Neolithic Cairo

Page Contents

 

3.0 Neolithic Faiyum Area and South Cairo

3.1 Relationship Between the Faiyum and South Cairo Areas

The Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites to the south of Cairo complete the Faiyum picture.  Because they are so closely related to contemporary Neolithic and earlier Faiyum sites it is unrealistic to separate them out. The sites described here, therefore, will be discussed in the context of the Faiyum Neolithic and later sites and conclusions will be based on what these sites reveal as a group.  There are only two possible post-Moerian later Neolithic or Chalcolithic sites currently known from the Faiyum Depression itself.

The following very simplified table is a quick recap on the chronological order of the Faiyum and Western Delta sites to show chronological correspondence between sites.

Although the Faiyum was occupied after the Faiyum Neolithic, a degree of continuity was lost in the Faiyum immediately after the Neolithic occupation – a continuity which can be picked up at Merimde where connections with the Faiyumian Neolithic sites are obvious. 

The apparent sparsity of sites in the Western Delta is more likely to be due to a poor survival than the true distribution of settlement in the Faiyum and Western Delta at this time.  Early levels a both Buto in the western Delta and Minshat Abu Omar in the eastern Delta were excavated from beneath the water table while exploratory excavations at prehistoric Sais had to stop when the water table was reached, and this may be a typical situation, preventing identification of other sites.  Butzer (1978, p.16) points out that “the low settlement density in the areas between Memphis and the Upper Egyptian sites may have resulted from the great size of the natural flood basins in Middle Egypt . . . Also, the intensity of modern settlement in Middle Egypt is such that early remains are likely obscured.

The sites discussed in this section existed during a period when settlement density rose sharply in Upper Egypt and important cultural changes occurred.

 

3.2 Background to Occupation in the South Cairo and Western Delta areas

3.2.1 Epipalaeolithic

The Qarunian has many elements in common with other Epipalaeolithic industries elsewhere in Egypt and Nubia (Hoffman 1979).  The closest, geographically speaking, is El-Omari, where cultural remains of former Epipalaeolithic fishers and hunters have been found.

Other sites in the area are (after Hayes 1964, 65):

  • Abu Suwair (Wadi Tumilat)
    • Over 4000 artefacts
    • Cores with microlithic features
    • Axe and chopper tools
    • Few flakes
    • Microlithic tendencies
  • Shibeem al Qanatir (nr the modern Ismailia canal)
  • Heliopolis and Abassiya
    • Cores and core tools less predominant
    • Fewer microlithic tendencies
    • Bifacial axes
    • Re-edging flakes

Hayes describes shared features falling into two separate types:

  • Diminutive Levalloisian flake tradition characterized by small broad flakes
  • Bifacial core-tool tradition featuring axes and other pre-Neolithic elements

However, please note that in spite of these references from Hayes, I have been unable to find any references to these sites elsewhere.
 

3.2.2 Epipalaeolithic to Neolithic Transition

Speculation about the origins of the Neolithic, as represented by sites like Merimda Beni-Salama and el-Omari, is complicated by the lack of data about previous traditions in the same area.  Apart from the enigmatic Epipalaeolithic industry at Helwan, and the above references to otherwise possible Epipalaeolithic traditions in the Delta, knowledge about any immediately preceding industries is sparse in Lower Egypt.   It is impossible to demonstrate full continuity, or for that matter discontinuity, between Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic elements, or to find an uncontroversial point of origin for the full gamut of Neolithic components, although the Faiyum Neolithic does seem responsible for the earliest forms of the Neolithic in the south Cairo area.  The reconstruction of connections between different areas, is one of the most difficult problems in Egyptian prehistory as a whole, and nowhere is this clearer than during this period in this area.

Common features that identify links between the sites include circular/oval houses, some partly subterranean, storage areas with granaries sometimes lined with basketry, and sparse gravegoods found with the deceased, where burials are found. 

 

3.3 Merimda Beni-Salama
 

3.3.1 Introduction

The Early Neolithic site of Merimda Beni-Salama is located 3019' N 3051'E, 2kms south of Beni Salama village and 60km (37 miles) northwest of Cairo.  Its name means “Place of the Ashes”, and was “far more impressive than most Neolithic sites in Egypt.  The site rises like a tell above the surrounding flood plain on a spur of terrace that juts out from the low desert” (Wetterstrom 1993, 1995).   An analysis of the sediment levels by Hawass et al (1988) indicates that when ocucupied, Merimde stood above the Nile flood levels.

The site covers an area of 200,000 square metres and was founded on Low-Desert between the desert and the floodplain and consists of up to 2m cultural debris, several hundred years of occupation, and a considerable population.  Hawass et al (1988) calculate the accumulation of stratigraphy at a rate of c.20mm per year over around 900 years of occupation. It is the earliest known completely sedentary community in Egypt, the Faiyum Neolithic having been agricultural but not entirely sedentary.

Merimde was founded high ground on the Low-Desert between semi-arid desert and the Nile floodplain, and consists of up to 2m cultural debris, representing a lifetime of some 600 years, and with a considerable population. It is particularly useful for its well stratified sequence of occupations which reflect important changes.

The site evolved from a relatively simple to a much more complex site over five main phases.  Scientific dates and cultural similarities do not match up, making dating very difficult.

The site’s raised situation protected it from flooding.  When it was established it was not, as it is today, bordering the infertile desert; it was situated on semi-arid pasture and the fertile floodplain, beneficial for both grazing herds and cultivation of plants.
 

3.3.2 Excavation and Survey

The original work at Merimda Beni Salama was carried out by Hermann Junker between 1929 to 1939 but full reports were never published due to the loss of most of the information during the Second World War and the subsequent spread of the material across several countries.  However, more recent work, mainly by Eiwanger, has helped to answer some questions including that of the complex stratigraphical composition.  He added two more levels of occupation to Junker’s original three.

In October to November 1976 two 5x5 test pits were excavated into an area 100m north of Junker’s excavations (Hawass, Z. Hassan, F. and Gautier, A. 1988)
 

3.3.3 Dates for Merimde

Due to problems with the radiocarbon dates, the duration of the site is unclear.  Corrected carbon 14 dates put Merimde at around 5000-4100BC (Henderickx and Vermeersch 2000, p.37) giving it a duration of around 900 years and making it partly contemporary with both the Faiyum Neolithic in the north and the Badarian in the south.  However, an alternative view is proposed by Midant-Reynes (1992/2000, p.17) who suggests that it lasted for “at least 400 years”, which is considerably less.

Twelve dates from the 1976 excavation (Hawass et all 1988, p.32-33) have enabled a chronology for different phases of the occupation to be tied in with the stratigraphy:

  • The dates of the lower levels cannot be calibrated but they indicate that the initial occupation at Merimde dates to the beginning of the 5th millennium bp (p.32)
  • Dates from the middle level  9cm 75 and 60cm below the surface) suggest that the site was occupied throughout the 5th millennium bc. 

The establishment of Merimde predates that of Naqada I by about 1000 years (Hawass et al 1988, p.38).

Its relationship with el Omari is less clear:  Radiocarbon dates provide a span for El Omari from 4795+/-105BC to 4465+/-190BC:  “In terms of absolute chronology this means that El Omari is contemporary with Merimde periods IV and V and the latest Neolithic settlements in Faiyum.  In terms of relative chronology, however, El Omari is contemporary with Kom K and Kom W in the Faiyum and Merimde period II” (Mortensen 1992, p. 173).

With respect to the Faiyum Neolithic, Hawass et al (1988) also see a connection with Merimda, suggesting that the dates “of c.5200-4500BC are congruent with the view that Merimda, in its early stages, was closely associated with the Fayum Neolithic” (p.38).
 

3.3.4 The Site

When it was established, Merimde was “ideally situated to take advantage of both the bounty of the semiarid pasture lands outside the Delta and the promise of the rich Nile alluvium” (Hoffman 1979 p.170).  When it was excavated, it was found to consist of around 2m of debris and several phases of settlement.  Although the stratigraphy is complex it has been possible to identify five stratigraphic phases.  The nomenclature for different levels at Merimde comes from Josef Eiwanger’s “Merimda Benisalame” (1984-92, volumes I-III). 

Layer I

The earliest level, Eiwanger’s Urschicht (First Layer) was a relatively small and light occupation with postholes indicating oval houses and some storage components which took the form of large pits in front of the huts. 

Artefacts are as follows:

  • Pottery, which is significantly different from earlier types, comprises both new forms and fabrics, with none of the fine polished black ware of later layers.  It is mostly simple thick-walled pottery, tempered and untempered with infrequent herringbone decoration, limited to cups, basins and bowls, many with a chopped straw temper. Types include:
    • polished red ware with a rim and a mat band decorated with herringbone pattern,
    • footed vases,
    • carinated vases,
    • pottery ring-stands and ladles.
    • Grey-yellow bowls
  • Lithics included bifacial retouched stone tools stone axes, flint knives
  • Settlement evidence takes the form of hearths (which may have been associated with dwellings) and postholes marking out oval structures
  • There is no trace of grain storage, although a hearth yielded emmer wheat grains. 
  • Bone items include awls and  harpoons
  • Some unique clay figurines, unlike anything else in Egypt, were also found

No settlement structures were found but postholes and remains of wooden posts suggest that dwellings included huts and/or wigwam-type structures (Hassan 1988, p.151). Burials were found within the settlement (usually woman or child). 

There were 40 burials at this stage in disused parts of the settlement – there were women and men but no children.

Junker’s (1940, p.5-9) description of the earliest layer said that it was sandy and that the next one was a dirty grey, mostly sandy topped with a black dusty layer.  Junker interpreted it as a sign that the settlement in this phase was better protected against the drifting sands, but Butzer 1976 (p.16) suggests that this was representative of a change of climate.  It is possible that the settlement was abandoned briefly at this time.  Mortensen believes that this may correspond to a similar level at El Omari that existed between Levels I and II (a thick salt level):  “At El Omari this climatic episode did not cause any apparent change but at Merimde post-flood settlers differed both in terms of material culture and customs from these of Period I” (Mortensen 1992, p.173).

