Tell el-Farkha: An exceptional predynastic site in the Nile Delta

Following his articles in AE 127 and AE 135 exploring Predynastic sites in Egypt’s Western Desert, Julian Heath now looks at archaeological evidence for occupation of the Nile Delta during the Late Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods


Since 1998, the Polish Archaeological Expedition to the Eastern Nile Delta has conducted excavations at the site of Tell el-Farkha (‘Chicken Hill’). It first came to light during a survey carried out in 1987 by an Italian mission from the Centro Studi e Ricerche Ligabue (Ligabue Research and Study Centre), Venice. Located about 75 miles to the north-east of Cairo, Tell el-Farkha covers an area of around 45,000 square metres and consists of three mounds or koms: the Eastern Kom, Central Kom, and Western Kom, each rising to about five metres above the surrounding Delta farmland. An abundance of archaeological evidence pertaining to the Late Predynastic and Proto/Early Dynastic societies of the Nile Delta has been unearthed there.

A general view of the Tell el-Farkha site.

The earliest evidence: a lower Egyptian ‘residence’ and breweries

The earliest inhabitants of Tell el-Farkha were people of the Lower Egyptian Culture (previously known as the Buto–Maadi Culture), which has often been viewed as inferior to the contemporary Naqada Culture of Upper Egypt. Sites such as Tell el-Farkha, however, have begun to change that perception. Its Lower Egyptian communities occupied the site from around 3700 to 3300 BC, which roughly corresponds to Phases I and II of the Naqada Culture.

The remains of the brewery discovered at the Western Kom.

The ground plans and associated post-holes and pits (some of which contain ashes from fires) of small, simple, wattle-and-daub houses, typical of the Lower Egyptian Culture, were found at all three koms, but the most notable discovery dating to the oldest occupation phase at Tell el-Farkha was the so-called ‘Lower Egyptian residence’, found at the Central Kom. This large and unique building (20m × 25m) had a complex suite of interior rooms with timber walls, and was separated from the rest of the settlement by an exterior double wooden fence, which was replaced around 3500 BC by a massive mud-brick wall, c.1.5m thick. A fine collection of artefacts (imported from Upper Egypt) was recovered from the building. Among the finds were a fragment from a superbly made, ripple-flaked flint knife; two pear-shaped mace-heads (one made from basalt, the other from bone – a very rare artefact); a stone fish-shaped palette made from greywacke; and 27 beads, probably from a necklace. Four of the beads were made from sheet gold, the others from semi-precious stones (such as agate, carnelian, rock crystal, quartz, and amazonite). Also recovered from the ‘residence’ was a copper knife, very similar in form to one found at the Early Bronze Age settlement at Ashqelon-Barnea (Israel), and a large amount of Near Eastern pottery. Artefacts such as these point to strong trading links with the southern Levant. We will never know who lived in the Lower Egyptian residence, but the objects recovered from its interior strongly hint that it was the home of an elite individual or family.

The remains of the Naqadan residence.
The remains of the Protodynastic cultic-administrative centre.

Another important discovery from the time of the Lower Egyptian Culture at Tell el-Farkha was the remains of a brewery centre, located at the Western Kom. The walls of the brewery and its brewing vats, made from mud-brick, saw at least three distinct phases of construction. It was in use from around 3700 to 3500 BC, making it one of the earliest breweries in the world. Professor Krzysztof Ciałowicz, head of the Polish team, has suggested that beer-production at the site was controlled by local elites, and that at least some of the output was exported for consumption elsewhere.

The Naqadan residence

A collection of articles found in a ‘chapel’ in the western part of the cultic-administrative centre.

Both the Lower Egyptian residence and the breweries were subsequently destroyed by flooding of the Nile c.3450 BC, which left a thick layer of alluvium over the site. At some point not long after this, the residence was replaced with a new, monumental mud-brick building, which was also constructed on top of the Western Kom. This huge structure was rebuilt several times, and in its final phase (c.3300-3200 BC) covered an area of some 500 square metres. Its substantial outer walls measured c.1.5m in thickness, and surrounded a complex arrangement of rooms of differing size which faced an inner courtyard. Included among the many artefacts recovered from the building’s interior were storage vessels; clay sealings; small balls, cones, and discs (tokens for counting); and ‘Palestinian’ ceramics made in the southern Levant. The significance of this impressive building is a matter of speculation. However, it is thought that, around the middle of the 4th millennium BC, settlers of the Naqada Culture arrived in the Delta from Upper Egypt to take control of the attractive trading opportunities offered by Tell el-Farkha’s location in the Delta. Professor Ciałowicz has therefore speculated that the building on the Western Kom was the residence and storage centre of a Naqadan official who controlled the trade between Tell el-Farkha, Upper Egypt, and the southern Levant. He has also suggested that, rather than being wiped out by invading Naqadans, it is more probable that Lower Egyptian communities in the Delta were assimilated into ‘the more attractive southern models’ of the Naqada Culture.

A cultic-administrative centre

A figurine of a male wearing a cloak or tunic, possibly depicting an early king. It was found in the cultic-administrative centre.

The first Naqadan settlement at Tell el-Farkha ended abruptly, when a fire destroyed the site, around 3300 to 3200 BC. It is worth considering the possibility that this conflagration was not the result of an accident or an earthquake, but was related to aggressive competition during the embryonic stages of the formation of the ancient Egyptian state, when rival Naqada elites were fighting each other for power and control.

A figurine of a dwarf found in the cultic-administrative centre.

Whatever the truth about the catastrophic fire, a large new mud-brick structure was built around 3200-3100 BC, over the burnt remains of the Naqadan residence on the Western Kom. The Polish archaeologists have labelled this building the ‘cultic-administrative centre’. It consisted of several rooms of varying size around a courtyard. Two of these rooms, which are referred to as ‘shrines’ or ‘chapels’, yielded what appear to be votive deposits containing an amazing array of objects.

