Archaic Period

Also known as the early dynastic period, the archaic period was the time when the first two dynasties ruled united Egypt.

It had some elements of both the Predynastic period and the Old Kingdom, and it was a kind of transition between the two.

Some historians believe that the change into a single, unified Egypt was slow and evolutionary, but the majority thinks that it was one ruler – King Narmer – who unified the land and started the first dynastic period in Egypt.

The Egyptian civilisation as we know it had started developing during the reign of King Narmer in around 3100 BCE.

At the beginning of his reign, Egypt still consisted of a number of regions that were governed locally. At some point, Narmer managed to unify these regions and to govern them.

Most probably, the unification was achieved in a battle or, which is less likely, several small battles. Either way, it was not a result of peaceful diplomacy.

The capital city of the unified country moved from the still undiscovered (by archaeologists) city of Thinis (Egyptian: Tjenu) to Memphis.

Another important city from that period was Abydos in Upper Egypt.

Egypt flourished during the archaic period, both culturally and economically. Agricultural labour was well organised and centralised.

The development of the Egyptian script continued, as well as architecture. Instead of plain mud-brick tombs, wealthier Egyptians started building mastabas – which served as a model for step pyramids centuries later.

The unification of Egypt is depicted on the Narmer Palette – one of the most significant artefacts of the ancient world.

The Narmer Palette is a ceremonial slate palette discovered at Hierakonpolis and currently located in the Cairo Museum.

It comprises the earliest combat scene from Egyptian history, and many images were still used 3,000 years later, such as:

  • The king striking an enemy over the head with a mace;
  • The king wearing the double crown on which the lotus flower represents Upper Egypt, and the papyrus reed symbolises Lower Egypt;
  • The king represented as a bull squashing captured enemies.

The unification of the Two Lands – how ancient Egyptians usually called their homeland – was depicted in mythology as Horus, the falcon-god of Lower Egypt, defeating and subduing the Upper Egypt god Set.

The symbolism of the images on the palette was important to later Egyptian kings. It meant that there was one Egypt – which should never be divided – and that the king was its true ruler. After Narmer, all kings attempted to keep this ideal and rule a united Egypt.

Even though Narmer’s name is recorded as the earliest First Dynasty ruler, ancient historians such as Manetho and Herodotus wrote that the name of the unifier and the first pharaoh of the Two Lands was Menes.

This legendary king – often seen as a founding figure similar to Romulus in ancient Rome – was often described as the first man to rule Egypt, the one who inherited the throne directly from the god Horus. Today, many historians believe that Menes and Narmer was the same person.

Q&A

  • Who was the first pharaoh of Egypt?
    Narmer or Menes
  • Which city was the first capital of united Egypt?
    It was Memphis.
  • Which ceremonial artefact depicts the first battle scene in Egyptian history?
    The Narmer Palette
  • What the double crown represents?
    The double crown represents Upper and Lower Egypt.