Hassan suggests that the earliest inhabitants of Merimde lived in a very similar way to those of the Faiyum Neolithic with an economy that mixed bunting, fishing and cultivation (Hassan 1988, p.152).  Faunal remains include cattle, pig and some goat, supplemented by hippo and molluscs.

Layer II

The Middle Merimda Culture (Mittel Merimdekultur) c.5500-4500 BC is a much denser settlement of oval huts of wood-frame and wickerwork and horse-shoe shaped shelters “with the open end normally toward the southeast, away from the strong westerly winds which prevail in this region” (Hayes 1964/65p.104).  Prominent hearths are a major feature, with different forms, including simple round or oval, smeared with mud, grooved hearth with hollow middles, with fire trays of Nile mud and fire dogs.  Small depressions contained pottery in some dwellings.  Dwellings also featured mortars, and baskets of rush or wheat. The upper layers of this level contained large baskets coated with clay which were sunk into pits to form silos similar to those in the Faiyum, but, unlike the Faiyum they were not concentrated in specialist areas external to the settlement but scattered throughout the village.  However, areas of specialisation may be featured in this layer: “larger but shallower circular cavities up to 13 feet in diameter, their sides revetted with spiral matting, may have been threshing floors, especially since grain was found in them and in receptacles near by” (Hayes 1964, 1965, p. 105).  Burials were scattered throughout the settlement, deposited in contracted positions, without gravegoods.

The upper layers of this level contained large baskets coated with clay which were sunk into pits to form silos similar to those in the Faiyum, but, unlike the Faiyum they were not concentrated in specialist areas external to the settlement but scattered throughout the village.  However, areas of specialisation may be featured in this layer: “larger but shallower circular cavities up to 13 feet in diameter, their sides revetted with spiral matting, may have been threshing floors, especially since grain was found in them and in receptacles near by” (Hayes 1964, 1965, p. 105).  Burials were scattered throughout the settlement, deposited in contracted positions, without gravegoods.

Hayes (1964, 1965) describes this phase of Merimda as “an open settlement of sparsely scattered dwelling-groups or little ‘farmsteads’, not yet sufficiently closely grouped to prevent the infiltration into every substratum of the settlement area of massive quantities of wind-blown sand”. 

The red decorated pottery characteristic of Level 1 almost vanished and was replaced by polished black pottery and coarse wares with knobs and bosses.  High-footed vases and chalice-shaped vessels also featured.  These are a coarser type of pottery than that of Level I, and was straw-tempered.  It was similar to that found in the Faiyum and at El-Omari.

Animal remains included a much greater number of domesticates, supplemented by hippo.
 

Layers III – V

The Classic or Jungeren Merimdekultur (Later Mermida Culture) c.4600-4100BC consisted of a very dense layer of settlement debris “a large closed village of mud buildings, huts and work places, which, though not apparently surrounded by a wall or embankment was, like the Egyptian village of today, protected against the intrusion of wind-blown sand by the number and close juxtaposition of its houses” (Hayes 1964, 1965 p.105).

Mud houses were oval-shaped, approximately five to ten and a half feet across, built a foot and a half into the ground, with three foot high walls of Nile mud or bound straw, possibly with upper walls made of organic and lost material.  They appear to have been organized along roughly laid-out streets.  Access to the house was gained by a step either made of wood or the leg bone of a hippo.  “Though primitive in many respects, these houses are solidly and painstakingly built and were evidently designed to last a long time, suggesting in their construction and arrangement an urban community of a permanent nature rather than a desert-fringe encampment of semi-nomadic tribesmen.” (Hayes 1964, 1965 p.106).  Oval huts and horse-shoe shaped shelters continued to be used, and fenced enclosures were also present. 

As well as sunken basket granaries there were some hemispherical mud-lined pits like huge bowls, and flat-bottomed pottery jars over three feet high. Other pottery includes black polished ware with decoration of simple lines, and rows of small hollows.  In many ways it was similar to Faiyum A pottery but it was more evolved. The famous sculpted head in the Cairo museum, for which there are no parallels in the rest of Egypt, was also found in the most recent level at Merimde.

The most common lithic is the bifacial handaxe, similar to Faiyum Neolithic types.  It was usually made in flint but it was also manufactured in a number of other materials.  Those in flint show particular attention shown to the cutting edge.  Other lithics include:

  • elongated cylindrical axes
  • smaller more trapezoidal axes with a head with wider edge in proportion to its length (latter usually show-pieces).
  • Similar sickle flints to those from Faiyum were found - usually glossy from cutting grain stalks. 
  • Unifacial saws and arrowheads also had a significant presence. 
  • Arrowheads often differ from Faiyum A examples (and Badarian examples) in having straight sides with rounded or bevelled rather than pointed wing tips.
  • Tanged arrowheads were very sparse and triangular forms were uncommon, as in the Faiyum. 
  • A variety of knife blade forms, small awls and scrapers, and stone-headed maces, which were pear-shaped and occasionally spheroid. 

No backed blades were reported from Merimda. 

Ceramics were similar to, but more evolved than, those of the Faiyum Neolithic:  “This is shown in the secondary treatment, where a simple punched decoration sometimes outlines the rim.  Small close-set studs and a larger isolated bosses were comparatively freely used at Merimda, whereas in the Faiyum only one of each was found” (Forde-Johnson 1959, p.18).

Other artefacts include hand-mills, grinding stones, and palettes of calcite, granite and dark basaltic stone.  A few very small stone vases of basalt and diorite were found in the uppermost level.

There were several hundred implements of bone, ivory and horn, most of which were functional tools. There were also small egg-shaped limestone objects interpreted as weights.  Other items included a spindle whorl and some rare items of jewellery. 

There were numerous bones and horns of domesticated animals found in hearths, pot-holes, storage areas and rubbish areas showing that “stock farming played a far more important role in the life and economy of the Merimdians than it did with the lakeside population of the Fayum” (Hayes 1964, 1965 p.112).  Pig bones are particularly well represented but remains of domesticated sheep and long-horned cattle have also been retrieved. Wild animals of importance include hippopotamus (the main form of game) as well as crocodile, antelope, turtles, polecat, mussels, and other shellfish.

As well as providing the most important meat in the diet and an architectural component, in phases III-V, hippopotamus bones were apparently used in a ritual capacity: “The long bones and spinal vertebrae of this massive beast and also the articulated vertebrae of a smaller animal, perhaps an aster, are found sometimes bound with sinew and cloth and stuck upright in the ground like columns, evidently as offerings to some divinity or guiding spirit” (Hayes 1964, 1965 p.112).

Debono concludes that “at the end of its occupational history, Merimde had a varied lithic industry, a well developed pottery tradition, objects of at least artistic value, and comparatively substantial architecture even showing some planning of the settlement layout (1990, p.81).

 

Merimden Industry

The most common lithic is the bifacial handaxe, similar to Faiyum Neolithic types.  It was usually made in flint but it was also manufactured in a number of other materials.  Those in flint show particular attention shown to the cutting edge.  Other lithics include:

  • elongated cylindrical axes
  • smaller more trapezoidal axes with a head with wider edge in proportion to its length (latter usually show-pieces).
  • Similar sickle flints to those from Faiyum were found - usually glossy from cutting grain stalks. 
  • Unifacial saws and arrowheads also had a significant presence. 
  • Arrowheads often differ from Faiyum A examples (and Badarian examples) in having straight sides with rounded or bevelled rather than pointed wing tips.
  • Tanged arrowheads were very sparse and triangular forms were uncommon, as in the Faiyum. 
  • A variety of knife blade forms, small awls and scrapers, and stone-headed maces, which were pear-shaped and occasionally spheroid. 
  • No backed blades were reported from Merimda. 

Ceramics were similar to, but more evolved than, those of the Faiyum Neolithic:  “This is shown in the secondary treatment, where a simple punched decoration sometimes outlines the rim.  Small close-set studs and a larger isolated bosses were comparatively freely used at Merimda, whereas in the Faiyum only one of each was found” (Forde-Johnson 1959, p.18).

Other artefacts include hand-mills, grinding stones, and palettes of calcite, granite and dark basaltic stone.  A few very small stone vases of basalt and diorite were found in the uppermost level.

There were several hundred implements of bone, ivory and horn, most of which were functional tools. There were also small egg-shaped limestone objects interpreted as weights.  Other items included a spindle whorl and some rare items of jewellery. 

There were numerous bones and horns of domesticated animals found in hearths, pot-holes, storage areas and rubbish areas showing that “stock farming played a far more important role in the life and economy of the Merimdians than it did with the lakeside population of the Fayum” (Hayes 1964, 1965 p.112).  Pig bones are particularly well represented but remains of domesticated sheep and long-horned cattle have also been retrieved. Wild animals of importance include hippopotamus (the main form of game) as well as crocodile, antelope, turtles, polecat, shellfish and bivalve mussels.

As well as being the most important meat in the diet and an architectural component, in phases III-V, hippopotamus bones were apparently used in a ritual capacity: “The long bones and spinal vertebrae of this massive beast and also the articulated vertebrae of a smaller animal, perhaps a aster, are found sometimes bound with sinew and cloth and stuck upright in the ground like columns, evidently as offerings to some divinity or guiding spirit” (Hayes 1964, 1965 p.112).
 

3.3.5 Merimden Origins

The origins of Merimde are very unclear.  As Midant-Reynes says (1992/2000, p.118) “It is almost as difficult to define the origins of Merimde as to define those of the Faiyum cultures”. Some authors have argued that similarities between the two areas suggest a Faiyum origin for Merimde, but Junker thought that the first phase of Merimde was earlier from that of the Faiyum.  It is possible that the first phase was occupied by a different group and was replaced with another group that had more links with the Faiyum.  It is also possible that they both derive from a different common ancestor “with the cradle land in the Near East, and more specifically in the Jordan Valley” (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989, p.176).  Merimde shares with the Faiyum sites a number of key differences from the Epipalaeolithic, which suggest that it may be intrusive – for example a bifacial chipped stone technology.

