Julian Maxwell Heath, Before the Pharaohs (Pen & Sword, 2021)
We all know the Ancient Egyptians, or at least we think we do. The pyramids, sphynx, and the trail of fabulous temples along the Nile are well-known, but we seldom, if ever, look past the ‘golden age’ of Ancient Egypt to examine what came before. Julian Maxwell Heath has done that for us by looking at stone age Egypt. It is a surprising journey in many way, but one that is also strangely familiar.
Heath divides the Stone Age into its archaeological constituent parts, working his way down from the Lower Palaeolithic from c300,000 BCE to the Predynastic Period that ended in 3000 BCE. He then begins his survey of the peoples that populated the land we call Egypt and their tools and artefacts. He covers all the main regions of Egypt, though perhaps obviously, much of the time we are in Egypt’s barren deserts. Along the way, Heath digs into the various mysteries and enigmas that archaeology has uncovered but not yet solved. Among these is the artwork left behind on rocks and walls, and many in fascinating caves with emotive names, for example, the cave of the beasts and the cave of the swimmers. The meaning of this art still eludes us, though Heath presents some interesting theories – for the uninitiated, Heath supplies some useful line drawings to help us.
And so it goes; we learn how these early Egyptians lived and died and Heath speculates on what that meant to them. They left enough to show that their lives weren’t too much different from other stone age groups, including leaving megaliths and stone circles behind to suggest a curiosity about their universe. The early Egyptians also indulged in warfare, while in times of peace, farming became a mainstay. As the book draws to a close, Heath sees more connections between the Naqada culture and the Egyptian culture with which we are more familiar. We can see this in some of the artefacts and their decorative elements that are recognisably Egyptian, of which mace heads are striking examples. And that is where Heath leaves us, on the brink of Ancient Egypt.
Before the Pharaohs is a well-written and informative study of the Egyptian stone age. It is not too loaded with archaeological jargon and data, though an archaeology student would still be happy to read it, and you get the feeling reading this of being in the company of a knowledgeable and amiable tour guide. If there is a downside to Heath’s survey it is the lack of finds that would obviously excite the informed public reader who is presumably the target audience; there is a certain similarity runs through the various periods, though Heath does provide a sense of development as the clock runs down to what we know as Ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, Heath’s openness in laying out many of the questions we have about the period, and his willingness to acknowledge how much we do not know, keeps his book ticking along quite enjoyably.