Old Kingdom Settlement Remains

The genesis of a sector

As the cleaning and site management work at the provincial pyramid at Edfu (ca. 2600 BCE ; see News & Notes 213) have come to a fruitful completion, the TEP has focused its efforts on the investigation of the origins and the evolution of the ancient settlement of Edfu since the third millennium BCE. The TEP team started the excavation of a new sector in 2012. It measures more than 35 m (ca. 115 feet) in length and 20 to 23 m (65 to 75 feet) in width, thus covering an area of 1300 m2 (14 000 ft2).

This new area, Zone 2, is situated along the northeastern side of the tell, about 10 m of the monumental pylon of the Ptolemaic temple. This zone is limited to its eastern side by the large mud brick enclosure wall of this late temple. The area is characterized by a long strip of archaeological remains, which had been miraculously preserved from destruction and the preceding archaeologists had never considered any fieldwork here because of the colossal amount of debris left by the sebakhin – the looters of the site – that had gradually accumulated over the past century. A quick reconnaissance operation in 2009 had indicated here the presence of urban settlement remains dating at least as early as the second half of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2400-2200 BCE) lying under 4 to 7 m (13 to 23 feet) of sand and rubble. These remains not only constitute the oldest urban levels so far discovered at Tell Edfu (with the exception of the necropolis area) but also the last area of the entire tell where such early levels can be reached for excavation.

Before any reconnaissance or fieldwork can start on a new area, it is equally necessary to understand the evolution of the tell, in antiquity but also in the most recent and ‘turbulent’ history which has led to the current state of this Zone 2, which is nowadays largely destroyed. The Description de l’Égypte (Chapter V. §1 p. 1-5, Vol I, pl. 48) provide a relatively detailed outline of the ‘two temples’ and the tell of Edfu before the start of the illicit excavations. In 1860-61, the temple and its entry area were cleared of the sand and the late buildings as part of the initiative led by Auguste Mariette. The part of the tell situated along the exterior of the temple had still been largely intact by 1875, the date when the temple was increasingly being cleared of the surrounding ruins. The archaeological soil rich in organic material was then systematically removed from the site and used as fertilizer in the nearby fields. It is essentially at this occasion that Zone 2 lost the upper layers of ancient settlement remains. The sebakh diggers miraculously stopped their work on the levels dating to the end of the Old Kingdom, a decision mainly linked to the presence of large amounts of burnt soils and walls in this area, which has a distinctive red color and is not suitable as fertilizer for agriculture.

Between the summer of 1903 and Spring 1905, the French engineer Alexandre Barsanti undertook at the request of the Antiquities Service – and Gaston Maspero – a rescue work of the western stone perimeter wall of the temple which was about to collapse. In order to placed the 3386 architectural stone blocks on a cleaned surface before the wall could be reassembled again, he had decided to clear a large area of the tell directly to the west of the temple, stretching along more than 80 m. This operation, in a zone already heavily destroyed by the sebakhin, led to the destruction of all the archaeological remains down to bedrock covering an area of almost 6400 m2 (ca. 69 000 ft2), which is nowadays called the ‘Barsanti plain’. The rubble produced by this leveling and clearance operation was not transported outside of the temple area but simply deposited along the periphery of the Barsanti’s palin, specifically in the Zone 2 where as a consequence the holes left by the sebakhin were thus covered by more than two meters of debris.

About twenty years later, Henri Henne conducts two seasons of fieldwork under the auspices of the IFAO (Institut français d’archéologie orientale) in 1922 and 1923. He concentrates his work on the upper levels of the site, and at that moment the actual Zone 2 area offers the only access point to the top of the tell. The workers use it as a passage to take down to the excavation debris and as a consequence this area is covered by another couple of meters of debris. Less than ten years later, Maurice Alliot continues the excavation of the settlement and uses once again the Zone 2 area as access point. But the French archaeologist notes some visible walls in Zone 2 in dotted lines on his site plan, which he interprets as ‘traces of two mastaba (tombs)’ (FIFAO 10, 1922, pl. XX). After 1932, this area seems to have attained the current state, and its function as easy access point to the upper part of the tell during almost 80 years have in fact led to the preservation of this area until now.

