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Beyond Prestige: A Ritual Production Model for Stone Tool Specialization in Naqada Period Egypt

Skarzynski, Elizabeth
Thesis/Dissertation; Online
Skarzynski, Elizabeth
Wattenmaker, Patricia
This dissertation looks at the organization and development of specialized production in 4th millennium BCE Egypt. At the outset of this period northeastern Africa was occupied by small-scale groups of pastoralists and early agriculturalists. By the close of the 4th millennium BC, the Nile Valley was one of the earliest instances of a society with centralized political organization, extensive labor division, and institutionalized inequalities. This research brings data on stone tools and settlement sites to bear on competing models of specialization. Many models of specialized production have focused either on the production of symbolically meaningful goods for the elite, or the production of utilitarian goods for the masses; they have not considered the production of symbolically meaningful goods for commoners. In Egypt the prevailing theory for the development of specialized production is a prestige-goods model, where elites sponsored the production of items used to display status and which were not available to all. However, this model does not account for all specialized production. A review of the evidence for specialization in Egypt shows that some items made by specialists were quite widely used (e.g., lithic blades, black-topped red ware ceramics), and so do not fit a prestige-goods model. To explore how the production of various stone tools was organized and developed, a model of ritual production outlined by Spielmann (2002) was considered. This model recognizes that people have often increased their economic production in order to make items needed for ritual activities, such as life cycle events (e.g., birth, marriage, death) and community-encompassing rituals. These ritual activities involved many members of society, not a restricted subset. Expectations were developed for archaeological patterns of raw material choice, production locations, and find contexts that should be observed if the ritual production model can account for the development of some aspects of specialized production in Egypt. These expectations were evaluated based on examination of lithic artifact collections from the settlement sites of el-Mahâsna, Abydos, and Nag el-Qarmila, and comparison to published data from other sites and online museum databases. This research showed that there were many different ways that stone tool production was organized at the intra-site and regional levels. Some of stone tools—early fishtail knives, axes, large-blade knives, and microendscrapers—fit the ritual production model for the development of specialized production quite well. Preferences for certain raw materials were evident, and these preferences could not be accounted for by functional considerations or access to local resources. Instead, the raw material choices probably related to the symbolic significance of their colors, which can be traced from the Pharaonic back to the Predynastic periods. These tools were produced in conjunction with ritual activity areas, and the tools themselves were found in ritually significant contexts such as early 'temples', offering deposits, and tombs, as well as in more traditionally ordinary contexts such as houses, storage areas, and trash middens. Most importantly, they also had a widespread distribution not limited to the elite class. This study shows that although full-time specialized production was fostered by elites in the latter part of the Predynastic period, this process built on already multivariate and complex systems of production for stone tools, which included the production of stone tools with symbolic uses for a large cross-section of the population.
University of Virginia, Department of Anthropology, PHD (Doctor of Philosophy), 2017
Published Date
PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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