Scholars designate the Predynastic Period in Egypt as a time when Egyptian culture was beginning to resemble what would later become Dynastic Egypt, but Egypt itself was not yet unified. However, scholars generally divide this period further into four periods known as the Chalcolithic or “Primitive” Predynastic Period (beginning around 5500 BC), the Naqada I or “Old Predynastic” Period (also known as the Amratian Period, beginning around 4000 BC), the Naqada II Period (also known as the Gerzean Period, beginning around 3500 BC), and Naqada III, which has been labeled by a number of scholars as Dynasty 0. It should be noted, however, that respected scholars appear to differ on these exact dates.
The Naqada III period, or Dynasty 0, is a particularly interesting segment of Predynastic Egypt because it is the real formative years just prior to the unification of Egypt, when we can begin to identify various rulers and some specific events. It is a period in which rulers appear to have controlled large segments of Egypt, even though they may not have controlled the whole. In fact, there is convincing evidence for the emergence of at least three Upper (southern) Egyptian states, centered at This (The city for which Abydos was a necropolis), Naqada and Hierakonpolis. There may have been a smaller, fourth territory ruled by an individual buried at Gebelein. These rulers used recognizable royal iconography to express the ideological basis of their power, and may therefore justifiably be called kings.
We traditionally place the advent of writing and the unification of Egypt at the beginning of the 1st Dynasty at the same point, though the reality of this is somewhat confused. Egyptian writing clearly evolved, and in fact, one must question exactly what constitutes “writing”. Clearly, very early predynastic kings left behind primitive stylized symbols and signs that conveyed more information than simply a picture image. In fact, some left evidence of short phrases, though we currently cannot completely translate their meaning. For example, bone and pottery vessels from tomb U-j at Abydos were inscribed, some in ink with the figure of a scorpion and this has been interpreted as the owner’s name (not to be confused with the later King “Scorpion” who commissioned the ceremonial macehead found at Hierakonpolis). Other vessels from this tomb bear short ink inscriptions consisting of a combination of two signs. Some of these inscriptions have common signs. The real problem with calling this period “Dynasty 0” is that the term “dynastic” is not consistent with the words later use. Egyptian dynasties attempt to group either a family of rulers, or at least those who ruled from a specific place. However, the Naqada III Period takes none of this into account. We cannot establish family lines during this period, and the term “Dynasty 0” attempts to take in rulers in different locations ruling different territories. Nevertheless, the term “Dynasty 0” has come into general use and is unlikely to be discarded.
A number of these Naqada III kings are individually known, even though we may not be able to exactly decipher their real names. However, we also know a number of other specific individuals from this period, and there is great uncertainty as to which of these individuals were actually rulers, and in what sequence they ruled. For example, several tall vessels from Tura and el-Beda are cut with the motif of a serekh surmounted by two falcons, and some scholars have suggested that this represents the name of a late Predynastic ruler, probably from southern Egypt. However, it is also very possible that this mark refers to royal ownership without specifying the specific ruler. Another example is a famous rock-cut inscription at Gebel Sheikh Suleiman in Nubia, which shows an early serekh presiding over a scene which seems to record an Egyptian raid into Nubia at the end of the Predynastic Period. This serekh is empty, but it is very probable that the individual who ordered the inscription to be cut was a Southern Egyptian king, perhaps based at Hierakonpolis.
A combination of evidence is frequently used in an attempt to identify specific kings (though we still may not be certain of their names). For example, vessels and shards from tomb B1/2 and the adjacent pit B0 at Abydos are inscribed with a mark consisting of a falcon perching on a mouth-sign. This has been read as Iry-Hor and it has been suggested that he was both a king and the owner of this tomb. However, this “name” is never found in a serekh, despite the fact that this device was already in use for royal names prior to the construction of this tomb. However, this multi-chambered tomb closely resembles the later tombs of Narmer and a known predynastic king named Ka, who preceded Narmer. Perhaps even more compelling is its location, which suggests that the owner of the complex should be placed immediately before Ka, though some would have him earlier because of the lack of the serekh.
More certain is the royal nature of two other individuals, who are nevertheless referred to as King A and King B. King A is possibly known from a vessel from the eastern Delta, with an inscription consisting of a falcon above a serekh, with three hd signs (maces) in its upper part. Two similar serekhs were found on vessels from Tura, though both lack the Horus falcon, and the hd signs appear in the lower part of the inscription, replacing the more usual palace facade, and three circles are shown below the serekh. Hence, though this individual was certainly a king, the Tura serekhs may not represent the ruler whose mark appears on the jar from the eastern Delta. King B is attested by rock-cut inscriptions in the western desert near Armant. An Epigraphy study of the inscriptions indicate that he ruled near the very end of the Predynastic Period, though the difficulties in reading early Egyptian script have so far rendered his name unreadable. Given the location in which the inscription was found, he may have been a member of the royal family at Hierakonpolis. He may also be attested by a serekh, though without the falcon, on a rock cut inscription in the eastern desert found on the ancient Qena to Quseir rout to the Red Sea coast.