During the mid-70s, when the British archaeologist Barry Kemp visits this part of the site, he notes for the first time along the western side of Zone 2 several important remains of massive enclosure walls dating to the Old Kingdom and also points out the presence of urban settlement remains in situ (Antiquity LI, 1977, p. 189-191). In 2000, the construction of the new visitor center around the temple leads to changes in the accessibility of this area and successfully masks its major importance for archaeology for another ten years. In order to channel the large amount of daily visitors as well as ban any curious tourist from climbing onto the ancient site, the local authorities decide to built a new mud brick wall along the exterior of Zone 2. This enclosed area becomes quickly filled up with trash. Some of the space behind the new wall is also used to store fragments of statues, inscribed stone blocks and architectural elements which had been deemed of less aesthetic value for display. Some of these blocks date back from the older Franco-Polish excavations conducted between 1936 and 1939 by Bernard Bruyère and Kazimierz Michalowski on top of the tell and in the Old Kingdom necropolis area. Numerous other large architectural stone elements, which had been unearthed by the excavations of the Antiquities Service in the courtyard of the temple in 1984, were equally placed here after having been stored in the Pylon for more than twenty years. This designated ‘storage area’ for stone blocks was gradually filling up and the lack of space led to further pieces being deposited along the base of the tell further to the west. Since 2010 the TEP has undertaken an increased effort to organize these 350 blocks and place them in rows on the ground. In addition to the excavations of the Old Kingdom urban levels, which comprise a unique opportunity to study settlement remains dating this period outside of the Memphite region, the TEP decided to include a rescue program for the large number of decorated stone blocks within its concession area. The protection of the blocks has been achieved by the construction of four large benches made of fired bricks, which were built according to the same guidelines as those at the large blockyards of Luxor temple and Medinet Habu. It is therefore a new site management program that was added to the regular fieldwork activities and made possible by the extremely generous funding of two Oriental Institute long-term supporters, Bob and Janet Helman.

The new Old Kingdom Settlement area (Zone 2)

Conducted in parallel with the excavation of the palace and silo area (Zone 1), the removal of the sebakhin refuse in Zone 2 took us three seasons. Because it is not possible to use any mechanical devices, the risk of undermining the surrounding and underlying archaeological remains is too great, a team of one hundred workers was necessary to take away the four to seven meters of accumulated debris. During the 2011 season the first levels in situ appeared miraculously preserved under the debris deposited during the preparation of Barsanti’s plain. A fine excavation was finally launched in 2012 revealing extensive archaeological remains that had been quite disturbed, the area resembling a ‘Swiss cheese’ marked by pillaging holes apparently produced between 1875 and 1903, according to the large number of Ottoman smoking pipes (characteristic of 19th Century), modern coins (year 1261 of the Hijri) or pieces of newspapers in Arabic found in the sebakhins’ waste.

Directly under this garbage layer, the archaeological remains date to the very end of the Sixth Dynasty and the beginning of the First Intermediate Period. Several areas of domestic nature have been found here and appear to have suffered from a major fire that precipitated their abandonment as can be witnessed by several layers of complete pottery vessels left in place.

Most of the floor levels from these houses have largely disappeared, but their underground levels delivered nearly complete vaulted silos, used for domestic grain storage. All these levels of habitat seem to have been occupied here during the 6th Dynasty after an extensive leveling operation, a sort of ‘tabula rasa’ of the preceding installations. It appears that the area was previously devoted to different activities as it can be seen by the monumental remains uncovered after the removal of some of the silos and house foundations. This earlier level is composed of several successive Old Kingdom enclosure walls, maybe a town wall. Further south and with an intra muros position there was also a large building complex with massive mud brick walls and where the peculiarity of the artifacts discovered underlines a clear difference to the subsequent domestic contexts.

The three sections of mud brick enclosure walls uncovered here were built progressively against each other in three times during the Old Kingdom, following a yet unclear timeline . With an east-west orientation and forming a right angle to the north on the east side, they measure between 1.50 m to 2.00 m in width (ca. 5 to 6.5 feet). The southern section (Section 1) is the first and oldest one. It was showing severe signs of wear and collapse when the second section (Section 2) was built, which is not really an enclosure per se but a renovation and a reinforcement of the outer base of the first wall. It is characterized by a stone construction in the lower part (uncut blocks of local sandstone) with mud bricks in the upper part. This addition had a fairly steep exterior slope. This face was also covered with a fine coating of mud, a special and peculiar finish for the exterior of a presumed town wall. Even more rare, at least three redans – sort of narrow buttresses with a width of 1.50 m (ca. 5 feet) – appeared on the outer face, also coated with fine mud and obviously with no other function than a decorative addition. The third section is clearly visible north, in the right angle turn of the wall, and it has been built against the earlier walls following exactly the same course. Without any external coating, it could however have also received exterior buttresses. An empty area of more than 0,70 m (ca. 2.3 feet) between the sloped Section 2 and Section 3 was filled with rubble thrown in the narrow spaces produced by the regular addition of thin transversal walls. This set of walls then formed a single massive wall over 4.30 m (ca. 14 feet) wide that seems to have been maintained in the urban landscape until its collapse – or its leveling – dating to period between the end of the fifth Dynasty and the end of the Old Kingdom, just before the installation of houses and silos. In fact, as reported by Barry Kemp in 1977, the different phases of an enclosure wall were already visible along a north-south axis in a section of the tell a couple of meters west to Zone 2. These sections have been carefully cleaned and their foundations excavated during the 2014 and 2015 season. It was possible to confirm that these sections and the three new sections unearthed in Zone 2 were identical. As a result of this identification it is now possible to confirm that there was another change of direction at a right angle of the enclosures towards the east in this area .

