Siwa Oasis, prehistoric sites To Stone vessels and bead making (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Siwa Oasis, prehistoric sites

Siwa Oasis (29°12′ N, 25°31′ E) lies in the northwestern corner of the Western Desert, close to the Libyan border, and is the northernmost oasis in the Egyptian Sahara. It is approximately 560km west of the Nile Valley and 274km south of the Mediterranean coast. There are several small oases in the neighborhood of Siwa, including Gara, el- Areg, Bahrin and Sitra, situated in a depression in the Marmarica plateau. Today, water from springs and wells in the oases irrigates orchards and agricultural fields characterized by lush groves of palm trees.

Sites in the Siwa region consist of scatters of lithic artifacts and fragments of ostrich egg-shell. The raw materials utilized consist mostly of local chert and silicified limestone. The most common tool classes are backed bladelets and burins. Other less common tool classes include perforators, end-scrapers, notched and denticulated pieces, and points. The points include a variety of stemmed arrowheads and points, and leaf-shaped bifacial points. Fragments of grinding stones and ostrich eggshell beads are present. Although a few potsherds were found at two sites, their association with lithic artifacts cannot be conclusively established.

Assemblages from different parts of Siwa are similar. They date to an interval from the ninth to seventh millennia BP. In general, the assemblages of the Siwan industry are in the same tradition as the Epi-paleolithic assemblages of the Libyco-Capsian (Libya) and the Qarunian (Fayum). Lack of faunal and plant remains, as well as pottery, does not permit a valid interpretation of the subsistence regime of the Holocene inhabitants of the Siwa region. However, considering the presence of arrowheads and grinding stones, it seems that they were at least in part, if not exclusively, hunters and gatherers. The lack of permanent settlements also suggests that there were no "Neolithic" villages. Climatic conditions during the occupation were fairly moist to sustain a few pools, and sediments suggest that at times rain was torrential.

There is no indication that the Holocene Siwa dwellers were cattle herders or pastoralists. It is possible that Siwa, which received some winter rain and may also have received some summer rain during episodes when the monsoonal rains advanced much farther north than their current limit, never sustained permanent lakes or even large ephemeral freshwater lakes. Under such conditions, cattle might have been difficult to raise. Perhaps some of the inhabitants of Siwa kept a few goats and sheep, but it seems they probably depended heavily on wild resources.

Social organization

For most of ancient Egypt’s history the king held pre-eminent temporal power. He was also considered divine and able magically to insure the desired annual inundation and subsequent good harvests. However, it is not until the Old Kingdom’s 5th Dynasty that Egyptian sources—written and artistic—begin to reflect commoners with any clarity. For information about Old Kingdom social organization, we are more dependent on artifacts and monuments than the sparse written texts which have survived.

The hierarchical Egyptian society of the 4th Dynasty is expressed in the layout of the royal necropolis around the Great Pyramid at Giza, with the gigantic pyramid tomb of the king surrounded by the tombs of his immediate family (on the east) and those of the courtiers and officials (on the west). These mastaba tombs, with flat-topped superstructures and underground tomb chambers, were laid out in many rows. Only the mother and wives of the king shared with him the pyramid-style tomb. Thus courtiers and high officials—including male relatives of the king—were not originally as privileged in the afterlife as the king and the royal women. Tombs in the so-called workmen’s cemetery at Giza are very small in scale, but the designs imitated certain features of their superiors’ tombs and reflect hopes for an afterlife.

In this life, however, the most powerful positions of the realm in the 4th Dynasty were filled by the royal princes: the king’s brothers, cousins and sons, who controlled the office of the vizier, the treasuries and all royal construction works. Royal succession was from father to son, with the offspring of the marriage to the daughter of the previous king given priority. Both royal men and women held positions in the cults of many deities.

The sheer size of the royal pyramid complexes required large numbers of unskilled as well as skilled laborers. In the absence of large-scale slavery in the Old Kingdom, a system of corvee labor developed in which all citizens could be conscripted for part of the year. Ancient Egypt was an agrarian society and peasant farmers, who made up the bulk of its population, were the majority of the conscripted laborers. During the Nile’s annual inundation when no farming could be done, farmers were put to work. Housing, clothing and feeding of the work teams was provided by the state, perhaps utilizing women as weavers and food preparers, as later records show that women could also be conscripted. Hardly anyone seems to have been exempt from the corvee system, including priests and high officials, who might be pressed to act as overseers of those repairing dikes, building fortifications, or moving colossal stone blocks and carved monuments. Well-to-do Egyptians were buried with so-called servant statues, which provided proxies to do the work. Possibly this indicates that many rich Egyptians bought out of the corvee by hiring a substitute, or giving a bribe.

