A History of Ancient Egypt (Excerpt)

The ancient world comes to life in A History of Ancient Egypt, the first volume in a two book series on the history of Egypt, spanning the first farmers to the construction of the pyramids. Famed archaeologist John Romer draws on a lifetime of research to tell one history’s greatest stories; how, over more than a thousand years, a society of farmers created a rich, vivid world where one of the most astounding of all human-made landmarks, the Great Pyramid, was built. Immersing the reader in the Egypt of the past, Romer examines and challenges the long-held theories about what archaeological finds mean and what stories they tell about how the Egyptians lived.

More than just an account of one of the most fascinating periods of history, this engrossing book asks readers to take a step back and question what they’ve learned about Egypt in the past. Available now from Thomas Dunne Books!




Beside the Pale Lake
Living in the Faiyum, c. 5000–4000 BC


It was wetter then than it is now. Though the monsoons were slowly failing, the plains were grass-green and scented with flowering shrubs whilst the valleys held exotic trees, such as still grow in central Africa. To the east of the Saharan plateau, small groups of hunters camped occasionally inside the sheltered wadis that ran down into the Nile Valley and they took fish from the river, hare, gazelle and wild cattle from the fringes of the plain above, and gathered seeds and tubers from the rushy swamps that lay along the river’s edge. In the slow flow of prehistory, the changes that were transforming the Saharan plains into a hot sand sea would have been imperceptible, even to hunters living off the land. Then suddenly, some seven thousand years ago, a new way of living was introduced into this gentle Eden.

For modern archaeologists, the revolution takes the shape of storage bins. Three hundred of them, set in the crusted surface of a desert and tokening the arrival in the land of Egypt of the single greatest transformation the human race has ever undertaken: the change from hunting and gathering to husbandry and farming.

Before there was farming, the inhabitants of Egypt had lived peripatetic lives, collecting the natural resources of the land according to the seasons of the year. These storage bins, however, groups of circular pits set beside the hearthstones of small settlements, were made by people who planted grain and later on had harvested the crop and who therefore had lived in the same place for a great part of the year.

The consequences of this change were literally monumental: within 1,500 years, the descendants of those first Egyptian farmers were building pyramids for pharaoh. It is not surprising, then, that to modern minds the story of those fifteen prehistoric centuries promises a unique history.

When they were newly made, each one of those first-known grain bins could have held eight hundredweight of cereals, mixes mostly, of wild seed, emmer wheat and two- and six-rowed barley, crops that with a low yield would have required two to three acres of land to fill a single bin. Planted in October and November and ripened during the following months of growth and maturation, the contents of one such grain bin would have taken the farmers several days to harvest and would have needed further labour afterwards, to process the seed for eating.

In the 1920s, when the grain bins were first excavated, one of them still held a farmer’s sickle, a little tree branch nicely shaped into a wooden stick, with a row of notched flint blades set end to end along one side of it to form a single cutting edge. There were, as well, some seven pounds of harvested seed. Golden dry and so perfectly preserved that a museum curator once tried, unsuccessfully, to germinate some of them. They are the oldest known examples of Egyptian grain, that bounty which, millennia later, the Book of Genesis would describe as being ‘without number … as the sand of the sea’. Here, then, the inhabitants of the lower Nile had settled down, seeded the silty soil and begun to count out their years in harvests which in later centuries became so generous as to enable the building of the pyramids and finally, at ancient Egypt’s ending, to supply the bread to feed Caesar’s Rome.

Four feet across and half as deep, Egypt’s first-known grain bins were mud-plastered pits lined with rush-woven baskets that, after they had been filled with seed, were sealed with a strong flat lid made from a mix of salt and sand. Woven from their centre in a coil, some of these hefty grain baskets are of the same construction as Egyptian village baskets of today and, indeed, as those used by pharaoh’s workmen. Similar storage facilities were also used until quite recently by the Malike people of West Africa, who stored and traded their annual harvests according to their need. If the grain was well treated, they told a visiting anthropologist in the 1970s, if it were kept dry and stirred occasionally, the seeds would live within their bins for a full three years. Elaborated and enlarged, pharaoh’s seed stores, ancient Egypt’s real gold, would feed priests, courtiers and craftsmen, buffer bad harvests and fuel the ambitions of the master builders.

