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International Conference
Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt

(Cracow, Poland: 28th August - 1st September 2002)
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Colonialism, Commerce and the Initial Unification of the Egyptian State:
Egypto-Canaanite Relations in the Fourth Millennium


Department of History, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (USA)

Egypt and the southern Levant share a long and deeply intertwined history beginning in the Neolithic Period and continuing to the present. However, it is in the mid-fourth millennium BCE (the Developed Chalcolithic through Early Bronze I in the southern Levant and the Naqada I-III in Egypt) when intersocietal relations between them reach a formative stage with profound results. While there are few textual references to the nature of this contact, over the last 15 years there has been a tremendous amount of archaeological data which speak directly to this issue. Substantial quantities of Egyptian ceramics, serekhs and small finds have been found throughout the southern Levant dating to the Early Bronze I and an increasing amount of Canaanite pottery has been excavated in both Upper and Lower Egypt.

These new archaeological data demand a thorough reexamination of the two traditional models developed to explain the nature of Egypto-Canaanite relations. The "Conquest Model" holds that Egypt conquered and controlled the southern Levant in the Early Bronze I through military enterprise. The opposing view contends that the Egypto-Canaanite relationship is purely economic, based on commerce and trade. These static models of politically dynamic times are somewhat simplistic and fail to fully account for the vicissitudes in this relationship over time. Nor do these models distinguish the important differences between Egypt's relationship with coastal Lebanon and Syria as opposed to the southern Levant, differences which the Egyptians themselves clearly recognized.

A review of the evidence from the Halif Terrace in southern Canaan indicates a very different interpretation of Egypto-Canaanite relations. Based on the recent archaeological finds, the Egyptian presence in Canaan can be divided into three separate but dependent phases of interaction. Each of which is motivated by different needs and expectations that are reflected in the types and quantities of materials found.

One of the earliest and sustained periods of Egyptian contact with Canaan is in the Chalcolithic period, which corresponds to the Naqada I and early Naqada II (Naqada IIa-b). This consists of Egyptian prestige goods reaching Canaan and perhaps the transfer of Canaanite technological and stylistic traditions to Egypt and contact is neither regular nor well established. This low level of interaction continues into the Early Bronze IA.

The intensification in the Egyptian presence seen at the Halif Terrace in the Early Bronze IB is also found throughout southern Canaan. There is a dramatic increase in the local production of Egyptian pottery in the Early Bronze IB. A concomitant increase is not as obvious regarding the imported pottery. Unlike the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze IA, the Egyptian material found in this period is almost exclusively ceramic, with a marked absence of prestige items.



Careful attention to the type, quantities and contexts of the Egyptian materials in Canaan suggest that neither commerce nor conquest are viable explanations of the Egyptian presence in Canaan. Egypt's interest in Canaan can be more usefully understood as a logistical exercise designed to express the organizational capabilities of a political state undergoing unification. It is the new royal ideology of unification and the symbolism of expansion and control that are the driving forces behind the establishment of Egyptian communities in Canaan in the Early Bronze I. Cast in this light, the Egyptian expedition to Canaan can be considered as an important component in the process state formation in late fourth millennium Egypt.



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