The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology: Ivory and gold in the Delta: Excavations at Tell el-Farkha. Krzysztof Cialowicz, Institute of Archaeology, Jagiellonian Univesity, Krakow, Poland
Monday 28th July, The BP Lecture Theatre, The British Museum
The following notes were taken at the above lecture, with chronological help from the publication Ivory and Gold - Beginnings of the Egyptian Art written by the lecturer (Poznan Prehistoric Society 2007). This was only necessary because I couldn’t decipher the dates and some other details in my notes when I got back!
Photographs have been taken from the Poznan website - click on the image to link back to the original on the Tell el-Farkha pages on the Poznan site.
The lecture was held in the larger of two basement lecture theatres in the British Museum. Partly because of the day time Origins 3 Colloquium which had been taking place there earlier, there was a particularly good turnout for the lecture. There were too many of us to watch the lecture in the main theatre, so those of us who were overflow were placed in the neighbouring and much smaller theatre where we watched the proceedings next door via a video link. This was certainly better than not seeing it at all, but it was a somewhat surreal experience which was emphasised by the peculiar quality of the slides which were filmed and sent to us live - the colours were strange and the illustrations almost impossible to make out. But the sound came through very clearly so it was easy enough to get the gist of it.
Tel el-Farkha is located in the eastern part of Egypt’s Delta, 120km northeast of Cairo and near the village of Ghazala. It covers an area of 4 hectares and comprises three mounds: Western Kom, Central Kom and Eastern Kom, which rise 5m above the surrounding fields.
Krzysztof M. Cialowicz began by putting the site of Tell el Farkha, which means Hill of Chickens, into its chronological context. He took us through different phases of the Naqadan and “Loweregyptian” (formerly known as “Maadian or Maadi-Buto” traditions. He explained that the site crosses the period when material culture is seen to change in Egypt, with Upper Egyptian traditions appearing alongside and then replacing Lower Egyptian traditions. As he pointed out, it is not sure how this process took place. There are no archaeological traces of destruction or war, so perhaps a better way of explaining it would be through the concepts of assimilation and acculturation. He believes that Tell El-Farkha is a good place to explore this process precisely because it spans this “transitional” period.
The site had already been examined before the Polish Expedition to the Eastern Nile Delta arrived there. Survey work carried out by an Italian mission from the Centro Studi e Ricerche Ligabue in Venice identified and named this and other sites. They followed their survey work with the excavation in 1988-90 of 4 trial trenches which helped to establish an initial chronology of the site. The Italian mission didn’t pursue the site, but they presented their results in Cambridge in 1995, which caught the attention of Polish scholars who set up a mission to investigate the site.
The Polish Expedition to the Eastern Nile Delta began work at Tell el-Farkha in 1998, and they have now completed 10 seasons of work at the site, each season consisting of two months of work. There are seven phases The oldest part of the site dates to the Loweregyptian period. The next phases all lie within Naqada II and III, and Dynasties 0 to the beginning of Dynasty IV, when the site was abandoned.
The oldest layer at the site, the Loweregyptian, lasts from c.3600-3300BC. The is present only at the Western Kom. It revealed habitation structures with numerous rooms, and is particularly notable for the discovery of one of the world’s oldest breweries. The brewery site is multi-phase, with a total of three different layers to it. Each consisted of several circular features with fire bricks supporting vats. A fire was lit to heat the vat contents. The brewery was in use for 300 years. Other discoveries belonging to this phase are imports from the Near East and Upper Egypt and donkey remains.
The following period, the Naqadan, is divided into three phases and is found at both the Western and Eastern koms: 3300-3200BC, 3200-3100BC and 3150-3100BC. This is the period over which the site is increasingly dominated by Upper Egyptian traditions.
