold is a long list of what I thought were interesting quotes:
Neither had there been an economic or material progress in the course of pharaonic Egypt’s history which, like most of the ancient world, had been technologically mature from its beginnings. Beyond the later invention and elaboration of systems of slavery and the use of iron, ancient cultures made very few material advances.
This volume is the first of two, their division being set between the pre-literate and the literary cultures of the ancient lower Nile, which also marks the transformation of the pharaonic court from a progressive and inventive community into a culturally conservative society.
The first farmers paid a heavy price for their way of life. Though they still hunted and gathered wild foods, their crops and livestock had circumscribed their movements and they were eating an increasingly narrow spectrum of foods and suffering a range of previously uncommon afflictions.
The later Merimdans, for example, appear to have been the first farming community in Egypt to live within their settlement right around the year. … Divisions based upon separate dwellings were arising inside their community. … Growing separation between the activities of child-rearing and hunting,
The Badarians made most splendid wares; indeed, the quality and craft of the dark-shining bowls and dishes whose sherds had first attracted Brunton to excavate at Badari was never again equalled within the Nile Valley.
Unlike the pottery forms of later ages, Badarian pottery seems to have appeared quite suddenly and fully formed beside the Nile. There is no clue as to its origin: the Badarians and their fine pottery, their bags and traps, their fires and herds, their settlements and graveyards, appear, as it were, from nowhere.
As for the Badarians, their burials show them to have been an amiable and peaceful people. Brunton found many elderly and white-haired folk within their cemeteries and few instances of broken bones or other injuries or conditions resulting from strife or deprivation.
The weaving was almost as refined as the high shining pottery.
Along with such commonplace companions as dogs and domestic livestock, a variety of exotic animals, including hippopotami, wild cats and monkeys are buried in the larger cemeteries. The remains of two young African elephants are among the more bizarre relics of this bucolic husbandry.
A few centuries after the Badarian culture disappeared, some of the early Naqadans were running potteries, breweries and zoos and probably, on occasion, getting drunk as well.
Early Naqadan population of Hierakonpolis had been healthy and robust, enjoyed a balanced diet, suffered some of the common afflictions of humanity and lived on average for some fifty years. … Though these people had worked hard all their lives, they had not worked excessively, as has so often been the case in more recent times, whilst the low rates of healed fractures suggested that their labours had not been very dangerous.
Masses of small cuts on some of the skulls show that several people had been expertly scalped, while damage to others showed that their owners had been brutally bludgeoned to death. The skulls that showed signs of scalping had belonged to men aged between eighteen and thirty.
Substantial differences were starting to appear. Differences in the sizes and locations of the graves, in the quality and quantities of their grave goods, and even in the physical attributes of the people interred are all to be found in these different burials.
Been killed with one swift blow. … These blows were to the back or sides of the skull and the wounds that they had left were consistent with those produced by rounded small stone maces such as are not uncommon in contemporary male graves. Most of the aggressors appear to have been right-handed, and the position of their strike suggests that the hair on the top of the victims’ heads may have been held to steady the blow. Just as with the nearby oval court, there is later pictorial evidence of such events. Drawings and reliefs from the earliest dynasties of kings show two people locked in exactly this same deadly pose. …
Neither abused, nor shunned nor cast away, such tender burials do not fit the traditional historian’s category of ‘victim’; nor indeed do such burials in themselves show evidence of prehistoric ‘savagery’, let alone cannibalism. Nonetheless, the ancestors of pharaoh, whose culture is popularly associated with beauty, flowers and love songs, appear to have engaged in the brutal execution of some of their own people. Such acts, indeed, became a central image of pharaonic Egypt.
At the tombs of Egypt’s first kings, where each royal vault would be surrounded by rows of modest, brick-lined graves like the cells of a honeycomb, each one specially designed, it would appear, to hold a victim dispatched at the time of the royal funeral.
Some of the same little drawings that record events in and around the early courts also hold scenes which show people being violently attacked and sometimes decapitated, and publicly displayed, and they appear to show this taking place in the presence of a king.
Although the animals in these same small pictures are shown running free inside an oval courtyard, the physical remains at Hierakonpolis show that, in reality, the oval court had served as an abattoir, the artificially sloping floor a drain for running blood. … The physical evidence of such events cuts us adrift from the pretty clichés of pharaonic history. And suddenly, we are in another world.