In the New Kingdom when a permanent army was established, its members were often put to work in quarries and on construction projects, and many foreign captives were also utilized. However, since the origin of the corvee system was long before the rise of a professional military, it has been suggested that the corvee was an early form of the welfare state.

With the 5th Dynasty, radical change in the government is obvious. Princes were now excluded from the kingdom’s administration, and even the highest ranking official next to the king, the vizier, was no longer a member of the royal family. Evidence throughout Egypt indicates the growth and ascendancy of a common-born managerial class. While strong centralized rule from the capital at Memphis continued, provincial tombs and private statues are now in evidence and reflect the growth in wealth of a literate class which could run the government efficiently, overseeing tax collection and redistribution and mustering work teams for royal building projects, mining and trade.

Inscriptions of the ever-expanding managerial class of the late Old Kingdom, while scarcely autobiographical, contain titles which provide hints of the structure of rank and official positions for both sexes. From the 5th and 6th Dynasties are titles reflecting positions of authority held by women, such as "Overseer of the Weavers’ House" (weaving was largely a female activity then) and "Overseer of Female Physicians." Some titles may have been merely honorific, but the use in the 5th Dynasty of titles previously held by royalty still reflected rank.

Among more ordinary people depicted in scenes of "daily life," which are more frequent in late Old Kingdom private tombs, are women in diverse activities outside the home, such as piloting boats, overseeing flax harvesting, and joining men in harvesting cereal. Young children, however, are portrayed playing separately with members of their own sex. Not only the elite but also a larger cross-section of society is represented by the participants in temple and funerary rituals. During the late Old Kingdom the cult of the goddess Hathor was dominated by women in its middle and upper administrative positions. Sons, however, appear more prominently in private funerary contexts and family tombs stress the importance of the male head of the family.

As there was no true separation of state and temple in ancient Egypt, it is difficult to evaluate the relative power and social prestige of religious and secular title holders. However, running the government depended upon the scribal class, which was exclusively male because of the many years of education required to master reading, composition and mathematics. Such training would have prevented women from learning what for many were the basic skills of survival: the myriad tasks of food and clothing production. Women are assumed to have been wed during their early teens, and surely would have spent most of their lives pregnant or nursing children. Marriage among commoners seems to have been overwhelmingly monogamous. Young couples founded their own households and did not join an extended family of a pater familias.

It is clear that many successful bureaucrats were utilized in a wide variety of capacities during their careers, perhaps to prevent them from concentrating too much power in one position or place. Typically, a man trained to compose letters, do surveying and compute geometrical problems could be sent by the king to organize mining operations, put down insurrections and oversee the construction of temples.

During the 6th Dynasty the use of high-ranking honorific titles became even more common, indicating a progressive cheapening of titles as they became prerogatives of office and as they grew in number (almost 2,000 are known). Later literary texts hint at a period of social upheaval, and certainly political disruption marked the First Intermediate Period, which followed the Old Kingdom. Occurring simultaneously and in the early Middle Kingdom was the added autonomy claimed by provincial governors. The titles of women in the Middle Kingdom, however, seldom reflect positions of authority and seem to have been associated with service industries.

The independence and wealth of the provincial governors (nomarchs) is reflected in the series of imposing tombs in the provinces (as at Meir, Deir el-Bersha and Beni Hasan) during the early 12 th Dynasty. Under Senusret III, these suddenly cease and stronger centralized authority was re-exerted. Already under Senusret II, a strictly regulated society can be observed, as evidenced by the organization of a planned town at Lahun near the royal pyramid complex in the Fayum, with the obvious separation in the town of officials’ houses and those of the workers.

Records of the Middle Kingdom increasingly reflect the incursion of foreign peoples into the Nile Valley. Some household records reveal dozens of foreigners on their staffs, but these may well have been itinerant craftspeople, rather than true slaves. The influence of foreigners from the Aegean, southwest Asia and Nubia in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period helped to create the more pluralistic society of the New Kingdom.

