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The orthogonal planned settlement of the early Middle Kingdo (F/I, stratum e)

by Ernst Czerny
  In 1979 the excavation activities within the huge site of Tell el-Dabca moved towards an area which was designated as "F/I", just 500 m to the west of the tell itself (pic. 1).  
pic. 1
  The most prominent feature of the manifold archaeological remains of that area is undoubtedly the so-called Palace,
a large residential structure of the early 13th Dynasty (see the contribution of R. Schiestl, F/I, str. d/1).
However, below this monumental building, earlier strata were preserved. The oldest one of these, designated as F/I, str. e, was directly situated on the original surface of the "Gezirah", a feature of the natural landscape. It contained the remains of a mud-brick settlement, which in the course of its investigation could be dated to the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, most likely into the epoch of king Amenemhat I., the founder of the 12th dynasty (1973–1944 BC according to K. Kitchen’s chronology) (pic. 2).
pic. 2
  Therefore, these ruins can be considered as the oldest architectural remains hitherto discovered at Tell el-Dabca. Clearly, the whole structure was the result of state-run internal colonisation, with the aim of establishing royal administration and power at the eastern border of the Egyptian kingdom. Literary sources, such as, e.g., the "Instructions for king Merikare" mention exactly this kind of internal colonisation and it is well-known, also from literary sources, that king Amenmhat I. was much concerned with the eastern border. Nothing of the fortifications which this king is known to have erected along the eastern edge of the Delta has been found by archaeological investigations, but it is highly probable that the Tell el-Dabca settlement is in some way connected with this important defence project which must have been undertaken in its close neighbourhood.

The settlement was excavated only to a small extent. Parts of an enclosure wall were exposed along the north edge, but neither a corner of this wall nor an entrance have been found. Consequently, the original size of the structure remains unknown. Being only c. 160 cm (41/2 bricks) thick, the enclosure wall did not serve for defence. The number of 342 documented houses is only a part of the original settlement, which must have stretched farther west and south, possibly also east.

All excavated houses were originally of the same size and shape and were arranged in blocks of single rows along the enclosure and double rows farther south. The blocks of the eastern row contained 12 houses each and those on the western row 24 (+x?) houses, respectively. The 2 northernmost blocks near the enclosure had 6 and 12 houses only. A large building, whose purpose remains unclear, lay in the north-east corner of the area, south of which nothing was found but a large open space.

Although each of the houses was divided into 4 rooms facing two sides of a courtyard, they were among the smallest houses ever excavated in Egypt. The internal surface was only 27 m2 each, so that the settlement, when fully inhabited, must have been densely crowded (pic. 3, pic. 4).
pic. 3   pic. 4
  However, this seems only to have been the case for a short time at the beginning. After a while, the inhabitants began to alter their houses, often connecting two or even more of them to a larger unit.

Later, the whole structure was given up and completely new houses were built above the remains of the original ones. These were much larger and not uniform, but individually shaped, indicating that the state-planned settlement had been replaced by privately planned dwellings, large enough to use them as farmer’s houses or artisan’s work-shops. They followed, however, the ancient streets and respected the borders of the previous blocks. These houses of the uppermost strata of the settlement are badly destroyed by the more recent building activities of late Middle Kingdom.

The necropolis of the inhabitants could not be discovered. The finds within the settlement were almost exclusively pottery-sherds, silices and animal bones. No objects of any value were left behind by the last inhabitants, and any organic material has decayed in the humid ground of the delta (pic. 5, pic. 6, pic. 7).
pic. 5   pic. 6   pic. 7
  A thorough study of the pottery remains was therefore the most promising way to establish the dating and cultural context of the settlement. Most vessels were plates, bowls, (some with carination), bottles, pots, cooking pots, pithoi, bread moulds and spinning bowls. 58% of the rim sherds were of Nile B fabric, 29% of Nile C fabric, less than 1% of Nile E and Marl A fabrics and 12% of Marl C. As far as the different types could be reconstructed, the pottery had its closest parallels in the one of the west-delta settlement of Abu Ghalib, notwithstanding many parallels with the pottery from Sedment and, to a lesser extent, from sites such as Harageh, Gurob, Beni Hassan, Denderah, Qau, Rifeh, Tarif, and Lisht. Sherds of non-Egyptian origin were extremely rare. They came from very rough hand-made vessels probably from the Sinai or the Negev and were considered as a proof that contact (and trade?) with Bedouins had occurred.

The Egyptian pottery of most of the sites mentioned as parallels has been re-evaluated by S. Seidlmayer in 1990, who was able to create a typological system and to date it convincingly. Fitting the Tell el-Dabca pottery into this system, the dating of the settlement could be established as the early Middle Kingdom, probably into the reign of King Amenemhat I. Additional finds, such as a few scarabs and fragments of Alabaster-vessels, confirmed this view.

The silices proved that the inhabitants of the settlement worked as farmers, although this was probably not their primary and main occupation. Most of the flint implements were sickle-stones, very worn and showing the so-called sickle-glance. A. Tillmann demonstrated that the source of the silex was the Wadi el-Sheik in Middle Egypt, and not, as became the rule during the Middle Kingdom, the Theban area in the south of Egypt.
Remains of animals and plants allowed the reconstruction of the flora and fauna supplying this settlement.

Altogether, the results of the excavation of the settlement of Tell el-Dabca, F/I, str. e shed light on the hard and, until now, only scarcely documented conditions of everyday life of an Egyptian town of the early Middle Kingdom, far from the splendour of temples and the royal court.
Czerny E.
Tell el-Dabca IX. Eine Plansiedlung des frühen Mittleren Reiches. UZK 15, ÖAW, Vienna 1999
Boessneck J. und Von den Driesch A.
Tierknochenfunde aus der frühen 12. Dynastie vom Tell el-Dabca im Nildelta, in E. Czerny, op.cit.
Tanheiser U.
Untersuchungen zur ägyptischen Landwirtschaft in dynastischer Zeit an Hand von Pflanzenresten aus Tell el-Dabca.
PHD thesis Vienna 1987.
Tillmann A.
Steinzeitkultur in der Hochkultur anhand des Materials aus Tell el-Dabca und Qantir, forthcoming.
Bietak M. und Eigner D.
Tell el-Dabca XIV, Ein Palastbezirk des späten Mittleren Reiches und andere Siedlungsschichten. Pläne und Profile, Vienna, forthcoming.
Tell el-Dabca, Ein Palastbezirk des späten Mittleren Reiches und andere Siedlungsschichten, Stratigraphie, archäologischer Befund und Architektur. In preparation.
for parallels see also:
Seidlmayer S.J.
Gräberfelder aus dem Übergang vom Alten zum Mittleren Reich, SAGA 1, Heidelberg 1990
Bagh T.
Abu Ghalib, an Early Middle Kingdom Town in the Western Nile Delta: Renewed Work on Material Excavated in the 1930s, MDAIK 58(2002), 29– 61.