The relative egalitarianism of the earlier farming communities, which had been small enough to allow social interaction between all their members, had been transformed. The mass of people buried at Naqada, Abydos and Hierakonpolis were undergoing such extraordinary stress as found expression in the swinging of a deadly mace and the establishment of public slaughtering yards designed to drain the running blood into a bone-filled trench.
By the middle of the fourth millennium BC – at the time the tomb was made and painted – the Naqadans were building boats of similar size and shape to those of later eras that have survived, and which are made of planks of wood.
The range of the potters’ forms was less varied than those of earlier times. In considerable contrast to the earlier, jewel-like, white-lined wares, these dull red-painted pots are the clear outcome of a kind of mass production.
Copper had replaced most of the traditional tools of flint and bone. … Though of diverse shape, each of these three pieces weighed some thirty ounces, which, if more than a coincidence, would represent the oldest known example of a fundamental element of commercial trading: a basic standard unit.
Around 3500 BC, however, the first known chisels and saws of copper appear in graves … fine-made furniture also shows that a process of standardization had been adopted in which tree trunks and branches had been squared into planks and beams with saws before they were employed as elements of furniture.
Considerable quantities of standard-sized pottery dishes that seem to have been used as grain measures. Tokens, too, little balls and cones of clay, similar to those the Mesopotamians had long used for counting and registering goods and chattels, are also found in these settlements,
Naqadan palette makers and the ivory carvers began to cover the surfaces of their work with a bustle of virtuoso craftsmanship and, finally, to create the most complex and arresting objects of the Naqadan age; objects like nothing else that has survived from the prehistoric world.
That the age of Narmer was often hailed as an ‘age of miracles’ is because so many far-reaching changes in Naqadan society – the advent of kings, the ancient Egyptian style of drawing and, above all, hieroglyphic writing – seemed to arrive together and at once. … Once the necessary elements were all in position, change was very rapid.
Nor, as we have already seen, is there any evidence that Egypt’s so-called unification was a military event. And certainly, the brutal gesture of the king upon the palette is one of formal execution, as practised at Hierakonpolis, and not of war.
People, too, were being killed and buried with the dead, for multiple burials are common in the cemeteries of the time
Three sets of small, exquisite sculptures … appear to have been pieces of board games that were buried with the dead.
Many if not all of the people for whom these little graves were made were killed for burial with the king. … Occupants of these little tombs appear to have been courtiers, perhaps, and craftsmen, and members of the royal household.
At the beginning of the Third Dynasty, human sacrifice at royal burials had stopped, the classical ancient Egyptian courtly arts were at a peak of excellence, and the state bureaucracy was embarking on the construction of the first Egyptian pyramid, a free-standing structure some two hundred feet high entirely made from blocks of stone whose manufacture had employed more than a thousand people.
In the Levant, as at Aswan, populations that had previously lived in small and open settlements were moving into larger towns set inside walled enclosures.
Apart from lordly lapis lazuli, which appears to have been mined in just a few locations in northern Afghanistan, few of the exotic materials used by the Naqadan craftsmen have been subjected to scientific tests to determine their origins,
At this same time, however, the Nubian A Group culture, whose northern settlements had flourished alongside those of the Naqadans for centuries, entirely disappear … is scant evidence of anyone inhabiting lower Nubia for several centuries after the coming of the pharaohs.
The reigns of Djer, Djet and Den in the mid-First Dynasty, was the time in which the court had started to create and cultivate its own cultural identity; to regard itself as an institution. And at exactly this same time, killing at courtly funerals reached extraordinary proportions. Such slaughtering, which also took place on a smaller scale at the funerals of some contemporary courtiers, appears to have begun quite suddenly.
More than eight hundred people, men and women, were immured at the funerary monuments of Djer and Djet, after which there appears to have been a slackening in the killing. … The fierce custom seems to have been abandoned by the king and his courtiers by the beginning of the Third Dynasty of kings, when the first pyramids were made.
Yet the focus of these deathly dramas had entirely changed. Rather than the unique arrangements of each and every Naqadan burial, the regularity, the uniformity of this mass of little graves upon the Umm el-Qa’ab, set out in straight lines all around the royal tombs, suggests that they were not designed to provide each king with unique resonance in the manner of the Naqadan tombs. Now, it would appear, the offices of the state rather than their individual holders were the intended beneficiaries; an impression reinforced by the fact that many of the victims of these burials, some of whom were named, seem to have served as officers of the court, or as members of a court household.
Similarly deadly acts had previously taken place within the cultures of the early Nile Valley in periods of stress, when the identity of a community was in a process of formation.
There were long, low, stone buildings with the appearance of extended mastabas, whose labyrinthine underground galleries have yet to be fully explored and which appear to have held huge quantities of wheat.
The million and more tons of cut stone blocks which comprise King Djoser’s pyramid enclosure would have probably required some seventy tons of copper for their fashioning, … Human sacrifice had long since ceased by Djoser’s day, nor is there evidence of its return in later periods. … And still, in Djoser’s time, as in earlier periods, there is no evidence of a developed state religion beyond that of royal ceremonial.
The key Christian themes of a dying and resurrecting god were also present in savage superstitions, in ancient history and in pagan faiths around the world. … So Sed festivals were frequently viewed, … as having their roots in … a world in which elderly or impotent rulers were physically tested and, if found weak or insufficient, were murdered by their successors; a fate that the semi-civilized pharaohs, it was opined, had managed to avoid by the cunning invention of a ceremonial involving a ritual renewal; an Egyptian jubilee! …
Populations of the lower Nile, which so best estimates presently suggest, rose steeply in the centuries between Narmer and Sneferu from under a million people to around a million and a half.
The introduction of grammatic structure into hieroglyphic, most of which must have taken place in the few decades between King Djoser and King Sneferu.
That the several cemeteries of Sneferu’s time … they hold works of extraordinary quality and originality and some of the finest draughtsmanship to have survived from ancient Egypt,
There is no known ceremony from any period of pharaonic history that equates to a modern wedding, and only in later periods do property settlements appear that, in detailing the disposal of the household goods of ‘divorcing’ couples, imply that some formal state of espousal had been considered to exist between them.
The quality of Hesi-re’s reliefs … show an easy skill, a balance of design and a clarity of vision that would seldom be matched in later ages.
By modern standards, the monuments of Djoser and Sneferu hold silent histories of their own. Their construction was so large, so all-consuming for the state that made them, that their manufacture had been far and away the major happening of their times. And yet, beyond the presence of their monuments, there is scarcely any contemporary record of the lives of the kings whose names they bear.
There are no contemporary records that in any way describe the creation of the early pyramids, nor does the memory of their manufacture, or even a notice of their enduring presence in the Memphis landscape, impinge on the records of their time, nor, indeed, of any later ages. … Annals only record events outside the usual rhythms of the court’s routine: the exact height of the annual flood, the birth of gods and year of a temple’s founding; events that were unique.
Two monuments built by Sneferu at Dahshur, one following the other, were three and five times larger than their predecessors so that, for their completion whilst the king yet lived, the labour force must on occasion have been tripled in its size. And when the work was at its height, those building programmes would have engaged some 25,000 workers, more than ten per cent of the adult male workforce in the kingdom.
Not a single unfinished pyramid is known to have been started by one pharaoh and finished by another.
Throughout pharaonic history, such unusually lengthy reigns as those of Sneferu and Djoser were often periods of architectural innovation.
Trained now by a further furious decade of experience in pyramid making, a decade in which the techniques of every part of pyramid making, from lime burning to stone setting, had entirely changed.
There is no evidence, however, that the human-figured gods in Sneferu’s temple were the products of [ancient traditions]. Quite the reverse, in fact. Rather than being personifications of ‘primitive powers’ or chthonic deities, these gods are newly made.
From one project to the next, the early pyramids show an utter lack of standardization. … Shapes and sizes of the pyramids’ buildings blocks were often changed, sometimes during the course of building a single pyramid,
Khufu’s … great unlettered pyramid, whose vast dimensions, extreme precisions and subtle architectural harmonies were never to be repeated in all pharaonic history nor indeed, in any other culture.
Pyramid builders, a community that at its height would have consisted of at least fifty thousand people.
If Khufu’s pyramid makers had engaged the same-sized workforce and built at the same rates as their predecessors had done at Sneferu’s Red Pyramid, it would have taken less than fourteen years to finish: a labour that at its height would have required 4,000 tons of limestone blocks to have been hauled up along the slick mud of the stone-hauling ramps on each and every working day and set with great precision on the rising pyramid.
Such extreme precisions would be very difficult for modern builders to maintain.