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“The Sacred Site of ‘Quesna’: Multi-disciplinary Investigations and Analyses in the Cemetery and Falcon Necropolis” Joanne Rowland (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Joanne Rowland came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about her work on two sites in the Nile Delta. Her talk was split into two parts – the first was about her work at Quesna (with the title that I’ve used on this blog post) on Old Kingdom and Ptolemaic era structures. After our coffee break she moved on to telling us about work she’s done at the nearby Wadi Gamal looking at much older prehistoric sites.

“The Sacred Site of ‘Quesna’: Multi-disciplinary Investigations and Analyses in the Cemetery and Falcon Necropolis”

Quesna is situated towards the southern edge of the Nile Delta, between two sites known to have been Nome capitals: Athribis and Busiris. It sits on a sand formation called a Gezira (I think) or turtleback, which sticks out above the silt deposited by the Nile floods. The site was discovered in 1989, and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities carried out some excavations there between 1989 and 2000 revealing primarily Ptolemaic and Roman period structures including a falcon necropolis. Rowland and her colleagues have been working at the site since 2006. They started with a magnetic survey of the area, which reveals where structures lie beneath the ground as they show up differently to the survey equipment. They also did an auger survey, which involves taking cores from different areas to see what’s there.

Old Kingdom Mastaba

The full magnetic survey took a few years, and the very last bit they surveyed revealed a previously unsuspected structure lay beneath the sand. They started to excavate it in 2014, and the first indication that this was something different was that there were Old Kingdom pottery shards. Rowland explained that this is exciting because there isn’t much evidence from the Old Kingdom period in the Delta. There are a small handful of places surrounding Quesna with Old Kingdom sites, and there are also some early textual references to Athribis and Busiris. They excavated across the top of the whole structure in that first season. The parts of the structure that would once have been above ground have long since gone – “mined” for mudbricks to reuse. But the parts that were below ground are still relatively cohesive and revealed the structure to be a mastaba tomb.

Rowland showed us several slides with comparisons of the layout of this tomb with layouts of other tombs from roughly the same era to show how similar they were. In common with the other tombs this mastaba had a rubble mound at the back of the structure, which represented the primeval mound, and the burial chambers were below this. They found two chambers in this tomb, each with its own shaft. Along the east side of the structure there were corridor chapels, an offering niche and a serdab space (where a statue of the tomb owner(s) would’ve sat). There were also three other burials within the structure that weren’t part of the original use of the tomb – one was contemporary with the tomb owners and the other two were later.

The tombs had been robbed in antiquity – they found evidence of the way the robbers had entered the burial chambers via a pit cut through the corridor chapels. The insides of the burial chambers and the other rooms of the tomb had beads and broken pottery & other small bits & pieces scattered across them – so probably just as well it was discovered in the modern era when we’re interested in that stuff too! Rowland showed us pictures of some examples of the finds – including lots and lots of tiny white faience beads. She said those are so small you need a 2mm sieve to find them, archaeological digs in the past would’ve used much coarser sieves and missed these altogether. They also found things that might be inlays for boxes or furniture, and broken bits of sickle blades. And a lot of pottery fragments, including a lot of beer jars mostly from a room at the northern (entrance) end of the structure. These are particularly useful for dating the site: they are of a distinctive style which was used from the late 3rd Dynasty to the early 4th Dynasty. The most exciting find was that of a small inscribed object that was in one of the burial chambers. It has on it the serekh of the Pharaoh Khaba, who was the penultimate Pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty. (A serekh is analogous to a cartouche, in that it surrounds the name of the Pharaoh. But instead of the rope loop of the cartouche, a serekh has a palace facade with a falcon sitting on top of it.) There are only 5 or 6 other objects with the name of the Pharaoh Khaba on them (one of which is a bowl in the Manchester Museum) so this was a very exciting find.

Sadly there’s no evidence for who was buried in the mastaba. There were no inscribed objects left with the tomb owner’s name or titles, and even though traces of plaster were found in the corridor chapels there was no writing on that either. The most plausible suggestion is that it was for an official or priest (and his wife) from either Athribis or Busiris.

The Falcon Necropolis

The falcon necropolis was partially excavated first by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, and Rowland’s team have been working there since 2006. It dates from late in Ancient Egyptian history – to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. The team haven’t excavated all of it, but have done quite a lot so far – they’re currently trying to get funding for more work there. One thing they have done is map out the whole of the structure from above ground – both via the magnetic survey I mentioned above and via ground penetrating radar. Rowland explained that one of the benefits of the latter technique is that it not only tells you that there’s something down there but also how far down it is. The structure is pretty large, and consists of corridors with rooms off the sides. There’s evidence that it wasn’t all built at once: occasionally there are places where the corridor wall is actually two adjoining walls built right next to each other but not joined on. Probably a sign that one existed already, and the other one is extending the structure onwards.

