28 June 2010
When you think of Egyptian history the first image is that of a United Egypt under the Pharaohs, but a new museum under construction at Qena will house artifacts from the predynastic period, before even the cultures of Upper and Lower Eygpt, going back to the first 'seasonal settlements' in approximately 8,000 BCE.
The site of the new museum overlooks the Nile in an impressive five feddan (approximately 21,000 m2) site. It will not only display new finds but existing ones as well, including the contents of the Maadi Museum. Maadi was the site of many little known excavations, which started in 1918. A wealth of information had been published before the sudden end of the excavations by the start of World War II, and this area and its findings remains the most authoritative account of the predynastic Egypt.
The museum at Qena will trace the pre history back to early settlements in approximately 8,000 BCE, examples of which have been found in Feyoum. These settlements comprised mud huts on the shores of, what was then, a lake, when the level of the Nile was much higher. Various pieces of evidence, including sickle flints, suggest an agricultural society although it is known that the settlers were semi-nomadic and ventured into the desert to hunt mammals. Evidence of a more settled lifestyle has been found at Merinda, in the Western Desert. Radiocarbon dating has confirmed that settlers lived here in approximately 4,440-4,145 BCE. Remains of insubstantial huts have been found, which were probably used for storage, similar to those found in rural areas of Egypt today.
The area around the original dig at Maadi is under serious threat from urban expansion, so the transfer of the collection to the new museum is very welcome. Maadi was a perfect location, safe from flooding and with plenty of fresh drinking water. It was, in fact, quite a sophisticated trading centre, with excellent links to both Upper and Lower Egypt and a water route to Suez, which spread trading to Palestine and Western Asia. The settlement had an interesting structure. At the heart were houses and huts, of various shapes and forms (including subterranean). This core was surrounded by storages facilities, with burial areas located even further from the centre. The subterranean areas proved to be the most interesting as the construction method of 'cut and cover' was a Palestinian method, rather than Egyptian and one theory is that they were the residences of foreign traders, but this is far from being proven.
The form and structure of the settlement may not, however, be as clear cut as just described and anomalies abound which may, as little remains of the site, remain unresolved. It is hoped that, by bringing together prehistory evidence from various sites, including pottery, flint tools, stone maces, jewellery etc., combined with modern radiocarbon dating techniques, new light might be shed on this period and its mysteries. It is exciting to note that the Qena Museum is only one site in Zahi Hawass's (Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities) plans to locate specialised museums across the length and breadth of Egypt.
Source: Al-Ahram Weekly (17-23 June 2010)