N. Moeller / Tell Edfu Project
This view of the excavation at Tell Edfu shows superimposed
settlement layers. Some of the grain silos from Egypt's 17th Dynasty
were covered by a thick layer of ash. At a later date, several storage
compartments were built on top of the covered silos.
Egypt's best-known excavations usually focus on the glittering mummies and grand monuments of the pharaohs, but for something completely different, travel up the Nile to Tell Edfu: The archaeologists digging there have uncovered ruins that shed light on the administrative and agricultural foundations of ancient Egypt's riches.
G. Marouard / Tell Edfu Project
|The Tell Edfu archaeological dig is spread out in the
foreground, with the pylon of a Ptolemaic temple in
the background. Click on the image for a larger view.
The Tell Edfu site is significant because it preserves about 3,000 years' worth of history in a single mound - and because the ancient settlement served as a key link in the chain connecting Egypt's agricultural society with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
"The problem has been that my colleagues deal with temples and monumental architecture, and settlements haven't been something that has attracted that level of interest," the dig's director, University of Chicago archaeologist Nadine Moeller, told me. "But they're actually really important for understanding the ancient Egyptian civilization."
Many of ancient Egypt's urban sites have gone by the wayside, obliterated either by farming or by centuries of urban renewal. So little evidence has survived that some scholars question whether Egypt ever had a well-developed urban culture, according to today's report from the University of Chicago about the Tell Edfu dig.
A granary ... and a bank
Moeller and her colleagues excavated what amounted to the downtown area in a provincial capital, south of ancient Thebes (modern-day Luxor). Thebes is hundreds of miles upstream on the Nile from the Great Pyramids - but for long stretches of Egypt's history, the city served as a pharaonic capital.
Among the most intriguing structures excavated so far are seven grain bins dating back to the 17th Dynasty (1630-1520 B.C.). Because grain served as a form of currency, this wasn't merely a granary - it was also the ancient equivalent of a bank, essentially managing tax collections for the provincial governor and the pharaoh.
D. Farout / Tell Edfu Project
Nadine Moeller of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute supervises
the Tell Edfu dig. Click on the image for a larger version.
"Grain as currency provided the sinews of power for the pharaohs," Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, explained in today's news release.
The administration of that power has been described in ancient Egyptian texts, but there's nothing like seeing the actual places where that power was exercised. The silos measure 18 to 21 feet wide, making them the largest grain bins ever discovered within an ancient Egyptian town center.
Yet another layer of construction predated the silos. Moeller and her colleagues determined that a mud-brick structure with 16 wooden columns was used in the 13th Dynasty (1773-1650 B.C.), based on an analysis of shards of pottery and scarab seals found at the site. The hall of columns served as a place where scribes did their accounting, opened and sealed containers, and received letters.
G. Marouard / Tell Edfu Project
|This view of the ruins of a 13th-Dynasty
administrative building shows some of
the sandstone column bases.
Moeller speculated that the hall may have been part of the provincial governor's palace. "It was far more extensive than we expected," she said. "Actually, I still haven't reached the full limit of the whole structure."
For now, the dig has sparked more questions than answers: How much time did the grain spend in the silos? How was it distributed among provincial, priestly and pharaonic officials? What heights did Egypt's urban society reach more than 3,000 years ago? When Moeller returns to the dig in October, she plans to seek the answers to such questions and more.
Tell Edfu may not look as monumental as the Great Pyramids - but the dead city, and other sites like it, are just as important for learning how everyday Egyptians lived. If anything, such sites are more endangered than the pyramids themselves.
"We don't have many of these sites left," Moeller said.