In some parts of the structure the rooms to the sides are full of falcon mummies. They are stacked in there in layers: first a layer of mummies, then resin poured on top of them covered by sand, and then a new layer of mummies, etc. Not all of the falcon mummies are still intact – some rooms just have burnt bits of bone. Apparently the mummies can occasionally spontaneously combust! The mummies (whether intact or otherwise) consist of a wide range of species, including kestrels, peregrines, kites, eagles, hawks and harriers. Rowland said they have also discovered hollow bronze falcon figures with bones inside, and bronze beaks and feet (which may’ve been attached to wooden bodies originally). Interestingly there were also elephant shrew remains. This rodent is a nocturnal manifestation of Horus, hence why they were appropriate offerings to be placed in the falcon necropolis.

In other parts of the structure there were niches – some with falcon mummies in, and some with ceramic jars full of falcon eggs. These were sealed with mud, and the team found 90 seal impressions from these jars which give some answers as to which of the nearby cities was involved in founding this place. There are frequent references on the seals to Athribis as the “home of the gods”, so that suggests it was linked with that city and not Busiris. Corroborating this is a reference (from elsewhere) to “the necropolis on the North of the Athribite Nome” and to the falcon embalming house there – Quesna is 7km north of Athribis so fits this description.

Rowland also told us briefly about some human burials they have excavated at the falcon necropolis. These are especially interesting at they have anatomical oddities. Two different ways of figuring out the age of the remains give two different answers. The teeth suggest an individual that is much older than the fusion of the long bones would indicate. These individuals might’ve had some sort of genetic defect that prevented their long bones from fusing. Another possibility is that these were eunuchs as they can have these sorts of anomalous features.

Living Off the Land(scape) on the Western Delta Fringes: Relationships Between Humans and Their Natural Environment Around Merimde Beni Salama In Prehistory

The second half of Rowland’s talk was about a much much earlier time period. She and her team have been working at the site of Merimde Beni Salama in the Wadi Gamal, which is on the western edge of the Nile Delta not that far from Quesna. It’s been known for around 100 years that there is a Neolithic village at this site, which is the earliest known farming settlement in North Africa. Her interest in this site is both in the Neolithic village and in looking for evidence from the earlier Middle Palaeolithic in the area adjacent to the village. This latter is because when human migration out of Africa early in our prehistory is discussed (as the way we spread around the world) Egypt is a region that people point to as a plausible migration route. So it would be nice to have evidence of people in Egypt in the Middle Palaeolithic.

They started by taking soil cores from across the site to look at the environment over time. The Middle Paleolithic era was before the climate of the region became dryer, so the land was green rather than desert. The Nile Delta didn’t exist as such – there was only one branch of the Nile at the time. The next stage of the work was to do a surface survey of stone tools – basically dividing the area they were interested in into a grid and then picking a sample set of grid squares (rather than doing the whole large area) and counting the types of tools that they found in the square. This work found tools such as small handaxes, and also Levallois points, flakes and cores. The name Levallois refers to a specific (and distinctive) way of making stone tools that was in use in the Paleolithic period.

They also dug test pits across their area of interest to see what was beneath the surface. Almost immediately under the surface are Neolithic finds in situ (meaning that they had been on the ground when last used, and the ground level had risen and covered them over since). Quite some way under them (around 80cm) was the start of a very dense deposit of Middle Paleolithic tools & tool fragments. They’ve been undisturbed since that time, and Rowland was saying that they are in such good condition that they “looked like they were made yesterday”. Some of the fragments even look like they might fit back together (flakes onto the cores they were flaked off, for instance), which suggests this was an area where the stone tools were made.

So Rowland and her team have found a lot of evidence for occupation during the Middle Paleolithic, which fits with the timing of human migration out of Africa. There have been multiple waves of migrations, for instance one was 120,000 years ago and another was 60,000 years ago. The team plan to date some of their finds (if they can get permission to take them out of the country) using a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence. This is a technique that can be used to determine the last time a piece of stone (such as quartz or some other minerals) was exposed to the light. So they had to be very careful to quickly excavate the samples for this into opaque tubes so they don’t get contaminated by light while they’re dug up!

Rowland has also been working at the Neolithic village site – although a lot of it is under cultivation now her team were able to do a magnetic survey across a wider area than had originally been excavated in the 1930s. The site turns out to be four or five times larger than originally thought. It appears to’ve moved over time, sort of drifting with new structures built next to the existing ones and then the abandoned ones getting reused as a burial ground. The sorts of finds the team discovered in the bits they were able to excavate included grinding stones, pottery and fragments from stone tool making. One of the questions Rowland is interested in is what the settling down process looked like at this site. Moving from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary one isn’t something that happens like a switch has been flicked, it’s a gradual process and the early phases are more like permanent (perhaps seasonal) camps. So in future she hopes to look at the climate of the site with a much finer focus (using pollen data from the cores), and see how that correlates with evidence of occupation. And also to try and see if there’s evidence that people were coming here at particular times of year. Of course, this is all supposing that the site is not destroyed by construction work, which is sadly an imminent possibility.

This was an interesting talk about some very current archaeological work and I don’t think we’ve had quite such a wide date range discussed in one afternoon before!