Geographic and chronological scope of Egyptian archaeology

Kemet, the "black land," was the name the ancient Egyptians gave to their state. The "black land" of the fertile floodplain along the lower Nile Valley was differentiated from the barren "red land" of the deserts to either side of the valley. Beginning around 31003000 BC, a unified state stretched along the Nile from Aswan at the First Cataract to the Delta coast along the Mediterranean Sea, a distance of over 1,000km downriver. This was the kingdom of ancient Egypt, ruled by a king and his centralized administration during the periods of political stability known as the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms.

Ancient Egypt was the land of the lower Nile Valley. This is a much smaller region than what comprises the modern country of the Arab Republic of Egypt, which includes the region south of the First Cataract to 22° N, the huge desert to the west of the Nile to the Libyan border, the desert to the east of the Nile bordered by the Red Sea, and the Sinai peninsula to the Israeli border.

Because the Nile flows from south to north, southern Egypt beginning at the First Cataract is called "Upper Egypt," and northern Egypt, including the Cairo region and the Delta, is called "Lower Egypt." The region between Upper and Lower Egypt is sometimes called "Middle Egypt," and consists of the Nile Valley north of the bend in the river at Qena and Nag Hammadi to the region of the Fayum. The main geographic feature of the Fayum is a large lake, now called Birket Qarun, which was much larger when wetter conditions prevailed in the early to middle Holocene (circa 12,000 to 5,000 years ago).


The major geographic feature of Egypt is, of course, the Nile River and the fertile floodplains to either side. North of Cairo the main channel of the Nile branches off to form the Delta, a much more humid region than the Nile Valley. In Dynastic times the Delta was much more suitable for cattle pasturage than for large-scale cereal cultivation.


East of the Nile Delta is the Sinai peninsula, now separated from Africa by the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Suez. Mountainous and dry like the Eastern Desert of Egypt, the Sinai provided a land route to southwest Asia. To the west of the Nile is the Western Desert. Within the Western Desert are a number of oases created by springs, where there is evidence of both prehistoric and pharaonic activity. These oases include Siwa, Bahariya, Farafra, Kharga and Dakhla.

To the east of the Nile is the Eastern Desert, also known as the Red Sea Hills because it borders the Red Sea. This is a much more mountainous region than the Western Desert, with some mountains over 1,200m high. Fresh water is scarce in the Red Sea Hills and along the shore of the Red Sea, and this factor greatly limited human habitation there. The Eastern Desert was the source of many hard stones used for sculpture and other craft goods, and minerals such as copper and gold.

To the south of the First Cataract in the Nile at Aswan is the land known as Nubia. Upper Nubia is now in northern Sudan, and Lower Nubia is the southernmost part of Egypt, between the First and Second Cataracts in the Nile. When the High Dam was built at Aswan in the 1950s, the Nile Valley of Lower Nubia became flooded and formed what is now called Lake Nasser. Six cataracts block navigation in the Nile in Nubia, from Aswan in the north (First Cataract) to the Sixth Cataract located about 100km downriver from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. Much of the Nile Valley in Nubia is very narrow, and as a result Nubia did not have the great agricultural potential of pharaonic Egypt.

In terms of the geographic scope of this topic, not all sites listed as entries are within the limits of what the ancient Egyptians considered the land of Egypt. Pharaonic sites are found at oases in the Western Desert, and in Upper and Lower Nubia, and Roman period sites are located in the Eastern Desert. Much of ancient Nubia’s history was closely connected to that of Egypt, culminating in Nubian rule in Egypt under the kings of the 25 th Dynasty. Hence, a number of cultures and sites in Nubia are also included in this volume. Although the Sinai peninsula is not a part of ancient Egypt, evidence of Egyptian culture is also found there, especially where the ancient Egyptians mined copper and turquoise, and relevant sites in the Sinai are also listed.

By the beginning of the 1st Dynasty ancient Egyptian civilization had emerged, but this was preceded by a very long sequence of prehistoric cultural development. Perhaps as early as one million years ago there were Paleolithic hunters and gatherers living along the Nile. Farming in the lower Nile Valley did not appear until after circa 6000 BC, when domesticated cereals were introduced from southwest Asia. Farming had great economic potential within the floodplain ecology of the Egyptian Nile Valley, and farming villages proliferated along the floodplain. During what is called the Predynastic period, circa 4000-3000 BC, these farming village societies became more complex, a development which culminated in the rise of the early Egyptian state.

