Online Review: Book

Sais I: The Ramesside-Third Intermediate Period at Kom Rebwa

Claus Jurman


By Penelope Wilson (Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir 98). Pp. xviii + 291, b&w pls. 97, color pls. 2, tables 31, CD-ROM 1. Egyptian Exploration Society, London 2011. £65. ISBN 978-0-85698-202-6 (paper).

Despite the impressive progress made during the last three decades, settlement archaeology still constitutes an understudied research area within Egyptology, and any contributions to the topic have to be heartily welcomed. This applies even more to research efforts dealing with settlement remains in the Egyptian Nile Delta, a region whose archaeological wealth is often contrasted by unfavorable excavating conditions, very complex stratigraphies, bad preservation of artifacts, and a dearth of inscribed monuments that would appeal to philologically orientated scholars.

Taking up the challenge, a mission of the Egypt Exploration Society and the University of Durham, under the direction of Wilson, started in 1997 to conduct a thorough investigation of the archaeological remains of Sais, one of the most important sites in the western Delta. Despite its historical significance, Sais is unfortunately far less well known than other ancient Egyptian capital cities. One of the main reasons for this is that the reuse of stone material and the procurement of mudbrick fertilizer (sebakh) by the locals have been conducted on a massive scale during the last centuries and have severely affected most parts of the site. Since the investigation of Sais and its hinterland constitutes a long-term project, which must make do with limited financial resources, its full impact on our understanding of settlement development in western Lower Egypt will become felt perhaps only in several years’ time. Nevertheless, the mission’s results already provide a valuable complementary view to evidence from neighboring sites such as Tell el-Farain/Buto or Kom Firin. After the publication of several preliminary reports and a survey monograph (P. Wilson, The Survey of Saïs [Sa el-Hagar] 1997–2002 [London 2006]), the volume under review is the first in a planned series of excavation reports dedicated exclusively to recent archaeological findings.

The book deals with excavation 1, an area located at the eastern part of the mound Kom Rebwa, situated in the northeastern ruin field of Sais (Sa el-Hagar). Despite its small size (a single quadrant of 10 x 13 m), the excavated area reveals a dense and complex stratigraphy of settlement remains dating primarily from the late New Kingdom and the early Third Intermediate Period (ca. 12th–11th/10th centuries B.C.E.). Since the site chosen for excavation was heavily affected by sebakh digging, especially in its eastern part, the uppermost preserved layers of ancient remains could only be traced in the western half of the trench.

The stratigraphy has been divided by the excavators into six major phases whose dates could only be approximately established through analysis of the pottery assemblages. While phase I represents the inhomogeneous overburden stemming from sebakh digging, the following phase II is characterized by domestic installations, comprising ovens and a circular structure (possibly an animal pen). This last recorded occupational phase at the site (all later remains were removed by the sebakhin) could already belong to the Third Intermediate Period (21st Dynasty, ca. 11th century B.C.E.), although Wilson acknowledges that the find assemblages do not differ greatly from those of the preceding Ramesside phases (199–200, 229). Phase III proved to be the richest and best preserved of the entire stratigraphic sequence. It includes parts of at least one Ramesside house, featuring a courtyard, a kitchen area, a storeroom (annex), and a main room (Room 1) with dais, whose roof seems to have once been carried by a wooden column. The ceramic material and remnants of foodstuffs collected on the top of the floors and in the fill above suggest that an impressive feast must have taken place shortly before the roof and stone doorframes collapsed, thereby sealing the contemporary floor level. Wilson is inclined to attribute this sudden event to seismic activity (cracks are indeed visible in earlier layers at the site), but given the limited extent of excavation 1, other parts of Kom Rebwa need to be excavated to substantiate or refute this hypothesis. The house of phase III was erected on the leveled and adapted remains of an industrial complex (phase V), featuring a rectangular multichambered kiln in which pottery and probably also faience was produced. Wilson considers the relatively large number of conical bread molds found in layers of phase V an indicator that the area was associated with a cult installation during the 19th or early–middle 20th Dynasty and only later came to be occupied by domestic architecture. Provided that the approximate dating of the successive phases based on a rather small amount of chronologically significant pottery is correct, this major change of function did occur already well before the end of the New Kingdom. The massive brickwork of phase VI may represent major construction work of the earlier New Kingdom, but its precise date is still elusive (187–88). Auger borings and a test trench dug at the end of excavation work revealed that the deepest layers in the area yield archaeological remains of the Old Kingdom.

By and large, the archaeological evidence is well presented in the book. A detailed discussion of the individual strata (1–93) is followed by a catalogue of objects divided into different categories of material and type (including an insightful discussion of clay cobra figures) (95–140). The pottery is presented as a concise typology (141–84) arranged according to type rather than fabric. A discussion of the major results in which Wilson also draws attention to some broader implications for studying settlement development at Sais and beyond concludes the book’s main part (185–202). The seven appendices include, among other things, a list of small finds ordered by context (appx. 4) and a commentary to the plates of the pottery typology (appx. 5). The pottery catalogue ordered by the individual contexts can be found only as a PDF file and Excel spreadsheets on the CD-ROM accompanying the book. This electronic complementation may also prove valuable for ceramicists needing to compare material from Sais with their own assemblages, since the book’s binding is unlikely to survive field use for very long. Appendices 6 and 7 deal with the analyzed floral and faunal remains and provide more detailed insights into patterns of food production and consumption.

Occasional typographical and referencing errors are not a serious drawback of the book—neither is the slight variation in the indication of detail on the pottery plates. More problematic seems to be the insufficient calibration of scales used with different drawings (cf. Doorjamb 1 [figs. 38, 39]). It would also have been a service to the reader to provide more cross-referencing for specific architectural features and contexts. Finally, the presentation of the archaeological evidence would have profited tremendously from complementing the relatively small black-and-white photographs dispersed throughout the text by a fair number of high-resolution color images on the CD-ROM at no or little extra cost. These minor issues do not diminish the author’s accomplishment, however, and it is to be wished that in the near future sufficient financial backing will allow conducting excavations at Sais on a grander scale.

Claus Jurman
Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology
Austrian Academy of Sciences
Department of Egypt and the Levant
Postgasse 7/1/10
1010 Vienna

Book Review of Sais I: The Ramesside-Third Intermediate Period at Kom Rebwa, by Penelope Wilson

Reviewed by Claus Jurman

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Jurman

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