The funerary temple complex of Djoser / Photo by Lansbricae, Wikimedia Commons
The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian civilization, such as art, architecture and religion, took shape during the Early Dynastic Period.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 06.03.2018
Art in the Early Dynastic Period
The Early Dynastic Period of Egypt immediately followed the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt around 3100 BC. It is generally taken to include the First and Second Dynasties, lasting from the Protodynastic Period of Egypt until about 2686 BC, or the beginning of the Old Kingdom.
During the First Dynasty, the capital moved from Abydos to Memphis, with a unified Egypt ruled by an Egyptian god-king. Abydos remained the major holy land in the south. Before the unification of Egypt, the land was settled with autonomous villages. With the early dynasties, and for much of Egypt’s history thereafter, the country came to be known as the Two Lands, and the rulers established a national administration and appointed royal governors. The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian civilization , such as art, architecture and many aspects of their polytheistic religion, took shape during the Early Dynastic period.
Many of the common aesthetic practices of Egyptian art and architecture were formalized during this era, as Egyptian society grew and advanced rapidly toward refined civilization. Much of Egyptian art revolved around the theme of permanence, from large architectural structures to writing and imagery of the afterlife. Artists endeavored to preserve everything from the present as clearly and permanently as possible.
A new and distinctive pottery appeared during this time, along with the use of copper, the Mesopotamian process of sun-dried bricks, and architectural building principles such as the arch and decorative recessed walls. Ceramic objects were commonly interred with the dead in tombs. Mundane objects such as plates ensured the continuation of activities practiced in the physical world, while other vessels stored the internal organs of the body after it was embalmed. Open-air temple buildings of the central government were constructed of wood or sandstone.
Ceramic plate (c. 3900 BCE): This is a plate from the Early Dynastic Period of Ancient Egypt. It depicts a man on a boat alongside a hippopotamus and crocodile. In this context, the hippopotamus probably symbolizes chaos and destruction in the form of the god Seth (Set), while the crocodile could symbolize the god Sobek, who occasionally served as a protective deity.
It was also during this period that the Egyptian writing system was further developed: Initially composed of a few symbols, by the end of the third dynasty, it had been expanded to include more than 200 symbols, both phonograms and ideograms.
While funeral practices for peasants remained much the same as in predynastic times, wealthier members of Egyptian society began seeking something more. The first mastabas were constructed in the form of a flat-roofed, rectangular structure with outward sloping sides that marked the burial site of many eminent Egyptians. These structures became models for the Step Pyramids that would be developed later in the Old Kingdom.
Symbolism is omnipresent in Egyptian art, and played an important role in establishing a sense of order. Symbols ranged from the pharaoh’s regalia (signifying his power to maintain order), to the individual symbols of Egyptian gods and goddesses, to animals depicted as highly symbolic figures. The crocodile god Sobek, depicted in the sunken relief below (and possibly in the imagery of the plate above), served a variety of purposes including fertility, military prowess, and protection. On the other hand, the god Seth (also known as Set), sometimes symbolized by a hippopotamus, symbolized chaos and disorder.
Sunken relief of the crocodile god, Sobek: Animals were usually also highly symbolic figures in Egyptian art.
Colors were more expressive rather than natural. For instance, red skin painted on characters implied vigorous, tanned youths; yellow skin was used for women or middle-aged men who worked indoors; blue or gold indicated divinity because of its unnatural appearance and association with precious materials; and the use of black for royal figures expressed the fertility of the Nile from which Egypt was born. Stereotypes were employed to indicate the geographical origins of foreigners.
Art forms were characterized by regularity and detailed depiction of gods, human beings, heroic battles, and nature, and were intended to provide solace to the deceased in the afterlife. Media ranged from papyrus drawings to pictographs (hieroglyphics) and included funerary sculpture carved in relief and in the round from sandstone, quartz diorite, and granite. The art displays an extraordinarily vivid representation of the Ancient Egyptian’s socioeconomic status and belief systems.
Architecture of the Early Dynastic Period
First and Second Dynasties
The stepped pyramid at Saqqara: Large tombs of pharaohs at Abydos and Naqada, in addition to cemeteries at Saqqara and Helwan near Memphis, reveal structures built largely of wood and mud bricks, with some small use of stone for walls and floors.
Due to the scarcity of wood, the two predominant building materials used in ancient Egypt were sun-baked mud brick and limestone. After the end of the Early Dynastic Period , stone became used in tombs and temples, while bricks were used even for royal palaces, fortresses, and the walls of temple precincts.