The earliest of these three phases produced the remains of a fairly remarkable building which was constructed over the breweries. It was found under a layer of Nile silts. It measures approximately 25m x 25m and is divided into a number of rooms with an internal courtyard, with walls which in some places were over 2m thick. It is the largest building of this date to be found so far. It produced storage jars, clay seals and buttons (perhaps counters), fragments of Palestinian pottery and labels. It may have been the home of someone important, with storage rooms attached, perhaps associated with the trade of wine and oil. It was destroyed by fire, covered with a layer of black and white ash under the Nile muds. The fire that destroyed it dates to c.3200BC.
The Eastern Kom was also occupied during the Naqadan but at a slightly more recent date. One of the surprising discoveries from this part of the site was a monumental construction within a cemetery area. It was found when excavating more recent wealthy burial chambers, some of which partially destroy parts of the building. It covers an area 400m sq and post-dates the earliest large Naqada building of the Western Kom but pre-dates the big administrative-shrine complex. It has been dated to c.3200-3100BC. It consists of several chambers separated with walls up to 2.5m thick. In the central square chamber a vertical shaft was made. It may be that these are the remains of the oldest known mastaba in Egypt, significantly predating those from Dynasties 1 and 2, the oldest of which is that of Aha, the second king of the First Dynasty. Within it was found a stone pendant surmounted with a falcon with a schematic engraving on it, and a decorated ivory dagger handle. Cialowicz suggested that if it is accepted as one of Egypt’s earliest mastabas then it may have been the burial place of a local governor or ruler.
It is a mystery why more recent graves were dug into it or why these graves were in turn buried by a settlement layer, into which Old Kingdom burials were then sunk. This situation is so far unique in Egypt, where land which has been sacred tends to be respected and is left undeveloped for more recent activities.
The Eastern Kom settlement was not rich but gold fragments were found at the north eastern part of the Eastern Kom, accompanied by two extraordinarily beautiful and highly crafted stone knives and an ostrich eggshell and carnelian necklace. They were found during the excavation of one of the settlement structures. When the items were excavated and taken away for analysis it was possible to reconstruct them - they had originally consisted of two statuettes which would have been built around a central core, now completely vanished but probably made of wood. Gold rivets were used to fasten each piece of gold to the core, and there are 140 of these surviving (4mm long and 1mm in diameter). One of the figurines is 57cm tall and the other is 30cm tall. Both have been given eyes of lapis lazuli (only available from Afghanistan at that time) and the eyebrows also had inclusions, now vanished. Some of the features are very distinctive - the hands and feet are detailed, with finger and toe nails picked skilfully out. The ears are very prominent, and the penis sheath is very long. The knives belong to the Naqada IID period, 3150-3100BC. Cialowicz speculated that they might be a Predynastic ruler and his son. He also speculates that the secondary deposition of the artefacts might indicate that they had been concealed in a hurry in order to protect them from an impending raid. The fact that they were never collected may indicate that their owners were unable to return. However, he said that this must just remain a hypothesis. The statuettes are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
In the period between Dynasty 0 and the mid First Dynasty (c.3100-3000BC) both Western and Eastern Koms were occupied.
In the Western Kom another building was built over the ruins of the previous building, which had burned down in 3200BC but had apparently been covered by a layer of Nile silts. The building dates to Dynasty 0/Dynasty 1 (c.3100-3000BC) and had massive mudbrick walls preserved to a height of 2m, which marked out a complex of rooms which seem to have been built over a period of time possibly to cope with earthquake damage. A remarkable deposit was found within one of the walls which surrounded a small room. It consisted of figurines, miniature vessels of faience, pottery and stone. Amongst the figurines were baboons, a prostrate man wearing nothing but a penis sheath, his hair and beard long, a standing long-haired and bearded man, pear shaped mace heads, miniature vessels, faience beads and gaming pieces. The southeast end of the building had experienced a cave in, possibly earthquake damage, and this had covered a number of artefacts which include large storage jars, thin walled red bowls, clay seals, clay amulets, half of a model boat, cosmetic slate pelettes and a cylindrical jar containing 187 serrated fish fin bones. This has been interpreted as a shrine within a larger administrative and cultic complex.
