3.29.2010

Egyptology Snark: The Badarian

We may not be far wrong if we suppose that the Badarians were sufficiently civilised to carry handkerchiefs.” – Guy Brunton, The Badarian Civilisation and Predynastic Remains near Badari , (1924), p. 41

So, after an absence (sorry) we'll pick up today talking about the Badarian period/culture/phase. I've had lots of requests to talk about technology and crafting, etc., and we'll get there, but I think I want to do the basic historical (heh) sketch of the Predynastic and then talk about broader issues of technology and crafting and stuff.

Also, please note that for British men of a certain era whether or not you carried a snot-rag was an excellent metric for level of “civilisation.” Actually, I'm pretty sure he was talking about the very nice linen bits he found that were of Badarian manufacture, but I still love that quote which is why it was my opener. Also, Brunton had an OBE, had been wounded in the Great War, and as things go was a fairly cool guy as far as I know, so my snark is tempered with fondness.

So, the Badarian. Dated to about 4400-4000 BC. It's a bit squicky what exactly this assemblage of settlements, cemeteries, and material culture represents. It's not well attested outside the area of Middle Egypt called “Badari” from which it takes its name and dates a bit earlier than the earliest phase of the Naqada period that is usually taken to come next in the succession of “cultures” in Egypt. I'm inclined to regard it more as a regional expression of early Naqada culture, but the dating is weird.
Digital Egypt says this is our earliest evidence of farming in Upper Egypt. The Fayum is typically regarded as a separate region so, okay, I guess.
Anyway, there are some links between Badarian and Fayum stuff, especially the really beautiful arrowheads called concave-base or winged arrowheads. I love these things. They continue into the Naqada period as well.
Some Badarian pottery is really beautiful too – it's very hard to capture in photos, but the sort of hallmark of Badarian pottery is the finely combed surface treatment of some of the pots that creates this beautiful rippling on the shiny black surface. We also have more utilitarian stuff for every day use that comes from the settlement sites in addition to the prettier stuff from the graves. It's wonderful to have both to look at and compare, which doesn't always happen.
We also see the first evidence of glazing technology in the Badarian period, which is a significant part of crafting throughout Egyptian history – faience is a glazing technology. The Badarians were producing glazed steatite beads, which is a step toward later production of faience. (I'll talk about this a bit more with the later tech post.)
There's also the first appearance of some metal – copper in this case, probably imported from Sinai. Whether it was worked in Sinai and then brought to Egypt or whether ore was being imported and then worked isn't quite clear. Turquoise was also coming in from the Sinai. There's ivory, possibly local or possible from Nubia, some pottery that looks very Syrian, and shells from the Red Sea as well, so there's a fairly vibrant trade going on. On a side note, I've been writing this with your questions or questions I anticipate you clever people asking and increasingly coming up against the “hell if I know” problem. Then I start looking for information and discover that no one knows. Sigh. It happens. Partially a function of the data available, the kinds of questions “professionals” tend to ask, and in spots probably my own lack of knowledge. Whee!

We also have the settlements. There's three sort of clusters on the east bank in a string – the area between the higher plateau and the river is on the narrow side here. The larger clusters have smaller subclusters – maybe seasonal areas or daughter settlements. Everything is pretty flimsy in terms of construction – basically little round wattle-and-daub huts close together. Some of them may actually have been animal pens rather than houses, but at least one had a hearth and as cows and goats don't usually toast their food, that suggests at least occasional use or occupation by humans. If memory serves, there isn't a lot of good evidence for particular production areas and as the site was used and reused in succeeding periods stratigraphy was kind of messed up. I'm also not remembering anything that was clearly production areas but, again, the site itself was churned up and while the people who dug it – Guy Brunton for most of it and the aforementioned Gertrude Caton-Thompson a small section – were pretty bad-ass for the time (the publications date to the late 1920s), they also weren't quite used to the type of deposits they encountered and often were under such time and funding constraints that they couldn't quite do as thorough a job as we might wish.
They were munching on wheat and barley, lentils, and tubers. And there were lots of sheep and goats based on both bones and layers of poop (if I'd been there to excavate, that would almost certainly have been where I got stuck). There were storage areas for the grains and evidence of bread in some of the graves. Throwing sticks from the graves also suggest birding. Or a novel way of dealing with zombies and reanimated skeletons.

The graves are pretty cool though. They're sort of all over the place near, but not in, the settlements. There's no real organization by gender, age, wealth of grave goods, etc., except for a small section of mostly men and another small section of men and children. The skeletons are mostly gone (disposing of them was fairly standard practice at the time) so further analysis is no longer possible, dammit. And in some cases we might question Brunton's sexing of the skeletons. And who wouldn't question someone doing that to skeletons? Yes, actually, “ sexing” is the term for determining biological sex based on the remains, yes I always make a weird face and sound especially humorless when I have to say it in grown-up contexts. In other contexts I usually do the Beavis and Butthead laugh.
Um.
Anyway, we can see clear emergence of shared ideas about how to bury a dead person, which is fairly significant. Typically, a fairly shallow, oval hole was dug in the desert – not in the cultivable area, which you don't want to muck up with dead people because, while they might eventually be awesome fertilizer, until they are you have to worry about the lump in the field, the attraction of scavengers, some of whom might find live human tastier than dead human, the chances of the annual flood washing Aunt Nekhet back up to the house, and the chance that the dead person would be pissed as hell about all of the above, or just about being dead in general, and come haunt your ass. So, shallow oval in the desert. People were usually folded up on their sides, almost as though they were sleeping, usually situated in such a way that they faced the rising sun/the west, which is a significant part of Egyptian funerary beliefs for the full run of Egyptian history. The fact that everyone, or nearly everyone was aligned this way is also fairly significant, as it indicates a set of shared practices, which implies shared beliefs. Being folded up on their sides also made the necessary hole to dig smaller which, when dealing with digging through the sand and hardened desert surface with sticks, is a good thing. Some people had little roof like structures built up over them – basically a mat over some sticks before full burial. Others were resting on woven mats or were in woven hamper-like things that lined the grave entirely. So, we can see the beginnings of some experiments with more formally built graves.

