Study of archaeological sites and how they can aid in our understanding of Ancient Egypt and her culture


O'Connor has usefully defined Egyptology as 'the study of the textual and archaeological material generated by the Egyptians of the 'Pharaonic' period c.3100BC to 332BC' and including 'the latter phases of Egyptian 'prehistory', of roughly 4500 to 3100BC' but 'has only a marginal involvement with the so-called 'Graeco-Roman' period' (1990, 236). While admitting that Egyptology is an interdisciplinary field, this otherwise useful definition masks the complex relationships between the nature, uses and interpretation of different types of evidence concerning ancient Egypt and how our knowledge and understanding of ancient Egypt and her culture has developed. The suggestion that archaeological sites may be able to aid our understanding and knowledge seems to imply that they are somehow supplementary to other evidence, which should take precedence (Shaw 2004, 79-80). In order to consider how the study of archaeological sites can aid in our understanding and knowledge of ancient Egypt, this essay will initially discuss the development of Egyptology in the context of evidence and trends in the field. Then the effects of recent study of the sites of Abydos, Hierakonpolis and Naqada on our understanding of the transition from Pre-Dynastic to Dynastic periods will be examined. Following this, some mention will be made of how a shift away from more traditional concerns towards the study of archaeological sites has helped determine the nature of settlements and the lives of their inhabitants and the sites of Amarna and Deir el-Medina will be focused on. Finally some concluding remarks will be made.

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In the modern European tradition, knowledge of ancient Egypt was mediated initially by the Classics. In the classical world of Greece and Rome, Egypt stimulated a variety of literary responses the earliest being Homer's characterisation of Egypt as an ancient land renowned for its in wisdom, particularly in narcotics, and the most famous and influential being that of Herodotus, although it is debatable how much he relied on the earlier work of Hecetaeus (Shaw 2004, 11-13). Lloyd has suggested that the Egyptian texts of the 5th century although fairly extensive largely comprise stereotyped and obsolescent material (1999). He concludes that Herodotus provides 'our only consecutive account of Egyptian history between 664 and 525BC and, for all its faults, it continues to provide the bedrock on which all modern work on the period is based' but also that he 'presents a view of Egypt's past which show no genuine understanding of Egyptian history. Everything has been uncompromisingly customized for Greek consumption and cast unequivocally into a Greek mold' (Lloyd 1999). Some classical scholars have in fact suggested that one of the main intentions of Herodotus was not to explore Egyptian culture for what it was but to reflect Greek culture (see Harrison 2002).

The classical perceptions of Egypt were followed by what might be termed a modern rediscovery of ancient Egypt. Following Napoleon's savants, much of the nineteenth century experience of Egyptology can be characterised as a search for works of art to adorn the museums and private collections in Europe and the US. After Champollion's decipherment of hieroglyphics, it perhaps became inevitable that Egyptology would be dominated by texts, high status architecture and art, the most visible and immediately informative sources. The 'clearance' of sites, as opposed to their investigation was usual and the exemplary Egyptologists Petrie and Reisner were exceptional (Shaw 2004, 23, 25). This led to the decontextualisation and permanent loss of a vast amount of potential evidence through an ignorance of stratigraphy, a lack of recording and a focus on particular types of artefacts at the expense of others. The development of contextual seriation to work out a prehistoric chronology by Petrie is just one indication of the value of archaeological sites (Renfrew & Bahn 1996, 116-7).
Egyptology has almost inevitably been dominated by the sometimes contradictory extant fragments of the work of the Egyptian priest Manetho, preserved by various classical writers (Shaw & Nicholson 1995, 169). His division of the earthly rulers of Egypt into thirty (later thirty one) dynasties has exercised a major influence on subsequent knowledge and understanding of the history of ancient Egypt. However, Manetho's conception of Egyptian history as a continuous sequence of rulers governing a unified Egypt has been proved to be flawed in that it fails to take into account overlapping reigns and political fragmentation (Shaw 2004, 62). Dynastic or Pharaonic archaeology makes use of dynasties for chronological subdivisions rather than shifting material typologies (O'Connor 1990, 237). Taking the periodic division of Dynastic and Pre-Dynastic as an example we can see how the investigation of archaeological sites can promote a more accurate understanding of Egyptian development.

