Open doors to sunny shores
Archaeologists working around the Mediterranean met two weeks ago in Cairo to discuss intercultural relations between the countries of the region, reports Nevine El-Aref
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Anticlockwise from top: imported jugs from Cyprus; Narmer's palet; painted tiles from Medinet Habu; the exhibition gate at the Egyptian Museum; Hawass and Kim; a painted tile; a shipwreck; Khufu's solar boat|
photos courtesy of NVIC
ar from being a modern concept that came to pass only with the formation of the European Union and the Barcelona process, the dialogue between the different cultures of the Mediterranean region has been in place since time immemorial. This is becoming increasingly clear as more and more archaeological finds are discovered. Indeed, considering the Mediterranean as an entity deserving research in its own right has recently become a topic of discussion.
In the light of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) organised a conference to look into intercultural contacts in the region. This was the first international convention to address this topic in a southern Mediterranean country.
The conference focussed on theoretical and methodological issues related to the study of intercultural contacts in archaeology on the one hand, and on actual case studies of intercultural contact on the other.
Papers presented at the meeting dealt with a wide variety of topics, including the methods and theory of the study of contacts in archaeology, immigration patterns in different countries including Egypt, trade and exchange, the import and local imitation of foreign objects, the adoption of foreign religious ideas, influences in artistic and architectural styles and seafaring. Although ancient Egypt is often seen by the wider public as a unique, united and rather isolated culture, the presentations made clear that Egypt had many and far- reaching contacts all over the Mediterranean. Not only did Egyptian objects and ideas reach the furthest corners of the region, but Mediterranean people, ideas and objects were also welcomed in Egypt itself.
Seven internationally renowned speakers presented keynote addresses, including Manfred Bietak, the director of the Austrian Institute for Archaeology in Cairo and the director of the excavations at Tell Al-Dabaa in the Nile Delta.
Bietak explained that over the last nine years the Austrian Academy of Sciences had carried out a large research programme in order to synchronise the divergent regional chronologies of the second millennium BC. Sciences and humanities were combined for this programme to include dendro- chronology, Egyptian and Mesopotamian historical chronologies, and archaeological branches of most of the eastern Mediterranean, especially ceramic research. Very helpful were index markers such as Levantine painted ware, different groups of Eell Al-Yahudiay ware, Kamares ware, Middle and Late Cypriot pottery varieties and Mycenaen ware, which mark specific datum lines with their first appearance in the local markets of the Eastern Mediterranean. With their help and with a control of combinations of ceramic types and other artefacts, it was possible to create a dense network of data for a common chronology. For the time being, Bietak continued, this was based on historical Egyptian chronology. A datum line was also created with a first appearance of pumice of the Minoan Thera eruption not before the late Bronze Age in the Levant and not before the beginning of the Tuthmoside period in Egypt.
"The evidence makes it highly likely that the Thera eruption did not happen in the second half of the 17th century BC, as radio carbon dates suggest, but around 1500 BC," Bietak said.
Dendro-chronology with Lebanese cedar wood will still need many years of study to fill the gaps for an absolute standard chronology, and scientists are working on other independent dating methods. The historical chronology with its datum lines of first appearances of artefacts and pumices and with "stratigraphie compare" have, on the other hand, provided a consistent umbrella-chronology which suggests linking the Egyptian with a quite low Mesopotamian chronology. "While the main outlines of this chronology seem to be satisfactory, detailed research has still to be undertaken to establish a well founded chronological structure," Bietak said.
Marie-Henriette Gates from Bilkent University in Ankara presented a keynote speech on the maritime business in the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean, saying that archaeological analysis of imported and exported finds had shifted over the past century from description to explanation, in line with other developments in the discipline's research enquiry. The appeal of exotica remains constant, however. Their very presence opens an immediate window onto maritime cross-cultural contacts.
"Although Bronze Age sites in this region provide a rich illustration of such transactions, neutrally attributed to trade and exchange, it has also proved a more difficult challenge to reconstruct the economic, cultural and social mechanisms behind these exchanges," she said.
Gates explained that contemporary written documents gave precise evidence that was both invaluable and one-sided. The predominance in explanatory models for Mediterranean and Aegean maritime affairs, particularly for the second millennium BC, had magnified administrative constraints and emphasised classification of goods.
Few discussions address the eastern Mediterranean's dense distribution of Bronze Age ports, ranking, like settlements on land, from large and well-connected to modest and remote. These ports reflect economic circumstances of differing scales and intensities, but they were all equally dependent on shipping networks and maritime business.
Linda Hulin from Oxford University took the audience to another segment of the Mediterranean, that of the Libyan community during the Bronze Age. Hulin said models of Libyan society in the pre-classical period came from a variety of sources that were rarely contemporary or indigenous.
"We rely primarily upon epigraphic and art historical material from Egypt, particularly the Third Intermediate Period and from the classical world, to model Libyan society in the Bronze Age," she said. "The small amount of archaeological material, including rock art, is difficult to date."
