Random Objects 45 – UC13405, Old Kingdom vessel from Dakhleh Oasis, presented by a Long Range Desert Group veteran
A couple of days late (sorry!) but hopefully better late than never.
This may not look like a particularly interesting item on its own, but it is a typical example of an object that is more than the sum of its rather meagre parts. It represents a side of Old Kingdom Egypt that is not much discussed – the colonization of the Western Desert oasis of Dakhleh. Dakhleh is one of a semi-circle of oases in the desert to the west of the Nile that still provide homes to a small modern population. It is about 80km long and up to 25km wide. Dakhleh Oasis today is an agricultural community, based on wheat, barley and rice, the soil watered by irrigation fed by wells and natural springs that tap the Nubian aquifer that lies beneath. Sheep and goats are also usually kept.
Although firmly within Egypt’s borders today, it was a liminal zone between Egypt and Libya when Egyptian civilization was concentrated along the Nile. Dakhleh was occupied throughout prehistory, often surrounded by savannah-like conditions, and when the climate finally dried to the point where most desert and oasis sites were abandoned, occupation in Dakhleh continued. The Sheikh Muftah groups were nomadic sheep herders, with an impoverished material culture, whose skeletal remains suggest poor access to nutrition. These small groups were still based in the oasis when the kings and of the Old Kingdom first established along the Nile, and when the reach of the Old Kingdom administration was extended west into Dakhleh.
Dakhleh Oasis is 300 miles, as the crow flies, from the Nile to Asiut, across hyper-arid desert and tall sand dunes that march in parallel lines from south to north. A longer but safer route is to head east to Kharga Oasis and there to the Nile at what is now Luxor. The Old Kingdom community is best represented at ‘Ain Asil, at Balat in the eastern part of Dakhleh, under excavation by the French Institute (IFAO) since the late 1970s. The large site, consisting of a palace, surrounding buildings and fortifications is accompanied by a mastaba cemetery in which local governors were buried, at Qila ed-Dabba. Its oldest phase (of six Old Kingdom and one First Intermediate phases) probably dates to the late Fifth /early Sixth Dynasty, although pottery elsewhere in the oasis suggests that there was some sort of presence from the Third-Fourth Dynasties. By the end of the Sixth Dynasty the oasis had been completely colonized. ‘Ain Asil was effectively the capital of Dakhleh during the Old Kingdom.
Another settlement site dating to the period is ‘Ain el-Gezareen (Spring of the Butchers), 42km northwest of ‘Ain Asil, which was marked by a concentration of potsherds, chipped stone tools and fragments of animal bone and has been excavated by the Dakhleh Oasis Project. The Dakhleh Oasis Project suggest that it was a defended community that overflowed beyond the walls after its initial establishment, secondary to but with connections to ‘Ain Asil. Towers were incorporated into the external defensive walls.
The pottery consists of a wide range of locally-made forms, including large sizeable storage jars, over 1000 bread moulds, many excavated from a bakery found in 1997 at ‘Ain el-Gazzareen, and shallow red polished carinated bowls, known as Meidum bowls (the latter imported from the Nile valley, and a minority of the overall assemblage). Most of the locally-made forms are imitations of Nile Valley Old Kingdom types.
As well as these centres of population, there is considerable evidence in the rest of the oasis for immigration from the Nile valley too, although the reasons for this remain uncertain. Other settlements and cemeteries have been found and police outposts have been discovered on rocky hilltops and outcrops, some of which have been engraved with petroglyphs.
The economy of the oasis was, as it is today, agricultural. Analysis of the plant remains from the bakery area at ‘Ain el Gazzareen indicates that barley was dominant, with emmer wheat secondary (the reverse of the situation usually found on the Nile, possibly because barley is more drought tolerant). Querns, used for processing grain, were found in high quantities. Lentil, another ancient Egyptian staple, was found at other areas of the site. Animal remains include a mixture of domestic and wild species, including cattle, goat, pig, Dorcas gazelle, oryx, Barbary sheep, duck, goose, hare, pigeon and ostrich. Husbandry of wild animals as well as domesticated species was apparently practised, as happened elsewhere in Old Kingdom Egypt. A study published in 2012 concluded that the main sources of protein were cattle and goats followed by Dorcas gazelle and Cape hare.
