Document Details and Introduction

Page Contents


1.0 About This Paper

Faiyum Neolithic BasketryThis is version 2.3 of an ongoing project, bringing together the main published work on the Faiyum, Cairo and Western Delta areas in the prehistoric and Predynastic periods of Egypt.  There is a great deal of information available about these areas during periods.  However, it is highly fragmented, sparingly cross-referenced and is not always easy to access.

The paper aims to present a comprehensive synthesis of the archaeology of the Faiyum, Cairo and Western Delta, and related sites from the Palaeolithic to the First Dynasty, and to present a coherent account of human occupation in these areas.  The data is described in the context of Upper Egypt and the eastern Delta.

The project is one of a series addressing different aspects of Egyptian prehistory, pitched, generally, at the undergraduate level.  It has been released on the Internet at An outline of current and forthcoming releases is given both below and in Part 4, section 3.4.  A comparison of this version with its immediate predecessor is given below.

2.0 Objectives

The specific objectives are:

  • To present a comprehensive synthesis of the archaeology of the Faiyum, Cairo and Western Delta areas.
  • To develop a coherent account of human occupation in these areas
  • To provide an accessible summary of the main published work
  • To place the prehistory in its geological and geomorphological contex
  • To provide a coherent account of the somewhat confusing Faiyum geology and geomorphology
  • To provide a consistent outline chronology and terminology
  • To identify the key issues emerging from the synthesis, and suggest research priorities
  • To tabulate, in easily accessible Appendices, all available factual data on topics such as sites, dating and artefacts.

To an extent, it has been possible to achieve all the objectives.  But the exercise has been subject to some severe limitations.

3.0 Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Professor Fekri Hassan for suggesting the project; Geoffrey Tassie and Dr Mohammed Abdel-Rahman for inviting me to accompany them on their visits to the Faiyum;  Dr. Okasha el Daly, who introduced me to the Western Desert, for his continuing support and encouragement; W.G.Byrnes for help with the geology of the Faiyum,  M.I. Byrnes for her ongoing encouragement, and the Petrie Museum for granting me their kind permission to use images from their website ( both in this paper and on the website that accompanies this site at   I am solely responsible for this paper.  Those who have encouraged and assisted me are not to be taken as endorsing its contents.

4.0 Limitations

4.1 Description of Upper Egypt

The limitations imposed by the sites, and the fragmentation of published sources, is summarised in Part 2 (1.5).  The main personal limitations have been the short time available, and the lack of opportunity for discussion with qualified prehistorians.  Version 1.0 was researched for two months and written in four weeks.  Version 2 and 2.1 reflect a further five weeks work, and version 2.3 was a matter or re-editing which took a week in February 2004.  Version 2.3 was completed in another four week period.

As a result of these limitations

  • The paper does not attempt any significant technical analysis of the excavations reported in Part 2
  • It does not criticize or comment fully on the works abstracted, nor on the positions taken by their authors
  • Where there are serious gaps in the material record, no serious attempt has been made to interpolate or draw inferences from other cultures

With more time, and with some discussion, these gaps could be closed.  But developing a satisfactory narrative of prehistoric occupations, and relating it to African, Levantine and Egyptian cultures outside the Faiyum, would face severe political limitations arising from the gaps in the archaeological record, the relative paucity of excavation in these areas of Lower Egypt, and the variable quality of the published work.

Despite the obstacles, the material is sufficient to draw some broad Conclusions, to identify Key Issues and to suggest Research Priorities.  Each is dealt with below.

4.2 Description of Upper Egypt

This paper is concerned exclusively with Lower Egypt, but, as Upper Egypt becomes an important factor in the way in which Lower Egypt evolves, descriptions are offered of Upper Egyptian phases and sites.  However, it should be noted that descriptions of Upper Egypt are merely put in place to enable comparisons between Upper and Lower Egypt.  The descriptions of the Upper Egyptian components are therefore necessarily brief and somewhat superficial.


5.0 Definitions, Scope, Structure and Naming

5.1 Geographical Definitions

The Faiyum is defined here as the Faiyum Depression itself, together with those sites immediately outside the Kahun entrance to the Faiyum, which are clearly related to those within the basin. 

Cairo is defined as the area between Merimde Beni Salama to the north of modern Cairo, and the area around the mouth of the Faiyum, to the south.

The western Delta includes sites in the north and the west of the Delta, to the north-west of modern Cairo.

5.2 Scope

The paper aims to provide a comprehensive synthesis of the archaeology of the prehistoric and predynastic periods of the Faiyum, Cairo and Western Delta, in order to build a clear picture of the area at these times and identify some of the most pressing areas for future research.   It does not, at this stage, attempt to offer detailed comment or criticism.  Suggestions for required research are listed, together with a summary, comments and a conclusion.

This third modification of the second version has been written over the period of four weeks, and therefore continues to be limited in terms of detail and scope.  This is an ongoing project.  It will be developed and improved over consecutive releases.

