1.0 Summary: Prehistoric and Predynastic Faiyum, South Cairo and Western Delta

Taken on its own, the Faiyum gives the impression of staggered occupation from Palaeolithic to early Neolithic times. There was an apparent occupation hiatus following the Qarunian and another following the end of the Neolithic in the Faiyum. 

The following provides a very short summary of the social evolution of the Faiyum and Cairo areas described in detail in the rest of this  paper.


1.4.1 Epipalaeolithic (Qarunian/Faiyum B)

  • Socially, there are very few indicators as to how Qarunian groups were organized or how they operated within individual groups.  Settlements were temporary and apparently quite small, and groups moved within the Faiyum to take advantage of wild animals and plants, and local lithic raw materials.  A single burial of a 40 year old woman suggests that some ideas about death were present amongst these groups, but one example is too small a sample upon which to draw any conclusions.  The Qarunian industry was confined to the Faiyum, suggesting that groups were closely bound to this depression.
  • Economically, Qarunian groups exploited the Faiyumian environment very effectively, hunting in oasis and lacustrine environments, and fishing extensively.  They demonstrated a preference for shallow-water species of fish and fowl, and Brewer (1989) has been able to demonstrate a highly seasonal strategy towards fishing in particular, with groups taking advantage of both flood conditions and fish spawning patterns in order to exploit this resource with great efficiency.  Deep-water species, for which a much greater degree of skill and knowledge is required, are represented but not in great numbers.  There were no domesticates in the faunal or floral remains.
  • Industrially, the lithics were largely microlithic, with none of the chipped stone tools associated with the Faiyum Neolithic.  There was a bone tool component, and grinders were found which are thought to have been used for processing wild plant foods.  There was no pottery.  This highly portable toolkit was well adapted to a hunting, wild plant processing and fishing lifestyle.  The industry has affinities with other Epipalaeolithic industries in Egypt and north Africa, but is distinct from them in a number of ways.
  • The geology and geomorphology of the Faiyum are discussed in Part 3.  Suffice to say here that the Faiyum provided all the conditions for the development of an ecology that allowed the area to be settled and exploited successfully.
  • Environmentally and ecologically, the Faiyum was a rich source of animal and plant foods.  Lake Qarun was fed by the Bar Yusef, and the ongoing fertility of the basin was ensured by the Nile floods, which enabled the food chain to be revitalised on an annual basis.

1.4.2 Faiyum Neolithic

  • In terms of its origins, the Faiyum Neolithic has no clearly visible ancestry.  A 1000 year hiatus followed the Qarunian, possibly due to climatic conditions, and the Faiyum Neolithic emerges fully formed in many of the same areas as the Qarunian sites, sometimes sharing exactly the same sites.  However, the economic content of the Faiyum Neolithic and its industries consist to a great extent of components which almost certainly came from outside Egypt.  Whether these were adopted by indigenous groups or brought in by outsiders is disputed.  Affinities in the Faiyum Neolithic exist between the Faiyum and both African and Levantine cultures.  More work needs to be carried out before the question of the origins of this early agricultural period can be assessed more clearly.
  • Socially, the Faiyum Neolithic represents significant advances over the Qarunian, with the organization and management skills necessary to sustain an agricultural lifestyle, planting, processing, storing and distributing grain, herding and supporting domesticated animals and supplementing this routine by hunting and fishing.  Centrally located grain silos at Koms K and W suggest communal management of resources.  Personal items were found – beads and pendants – but there are no signs of hierarchy or social stratification.  The lack of burial remains was a surprise to its excavator, Caton-Thompson, and it is not clear whether the Faiyum Neolthic people simply failed to bury their dead in an organized way, or if the burials have simply not been found.  This early agricultural culture is notable for being a semi-permanent rather than fully sedentary society – buildings were simple light-weight huts, not permanent structures.
  • Economically, the Faiyum Neolithic groups farmed cereals, kept domesticated animals and supplemented their diet with hunted animals and fishing.  This was both a production-based and exploitative economy.  Like the Qarunians they had a marked preference for shallow water environments, and perhaps these were so rich that there was no need to make the additional effort to fish and hunt in the deeper waters of the lake.  As with the Qarunuian, Faiyum Neolithic groups exploited seasonally-filled basins as an easy option following flood times.  Long distance connections are suggested by the presence of a number of items made of materials foreign to the Faiyum, including amazonite beads and sharks teeth pendants, but the exact nature of these connections is not known.
  • Industrially, the Faiyum Neolithic demonstrates significant richness in terms of the variety and forms and numbers of items particularly in the lithic toolkit.  The lithics are largely flake-based tools but there is a bifacial component, including arrowheads and sickle blades, which show remarkable skill, and numerous chipped stone axe-heads were clearly important.  Bone and ivory items including points and harpoons, and both basketry containers, some items very fine, and items of linen were produced.  Pottery appears for the first time in Lower Egypt.  It is hand-made, crude, functional and has a distinctly disposable feel to it.  Although some pieces were burnished or polished, none were decorated.  A considerable amount of skill went into the lithics, but much less went into these early ceramics.
  • Environmentally and ecologically, the Faiyum Neolithic was spectacularly well adapted.  Sites were dotted around the edges of a Lake Qarun which was much deeper and covered a much larger areas, and groups took advantage of the annual flooding which fed the lake, deposited silt on the surrounding land, and filled natural basins with water. 


