Scorpion King
Some historians date the origin of ancient Egyptian civilization to 4000 B.C., when carefully- prepared burials of bulls, jackals and crocodiles appeared near the Nile. Arts and crafts from this period include pottery with geometric designs, molded hippopotamuses and crocodiles, and painted motifs of dances, ostriches and boats. Changes in pottery styles have helped archaeologists date the oldest sites.

The establishment of Ancient Egypt is generally believed to have occurred when Upper and Lower Egypt were unified under Menes, the first king of Dynasty 1 around 3100 to 3000 B.C. Prior to that time, Egypt seemed to be divided into a large number of small priestly-governed states each with its own names for commonly accepted divinities. Egypt was unified by a conquering family out of the southern city of Thebes. The new dynasty placed its capital in the city of Memphis which lay at the point where the narrow valley of the Nile broadened into the Delta. This was the boundary, the Balance of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt); also called the Two Ladies. Half the usable soil of Egypt lay upriver (south), the rest lay down-river (north). [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

The Archaic Period (3414-3100 B.C.) is characterized by the consolidation of the Egyptian state. It was ensured by the development of a centralized administration system and a court-centered Great Tradition based upon the united Egypt. After this, even in times of political crisis, Egypt was dominated by the Egyptian elite. The royal court set the cultural standards for the entire country, making the king the fountainhead not only of power and preferment, but also as a member of the elite way of life. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

Marcelo P Campagno of the University of Buenos Aires wrote: “The Palermo Stone (Dynasty 5) indicates the existence of earlier kings, who wore the red crown traditionally linked to Lower Egypt. The Canon of Turin (Dynasty 19) indicates the rule of dynasties of divine spirits. In either case, two features would remain in the Egyptians’ “cultural memory” the fact that there were rulers before Dynasty 1; and the fact that they were different from later kings, since they belonged to a different era.” [Source: Marcelo P Campagno, University of Buenos Aires, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Scorpion King

Stories about a Scorpion king are found in ancient Egyptian literature. It was long thought that they were just myths but in recent years some evidence has appeared that has raised the possibility that the Scorpion King may have been a real person who played a critical role in establishing the ancient Egyptian civilization.

In 1995, John Coleman Darnell, a Yale Egyptologist, and his students discovered 18-x-20-inch tableau, dated to 3250 B.C., on a limestone cliff at a site called Gebel Tjauti, about 20 miles northwest of Luxor, that contains some line drawings of animals that are believed to be a record of the exploits of an Egyptian ruler. Because an image of a scorpion is present links to the Scorpion king were made. Some have even gone as far as calling the tableau “world’s oldest historical record” and claim the images are early hieroglyphics and are examples of the world’s oldest writing.

The tableau, probably incised with flint tools, has images of a scorpion, a falcon, large antelope, a bird, a serpent, a figure carrying a staff, a sedan chair, a bull’s head, a captor and captive. No one knows what the images mean. The link to the Scorpion King are based on the fact that the scorpion is near the falcon and falcons in ancient Egypt were associated with the god Horus and the pharaohs.

Televison show: “ The Real Scorpion King” , first shown on the History Channel.

King Narmer and the Narmer Pallette

King Narmer on the Narmer Pallette
The civilization of ancient Pharonic Egypt was created when Lower (northern) Egypt and Upper (southern) Egypt were united in 3200 B.C. by King Narmer, a ruler from Upper Egypt. He is thought to be have been based in Hierakonpolis (60 miles south of Luxor), where Narmer's palette and other artefacts associated with him have been unearthed.

Narmer's palette (now in the Egyptian Museum) is one of the most famous early Egyptian pieces. On one side Narmer wears the white crown of Upper Egypt and is shown clubbing a foe on the head to commemorate a victory while the falcon god Horus looks on and presents the king with captives from the land of the papyrus plant (Lower Egypt). On the other side of his name the cow goddess Bat provides her personal protection.

The other side of Narmer's palette shows Namer wearing the white crown of Lower Egypt, leading a victory parade to view decapitated prisoners. The king is accompanied by his sandal bearer and a man wearing an animal skin thought to be a vizier or his son. Before them, raised from tall poles are standards that represent aspects of the kingship. The identity of the prisoners is a matter of debate. Their hands are trussed and their genitals have placed on their severed head, an act though to represent humiliation and strike fear. Below the enemies are two lions with snake-like necks. These are thought to symbolize the unity created under the king’s power.