A figurine of a griffin-like creature, also found in the cultic-administrative centre.
The remains of a probable mastaba tomb, the oldest yet found in Egypt.

The first deposit was discovered in 2001, in the eastern part of the cultic-administrative centre. Included among its contents were artefacts such as egg-shaped, decorated clay rattles; a zoomorphic vessel representing a water bird; miniature stone vessels and mace-heads; probable gaming counters; two faience baboon figurines; and a figurine, also of faience, depicting a kneeling, naked man (probably representing a prisoner of war). The second deposit, discovered in 2006 in a room in the western part of the complex, contained a greater variety of objects, some of them representing unique works of Proto- and Early Dynastic art. Two dozen figurines (mostly made from hippopotamus tusks) were included in the deposit, the majority found inside a pottery jar hidden near the eastern wall of the ‘chapel’.

A richly furnished Protodynastic grave in the necropolis.

The figurines can be divided into several groups: women (naked or dressed in long robes); women with children; men; probable prisoners of war (depicted with one or two hands tied behind their backs); dwarfs; various animals; and fantasy creatures. Included among the second group is a unique depiction of a woman sitting on a palanquin with a child on her lap, perhaps providing an early representation of
the divine pharaoh and mother. The most notable male figurine depicts an individual wearing a decorated cloak, and may be a representation of an early king. The three figurines of children depict boys sitting with their knees drawn up; two of the boys have the index fingers of their right hands touching their mouths – an artistic motif that is not uncommon in later Dynastic Egypt. Thirteen skilfully made figurines of dwarfs (interestingly, 12 of them depicting females) were found in the deposit, representing the largest group of such figurines yet found in Egypt. Their facial features and bodies are realistically depicted. There are two figurines depicting fantasy creatures: the first a seated griffin-like creature, with a bird’s head (probably a falcon), a feline body (with breasts), and human hands grasping a tall jar between its knees; the other representing a snake with a woman’s face. It is possible that these unique figurines depict local deities of the Delta. The animal figurines comprise four rearing cobras, a dog, two probable lions, a finely modelled fish (probably a Nile tilapia), a scorpion, and two birds – a goose and a falcon.

The oldest mastaba tomb in Egypt

Also built during the second phase of Naqadan settlement at Tell el-Farkha was a huge mud-brick structure that is probably the oldest mastaba tomb yet known from Egypt. Constructed at the Eastern Kom, this almost square building measures about 17 by 18 metres, and has massive walls around 2 metres thick. It has five internal chambers and a ‘burial’ shaft 1.5 metres in depth. Unfortunately, no evidence of actual burial was found in the shaft (just many potsherds and a few complete vessels), although Professor Ciałowicz believes that this structure could possibly mark the final resting place of a governor appointed by one the earliest Egyptian kings, or alternatively of a local ruler in the Delta.

The Tell el-Farkha necropolis

Copper harpoons found in Grave No.55 of the necropolis.

More than 120 graves have been excavated at Tell el-Farkha, discovered at a cemetery or necropolis located at the Eastern Kom. Three distinct phases of burial have been identified at the necropolis, dating to the Protodynastic, Early Dynastic, and Old Kingdom Periods. Both simple pit graves lined with mud-bricks and small mastaba tombs have been brought to light.

A beer jar from the necropolis inscribed with hieroglyphs naming King Iry-Hor of Dynasty 0.

Pottery vessels were the most common type of funerary equipment, with substantial numbers of pots found in some of the tombs, such as Grave No.55, which contained at least 51 beer and wine jars, and Grave No.63, which yielded 73 jars. Most of the burials featured other artefacts, too, alongside the pottery vessels, such as bead necklaces, greywacke cosmetic palettes, various bone artefacts (for example, spoons and awls), numerous flint knives, pottery models of granaries, and copper awls and chisels. Two copper harpoons, presumably used for fishing, were also recovered from Grave No.55. Many of the pots found in the tombs featured inscribed marks, most of which were probably related to trading activities. However, two pots were found marked with an early hieroglyph signifying the name of Iry-Hor, a king or early pharaoh of Dynasty 0. The hieroglyph for the more famous early Egyptian king Narmer has also been identified on two of the vessels recovered from the tombs.

One of the superbly made flint knives found with the sheet-gold statues in the Eastern Kom.

The golden statues

Tell el-Farkha has proved to be something of an archaeological ‘treasure trove’, with the excavations of the Polish expedition unearthing thousands of artefacts, many of them of a high quality. But the most impressive finds must surely be two sheet-gold statues. These were initially found as fragments in an ordinary residence at the Eastern Kom (perhaps hidden there during a time of unrest c.3100 BC), along with two superbly made, ripple-flaked flint knives and a necklace of around 360 beads, made from the shells of ostrich eggs and carnelian. The fragments of sheet gold were painstakingly reconstructed to reveal two standing figures (obviously male), their eyes inlaid with lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Originally, the gold sheet of the statues would have been attached with rivets to an inner core (probably wood) and the missing eyebrows would have been inlaid with some material, probably either bitumen or ebony, which would have been imported from the Levant and Nubia respectively.

One of the sheet-gold statues found hidden in a dwelling in the Eastern Kom.

It is quite possible that these superb statues depict an early king and his son, but, whatever the case, they are unique objects that represent a remarkable reminder of Egypt’s ancient past. Much the same could be said for Tell el-Farkha in general, which is undoubtedly one of the most important ancient settlements in the Nile Delta, if not the whole of Egypt. This autumn, the archaeologists of the Polish expedition will be resuming their excavations at the site, which still has much to offer.

Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Professor Krzysztof Ciałowicz for kindly supplying all the images used in this article.