Previously unrecorded rituals identified at ancient Egyptian shrine

The remarkable discovery of numerous headless falcon skeletons has led researchers to dub the temple the 'Falcon Shrine'.

Excavation of a religious complex at the Hellenistic-Roman seaport of Berenike in Egypt has revealed evidence of previously unknown rituals linked to the semi-nomadic population of the Blemmyes.  

Founded on the Red Sea coast of Egypt in the first half of the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, Berenike served as a bustling hub for international trade.

Excavations in 2019 at the Northern Complex in Berenike. Two trenches (top) revealed an anteroom leading to a smaller passage. The bottom trench revealed remains of a courtyard, so far only partly excavated. PHOTO: The Berenike Project/Sikait Project 

Prior to its abandonment around the 6th century AD, it was occupied by the Blemmyes, who had expanded their territory from their Nubian kingdom across Egypt’s Eastern desert.

Excavations led by the Sikait Project began at Berenike in 2015. The team have reported in the American Journal of Archaeology on some of their most exciting discoveries which were made during the 2019 season of excavation at the site’s Northern Complex.

Three trenches were opened here revealing the remains of a long anteroom that acted as a passage to another small room. The team identified a doorway on the eastern wall of the anteroom leading to a courtyard at the centre of the Northern Complex, which has yet to be explored.

The rooms consist of ashlar walls – likely Late Roman in date – and appear to have been remodelled, as evidenced by the addition of coral heads to the walls made sometime around the 4th century AD.

A deposit of 15 cowry shells was uncovered in a corner of the anteroom, and evidence of two small fires.

Several pedestals were found in both rooms, reinforcing the interpretation that these spaces served as a temple for ritual practices. One pedestal, rectangular and constructed from limestone and anhydrite gypsum ashlars, was uncovered in the centre of the smaller room, in front of which archaeologists found several cube statues and a sculpture of a squatting male figure inscribed with Greek text.

Pedestal with cube statue and other votive offerings. PHOTO: The Berenike Project/Sikait Project 

The most remarkable discovery, however, was that of the skeletal remains of 15 birds, specifically of peregrine and sake falcons and the common kestrel. Fourteen had been deposited at the centre of the room, beside the pedestal, and the other in a corner beneath an inverted vessel, accompanied by an assemblage of eggshells. Skull remains were absent from all except two specimens.

Falcon burials have been observed in the Nile Valley from c.700 BC onward, with cults for individual falcons previously noted at the temples of Edfu and Philae. However, there have been no documented discoveries of falcon burials within a temple until now.

The find is even more unique as mummified headless falcons have only ever been recorded in isolated cases, never as a group.

Stele with the scene of the falcon god and an inscription in Greek reading: ‘It is improper to boil a head in here.’ PHOTO: The Berenike Project/Sikait Project 

A further important discovery (in what is now dubbed the ‘Falcon Shrine’) was that of a round-topped stele.

It depicts the figure of an Egyptian pharaoh offering what appears to be a lunar disk to three gods, the first of which is likely Harpokrates of Koptos, as indicated by the feather crown of Amun on his head. The identity of the other deities is more unclear; the second deity has a falcon head, and the third is a goddess wearing the Hathor crown decorated with cow horns and a solar disk.

The stele features an inscription reading: ‘It is improper to boil a head in here’. The team propose that the sacrificial animals were boiled without their heads, perhaps to facilitate plucking their feathers, before being presented at the shrine.

According to project director Professor Joan Oller Guzmán, the findings could point to the veneration of the ancient Egyptian god of the moon, Khonsu, who has close links with Horus, god of the sky.

Other finds include a 34cm-long iron harpoon deposited at the base of the pedestal – likely left as a votive offering – and coins, one dated to the reign of emperor Philip I or II (AD 246-247), and numerous others deposited no later than the 5th century AD, indicating that this may be when use of the temple ceased.

Research team. From left to right: Delia Eguiluz Maestro, Joan Oller Guzmán, David Fernández Abella and Vanesa Trevín Pita. PHOTO: The Berenike Project/Sikait Project 

Earlier excavations had documented several other shrines at the extreme northern end of the complex. There, archaeologists identified a Greek lintel inscription referring to the Blemmyan king Isemne.

Together with pottery sherds of Eastern Desert ware found among Egyptian ware fragments, this further indicates that although the Blemmyan population adapted the religious complex for their own cultic practices, they incorporated Egyptian traditions into their own beliefs.

The Sikait Project has been led by the Department of Antiquity and Middle Age Studies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, with funding from the Fundación PALARQ and permits from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.