A detailed analysis of the excavation and survey work which has been carried out will require a more broadly defined project, involving an assessment against other Egyptian, North African and Near Eastern assemblages and cultural traits

As the living conditions within the Faiyum are inextricably tied in with its geology, and particularly with the fluctuating levels of Lake Qarun, these areas are given explicit coverage which is not done for Cairo and the Western Delta, although future versions will offer more coverage for the geology and geomorphology of these areas as well.

5.3 Structure

This paper has been divided into two volumes for practical purposes of manageability when printed out.  The entire paper is divided into four parts, as follows.

    Part 1 contains an Introduction, Summary and Conclusions, and an Overview of the document itself.

    Part 2, The Faiyum, Cairo and Western Delta:  The main subject matter of this paper is the prehistoric and Predynastic archaeology of these areaa, and this takes up most of the text.  However, a number of other sites, particularly in the Eastern Delta are clearly related, and Upper Egyptian sites provide proper context.  In order to avoid artificial boundaries these have been included in this survey.

    Part 3, Geology and Geomorphology of the Faiyum: To understand the prehistory of the Faiyum it is necessary to understand the geological and geomorphological environment in which occupation took place, and in which material remains are encountered. The Faiyum has been described both as part of the Nile floodplain and as one of the seven major depressions of the Western Desert.  Ideally an account of the Faiyum itself should be placed in the context of the geology of the Western Desert, North East Africa and the evolving Nile. Thanks to the availability of additional books and papers this context has been expanded in this version.  These accounts are intended for archaeologists rather than geologists.  They pretend no technical knowledge of the earth sciences.

    Part 4, Conclusions and Research: The document finishes with general conclusions and suggested areas for future research. 

    Appendices: The appendices contain additional information to support the text, including radiocarbon dates, maps and tabulated data about the sites discussed.

5.4 Naming

Translation of Arabic names into English has resulted in a wide panoply of different spellings.  I have chosen one spelling for each Arabic name that I use in this text and have stayed with it throughout.  However, where I have quoted other writers I have not altered the spelling as it appears in the original text, so different spellings will appear throughout.  Most names are very clear, but please note that Lake Qarun is often referred to as Birket Qarun.

5.5 Terminology

5.5.1 General





Cultivation of domesticated plants and animals on a sedentary or semi-sedentary basis


I use this term to label the processes underway in Naqada II, when polities/proto-states combined either by force or agreement, to achieve hegemonies in Egypt


A union of political units


I use the term in the loosest possible sense to indicate how groups manage resources for survival and livelihood



In literature on prehistoric Egypt the terms Epipalaeolithic and Terminal Palaeolithic are used interchangeably.  This paper uses the term Epipalaeolithic to refer to the type of industry that appears in the Faiyum at the end of the Palaeolithic and is the final industry before the Neolithic appears.


Faiyum A

The term for the Neolithic adopted by Caton-Thompson and Gardner.  Now more commonly known as the Faiyum Neolithic.

Faiyum B

The term adopted by Caton-Thompson and Gardner for the Epipalaolithic in the Faiyum.  Now more commonly know as the Qarunian.

Faiyum Neolithic


The term used to describe the Faiyum A or Faiyumian – the main Neolithic industry in the Faiyum area.


Process of predominance of one state over another.  The ability to standardize values and norms

Lower Egypt

Northern Egypt



The term Maadian is often used to describe sites which are now more commonly referred to as Maadi-Buto


A term used to describe sites which share characteristics in Lower Egypt. Formerly known as Maadian. 


A term used to describe the site of Merimde Beni Salama and any associated sites which share the same characteristics


A late Neolithic culture restricted to the Faiyum


A politically organized unit, a quasi-state.  The largest social unit at a given time.



The term “Predynastic” is used to describe dates that follow Merimda, up until the end of Naqada III.



The term “Prehistory” is used to include Palaeolithic, Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic sites, up to and including Merimda.



The term “Protodynastic” is used to describe Dynasties I and II, the two dynasties that precede the Old Kingdom and follow Naqada III


The term used to describe the Faiyum’s main Epipalaeolithic phase (Caton-Thompson’s Faiyum B).


Grassland with some trees.  Today a feature of sub-Saharan Africa


A politically organized body of people under a single government/leadership

State Formation

A term, interpreted slightly differently by different writers, which generally refers to the process immediately antecedent to, and the driving force behind the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.


The attempt to reconcile disparate, even opposing, beliefs and to meld practices of various schools of thought


The seasonal movement of people and animals in search of pasture


The process underlying, and the achievement of, the unification of Egypt as a single kingdom

Upper Egypt

Southern Egypt


Intermittent water channel that allows the run-off of seasonal rains


































5.5.2 Processes of State Formation

I highlight this particularly, because I have chosen not to use the usual terminology for describing processes during the predynastic which are normally termed “state formation”.  I have tried to avoid using it because of its varied use by other writers and use.  Instead I have used the scheme described below.