Egypt’s first known grain stores, however, are not in the valley of the Nile, but in a mysterious depression in the Sahara that then, as now, held a lake fed by a meandering branch of the River Nile. Lying on the west side of the river some forty miles south of modern Cairo and known today as Lake Faiyum, the ancient lake was annually revived by fierce floodwaters from the nearby river that pushed their way through a narrow breach in the valley’s western cliffs and flowed into the low-lying plain of the Faiyum Depression.

That same vast flood gave life to the entirety of Egypt. Swelling once a year to twelve to fourteen times higher than its usual flow, its waters flooded the best part of the Nile Valley. Through all of ancient history and, indeed, until the last two centuries and the building of a series of retaining dams, there was no other water source in all of Egypt; no rain in the last five thousand years sufficient to sustain a single plant; nothing, other than this single river. All life flowed from the Nile and the rich organic silt it carried in its annual flooding, the product of seasonal and heavy rains in the highlands of Ethiopia. In the days of the Faiyum farmers, as in the slightly dryer times of pharaoh’s Egypt, more than 100 million tons of sediment came down the river in an average flood. This then re-fertilized the narrow silty plains within the Nile Valley, the marshlands and the water-meadows of the river’s delta, and the lake and fens of the Faiyum.

At the time that the lake dwellers were laying down their grain-storage bins, the annual floods were generous, the shallow lake some fifty miles wide. Today, the lake is but a ghostly mirage a quarter of that size, so that the sandy banks on which the ancient farmers set their grain bins stand high and dry, a thin light line on the horizon of a pale desert. So when you stand upon that ancient lakeshore with your back turned on the salt-encrusted mirage of the modern lake, you may still see the outlines of some of these momentous grain bins or, at least, the slight indentations of their excavation, running across a ten-foot bank above the ancient shoreline, spotted now with dusty shrubs. Once, though, thick grass and rushes had grown along this bleached-out beach; traces of their desiccated roots still snake through the ancient bone-dry silt. And nearby, there had been a pair of marshy ponds, where fishing was convenient and plentiful.

The community that gathered Egypt’s first known harvests seems to have lived next to their grain stores, up on the same bankside. The absence of ruined walls, however, or even of postholes that could have supported roofing beams or tents, suggests that they moved as lightly on the earth as had their hunter-gatherer predecessors. Nor has a single grave of these first farmers been uncovered. Yet traces of their hearths remain. At some of the smaller settlements, summer storms have washed their ashes down into the now half-vanished lake, leaving dark streaks on the surface of the ancient desert. Close to the grain bins, too, the farmers’ hearths were found intact, some with cooking pots still standing at their centres with fish- and animal bones within them and charcoal banked up all around. Ashes from these hearths provide a date for some of these fires at around 4300 BC, whilst other excavations at the ancient lake show that, by that time, similar communities had inhabited the area for the best part of a thousand years. All of these sometime farmers had built similarly simple shelters from animal hides and the lakeside reeds and rushes, which they had also used to weave the linings of their storage bins.

The largest known of all the lakeside settlements, some fifty yards in length and width, are those beside the grain bins. Archaeologists have distinguished at least three different periods of occupation within these settlements, each of which had flourished for considerable periods of time, one following another. So, despite the 300 grain bins, we may imagine that, at any one time, such communities were no larger than a few family groups.

All these lakeside farmers appear to have processed their crops in the same way, threshing their grain with sticks and pounding some of the harder seeds with hammer stones to split them open, then scooping up the kernels with shells and little finely woven baskets before grinding the corn to flour between two heavy stones. The hardness of some of the different grain stocks appears to have been an especial problem. Quantities of burnt corn mixed with charcoal found in one of the grain bins may have been a discarded by-product of parching, which aimed to burst the seed like popcorn, a process that may have taken place at harvest time by simply setting fire to the dry plants in the fields. A more agreeable explanation, however, is that this spoilt grain was not the by-product of careless parching, but of malting and of making beer. Although there is no direct evidence of brewing in these earliest of settlements, beer would become a staple commodity in the diet of various prehistoric Nile-side farming communities.

