The Road to Complexity,


The road to Inequality


The pyramids could only have been built by an extremely efficient and well organised society, and in a pre-money economy, the only way to organise such efficiency is by having a highly stratified society. This means that the person at the top of the apex is regarded as a god, and is able to command the services of the whole of the society. The road to complexity is marked by the rise of inequality: inequality is good, for inequality means progress: how do we chart its rise in Egyptian society?

One way is to chart the increasing professionalization of industry, which to archaeologists means studying the improvement of pottery techniques. In the early predynastic period (Naqada I) the pottery was made mostly from the alluvial clays laid down by the Nile, which were not very satisfactory. By Naqada II, clay was being brought in from the desert, which was a marl clay of superior quality: but it is more difficult to fire properly, which in turn implies specialist potters: complexity is increasing. By the end of Naqada II, such pots are even found being exported to the north, to the delta regions of the Nile, to the north.

But by far the best way of charting the increase in complexity is by studying the tombs, which Egypt always has in abundance. In the early period, tombs were all very much the same. Then some tombs began to get pots in them —one had no less than 18 pots — and an ostrich eggshell. Then in Naqada II tombs begin to accumulate even more pots, and even more significantly instead of everyone being buried in the same cemetery, the upper echelons of society began to be buried in a separate cemetery, suggesting that we now move to a more rigid society where people were arranged in different castes, and the different castes used different cemeteries.

The evidence for this comes from a small cemetery T which contained only 57 graves, but these graves were distinctly superior to all the rest. Instead of being a simple pit dug three feet down into the soil, these became brick lined pits sometimes with two compartments and where one or two pots were replaced by dozens, or even hundreds of pots, and also elaborate flint knives of superb quality and stone palettes for grinding pigments for beauty preparations. A caste society is beginning to emerge.

Naqada became the capital of a substantial chiefdom: the halfway stage to the emergence of kings. Subsequently in the early dynastic period a small walled town was built, but this soon declined as its place of importance was taken by Abydos on the other side of the river, half a dozen miles further upstream, where the pharaohs of the first dynasty were to be buried.

However the next stage of development and the place where Egypt was first united as a single country was Hierakonpolis.


On to Hierakonpolis

May 2012, revised August 31 2012