Southern border town and trading post of Ancient Egypt
The island of Elephantine with its settlement is located at the northern access of the First Cataract of the Nile river, with the modern town of Aswan located on the east bank of the river (Fig. 1). At this point, the river valley is extremely narrow, with the desert plains abutting it directly to the east and the west. The town Elephantine lies since the 4th millennium BC continuously in a buffer-zone of regions of different economical, political and ecological spaces.
The archaeology of settlements in general has long been eclipsed by the search for the large glamorous monuments of Pharaonic Egypt. Thus, Elephantine was primarily known for its Nilometer, the way in which the rise of the Nile was measured. However, the discovery of papyri by locals who dug in the tell attracted academic attention, and led to excavations of the the museum of Berlin and by the Academie de Belles-Lettres of Paris. The Egyptian antiquities organisation excavated the area in the 30s and 40s, and worked on the famous sanctuary of Heqaib, dating to the Middle Kingdom.
Since 1969, the history of the city and its temples has been unearthed by annual excavations lasting six months a year by the German Archaeological Institute, in cooperation with the Swiss Institute for Architectural Research and Egyptian Archaeology.
The earliest evidence from Elephantine, in the form of pottery finds, points to human presence and activity in the later 5th millennium BC. From about 3300 BC onwards, continuous settlement activity is attested at the island’s southern tip, an area that was safe from the inundation. Among the most important features found at Elephantine is the sequence of sanctuaries dedicated to the goddess Satet whose cult was related to the flood. It can be traced from the 4th millennium till the forced end of the pagan cults in the early 5th century AD.
Another very important sanctuary of the city was dedicated to the ram-headed god Khnum; the earliest evidence for this dates to the 2nd millennium BC. Khnum’s cult persisted into the early Roman era, complete with a necropolis for sacred rams. Khnum’s temples, like those of Satet, also boasted Nilometers; these were of utmost importance for the economic welfare of not just Elephantine, but all of Egypt.
The ensemble of sacred buildings was surrounded by an organically evolved settlement. Continuous settlement activity led to a total height of about 20m of the tell. Administration buildings, industrial areas, and houses all jockeyed for position here.
Elephantine was most notable for being the southernmost boundary of Egypt and a place where Egypt and Nubia interfaced. This was the point where military operations as well as trading expeditions started. Many such expeditions took place quite early—in the 3rd millennium. Expedition leaders have left us a host of autobiographical inscriptions detailing their exploits in their tombs. Trips to Punt, Yam/Kerma are documented in the necropolis of the Qubbet el-Hawa, to the west of Elephantine. One of the best known leaders of such trade expeditions was one Heqaib/Pepinakht. He was venerated in a cult shrine until early 2nd Intermediate Period (ca 1650 BC).
Due to the early 18th Dynasty expansion into Nubia, Elephantine stopped being merely a frontier town. Many rock-inscriptions in the region stand testament to the dignitaries who came here. During the Late Period and the Greco-Roman Period, further immense building projects were realised on Elephantine, among them a visual marker of the island, the great river-terrace of the temple of Khnum from the early Roman Period. However, for the most part, in later Egyptian history, Elephantine reverted to its original position as frontier post. In the Persian Period an Aramaic garrison was established on Elephantine to hold the First Cataract. As paganism was replaced by Christianity in the early 5th century AD, Elephantine lost its religious position as well. Indeed, a garrison was stationed in the temple of Khnum. The settlement sequence of Elephantine ends on the tell in the 10/11th century AD.
In the 20th century, just on the spot of the early dynastic settlement and fortification, overlooking the eastern branch of the Nile, the ministry of public works and water resources built an office building. In 1914 it housed archaeological objects from the region, and it serves as a museum till nowadays. At the foot of the tell stands the most recent part of the 6000 year occupation sequence of Elephantine: a Nubian mud brick village.
The aim of the excavations at Elephantine is to provide a coherent picture of the different parts of an ancient settlement and the interrelations between its temples, houses and cemeteries. Detailing the cultural development of the site, and using it as a source to extrapolate settlement patterns in other, less archaeologically accessible settlements is part of the objective of the mission. It is a rare moment when mud-brick settlement remains can be viewed by the public. This was formally made available as an open-air onsite museum in 1998.
