Mendes, Dynastic evidence To Merimde Beni-salame (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Mendes, Dynastic evidence

Mendes, modern Tell Rub’a, is located in the eastern central Delta (30°57′ N, 31°31′ E) in the province of Daqahaliya, roughly midway between the city of el-Mansura and the town of el-Simbillawein.

The mound can be divided into three major areas. The most important area is that in the northwest, which is bounded by massive mudbrick enclosure walls slightly less than 2km in perimeter. These walls define the sacred temple precinct. The most prominent feature within the enclosure is the naos of a Late period temple. Nothing remains of this great temple today except the naos, a shrine carved from a single block of stone which bears the cartouches of King Amasis (26th Dynasty). The second major area of the mound is a high rise to the east of the temple precinct. The third major area, the vast southern city, is thought to have been the main residential quarter of Mendes.

A foundation deposit discovered in the northern part of the Amasis temple proper indicates that this area was either originally constructed or rebuilt in the 18th Dynasty and was added to in the 19th Dynasty. The southern part of the temple was built in the 26th Dynasty and contained four monumental granite naoi, each over 7m high, in a courtyard 29.40×26.60m. They were placed on a limestone platform which can be described as a huge floating foundation supported by sand and contained by mudbrick walls. Due to the extreme care of the original architects, who marked the positions of the naoi on each course of the limestone foundation, their exact locations are known. Inscriptions on the broken naoi remains indicate that they were dedicated by Amasis to Shu, Geb, Osiris and Re. The fact that his name is inscribed while the rest of the text is in relief led some scholars to believe that he had merely usurped a structure built in a previous reign. Discovery of the original foundation deposits at the corners of the limestone foundations, however, demonstrate that this part of the temple had been built by Amasis. Each foundation deposit contained a bovine skull and haunch; a miniature grinding stone and grinder; a number of miniature ceramic cups, jars and bowls; a semicircular limestone model of a loaf of bread; and four plaques each of gold, silver, copper, red stone, greenish stone, faience, carnelian and lapis lazuli. Each of the plaques have the nomen and prenomen (cartouches) of Amasis, which are incised on the metal plaques and painted on the others.

The temple was built over an Old Kingdom cemetery. Much of the cemetery was completely removed when the deep foundations of the temple were dug. A portion of the cemetery, however, has been preserved to the east and north of the temple.

To the east of the temple were two well preserved mudbrick mastabas, with false door niches at the northern end of their eastern fagades and a series of much smaller niches to the south, which probably date to the late Old Kingdom. The one farther north had a false door stela in place with an offering table. The skeleton within the mastaba was buried with two pots and two copper razors, and had originally been interred in a wooden coffin. According to the stela, the occupant was named ‘Aha-pu-Ba, priest of the Ram God of Mendes. A false door stela found associated with the second mastaba, to the south, was

not in situ but was also for Aha-pu-Ba. As in the first mastaba, a single burial was placed within the structure and a series of simple inhumations covered with reeds, of males and females as well as infants, were situated at the bottom. The single burial was of a woman (the wife of ‘Aha-pu-Ba?); the remains were buried in a badly decomposed wooden coffin and there were no grave goods. According to the stelae inscriptions, both monuments were provided by Aha-pu-Ba’s son, whose own funerary monument did not fare so well; broken fragments of his tomb were found reused in a later tomb farther north.

Over thirty additional burials were recovered in this area. For the most part, these corpses had simply been wrapped in reeds and buried without grave goods. One of these burials, however, of a female in a coffin, was found with beads, a bronze mirror, small alabaster vessels, a stone grinder and over 200 pieces of galena. Above the head and along the sides of the body were small strips as well as large pieces of gold foil. Unfortunately, it was not possible to reconstruct the original configuration of this gold decoration.

Immediately to the east of the mastaba area and separated from it by a major north-south mudbrick wall, possibly the precinct wall of the cemetery, were houses which date to the late Old Kingdom and later. To the north of the naoi, all the graves were badly damaged. One appears to have been built wholly of limestone. Others were built partly of limestone or wholly of mudbrick. In the debris throughout the area many artifacts were found which came from the destroyed burials; they range in date from the Old Kingdom through the Middle Kingdom. Earlier graves (Early Dynastic) were excavated in a lower level, in deposits that were relatively undisturbed by ancient building activity and modern pillaging of the site. The lower graves were simple interments, usually flexed with the head to the north facing east.

