A beginner’s guide to dating the Predynastic – Part 1.

Published on Egyptological, Magazine, 1st April 2011.  By Andrea Byrnes.


Simplified version of Petrie's Sequence Dates at the British Museum.

Simplified version of Petrie’s Sequence Dates at the British Museum.

Predynastic chronology may not be the stuff of glossy magazines and coffee-table books and for those trying to get to grips with it, it can prove to be a challenge.  Many people trying to understand how the Predynastic fits together have commented on the apparently conflicting dates for the earlier Predynastic period in various different books. This confusion lies partly in the fact that some writers make assumptions about the level of knowledge that readers have, but mostly it is because several different schemes have evolved and they are complicated.

This is a top-level introduction into how the dating schemes have evolved and where confusions can arise, for anyone struggling with the different schemes of dating the Predynastic.

I am going to tackle this in two parts, because it is by far too long a topic to deal with on one article, and there are a number of levels of confusion.  In Part 1 I am looking at relative dating schemes.


Dating Systems

There are two ways of trying to put sites into chronological sequences – relative dating and absolute (also known as chronometric and scientific) dating. In this post I am going to look at relative dating and how it evolved because it was the way in which the Predynastic in Egypt was first organized into manageable chronological chunks. These were originally proposed by Petrie and still form the backbone of the chronology used for the Predynastic today, and the terminology that is common use, so it is important to understand some of the ideas behind them.

First, it is worth pointing out that the terms prehistoric and Predynastic are used to describe two different periods of pre-Dynastic Egyptian life.  The prehistoric period stretches back several hundred thousand years, and incorporates the earliest human groups who engaged in hunting and gathering and the beginnings of herding and agriculture.  The Predynastic begins, depending on the preference of a given scholar, at around 4400BC with the beginning of the Badarian, the first Nile-side agricultural community.  The prehistoric period is dated mainly by radiocarbon dates, whereas the Predynastic has a long history, before the invention of radiocarbon dating, of relative schemes.  These relative schemes still form the foundations of any discussion about the Predynastic.


Relative Dating

Relative dating uses concepts of style, technique, form, fabric decoration and other diagnostic features to put buildings, artefacts and other indicators into a relative sequence. The essence of relative dating is that the nearer something is to the surface, the more recent it is and anything beneath it must be older. An excavation digs from the top down, from the modern to the ancient. By analysing the contents at different layers it is possible to use certain diagnostic features to suggest that, for example, a vase with a particular sort of decoration is always at a lower level than a vase with a different sort of decorative approach, and that this means that the one sort will always be older than the other. When results like this are validated by repeated excavation, the vases can be used to gauge the chronological relationships of layers at other sites, enabling entire sequences of relative dates to be constructed. The items associated with the vases and the types of site at which they are found can then be analyzed. Pottery in one type of burial will predate pottery in a different type of burial, so it should be possible to chart the development of burial types by using the pottery as chronological markers.  There are, of course, no calendar-type dates at this stage, just sequences of earlier and later object types and the sites associated with them.

Petrie did something very like this using pottery from graves to develop a chronology for Upper Egyptian cemeteries. He called his system Sequence Dating and he based his sequence dates (S.D.s) on “classes” of pottery. The pottery, decorated and undecorated, was described according to certain diagnostic variables which he believed he could track over time at the cemeteries that he was excavating. He could then group them together in a relative sequence. He produced 50 S.D. dates, starting at S.D.30 in case any older cultures came to light. He showed great insight because the Badarian was later discovered and he used the reserved S.D.s to put the Badarian into the relative sequence (SD 21-29). He further grouped these under five main headings, named after sites he and others had excavated:

  • Badarian – SD 21-29
  • Amratian – SD 30-34 (earlier) and SD 34-37 (later)
  • Gerzean – SD 38-44
  • Semainean – SD 45-60
  • Late – SD 61-78
  • First Dynasty – SD 78-82

Petrie first outlined this system in 1920, based on excavation of 900 graves at the site of Naqada, but revised it himself a few years later. Since then it has been revised further by different writers – initially by Helene J. Kantor in 1944, who effectively removed the Semainean, and then by Werner Kaiser in the 1950s, the 1960s and then again in 1990.

In 1957 Kaiser, on the basis of his studies at Armant, recognized the validity of Petrie’s basic model, but saw far more continuity than Petrie had recognized between Amratian, Gerzean and later phases. On the basis of this he divided his three phases into eleven sub-phases.  Kaiser’s system is still based on the proportion of which types of Petrie’s classes of pottery are represented in graves, and refines Petrie’s scheme rather than replacing it.