People were buried with stuff by this point, often things associated with daily life (at least according to the excavation reports). How associated with daily life is sort of a question. There are things that appear to have been used or that also appear fairly frequently in settlement contexts, but often the finer stuff, like the really nicely combed pots or highly polished wares are less common in settlements. Food stuffs were included, like bread. Sometimes the pots had contents of some kind, usually unidentifiable. Brunton reported finding bits of fabric in some contexts, but couldn't be sure if it represented shrouds or similar things or clothing because it was so fragmentary. Leather fragments also appeared. So did jewelry, like the glazed steatite I mentioned before, Red Sea shells, etc. People were usually wearing it and in some cases it was clear that people had been buried at least partially clothed with things like animal pelts. And makeup compacts, or at least the Badarian version thereof – the slate palette. They aren't always made of slate, but they often get called “slate palettes” as though they all were. These start out as little oblong bits of rock about the size of your palm. They're often found with smaller rocks or pebbles and, if you're super lucky and the preservation conditions were just right, with mineral residue on them from people putting a bit of colored mineral, like malachite, on the palette, rubbing it with the smaller rock, and winding up with makeup. These are found in both male and female graves along with ochre and lumps of things like malachite. Palettes become an important feature as we go on through the Predynastic and into the Early Dynastic period both as a way to date contexts and as a functional form that grows to ceremonial significance. There are a few instances of what look like the burial of pets – young gazelles that seem too young to use as food. Very rarely a mother and infant were buried together, but usually graves were occupied alone. It seems like children from around 8 on up were buried in the same place as the adults. I don't think Brunton mentions much younger children. This might be because they tend not to be so well preserved or they may have been buried or disposed of elsewhere, such as beneath house floors.
While the assumption in Egypt, projecting from fairly well known historical practices into the past, is that people were buried with stuff so they would have it in the afterlife, in some cultures people are buried with stuff, particularly their own stuff, because it's perceived to be ritually impure or dangerous to the living. I wonder how much that may have played a role considering that in the historical period a proper burial was almost as important for the well-being of the living as for their dead relative. Hungry or pissed off ghosts are bad ju-ju.


Lots of sketches of Badarian graves. I love these for some reason.

I'm having a bit of trouble saying anything definite regarding male/female/juvenile differences in graves without going back through Brunton's publications and doing full tallies (and while I love you people, I don't love you that much). If I can trust some old notes of mine and some syntheses by other people, it looks as though male burials were typically “ richer” with more stuff in general and more jewelry type things in particular, especially these lovely belts of multiple strands of glazed steatite beads. A few people had female figurines buried with them – including in one case a young boy who had a figurine stuck in a pot that was then stuck in a larger pot. Interesting, if one interprets the figurines as fertility figures (which is how they're ALWAYS interpreted) why a little boy needs one in his grave. The other figurines, sadly, were from disturbed graves without skeletal remains so we can't speculate much further based on those contexts.




Drawing of all the figurines. Extra Hawt.

Amusingly, the more I write in this area, as I mentioned earlier, the more unanswered questions I find and the more stuff I find that “someone should do” - like going back through Brunton's publications and taking a closer look at the age/sex profiles and the grave assemblages. Assuming someone hasn't already and I just missed it.

And now, though this comes from a slightly later context, one of the most WTF published (and that is an important distinction) field photos I've seen. I'm guessing they did this to show the scale? Or so they'd remember those pots were used in a burial when they developed the film? Or because they were bored?

ETA:  Take a close look at the positions of the skeletons in the grave sketches.  I find some of them hilarious - the one of the lower right looks like me falling into bed after a long day.  

4 comments:

bookewyrme said...

Really fascinating! I've always been more interested in New Kingdom Egypt, and have only rarely studied Predynastic periods, so this is all new to me.

One question, on the burial drawings. The one on the top row, second from the right appears to have had his head chopped off. Was there an invasive burial (or something) on top of that one?

~Lia

Shoveling Ferret said...

Hi Lia!
Well spotted - the burial you mentioned looks like it had a Roman era grave cut partially into it (you can just make that out on an enlargement of the drawing). Part of the fun of working in Egypt - stuff is almost never isolated to one period.

Alwen said...

"the annual flood washing Aunt Nekhet back up to the house"

Heh. I love this so much.

And the verification? "hammiabl" -eets watching us! Ahhhhh!

Shoveling Ferret said...

Oooooooh-eeeee-ooooooo