The excavation site at Tell Edfu (with the temple of Horus and the modern town of Edfu in the background).

Archaeologists get a Glimpse of Everyday Life in an Ancient Egyptian Royal Outpost

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Hieroglyphic sealings, mudbrick buildings, storage containers, and small pieces of copper provide archaeologists with a glimpse into life in a Nile Valley settlement during the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt. The artifacts tell of royal prospectors and miners sent in search of precious gems and locals filling the necessities of beer and bread production.

Excavations are being led by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, according to Phys.org. Archaeologists from the institute have been slowly unearthing the well-preserved settlement of Tell Edfu in the Nile Valley for the last 16 years. Each layer providing new glimpses on previous generations. Now they are reaching some of the earliest parts of the site, including two large buildings dating to about 2400-2350 BC (Egypt’s late Fifth Dynasty).

Aerial view of the Old Kingdom excavation area (Zone 2) at Tell Edfu.

Aerial view of the Old Kingdom excavation area (Zone 2) at Tell Edfu. ( Tell Edfu Project )

Nadine Moeller, associate professor of Egyptian archaeology and co-leader of the project with Oriental Institute research associate Gregory Marouard, said “It's a wonderful find because we have so little information about this era of settlement in the southern provinces. We don't know any such similar complex for the Old Kingdom.”

Independent reports the team found more than 200 broken clay sealings with hieroglyphic inscriptions. These seals were planned for use on boxes, bags, ceramic storage containers, and sealed papyrus letters. Several of the sealings bear the names and titles of ancient Egyptian officials. One specifically mentions a leader of the sementiu, royal prospectors for King Djedkare-Isei.

Determinative of the sementiu on clay sealing.

Determinative of the sementiu on clay sealing. ( Tell Edfu Project )

Officials from Memphis may have lodged in the buildings as they oversaw mining expeditions. Archaeologists say that the discovery of Red Sea shells and ceramics imported from Nubia add more evidence for the officials leading royal expeditions into the Eastern Desert. Moeller explained :

“It's just about this time that the Egyptian royalty, until then focused on the northern area directly around the capital Memphis, began to expand its reach after a period of contraction during the fourth and much of the fifth dynasties. This is a first sign that the ancient city of Edfu was evolving into an important departure point for large expeditions leaving for the Eastern desert regions, and possibly the Red Sea shore, located about 125 miles to the east.”

The buildings are mudbrick and have large open courtyards. Artifacts found within suggest they were generally used as administration centers. However, the archaeologists find it strange that pieces of the building, such as the wooden door, were never recycled for later construction projects as was the norm. It may be that the buildings also held religious significance at some point. They are located just 20 yards from a temple to Horus.

Courtyard of the Southern administrative building.

Courtyard of the Southern administrative building. ( Tell Edfu Project )

Storage containers and other artifacts suggest beer and bread were made in some of the workshops at the complex. And copper slag, crucible fragments, and small weights show copper was probably smelted in other workshops.

Work is not finished at Tell Edfu and Moeller expects more exciting discoveries in the future,

“It's such a unique site. We've had a hard time finding architectural parallels, because no other settlement in Upper Egypt has such extensive remains from this time period. We've learned so much at Tell Edfu, and there's still more to come.”

Top Image: The excavation site at Tell Edfu (with the temple of Horus and the modern town of Edfu in the background). Source: G. Marouard

By Alicia McDermott

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