Dates from the Faiyum Neolithic are contemporary with the earliest dates at Merimde (6095+/-250 and 6391+/-180BP from Kom W and 5810+/-115BP from Kom W).

It was very similar in some ways to the Faiyum Neolithic, which has led some scholars to conclude that the previous Merimden phases predate the Faiyum Neolithic, but this is highly disputed.  Some features certainly are the same as the Faiyum Neolithic, but others seem to move beyond it:

  • Lithics are similar
  • Pottery is much more sophisticated
  • There are 100s of bone, ivory and clay objects including the famous sculpture of a human head
  • Where the Faiyum only had ephemeral structures, Merimde was an organized village of  mudbrick homes organized around streets
  • There is certainly a close similarity between the Faiyum Neolithic and the Merimden lithics, after phase 1, particularly with respect to the bifacial component. Hassan points to the fact that the economy was also much the same, both being based on a combination of hunting, fishing and cultivation (1988, p.152), although he also points to a more formal organization of village life.  However, there is much more variety in the materials of Merimde than those in the Faiyum, and many more signs of social awareness and self expression.

The site is generally considered to be earlier than El-Omari, although there may be some overlap between the later Merimden stages and El Omari.

There are no North East African cultures with a bifacial component, but there are a number in the Near East.  Hoffman points out that “Merimde is not significantly different from contemporary villages in Palestine, Cyprus, and Mesopotamia and shows none of the distinctively Egyptian characteristics of Badarian peoples” (Hoffman 1979, p.176).
 

3.3.6 External Contact

Between Merimda Beni-Salama and other areas there are a number of elements suggesting that contact was made over a period of time. Ties between Merimda and south-western Asia include:

  • Burial of dead among the houses of the living
  • Mud-plastered pits for granaries
  • Breeding and eating of pigs
  • Large numbers of flaked axes and adzes
  • Pierced animal teeth
  • Pottery vessel decoration
  • Footed vases
  • Long-handled clay ladles
  • Figurines of clay

This communication could have been established via Sinai and, according to Smith (1989) there is evidence for contact at Qantif, which is the closest site in terms of age, to Merimde.

Cultural ties with Sahara-Libyan Desert include:

  • Concave and tang based arrowheads
  • Cylindrical axes
  • Similarities to occupations at Hoggar, Air and Tibesti (the Faiyum may also have these connections)
  • Burial of the dead within the settlement (similar to the Caspian Rammadyat)
  • Burial of dead in flexed position on their side with very few grave goods (similar, for example, to Adrar Bous)

3.3.7 Merimden Economy

The clear stratigraphic sequence of the site and its interpretation by both Junker and Eiwanger suggest that Merimde was a growing Neolithic settlement site with an evolving economy.  The earliest phase was small, basic and probably seasonal, based on a mixture of fishing, hunting and cultivation, while the later phases show increasing permanence with substantial and differentiated structures and a shift to settled farming with storage becoming increasingly important in each phase. Merimda was the earliest sedentary farming community in Egypt, growing plant foods, herding domesticated breeds, and supplementing the diet with hunted animals.  The combination suggests successful mixed farming.

Floral remains include:

  • Emmer wheat
  • Fodder vetch
  • Domestic barley (identified only in the 1976 excavation of Hawass et al 1988)
  • Rumex dentalus (a weed that grows on soils that are poor in lime and slightly salinated)

Faunal remains include:

  • Pigs
  • Shell fish
  • Fish
  • Sheep
  • Possible goats
  • Long-horned cattle
  • Turtle
  • Hippopotamus
  • Some crocodile

Hawass et al (1976) suggest that the abundant presence of seeds of the weed plant Rumex dentalus which grows on soils that are poor in lime and slightly salinated, indicates that soils were not of absolutely perfect quality for cultivation at least at some points during the occupation of the site, and additionally that it “may indicate that the fields were not efficiently weeded”.

There are minimal wild species represented, with the exception of aquatic species.

Hawass et al (1988) suggest that “The subsistence base is similar to that associated with the Predynatic of Upper Egypt at Nagada and Hierakonpolis”.

Hoffman suggests that this high incidence of women and child burials could be directly connected to the adoption of agriculture:  “Children can perform the simple, almost mindless tasks of farming and herding at a younger age and with less training than they could effectively hunt or operate complex mechanical equipment.  The demands for increased childbearing created by farming also raised adult female mortality and, in all probability, it was these factors that accounted for the peculiar composition of Merimde’s population” (1979, p.173). However, it is equally possible that men were usually deposited elsewhere at a site that has not yet been discovered.
 

3.3.8 Merimden Society

Merimde overall represents more formally organized village life than that of the Faiyum Neolithic sites, although as Kemp says (1989, p.43) “both graves and huts were small and poor, displaying little if any sign of social ranking”.

The appearance of burial is significant.  As Hassan says (1992, p.308) “agriculture perpetuated a state of potential conflict and heightened anxiety.  In such a world the demands for a cosmogony that restored order and sacralized roles was essential for the formation of a sense of self that was capable of withstanding conflicts and in coping with adversities”.  People at Merimde were evidently become more sedentary and organised and were beginning to take on early forms of some of the characteristics visible in later agricultural communities. Burials, however were simple, although there were evidently some rules in place – bodies were orientated with the head to the south-east, facing east, lying on the right side.  Smith (1989) comments that “In contrast to hierarchical societies, segmentary structures of pastoral societies rely on communal use of resources and there is no attachment to small parcels of land, therefore there is less reliance on ancestral claims to land . . . . The visible sign of this is a lack of formal disposal of the dead” (p.30).  Smith cites many examples of modern pastoralist communities who have very simple and often pragmatic approaches to the disposal of their dead. Hayes sees a close connection between the living and the dead in the practise of burial within the settlement:   “The close and continuing contacts maintained at Mermida between the living and the dead shows . . . that even at this early period piety and devotion, rather than fear, characterised the former’s attitude to the latter and governed the funerary service as a whole” (Hayes 1965, 1965, p.113). 

The oldest formal burials known in Lower Egypt are from later levels at Merimda, where 100s of burials were found.  The burials were nearly all women and children.  Single burials were placed in shallow graves and occasionally lined with matting.  Individuals were laid on one side, usually the right side, contracted, with the head usually to south and facing north-east or north or east.  They were sometimes buried with a few grains of cereal or a single bead or pendant.

So these primitive are burials but they conform to certain rules and they show a serous approach, for the first time, with the preparation and deposition of the dead, which is a theme that recurs throughout the predynastic.

Hoffman (1979) detects a possible prestige good component in the form of small chipped stone axes with polish.  He tentatively suggests that a ceremonial purpose “is suggested by the occasional use of an attractive but utterly useless material like hematite (p.177).

Merimda was a sedentary Neolithic settlement which, being an organised society worked as a unit to produce a food supply for the community as a whole.  It may have been a somewhat introverted food-sharing society, with all members working together to ensure the survival of the community as a whole.  There are some signs of international connections which would not normally be strictly necessary to a simple self-reliant community. These did not necessarily take the form of full-blown trade relations, but certainly appear to have involved some form of mechanism for acquiring goods.  However it is worth pointing out that Merimda was not necessarily acquiring goods by being in direct contact with the suppliers – other Egyptian sites may have acted as trading posts for such goods.

Shells are also used for decoration at Merimde, particularly phases I and II, but were absent at Phase V.

The settlement itself evolved from a fairly random layout to one that seems to have been organised along a winding lane (Hoffman 1979, p.175), implying increased social organisation.  Hassan estimates that the population of Merimde c.4300-4100BC at around 900-2000 people (1988, p.152).

Therefore, although Merimda was apparently not particularly sophisticated, it appears to be more advanced than the Faiyum Neolithic from which it possibly originated, possibly had direct or indirect connections with Near Eastern communities and showed, for the first time in Lower Egypt, a concern with burials and by inference a belief in some form of spiritual life or afterlife.

According to Mortensen (1990) Merimde also shows increasing sophistication over time, developing quickly compared to Maadi and El Omari, with Level V reflecting a complexity not visible in the other two sites
 

3.3.9 Anthropological Data

Only a very small number of the excavated skeletons have been studied so no anthropological analysis can be attempted.  However, Hoffman summarises the findings as follows:  “what little work was done portrays Merimdens as a slightly built, round-headed folk whose men averaged 5 feet 6 inches in height and women 5 feet 2 inches.  Abscesses were a common malady . . . a situation that probably reflects a combination of the new agricultural diet, genetic predisposition and local water chemistry” (Hoffman 1979, p.174).
 

3.3.10 Environmental Data

In the 1976 test trench TT2 (Hawass et al 1988) stratigraphic units were analysed, and revealed that “the environmental conditions during and after the Merimda Neolithic occupation were arid, as indicated by the prevalence of wind-drift sand and the presence of a desert layer at the top” (p.35).

The presence of the weed plant Rumex dentalus which grows on soils that are poor in lime and slightly salinated, indicates that soils were not of absolutely perfect quality for cultivation at least at some points during the occupation of the site.  Hawass et al (1976) suggest that the abundant presence of seeds of this specie:  “may indicate that . . . . that salinization problems might have been encountered in an early phase of agriculture along the Nile Delta”.
 

3.3.11 Upper Egyptian Context

The later levels of Merimde seem to date to the same period as the Badarian, but there are no signs of connections between the two cultures.  Some writers have argued that the last phases are contemporary with early Naqada I, but this is not universally agreed upon.

Hasssan described the Nile Valley in Upper Egypt at the time of the late phases of Merimde and the Badarian as “dotted with communities all along its course from Central Sudan to the Delta (1988, p.157).

There is no evidence of copper usage at Merimde at this time which is interesting because it was present in the south.  Although it is possible that Upper Egypt was acquiring its copper from Sinai via Lower Egypt, Turundzic points out that “It is hard to accept that transport of native copper by the Lower Egyptians or via their territory, was not accompanied by their own use of copper” (1989, p.257).  He suggests that the Badarians had their own relationship for acquiring turquoise and copper from Sinai via the Red Sea, but it is equally possible that the Badarians were exploiting copper from Eastern Desert locations as well, or instead.
 

