Ma’adi, the oldest copper working site in Egypt.

Old Predynastic Maadi
by Jimmy Dunn

The archaeological site of Maadi, for which a modern suburb of Cairo is named, is located on an east-west oriented desert ridge between two wadis at the southern city limits of Cairo. Regrettably, part of this Predynastic site has already been ruined by modern building activities,  and the remaining area is under threat from the intrusion of this highly populated area of Egypt.

Maadi is not only the name of an ancient Egyptian settlement, but is also used to define a specific culture of the 4th millennium BC, though by the middle of that period it had already been abandoned. It is closely associated with Buto, the other Lower Egyptian stronghold of early civilization which may predate Maadi, and might certainly have existed concurrently with Maadi.

Parts of the Maadi site was initially excavated in 1918, and the results of this investigation became public in a report to the International Congress of Geography in 1925. Three years later, Egyptologist J. Lucuas visited the site and identified three specific areas of settlement. 

Excavations

Maadi, as well as two nearby necropolises, were extensively excavated by M. Amer and I. Rizkana  in cooperation with the Department of Geography of the University of Cairo between 1930 and 1953.  In the earliest years of this project between 1930 and 1933, the excavations were conducted in cooperation with the German Institute of Archaeology (O. Menghin, K. Bittle). In total, there were eleven archaeological missions carried out by the University of Cairo under the leadership of various Egyptian and foreign prehistorians. Though this work came to an abrupt halt during World War II, four volumes of research were published by various specialists in the fields of natural sciences, pottery, lithic industries, non-lithic objects and cemeteries. Unfortunately, Menghin and Amer never published a definitive report on Maadi.

Throughout this period, a part of the western section of the site was occupied by a military camp and other structures, and was therefore not accessible to archaeologists. However, in the mid 1980s, F. A. Badawy finally received permission to excavate that area, which resulted in the discovery of a very ancient stone building.

Currently, and in cooperation with the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the University of Cairo, parts of Maadi are being excavated by the German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo. In addition to sampling various regions of the site, the stone building excavated by F. A. Badawy has been cleared, and the adjacent area excavated to clarify its stratigraphic relationship to the surrounding settlement.

So far, the findings of this work provide a picture of at least two occupation phases, including one in which wooden posts of different sizes, probably from huts and fences, storage jars fire places and small mud lined pits, occasionally with burnt walls was discovered. Substantial ash deposits also point to industrial activities.

There now is recognized two subterranean or semi-subterranean stone buildings. The one originally excavated by A. F. Badawy is entirely made of stone and was carefully plastered with Nile mud. It has a rectangular plan with rounded corners and an entrance lined by walls from the north. Its interior measurements are eight by four meters, with the floor situated two meters deeper than the upper preserved edge of its walls. So far, this building is completely unique among ancient Egyptian sites.

A second building has now also been discovered within the recent excavation zone. It consists of an entrance corridor of approximately six meters in length and a one to one and a half meter width, which slopes to a depth of two and one half meters below the upper edges of its walls. This corridor is accessible from the south by stone steps and communicates with a cave-like main room that has not yet been fully excavated. While the corridor is carefully line with plastered stone, the main room appears to be simply cut into the bedrock.

This second building is similar to others that were found in the older excavations in the eastern part of Maadi, which scholars have connected to the chalcolithic Beersheva culture of Southern Palestine. There is no doubt whatsoever that both buildings date to the Predynastic Period, and thus far, they represent the earliest examples of the use of stone as building materials known in Egypt.

The Settlement

The site of Maadi is located on a narrow ridge in the mouth of the Wadi al-Tih. Though on the surface, it appears to have the typical characteristics of a Northern Egyptian Predynastic farming village, evidence unearthed in this location suggests otherwise. Certainly agriculture was a primary economic factor in this settlement, but there was also an emphasis on trade, metallurgy and foreign contacts that was unknown in other northern sites.

Between about 3600 and 3000 BC, a number of innovations took place at Maadi that brought Egypt into the realm of the international world. Trade dominated this settlement more than any other contemporary sites, and it had few rivals in Egypt even during later periods. Its location within the Wadi al-Tih, the main historic route to the copper mines of the Sinai, together with the presence of housing obviously of a foreign type and pottery, domesticated donkeys, elaborate storage facilities and a well developed copper industry all evidence the importance of it role as a trade center.