In the wars of the 18th Dynasty, when an empire developed and was exploited, large groups of foreigners taken captive by the Egyptian army were brought as war booty to Egypt, where they were put to work on the ambitious royal construction projects. Female captives were probably put to work in temple and royal weaving workshops. Due to their experience and language capabilities, a number of foreign captives were possibly utilized in trade. Traders do not show up in scenes or texts on the monuments, and seem to have had little social prestige (many are known to have been slaves); yet they served not only institutions such as the palace and temple, which produced excesses in commodities and craft goods, but also private individuals who wished to trade surpluses for luxury goods or metals. Judging from some names among the civil service, royal artisans, police force and military, it also seems likely that foreigners with previous bureaucratic, military or palace experience abroad were utilized by the Egyptians in similar capacities.

At this time the upper echelons of society consisted of the royal family, the viziers, the viceroy of Kush (Nubia), royal butlers, stewards of the royal estates and, following closely behind, the military generals and high priests and stewards of the most important temples. The first families of the provinces could probably have a claim to the top ranks of society, too, as mayors of towns are known who had much property in land, cattle and slaves.

A large professional army developed for the first time in the New Kingdom. An elite military class arose, on which the king depended for officers who would lead troops into battle in foreign lands. Also utilized internally in peacetime, the officer class was enlisted to control many aspects of Egyptian life, including the civil bureaucracy and the temple hierarchy. By the later 18th Dynasty an elite military class of charioteers had developed who rode into battle aligned closest to the king. This was, in effect, an aristocracy based on wealth (needed to maintain a team, a chariot, a stable and a groom). Its members might live in the provinces, where they owned much property, but they were not permitted to keep their own weapons, which were stored by the government.

Already recorded in the reign of Tuthmose IV was the promotion of a chariotry officer to the high religious rank of "Overseer of Prophets of All the Gods of the Two Lands [Egypt]." This seems to indicate that the king was taking a more direct control over the priestly hierarchies, which may have become hereditary and too independent. Before the New Kingdom, priestly families had been supported by the land holdings of their temples and the food which was first offered to the gods on the temple altars. However, during the 18th Dynasty, the temples had become rich from the generous gifts of booty donated by Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II as a result of their foreign victories. Wealth and prestige may have propelled segments of the priesthood to grow into a power that might challenge the king, especially when no clear line was drawn to separate the political from the ecclesiastical institutions of the state. For whatever reason, during the second half of the Dynasty a royal policy increasingly placed officials with military backgrounds in charge of the country’s religious institutions. The priestly class undoubtedly suffered more severely during Akhenaten’s reign. When his eventual successor, Horemheb, reopened the temples which had been closed during most of Akhenaten’s reign, he filled them with "ordinary priests and lectors from the pick of the army." This policy, which furthered the militarization of the state, continued under the rulers of the 19th Dynasty. For the ambitious peasant, the army might provide a more adventurous life with chances for promotion into leadership positions and even wealth from rewards of gold and captives. Land grants were also made to army veterans. However, the increasing numbers of foreigners in the army from the late 18th Dynasty onward seem to indicate that the average Egyptian preferred to stay home.

Certainly every aspect of Egyptian life depended upon the farmers and their harvest. The large labor force that served the state and the gods in their temples was fed by what the government obtained from the farmers. Taxes were collected on all types of commodities, but especially on grain, fruit, honey, oil, cattle, firewood and linen. Hereditary ownership of land was possible, and extant records trace ownership of even small plots over centuries. The official class was among the landowners, but a man could always rent plots from an institutional landowner. Women and foreign mercenaries show up in a late New Kingdom tax roll as cultivators, but one town in western Thebes listed only one-third of its householders as farmers; the others were herders, policemen, administrators or craftsmen.

New Kingdom records reveal an involvement, perhaps even an increase in activities, for women outside the home, in the marketplace and in cult centers. There are scenes of women both selling and buying in the market, which demonstrates that they handled the family’s purchasing power and were not a segregated element of society. Their roles in the hierarchies of local temples, and some major ones, seem to have depended mainly upon the social ranking of their husbands. Economic and legal documents, which increase in number beginning in the late New Kingdom, show women as independent, needing no legal guardians and bearing the full obligations of taxpayers and citizens.

In statues for their tomb chapels or temple display, and in tomb paintings, warriors were never portrayed with their arms and armor. Only the king was shown on monuments as a victor on the battlefield. The general, the priest and the courtier alike were frequently portrayed as seated scribes, heads bent over their papyrus roll, thus stressing their education, which set them apart from everyone else. No one rose in this society without some literacy and without being part of the bureaucracy of the state. To be an official was to have true prestige.

