Stones and Status in Daily Life: Exploring the Development of Inequalities through a Comparison of Lithic Assemblages in Naqada Settlements, 4000-3000 BCE

I’ve always been fascinated by the process of how ancient Egyptian society transformed from small mobile groups of hunter-gathers to the world’s first state society that extended across a large territory.

In the winter and spring of 2013, with the support of an ARCE fellowship and the McHugh grant, I went to Egypt to look at the small items of daily life left behind during a critical period in this transition: the Predynastic era (~3800-3100 BCE). This was the main data collection phase of my dissertation research. Specifically, I was trying to understand one of the major social and economic transitions of this era: the development of specialized production, which is where a few people make goods for a lot of other people, a kind of division of labor. The existing theory was that specialized production had come about because emerging elites needed prestige goods for status display. However, my preliminary research indicated that it wasn’t just prestige goods that were increasingly made by specialists, but all kinds of items, so there had to be more to this story. Perhaps major socio-economic changes were not only instigated by social climbers.

To research this topic, I needed to study stored artifacts from three Predynastic settlement sites: Abydos, el-Mahâsna and Nag el-Qarmila. The ARCE fellowship helped me to be able to access these sites and to spend 6 months in Egypt analyzing ~10,000 flaked stone artifacts. 

After coming home with this valuable data, I spent time (perhaps too long!) analyzing the results, comparing them to other sites, and writing up my final conclusions. In the end, I found that many kinds of predynastic stone tools were made by specialists and moreover, that their production was organized in a variety of ways, not simply highly specialized prestige goods vs. unspecialized utilitarian goods.

I suggested that in addition to emerging efforts around prestige display, religious practices and changing subsistence practices may also have contributed to changing the way goods were made in this era. This is significant because it shows that the activities of all kinds of people- not just elites- can affect societal transformation, and it underlines the complexity of ancient lives. You can read the full open-access dissertation here.

In an Egypt still feeling the effects of the 2011 revolution, it was great to have ARCE as a home-base and a touchpoint throughout my research. Moreover, this fellowship was critical to my long-term career. During the fellowship I met a number of colleagues working on other research projects in the Abydos and Aswan areas, and these connections have led to many fruitful collaborations since. Just one example is my current work with the University of Vienna that looks at the Pharaonic era economy, and explores how much the government was involved in the flint supply chains from the raw material mining site of Wadi-el Sheikh.