Dig Offers a Rare Peek at 'Pre-Dynastic' Egypt

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday , April 17, 2000 ; A09

While the historical record of ancient Egypt is as rich and exotic as anything on Earth, relatively little is known about the "pre-dynastic" period that ended in 3110 B.C. when King Narmer unified Upper and Lower Egypt and formed the Old Kingdom.

But in the muddy flatlands of the Nile River Delta, a multinational archaeological team has found what should turn out to be the oldest Egyptian temple ever discovered, predating Narmer by as much as 300 years.

So far, excavators have unearthed six temples built atop one another on the site at Tel Ibrahim Awad, about halfway between Cairo and Suez in the eastern delta. The deepest of these is dated to 3100-3200 B.C. and has a ground layout unlike anything ever before discovered in Egypt.

It is unique "in its simplicity," Dutch archaeologist Willem M. van Haarlem said. "The plan was just a rectangular shell with a built-in niche to hold a cult statue. There's nothing comparable anywhere."

Moreover, drillings last year detected yet another, even deeper temple that may date as far back as 3400 B.C. Van Haarlem, director of the dig, which is funded largely by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, said the team will excavate this seventh--and probably last--level next month.

As an archaeological site, Tel Ibrahim Awad presents van Haarlem and his team with an opportunity rarely enjoyed by Egyptologists, who are often forced to decipher the past from relics and tombs that have been picked over by grave robbers since before the time of Christ.

Also, Egypt is the home of the Sphinx, the Great Pyramid and an enormous array of other fabulous and exotic temples, tombs and palaces--monuments that cannot be disturbed, even for the most scholarly of reasons.

"You can't very well pull down a temple like Karnak to get to the deeper levels," said University of Pennsylvania Egyptologist Josef Wegner. "To have a site like Tel Ibrahim Awad, where you can peel off the temples one by one, is very significant. There are very few sites like that."

Archaeologists discovered Tel Ibrahim Awad during a survey in the mid-1980s. It was a wide rounded mound, rising about six feet above lush farmland planted in pasture, sugar cane and beans.

Soundings detected a Middle Kingdom temple (around 2000 B.C.), traces of at least five other temples, and a First Dynasty (about 3000 B.C.) tomb and cemetery with traces of a nearby settlement, van Haarlem said.

Since then, van Haarlem and a changing cast of colleagues have shaved the site layer by layer. The newest temple was 125 feet long by 47 feet wide, but as the team went deeper, the buildings started to shrink. The last excavated temple is only 23 feet long by 13 feet wide.

As the excavation progressed, the team found thousands of pottery objects and fragments, as well as carved ivory figurines, and almost 100 ceramic animal figures probably used as votive offerings and, perhaps in some cases, as cult statues. Most of the animal figures were baboons, van Haarlem said.

In the earliest temple levels, the team found hippopotamus bones, an indication that hunting was important, but in later times an agrarian society had developed, dependent on fish, cattle and crops, especially barley.

Excavations in the cemetery focused on Old and Middle Kingdom graves, but University of Arkansas anthropologist Jerry Rose said he is "convinced" there are older tombs at the site. The University of Arkansas is also a partner in the dig, along with the Russian Academy of Science.

Rose, a bone analysis expert, said he suspects that most of Tel Ibrahim Awad's inhabitants died in their forties but said he expects to learn more later, because people of all ages and incomes are buried in the cemetery: "Rich people's health is not going to change," Rose said. "But there aren't many excavations that have focused on everyday Egyptians."

The settlement that accompanied the temples of Tel Ibrahim Awad has been "disturbed" by a pit about a yard deep, confounding the team's efforts even to ascertain its dimensions, let alone reconstruct it, van Haarlem said. At the same time, groundwater continually seeps into the site, requiring constant pumping so digging can continue.

For most of Tel Ibrahim Awad's layers, pottery, artwork and building techniques roughly match those in other parts of Egypt, but the uniqueness of the oldest excavated level may be explained because construction took place before Narmer unified Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt and established the pharaonic dynasties that ruled the country for nearly three millennia.

"That's one explanation," acknowledged van Haarlem. "But I am a scholar, so I am always careful on this point." Despite the evidence, he added, "we don't know enough" to make statements about why the lowest level of Tel Ibrahim Awad is the way it is.

Egypt had at least a partly agricultural economy as early as 5000 B.C., and archaeologists have uncovered royal tombs dating back as far as 4000 B.C. By the time Narmer unified Egypt from his base in southern Hierakonpolis, local chieftains had evolved into the kings of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Hierakonpolis, on the Nile 350 miles south of what today is Cairo, is Narmer's burial place and one of the most important early ceremonial sites of the pre-dynastic and early dynastic periods. Until the most recent excavations at Tel Ibrahim Awad, the oval mud-brick and stone temple at Hierakonpolis was the oldest ever discovered in Egypt.

Within a few hundred years, the culture of Narmer's Upper Egypt apparently took over the entire unified kingdom, trumping whatever had come before. Hieroglyphic writing appeared about the same time as unification, beginning the era of recorded Egyptian history.

The oldest excavated temple at Tel Ibrahim Awad does not approach the contemporary structures of Upper Egypt, where stone and wood were far more abundant, van Haarlem said. By contrast, he added, the builders of early Tel Ibrahim Awad appeared to have only a little wood and a little stone.

"They used it for lintels and the doorstep," van Haarlem said, and when the inhabitants decided to raze an old temple and build another on top of it, they "would use all the stone. In the delta it is a valuable commodity."

The rest of the temple was made of unfired mud brick, which was preserved easily in the moist delta bottomland, van Haarlem said. Also abundant were pieces of ceramic bowls and jars shaped by hand.

Van Haarlem also said the team had found a large fragment of what may have been a ceramic baboon statue, as well as some badly weathered ivory objects. "There are no organics," he continued, "no textile, no papyrus, no wood." These, he said, would not have survived thousands of years in Tel Ibrahim Awad's swamp-like conditions.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company