3.3.12 Merimden Summary

In summary, what we are looking at with Merimde is a movement through time.  The earliest phase at Merimde may be ancestral to both the Faiyum Neolithic and the later phases of Merimde – a lot depends on some more scientific dates being produced.

 

3.4 El-Omari

3.4.1 Introduction

El Omari is not one site but a series of sites dispersed over an area near Helwan, but the term is usually used to refer to two particular areas of the Helwan area – Omari A and B.  However, as well as areas Omari C through F, there is another site a little further off and higher up called Gebel Hof.

The El Omari sites are located 3km north of Helwan, at a significant distance from the Nile.  The sites are situated on a gravel terrace at the end of the Wadi Hof which was an active drainage system.  Hamroush and Zied (1990) say that “In terms of geomorphology, El-Omari was not a proper Nile river environment;  yet, during the Neolithic subpluvial time it did provide substantial and attractive ecological and geological resources for humans living there” (1990, p.127).  Debono and Mortensen (1990, p.13) also point to the importance of the local ecology: “An important factor bearing on the habitation pattern is whether the wadis are water bearing or not.  Wadi Hof was no doubt active and we must presume that the area recurrently flooded by the water was not settled” (p.13).

The main site was heavily plundered by both looters and sebakh diggers but demonstrates a changing community that began with an economy based on fishing and hunting, and evolved into one based on agriculture and animal husbandry in the most recent layers.

El-Omari site consists of two areas (or two villages) over an area measuring roughly 750m x 500m where the dead were buried within abandoned areas of the settlement and a second area which has a separate cemetery associated with it.  Debono divided the main site into different areas, of which he excavated only two, ‘A’ and ‘B’. Areas C, D, E, F, Fa, G and H were all subjected to surface analysis.  The northern limit of the overall site was Wadi Hof and the southern limit is the south of Area BIII.  The western limit was c.500m from the cliffs.

Gebel Hof is located some kilometres away from the main site and 5km to the north of Helwan is considered by Debono and Mortensen to be closely associated with the main Omarian site.

As Debono and Mortensen point out, unfortunately the main site at El Omari can no longer be subjected to further excavation to clarify this site further:  “Some thirty five years later it is not longer possible to resume the excavations as a new highway from Heliopolis to Helwan is built almost on top of the site” (Debono and Mortensen 1990, p.7).  The only part of the site remaining is Gebel Hof, and this is unfortunately located in a military zone - or at least was in 1990 when Debono and Mortensen were writing.
 

3.4.2 El Omari Excavation and Survey

The following description is based on the excavation report by Debono and Mortensen over three seasons:  1943/44, 1948 and 1951.   The publication of the excavations by Debono and Mortensen (1990) has helped to clarify site, but their description and analysis came over forty years after their original excavation.

However, theirs was not the first interest show in the area, which was known since the Nineteenth Century as a potential prehistoric site.  Amongst early investigators of the area described by Debono and Mortensen (1990) are J.J. Browne who found flint tools, Dr W Reil who identified ten locations to the east of Helwan in 1871-72, and Dr Mock who found more lithics in 1878, Dr Schweinfurth who found 4-5 locations near Helwan, De Morgan who published findings by a collector of lunates an arrowheads in 1896, HS Cowper who found 204 flint tools at 3 locations and Sandford who, in 1931, found a number of flint implements.

The most important piece of field surveying was done by Bovier-Lapierre who started a survey around Cairo for prehistoric artefacts, and appointed Amin el-Omari to look for arrowhead sites.  El-Omari died and Bovier-Lapierre named the sites after him, and excavated in 1925 for two weeks. 

The site suffered considerably over the years:  “Because many private individuals were collecting artefacts at El Omari, the local population was digging sebakh there, and because the English military used it to destroy ammunition, the site was in danger of disappearing” (Debono and Mortensen 1990, p.9).  In 1939 Debono was asked to review the area and found several small campsites.  In 1943 he was asked to take up where Bovier-Lapierre took off, and began excavations at El-Omari.

In 1954 Matel Hitta excavated a part of the settlement on Gebel Hof.
 

3.4.3 El Omari Chronology and Dating

Radiocarbon dates provide a span for El Omari from 4795+/-105BC to 4465+/-190BC:  “In terms of absolute chronology this means that El Omari is contemporary with Merimde periods IV and V and the latest Neolithic settlements in Faiyum.  In terms of relative chronology, however, El Omari is contemporary with Kom K and Kom W in the Faiyum and Merimde period II” (Mortensen 1992, p. 173). It is probably also contemporary with Naqada I to the beginning of Naqada II. 

The stratigraphic make-up of the site has made it difficult to define the relative dating sequences:  “There exists no vertical settlement stratigraphy.  The area comprises pits sunk in to the wadi deposits . . . and between the pits there are no layers or cultural debris” (Debono et al 1990 p.15).  However, the site clearly changes character and these changes may well be temporal:  “The stratigraphic situation at El Omari can be explained if the area actually occupied at any one time shifted from one place to another, and when an area was left it was used as a dump, or perhaps an area for activities such as flint knapping” (Debono et al 1990, p.16).  However, the excavators do not believe that the “periods” A and B sometimes referred to by other writers (e.g. Hayes 1964) are justified – they state clearly that their references to areas A and B refer not to temporal zones but geographical areas within the site.

Radiocarbon dates provide a span for El Omari from 4795+/-105BC to 4465+/-190bc (c.4600-4400BC) and suggest that el-Omari was occupied for two hundred years and that “In terms of absolute chronology this means that El Omari is contemporary with Merimde periods IV and V and the latest Neolithic settlements in Faiyum.  In terms of relative chronology, however, El Omari is contemporary with Kom K and Kom W in the Faiyum and Merimde period II” (Mortensen 1992, p. 173).  It is probably also contemporary with Naqada I to the beginning of Naqada II. 

Chronologically Debono and Mortensen (1990) suggest that there were nine occupation phases during which the site would have evolved over four main observable evolutionary periods:

  • Area BIII: small storage pits, with no baskets
  • Area BIII:  small and large depressions sometimes lined with basketry
  • Areas A1 and B1:  many pits with baskets.  The largest pits at the site date to this period.  They were still probably storage pits as the floors were too uneven for habitation
  • Whole site (both A and B) used as a settlement with fireplaces and small clay features.  Perhaps a tent-like structure was erected over settlement structures

They define the nine stratigraphical phases as follows:

Area A

Area B

Occupation

Occupation

Dump

Dump

Occupation

Occupation

Dump and Burials

 

Rain Salt

 

Occupation

 

Dump

 

Occupation

 

?

 

The stratigraphy shown above, married to an analysis of the pits, suggests 4 occupational phases.  The first (earliest) is in Area BIII and contains small pits, a few larger pits and no baskets.  This was probably a storage area.  An apparent gap in occupation, which has been interpreted variously as a rainy (Butzer 1966) or dry (Butzer 1976) phase is probably a gap between occupation phases.  The second phase of occupation was also in Area BIII and is very much the same as Phase 1 but with a few baskets.    The third phase spreads over Areas A and B1, representing the main occupation at El Omari, with the largest pits of any stage and many pits with baskets.  Pits were still storage facilties.  The fourth and final occupation phase sees all areas used, but is dominated by Area A.  It is in this phase that the excavators feel that the site was used for habitation because there are fireplaces within pits and small clay features.  Storage pits appear in pits, as does animal dung, and many of the posts belong to this phase.

The last phase of occupation seems to be rather different from it s predecessors, with “fireplaces, posts and small clay features made in old pits, it appears to represent habitation more than the other phases, which appear rather to represent storage” (Debono and Mortensen 1990, p.17).  At the same time the pits were smaller and shallower.

Debono believes that El Omari sits chronologically between Merimde and the Maadi-Buto sites, but Kaiser (2956, p.98) has suggested that El Omari is contemporary with the last phase of Merimde (on the basis of lithics and burial customs) and the C14 dates agree with this dating:

  • 5500+/-65BP (4360+/-120BC) from Pit A34
  • 5690+/-70BP (4540+/-180BC) from Pit A4
  • 4790+/-60BP (2840+/-60BC) from Pit A16
  • 5355+/-230BP (4110+/-260BC) from Pit A15
  • Hassan also believes (1985, p.95-116) that El Omari was contemporary with the end of Merimde and also says that it was 500 years older than Maadi.

Chronologically Debono and Mortensen (1990) suggest that there were nine occupation phases during which the site would have evolved over four main observable evolutionary periods:

  • Area BIII: small storage pits, with no baskets
  • Area BIII:  small and large depressions sometimes lined with basketry
  • Areas A1 and B1:  many pits with baskets.  The largest pits at the site date to this period.  They were still probably storage pits as the floors were too uneven for habitation
  • Whole site (both A and B) used as a settlement with fireplaces and small clay features.  Perhaps a tent-like structure was erected over settlement structures

Hayes (1964) believed that Omari B was later, with its separation of graves from settlements.  He suggests that Omari B represents new settlers.  The subsistence pattern between both areas is to all intents and purposes the same, but the separate cemetery perhaps suggests an evolved social organisation.  However, Debono and Mortensen can find no evidence to support this and do not support the use of the terms A and B to describe a chronological relationship as they feel they are not justifiable. (1990, p.13).

Pits at the site are invariably older than their contents because they acted as rubbish depositories for later phases (Debono and Mortensen 1990, p.16)

In terms of Upper Egypt, the Badarian begins just after El Omari, radiocarbon dated to 5290+/1130 and 5110+/-160BP.