Narmer’s treatment of enemies endured for the next 3,500 years as a symbol of pharaonic power. Almost 2,000 years after Narmer, Ramses II is shown humiliating an enemy: holding the hair of submissive victim and looking as if he is about to scalp him like a North American Indian. [Source: “History of Warfare” by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Palette of Narmar

Palette of Narmar, which dates from around 3200 B.C., is a palette used for preparing cosmetics. It illustrates events from reign of Narmer, the first pharaoh of Egypt. The hawk is the symbol of the sky god Horus, who is holding a tether attached to six papyrus plants, the symbol of Lower Egypt. The central figure is wearing the crown of Upper Egypt. [Source: Then Again]

Palette of Narmar is a classic example of a ceremonial palette, which existed only in early Dynasty Egypt and were derived from stone palletes used to crush materials for paint. Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “In the Naqada III period, within the context of emerging kingship, palettes were appropriated as vehicles to convey the ideology and iconography of a small ruling elite. Skillfully carved in elaborate relief, these palettes are referred to as ceremonial palettes, and share stylistic similarities with other ceremonial objects such as knives and maces. Just over 25 of these ceremonial palettes are known, both whole and fragmentary, and while it is hard to assess how representative these objects are, the small numbers found in comparison to other classes of object do suggest that the ownership of such palettes was restricted. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

20120211-Narmer Palette 3100 B.C..jpg
Narmer Palette 3100 B.C.
“The quintessential ceremonial palette is undoubtedly the Narmer Palette, from the “Main Deposit” at Hierakonpolis. On the basis of its style, with the composition arranged using registers and with examples of some of the earliest hieroglyphs, it is considered to be chronologically one of the latest ceremonial palettes, in comparison to an earlier group, on which the images are scattered across the surface. Examples of this latter type include the Hierakonpolis Two-dog Palette, carved with primarily zoomorphic scenes; the Hunters’ or Lion Hunt Palette, depicting hunting scenes; and the Battlefield Palette, bearing defeated naked prisoners. Within the decorated surface, many ceremonial palettes retain a circular area bounded by a raised edge for the grinding of minerals, although indicative traces of such use are absent.

“The motifs on the ceremonial palettes have been the subject of extensive scholarly debate. Early twentieth century interpretations considered palettes such as the Narmer Palette and the Cities (or Libyan) Palette to be historical documents depicting actual events. Such literal interpretations are seldom fully accepted today; rather, more general observations on the overall representational schema on the palettes and the ideology conveyed in this medium occupy academic discourse. For instance, the dominant role of animals, in both their natural and fantastic conceptions, is one focus. These animal motifs have been variously interpreted as ideological referents to themes such as the hunt, chaos and order, containment and rule, as well as social otherness. Notable is the inclusion of what are regarded as Near Eastern motifs on the ceremonial palettes including the serpopards on the Narmer Palette, and the palm tree flanked by two giraffes found on the Louvre Palette and the Battlefield Palette.

“Often, however, such deliberations abstract the surface imagery of the palettes from the artifact itself. Recent discussions have appealed for a more holistic approach that situates ceremonial objects as historically contingent classes of artifact that draw efficacy from the role that their antecedents played in the social lives of communities throughout the Predynastic period. Unlike the common Predynastic palettes discussed above, the provenances of most of these ceremonial palettes are unknown. The final resting place of the Narmer and Two- dog palettes, while recognized as the Hierakonpolis “Main Deposit,” is clearly not the context of their original manufacture or use. Similarly, the most recently discovered palette, the Minshat Ezzat palette, despite being found in situ in an elite three- chambered First Dynasty (Naqada IIIC1) mastaba , is in a poor state of preservation indicative of a longevity of use prior to its interment. A recent attempt to assess a likely context of use is provided by O’Connor, who considers the possibility of a secluded temple context.”

Menes, Early Pharaohs and the Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2650 B.C.)

The Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2650 B.C.) of ancient Egypt was when society, law and religion were developed. It began with the reign of Menes and included Dynasties 1, 2 and 3, with 16 principal rulers. The form of government, architecture and hieroglyphic writing — that lasted through 30 dynasties and 2,500 years — developed in the late Proto Ancient Egypt period and Early Dynastic Period.

Abydos, known as Abdju in ancient times, is where the first pharaohs were buried between 2900 and 2700 B.C. It is also where hieroglyphic writing developed and the cult of the boat burials was born. Archaeologists have found a stelae of 1st dynasty queen dated to 2900 B.C. and court members of the of the first ruler of the 1st dynasty, Aha, and tags made of bones dated to 3200 B.C. with some of the oldest writing. [Source: John Galvin, National Geographic, April 2005]

Menes, the first pharaoh, was crowned in 3,100 B.C. He unified Upper and Lower Egypt and is credited with creating the first nation-state and centralized government . Before the establishment of a unified Egyptian state, Egypt was made up of confederations of agricultural villages of various sizes along the Nile.

Menes, who was originally from the City of Thinis which is an obscure place near the area of Abydos, united the Kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. According to the accounts which Herodotus recorded, Menes was accredited with founding "White Walls" as a residence city. This city later began to be called Memphis and stood on ground reclaimed by diverting the course of the Nile at the junction of Upper and Lower Egypt. He also undertook larger irrigation and drainage schemes in the vicinity. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

Little is known about Menes successors, except that they sat at the top of a highly stratified society, they built many temples, completed public works projects and they were viewed as descendants as of the Gods. King Aha “The Fighter” (2900 B.C.) unified warring kingdoms and built the capital of Memphis. He ruled for 62 years, His reign came to an end one story goes when he was trampled to death by a rampaging hippopotamus. Aha was succeeded by Djoer and Qaa.