1.4.3 Moerian

  • In terms of its origins, the excavators of the Moerian sites suggest that they have considerable affinities with African contexts rather than Faiyum Neolithic or Levantine features, and on the basis of this suggest that the Moerian was probably intrusive.
  • Socially, there is not enough information to draw any conclusions about the groups that created the sites and exploited the Faiyum at this time.  Shelters were very light and temporary.
  • Economically, the Moerian is characterized by a heavy reliance on fish, and only a few sheep/goat are represented.
  • Industrially, there are a high number of flake and blade tools and very few bifacials.  Pottery was made from local clays and is much more varied than that of the Faiyum Neolithic and although still crude it is rather more skilfully made, although it survives mainly in fragments.
  • Environmentally and ecologically, the Moerian groups followed the trend of previous Faiyum groups by exploiting the lake margin environments to support a semi-permanent lifestyle.
  • Taken on its own, the Faiyum gives the impression of staggered occupation from Palaeolithic to early Neolithic times. There was an apparent occupation hiatus following the Qarunian and another following the end of the Neolithic in the Faiyum. 


1.4.4 Cairo Neolithic - Merimden and Omarian Merimde Beni Salama

Merimde Beni Salama was contemporary with the Faiyum and El Omari at different stages of its evolution, and shares with them a number of features.  It had  a long duration (of around 600 years) and passed through a number of different phases before reaching what its excavator referred to as its “Classic” phase.

  • Socially, unlike the Faiyum, Merimde was certainly a permanent agricultural settlement, and the dead were buried formally but simply in abandoned areas of the settlement, which represents a higher level of social sophistication than that of the Faiyum.  The final phase saw the arrangement of homes around a winding street.  Pottery reached more sophisticated levels than that of the Faiyum, indicating a more organized and skilled approach to craft. Storage pits were no longer centralised, but were scattered throughout the settlement, perhaps indicating individual ownership of resources rather than communal sharing.  Merimde shows the expected mix of increasing social sophistication that usually accompanies increasing control over the land and the ongoing exploitation of permanent territories.
  • Economically, Merimde was a mixed agricultural economy with cultivated cereals (principally emmer what) and domesticated animals (pigs, sheep and cattle) supplemented by hunting and fishing.  There were also some signs of contacts with foreign countries in the form of non-indigenous items.
  • Industrially, it shows early features that are unique to Merimde, including herringbone decoration on pottery, 40 burials dating to a this early stage and a small number of clay figurines.   In later phases, the lithics showed some similarity with that of the Faiyum Neolithic, but other elements moved beyond the Faiyum, particularly in terms of pottery and hundreds of bone, ivory and clay objects.   However, the relationship between the Faiyum, Merimde and El Omari is unclear.  While it is possible that Merimde had a Faiyumian origin, it is also possible that both shared a common origin, evolving in slightly different ways. 
  • Environmentally and ecologically, Merimde is well placed to take advantage both of the Nile floodplain and the deset martns and appears to ave been very well adapted. Omarian

The Omarian sites were contemporary with, but rather more basic than the Merimden sites.  They do not represent evolution but could have been either a spin-off or another version of a common ancestry to both the Faiyum Neolithic and the Merimden sites.