 

3.4.4 Omarian Origins

There is evidence of an Epipalaeolithic industry in the Helwan area.  It was identified by Bovier-Lapierre in 1926  at Wadi Hof.  Midant Reynes (1992/2000 p.124) suggests that “the existence of an unsuspected microlithic-style industry at el-Omari still makes it possible that these Neolithic people were the direct descendents of the Epipalaeolithic hunters of Helwan.”   Debono and Mortensen (1990) describe an Epipalaeolithic background in the area, and say that Late and Terminal Palaeolithic tools occur amongst Neolithic ones in pits, probably having fallen in from the surface or having been re-worked for use by the Neolithic occupants.  They conclude that “there is no evidence to contradict the notion that the El Omari people may have been descendents of the Final Palaeolithic community” (1990, p.82).  However, I have not been able to view the Epipalaeolithic data from Helwan against which these suggestions have been made.

Although some phases were contemporary with Merimda, a number of differences suggest that it is not derivative of Merimdan culture.  These include the lack of polished black pottery, the lack of architecture, an absence of artistic activity, the possession of personal adornments, the sheer variety and differing composition of the ceramic component, the skeleton of a man buried with a wooden staff, an increased number of pendants and necklaces of Red Sea shells, increased use of bone, and the presence of mother of pearl and hard stones.  Similarities between Merimda and the El Omari can be found in some of the lithic elements: “Childe finds that the El Omari equipment agrees very closely with the Merimden.  The proportion of blade tools is higher, however, and, in addition some of the blades are backed, a practise noticed already for the Fayum” (Forde-Johnson 1959, p.18). 

Similarities with the Faiyum include some lithic and pottery types, but nothing significant enough to be conclusive.

Midant-Reynes (1992/2000, p.121) sees greater similarities between the Omarian ceramics with those of Palestine’s Neolithic A and B.  Hayes also points to Palestine as a possible source of inspiration for el-Omari:  “Though, with Kaiser and others, we may recognize the cultures of El Omari, together with those of Merimda and the Fayum, as basically ‘African’ in origin and character, the position of the site on the edge of the Eastern Desert not two hundred miles from the Palestinian border is a factor not entirely to be overlooked” (Hayes 1964, 1965, p.122).  Debono and Mortensen suggest that “Perhaps one can argue that the Faiyum, Merimde and El Omari traditions had the same origin, but that they remained isolated to a certain extent, developing their own ceramic traditions (1990, p.40).  They believe that the cultural remains suggest a Near Eastern origin for the economy (Debono and Mortensen 1990, p.82).

Hamrough and Zied warn (1990, p83-93) that “We need not assume that the Neolithic people of El Omari were of different cultural background simply because they lived father from the Nile than those peoples who lived in its immediate vicinity.  IN fact, it seems that they have obscured and correctly evaluated the geomorphic and the ecological potentials of the desert wadis present in the el-Omari area.  Hence, they deliberately settled at a location that enabled them to effectively utilize resources of two contrasting and yet simultaneously interfacing settings of the Nile river and the desert wadis” (p.92).

 

3.4.5 Omari A and B – Settlements and Integral Burials

Settlements - Overview

The main components of the settlement areas included pits, floors, walls, fireplaces, steps, posts and postholes, baskets in pits and posts in pits.

The settlement area included over 100 circular and oval pits, comprising round or oval pit structures, some squareish, sunk into gravel/sand wadi deposits 50-250cm in diameter and 50-110cm in depth.  Larger structures are lined with mats and clay on walls and floor:  “The pits are cut into the deposit of gravel and sand, but the ‘raw’ walls are rather stable.  They are not always even and when cut into the rock, parts of the rock protrude. In several pits the walls were found to be lined with clay or a lime/clay plaster” (Debono et al 1999, p.18).  Floors of the pits were not levelled, many were in fact sloped, and there were usually no postholes, although in pits A72 and A15 clay and matting showed a basket pattern indicating that there had been storage containers within the pits.  The baskets remain only as a spiral pattern but appear to be very like those at Mermde and in the Faiyum (Debono and Mortensen 1990, p.19) but they were not fixed tot eh walls with clay as they had been in some Faiyum and Merimden examples.  A small number of pits contained pots of a large coarse type, or coarse basins.

The walls of the pits tend to be uneven, but strong enough to have survived the millennia, and were sometimes clay or clay/lime lined with any one or combination of three types of clay.  Many were marked with mat impressions.

Some pits have post-holes.  Some have semi-circular depressions next to the pit-structure which was perhaps used as a step.  The remains of posts were still in place, sometimes held in position by stones.  Some postholes were bigger than others suggesting larger and more durable superstructures.  Some pits had postholes outside them.

Some of the pits, although very few, contained hearths.

The interpretation of the pits has not been straight forward:  “Nothing in the pits allows one to interpret their use as f.ex. the content of the “cellars” at Maadi.  They contained mostly broken objects mixed with all kinds of kitchen refuse” (Debono et al 1990, p.16), and most of this was later infill.  The smaller pits, which may have been storage rooms, were lined with either clay or basketry – often the clay surface still had impressions of matting.  Some of the pits clearly once housed baskets which survive only in the form of spiral patterns impressed into the pit floors.  Some of the baskets were lidded. 

Debono and Mortensen conclude that the pits were used for storage (1990, p.79) at least up until the final occupational phase.  However, they suggest that whereas the pits were used for occupation in the final (fourth phase) habitation was present at the site in earlier phases, but between the pits, and that this accounts for the debris that is found within the pits (p.79).

There were a number of freestanding walls made of stone (only in Area A) which were between pairs of pits, separating them, for reasons unknown.

In some parts of the site shallow and narrow ditches may indicate that fences connected dwellings, perhaps serving the role of animal enclosures.   Only a few hearths were found and, unusually, they were generally located outside pit-dwellings – and Debono et al believe that they are restricted to the most recent pits (1999 p.19)..

Each large depression tends to be surrounded by smaller ones (Midant-Reynes 1992/2000).

 

Burials - Overview

In Areas A and B2, forty three burials were found in shallow oval pits, mixed with settlement type debris. 

  • Twenty eight adults
  • Twelve children
  • One adolescent
  • Two uncategorized

The dead were placed individually in pits around 90-120cm long and 70-110cm wide.  No linings were observed although post-holes suggest that in rare examples they were occasionally fenced.  Bodies were contracted, laid on their left sides, heads to the south, facing west, with hands usually placed in front of their faces, or their chests. There were a number of deviations from this rule.

Groundsheets and coverings made of matting or animal skin were occasionally found.  The mats were made of thin reeds tied together.  In one grave, wooden sticks formed a rectangle around the body, and the excavators suggest that this may have formed a bed.

Grave goods are uncommon, but 18 graves contained pieces of limestone behind the spine and in 32 burials simple pottery vessels (two types) were found, placed in front of the face, arms or legs.  Other items include:

  • three wooden items,
  • one burial of a child with ibex horn
  • others with stone beads, perforated Red Sea shells and two pendants made from pierced pebbles
  • one case of a burial with flowers
  • One man buried with an unidentified object which has been interpreted by some as a symbol of power equating to a sceptre -  or by others as a phallic symbol. 

The only pattern visible in the gravegoods is that the finer of the two types of vessel seem to be associated with larger graves, and there were no pottery with children in four of the graves.  The excavators say that the vessels were filled with sand, not food (Debono and Mortensen 1990). 

Some of the dead were buried under heaps of stones.  At least some of the burials appear to have been made in parts of the settlement which were abandoned at the time when the dead were deposited, although early interpretations suggested that the burials were made while those parts of the settlement were still in use.

The burials in the abandoned parts of the settlement may have been differentiated according to area, with men, women and children appearing in different zones.  No burials of babies or foetuses were found.

 

Omari A

Omari A is located “on a gravel terrace along a major drainage system (the Wadi Hof) at the southwest (upriver) corner of the wadi’s mouth near a rocky spur” (Hoffman 1979, p.194).  Over the area of Omari B, Debono found settlement remains: “over a ‘very large’ area are scattered the sunken bottoms of more than a hundred circular huts as well as the remains of numerous oval dwellings constructed of posts and wickerwork on the surface of the ground” (Hayes 1964, 1865, p.117).  Some of them were lined and floored with clay-covered matting, although as Hoffman points out, it is possible that the superstructure simply disintegrated making it appear that the floor was lined (Hoffman 1979, p.195).  The presence in some of the settlement pits of post holes may indicate the presence of centrally supported roofing. Hearths were rare but appeared either in the centre of the structure, or just outside it.  There were also granaries, larger fenced areas which were presumably enclosures (perhaps for domesticated animals) and the remains of dried-earth walls, usually containing or surrounded by pottery, stone tools, mills and grinders, animal bones, egg and mollusc shells.   The dwellings are filled with debris from elsewhere on the site. 

Lithics are mainly manufactured from flint, and many are bifacial types similar to examples found at Merimda and in the Faiyum (flaked axe, sickle blades, concave and triangular arrows, a few tanged).  However, there is a far more extensive blade and flake tool industry including:

  • knives of a new form with a curved back
  • tangs
  • saws
  • unifacial sickle blades
  • piercers
  • scrapers
  • retouched blades of various types similar to Maadi

Some tools were obviously made within settlement but there seems to have been a specialised manufacturing area outside the settlement as well. 

Other artefacts include mills of quartzite and grinders of petrified wood, bone piercers, punches, awls, and blades and fish-hooks of bone and horn. In contrast to the artefacts at Merimda and the Faiyum, items of simple jewellery were found, including sea shells, animal bone, fish spines, ostrich shell, mother of pearl and hard ornamental stones. 

Spinning and weaving are attested to by the presence of both spindle whorls and actual pieces of linen, both coarse and fine. 

There is a substantial amount of pottery.  The main types were good quality red (which was the favoured type), brown or black vessels. Both fine and coarse pottery are represented.  Debono noted 17 types, some of which resemble Merimda, others Maadi, but none showed any connection with Upper Egyptian forms.  None were decorated.  As well as pottery containers, ostrich shells were also used.