The chronological scope of this topic includes Egypt’s prehistoric past, which was an important prelude to pharaonic civilization. Indeed, many cultural developments in pharaonic civilization need to be understood from the perspective of their prehistoric origins. Pharaonic civilization spanned thirty-one dynasties, some of which were periods of strong centralized control, followed by periods of political fragmentation and decentralization. During the first millennium BC Egypt was dominated by different foreign powers, but the monuments and written language continued a royal tradition which had developed over two millennia. With Egyptian conversion to Christianity in the fourth century AD, however, the traditions of pharaonic civilization were considered pagan and came to an end. Thus, archaeological sites listed in this topic do not include Coptic ones unless they are ancient sites that continued to be occupied during early Christian times.

Archaeological sites and site preservation

Archaeological sites in Egypt have often been named after the (Arabic) names of nearby villages, or what they have been descriptively termed in Arabic by local villagers. Sites are listed in this topic by their most familiar names, with cross-references in the index. For example, the Predynastic site of Hierakonpolis is listed under its Greek name, and not the modern Kom el-Ahmar or the ancient Egyptian Nekhen, whereas the Predynastic site of Nagada is listed under the name of the nearby village, and not Nubt, the ancient Egyptian name of this town. When appropriate, information about specific sites is given in topical entries, such as the private tombs of the New Kingdom at Saqqara. Very large sites such as Saqqara contained many tombs and monuments built over three millennia, and could not be discussed adequately in one entry.

Much of the archaeological evidence from ancient Egypt comes from sites located on the edge of the floodplain or slightly beyond in the low desert. Therefore, much of the archaeological evidence is highly specialized, from tombs, temples and mortuary complexes, and not from settlements. Undoubtedly, ancient cities, towns and villages were once located on higher ground on the floodplain, or along levees next to the river. Many earlier sites within the floodplain are now covered by deep alluvial deposits or modern villages, and thus cannot be excavated. Continuous cultivation of the floodplain for five to six thousand years has undoubtedly destroyed many sites, as have shifts in the river and its floodplain. Ancient settlements would also have been located along the edge of the floodplain, and some of these have been excavated in this century, but many have been partially or wholly destroyed as more recent irrigation has extended cultivation beyond the margins of the floodplain. Prehistoric sites located on the low desert above the floodplain are usually deflated, a process in which the desert wind has removed lighter organic materials and deposits, and the heavier artifacts from different periods, mostly potsherds and stone tools, have collapsed onto the desert surface. For a number of reasons, then, settlement patterns and changes in these through time are very incomplete in the archaeological evidence of ancient Egypt.

Because of alluviation, continuous cultivation, geological conditions which destroy sites, and the present dense occupation along the Nile, ancient settlements in Egypt have not been well preserved or are impossible to excavate. Another reason why there is relatively little evidence of settlements in Egypt is probably because of earlier excavators’ priorities. Tombs, temples and royal mortuary complexes were simply of greater interest to excavate than settlements which had been disturbed by Egyptian farmers digging for sebbakh, organic remains from ancient settlements which is used for fertilizer. Much of Egyptian archaeology, therefore, has been concerned with the clearance, recording and conservation of tombs and temples. Many of the earlier scholars who worked in Egypt were philologists whose interests lay in recording texts, or were trained in fine arts and were attracted to the great art and monumental architecture of pharaonic Egypt. In any case, earlier archaeologists in Egypt did not have the excavation techniques enabling them to understand settlements and their formation processes, with the exception of very well-preserved sites such as Akhenaten’s capital at Tell el-Amarna.

Looting has been another factor in the poor preservation of archaeological evidence in Egypt. Looting of tombs occurred throughout pharaonic times. To speed construction, later kings often used stone blocks from the monuments of earlier kings. The most blatant example of this process is the capital city of Tanis in the eastern Nile Delta, where the kings of the 21st Dynasty moved granite monuments block by block from the earlier 19th Dynasty capital of Pi-Ramesses, founded by Ramesses II. Quarried stones from the Old Kingdom pyramids in northern Egypt were used to build monuments in Islamic Cairo. Looting of artifacts accelerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries AD as museums and collectors in Europe and North America bought Egyptian antiquities. Unfortunately, looting, though illegal, continues in Egypt today.

Other sources of information

Because archaeological sites in Egypt can only be understood within their cultural context, this topic includes information about sociopolitical organization, the economy, technology, language, religion and so on. Egyptian culture certainly evolved and changed over three thousand years, and entries about aspects of Egyptian culture are necessarily short, but references are given for where to seek more information. An excellent introduction to the sociopolitical organization of ancient Egypt from Predynastic times through the Dynastic periods is Ancient Egypt: A Social History by B.G.Trigger, B.J.Kemp, D.O’Connor and L.B.Lloyd.