Evidence for mixed Old Kingdom style and Sheikh Muftah ceramics at some sites suggest that the incursion of Nile residents was not necessarily a reason for conflict. It is entirely possible that the introduction of new economic ideas created employment and other opportunities for the indigenous inhabitants.
There’s another side to the story, which is how this vessel was acquired. It was collected in 1935 by W.B. Kennedy Shaw who presented it to the museum in 1958. It is one of the few oasis pieces in the Petrie collection, and the reason that Bill Kennedy Shaw, (formerly of the Sudan Forestry Service, and Director of the Desert Survey Department), was in possession of it is that he was one of a loose team of people who used Ford Model-T cars and biplanes in the exploration into the Western Desert in the inter-war years, extending operations as far as the Libyan border. One of his most remarkable expeditions was in 1927, when he and Douglas Newbold made a 1000 mile camel trek from Dakhleh to Wadi Halfa, during which they mapped the area and discovered several archaeological sites. Shaw’s Cave, a rock art site, was named for him. The results of most of their expeditions were reported by the Geographical Society, and are characterized by a mixture of empirical reporting and a sense of adventure. Kennedy Shaw went on to be a key member of the Long Range Desert Group in the Second World War, recruited by LRDG founder Ralph Bagnold. Kennedy Shaw wrote about his experiences in 1945 in his book “Long Range Desert Group: The Story of its Work in Libya 1940-1943.”
Details from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology database: Pot, hand made (?), thick ware, full of rounded sand grains; plum coloured slip, one side removed by wind erosion.
Height: 21.5 ins
Diameter: 15.5 ins
Neck internal diameter: 3.5 ins
Hope, C. and Pettman, A.J. 2012. Egyptian Connections with Dakhleh Oasis in the Early Dynastic Period to Dynasty IV: new data from Mut al-Kharab. In (eds.) Dakhleh Oasis Project. Monograph 15. The Oasis Papers 6. Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the Dakhleh Oasis Project. Oxbow Books, p.147-166.
Kaper, O.E. and Willems, H. 2002. Policing the Desert: Old Kingdom Activity around the Dakhleh Oasis. In (ed.) Friedman, R. Egypt and Nubia: Gifts of the Desert. British Museum Press, p.79-93.
Kennedy Shaw, W.B. 1945. Long Range Desert Group. The Story of its Work in Libya 1940-1943. Collins.
Mills, A.J. 2002. Another Old Kingdom Site in the Dakhleh Oasis. In (ed.) Friedman, R. Egypt and Nubia: Gifts of the Desert. British Museum Press, p.74-78.
Mills, A.J. 2012. An Old Kingdom Trading Post at ‘Ain el-Gazzareen, Dakhleh Oasis. In (eds.) Bagnall, R.S., Davoli, P. and Hope, C. Dakhleh Oasis Project. Monograph 15. The Oasis Papers 6. Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the Dakhleh Oasis Project. Oxbow Books, p.147-166.
Pantalacci, L. and Lesur-Gebremariam, J. 2009. Wild animals in downtown: Evidence from Balat, Dakhlah Oasis (end of the 3rd millennium BC). In (ed.) Riemer,H., Forster, F., Herb, M. and Pollath, N. Desert animals in the eastern Sahara: Status, economic significance and cultural reflection on antiquity. Heinrich-Barth Institut, p.245-262
Pettman, A.J., Thanheiser, U. and Churcher, C.S. 2012. Provisions for the Journey: food Production in the ‘bakery’ area of ‘Ain el-Gazzareen, Dakhleh Oasis. In (eds.) Bagnall, R.S., Davoli, P. and Hope, C. Dakhleh Oasis Project. Monograph 15. The Oasis Papers 6. Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the Dakhleh Oasis Project. Oxbow Books, p.209-227.