The main weakness of Kaiser’s 1957 model based on the site of Armant, is that Naqada III, the critical period for discussions about unification, is very poorly represented at Armant, because it and other cemeteries were largely abandoned at the end of Naqada II, and it was not at all clearly defined.  A second problem was that the Armant sequence, representative on one area, was extrapolated to represent the reset of Egypt.  Although it was based on one site his sequence has been used as the basis for dating sites from all over Egypt, which has not helped to recognize regionally distinct chronological sequences.

In 1990 Kaiser again revised his chronology, adding a further three subdivisions and extending Naqada III to the end of the First Dynasty. In the new version, Naqada IIIb is further subdivided into IIIb1 and IIIb2, and Naqada IIIc is now divided into IIIc1, IIIc2, IIIc3.  This is the scheme that is probably most commonly used in academic writing.

So Kaiser’s scheme looks like this:

  • Badarian
  • Naqada Ia, Ib, Ic (Petrie’s Amratian)
  • Naqada IIa, IIb, IIc, IId1, IId2 (Petrie’s Gerzean)
  • Naqada IIIa1, IIIa2, IIIb

As you can see, the terminology is very different from Petrie’s sequence at first glance but it is actually based on Petrie’s system. The real departures from Petrie’s scheme take place at the end of Naqada II through and the whole of Naqada III. As I said above, the names were changed to emphasize the continuity throughout the Naqada period, rather than keeping a system which emphasised differences. The Badarian remains unchanged because it is deemed to be of sufficient difference from the Naqadan period to retain its original label.

Kaiser’s were not the only attempts to revise Petrie’s chronology. Although I won’t be covering them here, other schemes were put forward by Barry Kemp (in 1982), Toby Wilkinson ( in 1996) and Stan Hendrickx (in 1994, 1996 and 2006).  The chronology proposed by Henrickx has been a popular one and has been adopted by many writers.  It sought to compensate for the two major limitations of Kaiser’s scheme, mentioned above:  the localized nature of Kaiser’s research and the lack of data at the site for the late Predynastic.  Using all the cemetery data that had been published at that time, Hendrickx proposed an updated scheme, with the main differences lying in the Naqada III period, as one would expect.

Sources of Confusion

One source of confusion for readers on publications about the Predynastic lies in the way in which different writers drift between Petrie’s terminology and Kaiser’s. Although you will rarely see the Semainean referred to, unless you are reading Petrie’s own material or an early work, many authors still adopt the terms Amratian and Gerzean rather than using the newer system. So terminologies can be mixed within the same book or even document, using a mixture of Petrie’s and Kaiser’s terminologies.  The system proposed by Hendrickx is distinguished by using upper case letters, rather than the lower case ones used in Kaiser’s system.

Second, although either one of Kaiser’s two systems is usually the preferred scheme, very few authors actually mention which they are using in their work. This should be borne in mind if dating schemes in one piece of work don‘t seem to quite match up with those in another.  In this sense, Hendrickx is sometimes easier to use because those using his system tend to be explicit about it.

Another source of confusion is that Petrie’s Badarian, Amratian and Gerzean (Kaiser’s Badarian, Naqada I and Naqada II) are only directly relevant for Upper Egypt. A completely different and partially contemporary tradition was evolving in the north, in the Faiyum Depression and the Delta. An early farming economy grew up at sites like the Faiyum, Merimde Beni Salama and Sais, all bearing a strong resemblance to each other. This tradition was eventually followed by a more clearly defined and complex set of towns located in the Delta. These were named the Maadian, a label which was then changed first to the Maadi-Buto period and more recently the Lower Egyptian. You might stumble across any of these in the Predynastic literature.

Towards the end of Naqada II / the Lower Egyptian phase, Naqada II traditions begin to be practiced in the north. For example, some cemeteries have both Lower Egyptian and Naqadan type graves with grave goods. The term Naqada III represents the period when Naqadan traits had completely eliminated Lower Egyptian ones, and is therefore applied to both Upper and Lower Egypt. In 1964 Kaiser moved his attention to the cemetery at Tura in Lower Egypt. At this site he identified three periods. His work here has often been used to tie in the Upper and Lower Egyptian sequences to synchronize the two areas, which has been helpful.  Kaiser’s Naqada III, overlaps with the Early Dynastic technology – Dynasties 0 and 1 (of which more in a moment) and extends into the Early Dynastic.

As if all of the above was not enough, it has now been recognized that there were things going on in Egypt outside either the Nile Valley or the Delta – in the desert and in the oases. If you’ve ever looked at some of these in books you may well have wondered how on earth it all fits, chronologically, with the rest of the Predynastic. Some of it simply predates the Badarian and has its own set of cultural and environmental labels. However, that is not always the case. Although the period during which the desert was green enough to be occupied comes to an end during the Badarian, the deserts and oases are often treated as entities apart, rather than overlapping occupations which may have had connections with the Badarian. As an example, a key set of desert sites located at Napta Playa, multi phase sites divided into numerous sub-periods and sometimes called the Western Desert Neolithic, are recorded over thousands of years.  The later phases overlapped with the early Predynastic and although linkages between Western Desert and the Nile Valley are still poorly understood it is generally accepted that such linkages must have occurred, and been influential.  The sheer volume of terminologies for different industries, cultural phases and environmental phases can cloud the issues.

Finally, what about Dynasty 0? And even worse, Dynasty 00? Dynasty 0 was the first of the two terms to be coined. It was designed to do what Kaiser’s re-naming of the Amratian and Gerzean achieved – the sense of continuity rather than discontinuity. The First Dynasty was not born out of a void and the term Dynasty 0 is intended to communicate the idea that things happened during Naqada III which directly influenced the early Pharaonic age. Naqada III is a multi-phase period which is contemporary with the terms Dynasty 00, Dynasty 0 and Dynasty 1. Dynasty 00 is the period immediately pre-dating Dynasty 0. It is a very unpopular term amongst many Egyptologists, but it regularly puts in an appearance. One problem with it is the word “dynasty” because there is no evidence that any of the leaders represented were actually related. A second problem is that in Dynasty 00 the individuals suggested to be leaders were probably geographically apart and some of them could have been contemporary with each other. It would be reinventing the wheel to try to do a better job of doing a proper analysis of these terms than Francesco Rafaelle – to read more about them see his page on the subject.

Feel free to scream at this point.


So just to recap, here are the main sources of confusion regarding the terminology of the relative dating system which was built on the back of Petrie’s sequence for Upper Egypt.

I said that the major sources of confusion for that system were that:

  • Two sets of terminology are still in use for Upper Egypt (Amratian = Naqada I and Gerzean = Naqada II)
  • Petrie’s original sequence has been refined several times and a number of different schemes exist. Although schemes are the most commonly used, it is rare that an author will say which scheme is in use
  • A different set of terms is used to describe the technology and tradition of Lower Egypt during the Upper Egyptian periods of the Badarian, Naqada I and Naqada II., with which they were contemporary.
  • Contemporary prehistoric cultures outside the Nile Valley and Delta in Egypt are usually treated completely separately, although there is often chronological overlap with the Badarian.
  • Dynasty 0 (and even worse, Dynasty 00) are attempts to link in the Predynastic with the Dynastic – but some parts of these periods are very poorly understood and it is almost certain that they don’t represent true dynasties and that some of them were contemporary leaders in different areas.
  • Before radiocarbon dating it was impossible to know exactly how long these periods lasted, and how far back in time they extended.

Thankfully we do now have radiocarbon dating, and at least that has helped to settle some of the questions about the duration of the periods and the chronological overlaps between different cultures. But you can guess that it is not a bed of roses! Radiocarbon dating will be dealt with in Part 2.


Bard, K.A., 1994, 2001,  From Farmers to Pharaohs:  Mortuary Evidence for the Rise of Complex Society in Egypt. Sheffield Academic Press.

Hendrickx, S. 1994, La chronologie de la préhistoire tardive et des débuts de l’histoire de l’Égypte. Archéo-Nil 9 pp.13-81.

Hendrickx, S.  1996, The Relative Chronology of the Naqada Culture, Problems and Possibilities, pp.36-39.  In Spencer, J. (ed) Aspects of Early Egypt.  British Museum Press.

Hendrickx, S. 2006, Predynastic – Early Dynastic Chronology.  In: Hornung, E., Krauss, R., and Warburton, D.A.  Ancient Egyptian Chronology.  Brill.

Kaiser, W. 1956,  Stand und problem der agyptischen Vorgeschichtforschung, Zeitschrift der fur Agyptischen Sprache und Altertumskunde.

Kaiser, W. 1957, Zur inneren Chronologie der Naqadakultur, Archaeologia Geographica (6) pp.69-77

Kaiser, W. 1990, Zur Entstehung des gesamtagyptischen Staates, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts.

Kantor,  H. 1944, The final phase of Predynastic Culture:  Gerzean or Semainean? Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3, pp.110-136

Kemp, B.J.  1982, Automatic Analysis of Predynastic Cemeteries:  A New Method for an Old Problem. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (68) pp.5-15.

Petrie, W.M.F. 1901, Diospolis Parva:  The Cemeteries of Abadiyeh and Hu:  1898 – 1899.  Egypt Exploration Fund.

Petrie, W. M.F. 1920, Prehistoric Egypt, British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account 26.

Wilkinson, T. A.H. 1996, State Formation in Egypt:  Chronology and Society.  Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology 40.  BAR International Series 651.



Photograph  © Andrea Byrnes


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