REVIEW: Before The Pharaohs: Exploring the Archaeology of Stone Age Egypt (2021)

A book by Julian Maxwell Heath

As a child, I had a deep fascination with the remarkable culture of Ancient Egypt. I still enjoy reading about Kemetic deities, and spend countless hours watching documentaries about it. I’m no expert in any way, but I have a fair grasp about the pop-culture friendly version of everything, but have always wondered – who came before the Kemet people? Books occasionally show proto-hieroglyphics, or talk about how Gods like Nut being one of the oldest gods that the previous civilization possibly worshipped – but who? That’s what this book discusses in great detail.

“The remarkable archaeology of pharaonic Egypt continues to captivate countless people worldwide but evidence for Egypt’s prehistoric or Stone Age past has been relatively neglected. This is perhaps understandable, as the archaeology of Stone Age Egypt often seems crude in comparison, and the number of works published on the subject is diminutive compared to those dealing with the revered ancient civilization that emerged in the Nile Valley some five thousand years ago. However, although less spectacular, the numerous remnants of prehistoric life found throughout Egypt represent an important chapter in the story of humanity’s distant past. They also cast compelling light on the shadowy Stone Age peoples who lived in the Nile Valley and surrounding deserts, long before the mighty monuments of the pharaohs ever existed.

This book examines the fascinating archaeology of stone Age Egypt, from its very beginnings, when early members of the human species arrived in Egypt from sub-Saharan Africa, to its end, when the impressive Naqada Culture emerged, setting in motion the processes that led to the formation of one of the world’s greatest ancient civilizations.”

Publisher’s description

Most of what we know about these people is conjecture, due to them being stone-age peoples with no written documents, no surviving language, and scant artifacts outside of tools in most cases, the author uses information that may be more filled-in from areas surrounding the Nile Valley that they do know more about to fill a handful of gaps in. That said, a full cultural analysis is literally impossible in terms of ritual or practice for the reasons cited above, but we do see things in how these people use tools, their evidence of agriculture, animal domestication, hunting trends, or even their use of cave art, that shed some light on them. I’m not sure I came out of this with a firm grasp of this culture due to the vaporous nature of the artifacts, but I can see it’s not so different than sites in places like Europe.

There isn’t really one big monolithic mega-culture during this time – Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt both had slightly different artifacts, and as we can surmise, entirely different civilizations. These two can even be split into other groupings depending on time frame and location. For example, groups like The Merimde culture lived in small huts and didn’t produce too many artifacts (the face on the cover is theirs), whereas the Naqada culture churned out all manner of artifact, some of which look shockingly similar to Mesopotamian artifacts. I personally liked looking at pictures of all the stuff from the latter.

Fragment of a ceremonial palette illustrating a man and a type of staff. Circa 3200–3100 BCE, Predynastic, Late Naqada III

I will say, this book is very dry – this isn’t a pop-archaeology book in any way, and is a scholarly monograph on the topic at hand. It’s the sort of thing you would see in a Journal, but thankfully less verbose than those tend to be. To that notion, I will say that I cannot recommend this to everyone. For people like me, that have an interest in this, definitely check it out, but be prepared to lose track of thigs like dates and locations due to how dense the material is. Overall I liked this book, and am glad I read it.

If you would like a copy of this for yourself, please check HERE


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