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Beyond Politics: Material Culture in Second Intermediate Period Egypt and Nubia

For a case study on the relationship of material culture and people the Second Intermediate Period (ca 1780 to 1570/40 BC) is an ideal research topic. Bridging the gap from the Middle to the New Kingdom and encompassing the late 13th to 17th Dynasties, it is a period of intense change, in which foreign influences and multiple social and political modifications culminated in the civilisation of the New Kingdom. Despite the importance of this period for Egyptian history and cultural dynamics it remains one of the most complicated to understand due to contradicting historiographic, textual, pictorial and archaeological evidence as well as problems assigning dates to important groups of material culture.

Political instability is indicated by short reign lengths of ca 80 pharaohs in 200–250 years and accordingly the current historical narrative mentions an increasing number of possibly concurring spheres of political influence. The Second Intermediate Period ended about 1570/30 BC with the ‘wars of liberation’ won by Theban rulers unifying Egypt (18th Dynasty). But it is a well-known trope also that order is brought by pharaoh after chaos. The sources for the political/historical reconstruction are corrupted and fragmentary texts, far removed from the original period. Archaeological sources may contribute considerably to a reconstruction of cultural and social processes in history but remain neglected.
It has been previously argued that material culture in this period exhibits a certain “regionalisation” that in essence, is thought to represent these political divisions and signifies historical events in the archaeological record. The project sets out not only to test whether such a regionalisation can be proved, but how it becomes manifest, and which possible reasons might exist beside the political explanation currently favoured. Should differences between regions be pinpointed the means and ways of communication between regions also comes into play and research if observation in the archaeological record is possible.

Local Chronologies
A major hindrance to identifying spatial and chronological trends in the material culture is the unclear relative chronology of many (particularly less well known) sites that makes comparing site assemblages problematic. The project will collate archaeological contexts consisting of various object categories (e.g. pottery, scarabs, tools, metal finds, etc). These objects will then be analysed in a multi-scalar approach, from the objects themselves, within their contexts to site specific relative sequences and finally to inter-site comparative analysis. Thus, a dense relative-chronological network will be established for further consideration and whether regional differences can be pinpointed – in the composition of contexts or the morphology of objects. To this end qualitative and quantitative analyses will be conducted.

Distribution map

Geographical range ?
In order to achieve this task it is necessary to dramatically increase the number of sites in Egypt and Nubia with well documented assemblages for comparison. For this reason, the project will conduct up to date re-documentation of many older excavations which are mainly represented today by museum objects and archives (for example Abusir el-Meleq and the Abydos North Cemetery). This new data will then be supplemented by collaborations with ongoing excavations (for example Tell el-Retaba, Deir el-Bersha, Luxor, Uronarti) and combined with finds from current excavations. A common terminology for phasing will also be developed as it is currently rather vague and largely incompatible across ancient Egypt.

A new theoretical approach
The stress on contextual study of material culture will provide an additional level of interpretation for research into the behaviour and various identities of the people who created and engaged with objects. Some aspects of material culture theory derived from the large field of social anthropology enable insight into beliefs, ideas, values and identity, which are unconsciously inherent in the production of objects (chaine operatoire). Also the traces of use and use patterns will be studied. Engaging with the field of material culture studies, therefore, is critical for achieving a better understanding of social and cultural processes.

Luxor Westbank
Nile valley

Principal Investigator:

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