According to legend the first Egyptian king was the god Osiris. Seven hundred years after the first dynasty, members of the Middle Kingdom returned to Abydos to look for Osiris’s grave and designated Djoer’s tomb as being it. A large Temple honoring Osiris was built and Abydos became a major pilgrimage center. A large festival was held there.

Memphis and Abydos

Memphis (18 miles southwest of Cairo) is oldest capital of ancient Egypt. Founded around 3000 B.C. by King Menes on land reclaimed from the Nile, it was selected as a site for the capital because it was located between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt at a place where the Nile Valley narrows to less than a mile across, and travel between the northern and southern Egypt could be controlled.

Osireion at Abydos
Memphis was the capital for much of ancient Egypt’s history. For a long time it was the administrative capital of the ancient Egyptian empire while Thebes was the religious center. The Pharaohs spent much of his time in Memphis and visited Thebes only during special religious ceremonies.

Abydos (75 miles south of Assyut) contains 5000-year-old graves of some of Egypt’s first pharaohs and was the home of Orisis, the god of the afterlife. According to ancient Egyptian mythology, the head of Orisis was buried here after he was killed by his brother Seth. In ancient times there were a number of buildings here connected with the Orisis cult and a large festival was held in which a image of Orisis was carried from an important temple honoring him to his tomb in the desert and incorporated ritual re-enactments of the myth of Orisis, Seth and Isis. The cult itself endured well into the Roman era.

Abydos, known as Abdju in ancient times, is where the first pharaohs were buried between 2900 and 2700 B.C. It is also where hieroglyphic writing developed and the cult of the boat burials was born. The only funerary enclosure that remains from the most ancient times is the massive 4,600-year-old Shunet al-Zebib, built by the 2nd-dynasty king Khasekhemwy. The three-story walls enclose neatly two acres. Other enclosures were likely destroyed by kings that came afterwards,

Burial Customs in the Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2650 B.C.)

The burial complexes of the first pharaohs in Abydos consisted of two structures: 1) ceremonial enclosures near the Nile flood plain and tombs about a mile away in the desert to the west — the realm of the dead. The enclosures were surrounded with brick walls and contained a large plaza. Inside was a small chapel. The tombs were in a necropolis. The one belonging to King Aha had three chambers and was stocked with oxen meat, water birds, cheese, dried figs, bread and many vessels of beer and wine for the afterlife journey. [Source: John Galvin, National Geographic, April 2005]

Some of the mud-bricked graves in Abydos contained 5000-year-old planked boats — the oldest of their kind ever found. The boats were intended not only to carry the dead but also their supplies and possession into the next world. Inside the enclosure of one 1st dynasty king fourteen wooden boats, some a long as 75 feet, were discovered. They were placed in the grave and covered with mud bricks and plaster. Boats remained an important symbol of the afterlife for dynasties that followed.

The enclosures and tombs were generally built when the pharaohs were alive after they destroyed the enclosures of their predecessors. People that participated in burial processions for early kings — based on inscribed images — included priests in white flowing robes, royal family members, vizeri, treasurers, administrators, and trade and tax officials. Outside the enclosure of one king, archaeologists found the remains of 10 sacrificed donkeys. They were all old and showed signs of hard work.

Human Sacrifices in the Early Dynastic Period (2950 to 2650 B.C.)

Chephren Cemetery seen
from the Second Pyramid
Around the funeral enclosures of kings were a number of subsidiary graves. Outside the enclosure of King Aha, for example, six people were buried with food and wine for the journey to the afterlife. One was a child of four or five buried with a bracelet made from ivory and lapis beads. Outside his tomb 35 more people are buried in graves next to several sacrificed lions. Some have suggested that these graves belonged to people who were sacrificed, perhaps poisoned. [Source: John Galvin, National Geographic, April 2005] Matthew Adams of the University of Pennsylvania told National Geographic: “The graves were dug and lined with bricks, then roofed with wood and capped with mud brick masonry. Above the masonry cap, a plaster floor extended from the enclosure and covered all the graves.” The conclusion that one draws from this is that all the people were buried at the same time. It seems unlikely that they all died of natural causes at the same time, or their bodies were stored and then buried. This suggests that there is a strong possibility that they were all sacrificed at the same time — at around the time of King Aha’s funeral.

Brenda Baker, a physical anthropologist at Arizona State, looked at all the skeletons that had been found around Aha’s tomb and enclosure. She told National Geographic she found no evidence of trauma. “The method of their demise is a mystery. My guess is they were drugged.” Another possibility is that were strangled. Some blood has been found in the enamel of the teeth (when someone is strangled blood cells burst inside the teeth).