Plant remains include:

  • wheat
  • barley
  • figs
  • dates
  • flax
  • wild sugar cane
  • tamarisk

Pit A72 provides a more complete picture, listed in order of relative abundance (Barakat 1990, p.109):

  • Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum)
  • Rye Grass (Lolium cf. temulentum)
  • Barley (Hordeum vulgare)
  • Vetches (Vicia spp.)
  • Rumex pulcher
  • Club wheat (T.compactum)
  • Einkorn wheat (T.monoccoccum)
  • Echium rawolfii
  • Emex sponosus
  • Lathurus phaca
  • Lathurus sativus
  • Thesium humile
  • Polygonum sp.
  • Flax (Linium usitatissimum)
  • Colcynth (Citrullus colocynthis)
  • Pea (Pisum sp.)
  • Lathyrus hirsutus
  • Ceruana pratensis
  • Paspadlidiym geminatum
  • Species found as charred wood
    • Acacia sp.
    • Tamarisk (Tamarix sp.)
    • Retanma retam
    • Suaeda sp.
    • Another chenopod
  • Grasses found as charred culms
    • Pragmites sp. (common reed)
    • Desmostachya sp. (Halfa grass)
    • Hordeum sp. (Barley)
    • Triticum sp. (Barley)

Additionally, a piece of carbonised bread was found in pit A128, made of wheat grains and bits of wheat and barley bread”.

Faunal remains include: 

  • pig,
  • hippopotamus,
  • crocodile,
  • ostrich,
  • antelope,
  • goat,
  • Bovide
  • dog,
  • Clarias
  • Syndontis


Omari B

Referred to as Omari B, or Helwan B, this is a small village with one or more cemeteries related to it, but separate from it, unlike Omari A where graves were located within the settlement.  It may be later than Omari A, although there is no consensus on this view, and was located in a branch of the estuary of the Wadi el-Hof.  It is poorly preserved but contains traces of huts and cavities (perhaps storage pits).  Stone tools are exclusively blade tools, but the pottery is clearly similar to the other El Omari artefacts. 

Possible dwellings, to the south of BIII “may have consisted of some kind of stone structure or wattle-and-daub, perhaps having tent-like roofs” (Debono and Mortensen 1990, p.79).

It is clear from the data that there is greater variation in the way in which the dead were deposited.  Some of the graves topped with tumuli of stones with the dead buried in shallow pits beneath, contracted, hands before face, without any visible standard orientation.  Adults and children were usually wrapped in cloth or straw mats.  They were sometimes single, sometimes multiple burials, and sometimes accompanied by pottery or shells, flint blades or beads.
 

3.4.1.6 el-Omari A and B Summary

Like Merimda, even though the quality of the information is not as good, it is possible to see an evolutionary trend at the Omarian sites. As a whole Omari, as it is understood from areas A and B, seems to have started out as a storage area, only later becoming a settlement, with bits of disused settlement being used for burials.  From the earliest site, when hunting was a very minor element of the Omarian diet, it seems as though this was a permanent farming settlement: “By this point Lower Egypt’s first forager-farmers had given way to more specialised farmers” (Wetterstrom 1993, 1995, p.214).


Craft and Industry

At El Omari there were a number of craft-based activities, including wood-working, basket-weaving, the preparation of animal skins (a complete one was found in A128), coarse textile weaving, bead making, simple stone vases, crude pottery manufacturing and lithic working

The industry was, overall, less complex than the Faiyum and Merimde, although it ws broadly similar to both.

Most of the pottery comes from Area A.  All of it was fairly fragmentary and was not manufactured in a standardized way, using different firing methods, raw material sources and tempers, which make it difficult to classify.   The excavators chose to define it for comparative purposes by “shape groups that are secondarily influenced by size and surface treatment” (1990, p.127).

All of it was hand made with no signs of it having been turned.  All shapes were very irregular, as were the sicknesses of the fabrics.  There are only rare examples of finer vessels.

Pottery was made of clay types of local sources – desert clays and marls from Wadi Hof.  Vessels might be made of either one of the two marls or a mixture of both.  It is rare that pottery was made from Nile clays.  Clays were tempered with plant remains and minerals.  There were four main types of ceramics based on mineralogical and textural characteristics:

  • Type I
    • Light grey matrix/greenish matrix
  • Type II
    • Yellowish brown matrix
  • Type III
    • Reddish brown to red matrix
  • Type IV
    • Dark great to black matrix

Most vessels are burnished or polished, and some are covered with an ochre slip.  There are few similarities between these types and those in the Faiyum or at Merimda.  When fired the fabric is hard and touch and non-porous.  Vessels I-III are estimated to have been heated to c.800˚C;  Type III vessels are the exception and were probably fired at between 800˚C and 900˚C (Hamroush and Abu Zied 1990, p.127). In all cases, the temperature was poorly managed and was evidently very fast, which is clearly shown by the mottled colouring, the oxidization on the pottery and the variation in the colouring of sherd sections (Midant-Reynes 1992/2000). 

Debono and Mortensen (1990) identify 10 groups of pottery, with 8 main types, based on shape, with a number of subdivisions:  I 1 and 2; II1 a, b, c; II 2; II Ia, b, c; IV a, b, c, d; V a, aa, b, d; VI; VII; VIII1, 2, 3; IX, X.  In spite of this breakdown of forms, Debono and Mortensen (1990, p.36) say that “the variation in shape is rather restricted.  In general there are only 8 main shapes.”  These forms are mostly very simple types of vessel and include:

  • Small and larger closed jars
  • Vases
  • Half open types
  • Vessels with flat or concave bases
  • Oval plates and basins
  • Deep bowls
  • Goblets
  • Hemispherical jars
  • Small beakers

The pottery is unlike either Faiyum or Merimden types:  “This pottery is an original group that cannot easily be compared with the ceramics from Merimda and the Faiyum.  There are similarities with the Neolithic A and B pottery of Palestine” (Midant-Reynes 1992/2000 p.121).

In Types II and III, Petrographic analysis (Hamroush and Abu Zied 1990) suggests that there was “red pigmentation in ceramic types II and III. (p.127).  They suggest that “the brownish and reddish colours of these ceramics are not due to indigenous chemical characteristics of the original raw materials used, but are due to specific additives deliberately mixed with the pastes” (p.127).  All were available within walking distance.

Vessels were tempered, with the rims containing much less temper, and temper which was less coarse than the bases.  Temper was usually straw or papyrus, but in some cases sand was used.

Only a few vessels had smoothed surfaces, and a few were polished (around a third of all vessels).  Some were slip-covered before they were polished, sometimes with ochre added to the sip.  Some Group III vessels were blackened by fire and soot, although it is is unclear if this effect was done deliberately or by accident.

The full lithic toolkit, as represented by A and B, was extensive, largely bifacial and flake-tool, and is best represented in Area A.  El Omari’s excavators say that its lithic component was much less sophisticated than hat of Merimde, in spite of some similarities.  It includes:

  • Raw Materials
    • Local gravel flint pebbles, available locally (65%)
    • More distant and larger nodules of flint that was mined (source unknown, but the nearest location was Abu Rawash)
    • Imported grey flint.  No debitage is known, so tools made of this may have been imported already made
    • Other: silicified limestone
  • Debitage
    • Retouched

Un-retouched

  • Cores
    • Small cores
      • Mostly discoidal
      • Not carefully prepared
    • Few single platform cores
    • No blade cores
  • Tools
    • Bifacials
      • Polished stone axes (14)
      • Hollow-based arrowheads (16)
      • Thick triangles (11)
      • Sickle blades (9)
      • Points (22)
      • Others (16)
    • Unifacial sickles (11)
    • Flake tools
      • Scrapers
        • Core scrapers (20)
        • Scarpers on cortex flakes (31)
        • Scarpers on flakes (42)
        • Hollow scrapers (7)
    • Composite tools
      • Point/scraper on core (21)
      • Point/scraper on flake (42)
      • Burin/Scraper (16)
    • Drill bits
    • Backed blades
    • Microliths (appearing only in a late phase) (56)
    • Long Pedunculate blades (usually retouched)
    • Picks made from silicified limestone, sandstone and flint (6)
    • Handled knives (22)
    • Tanged points (6)
    • Notched points (3)
    • Saws (5)
    • Borers (backed and double backed) (44)
    • Backed blades (15)
    • Perforators (145)

This industry is suggested by Debono and Mortensen to represent the following activities:

  • Woodworking (axes)
  • Cereal harvesting and reed-cutting (sickles)
  • Hunting (arrowheads, microliths, points)

Butchery is also clearly indicated by the lithics.

Polished bone tools also featured in the El Omari industry.  Debono and Mortensen (1990 p.57) say that the bone industry is “very poor, consisting mostly of fragments of awls or pins which were found mainly in Area A”.

Items include:

  • Pins
  • Eyed needles
  • Borers
  • A single fish-hook
  • The types were the same but with less types, and were also similar to Faiyum and Maadi.  They contrast with Upper Egyptian types which were infinitely more developed and artistic.

Stone Items include:

  • Vases
    • Calcite (small fragments of bowls)
    • Basalt (fragments)
  • Palettes
    • One complete
    • Rectangular and polished
  • Perforated limestone
    • Only four fragments
  • Mortars
  • Whetstones
  • Gouges
  • Net sinkers
    • Grooved limestone pebbles
  • Abundant hammerstones
  • Pierced discs (limestone)
  • Pestles (petrified wood, sandstone, limestone, quartz, flint)
  • Grooved stones
    • Shaft strengtheners
    • Polishers
    • Eight are similar to those from Maadi
  • Petrified wood objects
    • Hardest local stone
    • Used for grinding cereals?

Additional artefacts include a prepared wooden stick, ornaments (perforated shells and beads of ostrich shell and bone), palettes, grinding stones, net sinks, hammerstones and cordage made of two strands twisted together often with knots perhaps to hold reed together in mats.  One complete net was found. 

Shells were of a number of different species, including cerastoderma, conus, detalium, ancilla, trochus, oliva, aparthia, eremina, marine shells, clanculus, nerita and others.  Nerita was the best represented at El Omari (though interestingly, they were also represented at Faiyum but were not represented at Merimde).  Most were from the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and the Nile.  Most were perforated.

Beads were made of ostrich shell, bone (most of which were polished, large and tubular) and stone (small and round, made of jadeite, limestone and basalt). 