Maadi may have in fact originated in order to exploit the Sinai copper mines. Unearthed tidbits in the area include copper bars that are possibly ingots, bits of unprocessed, a miscast head of an ax, and even a possible smelting area, originally identified as a pottery kiln. However, trade may have predated Maadi’s copper industry, considering that metallurgy had developed first in other regions like the Mediterranean and Iranian Plateau, and spread into Egypt through trade with foreign lands. Hence, we may note that Maadi was a mercantile community which invested its surplus wealth into metallurgy, transportation and storage.

There can be little question that Maadi benefited from a very favorable geographical position. Not only did it have access to the mainstream of the Nile, just south of where it branches into the Delta, but from there goods could reach the Mediterranean and of course there was also access to the desert frontiers to the east through the Wadi al-Tih. Its ultimate abandonment, however, may have been due to the ease with which its location was imitated by the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis, located only ten kilometers north of Maadi. Another contributory factor may have also been the fact that after the unification of Egypt, its rulers sought to control and exclude the nomads that undoubtedly provided considerable trade goods to the area.

One of the most obvious evidences of foreign contact at Maadi is a unique type of dwelling that was apparently imported from southern Palestine. Though most of the houses in the settlement were typical of the usual Lower Egyptian variety, having an oval shape with post walls and frames of mud-daubed wickerwork, there were also true underground houses which were unique among the villages of prehistoric Egypt. However, such houses did exist at several sites around Beersheba in southern Palestine, leading archaeologists to believe that they were imports from that area to Egypt, perhaps even housing foreigners at Maadi. 

These foreign style structures were constructed with a pit dug two to three meters into the subsoil. There dimensions could be as great as three by almost five meters. Their entrance consisted of a slanting passage with steps that were sometimes faced in stone. Around the walls of the pit, posts were driven into the floor in order to support a roof that was probably made of light materials such as woven mats, the remains of which were discovered in some of the buildings.  In the center of the floor, a sunken hearth was constructed.

Within these dwellings, considerable debris was unearthed during excavations, supporting the claim that they were houses as opposed to some sort of ceremonial structure.

However, the subterranean houses are not the only evidence of foreign contact at Maadi. With the exception of “Fayoum A” culture locations, Lower Egyptian sites usually only reveal storage pits and jars associated with individual households. Though such facilities also existed at Maadi, there were two specialized storage areas located at opposite ends of the site. On the southern boundary of the settlement were large, underground storage cellars while on the northern border there were rows of great storage jars, known by the Greek name, Pithoi, that were sunk up to their rims in the soil. The latter pithoi mostly contained foodstuffs such as emmer wheat and barley as well as cooked mutton, animal and fish bone and shellfish. Non-food items included small pots, flints, spindle whorls and jar stoppers. On the other hand, the cellars on the southern boundary of Maadi contianed luxury goods, suggesting a fairly well organized community based system of storage and exchange.

The storage cells measured one to two meters in depth, and could reach a maximum length of almost four meters.  Within these cellars, there were at times large pithoi jars sunk into the floors and covered by stone lids. There is also indication that the cellars were at one time roofed over with light timbers. There was also at least one cellar with a retaining wall built of stone, which was one of the earliest uses of that material for building purposes. Some of the cellars were also linked together, which might indicate an increasing wealth of their owners or the settlement at large.

While many of the cellars had been disturbed or filled with trash during later periods, surprisingly, there fortunately remained samples of their original content, providing clues to the goods that were once flowed through Maadi. In one of these cellars that remained sealed, there was unearthed a number of well made stone jars and vases, carnelian beads and a decayed, unidentifiable white substance. In other cellars, jars contained grain and in several examples as many as twelve containers were still in place.