Interest in human sacrifice appears to have been a passing fashion, There were 41 subsidiary graves at Aha’s tomb and enclosure, 569 around the tomb and enclosure of his successor Djoer but only 30 beside the tomb of Djoer’s successor, Qaa. By the 2nd dynasty around 2800 B.C. the practice stopped. A few years later the first pyramids were built.

First Dynasty 3100 – 2686 B.C.

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “The unification of Egypt began with the First Dynasty. It also marked the beginning of Egyptian history, for it was the time when hieroglyphic writing in Egypt became standardized. Little is known about the First or Second Dynasty due to the ravages of wars and of time. Many of the comments regarding the early Pre-dynastic Periods can be used for both the first dynasty and the second. Architecture of the First Dynasty evolved from simple structures of wood, reeds and mud, to larger, more complicated buildings of brick and later of stone. During the First Dynasty, the traditions of wood structures had a strong influence on the later buildings constructed of brick and stone. Mat and reed textures are imitated on many stone walls giving a distinctly Egyptian character to the architecture. In addition, Egyptian sculpture was quite distinct and elaborate. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

skeleton in the remains of a basketwork coffin, about 3000 BC

On the 1st Dynasty, Dr Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol wrote: “Egypt was unified around 3000 B.C., when the kings of the south of the country absorbed their northern neighbours into a single state, with a newly-founded capital in the north, at Memphis (about 20km-12 miles-south of modern Cairo). It was after this event, during the first two dynasties, that the ground-rules of Egyptian society were laid and the hieroglyphic script developed. The kings of the 1st Dynasty were buried in the heart of the old southern kingdom, at Abydos, in brick-lined tombs out in the desert, with an offering place flanked by stelae bearing their names. Perhaps the finest is the one shown here, of King Djet. This was found in 1898, and is now in the Louvre in Paris.” [Source: Dr Aidan Dodson, Egyptologist, University of Bristol, BBC, February 17, 2011] According to folk tales, Menes (also thought to be Narmer became the first mortal king after the gods united Upper and Lower Egypt. By the end of the first dynasty there appears to have been rival claimants for the throne. The rulers of the First Dynasty were Narmer, Aha, Djer, Djet, Den, Anedjib, Semerkhet and Qaa. [Source: Mark Millmore,]

King Aha was the first ruler of the first dynasty. His name was found on wine stoppers and part of a jar. Next to his grave an elite woman was buried in a wooden coffin along with five other courtiers. They may have been human sacrifices. John Galvin wrote in National Geographic, “King Aha, "The Fighter," was not killed while unifying the Nile's two warring kingdoms, nor while building the capital of Memphis. No, one legend has it that the first ruler of a united Egypt was killed in a hunting accident after a reign of 62 years, unceremoniously trampled to death by a rampaging hippopotamus. News of his demise brought a separate, special terror to his staff. For many, the honor of serving the king in life would lead to the more dubious distinction of serving the king in death. John Galvin, National Geographic, April 2005 +++]

During the early dynasties, every king planning to be buried at Abydos erected a ceremonial enclosure near the Nile’s flood plain and a tomb to the west — the realm of the dead — after ritually destroying the enclosure of his predecessor. A jackal god watched over the necropolis. Over time he merged with Osiris, god of the dead. People believed that Osiris was interred at Abydos, which became a pilgrimage site where kings built temples and cenotaphs.

Scientists have found the stelae of a 1st dynasty queen and tags made of bone, including some with some of the oldest writing known, dating to about 3200 B.C. Mud brick and plaster graves in a sort of boat graveyard yielded 5,000-year-old planked boats— the oldest ever found. It is believed these boats were meant to transport supplies to the next world, allowing the king to tour his realm in death as he did while he was alive. Fourteen vessels, some over 20 meters in length, were found.

Second Dynasty 2890 – 2686 B.C.

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “The Second Dynasty, maintained the war records of raids into Nubia. None of the raid efforts were large scale or resulted in permanent conquest, but they are indicative of a desire for the wealth of Nubia. Another large exploit of the Egyptians during the Second Dynasty is the shift of a power center from Abydos to Memphis. This shift, due largely in part to resources, could also possibly have been due to the cult of the Sun god Ra beginning during this period, and also due to a want for greater political control by the king. By the end of the 2nd Dynasty an end to political opposition of north and south established a basic economic, religious and political system, which lasted well into dynasties to come, and paved the way for the more affluent Third Dynasty. [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato,, Mark Millmore,]

“At the end of the 1st dynasty there appears to have been rival claimants for the throne. The successful claimant’s Horus name, Hetepsekhemwy, translates as “peaceful in respect of the two powers” this may be a reference to the opposing gods Horus and Seth, or an understanding reached between two rival factions. But the political rivalry was never fully resolved and in time the situation worsened into conflict.