As well as cultivating grain, the Faiyum farmers reared animals. Large quantities of cattle, goat and, above all, sheep bones lay strewn throughout the settlements, whilst others were found in stewing pots still resting on the hearths. Nothing is known about the conditions in which these flocks were kept. What is clear, however, is that some of the hard wild seeds the farmers had stored in certain of their grain bins may have been especially gathered to support their flocks during the Egyptian summers, when there was little for such domesticated animals to forage. In wintertime, however, they could well have grazed alongside the wild gazelle and hartebeest that came down to the lakeside; and these too, so the bones within the settlements still tell, the farmers also caught and cooked. For these farmers were still hunters, and although the pig bones found within the settlements could have been those of either domesticated animals or wild boar, the remains of turtle shells, crocodile scales and the butchered bones of hippopotami, as well as those of bittern and geese which fed in the warm shallows of the Faiyum lakeside, show that they still had the catholic palate of hunter-gatherers. And the farmers still fished and hunted in the age-old ways as well, with nets and flint-tipped arrows, harpoons and spears.

Lake fish were a year-round staple. Above all others, the farmers ate the Nile catfish, a small-eyed, flat-headed, bewhiskered monster who grew to an enormous size and to whom later Nile fishermen attributed legendary powers of survival in the drying summer mud. To catch such fearsome beasts, the farmers made harpoons barbed and tipped with animal bone and ivory; these were the elegant ancestors of a millennial tradition in which the harpoon would become a chosen weapon in the internecine battles between the pharaonic Egyptian gods.

Enormous fish-bones from the settlements show that the farmers also caught some of the big old fish which lived in the deepest sections of the lake. And this in turn tells that they were also expert boatmen, constructing their craft in all probability from bunches of the same reeds and rushes which they used for their grain bins and their shelters. Such expertise was part of a millennial inheritance. Similarly sized fish-bones, gathered from the hearths of some of the hunter-gatherers who had camped beside the Nile for millennia before the farmers had come to live beside the lake, show that they were also taking huge fish from the centre of the river and that their boats must therefore have been capable of handling fish some six to eight feet long. Marks on some of the fish-bones left by these ancient hunter-gatherers, however, appear to show that, unlike the Faiyum farmers, they had filleted and smoked their catch.

Yet fish stewed upon the farmers’ hearths would also have obtained a distinctive smoky taste. For the farmers made their cooking pots from clay made from river silt. And even though they part-covered the interior of some of them with red slip, and brusquely burnished them as well – which would have rendered them less porous – the modest, low-fired wares would not have stopped the distinctive taste of wood ash and smoke from the fire beneath permeating everything that was cooked within them.

The faintest traces of the activities of hunting and of modest hearths set right on the ancient lakeside beaches show that, as well as cooking on the well-established hearths within their settlements, the farmers also built small seasonal encampments and held summer barbecues in them, just as the hunter-gatherers had done before them. Now though, and for the first time in Egypt, daily life was driven by the various activities of farming.



Pollen caught in the fibres of the Faiyum grain bins shows that they had been woven in the weeks before the annual grain harvest, and that their makers had twisted and tied the coils of rush and grasses that had been gathered from the drying swamps beside the lake, in late March or in early April.

This was the start of summer, a time of darkening skies and violent storms, of sweeping winds and gusts of hot dry air. It was also the last month in which wild honey could be taken from the hive, a time when the meadows began to desiccate, when fish swam ever closer in the wetlands’ shrinking pools until they turned into a single thrashing mass which could be harvested by hand. And that the farmers stewed this glittering annual bounty is witnessed by the considerable quantities of small and spiky fish-bones which the archaeologists found lying in their cooking pots.

Egypt is traditionally reckoned to have but three seasons; a lengthy summer followed by two months of an autumn inundation, and then a fruitful winter, when cereals were grown. Summer was the worst of times, and though it rained a little more in the times of the Faiyum farmers than it would throughout the following millennia, the difference would have been slight. Many of the native birds flew northwards out of Egypt at that time to avoid the growing heat. Plants and fruits all but disappeared, and the wild melons which grew in the lakeside gullies became so dry that the winds rattled the seeds within the gourds. Even the wild roots that were a perennial food source of the Faiyum farmers would become so hard within the grey-cracked earth they would have had to be ground to flour and soaked in water before they could be eaten.