The high rise of the mound to the east, outside of the temple precinct, is aptly called "Kom el-Adham" (Mound of Bones). The top layer is practically a solid mass of bones with many whole and fragmentary faience shawabtis and amulets. Beneath the top layer were several meters of relatively pure sand in which some bones were found, and below the sand was hard packed soil which contained burials and potsherds. A great number of pots which can be dated to the third-second centuries BC were buried within the layer of sand.

Mendes, Predynastic and Early Dynastic

Mendes, which lies in the northeastern Nile Delta (30°57′ N, 31°31′ E), near the modern provincial capital of Mansura, is one of the largest archaeological sites in the Delta, and it is particularly important for research on the origins of the first Egyptian states, as they evolved after about 3,300 BC.

By about 3,300 BC ancient Egypt was beginning a period of fundamental transformation, a process in which the political significance and economic importance of Lower Egypt, including the Nile Delta, greatly increased and both Upper and Lower Egypt became a single political and cultural entity. This process of transformation may have begun as early as 3,500 BC. Northern Egypt gradually grew in importance for two primary reasons: first, Egypt’s wars, trade and other interactions with Syro-Palestine and the Mediterranean world were already important by at least 3,100 BC, and in subsequent centuries Egypt’s foreign relations became increasingly important economically and politically; second, the Delta has vast agricultural lands and eventually became the farming and stock-raising center of the Egyptian state.

Tell el-Rub’a, which together with the adjacent mound called Tell Timai comprise the archaeological site now known primarily by its Greek name, "Mendes," was one of the major Delta settlements during all or most of this formative era of early Egyptian antiquity. Donald Redford notes that under the name "Npt," which throughout its history was one designation of the city, Mendes is known from the reign of Djer (early 1st Dynasty); but "Ddt," the more common name (from which Mendes is ultimately derived), is attested to not long after, in the 4th Dynasty. By the 6th Dynasty Mendes included a cemetery for local priests. For most of its long history Mendes was the capital of Nome XVI of Lower Egypt, which stretched from just north of Tell Mukdam to the Mediterranean (i.e. about 129km north-south). From its beginnings, Mendes appears to have been the cult center of the "Great Buck, Master of Ddt," originally perhaps a ram, and his consort, the "Foremost of Fishes." Through a later Osirian association the pair was augmented to a triad by the addition of the god Harpokrates.

Compared to Hierakonpolis, Abydos, Nagada and other towns in southern Egypt, Tell el-Rub’a was a comparatively small settlement in the third and fourth millennia BC. But the community appears to have been an important element in the regional Delta settlement pattern, and perhaps in a larger national and international context as well, exactly during the period when Egypt was first evolving into a large territorial state. Throughout most of its occupational history, Nile tributaries linked Mendes to the centers of the Egyptian state in the Nile Valley, and also to the southwest Asian shores of Syro-Palestine and to the Mediterranean and Aegean worlds. Thus, Tell el-Rub’a was an important "node" in an evolving pattern of socioeconomic and political interactions that in some ways define this region’s complex cultural history.

One of the most important aspects of Tell el-Rub’a is that it is not a typical Early Dynastic cemetery site (as are almost all the other Delta sites of this period that have been located and excavated). The small areas of Tell el Rub’a that have been excavated appear to be entirely residential and occupational, with substantial mudbrick buildings, ovens and other domestic features, and a great deal of refuse typical of early communities, but no burials. Thus, Tell el-Rub’a has the potential to tell us much about changes in the society and economy of the Delta during Egypt’s formative era.

Too small an area of Predynastic and Early Dynastic Tell el-Rub’a has been excavated to infer much about this community, but excavations between 1990 and 1993 showed that at least part of this site was probably occupied continuously between about 3,200 and 2,700 BC. A few pieces of pottery known as "Ma’adi blackware" were found in the lower levels of the recent excavations, suggesting that the site was occupied at the same time as Ma’adi, an important Predynastic site located just south of modern Cairo. Along with other northern sites, such as Buto, Tell el-Rub’a was part of the distinctive Lower Egyptian culture of the later Predynastic period. The pottery from the early occupation at Tell el-Rub’a is quite different from that of the contemporaneous Upper Egyptian Nagada culture, yet it is very similar to pottery at the various northern sites, suggesting that until about 3,200 BC the Delta and all of Lower Egypt may have been somewhat culturally isolated from the small states that developed in the south. But the pottery from Tell el-Rub’a from levels dated to the 1st Dynasty and just prior to it—that is, levels that lie directly on those from which the Ma’adi blackware pottery and other distinctive Delta pottery came—is quite similar to contemporaneous Nagada culture pottery found at Hierakonpolis, Abydos, and many other southern sites.

