The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian civilization, such as art, architecture and religion, took shape during the Early Dynastic Period.
Predynastic and Early Dynastic Art
By the end of this module you should be able to:
- Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key Predynastic and Early Dynastic works
- Define critical terms related to Predynastic and Early Dynastic works
- Explain the common aesthetic practices in the Early Dynastic Period of Egyptian art, including the use of symbolism and colour
- Describe the building materials and characteristics of Egyptian architecture during the Early Dynastic Period
- Describe the characteristics of painting and sculpture during the Early Dynastic Period
The Early Dynastic Period of Egypt immediately followed the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt around 3100 BCE. It is generally taken to include the First and Second Dynasties, lasting from the Protodynastic Period of Egypt until about 2686 BCE, or the beginning of the Old Kingdom.
During the First Dynasty, the capital moved from Abydos to Memphis, with a unified Egypt ruled by an Egyptian god-king. Abydos remained the major holy land in the south. Before the unification of Egypt, the land was settled with autonomous villages. With the early dynasties, and for much of Egypt’s history thereafter, the country came to be known as the Two Lands, and the rulers established a national administration and appointed royal governors. The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian civilization, such as art, architecture and many aspects of their polytheistic religion, took shape during the Early Dynastic Period.
Many of the common aesthetic practices of Egyptian art and architecture were formalized during this era, as Egyptian society grew and advanced rapidly toward becoming a highly complex civilization. Much of Egyptian art revolved around the theme of permanence, from large architectural structures to writing and imagery of the afterlife. Artists endeavoured to preserve everything from the present as clearly and permanently as possible.
It was also during this period that the Egyptian writing system was further developed: Initially composed of a few symbols, by the end of the third dynasty, it had been expanded to include more than 200 symbols, both phonograms and ideograms.
While funeral practices for peasants remained much the same as in predynastic times, wealthier members of Egyptian society began seeking something more. The first were constructed in the form of a flat-roofed, rectangular structure with outward sloping sides that marked the burial site of many eminent Egyptians. These structures became models for the Step Pyramids that would be developed later in the Old Kingdom.
Symbolism is omnipresent in Egyptian art and played an important role in establishing a sense of order. Symbols ranged from the pharaoh’s regalia (signifying his power to maintain order), to the individual symbols of Egyptian gods and goddesses, to animals depicted as highly symbolic figures. The crocodile god Sobek, depicted in the sunken relief below (and possibly in the imagery of the plate above), served a variety of purposes including fertility, military prowess, and protection. On the other hand, the god Seth (also known as Set), sometimes represented by a hippopotamus, symbolized chaos and disorder.
Colours were more expressive rather than natural. For instance, red skin painted on characters implied vigorous, tanned youths; yellow skin was used for women or middle-aged men who worked indoors; blue or gold indicated divinity because of its unnatural appearance and association with precious materials; the use of black for royal figures expressed the fertility of the Nile from which Egypt was born. Stereotypes were employed to indicate the geographical origins of foreigners.
Art forms were characterized by regularity and detailed depiction of gods, human beings, heroic battles, and nature, and were intended to provide solace to the deceased in the afterlife. Media ranged from papyrus drawings to pictographs () and included funerary sculpture carved in relief and in the round from sandstone, quartz diorite, and granite. The art displays an extraordinarily vivid representation of the Ancient Egyptian’s socioeconomic status and belief systems.
Architecture of the Early Dynastic Period
The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian architecture took shape during the . Due to the scarcity of wood, the two predominant building materials used in ancient Egypt were sun-baked mud brick and limestone. After the end of the Early Dynastic Period, stone became used in tombs and temples, while bricks were used even for royal palaces, fortresses, and the walls of temple precincts.
Ancient Egyptian houses were made of mud collected from the Nile River. The mud was placed in moulds and left to dry in the hot sun to harden. Many Egyptian towns situated near the cultivated area of the Nile Valley have disappeared, either by flooding as the river bed slowly rose during the millennia, or the mud bricks of which they were built were used by peasants as fertilizer. Fortunately, the dry, hot climate of Egypt preserved some mud-brick structures.
Large tombs of pharaohs at Abydos and Naqada, in addition to cemeteries at Saqqara and Helwan near Memphis, reveal structures built largely of wood and mud bricks, with some small use of stone for walls and floors. Stone was used in quantity for the manufacture of ornaments, vessels, and occasionally for statues. Tamarix was used to build boats such as the Abydos Boats. One of the most important indigenous woodworking techniques was the fixed mortise and tenon joint, where the fixed tenon was made by shaping the end of one timber to ﬁt into a mortise (or hole) that is cut into a second timber. A variation of this joint using a free tenon eventually became one of the most important features in Mediterranean and Egyptian shipbuilding. It creates a union between two planks or other components by inserting a separate tenon into a cavity (mortise) of the corresponding size cut into each component.