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It used to be considered that the Pre-Dynastic period was quite distinct from the Dynastic Pharaonic period that abruptly superseded it following the unification of Egypt by its first king Menes of Lower Egypt and commemorated by the Narmer Palette and the advent of writing (Edwards 1993, 2-3; Manley 1996, 14; Trigger 1983, 44). Through the study of archaeological sites, notably Naqada, Hierakonpolis and Abydos, this has been shown not be the case. In the first place, excavations at Abydos have revealed that hieroglyphic phonetic signs were in use perhaps as early as c3500BC (Shaw 2004, 77-8). The collection of labels from tomb U-j, belonging to ruler named Scorpion, seem to have indicated numbers, commodities through ideograms and phonogrammatically represented well-known place names like Buto and Bubastis. The presence of goods apparently originating from Lower Egypt also indicates a close relationship between Upper and Lower Egypt at an early time, which could be argued to indicate a close relationship.

Other evidence from these sites suggests that the distinction between Pre-Dynastic and Dynastic is a false one. The early royal tombs at Abydos and the tombs and town of Hierakonpolis suggest that the transition was neither sudden or caused by an influx of new people but that steady development of pre-existing conditions took place (Shaw 2004, 50). The use of Pre-Dynastic pottery styles continued into the Dynastic period, indicating another aspect of continuity (Shaw 2004, 63). Trigger has suggested that in Late Pre-Dynastic times Egypt may already have been politically unified (1983, 47). The archaeology of these sites indicates that in what was regarded as a prehistoric and preliterate Pre-Dynastic phase, 'many factors associated with fully developed states such as writing, bureaucracy, monumental architecture, and complex systems of exchange and economic control' were flourishing (Shaw 2004, 78). On the contrary, archaeology has also shown that Menes prehistoric kingdom of Lower Egypt probably did not exist (Manley 1996, 14). Without the study of these archaeological sites, our picture of the development of complexity in Egypt would be seriously impaired.
Egyptology has tended to exhibit an art-historical, object-oriented approach on the one hand, and a preference for studying religious and funerary architecture on the other (Shaw 2004, 26). In the 1960s this began to change with the rise of settlement archaeology, the percentage of archaeological publications concerning settlements increased from 13.4% in 1924 to 44.4% in 1990 (O'Connor 1990, 241; Shaw 2004, 27). This approach led to the overturning of the notion of ancient Egypt as a 'civilization without cities', with some 15 urban centres of the New Kingdom known ranging in size from the city of Akhetaten at Tell el-Amarna, with an urban area of 1100-3000 acres, to the workmen's village at Deir el-Medina (Shaw & Nicholson 1995, 293; Watterson 1999, 80). Earlier towns are also known (Kemp 1977).

The site of Akhetaten 'Horizon of the Aten', commonly known as Amarna, is the best preserved example of an Egyptian New Kingdom settlement and has revealed much that aids in our understanding of ancient Egypt and her culture (Shaw & Nicholson 1995, 26). An indicator if the significance of this site is the fact that it has given its name to a phase of Egyptian culture and history (eg Watterson 1999). It is estimated to have had a population of some 20-50,000 thousand, although the city was abandoned only twenty years after its foundation in 1350BC. Although the history of Akhetaten is bound up with that of its founder Akhenaten and is therefore not a typical site, it does present 'an invaluable opportunity to study the patterning of urban life in Egypt during the fourteenth century BC' (Shaw & Nicholson 1995, 26). In fact, it is better to not to judge what should and should not be regarded as typical and to examine what exist the very existence of Amarna demands investigation.
The city is bounded by stelae set in a rough circle stretching from one horizon to the other and contains a wide variety of buildings and areas (Watterson 1999, 79). The city seems to have begun by the river in the middle of the plain with construction in the area known as the Central City, which contained the palaces and temples. The palaces and temples were connected by a 40m wide processional way, giving some indication of the grandeur of the rituals suggested also by reliefs such as that of the Window of Appearances (Watterson 1999, 81). The Main City, or south suburb, to the south of the Central City, contained the houses of high officials and courtiers and was one of three residential areas. These areas are characterised by a more organic or haphazard layout, contrasting with the carefully planned Central City (Shaw & Nicholson 1995, 26). A planned rectangular walled settlement is believed to have been a workmen's village. The site of Amarna, apart from revealing fine objects and the so-called Amarna letters, in itself can reveal divisions of function by location, as well as a difference in emphasis in planning certain areas carefully while leaving other areas to develop organically. Without this site our knowledge and understanding of this period and part of ancient Egypt would inestimably poorer.