Then, in June, in the sun’s full heat, the Nile became turbid and turned slightly sour, an augur of the coming flood. And slowly it began to rise. In July, with the river’s stream flowing ever swifter, ever higher, sunset winds blew cool and fresh above the stream. And then in August, when the flood was imminent and temperatures stood well above 40 °C, the universe appeared to pause.

Hardships of biblical dimensions threatened if the flood was over-generous and drowned the marshes and the meadows for too long a time. For then the flood would be late in receding, the standing waters would delay the farmers’ sowing and damp and fungus would menace the seed stores, and frogs and rodents would come to plague the settlements. When they were first excavated in the 1920s some of the Faiyum grain bins held the frail corpses of whole families of mice, snuggled between the baskets and the lining clay. In lean years, on the other hand, when the flood was low, its waters may not have even breached the narrow gap within the valley cliffs that fed the Faiyum lake.

All ancient life within the orbit of the River Nile, the most placid, regular and majestic of the world’s great rivers, depended on the volume of this annual watering. Even a modest difference in the height of the inundation, a slight change in the snow melt in the Ethiopian mountains or in the quantity of monsoon rains in Central Africa, could impoverish or enrich all life within the river’s orbit.

For the early farmers by the Faiyum lake, a five-foot flood over the water-meadows would have been prodigal and destructive, while a three-foot flood would have been insufficient to cover the arable land and threatened not only the size of the next harvest but the formation of salt in white crusts across the surface of the drying silt, rendering it infertile. In lean times too, the five-hundred-odd square miles of the surface of the shallow lake would continue to evaporate and shrink around the year, along with the stored resources of the farmers whose livelihood depended on it.

The perfect flood, on the other hand, burst the river’s banks in late August, carrying fresh, clear, fertile silt and washing away the salt that had crystallized upon the drying mud throughout the baking months of summer: all that, and the sudden bounty, when there was little else to eat, of spawning catfish in the muddy water, which were then so lazy that the normally aggressive beasts could be lifted by a pair of skilful hands.

In September, when the flood lay still and shiny right across the valley of the Nile and the Faiyum lake was twice the size of that of Galilee, there would be dew again, and dappled clouds in the bright blue sky. Then in October, when the floodwaters were starting to recede and the mornings were becoming cool and misty, sowing could have started. In later ages, Nile farmers tended to sow their muddy meadows in December and January, when the scorpions and snakes were hibernating and the evenings were occasionally cool enough to spin a gossamer of frost. By that time, though, the first Faiyum farmers appear to have left their fields behind them, for analyses of the pollen from their settlements show that they were absent for a great part of winter. It may be, then, that these first farmers shared some of the ancient habits of the hunter-gatherers who appear to have left the Nile Valley in the months following the flood, to travel east, up through the mountain valleys to the beaches of the Red Sea, or perhaps westward across the dry savannah to the exotic oases of the Sahara, before returning to the valley of the Nile in summertime.

There is no firm evidence, however, that the Faiyum farmers went on such a trek; no evidence whatever of their existence other than that found beside the lake. Nor is this surprising, for few traces of ancient life within the Nile Valley have survived. Moving erratically within the narrow confines of its cliff-lined valley, the river’s course has slowly migrated from west to east over the millennia so that the great part of the remains of its past inhabitants and visitors have been washed away or are still deeply buried in the river’s silt. Only the tombs and temples built along the edges of the ancient flood plain remain, along with the graves set down in the dry sands around the valley’s cliffs. That no graves or cemeteries have yet been found beside the farmers’ sandy settlements around Lake Faiyum, however, may be a further indication, together with the absence of winter pollens, that the farming revolution had not entirely changed these people’s lives: that when the flood subsided and they had done their sowing, the farmers went travelling again, with their children, their animals and their dogs.

Whatever their peregrinations, by February the higher rising sun was breaking the cold, the Nile was running clear and sweet again, and the crops that the farmers sowed in early winter were reaching their full height. And so, by March or early April, when their cereals were ripe for harvesting, the farmers would have walked back to their shining lake, for this was the climax of their agricultural year, the time of weaving grain bins once again, and filling them with seed.