El Omari consists of three main areas (Areas A and B, and Gebel Hof) as well as a number of lesser-examined zones (Areas C-Fa).  Located away from the Nile at the mouth of a Wadi, it is a very specific ecological adaptation.

  • Socially, el Omari appears to have been more socially complex than the Faiyum Neolithic.  The dead were buried in small pits, occasionally with a domestic vessel placed by the head, and with traces of matting in some graves.  However, apart from some beautifully made bifacials there is little sign of artistic skill or symbolic expression, and no sign of social differentiation or prestige goods.
  • Economically, El Omari was based on a mixed-farming regime with domestic animals and a long list of cultivated plants including barley, wheat and vetch.  As in the Faiyum Neolithic and at Merimde, grain was stored in pits This domesticated lifestyle was supplemented by hunting.
  • Industrially, it shares elements with both the Faiyum Neolithic and Merimde, with which it was contemporary, including a bifacial component, but does not share many other features.
  • Environmentally and ecologically, the Omarian is very well adapted to a wadi-based environment away from the Nile, taking good advantage of seasonal changes and local resources

Attempts to relate El Omari directly to either the Faiyum Neolithic or Merimde have been fairly inconclusive.  Although it seems likely that they were related in some ways, the exact nature of the relationships remains obscure. Summary

The Cairo sites move away from the Faiyumian ones towards a sedentary lifestyle where the dead received social recognition, but were not a principal component of social expression.  The relationship between the Faiyum and the Western Delta was lost at the end of the Neolithic, when the Faiyum apparently ceased to be occupied on a permanent basis.


1.4.5 Chalcolithic

Rizkaner (1990) describes three Maadi-Buto phases, of which Maadi represents the earliest, Heliopolis an intermediate, and Buto a final phase. The earlier part of Maadi itself probably belongs to the Late Neolithic, but due to the confused stratigraphy the first clear levels are the chalcolithic, and were contemporary with Naqada I – later levels of the Maadi-Buto extend to the end of Naqada IIc.  The sites contain slightly different types and quantities of artefacts but share in common an industry, economy and social organization which connect them as part of a single broad network of affinities.

  • Socially, the settlements were fully sedentary with people living in oval huts, with hearths and for the first time, at Maadi, underground chambers.  Pits were employed for grain storage and animals were penned in enclosures.  For the first time separate cemeteries were established, although very young children continued to be buried within settlement areas, and simple non-specialist gravegoods were deposited with the dead.  This implies an increased importance of the role of the dead, and there are some signs in cemeteries of the first expression of social differentiation in Lower Egypt, with some individuals being treated somewhat differently to others.
  • Pottery manufacture appears to have been highly standardized and village layout was far more organized than in earlier settlements.  It is clear that the Maadi-Buto sites, beginning with Maadi, had evolved in terms of social complexity, streamlining its industry and formalising its treatment of the dead, and beginning to produce both symbolic and decorative items.
  • Economically, Maadi’s economy is a now familiar picture of farming and wild animal exploitation, but now includes dog and donkey.  For the first time we see serious amounts of artefacts from outside Lower Egypt.  This and the strategic position of Maadi-Buto sites suggest that they may have had an active trading role, mainly acquiring goods for redistribution.  The sites were well placed for this role:  Maadi, for example, was based near modern-day Cairo at the apex between the Delta and Upper Egypt, with ready access to the main Delta branches.  Buto was located on a former Nile branch, with good accessibility to the sea.
  • Industrially, the Maadi-Buto had evolved far beyond that of Merimde, and featured attractive and standardized pottery (elegant but without decoration, some with potmarks), a small number of very fine lithics, some new types, but with a greater number of small functional tools, the first copper working in Lower Egypt, and simple bone and ivory working.  It was a functional well adapted industry, but of course it lacked the beauty of Upper Egyptian funerary personal and prestige goods.
  • Environmentally and ecologically, the sites are located in fertile areas which were near water courses and on the edge of floodplains.  The sites were clearly able to support themselves by taking advantage of the annual floods to sustain a mixture of cultivation and pastoralism, as well as making use of the riverine environment to supplement domesticates with wild fauna.  At Maadi, fish represented 10% of the total faunal assemblage.