Ancient Egyptian houses were made of mud collected from the Nile River. The mud was placed in molds and left to dry in the hot sun to harden. Many Egyptian towns situated near the cultivated area of the Nile Valley have disappeared, either by flooding as the river bed slowly rose during the millennia, or the mud bricks of which they were built were used by peasants as fertilizer. Fortunately, the dry, hot climate of Egypt preserved some mud brick structures.
Large tombs of pharaohs at Abydos and Naqada, in addition to cemeteries at Saqqara and Helwan near Memphis, reveal structures built largely of wood and mud bricks, with some small use of stone for walls and floors. Stone was used in quantity for the manufacture of ornaments , vessels , and occasionally for statues. Tamarix was used to build boats such as the Abydos Boats. One of the most important indigenous woodworking techniques was the fixed mortise and tenon joint, where xed tenon was made by shaping the end of one timber to ﬁt into a mortise (or hole) that is cut into a second timber. A variation of this joint using a free tenon eventually became one of the most important features in Mediterranean and Egyptian shipbuilding. It creates a union between two planks or other components by inserting a separate tenon into a cavity (mortise) of the corresponding size cut into each component.
Tombs and Funerary Practices
Human sacrifice was practiced as part of the funerary rituals associated with all of the pharaohs of the first dynasty. It is clearly demonstrated as existing during this dynasty by retainers being buried near each pharaoh’s tomb as well as animals sacrificed for the burial. The tomb of Djer is associated with the burials of 338 individuals. The people and animals sacrificed, such as donkeys, were expected to assist the pharaoh in the afterlife. For unknown reasons, this practice ended with the conclusion of the dynasty, with shabtis taking the place of actual people to aid the pharaohs with the work expected of them in the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptian temples were aligned with astronomically significant events like solstices and equinoxes, requiring precise measurements at the moment of the particular event. Measurements at the most significant temples may have been ceremonially undertaken by the pharaoh himself.
Paintings and Sculpture of the Early Dynastic Period
Ancient Egyptian art reached a high level in painting and sculpture , and was both highly stylized and symbolic. Much of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments, and thus there is an emphasis on life after death and the preservation of knowledge of the past.
Wall painting of Nefertari: Egyptian paintings are painted in such a way to show a profile view and a side view of the animal or person. This painting, for example, shows the head from a profile view and the body from a frontal view. The main colors used were red, blue, black, gold, and green.
All Egyptian reliefs were painted, and less prestigious works in tombs, temples, and palaces were just painted on a flat surface. Stone surfaces were prepared by whitewash, or, if rough, a layer of coarse mud plaster, with a smoother gesso layer above; some finer limestones could take paint directly. Pigments were mostly mineral, chosen to withstand strong sunlight without fading. The binding medium used in painting remains unclear; egg tempera and various gums and resins have been suggested. It is clear that true fresco , painted into a thin layer of wet plaster, was not used. Instead the paint was applied to dried plaster, in what is called fresco a secco in Italian. After painting, a varnish or resin was usually applied as a protective coating, and many paintings with some exposure to the elements have survived remarkably well, although those on fully exposed walls rarely have. Small objects including wooden statuettes were often painted using similar techniques.
Many ancient Egyptian paintings have survived due to Egypt’s extremely dry climate. The paintings were often made with the intent of making a pleasant afterlife for the deceased. The themes included journey through the afterworld or protective deities introducing the deceased to the gods of the underworld (such as Osiris). Some tomb paintings show activities that the deceased were involved in when they were alive and wished to carry on doing for eternity. Egyptian paintings are painted in such a way to show a profile view and a side view of the animal or person—a technique known as composite view. Their main colors were red, blue, black, gold, and green.
The monumental sculpture of Ancient Egypt is world famous, but refined and delicate small works exist in much greater numbers. The Egyptians used the distinctive technique of sunk relief, which is well suited to very bright sunlight. The main figures in reliefs adhere to the same figure convention as in painting, with parted legs (where not seated) and head shown from the side, but the torso from the front, and a standard set of proportions making up the figure, using 18 “fists” to go from the ground to the hair-line on the forehead. This appears as early as the Narmer Palette from Dynasty I, but elsewhere the convention is not used for minor figures shown engaged in some activity, such as the captives and corpses. Other conventions make statues of males darker than females. Very conventionalized portrait statues appear from as early as Dynasty II (before 2,780 BCE), and, with the exception of the art of the Amarna period of Ahkenaten and some other periods such as Dynasty XII, the idealized features of rulers changed little until after the Greek conquest.