One of the best known artifacts from the period immediately preceding the 1st Dynasty is the macehead of a king generally referred to as the Scorpion king. The Predynastic Period was a time when man had not yet established, at least in his own mind, his superiority over various animals. There is good evidence to suggest that animal skins or masks may have been worn not only for various ceremonies, but even in battle, and many of the earliest kings appear to have associated their names with animals. Hence, scorpion may have been this king’s true name, since it has been convincingly demonstrated that the rosette/palmette sign above the scorpion on this macehead signified the ruler. Though the style of the Scorpion macehead and a similar object belonging to Narmer are stylistically similar, the Scorpion king’s reign has traditionally been perceived to be prior to that of Narmer, one of the candidates for Menes who founded the 1st Dynasty. However, no evidence of Scorpion has been found at Abydos for his burial, though a completely uninscribed tomb with four chambers has been suggested as belonging to him. Hence, he may not have been a Thinite ruler at all. His macehead was discovered at Hierakonpolis, perhaps indicating that he was a member of that royal line. Therefore, he may have even been at least partly contemporary with Narmer. There are also a few other inscriptions that are thought to have possibly belonged to Scorpion, including two serekhs written in ink on pottery vessels from Tarkhan.
However, one recent hypothesis suggests that the Tarkhan inscriptions may belong to another proposed Predynastic king who we refer to as Horus ‘Crocodile’, which is based upon new infra-red photographs of the inscriptions and their comparison with a seal impression from another tomb at Tarkhan which has been dated to the reign of Narmer. The sealing, which may have belonged to a governor of the Tarkhan region, depicts a series of crocodiles above coils that probably represent water. Based on the inscribed vessels themselves and the form of the serekhs, the Horus ‘Crocodile’ may have either been an usurper of the throne, or perhaps a king reigning concurrently with the main Thinite royal family, possibly early in the reign of a king ‘Ka’. However, the existence of a King ‘Crocodile is not universally accepted by all Egyptologists, while the Scorpion macehead presents a strong argument for his existence as a late Predynastic king.
From horizontal stratigraphy of the royal tombs at Abydos and various ceramic evidence, we are fairly certain that Narmer’s immediate predecessor as ruler at Abydos (This) was probably a king by the name of Ka. His Horus name shows a pair of arms. He was buried in a double tomb (B7/9) which lies between the graves of his Predynastic predecessors in Cemetery U and the tombs of his successors. There was a theory that this was actually the ‘ka’ tomb of Narmer, but this has been invalidated by the occurrence of his name at sites other than Abydos. Prior to Narmer, he is the best attested king and it is conceivable that he may have even ruled over a united Upper and Lower Egypt. His name has been found in both Upper and Lower Egypt, including grave sites at Helwan, which was a necropolis that served Memphis. Of course, this suggests that Memphis perhaps preceded Narmer and Aha, who are both candidates for the traditional founder of Memphis and the 1st Dynasty, Menes. However, this does not rule out the possibility that Memphis, or a predecessor village did not exist prior to Narmer or Aha making an existing village into his capital. With whom the Predynastic Period ends and the 1st Dynasty begins is a matter of speculation, with Narmer either being the first king of the 1st Dynasty, or the last king of the Predynastic period. This is an argument that has never really been settled. However, it is very interesting that king Ka is attested in the Helwan necropolis, which was Memphis’ second necropolis after Saqqara. Some scholars believe that the legendary Menes may have been more of a composite of early kings than a specific individual, and indeed, if Memphis was founded prior to Narmer, this might be the case.
Irregardless, our dividing point between the Predynastic Period and the 1st Dynasty is almost certainly arbitrary. We would wish to place the invention of writing in Egypt, the founding of Memphis and the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt upon the shoulders of one individual who would theoretically have established a new family line, or at least ruled Egypt from a new capital (and thus a new Dynasty), but this is surely not the reality of the situation. As a final note, beware of Dynasty 0 kings’ lists. Many such example exist, particularly on the internet, that definitively arrange these very early kings in some sort of order, such Crocodile, Iry-Hor, Ka, Scorpion and Narmer. Both the name and the order of these kings is only fairly certain to any degree for the very last king (If Narmer is considered a 1st Dynasty King) or kings of this period. (Ka and Narmer).