Another surprise was the discovery in 2006 of a votive deposit in the same building, at its western end. Together with some empty vessels there a 23cm jar, with a bowl for a lid. When opened it produced a collection of 62 objects, all of which are made with considerable skill and most with artistic merit, some very realistic and others more schematic. Raw materials included hippopotamus ivory, stone, faience, and pottery. The items inside included figurines, miniature stone vessels and buttons-like disks.
The figurines usually appear as pairs, except the dwarves, of which there were thirteen. Cialowicz suggests that most of the figurines may have been produced by one artist with few less well executed exceptions.
In the Eastern Kom this is the period when the richest of the burials were deposited. Excavations were begun here in 2001 to clarify the results of a geophysical survey, and the burials began to be found just below the surface of the kom. The wealthiest of these burials were furnished with pottery vessels in separate chambers, many of which were up to 1m in length , as well as ornaments made of semi precious stones, stone vessels, cosmetic palettes, tools and meat and grain. Many of the pots had pot-marks, three of which had the names of Iry Hor, Ka (both Dynasty 0) and Narmer (First Dynasty). These are the oldest of the Naqadan tombs and are both the best constructed and the wealthiest of the three cemetery phases identified. One of the oddities of these graves is that they were dug into earlier settlement remains as well as into the above mentioned “mastaba”.
Between the mid First Dynasty and the Second Dynasty (c.3000-2700BC) the Western Kom was abandoned. At the Eastern Kom there were still burials with grave goods, but these were not as wealthy as those in the previous phase of the cemetery, and the tombs themselves were not as well constructed. In the Central Kom there is settlement evidence for this period.
During the Old Kingdom and up until the Third Dynasty (2700-2600BC) there is an overall deterioration in the standards of living. Both the settlement and burial evidence indicates that this was now a fairly impoverished area. None of the burials was accompanied by grave goods.
The evidence from the Western Kom, which implies diminishing wealth over time, is confirmed by the Eastern Kom, where the wealth and quality of the burials declines. Whatever was happening at Tell el-Farkha, its heyday had passed.
The site was abandoned completely at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty (between c.260 and 2550BC).
Cialowicz had opened the lecture with a question about the replacement of Loweregyptian traditions with Naqadan ones. He now suggested that the answer was probably connected with growing importance of Tell el-Farkha and other eastern Delta sites in terms of their location on a major trade route and their growing wealth as a result of controlling or at least organizing that trade. He suggests that Upper Egyptian interests could have been served by guarding or controlling those routes. Upper Egypt was not a unified entity at this time and this slow replacement process does not reflect a sudden act of political unification. There was competiton within the Naqada struggle itself, probably between Abydos and Hierakonpolis. Again, Cialowicz suggested that the evidence from Tell el-Farkha argues for a slower process of acculturation or assimilation than had been proposed by earlier scholars, but that a considerable amount of work needed to be completed in the Delta for this process to be clarified.
Cialowicz was asked how much longer he expected to be working at Tell el-Farkha. He smiled and said that as only 7% of the site has so far been uncovered he expects to be working at it for at least another 20 years! There was a lot of laughter followed by a long round of applause.
Here’s a recap of the site’s chronology, copied from the Poznan book:
- Western Kom
- Brewing centre
- Western Kom
- Residence c.3300-3200BC
- Mastaba? 3200-3100BC
- Gold figures 3150-3100BC
- Western Kom
- Admin and cult centre with votive deposit
- Eastern Kom
- Richest burials
Mid Dynasty 1 - Dynasty 2 3000-2700BC
- Western Kom abandoned
- Eastern Kom medium wealth in burials
- Central Kom settlement
Old Kingdom - Dynasty 3 2700BC-2600BC
- Eastern Kom impoverished burials
- Central Kom poor settlement remains
Old Kingdom - Beginning of Dynasty 4
- Abandonment of Tell el-Farkha