Thus, like several other Delta sites, the evidence from Tell el-Rub’a suggests a fairly rapid transformation of Egypt, from two somewhat separate Predynastic cultures to a single, culturally unified state. It may be that, as in the early Egyptian legends, some southern ruler, such as King Narmer, conquered the Delta and forcibly integrated it into the Egyptian state, but there is little evidence for this.

Despite the limited area of recent excavations, the evidence suggests that the people who lived at Tell el-Rub’a during the period of Egypt’s transformation, from about 3,200 to 2,700 BC, subsisted on the traditional ancient Egyptian diet, and, in general, lived lives very similar to the those of later pharaonic eras. Many of the potsherds in the earliest levels were from bread molds, and the plant remains suggest that wheat and barley were staples. The animal remains from the early occupations are poorly preserved, but pig and fish bones are the most numerous, and several fragments of cattle bones have been found, as well as a hippopotamus tooth.

In general, the architecture of the Early Dynastic levels appears to be a complex of mudbrick domestic buildings, but too small an area of the (largely underwater) Predynastic levels has been exposed to determine if they contain remains of the small circular reed huts that have been found in Predynastic levels of at least one nearby site. In a stratum containing standard Early Dynastic ceramics one small clay sealing was found; the hieroglyphs on it seem to refer to a personage of the 1st Dynasty, but the inscription is difficult to decipher.

Mendes was a significant site not only in the Predynastic and Early Dynastic eras, but during most of the later transformational epochs of Egyptian antiquity as well. It was already a significant settlement during the initial formation of the Egyptian state in the late fourth millennium BC, and it increased in size and importance during the maturation of the Egyptian state in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. During the complex imperial dynamics of the New Kingdom and Late period it became one of the greatest Delta cities.

Merimde Beni-salame

The prehistoric site of Merimde is situated on the western border of the Nile Delta, a few kilometers southwest of the village of Beni-salame (30°19′ N, 30°51′ E). It covers an area of approximately 25ha on a spur surrounded at the foot of its slopes by a desiccated branch of the Nile. "Merimde" means "the place of the ashes," an allusion to the gray/black deposits of the cultural layers.

Merimde was discovered by Hermann Junker during his West Delta Expedition in 1928. Until then, the Delta was believed to have been uninhabited in prehistoric times. Junker correctly concluded that the cultural dualism of Upper and Lower Egypt dates back to prehistoric times. From 1929 to 1939 he excavated 6400m2 of the site. The finds from these excavations are scattered in a number of museums, especially those in Cairo, Stockholm and Heidelberg.

Junker’s excavations were never fully published because the documentation was lost during the Second World War. In 1976, excavations were finally resumed by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) and, from 1977 to 1982, by the German Institute of Archaeology (DAI) in Cairo. The new excavations have enabled us to reconstruct the stratigraphic sequence of the site, and to fit Junker’s many finds into their proper chronological context.

In the course of Merimde’s development the settlement often moved about horizontally on the habitable surface of the spur, probably because of changes in the water level of the Nile branch and the height of the annual flood, which were caused by climatic changes. Merimde’s inhabitants had to adapt to these circumstances and settled as close as possible to the river bank, but above the high-water mark.

The stratigraphy of the site as a whole attains a maximum depth of 2.5m, but can taper off to as little as 0.5m or less on higher ground bordering the semi-desert. Stratigraphic evidence and numerous surface finds demonstrate that at least 1m of cultural deposits was lost through deflation (wind erosion) after the abandonment of the Neolithic village. The earliest stratum lies directly on a gravel bed with Middle Palaeolithic stone tools and late handaxes. The scarcity of finds in this stratum would seem to indicate a relatively low density of habitation.

The only structures found were small huts made of wattle and reeds with round or elliptical ground plans. The latter are partly sunken into the ground. The various types of structures in the later strata seem to be grouped in "compounds." Circles of Nile clay and baskets served as storerooms or granaries. Daily activities were pursued outdoors, as abundant remains of open fires, lithic workshops, grinding stones and so on attest.

Burials were found in all of Merimde’s strata. There was no separate area for a cemetery, which is characteristic of late prehistoric sites in Lower Egypt. The dead were interred in a contracted position in shallow, oval pits. Children’s remains were simply thrown into rubbish pits; apparently, only adults were given a proper burial. In the earliest stratum, they were buried with the head facing the Nile branch; in later strata, there seems to be no obvious orientation of the body. Usually the graves do not contain grave goods; only in the earlier Merimde burials are perforated fresh water mussel shells (Aspatharia rubens) relatively common, and were probably sewn on clothing for decoration.

