Monday, July 07, 2008

Uncovering Evidence of a Workaday World Along the Nile
Archaeologists have long fixed their sights on the grandeur that was ancient Egypt, the pyramids, temples and tombs. Few bothered to dig beneath and beyond the monumental stones for glimpses into the living and working spaces of ordinary Egyptians.

That is changing slowly but steadily. In the last two or three decades, excavations have uncovered urban remains and swept aside the conventional wisdom that the Egypt of the pharaohs, in contrast to Mesopotamia, was somehow a civilization without cities.

Indeed. Matter of fact, this was part of my dissertation:
Egypt is one example of an apparently obvious case of a highly complex culture that differs in striking ways from other complex early civilizations such as Mesopotamia, yet is still regarded as a classic example of a complex preindustrial civilization. Wilson (1960), for example, noted that Egypt's towns and villages, as then known, did not appear to exhibit the degree of size, density of occupation, and range of non-agricultural activities as their Mesopotamian counterparts, and therefore did not qualify as true 'cities' as in the Mesopotamian model. Sjoberg (1960) however, argued that even though Egypt's city structures differed in many respects from the Mesopotamian model they still were cities in their own right. In any case, since Egypt exhibited all the other hallmarks of complexity -- monumental architecture, administrative hierarchies, specialized craft production, etc. -- the question of whether Egyptian cities were functionally equivalent to the Mesopotamian variety is somewhat moot.

Whether Egypt really was a 'civilization without cities' reflects deeper theoretical issues involving explanation of the initial development of cultural complexity. It also highlights, as Wenke (1997) notes, the typological nature of the comparative method: without a set of theoretically-derived necessary and sufficient conditions to define what "cities", "city-states", and "nation-states" are, comparison becomes a matter of simple (though in many ways useful) description rather than explanation.

There are a number of reasons why settlement archaeology languished somewhat. Part of the reason is simple geomorphology. Most of the habitable land is in the narrow ribbon of the Nile valley and over the Holocene with the rise in sea levels worldwide the Nile floodplain has been aggrading (building up sediment). So for the most part, settlements were built on top of older settlements -- which is the case elsewhere as well, but since habitable land is restricted, the population stayed in one place p until the present. Consequently, you don't get the numerous abandoned tells that you get in, say, Mesopotamia. Most of the settlements are either now covered by existing settlements and/or buried beneath tens of meters of Nile sediment. Plus the water table is pretty close to the surface so even if you can get an uninhabited valley area, you can't dig down very far. The ones that have been excavated have generally been on the desert fringe, which not coincidentally, also tends to be where the burials are.

Which is, of course, the other reason settlement archaeology has been somewhat ignored: they didn't have the rich artifact and epigraphic loads that most people find so fascinating. And even in a lot of cases where settlements have been excavated, many have been associated with major state projects (e.g., Lehner's pyramid builders village at Giza) or mortuary complexes (e.g., the workmen's village at Deir el-Medina.

I review a bunch of the settlement sites in the link above (specifically starting here).