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Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt

(Cracow, Poland: 28th August - 1st September 2002)
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Pottery from the New Excavations at the Cemetery Site of Helwan


Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia)


The Macquarie University excavations at the cemetery site of Helwan have yielded five years of very successful findings. It is becoming evident that this cemetery site was in use over substantial phases of Egyptian history. Importantly the cemetery was in use during the pre-and early dynastic periods, most notably though, we have what appears to be the highest density of burials for this time anywhere in Egypt. Over the past five years the project, led by Dr E. Christiana Köhler, has been able to combine not only a thorough archaeological investigation of the cemetery but the systematic recording of artefacts previously excavated by the Egyptian Archaeologist Zaki Y. Saad.

It is well known that Zaki Saad managed to excavate 10,258 tombs during his twelve seasons of activity at Helwan from 1942 to 1954. Many of the most outstanding pieces that he had recovered were originally housed in the local inspectorate at Ezbet el-Walda. In 1967, some 158 boxes containing these finds were transported to the Egyptian Museum for safety where they stayed, all but forgotten until 1997. Each object has so far survived in excellent condition accompanied with an inventory providing description, object number and most importantly the tomb number from Saad's original excavations. These museum pieces, although of high significance, are only a portion of what Saad recovered during his twelve seasons of activity at Helwan.

From Macquarie University's first season we have been involved with the clearing of what has become known as a "storage tomb" from Saad's original excavation seasons. The tomb, Operation 3 Tomb 1 (Op.3/1) had been excavated by Saad and used to store objects not thought at the time important enough to be housed at, what would have been an increasingly crowded inspectorate. Not surprisingly, the bulk of what was stored in this tomb was pottery, although broken stone vessels and some non-diagnostic skeletal remains were also present. By our second season we were able to completely recover all the objects stored within the tomb and fully record the tomb itself.

Saad applied a system of painting on the pottery the tomb and season number from which it had originally come. Therefore we are able to determine that pots stored in Op.3/1 come from seasons nine and eleven of his work. The tomb itself is not published by Saad and therefore could have been excavated by him some time between his sixth season and possibly his ninth. It is interesting to note however that a complete collection of pottery from seasons nine and eleven were not represented within this storage tomb, suggesting that possibly a second storage tomb might contain the remainder. The pottery from this storage tomb is still in the process of being reconstructed and recorded; yet it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that this sample alone could be in excess of 1000 pots alone. The pottery types that make up the sample represent well known forms ranging from the so-called "beer" and "wine" jars, cylindrical jars, round shouldered jars with restricted base or so-called "hes" jars, ovoid and squat shaped jars and bowls.



Unfortunately, only less than half the pots from Op.3/1 now carry these numbers. As Saad published neither of these seasons in any detail the numbers will play an important role in the reconstruction of tomb assemblages. The pottery that has surviving Saad numbers are being reunited with objects now housed in the Egyptian Museum to form tomb assemblages. As a result we not only get a more complete view of a particular tomb's content, but we will also be able to fit a more secure date to many of these objects. Work done during the first season in the Cairo Museum on the objects from the boxes quickly provided a link between an ivory clapper and two pottery vessels, which originally came from the tomb 1294.H.9 (tomb no. 1294. Helwan. from Saad's season 9) and can be now securely dated to the Naqada IIIC2 period. Since the first season we have continued to reunite objects from the Museum with their pottery counterparts forming well-dated tomb assemblages.

The use of pottery proportion indexes in order to place the "wine" jars in chronological/typological sequence has met with some success. My studies show that both Petrie's sequences and the pottery indexes match in all cases. As for dating of the other types, particularly the so-called "beer" jars, Petrie's sequences are less reliable. The range within some of the assemblages is narrow enough at times to be accepted although there are still cases where the dating extends the time range too far. Forming a reliable sequence for the "beer" jar is an objective for further study as is the possible addition to the sequence of a cylindrical jar that is of a kind that shows further degradation beyond the known Naqada IIIC2 type.

The sample of pottery types that we have from Op. 3/1 span a considerable period of early Egyptian history. These range from a cylindrical 'net painted' vessel of the predynastic period, Naqada IIIA2 through to an elongated storage jar or 'wine' jar of the type found in the tomb of Peribsen of the 2nd Dynasty. Whether Saad was aware or not, he has provided us with a neat sample of pottery types with few gaps in the chronological development from this period. Pottery from excavations that have taken place in other areas of the site over the last couple of years have provided dates as late as the fourth dynasty. It is hoped that the work being done with the pottery sample from Helwan will help refine a workable typological sequence and fabric vocabulary for the Naqada III period from the Memphite region.


HENDRICKX, S., 1999.
La chronologie de la préhistoire tardive et des débuts de l'histoire de l'Egypte. Archéo-Nil, 9: 13-107.

KÖHLER, E.C., with contributions by BIRRELL, M.; CASEY, I.; HIKADE, T.; SMYTHE, J. & ST.CLAIR, B., (in press)
Excavations in the Early Dynastic Cemetery at Helwan I. The Excavation Season 1997/98, SAGA Band 24. Heidelberg.

KÖHLER, E.C. & SMYTHE, J., (in press)
Early Dynastic Pottery from Helwan - Establishing a Ceramic Corpus of the Naqada III Period. Cahiers de la Céramique Egyptienne, 7

SAAD, Z.Y., 1947.
Royal Excavations at Saqqara and Helwan (1941-1945). Suppl. ASAE, vol.3.

SAAD, Z.Y., 1951.
Royal Excavations at Helwan (1945-1947). Suppl. ASAE, vol .14.

WILKINSON, T., 1996.
A Re-examination of the Early Dynastic Necropolis at Helwan. MDAIK, 52: 337-354

WOOD, W., 1987.
The Archaic Stone Tombs of Helwan. JEA, 73: 59-70.


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