Borderscape Blog 6: Moving Beyond Textual Evidence (Part II)

Last week, we discussed three problems of relying exclusively on Egyptian textual evidence for information about the First Cataract Borderscape, and this week we will talk about how archaeology can help to move us towards less elite-focused and Pharaonic-centric perspectives to provide a more balanced view of the Aswan region during the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE.

Archaeologists analyze material culture (artifacts, tools, art, objects, faunal remains, floral remains, tombs, etc.) to better understand past societies. Historians traditionally use written documentation to do the same thing, but as we noted last week, not every society chose to develop a writing system to communicate or store information. Prior to the invention of writing, archaeological remains are one of the primary data sources for understanding “prehistoric” societies. In the case of ancient Egypt, which produced copious amounts of written material together with archaeological remains, both archaeologists and Egyptologists need to have some degree of familiarity with both the epigraphic and archaeological evidence. Often, combining textual and archaeological evidence leads to especially interesting and powerful new insights!

At times, archaeological evidence might conflict with textual reports. Most authors have some sort of agenda—a given pharaoh might claim to rule to the ends of the Earth, but the absence of concentrations of Egyptian material culture east of the Euphrates or south of the 4th cataract suggests a far more limited empire! As other scholars have noted, in a direct confrontation between archaeological material and written reports, archaeology tends to “win”, since archaeology can falsify textual evidence while the reverse is not possible.[1] Thus if your 12th Dynasty textual source claims the Nubian polity of Kerma was weak and cowardly, but subsequently you find monumental architecture, large settlements, social stratification, and warrior burials PLUS you know that this complex, vibrant society was bounded in the north by a long chain of Egyptian fortresses with highly sophisticated military architecture, you can reasonably believe that the initial Pharaonic source’s assessment was not correct.

Archaeology also can help provide a much more nuanced picture of ancient societies. Archaeological finds from the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE allow us to analyze settlement patterns and land usage during our study period, even though there are far fewer textual sources from the Aswan region than later periods. Similarly, archaeology can potentially provide a way to access information about a broader subset of the population. Though only 1% of ancient Egyptians were literate, nearly everyone would have used pottery or built a shelter for their household! That said, much archaeological evidence is still slanted towards the elite: often only the wealthy could afford tombs, and palaces, temples, and upper class housing were often built in the most prominent locations with the finest and most durable construction materials. Nevertheless, it is at least possible to recover some additional information about middle and lower status people through excavating dwellings or work areas and performing broader field surveys across the wider landscape. Analyses of poorer burials can help compare the relative health and wealth of different individuals, while the kinds of seeds and animal bones recovered from a site can lead us to a better understanding of what people were eating!

Archaeology also helps to show how there were other cultural traditions active in the First Cataract region, from Nilotic Nubians to inhabitants of the Eastern and Western deserts. Ceramics in particular are especially durable artifacts—even if they break, the potsherds themselves often endure. And it is clear that there were a variety of different ceramic-making and decorative traditions in the First Cataract region during the 3rd and 4th millennia BCE. Whether they were used to store victuals or valued objects, cook food, or serve meals, pottery was (and sometimes still is) often connected to many of the most intimate daily rhythms of the human experience! Similarly, archaeologists can distinguish between different kinds of flint tools, or highlight specific processes of manufacture. However, we must remember the common archaeological refrain that “Pots are not people!” We will undoubtedly get into the myriad complexities and difficulties of this kind of analysis in future posts.

Finally, archaeologists can also investigate ancient landscapes (and human impacts on the landscape) through a variety of different techniques. Just as many scientists investigate climate change today, geoarchaeologists rely on climate data like pollen cores, test drillings, and isotopic analysis to better understand changes in the ancient environment. Often times, agricultural or mining tools can help scholars reconstruct how people interacted with and exploited the natural landscape around them. In our case, the Borderscape Project is interested in reconstructing what the ancient landscape in the First Cataract region of the Nile looked like between roughly 4000-2000 BCE, and how the inhabitants of this region made use of various natural resources in the area. Next week we will cover some of the interesting methods we can use to reconstruct the ancient physiography and land-use patterns in our study area!


[1] It is worth noting that I am hardly an unbiased observer here: both Maria and I are archaeologists by training. But most ancient historians I know would be willing to concede this point!

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