A sculpted head of Amenhotep III: Very conventionalized portrait statues manifest idealized features of rulers.
By Dynasty IV (2680–2565 BCE) at the latest, the idea of the Ka statue was firmly established. These were put in tombs as a resting place for the ka portion of the soul. The so-called reserve heads, or plain hairless heads, are especially naturalistic, though the extent to which there was real portraiture in Ancient Egypt is still debated.
Early tombs also contained small models of the slaves, animals, buildings and objects – such as boats necessary for the deceased to continue his lifestyle in the afterworld – and later Ushabti figures. However, the great majority of wooden sculpture has been lost to decay, or probably used as fuel. Small figures of deities, or their animal personifications, are commonly found in popular materials such as pottery . There were also large numbers of small carved objects, from figures of the gods to toys and carved utensils. Alabaster was often used for expensive versions of these, while painted wood was the most common material, normally used for the small models of animals, slaves, and possessions that were placed in tombs to provide for the afterlife.
Very strict conventions were followed while crafting statues, and specific rules governed the appearance of every Egyptian god. For example, the sky god (Horus) was essentially to be represented with a falcon’s head, while the god of funeral rites (Anubis) was to be always shown with a jackal’s head. Artistic works were ranked according to their compliance with these conventions, and the conventions were followed so strictly that, over three thousand years, the appearance of statues changed very little. These conventions were intended to convey the timeless and non-aging quality of the figure’s ka.
Early tombs contained small sculptural models of the slaves, animals, buildings, and objects, such as boats necessary for the deceased to continue his lifestyle in the afterlife, and later Ushabti figures. However, the great majority of wooden sculpture has been lost to decay, or probably used as fuel. Small figures of deities, or their animal personifications, are commonly found in popular materials such as pottery. There were also large numbers of small carved objects, from figures of the gods to toys and carved utensils. Alabaster was often used for expensive versions of these, while painted wood was the most common material, normally used for the small models of animals, slaves, and possessions that were placed in tombs to provide for the afterlife.
El-Amra clay model of cattle: This model was found in a tomb and was likely intended as a symbolic source of sustenance in the afterlife.
The El-Amra clay model of cattle (c. 3500 BCE) predates the Early Dynastic Period but provides an idea of the appearance and production method of tomb sculptures of the time. Cattle more commonly represented a source of blood, rather than meat or dairy products, but likely symbolized a source of food in the afterlife. The model is small scale (8.2 cm high), was fired at a low temperature, and was originally painted. Remnants of linen on the model suggests that it was either placed under a cloth or completely wrapped in one.
The Palette of Narmer
The Palette of Narmer: On each side of the palette, the first king of a unified Egypt is depicted as an active conqueror and as a victorious son of divinity.
The Palette of Narmer (c. 31st century BCE) is named for the pharaoh who unified Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt and founded the Dynasty I. As in the art of many cultures of ancient times, the palette contains hieratic scale , in which Narmer is the largest figure. Narmer’s headgear symbolizes the historic unification of the two kingdoms. On the recto (front) side of the palette, he wears the bulbed White Crown of Upper Egypt. To the right is a set of papyrus flowers, which symbolize Lower Egypt. On the second register of the verso (back) side, he wears the more geometric Red Crown of Lower Egypt. The figures on both sides of the palette were carved in low relief.
The recto side of the palette depicts the unification of Egypt as a violent one. Narmer wields a mace in his right hand as he grabs a kneeling man by the hair with his left. The king’s right arm is raised in a manner that foreshadows a deadly blow about to be struck to the enemy. Behind Narmer is his servant holding his sandals. In the bottom register, two conquered foes either flee in fear or lie dead or dying. The hieroglyphs to the left of each man’s head respectively represent a walled city and the name of a defeated town. Meanwhile, the presence of the cow goddess Bat on the top register and the falcon god Horus to the right of Narmer suggests that the king acted with divine approval.
The subject matter of the verso side is more complex than that of the recto side. Bat once again flanks each side of the top register. On the second register, Narmer marches between his sandal bearer on the left and a procession of standard bearers. To the far right are ten decapitated corpses of vanquished foes. Above them are the names of towns that have fallen to Narmer. The third register depicts two mythological animals whose intertwined necks symbolize the newly unified Egypt and form a recessed area in which cosmetics were ground. On the bottom-most register, a bull tramples a vanquished foe and knocks over the walls of a city. From the epithet “Bull of His Mother,” the image likely symbolizes the pharaoh, the perceived son of Bat. In later hieroglyphics , the bull with the bowed head would symbolize force.