The rulers of the Second Dynasty were Hetepsekhemwy, Raneb, Nynetjer, Peribsen, Khasekhem (Khasekhemwy). The fourth pharaoh, Peribsen, took the title of Seth instead of Horus and the last ruler of the dynasty, Khasekhemwy, took both titles. A Horus/Seth name meaning “arising in respect of the two powers,” and “the two lords are at peace in him.” Towards the end of this dynasty, however, there seems to have been more disorder and possibly civil war.

Second and Third Dynasties (2800-2600 B.C.): When Ancient Egypt As We Know It Takes Shape?

heads of foriegners at the base of a royal statue

Toby Wilkinson of Cambridge University wrote:“The 2nd-3rd dynasties span the end of the formative phase of ancient Egyptian civilization and the dawn of the Pyramid Age, and are crucial for our understanding of the early development of Pharaonic government, society, religion, and material culture in their classic forms. Yet the 2nd-3rd dynasties remain among the most obscure periods of ancient Egyptian history. This is largely the result of a dearth of contemporary texts, and—with the exception of royal funerary monuments—a paucity of archaeological evidence that can be securely dated to the period. By contrast, the preceding 1st Dynasty is relatively well attested, and is thus better known. There is a considerable degree of continuity in political, economic, and cultural matters between the 2nd and the 3rd dynasties, which makes it appropriate to consider the two dynasties together, despite the fact that some scholars place the 3rd Dynasty in the Old Kingdom, creating a somewhat artificial division with the preceding Early Dynastic Period (i.e., the 1st- 2nd or 1st-3rd dynasties). [Source: Toby Wilkinson, Cambridge University, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, ]

“The broad historical outline of the 2nd-3rd dynasties has been established with some certainty. The 2nd Dynasty (c. 2800 – 2670 B.C.) began with a line of three kings buried at Saqqara—Hetepsekhemwy, Raneb, and Ninetjer—who are attested predominantly from sites in the Memphite region. At the end of the dynasty, the focus of royal activity seems to have switched to Upper Egypt, to judge from the surviving funerary monuments of the last two kings, Sekhemib/Peribsen and Khasekhem(wy), both of whom were interred at Abydos. Between these two groups of rulers, internal political developments and the precise sequence of kings remain uncertain. Inscriptions from the Step Pyramid complex of Netjerykhet (better known to posterity as Djoser) name five ephemeral rulers—Ba, Sneferka, Weneg, Sened, and Nubnefer—who, on archaeological and epigraphic grounds, can plausibly be dated to the 2nd Dynasty. The fact that they are, to date, unattested outside Saqqara suggests that their authority may have been confined to the north of Egypt. By contrast, graffiti in the Western Desert record an otherwise unknown king who, it seems, controlled or had access to parts of southern Egypt. Taken together, these six poorly-attested royal names and an obscure reference in the royal annals may suggest political fragmentation and a period of civil unrest during the middle of the 2nd Dynasty; but such a hypothesis remains speculative in the absence of more substantive evidence. A recent re-examination of the surviving inscriptions of Weneg suggests the possibility that he and Raneb may have been one and the same ruler; while not yet fully proven, this tantalizing suggestion merely underlines the extent to which our knowledge of 2nd-Dynasty history is incomplete and lacking in sound foundations. Ongoing excavations in the early royal cemeteries at Saqqara and Abydos may help to clarify our understanding.

“The 3rd Dynasty (c. 2670 – 2600 B.C.) is scarcely better known. It is dominated by the monuments of Netjerykhet—notably his Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara. The king himself is now firmly established by archaeological evidence as the first ruler of the 3rd Dynasty, despite the (erroneous) testimony of some ancient king-lists. It is interesting that Netjerykhet is nowhere directly named as his predecessor’s son; rather, contemporary inscriptions emphasize the role of a woman, Nimaathap— referred to as “mother of the king’s children” in the reign of Khasekhemwy, and as “king’s mother” in the reign of Netjerykhet—in the royal succession. Together with the prominence given to Netjerykhet’s wife and daughters on his monuments, and the fine, contemporary statue of a royal princess (Metropolitan Museum of Art 1999: Catalogue nos. 4, 7b, 16), the influence of Nimaathap may point to an important political and religious role for women in the 2nd-3rd dynasties.

“By contrast with the spectacular and lasting achievements of Netjerykhet, his three successors—Sekhemkhet, Khaba, and Sanakht—are shadowy figures, sparsely attested in contemporary inscriptions and signally lacking in major monuments. They seem likely, therefore, to have enjoyed only brief reigns, none more than ten years. Sekhemkhet’s own step pyramid enclosure, adjacent to his predecessor’s, never rose much above ground level. The equally unfinished “Layer Pyramid” at Zawiyet el-Aryan is attributed to Khaba on the basis of scanty, circumstantial evidence, while Sanakht appears not even to have embarked on a pyramid or similar monument—unless the unexcavated “Ptahhotep enclosure” to the west of the Step Pyramid dates to his reign. Partly through this lack of major dated monuments, the precise position and sequence of Khaba and Sanakht within the 3rd Dynasty also remain uncertain. Only Netjerykhet’s fourth successor and the last king of the dynasty, Huni, is firmly placed within the order of succession and reigned long enough to undertake a significant building program. Yet even he seems to have eschewed colossal architecture on the scale of the Step Pyramid, settling instead for a series of small monuments throughout Egypt to mark his power and serve as foci for the royal cult.”

