Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 June 2008
Issue No. 902
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

When grain was currency

A large administrative building and silos thought to be the largest grain bins from the ancient Egyptian era ever found are the latest discoveries at Tel Edfu. Nevine El-Aref reports on a site that is providing fresh clues about the emergence of urban life in ancient times

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"Ancient Egyptian administration is mainly known from texts, but the full understanding of the institutions involved and their role with towns and cities has been so far difficult to grasp because of the lack of archaeological evidence with which textual data needs to be combined," says Nadine Moller, assistant professor at the Oriental Institute of Chicago University and head of the archaeological mission in Tel Edfu. At Tel Edfu, Moller says, the mission has uncovered what is considered to be a downtown centre, a community located half way between the modern city of Aswan and Luxor. Tel Edfu was also a rare example where almost 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history are still preserved in the stratigraphy of a single mound.

Last year the mission revealed details of a seven silos and an older columned hall, which was an administration centre. "These monuments were found at the core of the ancient community as grain was a form of currency at that time, while the silos functioned as a sort of bank as well as a food source," Moller said, adding that the size of both the silos and administration buildings shows that the community was apparently a prosperous urban centre.

"Grain, which was usually barley or emmer wheat, was used as food and medium of exchange. One form of payment was the monthly ration of grain," Moller said.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says the grain bins the mission found this year are in a large silo courtyard dating back to the 17th Dynasty (1630-1520 BC) and containing at least seven round mud-brick silos measuring 5.5x6.5 metres in diameter, making them the largest example so far discovered within a town centre. The team also uncovered an earlier building phase for the hall, one that predates the silos. In that phase, Hawass said, a mud-brick building with 16 wooden columns stood on the site. "The pottery and seal impressions found in the hall are dated to the early 13th Dynasty, while the layout of the building shows that it may perhaps have been part of a governor's palace, which was a typical feature of provincial towns," Hawass said.

Moller told Al-Ahram Weekly that there was no exact parallel for such a columned hall being part of the administrative buildings. The columned hall was the place where the scribes would possibly do the accounting, the opening and sealing of the containers, and receive letters. "The ostraca or inscribed pottery shards found have lists of commodities written on them," she said, adding that the team also found seal impressions that were used for different types of objects. Some were seals for papyrus documents, while others were for wooden boxes and baskets. "The seals were like scarabs, showing ornamental patterns such as spirals and a mix of hieroglyphic symbols such as ankhs," Hawass said.

Patterns belonging to different officials were also found, providing much evidence of the administrative activities that once took place there such as accounting and the opening and sealing boxes, ceramic jars and other commodities.

The period when the administrative centre was in use is the time in history when Egypt lost its political unity and a small kingdom developed in Thebes which controlled most of Upper Egypt. During this period one can see an increase in connections between the provincial elite, such as the family of the governor, to the royal family at Thebes who were keen on strengthening bonds through marriage or by awarding important offices to these people.

"It is exactly at this period when Edfu seems to have been very prosperous which can now be confirmed further by archaeological discoveries such as this silo-court, a symbol of the wealth of the town," Moller said.

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