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nagada period animals style

The earliest Egyptian art, created during the pre-dynastic period (4400–3100 B.C.E. ), exhibits a coherent style that does not continue into historical, dynastic times (after 3100 B.C.E. ). All of this art comes from graves that belonged to non-elite, nongovernmental people. The objects created for these tombs might be considered folk art. The earliest art is handcrafted pottery with a surface ripple that potters created by running a comb over the surface. This potterywas made during the Badarian period (4400–3800 B.C.E. ), named after the village of Badari where archaeologists first found it. The English archaeologist W. M. F. Petrie discovered a nearly complete sequence of objects for the subsequent period at the village of Nagada in southern (upper) Egypt. Thus Egyptologists refer to the different chronological stages of this art as Nagada I (3800–3500 B.C.E. ), Nagada II (3500–3300 B.C.E. ), and Nagada III (3300–3100 B.C.E. ). Nagada III overlaps with Dynasty 0 (3200–3100 B.C.E. ), a newly identified period when Egyptian kingship first appears. One very common object of Nagada I is a ceramic jar or cup made from a red polished clay with a black rim. Egyptologists call it black-topped red ware. The black color often extends to the middle of the jar. Potters built these jars by hand with a coil of clay. The potter smoothed the coils once the pot was built. The potter then fired the pot upside-down, producing the black rim. These pots first appear in Nagada I and continue into Nagada II. The emphasis on abstract decoration, though often beautiful, is not typical of Egyptian art in the historical period after 3100 B.C.E. This distinction, however, cannot be used to argue convincingly that a different group of people inhabited Egypt after the historical artistic style emerged.


Artists made some of the most interesting early figures during Nagada II and III. Some figures were animal-shaped palettes resembling fish, turtles, and birds. These were often made from schist, a very commonly used stone in this period. Egyptians used these palettes to grind galena, a naturally occurring mineral, into eye-liner called kohl. Kohl both emphasized the eyes and possibly protected them from the glare of the sun. The Egyptians also believed it protected the eyes from disease. Some of the shapes of these palettes, such as the fish, represent symbols of fertility and rebirth. The tilapia-fish, for example, carries its fertilized eggs in its mouth. It thus appears that the offspring are born alive from the mouth rather than hatched from eggs. The Egyptians thus included the tilapia among their fertility symbols.


Sculptors in Nagada II and III also concerned themselves with human figures. Among the first human figures were the female figurines that the archaeologist Henri de Morgan discovered in the village of Ma’mariya in 1907. Found in graves, her face appears beak-like. She wears only a long white skirt that covers her legs completely. Her bare arms extend upward in a graceful curving motion. Though these figurines are among the most famous pre-historic sculptures from ancient Egypt, it is impossible to determine with certainty whether the figure represents a priestess, a mourner, or a dancer. Furthermore, it is completely unknowable whether she is a goddess or a human. The generally abstract style used in this sculpture, with each part of the body reduced to a simple organic outline, does not continue into the historical period. Yet very similar female figures occur painted on pottery contemporary with the figurines. The female figures painted on pots are prominent in river scenes that include a boat with two cabins, two male figures, and palm fronds on the shore. Some examples depict mountains beyond the riverbank abstracted to triangles. The female figure is the largest element in the composition, suggesting, as was true in historic times, that she was the most important figure. The figures, boat, palms, and mountains are in red paint on a light buff clay, typical of the Nagada II period. Though the abstract style is not typical of the later period, subject matter such as river scenes were popular throughout ancient Egyptian history. If this is indeed a religious scene, it would be an early example of a common Egyptian subject for art.


Animal relief carving on ivory began at the end of the pre-dynastic period. One fine example of a knife handle, carved from elephant ivory, includes 227 individual animals. Not only are most of the species identifiable, but also the sculptor arranged the animals so that they are facing in the same direction in ten horizontal rows. These rows suggest the first hint of the compositional device called a “register” in historic Egyptian art. A true register includes a ground line that gives the figures a place to stand. Here the sculptor only arranges the animals without providing a ground line. Yet the attention he pays to depicting the animals in a recognizable form along with the organized composition hints at the future of Egyptian art.


Winifred Needler, Predynastic and Archaic Egypt in the Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, N.Y.: The Brooklyn Museum, 1984).

A. Jeffrey Spencer, Early Egypt: The Rise of Civilization in the Nile Valley (London: British Museum Press, 1993).

Earliest Temples and Tombs - FIRST STRUCTURES., EARLY EXCAVATION., TOMBS IN SAQQARA., BURIAL Tombs and Temples at Abydos [next] [back] Earle, Alice Morse (1851–1911) - Popular History

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