After the abandonment of the Neolithic settlement, parts of the site were used as a cemetery by people of the Predynastic Ma’adi culture. The village associated with this cemetery has not yet been located. Only a few Ma’adi culture burials were richly furnished with pottery. Sporadic surface finds of the Late period are evidence for occasional use of area more recently, but probably only for cultivation by inhabitants of the nearby city of Therenutis. It is assumed that the abandonment of the prehistoric settlement was caused by the gradual meandering of the adjacent Nile branch, which now lies buried within the Delta. Stratigraphic observations demonstrate that desertification and deflation of the upper Neolithic layers began as early as the fourth millennium BC. the

Plan of the Neolithic site of Merimde

Figure 69 Plan of the Neolithic site of Merimde

The exceptionally numerous finds from the large-scale excavations at Merimde are evidence of a fully developed Neolithic culture characterized by sedentary village life, agriculture, animal husbandry, and, to a lesser degree, hunting and fishing. Its material culture was marked by the production of pottery, stone tools of pecked flint and ground hard stone, and various types of bone tools. Anthropomorphic figurines and zoomorphic ones (mostly cattle), modeled in clay or carved in bone, were also found but were not numerous.

In the lowest level at Merimde is evidence of the oldest fully developed Neolithic culture in the Egyptian Nile Valley/Delta. Red pottery, meticulously burnished horizontally, in simple forms (bowls, spherical and ovoid shapes), is typical of this stratum. On some pots, one horizontal band under the rim was left unpolished and was incised with a fish bone pattern. The clay used in the pottery from this stratum, in contrast to that of later strata, is always untempered. Typical features found only on this early pottery are pierced lugs and handles, as well as ring stands for the usually round-bottomed forms.

The flint industry of the earliest stratum is completely different from that of later periods. It is based on blades and flakes which were retouched laterally and terminally. Backed blades as well as tanged projectile points (arrowheads) occur in this stratum, as do borers and several other small, bifacial tools. Other typical finds are beads made of ostrich eggshells and shells of molluscs from the Mediterranean and Red Seas, perforated for use as pendants.

The earliest stratum is separated from later cultural deposits by a sterile layer of eolian sand, evidence that the site had been abandoned for a relatively long time. The oldest Merimde lithic industry shows affinities to that of the preceding Epi-palaeolithic culture in Lower Egypt (known from sites at Helwan), and its pottery is related to that of the early Neolithic of southwest Asia. A specifically Lower Egyptian Neolithic culture developed only in the later strata of the site.

In the second, higher stratum, settlement activity obviously increased. The settlement shifted gradually up the slope of the spur, probably as a consequence of higher Nile floods. Traces of architecture in the form of postholes and various pits are now more common than in the earliest stratum. Elliptical-shaped huts of Nile clay, however, do not yet occur. In comparison to the earliest Neolithic evidence at Merimde, there are radical changes in the second stratum. The pottery is now tempered with chaff, and includes increasingly complex vessel shapes. Rounded bowls and pots are gradually superseded by conical or biconical shapes. Numerous ovoid vessels and large, thick-walled pans or platters (for baking?) are characteristic forms. On all forms, the rim is now abruptly cut off at a sharp right angle, whereas the earliest pottery had tapered rims. The pottery of the second stratum is always undecorated. Light gray burnished vessels are a new type, but the smoothed and the red-burnished wares continue. Burnishing is now applied diagonally, and is irregular.

The flint industry also acquires a new technology: blades and flakes become less common, and are replaced by large, bifacially retouched tools. These include flint knives, celts, long borers and carefully retouched projectile points, with long barbs and deep notches where the shaft was attached. For the first time there is evidence of large, tapering sickle blades with serrated edges showing obvious sheen along the cutting edge, probably from harvesting cereals. The numerous grinding stones and mortars from this stratum would strongly suggest the processing of cereals. Celts for hollowing logs were often hafted as adzes, with an asymmetrical blade set perpendicular to the haft. Notable are projectile points and knives made in a technique combining grinding with retouch. But coarse tools are also found in the second stratum and occur throughout the entire Merimde sequence.

The second stratum is exceedingly rich in small finds, especially bone artifacts. These include tools, such as awls and spatulas, and jewelry, such as pendants, beads and finger rings. Typical artifacts found only in this stratum are large harpoons, probably used for fishing. Ivory bracelets, adzes made from the ribs of large game, and fish hooks of mussel shell are also limited to this stratum.