Early Dynastic Period Stone Tools

Thomas Hikade of the University of British Columbia wrote: The trend towards stone tool “standardization continued in the Early Dynastic Period (3030-2650 B.C.). At Helwan, finds were discovered from a flint workshop that obviously specialized in the production of large bifacial knives, sometimes of enormous dimensions. One such knife, probably used by King Djoser or a high priest during the burial of King Khasekhemwy at Abydos, was 72 centimeters long. Large bifacial knives were manufactured in special workshops either in settlements, e.g., at Buto, or next to cemeteries, as evidenced at Helwan. [Source: Thomas Hikade, University of British Columbia, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

flint knife

“The use of flint knives is depicted in many slaughtering scenes in the Old Kingdom (2649–2150 B.C.) tombs of Giza and Saqqara. The mastaba of Ptahhotep serves as a good example, showing butchers cutting off the legs of cattle with large knives. In the lower register of this wall scene, at the left and in the middle of the upper register, a man is shown resharpening (Egyptian pdt) a used knife with a retouching stick.

“One of the most common tool types of the Early Dynastic Period down to the end of the 4th Dynasty is the once so-called “razor blade”, which is, in fact, a bi- truncated tool on a very regular, large blade. The early forms of the 1st Dynasty were oval in shape, becoming rectangular from the 2nd Dynasty onwards. The tool was used throughout the country and was supplied by specialized workshops. On the island of Elephantine, it is so common that it makes up one third of all tools dating to the Early Dynastic Period and the early Old Kingdom, and it was possibly as multi-functional as a Swiss Army Knife.”

Royal Tombs and Pyramids from the Second and Third Dynasties (2800-2600 B.C.)

Toby Wilkinson of Cambridge University wrote:“The surviving examples of royal mortuary architecture, at Saqqara and Abydos, thus dominate our view of the 2nd-3rd dynasties. While it may be misleading to place too much emphasis on this well-documented aspect of Early Dynastic culture (as against internal political, economic, and cultural change, for which there is precious little evidence), there is no doubt that royal funerary ideology and its architectural manifestation were particular concerns of the state, and were areas of innovation during the two centuries between the accession of Hetepsekhemwy and the death of Huni. [Source: Toby Wilkinson, Cambridge University, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, ]

20120211-mastaba Balat_mastaba_tomb_1.jpg
mastaba tomb
“Hetepsekhemwy, having presided at the burial of his predecessor, Qaa, and overseen the sealing of the latter’s tomb at Abydos, took the radical decision to re-locate the royal cemetery to the Memphite necropolis, specifically to North Saqqara. The site had been a focus for elite burial since the early 1st Dynasty, but had never before been used for kings’ tombs. The reasons for Hetepesekhemwy’s innovative policy can never be known, but they may have included family ties, political concerns, and theological developments. Certainly the form of the royal tomb in the early 2nd Dynasty suggests an evolution in the concept of the royal afterlife, with an explicit northward orientation of the tomb’s main axis signifying a new emphasis on the celestial realm—and, in particular, the circumpolar stars—as the king’s post-mortem destination. The name of Hetepsekhemwy’s funerary domain, 1r-xa-sbA, “Horus rises as a star,” points in the same direction. The geology of North Saqqara also influenced the design of the royal tomb, which now became rock-cut rather than brick- built. In other respects, however, such as the provision of a suite of rooms for the dead king’s ka, the tomb of Hetepsekhemwy maintained traditions established in the late Predynastic Period at Abydos.

“A tomb similar in design and proportions to Hetepsekhemwy’s and located immediately adjacent has been attributed to his second successor, Ninetjer, leaving the intervening king, Raneb, without a securely identified tomb. That he was buried at Saqqara can, however, be deduced from the discovery nearby of a finely carved funerary stela of red granite bearing Raneb’s serekh. It is clear from ongoing excavations at Saqqara that the early 2nd-Dynasty necropolis extends beyond the tombs of Hetepsekhemwy and Ninetjer, to the west, north, and south, so the tombs of additional kings almost certainly lie underneath the New Kingdom cemetery or among the subterranean galleries beneath the western massif of the Step Pyramid complex.