Tombs and Funerary Practices
Human sacrifice was practiced as part of the funerary rituals associated with all of the pharaohs of the first dynasty. It is clearly demonstrated as existing during this dynasty by retainers being buried near each pharaoh’s tomb as well as animals sacrificed for the burial. The tomb of Djer is associated with the burials of 338 individuals. The people and animals sacrificed, such as donkeys, were expected to assist the pharaoh in the afterlife. For unknown reasons, this practice ended with the conclusion of the dynasty, with shabtis taking the place of actual people to aid the pharaohs with the work expected of them in the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptian temples were aligned with astronomically significant events like solstices and equinoxes, requiring precise measurements at the moment of the particular event. Measurements at the most significant temples may have been ceremonially undertaken by the pharaoh himself.
Painting of the Early Dynastic Period
The Early Dynastic Period of Ancient Egypt reached a high level in painting and sculpture that was both highly stylized and symbolic. Ancient Egyptian art reached a high level in painting and sculpture and was both highly stylized and symbolic. Much of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments, and thus there is an emphasis on life after death and the preservation of knowledge of the past.
All Egyptian were painted, and less prestigious works in tombs, temples, and palaces were just painted on a flat surface. Stone surfaces were prepared by whitewash, or, if rough, a layer of coarse mud plaster, with a smoother gesso layer above; some finer limestones could take paint directly. Pigments were mostly mineral, chosen to withstand strong sunlight without fading. The binding medium used in painting remains unclear; egg tempera and various gums and resins have been suggested. It is clear that true fresco, painted into a thin layer of wet plaster, was not used. Instead, the paint was applied to dried plaster, in what is called fresco a secco in Italian. After painting, a varnish or resin was usually applied as a protective coating, and many paintings with some exposure to the elements have survived remarkably well, although those on fully exposed walls rarely have. Small objects including wooden statuettes were often painted using similar techniques.
Many ancient Egyptian paintings have survived due to Egypt’s extremely dry climate. The paintings were often made with the intent of making a pleasant afterlife for the deceased. The themes included journeys through the afterworld or protective deities introducing the deceased to the gods of the underworld (such as Osiris). Some tomb paintings show activities that the deceased were involved in when they were alive and wished to carry on doing for eternity. Egyptian paintings are painted in such a way to show a profile view and a side view of the animal or person—a technique known as composite view. Their main colours were red, blue, black, gold, and green.
Sculpture of the Early Dynastic Period
The monumental sculpture of Ancient Egypt is world-famous, but refined and delicate small works exist in much greater numbers. The Egyptians used the distinctive technique of sunk relief, which is well suited to very bright sunlight. The main figures in reliefs adhere to the same figure convention as in painting, with parted legs (where not seated) and head shown from the side, but the torso from the front, and a standard set of proportions making up the figure, using 18 “fists” to go from the ground to the hairline on the forehead. This appears as early as the Narmer Palette from Dynasty I, but elsewhere the convention is not used for minor figures shown engaged in some activity, such as the captives and corpses. Other conventions make statues of males darker than females. The small-scale sculptures of the Early Dynastic Period in ancient Egypt provide insight into the foundations of Egyptian customs and the unification of the country.
- The Early Dynastic Period of Egypt immediately followed the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt around 3100 BCE and is generally taken to include the First and Second Dynasties.
- Ancient Egyptian art forms depicted gods, human beings, heroic battles, and nature, and were intended to provide solace in the afterlife; many of the common aesthetic practices were formalized during the Early Dynastic Period.
- The first mastabas were constructed as burial sites for eminent Egyptians and became models for the Step Pyramids that would be developed later in the Old Kingdom.
- Due to the scarcity of wood, the two predominant building materials used in ancient Egypt were sun-baked mud brick and limestone
- Ancient Egyptian houses were made of mud collected from the Nile River. The mud was placed in moulds and left to dry in the hot sun to harden.
- Ancient Egyptian temples were aligned with astronomically significant events like solstices and equinoxes, requiring precise measurements at the moment of the particular event.
- Much of the surviving art of the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt comes from tombs and monuments, and thus there is an emphasis on life after death and the preservation of knowledge of the past.
- Egyptian paintings are painted in such a way to show a profile view and a side view of the animal or person, a technique known as composite view.
- Many conventions of ancient Egyptian sculpture developed during the Early Dynastic Period.
- The sculpture of Early Dynastic Egypt consisted of small objects carved in the round, in sunken relief, and in low relief.
- The rich detail of the Palette of Narmer provides an artistic interpretation of the unification of Egypt.
Adapted from “Boundless Art History” https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/the-early-dynastic-period/ License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
A rectangular structure with a flat top and slightly sloping sides, built during Ancient Egyptian times above tombs that were situated on flat land.
A form of written language which conveys meaning through its pictorial resemblance to a physical object.
The period in Egyptian history immediately following the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt, c. 3100 BC; generally taken to include the First and Second Dynasties.
A sculpture that projects from a background. The opposite of a carving.
A visual method of marking the significance of a figure through its relative size or position within the scene. Important figures are depicted either at the top of the scene or as larger than the rest of the figures.