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If Amarna represents a working capital city, the workmen's town of Deir el-Medina with its seventy houses stands as 'the best documented community in the whole ancient world' (Manley 1996, 86). Like Amarna, Deir el-Medina is both an archaeological site and has produced thousands of texts. Meskell has commented of the relationship between the texts and the archaeology that 'the archaeological remains may not always reveal the specificities of social interactions, yet they can offer more concrete evidence and social inequalities and differences, for example, which may be smoothed over in textual accounts' and quotes Baines as saying that 'archaeology and writing complement each other's silence' (Meskell 1999, 5). She has used mortuary data from the site to attempt a social archaeology focusing on the individuals of Deir el-Medina (1999). As well as exploring ranking through the spatial distribution of tombs and the scaling of tomb construction and expenditure, she also suggests that the archaeological sources imply that the villagers came from different parts of Egypt (Meskell 1999, 143, 154).

Egyptology has been criticised for producing masses of data through archaeology but only infrequently moving forward in its uses of that data its theory (Shaw 2004, 26). Through our discussion we have observed that Egyptology has tended to be shaped both by its initial development as a visual and text based field, but also governed by historical considerations imposed by Manetho and king-lists to the detriment of archaeological sites. We have also observed that the study of archaeological sites has been instrumental in changing our perceptions of ancient Egypt, from the development of seriation techniques to build a chronology not tied to texts to how we perceive the evolution of complexity and modifications in the way we perceive change through periodisation. In the latter case, archaeology clearly suggests a different course of development to that of myth, triggering an increased understanding of myths and their purposes in creating and rooting present identity in the past.
Urban sites of various kinds have increased our knowledge at the level of the capital and the workmen's village, and the archaeological data has been used to identify interactions between different groups and individuals, as well as in conjunction with textual evidence. It is clearly considered that the study of archaeological sites offers approaches that texts cannot. O'Connor recently stated that 'archaeology can contribute in broad but significant ways to our understanding of changing economies and their impact on societal structure and this is particularly important in Egypt where the textual data will never be sufficient to do more than indicate questions about the economy which need to be explored, to the extent possible, via archaeology' (2003, 9). This agrees with the sentiments of Meskell and Baines, quoted above. A further example of this would be the labour expenditure on pyramid building calculated by Kemp and Lehner and its relation to resource allocation (Renfrew & Bahn 1996, 202).

It is clear that Egyptology has a more respectable archaeological future in which the investigation of archaeological sites, not necessarily through excavation, but through a variety of less invasive techniques and survey will be prominent. This is reflected in the publication of the Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists Cairo, 2000, the first volume, entitled Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century, being dedicated to archaeology (Hawass 2003). In his introductory paper to that volume, David O'Connor (2003) sets forth a programme for Egyptology in which he calls for a total survey, incorporating identification of all the archaeological sites in Egypt and for these to be mapped. This would aid in furthering our understanding of population and site distribution, but also help in planning preservation and site management. In this context the study of archaeological sites would also be involved in a broader educational role. To conclude, the study of archaeological sites is vital in any holistic appreciation of ancient Egyptian culture quite apart from their existence as sources of objects and texts.


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