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The Old Kingdom Town at Buhen

The Old Kingdom Town at Buhen

By David O’Connor (Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir 106). Pp. xiv + 338, figs. 110, b&w pls. 65. Egypt Exploration Society, London 2014. £70. ISBN 978-0-85698-215-6 (paper).

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This book is a welcome continuation of the publication series of the Egyptian Exploration Society’s (EES) rescue excavations at the site of Buhen in northern Sudan/Lower Nubia directed by Walter Bryan Emery (d. 1971). It gives a detailed account of the archaeology of the Egyptian Old Kingdom (2575–2150 B.C.E.; spelling of royal names and dynastic dates follow J. Baines and J. Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt [Oxford 2014] 36–7) colonial settlement excavated in two harried seasons between 1962 and 1964 before it was finally submerged by Lake Nasser. The importance of this site for the archaeology of Nubia is considerable as it remains the only excavated settlement dating from a period conspicuous for an almost complete absence of archaeological evidence. Until now, the excavation results have been known from two short reports in Kush (“Egypt Exploration Society Preliminary Excavations at Buhen,” Kush 11 [1963] 116–20) and JEA (“Editorial Foreword,” JEA 48 [1962] 1–3) in which Emery unequivocally identified the town as a copper-processing factory—a conclusion for which O’Connor finds little evidence. The volume, therefore, represents a significant contribution to what we know and how we think about Nubia, and Egypt’s engagement there, during the Old Kingdom.

The book is based on a manuscript completed in the 1980s by O’Connor, who was an undergraduate participant in the Buhen excavations. In order to expedite its long-postponed publication by the EES, the manuscript has not been updated. This is largely unproblematic as the most important parts of the book consist of detailed reconstructions of the excavation in which the author succeeds in the difficult task of wrestling convincing interpretations from a jumble of often contradicting and deficient records. Chapter 1 is devoted to establishing the extent of the town, chapters 2 and 3 to relative and absolute chronology, chapters 4–8 to the various components of the settlement, and chapter 11 to an object list. It is primarily in the analytical and interpretive aspects of chapters 9 and 10 (Egyptian and Nubian pottery, respectively), as well as in the concluding chapter 12, that nonspecialists must be cognizant that changes in the state of research since these chapters were written have rendered some of their arguments anachronistic.

Chronological considerations are the focus of the first half of the book, and here there are some very substantial conclusions. Contrary to Emery’s view that the settlement may have been founded in the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 2950–2575 B.C.E), O’Connor discounts the possibility of Egyptian settlement of the site prior to the Fourth Dynasty, setting the date around the reign of Khephren (ca. 2520–2494 B.C.E). Thereafter, the site was continuously occupied for approximately a century, before being abandoned by the state during the course of the Fifth Dynasty, around the reign of Neuserre (ca. 2416–2392 B.C.E). In terms of relative chronology, O’Connor identifies two main building phases. By their extent and character these should represent state-planned and -executed configurations of the built landscape. The first phase belongs to the founding event of the settlement; the second phase may be dated to the early Fifth Dynasty. Beyond this two-phase scheme, O’Connor also recognizes small-scale, localized alterations to architecture. Accumulatively, the sections on chronology leave us with a diachronically nuanced and dynamic picture of the town’s evolution. One vital insight is that the “furnaces”—features used in secondary studies to characterize the settlement—were rather late and short-lived additions (71–4).

Whether one accepts all of O’Connor’s conclusions with regard to chronology is moot, as the evidence is presented in a detailed and transparent way that leaves the reader fully aware of how individual pieces of data affect the chronological models presented. It is true that some conclusions are speculative, but this reflects limitations imposed on the author by the absence or ambiguity of the primary records. There were, for example, no topographic plans and few accurate sections. Elevations were not routinely taken, and the author only had access to preliminary studies of the inscribed mud sealings that are the basis of the “absolute” or “dynastic” chronology. That O’Connor has been able to craft a plausible account out of all this is a tremendous achievement.

One serious problem, however, is the use of Egyptian pottery types to help resolve issues of relative and absolute chronology. Unfortunately, O’Connor had to rely on a severely limited number (just 14) of what one must assume are highly generic types. As we now know, types defined in this all-encompassing way have no fine chronological value beyond confirming the general Old Kingdom date of the layers from which they derive. Accordingly, it is preferable to interpret differences in the typological composition of assemblages at Buhen as relating to functional or social distinctions rather than to chronological fluctuations in pottery production.