With the emergence of the Dynastic state, writing was invented, and the evidence of written texts has greatly added to our knowledge about the culture of ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians spoke a language which is today called Egyptian, written in a formal script of hieroglyphs ("sacred writing"), and in a simplified cursive script known as "hieratic." With the invention of writing, Egyptian culture moves from prehistory to history, and in its earliest dynasties ancient Egypt was a literate society. From Early Dynastic times information began to be recorded by and about the state. Unfortunately, many of these early hieroglyphic texts, aside from names, are difficult to decipher.

Writing became more widely used in the Old Kingdom, but most of what has been preserved is from a mortuary context. Beginning in the Middle Kingdom, however, there is much more evidence of writing than just the texts found in tombs. Not only are there accounts and records of a highly organized state bureaucracy, but there are letters, legal documents, literary texts and texts by specialists in fields such as medicine and mathematics. In the New Kingdom an even greater body of textual information recorded on papyri and ostraca has been recovered, as well as what is known from tombs and the many votive artifacts for the mortuary cult. For the first time, numerous cult temples were built of stone, and their walls are covered with reliefs and inscriptions. Following the collapse of the New Kingdom state, writing continued to be an important medium of communication in the Late period, and there are numerous papyri and temple inscriptions from Graeco-Roman times.

Much of the evidence we have for the use of writing in ancient Egypt is fairly specialized, and economic records are much less common in Egypt than in the states of Mesopotamia. Royal inscriptions were not an objective record of events, but were written to glorify pharaoh and his accomplishments, real or exaggerated. Very few people in ancient Egypt ever learned to read or write. Nonetheless, writing inevitably supplements what is known about ancient Egypt from the archaeological evidence, especially concerning ideology and beliefs.

Immediately recognizable in Egyptian civilization are formal styles of art and architecture. This was a material culture promulgated by the crown and emulated by elites in the society. Unfortunately, there is much less information, both archaeological and textual, about the working class in Egypt, most of whom were peasant farmers conscripted periodically to serve in the army and construct royal monuments and temples. Representational evidence, mainly from tombs and temples, but also from artifacts such as ostraca, conveys information about Egyptian workers and farmers, as well as other sociocultural institutions (especially religion and beliefs about the afterlife). Frequently, scenes on the walls of tombs and temples are accompanied by hieroglyphic texts which specify the activities depicted, and in this context the textual and pictorial evidence complement and enhance each other to convey information.

Archaeology is the study of the material remains of past cultures within their excavated contexts, and as such it deals with evidence which is fragmentary and incompletely preserved. But ancient Egypt is rich in different forms of evidence which convey information—archaeological, architectural, textual and pictorial—and a synthesis of all forms of evidence is needed in order to better understand this remarkable civilization in all its complexities.

The study of ancient Egypt

The systematic study of ancient Egypt began with the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in 1798. Accompanying Napoleon Bonaparte’s invading army was a group of savants, scholars who recorded ancient Egyptian monuments along with information about the culture of Islamic Egypt and the country’s natural history. Systematic excavations in Egypt, however, did not really begin until the late nineteenth century with the work of William Matthew Flinders Petrie. Previous to Petrie’s work in Egypt, excavators had mainly been interested in sending ancient art and texts back to museums and collectors in Europe and North America. Petrie, however, was interested in the study of all artifacts that he excavated, and was the first archaeologist to recognize the importance of stylistic seriation of ceramics and other artifacts in a relative chronology of periods, which he called "Sequence Dating."

Egyptian archaeology today is studied in several academic disciplines, and scholars from a number of disciplines have contributed to this topic. The most prominent of these disciplines is Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt mainly through the analysis of ancient texts, artifacts and architecture. Egyptian texts are studied by philologists and historians, and later Egyptian history is of interest to biblical and classical scholars. Because ancient Egypt produced so much monumental art and architecture, and private tombs in which the walls are covered with paintings and/or reliefs, art history has also been an important discipline for studying the culture of ancient Egypt. Anthropologically trained archaeologists in the early twentieth century were more interested in ancient Egypt from a theoretical perspective in terms of the rise of civilization. However, beginning in the 1960s a number of archaeologists trained in anthropology began to work in Egypt on the Nubian Salvage campaign, which surveyed, recorded and excavated sites in Lower Nubia before they were flooded by Lake Nasser following the construction of the High Dam at Aswan.

Archaeology in Egypt today is conducted under the auspices of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, formerly the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO), under the Ministry of Culture. Located throughout Egypt are regional offices of the Council, which direct excavations by Egyptian-trained archaeologists and oversee fieldwork conducted by foreign archaeologists. The cordial cooperation of the Supreme Council of Antiquities has made possible the ongoing excavations and current research which are reported here.

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