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"Decorated Ware" jar, (E1399)
"Decorated Ware" jar, (E1399), featuring a boating scene, Mid Naqada II (3550-3400 B.C.)

Ceramic jar from Abydos
Ceramic jar from Abydos (E12298), Early-mid Naqada II (3550-3400 B. C.)

Calcite vase decorated with the name of King Narmer, (E9510)
Calcite vase decorated with the name of King Narmer, (E9510), from
Abydos, Dynasty 1, ca. 2900 B.C.

Vase inscribed with the name of Khasekhem
Vase inscribed with the name of Khasekhem (E3958), Dynasty 2, ca. 2675 B.C.

Gallery Tour

Where did Ancient Egypt begin?

Egyptian civilization arose in a riverine floodplain surrounded by virtually rainless desert--a landscape very different from what most of us are familiar with. Ancient Egyptians living along the Nile developed one of the world's longest lived and most successful ancient civilizations, with a continuous development spanning more than 5000 years.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum (UPM) has the most extensive and varied collection in the United States of material from Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt (ca. 4000-2800 B.C.), the formative phases of Egyptian civlization and the periods during which the distinctive characteristics of Egyptian society took shape.

Predynastic Pottery
Distinctive black-topped red ware jars were produced in Egypt during the Naqada I and II phases of the Predynastic Period (5000-3000 B.C.). This type of pot was formed by hand. Before the pot was fired, it was burnished with a smooth pebble until it was polished. After the pot was fired, the upper part of the vessel was immediately placed in organic material, which resulted in the blackened rims characteristic of this type of pottery.

Other pots common during the mid-Naqada II Period (3550-3400 B.C.) were made from marl clay and decorated with red painted designs, often called "Decorated Ware." On the earliest decorated vessels, these designs were merely geometric patterns, but soon more elaborate images appeared. Usually showing scenes of desert or river life, these decorations sometimes have a narrative aspect, and may be connected to the origins of writing in ancient Egypt.

Predynastic Burial
Prior to the invention of artificial mummification, the ancient Egyptians buried their dead in shallow pits in the sand. These burials produced a process of mummification in which the bodies became desiccated naturally. The deceased individuals were usually buried in a contracted position that may have imitated sleep. Evidence for a belief in an afterlife is suggested by the burial of grave goods, such as pottery and stone vessels, slate palettes for grinding pigments, hairpins, and flint knives.

Shortly before 3000 B.C., the Predynastic Kingdoms of Egypt were united under a single ruler. Already by this time, many of the iconographic and symbolic representations associated with Egyptian divine kingship had been established. One of the earliest rulers of a unified Egypt was King Narmer (3000 B.C.), the same ruler commemorated on the famous "Narmer Palette" now in the Cairo Museum. The Museum's calcite "Narmer vase" is decorated with the name of the king inside a rectangular box called a serekh, which represents the niched architecture found on royal buildings at this time. The falcon god Horus, who was already identified with the reigning king at this early date, is perched atop this serekh. This vase was excavated in a tomb at Abydos, which has been identified as belonging to King Aha, the successor of Narmer.

Another of the UPM's early royal monuments is a massive calcite vase inscribed with the name of King Khasekhem, the last ruler of Dynasty 2 (2800-2675 B.C.). It was found at the site of Hierokonpolis by Flinders Petrie in 1898. The inscription consists of three main parts. In the center is the vulture goddess Nekhbet, who is shown holding a ring encircling the word for "rebels." To the right are the hieroglyphs meaning "year of fighting and smiting northerners," suggesting that the vessel commemorates an historical events. This vase was probably part of a royal donation made to the temple.


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