Buto/Tell el-Fara´in

4000 years of landscape and settlement history in the western Nile Delta (Egypt)



31° 12' 50.6628" N, 30° 46' 41.4732" E

Fig. 2: Topographical plan of Buto. © DAIFig. 1: Ruins of mudbrick buildings on the northern mound of Buto. © DAIThe settlement of Buto (modern Tell el-Fara‘in) is situated in the flood plain of the north-western Nile Delta, c. 40km south of the modern shore line of the Mediterranean. The site covers an area of approximately 1km2. It is topographically divided into a northern and a southern Kôm (mound) with mud-brick ruins rising 15m above the cultivation, and a temple area surrounded by a huge enclosure wall.



Although Buto seems to be quite well attested in written sources, until recently, only little was known of the archaeology of the site. English excavations at the beginning of the 20th century and in the 1960s revealed mainly Ptolemaic/Roman and Saite remains. Since the 1980s, the work of the DAI focused on the early history of the site which reaches back to the first half of the 4th millennium. 

Fig. 4: The Ptolemaic double well system in the temples of Buto after the English excavation. © DAIFig. 3: Labels from the late predynastic king's tomb U-j in Abydos. These labels made of cattle ribs were attached to grave goods and described their origin. © DAI

Since the late New Kingdom, the city was known under the name of Per-Wadjet, i.e. “House of the (Goddess) Wadjet” (Uto), from which the Greek name Buto derives. Considering the modern topographical appearance of the site, Buto was identified by W.M.F. Petrie with the twin cities of Pe and Dep, attested already on Early Dynastic seals and seal impressions. Buto is assumed to have been the archaic capital of Lower Egypt, which played an important role throughout the pharaonic period, as a counterpart to Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, both in religious belief and in cultic life. Another name connected with Buto is Djebaut, mainly known from Old Kingdom sources. Earliest evidence for this name, written with the heron on the roof of a building, occurs on small bone labels from the late Predynastic (Naqada IIIA1) tomb U-j at Abydos (fig.3).
Today Buto appears as impressive mounds of ruins which are mostly of Ptolemaic/Roman date. Although Buto seems to be quite well attested in written sources, until recently, only little was known of the archaeology of the site.
The first archaeological excavations were carried out by C.T. Currelly in 1904 and by V. Seton-Williams and D. Charlesworth 1965-1967 on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society. The work exposed mainly Ptolemaic/Roman and Saite remains in the temple area and elsewhere (fig.4). Since the 1980’s, the excavations in the temple area have been continued by the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Universities of Alexandria and Tanta. In the course of this work, several fragments of New Kingdom statues and inscribed blocks came to light – among others also a decree from Thutmose III.
Fig.6 These small cups were produced in Levantine tradition usind a turning device – the contemporaneous Egyptian pottery (cf. Fig. 5) is made by hand. © DAIFig.5 The vessels from predynastic Buto are very similar to the pottery assamblage of the settlement of Maadi © DAIDuring the early 1980s, W. Kaiser initiated the investigations of the German Archaeological Institute at Buto with the objective to clarify the early history of the site during the 4th and early 3rd millenniums. The archaeological work directed by Th. von der Way was complemented by geomorphological investigations and environmental studies focusing on the development of the landscape in the western Nile Delta carried out in cooperation with the University of Marburg (J. Wunderlich). By means of drillings the existence of early settlement layers was confirmed which were subsequently excavated. This was the first time that settlement remains of the chalcolithic Lower Egyptian culture of the 4th millennium  - until then known only from Maadi - came to light in the Nile Delta proper.
From 1993-1998, the work was continued by D. Faltings (in one campaign together with M. Ziermann).
The earliest settlement consisted of simple huts of wattle-and-daub. The material culture is very similar to that of Maadi (fig.5), the economic basis being husbandry. During the oldest occupation phase, most likely also “Canaanites” were living at Buto manufacturing pottery from local Nile silt in the technological tradition of the chalcolithic southern Levant (fig.6). As opposed to Maadi, the settlement was not abandoned in the middle of the 4th millennium, but continued into the Early Dynastic period (and the Old Kingdom). This made it possible for the material culture to follow the gradual increase of Upper Egypt’s influence during the second half of the 4th millennium and therefore to gain information on the process of the emergence of the Egyptian state.  
Early Dynastic layers yielded evidence for the existence of an administrative building complex of which parts were excavated.


Beside the questions of the early history of the site, during recent years the later development of the settlement and its topography, especially its interlocking with environmental conditions and the reconstruction of the ancient landscape, has become a focal point of interest.
Since 2002, in cooperation with the DAI, a project of the University of Poitiers conducted by Pascale Ballet is investigating industrial activities and functional aspects in Buto during the Ptolemaic and Roman period.