Diamantis Panagioopoulos from Heidelberg University said that after some decades of intensive scholarly research, the study of cultural interaction in the eastern Mediterranean of the second millennium BC had reached a critical stage. In the vast and fragmented terrain of relevant literature scientific approaches go in quite different directions, while the gap between empirical historical knowledge and theoretical visions is still growing. Within this climate, he said, it had become increasingly difficult to establish a common ground of scholarly research in which the interrelationships between new spectacular finds and new theoretical models could fruitfully be interrogated. Facing these difficulties, Panagioopoulos suggested it was important to reframe the current state of affairs and identify some collective concerns for future studies. "Taking the concept of transculturality as an overarching of theoretical umbrella under which one can explore the most salient aspects of cross-cultural interaction in a systemic manner is an attempt to contribute to this aim," he claimed. Within this broad semantic concept, he continued, the focus would be on the cultural dynamics of maritime activity which constituted a core element of transnational exchange during the late second millennium BC.
"The key questions will be to what extent the expanding arteries of maritime contacts and trade fostered cultural mobility and change in the eastern Med." He foresees that a brief overview of geographical, social and political structures, channels and agents of exchange and materiality would help to comprehend this historical phenomenon as a complex interaction of multiple dynamic parameters.
Leila Badre from the American University in Beirut spoke of the cultural interconnections in the eastern Mediterranean during the late Bronze and Iron Ages. This relationship was highlighted through pottery found in the Tell Kazel area in Summur in Beirut, which was excavated by the American University of Beirut museum team in 1985.
"This site has produced an interesting amount of important pottery which sheds some light on trade relations between Beirut, Cyprus and the Aegean in the late Bronze and Iron Ages," Badre pointed out.
Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, head of the Central Administration of Ancient Egyptian Monuments, presented his paper on the remains of what is up to now the largest fortified city of the New Kingdom. Tell Habua I and II, three kilometres northeast of Qantara East in North Sinai, measures 400 by 200 metres and is reinforced by 24 towers. Archaeological evidence has revealed gates on the north and south sides and two complexes of large storerooms dating from the beginning of the 19th Dynasty, notably the reign of Pharaoh Seti I. The team has also found a temple from the reign of Ramses II. "This discovery confirms the identification of Tell Habua with Tharw, as mentioned in the inscriptions of Pharaoh Seti I at Karnak, describing the Way of Horus," Abdel-Maqsoud said. The Way of Horus or Horus Road was the main trade and military route from Egypt to Palestine.
Suaan Sherratt from Sheffield University said investigation into intercultural contact in the Mediterranean area during the second and first millennia BC was often a matter of reconciling various types of textual information with archaeological data. "We should not feel that we can afford to neglect either but attempts to integrate them frequently run up against issues of theory and methodology," she said, adding that methodology was arguably less of a problem as long as it was borne in mind that all types of information needed their own contextual source criticisms and that the devising of methodologies to address particular questions had to be approached on a strictly ad hoc basis.
"All that we need to think about lies in the shadows, susceptible more to informed imagination than to direct information, whether textual or archaeological, or to theory derived from anthropology or the social sciences," Sheratt said.
Gert Jan Van Wijngaarden from Amsterdam University stressed in his paper that the relationship between Egypt and Mycenae covered a long period of time, as finds of Mycenaean pottery at several areas around the Mediterranean testify. Only in Egypt, however, is ample additional epigraphic and pictorial evidence found. A number of faience plaques from Mycenae have even been interpreted as royal gifts from Egypt.
"The cultural contexts of the Mycenaean finds in Egypt and the Egyptian finds in Greece will assess the significance of Egyptian-Mycenaean relations in their Mediterranean context," he said.
Ancient Egypt was often viewed as a unique and isolated culture, but on the contrary, owing to archaeological discoveries and research, it is now seen that ancient Egyptians were in contact with their neighbours from prehistoric times and not, as is often believed, only since the Open Door policy opened up trade with the European Union. To illustrate these connections, on the fringe of the conference the Netherlands- Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) has mounted a panel exhibition on intercultural contact between ancient Egypt and other countries of the Mediterranean. The exhibition, entitled "Ancient Egypt in the Mediterranean" and held in the garden of the Egyptian Museum, was opened by Zahi Hawass, secretary- general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and will last until the end of December. It highlights the friendly relationship between ancient Egypt and its neighbouring countries around the Mediterranean Sea, as well as telling the story of foreign groups who lived in Egypt in ancient times. The exhibition displays the far-reaching influences Egypt had on its neighbours and its involvement with regard to the trade routes of the ancient Mediterranean, together with how ancient Egyptians adopted foreign technologies and ideas.
The panels, which were written by young scholars from around the Mediterranean and other parts of the world, highlight such topics as trade, war, seafaring, art and specific archaeological sites from predynastic times right through the late Pharaonic era.
"I am very happy to have this exhibition at the Egyptian Museum, where people from all over the world come to enjoy and learn about ancient Egypt", Hawass said at the opening.
Klaus Ebermann, the EU Ambassador in Egypt, said that it was wonderful that visitors could learn how people from a variety of ancient cultures met and influenced each other, with Egypt as a key point of contact. Head of the NVIC Kim Duistermaat pointed out that the intercultural contacts and dialogue had been part of the lives of people in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years, and it was fascinating to see that ancient Egyptian objects and ideas reached even the furthest corners of the Mediterranean, such as Spain. "As archaeologists, we are interested in understanding how these contacts functioned, how people exchanged objects and ideas and why."
The exhibition has been organised by the NVIC in cooperation with the SCA, and is funded by the Delegation of the European Commission in Egypt and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Cairo.