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The Belgian Archaeological Mission to Elkab

The ancient Egyptian town of Elkab lies on the east bank of the Nile, at about 600 km south of Cairo. It has been the subject of long-standing fieldwork that started at the end of the 19th century when British archaeologists conducted the first scientific excavations at the site. Since 1937, Elkab is being investigated by the Belgian Royal Museums of Art and History. More than 100 years of archaeological research have demonstrated the importance of the site already from the Early Dynastic period (c. 2900 BC) onwards and probably even earlier. However, previous research was primarily dedicated to the large religious and funerary monuments with only little attention being paid to the study of the settlement. As a result, until recently, we had a fairly good insight into the religious and funerary beliefs of the ancient inhabitants of Elkab, but, in contrast, knew virtually nothing about the original habitation and the way in which the occupation was organized and how it evolved over time.

Since 2009, the Belgian Archaeological Mission to Elkab, then under the direction of Dirk Huyge (who sadly passed away in 2018) and Wouter Claes (who succeeded Dr Huyge as director), has focussed its research on the habitation area. It is now systematically investigating the late prehistoric and early pharaonic settlement. So far, six field seasons by an interdisciplinary team of Belgian and foreign specialists have yielded important new information regarding the early occupation of the site and the origin and establishment of the town. The results of the excavations demonstrate that its origin goes back to Predynastic times, more specifically to the Badari period (c. 4500 BC). Subsequently, the site has continuously been inhabited until the Graeco-Roman and Coptic era. From the onset of the Early Dynastic period onwards, the habitation gradually expanded and the accumulation of subsequent occupation layers led to the development of a large tell, which was probably very similar to the still partially preserved tells at, for example, Edfu and Kom Ombo. On the basis of drawings, sketches and descriptions by 19th-century travellers, we know that this tell must have covered an area of several hectares and that it was at least 30 m high. By the end of the 19th century, it had almost completely been dug away by the sebakhin (diggers for fertilizer). The Old Kingdom and earlier settlement remains, however, largely remained untouched during this operation, which presents us with the unique opportunity to actually excavate and document the early habitation horizons.

The vertical and horizontal distribution of the various excavated archaeological features, combined with the results of the geomorphological study of the surrounding landscape, have demonstrated that the oldest phases of occupation (Badari through Naqada) were spatially restricted to a large aeolian sand dune that emerged above the floodplain and did not extend into the alluvial plain. During the Early Dynastic period and the early Old Kingdom, the settlement continued to develop on the sand dune, but also expanded into the floodplain, undoubtedly as a result of growing population pressure. Several well-preserved mud brick buildings have been excavated attesting to a clear urban planning. The functional analysis of the archaeological material unambiguously points to household activities, illustrating daily life at the site, but the discovery of a complete Early Dynastic crucible and a small furnace also indicates the presence of specialized workshops for the production of copper. Moreover, during the 2015 season, a large fragment of a rare and important royal statue, representing the 5th-dynasty pharaoh Sahure, was found within the debris of the Old Kingdom enclosure walls.

The current excavations in the settlement area of Elkab are of great significance. Indeed, stratified settlement sites are extremely rare in Egypt and Elkab is one of the very few places known where the development of a large provincial town can be studied in detail over such a long period of time. Most other settlements in Egypt do not offer the same research possibilities as they are covered up by thick layers of Nile alluvium or deeply buried beneath modern villages and towns, while others have been completely destroyed. The archaeological work at Elkab presents exciting research opportunities with regard to our understanding of early Egyptian settlement patterns and dynamics. It may elucidate the way in which a small prehistoric settlement in Upper Egypt gradually evolved and transformed into a fully urbanized society of historic times.

Funding for the work at Elkab has been provided by the Belgian Ministry of Science Policy (2009-2010), the Egyptology Endowment Fund of Yale University, USA (2012), the German Gerda Henkel Stiftung (2015-2016) and National Geographic Society (2017-2018). In addition, the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) and Vodafone Egypt offered administrative and logistic support.

Recent publications

- W. Claes & D. Huyge (2017), ‘De nederzetting van Elkab: op zoek naar de oorsprong van urbanisatie in het oude Egypte’, Science Connection 55, p. 44-48.

- D. Huyge (2017), ‘King Sahure in Elkab’, Egyptian Archaeology 50, p. 41-43.

- W. Claes & D. Huyge (2016), ‘Finds from Elkab: revealing the origins of the settlement’, Egyptian Archaeology 49, p. 38-42.

- S. Hendrickx, W. Claes, A. Devillers, G. Storms, C. Swerts & S. Vereecken (2016), ‘The pottery of the Early Dynastic and the late Old Kingdom settlement at Elkab (excavation season 2010)’, in: B. Bader, C. M. Knoblauch & C. Köhler (eds.) Vienna 2 - Ancient Egyptian Ceramics in the 21st Century: Proceedings of the international Conference held at the University of Vienna 14th-18th of May, 2012 (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 245), Leuven, p. 259-276.

- W. Claes, S. Hendrickx, A. Devillers, E. Hart, K. Kindermann, M. De Dapper, S. Ikram, G. Storms, C. Swerts & D. Huyge (2014), ‘From the early Old Kingdom to the Badarian. Preliminary report on the 2012 excavation campaign in the settlement area of Elkab’, in: A. Mączyńska (ed.), The Nile Delta as a Centre of cultural Interactions between Upper Egypt and the Southern Levant in the 4th Millennium BC (Studies of African Archaeology 13), Poznań, p. 73-93.

- D. Huyge (2013), ‘Life and death in Old Kingdom Elkab’, Ancient Egypt. The History, People and Culture of the Nile Valley 13(4), p. 28-37.

- D. Huyge & L. Limme (2012), ‘Elkab na Capart: van prehistorische kamppeerplaats tot Grieks-Romeinse nederzetting’, in: L. Bavay, M.-C. Bruwier, W. Claes & I. De Strooper (eds.), Ceci n’est pas une pyramide… een eeuw Belgisch archeologisch onderzoek in Egypte, Leuven, p. 46-61.

- D. Huyge (2010), ‘Onder de vleugels van Nechbet: leven en sterven in Elkab tijdens het Oude Rijk’, Ta-Mery 3, p. 26-35.

- J. Rowland, P. Maříková Vlčková, S. Hendrickx, T. Herbich, W. Claes & D. Huyge (2009), ‘Old Kingdom settlement remains at Elkab (Upper Egypt): preliminary report on the 2009 field season’, Bulletin des Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire 80, p. 21-50.

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