Fig. 7: Hand drill for surveying the ground. © DAIFig.8 The tiny pottery chips from the drill core are the basis for the dating of occupation layers. © DAIRegarding the total size of the site, excavations alone appear not sufficient to answer questions about the general history of the settlement and must be complemented by other methods. The combination of auger drillings, geophysical measurements and the collection of surface material proved to be especially valuable in order to compile a three dimensional view of the development and the topography of the settlement.

Regarding the total size of the site, excavations alone appear not sufficient to answer questions about the general history of the settlement and must be complemented by other methods. The combination of auger drillings, geophysical measurements and the collection of surface material proved to be especially valuable. Drillings provide information on the thickness and extent of cultural layers deep below the surface in a simple and effective way. The work is carried out by means of a simple hand set (fig.7). The filling of the drill head which comes to light does not only allow observations on the nature of the penetrated layers (e.g. mud-bricks, ashy layers, Nile silt etc.) but it also contains enough pottery fragments for dating purposes (fig.8). The auger has to be lifted approximately every 20cm and the sequence of observations result in a section of the settlement layers. The deepest drilling so far reached almost 14m (fig.9). Due to their systematic arrangement in a 40 x 80m grid, it is possible to compare the results of the drillings easily and to reconstruct the spatial extent of the settlement during a distinctive occupation phase (cf. Figs. 13, 14 and 18).
Fig.9: Additional rods allow borings into greater depth. © DAIIn comparison, the geomagnetic measurements carried out by Th. Herbich (Polish Academy of Science, Warsaw) (fig.10) provided a surprisingly detailed “city map” of building structures close to the surface (but not visible on the actual surface) as well as other features to a depth of approx. 1.50m (fig.11). Burnt structures and objects, such as kilns or concentrations of pottery sherds, ashes and slags are indicated especially well and also mud brick walls can be easily recognized.
By using both methods, the plan of the latest occupation levels can be expanded to include information on the underlying, older settlement strata. This provides a three dimensional view of the development of the settlement mound that not only depicts the the general layers but is also very useful for choosing the appropriate excavation site. Additional information concerning the chronology and the function of special areas of the youngest settlement phase are provided by the collection of surface material. 
Researching Buto’s early history by excavations is difficult not only because early settlement layers are covered by huge amounts of later deposits but the predynastic remains are also situated below the modern water table and can be reached only if pumps are used (fig.12). Technical conditions, such as, the performance of the pump, considerably limit excavation possibilities, meaning only a fairly small area can generally be studied.

Fig. 10: T. Herbich carrying out geomagnetic measurements. © DAI fig.11: Magnetic map (by Th. Herbich) of the area studied so far. © DAI fig.12: Excavation with pumps by Th. von der Way during the 1980s. © DAI

Current research

fig.14: Location of the settlement in the Early Dynastic period and during the Old Kingdom. © DAIFig. 13: Location of the settlement in the first half of the 4th millennium © DAIThe results of the survey carried out so far allow to reconstruct the general frame of the development of the settlement and exemplary excavations shed light on the activities and living conditions of the inhabitants of Buto during different times.
The work has been supported by the DFG from 2005 until 2007.

The results of the survey (geophysical measurements, borings, collection of surface material) carried out so far allow to reconstruct the general frame of the development of the settlement and exemplary excavations shed light on the activities and living conditions of the inhabitants of Buto during different times.
The work has been supported by the DFG from 2005 until 2007.
The first settlers of Buto occupied a strip, c. 200-300m wide, which was situated on the western edge of a dune ridge (Fig.13), immediately along the bank of a water course. The position of the settlement must have been on a level which protected the village against the Nile innundations and allowed a permanent habitation. During the following time, the settlement spread mainly to the north and reached in the first centuries of the 3rd millennium a length of almost 1km (Fig.14). The recent excavations north of the modern village of Sekhmawy (cf. Fig. 2, 15) yielded a considerable increase in information on the design of the Early Dynastic building complex (Fig.16) of which a small part was previously excavated by Th. von der Way. The uncovering of an entrance area and a store-room wing revealed its subdivision into at least three functional areas that were enclosed by thick walls (Fig.17). According to the pottery evidence, the building complex, probably a royal estate, was constructed in the first half of the 1st Dynasty ( around 2970 B.C.) and at least partially abandoned around the middle of the 2nd Dynasty (around 2800 B.C.) after a fire destroyed the store-room and possibly other building sections.  