Chapters 4–8 give detailed descriptions of the architecture and associated artifact assemblages. These chapters contain important new information, not only about this site but also concerning the phenomenon of urbanism in early Egypt in general. The picture that emerges is that of a settlement of approximately 1.24 ha bounded on one side by a perimeter wall. The arrangement of structures was dictated by local topography in the form of a series of narrow terraces running parallel to the river. The town comprised a combination of carefully planned buildings and less formally arranged minor structures. Among the major buildings, O’Connor identifies storage facilities (Block I), a poorly preserved administrative headquarters, a cultic building (Block V), and a production zone (Block XII), as well as extramural domiciles or barracks. Although there were episodes of rebuilding, O’Connor argues that the character of the settlement remained unchanged. One place where shifting priorities are discernible is in Block XVI. Here a residence was partially razed and replaced with a garden, presumably to supply the inhabitants with fresh vegetables. Again, one may quibble with some of the author’s interpretations, but the virtue of this book is that enough data has been painstakingly summarized to enable the reader to arrive at other conclusions.

Regarding the town’s function(s), chapters 4–8 and 12 demonstrate that Emery’s postulated copper factory is not borne out by the evidence. While some industrial activity did take place, neither its object nor its scale is apparent from extant documentation. O’Connor suggests that gold and not copper might have been processed here, which is a reasonable suggestion, even if there is no direct evidence for it. What seems certain is that the “furnaces” Emery thought were for copper smelting cannot have served this purpose; the absence of any slag or other evidence for metal production associated with them rules this out. Taking into consideration the new plans of these features provided by O’Connor, the reviewer considers it likely that they were pottery kilns. As discussed in the concluding chapter 12, the functions of the town were in fact probably multifaceted, including the organization of “trade” with Nubians living to the south of the Second Nile Cataract as well as local resource extraction and processing. It might be expected that the still-unpublished administrative sealings found in the settlement will shed further light on this. Significantly, the absence of a cemetery indicates that the population entrusted with these tasks consisted of temporary migrants who came to the town for stays of limited duration.

The question of the town’s population brings us to chapter 10, where a largely unknown corpus of Nubian pottery from Buhen is published. As it is generally believed that there was no Nubian population living in Lower Nubia during the period Buhen was occupied, the presence of Nubian sherds—6% of the total, with the rest being Egyptian—has been the subject of some interest. O’Connor’s analysis shows that the majority of the pottery reveals close affinity to the so-called Nubian A-Group, an archaeological horizon that in the scholarship of the 1980s was believed to predate the Egyptian Old Kingdom. A smaller proportion of the Nubian sherds are identified as being similar to material from partially coeval Nubian sites in the Second Cataract/Batn el-Hagar area and in areas farther south. The A-Group pottery is accordingly taken as evidence for a Nubian use of the site long before the founding of an Egyptian colony there, and the later material as the residue of contemporary interactions with southern Nubians (314–17). The recent documentation of A-Group–related material in stratified Old Kingdom layers at the island of Elephantine by the German Archaeological Institute (e.g., D. Raue, British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 9 [2008]), however, means that these results will have to be reconsidered. The simplest solution would be to consider the Nubian material as wholly contemporary with the Egyptian settlement. As Nubian pottery is found in almost every context at the site and consists of domestic wares, in particular what look to be cooking pots, one might propose that part of the town’s population had Nubian roots, but this of course must remain speculation.

Although the book undoubtedly evinces some shortcomings in both the quality of the data and its analysis when measured against modern standards, these simply serve to illustrate the distance from Emery’s training as an archaeologist (1920s), to his rescue excavation of Buhen’s Old Kingdom town (early 1960s), to the writing up of the results by the author (late 1980s), and finally to the present day. With this excellent book, O’Connor has filled in a missing chapter of Nubian archaeology and provided enough data to stimulate new research. Given the material he was working with, it is difficult to imagine how he could have done a better job.

Christian Knoblauch
Institute of Oriental and European Archaeology
Austrian Academy of Sciences

Book Review of The Old Kingdom Town at Buhen, by David O’Connor

Reviewed by Christian Knoblauch

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 4 (October 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1204.Knoblauch

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