This layout therefore represented an important limit to the north and west of the town of Edfu during several centuries of the Old Kingdom. Although the function as the town's enclosure wall cannot be excluded at the moment, and considering its limited width and the external decorative effects that have been observed (fin mud coating and narrow buttresses), it could also have been a smaller enclosure wall inside of a larger town wall. Then, these three sections could belong to an unknown intra muros complex and the very close proximity of the Ptolemaic temple (reinstalled for centuries in the same location) could possibly guide us here on the track of the enclosure for a religious building or administrative complex of the Old Kingdom.

Even though this research is just at the beginning, the first excavations inside this enclosed area have already led to the discovery of a large building. The construction is particularly impressive considering the width of its external walls, which varies from 2.20 m to 2.50 m (ca. 7.2 to 8.2 feet); this is an exceptional size for any mud brick architecture dating to the Old Kingdom. Our surprise was even greater when the top of a wooden lintel and a complete wooden door still preserved in place, and opened, appeared in the entrance part of the building . This large structure is thus perfectly preserved in elevation above the level of the lintels, which still leaves at least more than 1.50 m in depth of occupation layers to excavate before reaching the original floor level. The pottery assemblages found here are frequently of good quality, often with complete pieces, but clearly dominated by the beer jars and the bread molds in unusual proportions for domestic contexts but more common for funerary structures or palatial contexts. There are also many traces of secondary metallurgy for smelting copper (from Nubia or Eastern Desert?), an activity rarely discovered in urban contexts and often operated under the exclusive control of the state during these oldest phases of the Egyptian history. This building seems to have been abandoned and was quickly filled with a huge quantity of such artifacts during the course of the Sixth Dynasty, the highest and latest levels dating to the end of this dynasty.    

Since 2015, on the northern side of Zone 2, we completed the excavation of several rooms, a courtyard and a corridor built significantly before the construction of the three phases of enclosure walls. Those spaces contained many traces of fireplaces and workshop manufacturing activities. Numerous clay sealings were found discarded in fireplaces and on the floors showing imprints of the serekh (Horus name) of kings Menkauhor and Djedkare-Isesi. These workshops were part of the new foundation of a townquarter in this area, which is probably a first western expansion from an earlier settlement to the east that has been lost underneath the Ptolemaic temple.  

On the southern and central part of Zone 2, two important mudbrick constructions mark this new foundation. Both monuments have been installed directly onto the natural Nile sand deposits in an area never settled before that date. None of these buildings show any clear evidence for belonging to a mortuary installation, but some cultic function cannot be excluded at this point, especially in view of its close proximity to the later Horus sanctuary. The northern building complex, part of which had already been investigated during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, has extremely thick walls (2.3-2.8 m wide) that show a distinct slope on the exterior face. This architectural feature is very unusual and, so far, has no other parallels on archaeological sites in Upper Egypt. Unfortunately, only the entrance area and doorway has been preserved of its interior, the rest was destroyed by sebakh digging more than hundred years ago. To the south, separated by a 1 m wide perimeter wall, another large building complex has been discovered in 2016 also marked by thick walls but those do not show a slope and were built straight. The excavations during the 2017 season have mainly concentrated on the eastern side of these two buildings, in particular the southern one, which contained open courtyard areas. 

In its initial phase of occupation, a large open courtyard area existed on the eastern side of the southern building complex, which was over time transformed into smaller sub-divisions by the construction of thin walls forming small courtyards, rooms and corridors. These walls were frequently stabilized by square pilasters. Multiple traces of the activities that were carried out in these spaces have been found, such as bread and beer production. One room contained large storage jars and the floor levels were frequently cut into by deeper pits. The filling of at least two pits contained many sealing fragments, more than 200 pieces. Some of the impressions were made by very well -carved and high-quality cylinder seals indicating a close connection to the central administration in Memphis. The serekh of king Djedkare-Isesi and his cartouche have been recognized in addition to the rare title of ‘Overseer of the Sementiu’. The sementiu were a highly specialized group of workers extracting precious raw materials (precious stone and metals such as copper and gold) in the Eastern Desert and Nubia. Numerous fragments of copper ore were also excavated in connection with these floor levels, which further confirms the strong link to mining activities and Royal expeditions. We noted also numerous Red Sea shells and an increased amount of Nubian pottery sherds in this area, which also fits well to Edfu’s contacts with these regions. In fact, the location of Edfu is strategically placed near the main access routes and wadis leading into the Eastern desert, which are today marked by the main road to the Red Sea and Marsa Alam.

As the current evidence stands now it seems that the newly founded Late Fifth Dynasty settlement quarter in Zone 2, which was directly built on the natural bedrock and sand, marks a new phase in the occupation of the ancient town of Edfu, when high officials were sent to this province from the capital at Memphis to direct mining expeditions into the Eastern desert. After a quite short but very intense period of occupation, this area was filled during the early Sixth Dynasty by thick layers of trash deposits, sometimes heavily burnt. By the mid or late Sixth Dynasty numerous small domestic courtyards were built above those layers of frequently burnt debris.