“When the royal necropolis was moved back to Abydos in the reign of Sekhemib/Peribsen (again, for unknown political and/or religious reasons), the design of the king’s tomb likewise reverted to a 1st-Dynasty model. But this may have been driven as much by geology and the absence of locally available high-quality building stone as by theological influences. Khasekhemwy seems to have aiming at a compromise design in his tomb at Abydos, which was built largely of mud brick (in 1st- Dynasty fashion), but with a longitudinal layout incorporating galleries of storage chambers (like the early 2nd-Dynasty royal tombs at Saqqara). His program to re-unite Lower and Upper Egypt and their distinct cultural traditions, announced also in the dual form of his name (Khasekhemwy, “the two powers have appeared”), was further emphasized in his construction of vast funerary enclosures at Hierakonpolis, Abydos, and Saqqara—the three most prominent ancient centers of royal mortuary and ceremonial architecture. The “Fort” at Hierakonpolis and the Shunet el- Zebib at Abydos stand to this day as the world’s oldest mud brick buildings. Khasekhemwy’s stonebuilt enclosure at Saqqara—assuming, as seems almost certain, that the Gisr el-Mudir is to be dated to his reign—is now much denuded, but its scale far surpasses that of its southern counterparts.

“Indeed, a richer understanding of the Gisr el-Mudir, including its architecture and construction, provides the context for the design and execution of the Step Pyramid complex in the following reign: Netjerykhet’s monument did not require as great a leap of imagination, organization, or technology as was previously thought. Nevertheless, by combining the royal funerary enclosure and the king’s tomb in a single monument, adding spaces for the eternal celebration of royal rituals, and orienting the whole complex towards the circumpolar stars, the Step Pyramid complex effectively brought together all the different strands of Early Dynastic royal funerary ideology and can be regarded as the summation of theological and architectural developments during the first two dynasties.. In its unprecedented use of stone, its innovative design (employing a visible pyramid to cover the burial chamber), its colossal scale, and the administrative effort required to build it, Netjerykhet’s monument marked the beginning of a new age and laid the foundations for the cultural achievements of the Old Kingdom.”

Religion in the Second and Third Dynasties

Toby Wilkinson of Cambridge University wrote: “The scale and growing sophistication of royal funerary monuments during the 2nd-3rd dynasties contrast sharply with the near- invisibility of temples or shrines to deities. Only a handful of sacred buildings are attested outside the royal necropoleis, but even here—at Hierakonpolis, Elkab, Gebelein, and Heliopolis—the surviving fragments of relief decoration emphasize the king and his role as founder of temples and companion of the gods. At Buto in the northwestern Delta, a large, official building of the 2nd Dynasty has been identified as a royal cult complex rather than a temple; a limestone pedestal in one of the innermost chambers may have supported a cult statue of the king, now lost. Hence, at sites rather than of local deities seems to have been the dominant feature of state religion in the 2nd-3rd dynasties. Likewise, contemporary seal-impressions and inscriptions on stone vases, when they mention deities at all, tend to emphasize gods and goddesses intimately connected with kingship—for example, Ash, the god of royal estates, or Hedjet, the divine embodiment of the white crown. [Source: Toby Wilkinson, Cambridge University, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, ]

“Taken together, the evidence—albeit slim and fragmentary—suggests that Pharaonic religion in its classic form was not yet established during the Early Dynastic Period. Rather, it seems to have been a development of later eras, a theological elaboration of a system designed, from the outset, to magnify the monarch and serve his interests. Beyond the royal court, private religious observance was an aspect of daily life from earliest times, but it seems to have had little connection with the realm of official, royal theology. Hence, archaeological excavations on Elephantine have revealed an early shrine underlying the later temple of Satet, but the extensive corpus of votive material does not point to any particular deity having been worshipped at the site; rather, the shrine may have been a general “sacred space,” used from Predynastic times as a focus of community worship.

part of a 2nd Dynasty stele

“The disconnect between state and private spheres of religious activity reflects a broader division in Egyptian society—present at all periods of Pharaonic civilization, but especially marked in the early dynasties—between the small ruling elite (pat) and the mass of the population (rekhyt). The sharp distinction between the pat and the rekhyt was one of the defining features of a society run by and for a restricted circle of royal kinsmen and acolytes. The structure of the Early Dynastic administration can be reconstructed from officials’ titles and the names of institutions preserved on seal-impressions, and it is the treasury—tasked with funding the state and its projects—that emerges as the most important department of government, closely followed by the royal household itself. Yet there are signs in the 2nd-3rd dynasties that the administration, including the highest offices of state, was beginning to be opened up to commoners. In the reign of Netjerykhet, several officials of apparent non-royal origin were appointed to prestigious posts. These included the controller of the royal barque, Ankhwa; the master of royal scribes and chief dentist, Hesira; the controller of the royal workshops, Khabausokar; and, most famous of all, the overseer of sculptors and painters, and presumed architect of the Step Pyramid complex, Imhotep. It seems that, for the first time, the early 3rd-Dynasty state, with its focus on large-scale royal building projects, relied on a close-knit cadre of trusted professionals to carry out the principal tasks of government.”