1.4.6 Replacement

At the end of Naqada II, the Maadi-Buto sites in Cairo and the Delta were replaced and supplemented by Upper Egyptian components and sites, in a process that saw the establishment of homogeneity throughout Egypt. 

This process of change at the end of the Chalcolithic in Lower Egypt is often glossed over in texts, in favour of descriptions, theories or models of state formation, which usually refer to Upper Egyptian sites like Abydos for detailed information.  Lower Egypt’s role in the process of state formation needs to be better understood, and this challenge is beginning to be taken up by archaeologists. The replacement of Lower Egypt’s own culture by Upper Egyptian cultural traits is not necessarily the result of a one-way process, and may not be as clear-cut as formerly believed.  It is quite likely that Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt had culturally significant contact, and the extent of this contact is beginning to become clearer.  It is also possible that there was a great deal more similarity than previously recognised in the material culture used in settlements in Upper and Lower Egypt – a similarity that may have been disguised by the emphasis on excavating funerary contexts in Upper Egypt which had dedicated materials associated with them.

Maadi and Heliopolis were abandoned c.3200BC, while at Tell el-Farkha there was a brief abandonment before re-occupation, and at Buto and Minshat Abu Omar there was apparently no break in occupation, just a process of continual transition throughout this period.

  • Socially, it is difficult to determine exactly what happened.  It is clear that cultural components from Upper Egypt replace those of Lower Egypt and that new Upper Egyptian types of site are established in Lower Egypt.  However, quite what impact this had on Lower Egyptian occupants is far from clear.  For example, although there are no signs of military action in the archaeological record, some writers believe that the process of replacement could have been one of military subdual, in which case the effects may have been both unwanted and profound.  However, a more complex process involving the establishment of closer trading relations and the establishment of Upper Egyptian communities in Lower Egypt, or population pressures, or the inter-marriage of Upper Egyptian and Lower Egyptian families could have established a more peaceful and more welcome path to this apparent replacement.  In other words, it is not know whether what we see in the archaeological record was a process of subdual of Lower Egypt or of adoption by Lower Egypt. 
  • However it happened, Egypt’s cultural expression became homogenous, with Naqada II components completely replacing those of the Maadi-Buto.  Hierakonpolis in the south appears to have been the main power of Egypt at this time, and it is clear that smaller polities of Naqada I were consolidating rapidly in Naqada II to form bigger polities or proto-kingdoms.
  • Economically, things appear to have proceeded very much as before, although the lack of excavation of any serious number of settlement sites in Upper Egypt makes it difficult to make any direct comparisons valid.

So during the Maadi-Buto/Naqada II, we see centres of power in the south with highly formalised social and religious ideas and specialised crafts. We have a loose confederacy of urban clusters in the north with no signs of hierarchy and only basic craft specialisation.  We have the replacement at the end of Naqada II of the Maadi-Buto culture by that of Naqadan components, and at the end of Naqada II we have new Naqada III sites established in Lower Egypt.  The process of replacement was complete and all-consuming.


1.4.7 Protodynastic / Naqada III

Although the Cairo sites Maadi and Heliopolis were abandoned at the end of Naqada IIc, other Lower Egyptian sites, in the Delta, endured into Naqada III, including Buto, Sais and Minshat Abu Omar.  After a brief period of abandonment Tel el-Farkha was reoccupied as well.   Naqada III extended throughout the entire of Egypt.