The site of Deir el-Medina, a village built to house the families of workers in royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, has yielded the most documentation for social relations in the late New Kingdom. The village was administered by the government’s scribe and foremen, who received more pay than their underling laborers. The artisans, however, were permitted to produce salable items in their free time for their neighbors and other private customers, which considerably enhanced their incomes. (They worked eight-hour days and had their weekends and frequent holidays off.) The women of this and other communities were also earners, selling cloth and the produce they raised. From the Deir el-Medina textual archive, it is even possible to detect some social mobility. Some of the scribes who became community leaders there had been promoted through the bureaucracy. Some were the sons of the community’s scribes, but others were the sons of men of the work crews. Thus even the son of a manual laborer, through ambition and years of study, could advance to a highly respected and lucrative position in the civil service.

It has been argued that the tenant farmer may have enjoyed more actual independence than those whose livelihoods depended directly on decisions of the crown. The royal artisans could be shifted around the country from job to job, or be given extra jobs to complete for their immediate supervisors. The civil servant could be promoted or demoted at will without much recourse, just as a woman of the royal harim might be sent off to a foreign land as a royal gift. The tenant farmer, however, had to fear the tax collectors, who visited each cultivator with armed police. These police would thrash any farmer who could not give the government its quota of his harvest. The "free citizen" of Egypt was definitely at the mercy of his superiors, and perhaps that is why education, which could set some men above the dependency of most others, was so valued.

Stone vessels and bead making

In every period the shaping of all hard stone vessels, including those manufactured from basalt, diorite, porphyry, breccia, granite and Egyptian alabaster (calcite), was completed by flint chisels, punches and scrapers. Flint was the only abundantly available tool-making material which was satisfactory for the exterior shaping of hard stone vessels. After 3,600 BC, Egyptian craftsmen learned to cast copper tools, but tests with hardened and sharpened copper chisels have demonstrated their inability to effectively cut any stone used for vessels, other than soft limestone and gypsum. Even these stone vessels needed awkward places to be shaped by flint scrapers; necks, rims and the undercutting of vessels’ shoulders all required skilled carving techniques. After preliminary shaping, coarse and smooth sandstone rubbers were utilized to complete this process and initiate surface polishing, which was probably finished by a sand/stone/copper powder used wet, followed by clay/mud, both applied by leather laps.

The technology for hollowing vessels was fully established in the Predynastic period. During the early Predynastic phases (Badarian and Nagada I) hard stone vessels would have been laboriously hollowed by hand-held stone borers, used in conjunction with desert sand abrasive; hand-held flint borers would have been used for very soft stone, without the benefit of sand abrasive. However, before the advent of copper tubes by the mid-fourth millennium BC (Nagada II), craftsmen possibly employed a reed tube, also in use with sand abrasive. This tube could have been spun between the hands, twisted by wrist action or driven by a bow. Reed drills will efficiently cut limestone and calcite, but not the harder stones, such as granite and porphyry.

After the introduction of cast copper, the stone vessel craftsman was able to imitate the hollow reed by beating thick sheets of cast copper into thin sheets and rolling them around wooden, cylindrical formers. Larger diameter copper tubes may have been directly cast by making tubular-shaped molds in damp sand. A wooden shaft was then forcibly driven, partway, into the tubular drill. This allowed the drill to be rotated by a bow, the upper part of the shaft turning in a hand-held, stone bearing-cap.

The tubular drill produces a tubular-shaped slot, which surrounds a central core. This technology allows the removal of a small amount of stone by drilling, but achieves the full-sized hole on removal of the core. The bow-driven copper tubular drill was certainly used to drill the holes in tubular lugs carved into vessels in Nagada II times. However, holes and cores produced by bow-driven tubes are tapered, caused by a motion actuated by the push and pull of the bow, and, as vessels were always shaped before drilling of the interior commenced, there was a severe risk of damaging them. Additionally, experiments have demonstrated that bow drilling also causes quartz sand crystals, trapped between the outer wall of the tube and the wall of the hole, to elongate the originally circular hole, thereby meeting the external wall of a shaped vessel.

Clearly the stone vessel craftsman needed a special tool to drive his tubular drills and stone borers which did not suffer from these drawbacks. During Nagada II times, a combined vessel-drilling and boring tool was developed by craftsmen. The tool, which is illustrated in several Egyptian tombs dating from the 5th to 26th Dynasties, generally consisted of a straight wooden shaft that inclined at an angle near the top to form a handle. The shaft and handle were created from a forked tree branch, adapted by cutting away the main stem just above the point where it branched into a lesser stem, which in turn was cut to length and carved into a distinctly tapered handle. The tool’s main shaft was fitted with two stone weights, fastened under the handle. These weights placed a load upon a tubular drill or stone borer and, consequently, upon the sand abrasive under the drill and borer. A single, circular weight was introduced during the 12th Dynasty.

