University of Washington


The Spatial Structure of Kom el-Hisn: An Old Kingdom Town in the Western

Nile Delta, Egypt.

By Anthony J. Cagle

Chairman of the Supervisory Committee: Robert J. Wenke, Professor, Department of Anthropology

The nature of Old Kingdom settlement patterns is poorly understood due to a lack of well-excavated sites of a variety of sizes and locations. Most of our knowledge of Old Kingdom settlement function comes from epigraphic sources and a few excavations of towns located next to and servicing temple and mortuary complexes. Consequently, there is little data regarding the ways in which the bulk of the population interacted economically. Some have suggested that rural towns and villages were largely self-sufficient in basic goods and services, articulating with the central authority through taxes and corvee labor requirements. Others argue that many settlements were directly administered by agents of the king and court and were dependent on and integrated into the national economy. Resolution of this issue has been hampered by a lack of well-excavated settlements of a variety of sizes and spatial distribution. The purpose of this research is to investigate in detail the spatial structure of a single site, Kom el-Hisn, located in the Delta region.

Kom el-Hisn is a large settlement in the western Nile Delta containing substantial Old Kingdom occupations near the surface and above the water table. Since very few Old Kingdom settlements have been excavated in any detail, especially in the Delta, Kom el-Hisn presents a unique opportunity to obtain a statistically valid sample of artifacts in association with intact architecture.

The data for this study is based on excavations from two seasons, 1986 and 1988, which employed randomly placed 2-meter test pits and larger areas cleared and excavated room-by-room. The deposits used in this study were described and interpreted based on strict sedimentological principles rather than the inferred histories of the artifacts contained therein. This allowed spatial variation due to depositional processes to be controlled and differentiated from spatial variation due to functional or other factors. In addition, I have paid special attention to the artifact classes used in the analysis to ensure that the variation they exhibit is functional.

Most of the excavated areas analyzed are concerned with food storage and preparation. Facilities for large-scale grain storage were found, as well as specialized rooms for cooking and plant and animal processing. In addition, there is a pattern of differential access to cooking fuels (dung vs. various plant matter) that is associated with a specific architectural unit and animal assemblage. The overall structure supports the idea that Kom el-Hisn functioned, at least in part, as a specialized center for cattle production. Some of the population engaged in direct production or acquisition of food resources, presumably on lands belonging to the estate. However, many commodities such as ceramics and stone tools were imported in finished or nearly finished form. Some food animals, such as certain species of fish, also were imported from some distance. The balance of the evidence, however, suggests that Kom el-Hisn was largely self-sufficient in basic goods and services involving subsistence. Kom el-Hisn participated primarily in both regional or statewide economic networks, providing some resources itself, importing others, and exporting at least some of its economic output in the form of cattle (and perhaps sheep/goats) to surrounding areas or to government or religious centers.