These then, were newly situated people leading newly measured lives. Though the hunter-gatherers had also lived in concert with the seasons, an endless round of travel prompted by the rhythms of the year, the Faiyum farmers now lived the best part of the year within a single landscape with their animals and fields and food stores. So though their lives were still marked and measured by the seasons, they were set upon another treadmill. And it was this that brought about a fundamental change in human sensibility.

Even their pottery was different. Though the farmers still made little bowls of clay as the hunter-gatherers had done, each one pinched out of a ball of the greyish Nile mud and sized, appropriately, to fit into a hand, the farmers also made tiny little cups that were whimsically supported on four small feet, as well as a variety of rough rectangular dishes, similar to the trays employed by later cultures to bake flat bread made from ground corn upon an open hearth. Now, too, the farmers made much larger pots as well, gently rounding their bases so as to allow them to stand upright in the ashes of their cooking fires. Bell-mouthed, stout and square of profile, these domestic wares were large and strong enough to have also served as water storage vessels or indeed as little ovens in which the gathered grain could have been parched or malted. Clearly, hunter-gatherers would have had but little use for such elaborations; their pottery did not have to serve nearly as many functions, nor had it been made with care, to last.

This, then, was the difference. Moving continuously through a variety of landscapes all around the year, hunter-gatherers were themselves part of the natural processes which they exploited. There was no need for them to view their small communities as separate from nature: such self-consciousness indeed, might have threatened their existence. The farmers, on the other hand, lived in the same place for the best part of the year and were set into a fixed pattern of activities: a pattern that, for part of the year at least, did not immediately provide their daily diet. This then, was a life requiring forward planning, a life requiring a certain distance from the immediate environment, a certain objectivity.

In no way does this imply that the Faiyum farmers engaged in abstract dialogues about the nature of their lives that can now be reconstructed under such headings as ‘economic necessity’ or ‘man’s natural nature’. That would require the unwarranted assumption that these farmers acted on reflection and opinion, just as, we imagine, we do today. Nor is there any need for such suspect reconstructions of ‘the prehistoric mind’ when there are clear contemporary expressions of the Faiyum farmers’ new-found objectivity within the very things they made. Just as the routine of farming had patterned and re-framed the landscape in which they lived, so too the things the farmers used and made were part and product of those same activities.

Though coarse and workmanlike, the farmers’ grain baskets, for example, are expertly woven in a variety of rhythmic patterns whose regularity is emphasized by their weavers’ careful choice of equally sized stems of cane and rush. In similar fashion, the fine domestic baskets, which are woven from materials just half as thick as those used by the grain basket weavers, hold an equal delight in skill and pattern, and they have patterns, too, made from the different coloured stems of straw that the weavers chose. The qualities such things display, their forms and patterning, are illustrations of the order that the first farmers were imposing on the landscapes and routines of their lives.

Nothing better exemplifies this newly developing sense of order than the scraps of linen that have been found within the Faiyum farmers’ settlements. In their order and abstraction and in the precision of their planning, the tiny fragments contain the measured pattern of life in the communities which made them. Such work takes a variety of special skills, and time and planning too. In all probability, the blue-flowered flax from which these cloths were woven also grew beside the lake. Such plants take three months to grow to harvest and then, in common with the farmers’ grain crops, the moment of their cropping must be closely judged, for fine thread can only be made from young green plants whilst the coarser older fibres suitable for cord and rope are extracted a few weeks later in the harvest, from the flax plants’ sere and yellowed stems.

Separating flax fibres from their stems is in itself a two-week process, for the plants must be rotted and then beaten before the fibres can be separated with a special small sharp tool. Disk-shaped spindle whorls found in the farmers’ settlements show that the resulting fibres were then spun from the open hand, in the same way that some country people still spin wool. Compared with oily sheep’s wool, however, flax fibres are hard and brittle and require a particular touch, a special skill, to maintain the constant level of humidity that keeps the spinning fibres pliable and strong. Only then could the resulting balls of yarn have been woven into the fabrics found within the Faiyum farmers’ settlements.