The research program at Elephantine intends to not only excavate large portions of the site and to study and restore it, but to try to understand Elephantine’s role in the larger economical, political, ethnical and social contexts, both on the regional and the supra-regional level. The work aims to follow, diachronically, the developments across the different époques and disciplines. For such an approach, the preservation of the site and its layers with its moderate extension offers ideal conditions.
Currently, the mission is supporting the efforts of the Supreme Council of Antiquities to restore and refurbish the old museum on Elephantine Island.
The conservation of the layers of the tell is, due to the arid climate, exceptional. Almost all kind of organic materials can be found in contexts of the 3rd millennium. This affords an extraordinary detailed technique of excavation which combines with an extensive program of object studies that deals with the remains of all kind of activities and textual evidence. Archaeological and philological disciplines as well as, increasingly, the natural sciences are cooperating to gain a comprehensive understanding of the rich material found at the site.
The pottery assemblages form the basis of dating and attributions to certain periods across the city, its temples and the necropolis. Stratigraphic analysis of local sequences adds to this, and allows for the detailed reconstruction of the use life of units within the town.
Another approach that contributes to forming a coherent picture is followed by the connection with and implementation of other projects of the department in the region. For example, a survey on the west bank of Aswan, the investigations in the Fatimid cemetery of Aswan, the epigraphic documentation of rock-inscriptions in Aswan and at the southern approach to the First Cataract at Shellal and on the island of Bigga. Furthermore, with the first conference on the archaeology and philology of the First Cataract, a new platform for scientific exchange with other projects of the regions was created in 2007 and is to be continued in 2011.
During the several annual campaigns, a primarily framework of understanding Elephantine that covers about 5000 years has been developed. It covers the stratigraphic development of the city and of single monuments. Several restoration and reconstruction projects that contribute to this have been finished: the sequence of temples for Satet of the late 3rd and 2nd millennium BC (Fig. 2); the restoration of several quarters of the town, dating from the 3rd millennium BC to the 1st millennium AD (Fig. 3-4), their publication, and their organisation as an open-air museum.
As a settlement Elephantine shared many things with other early settlements and habitations located at the border region of the southern Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia. The congestion of housing is attested during the earlier 3rd millennium BC when most of the regional inhabitants – Egyptians and Nubians - start to live on the island of Elephantine. At this point, the first fortifications of the site were built. Numerous fragments of mud sealings point to extensive administrative activities in the city. At this time, the temple of the goddess Satet played an important role in this structure as a focus of social, economic and religious life. The history of this sanctuary begins with a modest mud brick building in a natural rock-niche, founded around 3300 BC. The finds from there give a detailed insight to the votive offerings and other religious rituals performed here. Another centre of the provincial administration existed during the 3rd dynasty, associated with an estate attached to the step pyramid in the western part of the city. Later on, a mastaba cemetery was built that extends in the west of the city. The earliest structures discovered so far can be dated to the 5th dynasty.
A cult for the expedition leaders of the Old Kingdom, that exceeded the regular mortuary cult of the Old Kingdom by far, developed during the 3rd millennium. Objects belonging to this cult were discovered in the building complex of the late 6th dynasty (ca 2200 BC). While this can also be observed at Ain Asyl in the oasis of Dakhlah and in other places, it is the continuity of about 550 years on Elephantine that seems to be unique so far for the cult of private persons. In the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, the cult seems to centre on the person Heqaib alone.
The map of Elephantine of the late 3rd millennium BC displays an almost orthogonal arrangement of streets, a pattern that is more or less continued until the Middle Kingdom. An extraordinary large kitchen was built, rebuilt and used throughout the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom. It constantly supplied a large number of people with cooked food and baked bread. Again, massive amounts of seal impressions were found during the Middle Kingdom, mainly from scarabs seals. They point to the involvement of major parts of the inhabitants in administrative processes. The size of houses shrinks and starts getting closer to the size of one-family private house units (Fig. 4) in modern mud brick villages. A dense sequence of royal building activity points to the remarkable investment of royalty in the cults of the provincial gods that can be observed all over Egypt. At the same time, the temples of Elephantine form the stage for a celebration of supra-regional importance: the feast of the Nile, simultaneously accompanied by the flood.
In this time, the increased presence of medja-nomads is noticeable in every part of the settlement. In almost every assemblage from the late Middle Kingdom (1700-1500 BC) to the early New Kingdom, their distinctive pottery appears. They probably lived in small settlements in the environs of Elephantine.