Fig.15: The excavation area north of Sekhmway. In the foreground, the foundation of a Saite building, in the background the badly preserved walls of the Early Dynastic building complex. © DAI Fig.16: Walls of the Early Dynastic building complex. © DAI Fig.17: Preliminary plan of the building complex. © DAI

In some of the excavation squares, structures dating to the early 1st Dynasty, such as single room houses and round silos have been reached.
So far, building structures of the Old Kingdom were found only in the north-western part of Buto (cf. Fig. 2), but they are not yet fully excavated. Buto seems to have been abandoned at the end of the Old Kingdom, probably due to a shift of the water courses around the settlement. So far, neither drillings nor excavations have yielded any proof for an occupation during the Middle and the New Kingdoms. This feature contradicts some New Kingdom findings from the temple area, whereby these could have been brought here from other locations – as was customary in Egypt of that time – for the Late Dynastic furnishing of the temple. On the other hand, it can not be excluded that a small New Kingdom settlement lies still buried under the surrounding fields outside today’s visible mound of ruins.  
Fig.19: TIP elite burial in an usurped Ramesside sarcophagus. © DAIFig.18: Location of the settlement of the Third Intermediate Period (late 8th century B.C.). © DAIA substantial resettlement of Buto occurs not before the late 8th century B.C. The centre of the new city lay, however, further to the east on a considerably higher level due to Nile sedimentation (Fig.18). The still visible Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom ruins were only used to dig for mud brick material and as a place to deposit rubbish. Of special interest are two elite burials which came to light in the north-western part of Buto (cf. Fig. 2). One of the undisturbed burials, probably a high official or an until now unknown local sovereign of Buto named Paschemuherugeb was burried in a granite sarcophagus. Its lid was usurped from a Ramesside official, Paraemheb, and as lower part a granite block from a building of Pepi I was used (Fig.19). The rich equipment of the tomb also included braclets with the name of Iupet II (c. 754-720 B.C.), who is known so far only from the middle and the eastern Nile Delta. How the bracelets were acquired by the deceased is not known.
The settled area expanded considerably during the 26th Dynasty (7th/6th century) and large areas of the city seem to have been rebuilt during the early 6th century. The magnetic map of the western part of the settlement provides an idea of the new densely constructed buildings along a north-south running street (cf. Fig. 11). Three of these houses visible also on the magnetic map (Fig.20) - resp. their only preserved foundations - have been investigated exemplarily. The largest building measures 22.5 x 22.5m (Fig.21) and had a foundation up to 3m deep, meaning it was almost certainly a multistorey building. The foundation chambers were obviously also used as a cellar – built-in round silos were found in some.
Fig.20: Detail of the magnetic map with marked excavation areas. © DAIButo’s bloom seems not to have continued for long – large parts of the city were already abandoned as early as the second half of the 6th century and the ruins of the houses were secondarily used for burials (Fig.22).
During the Ptolemaic and Roman period, the city covered not only the entire current settlement mound, but probably also a large area under the surrounding fields. The magnetic map shows significant changes to the townscape including an area in the southwest of the site surrounded by a massive enclosure wall (cf. Fig. 11), and numerous ovens in the north, indicated by black dots on the map (Fig.23), which were used for the industial production of pottery as it is shown by the investigations of the University of Poitiers (conducted by P. Ballet, suported by the French Foreign Ministry) (Fig.24). The activities highlight a special aspect of Buto – that of an innovative centre of ceramic production in the Roman period, when for the first time in Egypt thin-walled, red slipped fine pottery was produced which resembles the sigillata in the western Mediterranean region (Fig.25). Other ovens were used to manufacture household ware.
During the late Ptolemaic/Roman period the entire northwestern part of Buto was used as a burial ground (Fig.26).
In late Byzantine/early Islamic times Buto was abandoned.

Fig.21: Cell-like foundation of a Saite building. © DAI Fig. 22: Faience amulets from a burial dating from the second half of the 6th century. © DAI Fig. 23: Detail of the northern part of the magnetic map; the black dots indicate pottery kilns. © DAI
Fig.24: Roman pottery kilns on the northern slope of the northern settlement mound (photo P. Ballet)

Fig.25: Locally produced Roman fine ware (photo P. Ballet)

Fig. 26: Late Ptolemaic-Early Roman burial from the 1st century B.C. © DAI

Cooperation / Cooperation partners

Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA)
University of Poitiers (P. Ballet)


Older excavations and in general:

W.M.F. Petrie, Ehnasya 1904. EEF 26. London 1905.