Wooden items are also represented.  In general, only a few fragments survive, but one complete item is represented – a stick 10cm long from Pit A34 with rounded ends.

Gypsum, galena (15g in a bag of animal skin) and ochre were also found.

Copper was first attested in Lower Egypt at el-Omari.  There was a far earlier tradition of copper usage in Upper Egypt than in Lower Egypt, and during the Badarian it is well attested.  It is possible that during this time, in spite of speculation, Lower Egypt was not used as a trade and acquisition route for sourcing copper from Sinai, and that copper was sourced by Upper Egypt from the Eastern Desert or by boat from Sinai for both copper and turquoise (Tutundzic 1989, p.257). 

 

El Omari Economy

Economically, el-Omari was based on agriculture (cereals and domesticated animals) and fishing.  Midant-Reynes (1992/2000, p.123) suggests that the occupants of el-Omari hunted crocodile and hippopotamus as “an important source of protein”, but “showed little interest in the pursuit of desert animals and marsh fowl, preferring to exploit an ecological niche between the wadi and the alluvial plain.”

Domesticated animals included:

  • pig (the most important of the domesticated animals),
  • goat/sheep
  • cattle
  • donkey

From both the animal remains and the settlement structures, Hoffman suggests that “both a barnyard and pastoral pattern of animal domestication was being followed.  In fact, judging from the abundant garbage, the pigs must have fared rather well in the yards of ancient Omari.  By contrast, grazing animals, like cattle and goats, would probably have been taken out daily to areas where pastorage was available, at least after the winter rains when the desert margins bloomed” “Hoffman 1979, p.196).

Throughout the el-Omari complex there was a very mixed combination of botanical remains.  Cereals are represented in the form of carbonised grains and carbonised bread.  The main crop appears to have been emmer what, a winter crop, but other types of cereal were also represented.  However, the site’s location was not optimal for cultivation and both the small number of sickles and grinding stones found and the fact that bread was of crushed, not ground grains, suggest to te excavators that “cereal cultivation was not at a very advanced stage” (Debono and Mortensen 1990 p.80)

Plant foods include:

  • Wheat, of which Emmer wheat was the most common, including:
    • Triticum dicoccum (Emmer Wheat)
    • Triticum monococcum (Einkorn wheat)
    • Triticum compactum (Club wheat – but this has been disputed)
  • Barley (Hordeum vulgare)
  • Rye (Lolium temulentum)
  • Legumes (peas, broad beans etc)
  • Herbs
  • Vetch (Vicia sativa)
  • Sycamore figs
  • Dates (Phoenix dactylifera)
  • Wild sugar (Saccharum spontaneum)
  • Echium rawolfii
  • Emex spinosus
  • Lathyrus aphaca
  • Lathyrus sativos
  • Thesium humile
  • Polygonum sp
  • Flax (Linum usitatissimum)
  • Colocynth (Citrullus colocuthis)
  • Lythyrus hirsutus
  • Cevuana pratensis
  • Paspalidium geminalum
  • Pisum (pea)

Domesticated animals, cereals and other plants were supplemented by hunting wild animals including

  • Crocodile
  • Hippopotamus
  • Tortoise
  • most importantly fish, of which deep-water varieties were apparently preferred (Nile Perch and Synodontis).  Fish was a particularly important element in the diet.  These water-based supplements to the diet are interesting given the distance of el-Omari from the Nile and other sources of water. 

Desert species and marsh birds were a very minor element in the diet.

Charred woods indicate that wadi and desert species are preferred including:

  • Acacia
  • Tamarisk
  • Retama
  • Svaeda
  • Chenopod

Charred grasses include:

  • Phragmities sp (common reed)
  • Desmostachya sp (Halfa grass)
  • Hordeum sp (Barley)
  • Triticum sp (Wheat)

Trade or exchange links have been suggested by some writers.  This is difficult to assess, but any contact with distant areas might have been facilitated by the domestication of the donkey.  The earliest known domesticated donkey remains have been found at el-Omari.

Debono and Mortensen summarise the economic data:  “El Omari has provided evidence of a people subsisting mainly on fish but also having domestic animals and planting cereal crops (1990, p.82).

Like both the Faiyum sites and Merimde it was well adapted to a local environment, in this case situated away from the Nile and in the mouth of a wadi.
 

Omarian Society

The excavated pits are small and separated from each other, and fenced yards appear to have been attached to premises.  On this basis Hoffman suggests that the settlement was egalitarian and organised in family units (Hoffman 1979, p.195).  However, Hassan (1992) suggests that the wooden item held in the hand of a buried man at El-Omari was a sceptre.  It is c.35cm long, pointed at one end and squared at the other. 

The Omarian burials are among the earliest known in the Cairo and Western Delta area. The burials were simple, with the dead were buried with bodies laid on left or right sides, many with a single pot, with stones sometimes under the head or against the back.  Grajetzki (2003) believes that the people at El Omari “did not devote much effort to burying their dead” (p.2).  However, the very act of deposition of the dead in a specified area, with accompanying gravegoods, indicates the existence of ideas concerning the dead and either their future or their relationship with the living. Hassan says that the size of graves and the variety and type of the gravegoods “suggests that women occupied a domain different from that of men, but their status was practically equal to that of men” (1992, p.316). 

There were no animal burials at El Omari, which suggests that the later sites of the Maadi-Buto complex had developed a cultic or ritual element not present in the Omarian phase.

The presence of a worked wooden stick with one adult male has been interpreted as a prestige item or status symbol.

Midant-Reynes suggests that the culture is less sophisticated than that of Mermida on the basis that there is no sign of black-polished pottery, artwork or architecture (1992/2000, p.123).  However, the discovery at El Omari of the burial of an adult male with a carved wooden staff has been interpreted by some as a symbol of status.  The acquisition of imported ornaments also argues for an increase in the value of luxury or prestige goods.

The chronological relationship of areas A and B is uncertain, but the presence of a separate cemetery in Area B perhaps suggests an evolved social organisation.
 

Egyptian Connections and Overseas Links

Although there are similarities between El Omari and other sites both earlier and later, El Omari is not directly similar to any other site in either the Cairo area, the Delta or the Faiyum:  “The settlement at El Omari does not seem to be structured quite as any of the other settlements in the North, and it does not have the complexity of either Merimde in its latest phase or Maadi.  It seems to be more like settlement in the Faiyum and the Badarian area.  It may perhaps be concluded that it is a type of settlement more related to the economy of the society than to time” (Debono and Mortensen 1990 p.23).  The excavators feel that it is an early industry (p.52).

Debono and Mortensen (1990) compared El Omari with Merimde   They suggested that the early phase and the last phase were not replicated, though a number of similarities including pottery making, shapes and surface treatments were similar to Merimde’s Phases II:  “there is no doubt that  the pottery at El Omari is related to that of Merimde II-IV” (p.41).  Another feature in common is the burial of dead close to the living area.  However, the grave goods, orientation and pot numbers are different at Merimden burials were different:  “we cannot consider El Omari a further development of the burial practises at Merimde” (1990, p.76).   Similarly, there was no black pottery, artistic expression or architectural component at El Omari, which there was at Merimde.  They suggest that when measured against the comparative sophistication of Merimde during its final phase, El Omari could only be seen “as a development of this kind of tradition; it could only represent a step in the reverse direction” (p.81) and that El Omari represents either a sub-culture of Merimde, a contemporary but unrelated site, or a site with a common origin but having followed a different evolutionary track.

The authors also compared El Omari and the Faiyum and concluded that although there were many similarities of shape in the middle phases, the earliest and latest were missing.  In addition, Omarian pottery has more shapes and advanced techniques, but as Debono and Mortensen say: “This could reflect the regional character of the culture rather than being of any chronological significance” (1990, p.38).  Comparisons with the Faiyum are difficult because of the bias in the way in which Caton-Thompson collected lithics (described in the Faiyum Neolithic section), but both the Faiyum Neolithic and the Omarian A and B sites share concave based arrowheads, bifacials and some flakes.  Blades, however, are different.

Comparisons of settlement data with that of the later Maadi “shows a much more variable and developed pottery tradition than El Omari, having different clays, tempers, surface treatments and even imported pottery” p.38.  The main similarities are:

  • Oval basins
  • Small red pots
  • Black topped local ware

However, Maadi’s lithic industry is completely different with the possible exception of a few bifacials.  At Maadi, Wadi Digla and Heliopolis the funerary record was compared.  Similarities include the infrequency of gravegoods, and the use of mats and skins.  Differences include different orientation of bodies, and the lack of animal burials at El Omari.  Debono and Moretnsen conclude that “there is nothing that negates the possibility that perhaps some of the El Omari graves were contemporary with some of Maadi, Wadi Digla or Heliopolis burials or, more likely, that the latter represent a further development of the burial customs at El Omari” (1990, p.76).

Upper Egypt is still, at this stage, very different.  There are some similarities with the later phase of El Omari, with polished axes, concave-based arrowheads and bifacial sickles.  At Mostagedda, Matmar and Hemmamiya similarities include burials within the settlement areas, some burials with mats and animal wrappings, and orientation of the bodies with the head to the south lying on the left hand side.  But the existence in the Badarian of an evolving funerary culture is completely different, associated as it is with strong symbolic and expressive tendencies and the beginnings of the need to communicate differentiation and social stratification. In addition, animal burials were common in the Badarian, and they do not occur at all at El Omari.  Debono and Mortensen conclude that “later Predynastic burial traditions are too developed to be compared with these northern traditions” (1990, p.77).

Links with Sinai and the Read Sea are suggested by the presence at el-Omari of seashells, galena and possibly fine grey flint. 

El Omari is probably contemporary with the Palestinian PNA and PNB.  There are some aspects of habitation patterns and burial customs which are comparable, and the pottery tradition in Palestine that appear to correspond to that at El Omari as well:

  • Use of different clays
  • Mixing of clays
  • Straw temper
  • Slips
  • Polishing
  • Oxidized firing
  • Shapes
  • Concave bases

However, although there are some superficial similarities these are non conclusive.