Rough-shaped stones with various grooves and holes in them have been found in considerable numbers in the settlements and may well have been used as weights for inshore fishing nets. Some of these same stones, however, could also have been used as loom weights, for the scraps of fabric that survive have come from well-made plain-woven lengths of linen cloth, made on a loom on which the warp threads were kept under constant tension as the weaver worked. With such looms, at the very least, the weaver would have had to have fixed pegs into the ground high enough to hold the beams on which the linen warp was set and from which the loom weights could have been hung.

Such weaving necessarily entails the fastidious manipulation of rows of narrow threads. At one and the same time a physical and analytical activity, such work requires a rapt preoccupation. These, then, the first known Egyptian fabrics, are the direct ancestors of the noble household industry which provided pharaoh and his courtiers with their most splendid garments.

Immensely durable, and bleaching to an elegant whiteness under the Egyptian sun, linen improves its qualities with every wash. Yet we have no idea of how the lakeside farmers used the linens that they wove. Despite the numerous pins and needles found within the settlements, and the bone awls and flints such as are employed for working leather and rawhide, there is no evidence of the kind of clothing – if any – that the farmers wore.

They certainly made necklaces and bracelets, however, and probably used body paints as well. Knobs of red ochre, black carbon and green copper oxides have all been found in the settlements; raw pigments that were ground to dust on little rectangles of prettily coloured stone and then, if the evidence of later Egyptian ages may be taken as a guide, the prepared materials were used for making body paint, particularly cosmetics. By themselves alone, the little grinding palettes, which were obtained from distant rock outcrops, token the farmers’ considerable interest in such processes of decoration, just as do the drilled beads cut from animal bone and desert ostrich eggs and Red Sea shells, and shining stones and beads brought from Sinai and Nubia. Such modest objects add lively decoration to the vague outlines of these vanished farmers; they also show something of how identity was shaped inside their communities. That the origins of many of these goods lay far outside the usual round of food procurement further underlines the importance of these processes; they show us something, therefore, of the farmers’ predilections, of the measure of their minds.

There is as well, a further vivid indication of how these people were. For the Faiyum farmers excelled in making arrowheads as pretty as jewels, flaking the honey-coloured flint from the nearby mountains into V-shaped points, with two elegantly curved tangs with measured rows of tiny chips along their cutting edges.

These arrowheads, in fact, are an epitome of a near-three million-year-old tradition of knapping flint. As sharp as glass and twice as hard, flaked flint was the Stone Age’s most durable resource. By making agricultural tools of flint – adzes, hoes and reaping blades – the first farmers had inventively extended this traditional Stone Age medium, and it was as common a material in the Faiyum settlements as it had been in the earlier hunter-gatherer settlements within the valley of the Nile.

Yet the farmers no longer worked within the hunter-gatherers traditions of flint knapping. Both in their shape and in the techniques of their manufacture, these surprising arrowheads share common pedigree with those made in the near-contemporary cultures of North Africa and the Levant. They differ from the work of their international cousins, however, in that their handiwork is finer. Nor does this token a desire to improve the arrowheads’ efficiency and thus to catch more meat. Hunter-gatherers, whose lives had long depended on such tools, made sharper, stronger and less pretty arrowheads more quickly and efficiently. And though bone counts from the Faiyum settlements show that the farmers consumed similar quantities of meat as hunter-gatherers, they also show that a diet of domesticated animal meat had in part replaced the large amounts of wild game caught and eaten by their predecessors.

What the considerable amount of effort the Faiyum farmers invested in making arrowheads appears to show, therefore, is that the act of hunting and killing wild animals of itself, an act that had been an integral part of the hunter-gatherers’ natural world, had taken on a new significance. At the same time, the farmers’ exquisite arrowheads display, as does the weavers’ rapt attention to their craft, an especial cultivation of skill within these small communities which, as the prehistorian Jacques Cauvin remarked about earlier occurrences of this same phenomenon, appear as ‘an otherwise inexplicable aesthetic quest’. As far as these lakeside farmers were concerned, however, this quest became unique: one that, along with their linens, beads and body paints, would culminate in the making of the courtly culture of the valley of the Nile.


A History of Ancient Egypt © John Romer, 2013


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