Although tubular drills were fitted directly to the tool’s main shaft, borers were driven by a forked shaft lashed to the bottom of the main shaft. The principal borer for enlarging the initial cylindrical hole was shaped like a figure-of-eight when viewed from the top. The fork engaged on each side of the borer, which was deliberately fashioned from an oval pebble. Other types of borers were circular and conical, the latter shape being in use to enlarge vessels’ mouths. Cylindrical vessels of soft stone, such as gypsum, would have been completely excavated by crescent-shaped flint borers. Worn forked shafts could be replaced when necessary, and this stratagem ensured the continued use of the main tool.

In order to operate the tool, one hand firmly gripped the handle while the other hand gripped the shaft under the weights. The tool’s shaft was then twisted and reverse-twisted by a continuous wrist action. Extensive tests have established that wet sand abrasive is not conducive to the efficient drilling and boring of stone, and it is highly likely that dry sand was used. Different diameter drill tubes, on the same axis, were probably used to weaken a large core, and a vessel with a large mouth had a series of adjacent holes drilled around the perimeter to isolate the central mass. After drilling, figure-of-eight shaped borers of ever-increasing lengths were utilized to bore out bulbous vessels. Hand-held, hook-shaped flint and other stone borers were employed to complete the undercutting of vessel shoulders.

An 18 th Dynasty representation of the stone vessel drilling and boring tool

Figure 108 An 18 th Dynasty representation of the stone vessel drilling and boring tool

Experiments have determined that tubes and borers ground the sand abrasive and stone into a finely powdered material, which must have caused lung damage to ancient craftsmen. Powder produced by copper tubes also contained fine particles of copper. Significantly, the by-product powder produced from drilling granite contains approximately twelve times the amount of copper in powder obtained from drilling soft limestone, and this enabled other ancient craftsmen to use different powders for stone polishing, bead drilling and, possibly, faience manufacture.

Bead making began in Epi-paleolithic times (circa 10,000-5,500 BC). At first craftsmen utilized natural objects, such as pebbles, shells and teeth. In the Predynastic period, beads were also made from copper, gold, silver, greenish-blue glazed quartz and stones (agate, calcite, carnelian, diorite, garnet, limestone and serpentine). The Egyptians’ most favored bead shapes were rings, barrels, cylinders, convex bicones and spheroids, but amulets and pendants were also threaded into strings. Glass beads were introduced during the Dynastic period, and they were made by winding a thin thread of drawn-out glass around a wire.

Experiments have demonstrated that the powdered by-product material, when mixed with sodium bicarbonate (natron in ancient times) and water, creates faience cores and glazes after firing. Ancient faience bead, amulet and pendant cores could have been manufactured from powders derived from drilling soft stone with copper tubes. In ancient times a stiff paste, with a thread, wire or awl initially inserted to make the perforation, was molded or modeled into shape, and then glazed with a runny paste probably manufactured from powders derived from drilling hard stone. After firing, cores turned into a hard, whitish material that was sometimes tinted blue, green, yellow, brown or gray, while glazes turned mainly blue or green due to an increase in copper content.

Metals can be shaped by hammering, but hard stone beads were first formed by breaking up pebbles, then roughly shaping the pieces by chipping with flint tools, followed by grinding on harsh and smoother grades of sandstone. Final polishing was achieved by rubbing along grooves in wooden benches coated with a runny polishing abrasive, possibly made by mixing byproduct powder with muddy water.

Perforation of stone beads was accomplished by flint borers from the earliest periods, but the use of bow-driven copper drills first appeared in early Predynastic (Badarian) times. Even so, flint borers were concurrently in use with copper drills and were also needed to make initial depressions in beads to center these drills. A thin abrasive paste, probably made from the by-product powder, was used with copper and bronze bead drills. At Kerma, in Nubia near the Third Cataract, small bronze drills were force-fitted into waisted wooden handles which were individually driven by a bow string, but by the 18th Dynasty at Thebes, craftsmen evolved mass-production drilling technology. The bow’s length was increased to approximately 1.2m; its 2mm diameter string simultaneously turned two, three, four, or even five bronze drill rods, each 5mm in diameter. These rotated in bearing holes drilled into the bottom ends of vertical sticks, held in line by the craftsman’s free hand. The drills revolved at high speed in stone beads secured in the top of a three-legged table. Mass production of bead perforation considerably reduced the time, and cost, of bead making.

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