Top Ten Egyptian Artifacts (Predynastic Period)

Top Ten Egyptian Artifacts (Predynastic Period)


       The Prehistory of Egypt spans the period of earliest human settlement to the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt in ca. 3100 BC, starting with the first Pharaoh Narmer (also known as Menes). The Predynastic Period is traditionally equivalent to the Neolithic period, beginning ca. 6,000 BC and including the Protodynastic Period (Naqada III). The dates of the Predynastic period were first defined before widespread archaeological excavation of Egypt took place, and recent finds indicating very gradual Predynastic development have led to controversy over when exactly the Predynastic period ended. Thus, the term “Protodynastic period,” sometimes called the “Zero Dynasty,” has been used by scholars to name the part of the period which might be characterized as Predynastic by some and Early Dynastic by others. The Predynastic period is generally divided into cultural periods, each named after the place where a certain type of Egyptian settlement was first discovered. However, the same gradual development that characterizes the Protodynastic period is present throughout the entire Predynastic period, and individual “cultures” must not be interpreted as separate entities but as largely subjective divisions used to facilitate study of the entire period. The vast majority of Predynastic archaeological finds have been in Upper Egypt, because the silt of the Nile River was more heavily deposited at the Delta region, completely burying most Delta sites long before modern times.

  1. Gebel el-Arak Knife (3,300 – 3,200 BC)

           The Gebel el-Arak Knife is a 25.50 cm long knife dating from circa 3,300 to 3,200 BC, the late pre-dynastic period in Egypt, which when it was purchased in Cairo was said to have been found at the site of Gebel el-Arak, south of Abydos. The blade is made of ripple-flaked flintstone and the handle of the ivory of a hippopotamus canine tooth. The handle is richly carved in low relief with a scene of a battle on the side that would have faced a right-handed user and with mythological themes on the other surface. The opposite side of the handle shows Mesopotamian influence featuring the god El, wearing Mesopotamian clothing, flanked by two upright lions symbolizing the Morning and Evening Stars (now both identified with the planet Venus). Grimal refrains from speculating on the identity of the ambiguous figure, referring to it as a “warrior.” This side of the handle also contains a “knob,” a perforated suspension lug that would have supported the knife handle, keeping it level while resting on a level surface and also could have been used to thread a cord to hang it from the body as an ornament. The knife is on display at the Louvre. Another knife of similar materials but worn and battered, is conserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    Links: Top 100 Louvre Artifacts, Top Ten Ancient Knives/Daggers,,
  2. Scorpion Macehead

           The Scorpion mace head (also known as the Major Scorpion mace head) refers to a decorated ancient Egyptian mace head found by British archeologists James E. Quibell and Frederick W. Green in what they called the main deposit in the temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis during the dig season of 1897/1898. It is made of limestone, is pear-shaped, and is attributed to King Scorpion due to the glyph of a scorpion engraved close to the image of a king wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt. A second, smaller mace head fragment showing King Scorpion wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is referred to as the Minor Scorpion mace head.
  3. Vessel (3,450–3,300 BC)

           The images on this vessel represent important social or religious events, the precise significance of which is not perfectly understood. Two male and two female figures stand aboard a boat, which is depicted with oars and two cabins. In the areas surrounding the boat are mountains, birds that may represent flamingos, plants, and water.
  4. Comb (3,200 BC)

           Finely carved ivory combs and knife handles produced toward the end of Egypt’s prehistory demonstrate the high standards Egyptian artists had achieved, even before the Old Kingdom. This comb may have been part of the funeral equipment of an elite person who lived about 5,200 years ago. Parts of the comb’s teeth, now missing, can be seen along the bottom edge. The detailed decoration suggests that it was a ceremonial object, not just an instrument for arranging the hair. On both sides are figures of animals in horizontal rows, a spatial organization familiar from later Egyptian art. The animals include elephants and snakes; wading birds and a giraffe; hyenas; cattle; and perhaps boars. Similar arrangements of these creatures on other carved ivory implements suggest that the arrangement and choice of animals were not haphazard. Elephants treading on snakes suggest that this part of the scene was symbolic. The mythologies of many African peoples associate elephants and serpents with the creation of the universe. The uppermost row of this comb may symbolize a creative deity to whom the rest of the animals owe their existence.
  5. Elephant Amulet

           Few amulets from the Predynastic Period are known. In the past, Egyptologists identified these amulets as representing a bull’s head, but the round face and eyes, the horns that curve inward to the face, and a snout with a defined ridge make a strong argument for its identification as an elephant. During this period, elephants lived in oasis-like zones in the high desert created by greater rainfall than today. They were probably a rare sight to floodplain dwellers, but their size, tusks, and aggressive displays made them an awe-inspiring creature and an excellent subject for a potent amulet.
  6. Male Figurine (3,750–3,550 BC)

           This male ivory figurine is from the late Naqada I to the early Naqada II period.
  7. Footed Bowl (3,750–3,550 BC)

           In the Predynastic Period, Egyptian potters created a wide variety of ceramic vessels. One of the most unusual—and favorite—objects in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection is a red polished ware bowl with supports shaped like human feet. This simple, round bowl, tipped slightly forward as if to offer its contents, has two such feet solidly attached to its underside. Made from Nile clay, the bowl has a smoothed, slipped, and polished surface, giving it a light sheen. Although the human feet that support this bowl add a touch of drollness to the vessel’s appearance, the feet were not created solely as an element of humor. This ceramic form should most likely be read as the three-dimensional hieroglyph for the word w’b, meaning pure or clean. The bowl tips forward so that purified water could be spilled out onto the ground, and because excavated footed bowls are from cemeteries, the offering of clear water was a libation for the dead.
  8. Arrowhead (7,000–4,500 BC)

           During the Epipaleolithic period (ca. 10,000–7000 B.C.), tools that we call arrowheads appear for the first time. The hollow-base arrowhead illustrated here was a common type in the Neolithic period (ca. 7000–4500 B.C.), when the habitation of the Nile valley itself was underway. These projectile points were most often made from chert, often called flint, which was found in the form of cobbles lying on the high desert’s surface. Whether the arrowheads were attached to wooden shafts or used in spears is difficult to confirm, but representations of men drawing bows can be seen on jars from the early Predynastic Period (ca. 3600 B.C.).
  9. Lion Figurine (3000–2700 BC)

           This is a quartz lion figurine believed to be from Gebelein in Upper Egypt.
    Links: Top Ten Big Cats,
  10. Links: Artifacts, Top 100 African Artifacts, Top 100 Egyptian Artifacts,,

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