Well made stone jars at Maadi perhaps indicate that at least here Lower Egypt had finally attained the technical competence in stone grinding found in the south, provided they were manufactured in this region. These items, manufactured from a variety of stone including granite, gneiss, diorite, Fayoum basalt, limestone and alabaster, were both well made and attractive. They were usually fashioned as elongated cylinders with flat rims, small handles and flaring, ring-like bases. These were undoubtedly used for commercial purposes, while local limestone was roughly shaped into dishes, bowls, cups and lamps for domestic use.

Carnelian beads may have possibly served as a crude form of trade currency. The beads that were found in the sealed cellar were almost certainly made from material remote from Maadi. It may have originated in the Eastern Desert, and the beads may have also been manufactured elsewhere and brought into Maadi by nomads. These attractive red-orange, translucent carnelian beads were in considerable demand in the ancient Middle East and South Asia during the fourth and third millennia BC. They were also easy to transport and relatively scarce.

 There was also found the distinctive black-topped red ware of Upper Egypt, which is not surprising considering the site of ancient Gerzeh lies only about thirty kilometers south of Maadi.  Other southern imports included the ubiquitous slate pigment palettes.

Another indication of Maadi’s role in foreign trade is the so-called Palestinian pottery unearthed at this site. Maadi contained several ceramic type that, like its subterranean houses, have precedents in the the Beersheba area of southern Palestine. They included ledge-handled jars, round-body lug-handled pots and loop-handled pots with light bodies.

This pottery corresponds well with the discovery of some of the earliest domesticated donkey remains known in prehistoric Egypt  Even today, jars are strapped on the backs of donkey or camels by nomads and transported with ease over long distances, and evidences the method that allowed the foreign pottery to be transported over their long journey form southern Palestine.
The Maadi South cemetery

As stated earlier, Maadi choose to invest most of its wealth in trade, storage and metallurgy, rather than fancy tombs and luxury goods as did their southern counterparts in Upper Egypt. However, they were not without some quest for prestige, and just bout the time that foreign contacts accelerated around 3,600 BC, they began to adopt many of their southern neighbors  burial customs, though always on a poorer scale. Unfortunately, the early excavations at the three necropolises located in the area were not very well documented, and thus scholars have found it extremely difficult to date many of the burials.

Two of the cemeteries located in Wadi al-Tih and Maadi North, may probably be dated later than the Predynastic period. The necropolis that probably was used by the townspeople at  Maadi, Maadi South, and which was luckily the best reported, is located about a kilometer southeast of the town on a low rise in the mouth of the Wadi Digla. Here, Amer and Rizkana unearthed some 468 burials between 1952 and 1953, all distributed over little more than an acre of land. Besides the human burials there were also burials for thirteen gazelles and one dog. At least one of the gazelles had its throat cut in what might have been a ritual sacrifice. The poorest graves were segregated at the western end of the site where the fourteen animal burials occur.

The prehistoric date for this cemetery is supported by the contents of its graves, including artifacts that closely resemble those excavated in the settlement. These included any number of pots of the familiar oval, ring-based variety on smooth red and polished black wares, stone vases of alabaster, basalt and limestone, flake and blade tools, trapezoidal and rhomboidal palettes with beveled edges similar to those of the Naqadan culture, shell pigment containers and combs, bracelets and combs. Of course, there were also carnelian and other colored stone  beads. Interestingly, little copper was discovered, presumably because it was simply considered too valuable for trade purposes to bury with the dead.

With the coming of the unification of Egypt, Maadi disappears from our history of Egypt, but it certainly contributed to the future of the empire with its unique cultural and knowledge of trade with the outside world.

As a side note, there is, or was at least until recently a museum at Maadi. It is both difficult to find and difficult to reach, having no signs and no real road. However, we are told that those truly interested in the archaeological site would do very well to seek it out.

Although the article doesn’t say so, the first copper smelters at Ma’adi were not Egyptians, they were Asiatics, and the technology was imported. The Egyptians started using bronze very shortly after though, so bronze seems to be an ancient Egyptian invention. I had to edit a wikipedia ‘inaccuracy ‘about Egyptians inventing copper, so I thought I’d post this. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, the Egyptians didn’t invent metallurgy, farming or writing. I’m a bit bemused as to why this belief is so widespread…

Bullshit on Wikipedia, probably.

Ingot moulds from Maadi.

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