The deposits of the second stratum also contained small finds in stone, such as alabaster vessels, ceremonial maceheads of slate, limestone and alabaster, and beads of semiprecious stones. Especially notable are some small stone axes made of amphibolite, slate and quartzite (found southeast of the First Cataract). No semi-finished artifacts in these materials were found, and the stone axes were probably acquired through trade as finished craft goods. They were often found grouped in small "hoards" hidden within the settlement: evidence of their great value.

The cultural and geographical orientation of the second (or Middle) Merimde culture known from the second stratum is completely different from that of its predecessor. Significant elements of its material culture were of African origin. These include the harpoons and adzes of bone and flint, fish hooks of mussel shell, and axes of stones from Nubia. The absence of influence from southwest Asia in the artifact assemblages is probably the result of an arid and inhospitable climatic phase, which lasted in Palestine until the middle of the fifth millennium BC.

In the course of its later culture history (Merimde III-V), the settlement grew to cover an area several times its original size, up to 25ha in strata IV and V. Unfortunately, the later deposits have been exploited by local farmers for fertilizer (sebbakh). Finds are plentiful in these strata and Junker’s excavations were primarily of this material, which has strongly influenced our scientific definition of the Neolithic culture at Merimde.

Building activity at Merimde was quite intensive during the later periods. Nile clay was used to construct elliptical huts with pisee walls (lumps of mud/clay packed to form a wall), and a floor area of as much as 2x4m. Large reed baskets (up to 3.0m in diameter and 1.5m high), which had been set into pits and reinforced or caulked with Nile clay, were common.

The most obvious changes in the material culture of the later strata are in the ceramics. Conical bowls and biconical pots with flat bases now predominate. Also typical are pots with an "S" profile and flask or bottle shapes. Twin pots also appear in the later strata. In addition to the traditional red- and gray-polished wares, deep black burnished pottery now appears. The development of several new decorative techniques is seen in pots in strata IV and V: applied knobs and ribs are common, followed by various impressed and engraved decorations. A few sherds of painted pottery were also found.

In the lithic industry, large, bifacially retouched tools are perfected, and many types are added to the inventory. Projectile points are especially sensitive to change through time. The characteristic type for stratum II evolves in stratum IV to the classic Merimde point with short, beveled barbs. In stratum V, it is replaced by a type (of arrowhead) known from the Fayum, with pointed barbs.

Further innovations are large burins, tools, tripartite sickles, and several types of celts and knives. Large, carefully retouched and ground ceremonial weapons are typical. Small finds of clay become more diversified and bone artifacts (beads, pendants and belt hooks) are especially common.

Botanical and osteological evidence confirms the classification of Merimde as a fully developed Neolithic settlement. Besides numerous cultivable plants (emmer wheat, barley, lentils and vetches), animal husbandry was also significant. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and dogs were kept from the beginning, but the relative economic importance of these species changed through time. Cattle and pig breeding clearly increased in importance, whereas the proportion of sheep and goats decreased correspondingly.

Throughout the history of the settlement, its inhabitants engaged in hunting. Desert game, such as antelopes, gazelles, feline predators, ostriches and so on, were hunted, but the nearby branch of the Nile was also exploited for its game, such as hippopotamus, crocodile, aurochs and many species of water fowl. Fishing played an important role in the economy from the beginning. Fish were caught with nets, fish hooks and harpoons. Bones of more than twenty different species of fish could be identified at Merimde, including specimens more than 1m in length. Large, edible Nile mussels (Aspatharia rubens) were also collected and consumed in great quantities.

Besides foodstuffs, game and fish, the inhabitants of Merimde also brought back various raw materials from their expeditions to other regions. From the terrace immediately to the south of the settlement and from the plateau extending into the Wadi Natrun were sandstone (for grinding stones), petrified wood, flint nodules and pigments (hematite, ocher). Carnelian and other semiprecious stones for jewelry were also collected there.

According to calibrated radiocarbon dates, the Neolithic settlement at Merimde dates to the fifth millennium BC (circa 4,750-4,250 BC). Typologically, its later phase corresponds to the Neolithic culture known in the Fayum (Fayum A) and to the earliest Predynastic cultural phase in Middle/Upper Egypt, the Badarian. A gap of at least five centuries, however, separates the evidence at Merimde from the Ma’adi culture of Lower Egypt.

Next post:

Previous post: