The Archaic or Early Dynastic Period of Egypt (also known as the Thinite Period, from Thinis, the supposed hometown of its rulers) was the era immediately following the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in c. 3100 BC. In other words, the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BCE) was the beginning of the historical era of the country during which the regions of Upper Egypt (south) and Lower Egypt (north) were united as one country under a centralised government. It is generally taken to include the First and Second Dynasties, lasting from the end of the Naqada III archaeological period until about 2686 BC, or the beginning of the Old Kingdom. With the First Dynasty, the capital moved from Thinis to Memphis with a unified Egypt ruled by an Egyptian god-king. Abydos remained the principal religious centre in the south. The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian civilisation, such as art, architecture and many aspects of religion, took shape during the Early Dynastic Period.
Before the unification of Egypt, the land was settled with autonomous villages. The country became known as the Two Lands during the early dynasties and for much of Egypt’s history after that. The pharaohs established a national administration and appointed royal governors. The buildings of the central government were typically open-air temples constructed of wood or sandstone. The earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs appear just before this period, though little is known of the spoken language they represent.
Cultural evolution during the Early Dynastic Period
By about 3600 BC, Neolithic Egyptian societies along the Nile had based their culture on the raising of crops and the domestication of animals. Shortly after 3600 BC, Egyptian society began to grow and advance rapidly toward refined civilisation. New and distinctive pottery, which was related to the pottery in the Southern Levant, appeared during this time. Extensive use of copper became common during this period. The Mesopotamian process of sun-dried bricks and architectural building principles—including the arch and recessed walls for decorative effect—became popular.
Concurrent with these cultural advances, a process of unification of the societies and towns of the upper Nile River, or Upper Egypt, occurred. At the same time, the communities of the Nile Delta, or Lower Egypt, also underwent a unification process. Warfare between Upper and Lower Egypt occurred often. During his reign in Upper Egypt, King Narmer defeated his enemies on the Delta and merged the Kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt under his single rule. Narmer is shown on palettes wearing the double crown, composed of the lotus flower representing Upper Egypt and the papyrus reed representing Lower Egypt – a sign of the unified rule of both parts of Egypt, which all succeeding rulers followed. In mythology, the unification of Egypt is portrayed as the falcon-god, called Horus and identified with Lower Egypt, as conquering and subduing the god Set, who was identified with Upper Egypt. Divine kingship, which would persist in Egypt for the next three millennia, was firmly established as the basis of Egypt’s government. The unification of societies along the Nile has also been linked to the end of the humid African period.
Funeral practises for the peasants would have been the same as in predynastic times, but the rich demanded something more. Thus, the Egyptians began constructing the mastabas, which became models for the later Old Kingdom constructions such as the step pyramid. Cereal agriculture and centralisation contributed to the state’s success for the next 800 years.
It seems certain that Egypt became unified as a cultural and economic domain long before its first king ascended to the throne in the lower Egyptian city of Memphis. Political unification proceeded gradually, perhaps over a few centuries, as local districts established trading networks and their governments’ ability to organise agriculture labour on a larger scale increased. Divine kingship may also have gained spiritual momentum as the cults of gods like Horus, Set and Neith associated with living representatives became widespread in the country.
It was also during this period that the Egyptian writing system was further developed. Initially, Egyptian writing had been composed primarily of a few symbols denoting amounts of various substances. By the end of the 3rd dynasty, it had been expanded to include more than 200 symbols, both phonograms and ideograms.
According to Manetho, the first monarch of the unified Upper and Lower Egypt was Menes, who is now identified with Narmer. Indeed, Narmer is the earliest recorded First Dynasty monarch: he appears first on the necropolis seal impressions of Den and Qa’a. This shows that the first dynasty kings recognised Narmer as a crucial founding figure. Narmer is also the earliest king associated with the symbols of power over the two lands (see the Narmer Palette, a votive cosmetic palette showing Narmer wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt) and may therefore be the first king to achieve unification. Consequently, the current consensus is that “Menes” and “Narmer” refer to the same person. Alternative theories hold that Narmer was the final king of the Naqada III period, and Hor-Aha is to be identified with “Menes”.
Egyptians in Canaan and Nubia
Egyptian settlement and colonisation are attested from about 3200 BC onward all over the area of southern Canaan with almost every type of artefact: architecture (fortifications, dams and buildings), pottery, vessels, tools, weapons, seals, etc. 20 serekhs attributed to Narmer — the first ruler of the Early Dynastic Period — have been found in Canaan. There is also evidence of Egyptian settlement and occupation in lower Nubia after the Nubian A-Group culture ended. By the early dynastic period, the Egyptian state had likely imposed its authority as far north as modern Tel Aviv and south as the second cataract in Nubia.