Government in the Second and Third Dynasties

Toby Wilkinson of Cambridge University wrote: “The introduction of job specialization within government circles can be seen in the same context: the 1st-Dynasty pattern of bureaucracy, with its diffuse portfolios of responsibilities, was simply not up to the task of managing an increasingly complex governmental machine. It is no coincidence that the post of “vizier”— a single individual, directly responsible to the king for the workings of the entire national administration—is first attested in inscriptions from the Step Pyramid complex. While the tripartite title of the vizier, tAjtj zAb TAtj, echoes an earlier model of officialdom that combined courtly, civil, and religious duties, the creation of the post itself reflects the new challenges faced by the Egyptian government at the dawn of the pyramid age. The emergence in the 3rd Dynasty of a fully diversified and professionalized national administration with a hierarchical structure is demonstrated in the autobiographical inscription of Metjen, who took full advantage of the opportunities afforded to ambitious and talented men . His career progression exemplifies the changes wrought in Egyptian society as a whole during the 2nd-3rd dynasties. [Source: Toby Wilkinson, Cambridge University, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2014, ]

“Alongside changes to the composition and structure of the administration, measures to improve the country’s economic productivity can also be linked to the state’s focus on royal building projects with their vast resource requirements. From tentative beginnings in the 1st Dynasty, provincial government via the nome system was fully realized during the 2nd- 3rd dynasties, and district administrators such as Sepa and Ankh enjoyed commensurately high status at court. By the beginning of the 4th Dynasty, state interference in local affairs extended to the forced resettlement of entire communities as royal estates were established and reorganized . To give the state better information for the purposes of taxation and economic control, a regular census of Egypt’s agricultural and mineral wealth was introduced in the early 2nd Dynasty, to judge from the royal annals preserved on the Palermo Stone. Decisive steps were also taken, at home and abroad, to increase government revenue. Mining expeditions to exploit Egypt’s mineral resources became a regular occurrence, yielding copper from Wadi Dara, el-Urf/Mongul South, and Gebel Zeit in the eastern desert, and turquoise from Wadi Maghara in Sinai . At the latter site, three 3rd-Dynasty kings— Netjerykhet, Sekhemkhet, and Sanakht—left commemorative inscriptions, emphasizing the royal/state character of the expeditions.

“Beyond Egypt’s borders, an intensification of long-distance trade swelled the state’s coffers still further. At the end of the 2nd Dynasty, the Egyptian government seems to have formally chosen Byblos, on the Lebanese coast, as the center of its trading activity—attracted, no doubt, by the port’s long history as an entrepôt for high-value commodities, and by the abundant supplies of good-quality timber in the vicinity. Access to these forests of coniferous wood permitted an upsurge in ship-building, which, in turn, facilitated a sharp increase in the volume of trade between Egypt and the Near East. The results of this commerce— notably the import of tin from Anatolia—can be seen in the tomb equipment of Khasekhemwy, which included the earliest bronze vessels yet discovered in Egypt.

“If Egypt’s engagement with the Near East in subsequent eras can be used as a guide to earlier periods, it is probable that the rise in economic interaction between Egypt and the Levant in the 2nd-3rd dynasties was accompanied by an increase in the number of foreigners settling in the Nile Valley. Because of the demands of Egyptian artistic and cultural decorum, such immigrants are difficult to identify in the textual or archaeological records, but a few examples from the early 4th Dynasty may indicate a more widespread phenomenon. From the beginning of the 2nd Dynasty, as far as we can judge, there also seems to have been a diminution in the official xenophobia directed against Setjet (the Near East), and the two trends may be connected. A final manifestation of Egypt’s increased economic activity, and its relentless search for mineral resources and trading opportunities, may have been a greater interest in its southern neighbor, Nubia. Evidence from the earliest levels at Buhen, near the second Nile cataract, suggests a permanent Egyptian presence as early as the 2nd Dynasty.


“The availability of a richer array of raw materials combined with the rise of royal workshops led to advances in craftsmanship and technology, as attested by surviving artifacts from the 2nd-3rd dynasties. Sculptors achieved greater levels of refinement and sophistication, as shown in the terracotta lion and the large-scale statues of Khasekhem from Hierakonpolis, the statues of princess Redjief and other 3rd-Dynasty worthies, and the beautiful carved wooden panels of Hesira (Metropolitan Museum of Art 1999: Catalogue nos. 11-17). A greater confidence in the handling and dressing of stone was both a prerequisite for, and the result of, the realization of the Step Pyramid complex. Advances in metallurgy, with the advent of bronze technology, have already been noted. Beyond these few inscribed or royal objects, however, our knowledge of material culture in the 2nd-3rd dynasties is severely limited by the paucity of securely dated material from controlled excavations. There is, thus, immense potential for the study of unpublished data, the re-excavation of known sites, and new fieldwork to add to our understanding of this crucial, formative period.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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