M.V. Seton-Williams, The Tell el-Farâ´în Expedition, 1964-1965, in: Journal of Egyptian
Archaeology 51, 1965, S. 9-15.
 -“ -, The Tell el-Farâ´în Expedition, 1966, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 52, 1966, S.
- “ -, The Tell el-Farâ´în Expedition, 1967, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 53, 1967, S.
D. Charlesworth, Tell el-Farâ’în: The Industrial Site, 1968, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology
55, 1969, S. 23-30.
- “ -, The Tell el-Farâ’în Excavation, 1969, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeolgy 56, 1970, S. 19-
D.B. Redford, Notes on the History of Ancient Buto, in: Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar
5,1983, S. 67-101.
Sh. Bedier, Ein Stiftungsdekret Thutmosis’ III. aus Buto, in: M. Minas/J. Zeidler (Hrsg.),
Aspekte spätägyptischer Kultur (Festschrift E. Winter), Aegyptiaca Treverensia 7, Mainz 1994, S. 35-50.

Preliminary reports in publications of the DAI, Cairo branch:
Th. von der Way/K. Schmidt, Tell el Fara´in - Buto, 1. Bericht, in: MDAIK 42, 1986, S. 191-212.
- “ - , Tell el Fara´in - Buto, 2. Bericht, in: MDAIK 43, 1987, S. 241-257.
- “ - , Tell el Fara´in - Buto, 3. Bericht, in: MDAIK 44, 1988, S. 283-306.
Th. von der Way/K.Schmidt/E.C. Köhler, Tell el Fara´in - Buto, 4. Bericht, in: MDAIK 45, 1989,
S. 275-307.
D. Faltings/E.C. Köhler E.C., Vorbericht über die Ausgrabungen des DAI in Tell el-Fara´in/Buto
1993 bis 1995, in: MDAIK 52, 1996; S. 87-114.
D. Faltings u.a., Zweiter Vorbericht über die Arbeiten in Buto von 1996-1999, in: MDAIK 56,
2000, S. 31-179.
M. Ziermann, Tell el-Fara´in - Buto. Bericht über die Arbeiten am Gebäudekomplex der Schicht
V und die Vorarbeiten auf dem Nordhügel (site A), in: MDAIK 58, 2002, S. 461- 499.
U. Hartung u.a., Tell el-Fara´in - Buto, 8. Vorbericht, in: MDAIK 59, 2003, S. 199-267.
- “ - , Tell el-Fara´in - Buto, 9. Vorbericht, in: MDAIK 63, 2007, S. 69-165.
- “ - , Tell el-Fara’in – Buto, 10. Vorbericht, in: MDAIK 65, 2009 (in print).

Monographs and other articles:

J. Wunderlich, Untersuchungen zur Entwicklung des Westlichen Nildeltas im Holozän,
Marburger Geographische Schriften 114, Marburg 1989.
Th. von der Way, Untersuchungen zur Spätvor- und Frühgeschichte Unterägyptens, SAGA 8,
Heidelberg 1993.
- „ - , Tell el-Fara´in-Buto I, Ergebnisse zum frühen Kontext, Kampagnen der Jahre 1983-1989,
AVDAIK 83, Mainz 1997.
- „ - , Zur Datierung des "Labyrinth-Gebäudes" auf dem Tell el-Fara´in (Buto), in: Göttinger
Miszellen 157, 1997, S. 107-111.
E.C. Köhler, Tell el-Fara´in-Buto III, Die Keramik von der späten Naqada-Kultur bis zum
frühen Alten Reich (Schichten III bis VI), AVDAIK 94, Mainz 1998.
D. Faltings, Ergebnisse der neuen Ausgrabungen in Buto, Chronologie und Fernbeziehungen
der Buto-Maadi-Kultur neu überdacht, in: H. Guksch/D. Polz (Hrsg.), Stationen - Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte Ägyptens (Festschrift R. Stadelmann), Mainz 1998, S. 35-45.
- “ - , Canaanites at Buto in the early fourth millennium BC, in: Egyptian Archaeology 13,
1998, S. 29-32.
- “ - , The Chronological Frame and Social Structure of Buto in the Fourth Millennium
BCE, in: E.C.M. van den Brink/T.E. Levy (eds.), Egypt and the Levant. Interrelations from the 4th through the Early 3rd Millennium B.C.E., London/New York 2002, S. 165-170.
H. Wilde/K. Behnert, Salzherstellung im vor- und frühdynastischen Ägypten? Überlegungen
zur Funktion der sogenannten Grubenkopfnägel in Buto, MDAIK 58, 2002, S. 447-460.
Th. Herbich/U. Hartung, Geophysical investigations at Buto (Tell el-Fara´in), in: Egyptian
Archaeology 24, 2004, S. 14-17.
P. Ballet, The Graeco-Roman pottery workshops of Buto, in: Egyptian Archaeology 24, 2004, S.
F. Förster, Eine saitische Votivstele aus dem Tempelbezirk von Buto/Tell el-Fara´in, in: MDAIK
60, 2004, S. 47-56.
M. Jost, Der Würfelhocker des des Hr-3hbj.t, in: MDAIK 63, 2007, S. 185-192.

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