3.4.2 Omari C, D, E and G

Only one pit was excavated in Area C.  While this is hardly a valid sample of the whole of Area C, it was sin no way inconsistent with pits in Area A.

In Area D three pits were excavated, in which the excavators believe there were three phases.  The pottery was similar to that in Areas A and B, with Group V dominant, and Groups II and III absent.  However, three pits is not necessarily representative of the unexcavated pits in Area D, so this view of the pottery types may be misleading.  Lithics and small finds were consistent with those in Areas A and B.  The excavators consists of two phases of occupation which equate to the stratigraphic layers 3 and 8.

Area E was not excavated, although pits were visible.  The excavators believe that these were storage pits rather than burial pits.

Area consists of sun dry items covered with storm damage.
 

3.4.3 Omari F and Fa

A number of pits were excavated in area Fa.  Pits Fa1 contained cereals, charcoals, fish bones, shell fragments, sherds, fragments of wood and burned stones. Fa2 was shallow and oval and contained nothing but black fill.  Fa3 contained a pit with three holes, black fill and burned stones.  Fa10 consisted of an upper grey level and a lower yellow level of fill, and contained blocks of limestone at its centre, possibly burned, two small sherds, flint flakes, charcoal, cereal, animal bones, and a thin white bead in the yellow layer.

These areas suggest habitation to the excavators:  “There does not seem to be much doubt that these small areas were used for some kind of activity, perhaps related to cooking, since the floor is levelled” (Debono and Mortensen 1990, p.63).  Debris appears to be occupational with a blade industry and pottery.  It is a small area, so the excavators believe that it may have been inhabited by a small group of people on a semi-nomadic basis.

Debono and Mortensen suggest that Areas F and Fa may belong to different settlers from those at the other Omarian sites (1990, p.78), based on differences in pit types, and the flint industry, which is a blade tool industry. 
 

3.4.4 Gebel Hof

The Omarian site called Gebel Hof by its excavators is located on a terrace to the southwest of Gebel Hof itself.  It is unusual in being located at 90m above the floor of Wadi Hof. 

The site has mostly vanished but a surface collection was made in 1947, and El Hitta dug a sondage, the results of which were published in 1954, which revealed a reed enclosure, within which was a large jar, and an oval pit which contained carbonized cereals and arrowheads. The sondage also revealed an oval pit measuring 120x140x30cm which was full of carbonised cereals.   In 1987 Debono did a surface collection of flints and sherds and reported that depressions were visible on the surface, but that it was impossible to determine whether they were man-made or natural.

The archaeological remains, particularly the pottery, are very similar to those at the Omari A and B, suggesting that they are related or at least contemporary.  The sherds, 27 in all, were heavily eroded.  Lithics included bifacials (axes, triangles, concave arrowheads and sickles) and blades (sickles, and a knife).

The function of the site is undetermined, but Debono and Mortensen suggest a number of possibilities including an observation post, a cool living area in the summer, a safe haven in winter to avoid water from the wadi, or some other unknown function.  Obviously, additional excavations would probably help to shed more light on the picture, but the site is currently located on military land.
 

3.4.5 Omarian Overview

The Omarian has been the subject of much speculation and discussion, but it still remains something of an enigma, both in terms of its origins and its occupation.  Most of the data is based on Omari A and B.  If it was used for most of its life as storage, where was the accompanying settlement? If the settlement was in between the storage pits as Debono and Mortensen suggest (1990, p.79), why is there not more evidence of this habitation? If the final phase represents a settlement, why do the same sorts of pits appear to have been used for this function?  What was the relationship to Gebel Hof to the other Omarian sites?  What was the relationship of the Omari F sites to the other Omarian sites?

A number of unique features separate it out from the Faiyum and Merimde industries including:

  • Formal arrangement of the dead, but with no social organization visible
  • Staff buried with an adult male considered to be a possible indication of social status
  • Unique pottery, of much finer quality
  • A shallow basin, perhaps used as a step into many of the pits
  • Grave goods

Omari appears to have been a lot less sophisticated than its predecessor Merimde:  “The settlement at El Omari does not seem to be structured quite as any of the other settlements in the North, and it does not have the complexity of either Merimde in its latest phase or Maadi.  It seems to be more like settlement in the Faiyum and the Badarian area” (Debono and Mortensen 1990, p.23).   In other words, it is a bit of an anomaly, or at least an intriguing inconsistency, in the overall context of the apparent image of evolution from Faiyum and Merimden to Maadi-Buto sites, because its dates imply that it is a stepping stage between Merimde and Maadi, but its material culture indicates that it is no such thing.

Familiar features from the Faiyum and Merimde include:

  • Grain silos
  • Basket linings
  • Grain (used to make bread)
  • Finely worked lithics (with the familiar type of Lower Egyptian arrowheads)


3.5 Upper Egyptian Context

Badarian (c.4400-4000BC)

The Badarian is the earliest period where agriculture is present in Upper Egypt appearing several hundred years after it first appears in the Faiyum.  As with the Faiyum Neolithic, its origins are uncertain, although Wilkinson (2003) has recently tried to shed some more light on the subject.  It is represented at a number of sites including el-Badari (after which it is named) Hammamiya, Mostagedda and Matmar.  Between them the sites consist of 40 settlements and 600 graves.  The settlements are not very well known, but the cemeteries have been more extensively excavated.

There was a clearly defined funerary tradition with gravegoods in which there is clear differentiation between smaller graves and larger graves with many more gravegoods.  This seems to imply social organization with some people accorded more honours than others.

Burials were placed in simple oval or circular pits, with the body contracted and laid on their left side facing west with their heads to the south. Sometimes a mat was laid under the body. The first signs of social stratification are represented by the separation of wealthier burials in a different part of the cemetery.  Grave goods mainly consisted of pottery, with occasional lithics.  There were no very young graves.  The burial of animals, particularly cattle, aswell as goat or gazelle dog or jackal and ram are also represented.

The pottery that accompanied these burials consisted of fine wares in simple shapes.  The finest were untempered and had walls so fine and thin that nothing has equalled them since in Egypt.  They were black-topped and usually brown, occasionally red.  The surfaces were often rippled.

Anderson’s study (1992) of 262 graves in seven cemeteries at El Badar demonstrated observable differences in the deposition of grave goods, corresponding to grave size and condition and age:  “all may be interpreted as a manifestation of the unequal distribution of material wealth amongst the grave occupants and thus an indication of differential access to resources (p.61).

Settlements were small villages which consisted of storage pits and storage vessels.  The settlements are so flimsy, that they may have been occupied on a seasonal basis.  Wilkinson (2003) suggests that they formed part of a seasonal round of activities which also included exploitation of the Eastern Desert’s resources.  A typical example is Deir el Tasa, which covered around 5000 square metres, but with an uneven and confused stratigraphy.  Settlement structures were of a temporary character – huts and windbreaks, with some hearts.  Storage pits were numerous and often large.  Concentrations of sheep and goat droppings suggest that they were confined in enclosures.  The whole picture agrees with suggestions that Badarian groups relocated at certain times of the year, not always returning to precisely the same site locations.

Lithics are generally not known from burials and are often located in settlements, and the industry is somewhat crude.  They represent a flake and blade industry (mainly scrapers and perforators) with bifaces (sickles, axes and concave-based arrowheads) based on flint and chert.

Highly skilled craftsmen were employed to make beautiful ceramics and bifacial tools, as well as wonderful pieces of portable art.  Key characteristic components of the Badarian material culture include:

  • Items of bone and hippopotamus ivory
    • Combs
    • pins
    • hairpins
    • beads
    • spoons
    • occasionally female figurines
  • A limited amount of beaten copper from funerary contexts
    • Tools
    • Pins
  • Red Sea shells appear in graves
  • Stone
    • Slate and porphyry rectangular and oval palettes
    • Basalt vases
  • Semi-precious stones made into beads
    • Carnelian
    • Steatite
    • Jasper
  • Ostrich
    • Shell vessels
    • feathers

Artefacts were characterised by agricultural tools, specialised funerary kit, and the portability of domestic items.  The manufacture of funerary goods, (skilled, decorative, partially iconographic and labour-intensive), suggests the presence of dedicated craftsmen who were supported by the agricultural economy.

The economic basis of the Badarian lifestyle was agricultural – wheat, lentils, tubers and barley have been found in containers.  Sheep/goat is represented and fishing was very important. 

Although the Nile settlements show little evidence of supplemental hunting, Wilkinson (2003) has suggested that hunting expeditions into the Eastern Desert took place, and that the Badarian was a mixture of semi-permanent Nile farming and Eastern Desert hunting on a seasonal basis.  Further examination of the Eastern Desert rock art, though out of the scope of this paper, may help to clarify both Badarian and Naqada I exploitation of the desert environment.  Work now underway by Rohl, Maggie and Mike Morrow (2002) and Wilkinson (2003) has been long awaited, but much more still needs to be done.  As Butzer says (1976, p.112) “For all too long, most of the best archaeological methodologies have scorned rock art for its subjectivity as an artifact of research.  In fact it is the very subjectivity of this peculiarly human form of expression that can potentially add invaluable dimensions to the otherwise mute physical and archaeological record”.

Trade, exchange, travel and/or other early contacts are indicated by items and raw materials from the Western and Eastern Deserts, Nubia (ivory and porphyry), and Sinai and/or Palestine (turquoise and copper).

Sites include Mostagedda, el Badari, Hemmamiya, Deair Tasa, and Laqeita near the Nile, and probably seasonal encampments in the Eastern Desert (Wilkinson 2003).

 

3.6 The End of the Early Neolithic

The end of the Omarian and the Merimden in the North, and the Badarian in the south, brings to an end the Early Neolithic.  What we have seen so far amounts to the foundations of everything that was to come:

  • The first agriculture was established
  • Evolving funerary traditions
  • Beginnings of social stratification and religion in the south
  • An apparently simpler society in the north
  • Clear differences between the north and south
  • Highly skilled adaptation to local ecologies everywhere