The changed situation of the relations to the south is clearly connected with the continuous strengthening of the culture south of the 3rd cataract that had profited considerably over the decades from Egypt’s southern trade, without being close enough to be subdued. Elephantine was part of the Egyptian strategy from 1950-1800 BC of building a chain of fortresses down to the 2nd Cataract. Probably in the course of this policy, Elephantine got a large new town enclosure in the late Middle Kingdom. It surrounded the settlement areas that had developed yet in the later 3rd millennium in front of the old town enclosure.
During the 2nd Intermediate Period Egypt lost its lower Nubian colony in about 1650/1600 BC to the Nubian Kingdom of Kerma and royal building activity in Elephantine, as well as royal administration, cease. It seems doubtful whether the Theban royal authority still had direct access to its former border town.
The layers of the New Kingdom are much less well preserved at Elephantine. The scarce remains nevertheless point to spacious habitations, some of them with polychrome wall paintings. Decorated door-frames made of sandstone offer insights as to the names and titles of the elites of the settlement. Two temples were re-erected in the time of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, one for Satet, the other one for Khnum. The decoration of the latter temple proceeded curiously slowly, leaving lots of space for texts and reliefs till the late Ramesside Period. Again, the event of the annual inundations is matched in the temple precincts by a canal that, during certain events, led water from the top of the hill where the temple of Khnum lay, down into the temenos of Satet.
Again, political insecurity affected the First Cataract in the 3rd Intermediate Period. The city was forced to restore its fortification on large scale. Soon Elephantine and Egypt were taken by the Napatan Sudanese rulers who founded the 25th Egyptian dynasty. A restoration phase slightly took place in the 26th dynasty, when king Psammetik II, in connection with his raid in the kingdom of Napata, stayed for a while in Aswan. Additions of the temple building of Khnum and the statue equipment, as well as numerous rock-inscriptions, point to this episode.
Different garrisons were stationed on the island, including an Aramaic one, situated here by the Persians in the late 6th and 5th centuries BC. Directly in the heart of the Late Period city, archaeological and textual evidence gives a vivid picture of the presence of Jewish soldiers and their families, their temple and their houses. After the turn to the fourth century BC evidence for this community ceases to exist.
The 30th dynasty is well known on Elephantine for the large new construction of a temple for Khnum by Nektanebo II that stands at the beginning of a series of new constructions of temples on Elephantine. This time also saw the rebuilding of a temple for Satet by Ptolemy VI/VIII in about 150 BC. At the end of this process, both theology and architecture flourish, as is attested by the construction of several small sanctuaries, complete with nilometers attached to the notable temples of Satet and Khnum.
The early Christian Period and the end of the pagan cults led to the occupation of the temple precincts for entirely different purposes. Overshadowed and protected by the massive mud brick enclosure walls, a garrison is stationed in the precinct of Khnum. They construct a series of row houses within the enceinte that point to different types of functions of the site and new concepts of urbanism. During this time churches, both small and large, are also constructed at the site. The last settlement activity on top of the hill of Elephantine is attested in the 10th/11th century.
Swiss Institute for Architectural and Archaeological Research in Egypt (Cornelius von Pilgrim)
Academy of Sciences Warsaw (Ewa Laskowska-Kusztal)
IEMAR (Institute of Architectural Sciences Digital Architecture and Planning,
University of Vienna; Peter Ferschin, Andreas Jonas and Iman Kulitz
Due to research grants, PhD theses and Master theses there are connections to the several universities in Germany and Switzerland.
W. Kaiser, Elephantine - Die antike Stadt (Führungsheft, 1998)
G. Dreyer, Der Tempel der Satet. Die Funde der Frühzeit und des Alten Reiches, Elephantine VIII, Mainz 1986
H. Jaritz, Die Terrassen vor den Tempeln des Chnum und der Satet, Elephantine III, Mainz 1980
M. Ziermann, Befestigungsanlagen und Stadtentwicklung in der Frühzeit und im frühen Alten Reich, Elephantine XVI, Mainz 1993
C. v. Pilgrim, Untersuchung in der Stadt des Mittleren Reiches und der Zweiten Zwischenzeit, Elephantine XVIII, Mainz 1996.
Online: Excavation and Restoration on Elephantine Island, since 2003/2004.