  • Socially, Naqada III included some significant firsts:
    • The first hieroglyphs
    • The first graphical narratives
    • The first regular use of serekhs
    • The first truly royal cemeteries
    • The first clearly defined kingdoms
    • Possibly, the first artificial irrigation, depicted on the Scorpion Macehead
  • The Naqada III material culture extended throughout Egypt, with no variation visible in the funerary tradition between different areas.  Analysis of items outside the funerary record, like lithics and pottery, suggest that there was, however, a certain amount of regional variation at a domestic level in the production of domestic toolkits. 
  • Politically, Egypt now appears to have been divided into a number of kingdoms in the south, with the main power centred at Abydos, where remarkably rich graves date to this period. Hierakonpolis and Naqada continue to be important.   Late Naqada III indications suggest that different towns and regions had their own gods and their own regional identities, and the increasing importance of trade and accounting, and the need to communicate, is expressed in the development of narrative iconographies (on palettes, for example), the first hieroglyphs, and the widespread use of serekhs.  Egypt was organizing on a state-type level and the presence of prestige goods, highly specialised work shops and rich graves is clearly indicative of a hierarchical and wealthy society. 
  • It is not clear what role Lower Egypt had at this time in terms of allocation of power or regional centralization, although it is entirely possible that her importance in terms of trade made some of the Delta towns very important at this time.  Current excavations in the Delta are opening out the picture.
  • Economically, the strategic position of sites like Buto and Minshat Abu Omar become very important as the role of trade really became the second cornerstone, after agriculture, of the Egyptian economy.  Tomb U-j, which produced over 400 Palestinian vases, demonstrates the need for some form of accounting system, with the presence of 150 labels attached to vessels.  Egypt, her economy founded on permanent agriculture (cultivation and pastoralism) was becoming economically well-organized, administering her products and her trade, and supporting a clearly defined prestige-based and elitist society.
  • Environmentally and ecologically, the climate began to change at the end of the Naqada III period, with conditions becoming drier and eventually becoming as dry as they are today.


1.4.8 Early Dynastic

The term “unification” probably disguises a complex process which, however, eventually culminated in the establishment of a single king who ruled by divine right over both Upper and Lower Egypt.  Whether this process was military (one single or many multiple events) or political, is simply not known.  Nor is it known whether there was acceptance of the unified status by all kingdoms and regions, or whether there were ongoing rumblings of dissatisfaction.  There is not enough evidence for sound speculation to be made.

What we do know is that the Early Dynastic marks the end of small polities and states, and sees the centralization of government, the formalization and communication of political status and social structure, and the establishment of the symbiotic order of the Egyptian religion.

Lower Egypt became the centre of government, with the newly established town at Memphis being the royal seat of power.  Royal burials, however, continued to be made at Abydos, with a new necropolis established for the elite at Saqqara.  The establishment of a dedicated cemetery for the bureaucracy at Saqqara is a clear indication of the importance of this administrative class in the management of a united Egypt.

Excavations at places like Helwan, by Christiana Kohler and Kaffar Hassan Dawood, by Fekri Hassan, will continue to build a more coherent picture of the Early Dynastic in more rural Lower Egypt.


1.4.9 Overall

In short, the Faiyum, Cairo and the Western Delta share a long, complex past, which is visible in the archaeological record. This past cannot, however, be seen in isolation from the rest of Egypt. It is clear that the evolution of Egypt during the Predynastic cleared a path for the process of unification.  This ultimate consolidation was built on:

  • Successful ecological adaptation throughout the Predynastic
  • Early establishment of agriculture throughout Egypt, beginning in the Faiyum and Merimde
  • The establishment of religious and symbolic expression from the very earliest times, at least in Upper Egypt
  • A process of polity creation and consolidation in Naqada I and II with the establishment of regional powers and elites
  • Increasing importance of trade and strategic positioning of Delta and Cairo sites in the Maadi-Buto in Lower Egypt
  • The replacement by Lower Egyptian cultural assemblages with Naqada II traits, and the establishment  of new Naqada II sites in Lower Egypt
  • The establishment of homogeneity of social traditions in Upper and Lower Egypt, with three main kingdoms possibly vying for supremacy
  • The continuing regional character visible in domestic industries of different areas, probably defining the first nome system
  • The formalisation of religion throughout the Predynastic

The Faiyum and Cairo areas under discussion in this paper present a discontinuous, rather fragmented material record, marked by temporal gaps and changes in assemblages.  The record does not lend itself to simple interpretation, or the adoption of tidy explanatory models.  On the other hand, enough excavation and analysis has been done to provide a substantial initial database and to suggest a number of promising research projects.  If we can shed light on the prehistory of the Faiyum and its near neighbours, we can shed valuable light on Egypt in its formative years.

Contacts throughout the Faiyum’s and Lower Egypt’s, evolution point both East and West, particularly in the prehistoric and Early Predynastic stages, suggesting active influence from both Western Desert and Sahara regions on the one hand, and the Levant and southwest Asia on the other.

The prospects for research are dealt with below.  The following Outline Chronology provides a rough framework for the Conclusions and Key Issues.