I have separated the usual discussions of Polity Formation and Unification into three discussions – Polity Formation (during Naqada I), Polity Consolidation (during Naqada II) and Unification which I describe as a series of processes, not an event, (during Naqada III).  I have done this to try and establish some clarity about how Dynastic Egypt actually evolved from a simple agricultural community through a process of growing elitism and increasing centralisation before the country was eventually united under one king. 

I have defined Polity Formation as the early period where the initial large towns were formed and were identifiable in the archaeological record as the first centres of power.  The process of state formation began during Naqada I in Upper Egypt, consolidated considerably during Naqada II and became a defining characteristic of Naqada III.  Polity formation and consolidation is a complex process defined by Wilkinson (1996) as “the process by which Egypt emerged as a political and cultural entity during the last quarter of the fourth millennium BC.” (1996, p.5).

Polity Consolidation is the process by which a number of smaller polities are reduced, and there are a lesser number of much more powerful states who extend their interests into Lower Egypt.  Unification is usually described as a milestone, when Egypt is unified under one king, but I have chosen to see it as a process in which the material culture of Lower Egypt is replaced by that of Upper Egypt, following on from State Consolidation, the ultimate consequence of which was the unification of the country.

Unification, which follows this process of polity consolidation, will be discussed in the main text.  However, unification can realistically only have taken place after considerable social and political evolution at local and then regional levels, seeing the growth of elites in the south, increasing complexity in the north, and the development of trade or exchange links outside Egypt. 

The process of polity formation and consolidation is the sequence of social, economic, political and religious processes that eventually led to the invention of writing, the unification of regional states and of Lower and Upper Egypt in one nation headed by a divinely appointed king, and the formalisation of Egypt’s complex religion with the king as its earthly representative.

6.0 Version Control

The current version is shown on the Home Page

6.1 Changes made in Version 2.0, compared with Version 1.0

  • Geology Section.
    • The geology section was completely re-written and updated, using new sources.
    • The scope was extended from the Faiyum alone to Egypt as a whole, to ensure that the full context is represented.  The only section to remain largely unchanged is the Hydrology section.   
    • The geology section of the text has now been designed to appeal to a wider audience due to my intention of publishing this on a dedicated website (where glossaries, not included here, will also be added).
    • As with Version 1, I received a considerable amount of help with this section – this section represents a joint effort.
  • Archaeology
    • The archaeology section was edited, clarified, and structured more efficiently, presenting information in a more digestible way where possible.
    • The archaeology section was expanded where information was missing or inadequate, using additional texts to build upon the original material contained within the paper. All new texts used were added to the bibliography in italics
    • Where available, illustrations and photographs intended to complement the text were added
  • The Research section was rationalised and prioritised
  • The Conclusions were thoroughly updated

6.2 Web Version

This online version has been formatted specifically for the web.  It has fewer images, due to copyright laws.  This is currently at version 2.3W but will be updated whenever the original paper is changed.

6.3 Forthcoming Versions

Apart from updating this document as new data becomes available, and reviewing its contents with a view to making improvements on an occasional basis, I consider this document to require only a few major changes before it can be upgraded to a full and final version 3.0. 

These changes relate less to the archaeology of the area than the geology and ecology.  Version 3.0 will therefore include the following changes:

  • Archaeology
    • A large number of references which I have not managed to consult will be checked over the coming months, and data will be added as appropriate (see Bibliography B for those references which have yet to be consulted)
    • As new information comes to light in the form of new papers and other publications, I will update both this paper and the corresponding website
  • Geology
    • So far, because of its complexity and importance, only a geology of the Faiyum has been attempted.  For version 3.0 geologies for Merimde, Omari and the Delta will also be included.
  • Ecology and Environment
    • At the moment only a very top-level and superficial attempt has been made to describe the environmental conditions for the areas under discussion.  This will be expanded and incorporated more fully in version 3.0, to reflect its considerable importance for decision-making of and impacts upon early settlers of Lower Egypt.

Eventually this project will be incorporated into an already established wider project which aims to provide a region-by-region analysis through time of prehistoric and predynastic Egypt.  The initial stages of this project are currently located at   At the moment this is designed to offer a top-level introduction to the Prehistoric and Predynastic periods of Egypt.  It will be supplemented over time, one region at a time, with an equivalent level of detail contained in this document for each broadly defined area.  Eventually it is intended for this site to become an encyclopaedic reference for the Prehistory and Predynastic of Egypt.  It is, needless to say, a very long term project.

Finally, it is quite clear that a lot more work needs to be done to elucidate the archaeological processes in these areas.  This, however, is out of the scope of this paper, which is a synthesis of what is already known.  My next steps within the area of the Faiyum, Cairo and Delta will be to start a new project to employ new multi-disciplinary methodologies and approaches to attempt to extract more information from the available data.