The Neolithic in the Nile Delta

New analysis of the evidence from the desert edge of the western Nile Delta

The current antiquities land of Merimde Beni Salama | Photo/Copyright: J. Rowland/Egypt Exploration Society

The research project (A-2-4) The Neolithic in the Nile Delta focuses on the western edge of the Nile Delta, from the Neolithic site of Merimde Beni Salama in the south to the modern town of Khatatbah. This area was first surveyed in the late 1920s, which led to the finding of the first Neolithic site in this Delta (Merimde Beni Salama), and subsequent excavations. Since the most recent investigations in the region (in the 1980s), significant new findings have come to light, notably the discovery of a Neolithic to Late Predynastic sequence (6th millennium to late 4th millennium BC) at the site of Sais (western Delta) and new discoveries along the northern shore of Lake Qarun in the Fayum. Research on the material from these sites allows us to think about the dispersal of technology in a new way, and more available data help us investigate the directionality of influence as we consider the production of lithics, ceramics and other examples of material culture.

The current project has two main sources of data: those from the new fieldwork (begun in 2013, supported by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung) and the data collected by previous investigations. Both sources of data will be examined within an inter-disciplinary framework which aims to situate the Neolithic evidence from the western Nile Delta within its wider environmental and social contexts. This examination bring new interpretations as to the lines of communication evident between sites in the western, and wider Delta, as well as between regions. It will also help to shed light on the reasons for choosing certain settlement locations over others, and the extent to which these choices were determined by the regional environment and changing climate. The re-assessment of the chronology of the Neolithic-Predynastic will also play an important role in the project, as the team seeks to determine the actual dating of environmental as well as cultural events across the region. The prime component of the TOPOI II project is to re-evaluate archaeological records and finds resulting from earlier investigations within the context of recent and ongoing research across the region.

This project aims to improve our understanding of the mechanisms by which the first settlers arrived along the western edge of the Nile Delta. One important task is the reconstruction of the environmental context of settlements, including the location and movement of the floodplain and local water sources in order to understand the reasons why, when and where the first settlers arrived. The methodology includes the use of satellite imagery, geophysical survey, drill coring and sedimentary analysis, including the possibility for new 14C and OSL measurements.

Until now, for certain regions and periods of prehistoric and Predynastic Egypt, there has been a lack of reliable radiocarbon measurements as well as an insufficient modeling of data. The potential for new samples for 14C dates from the renewed investigations could significantly help in this debate, especially when analyzed alongside the new dates from the Fayum lakeshore and the western Delta (Sais). Changes in the lithic toolkit, for example, may indicate adaptations to new types of work. Another example is the location of hearths along the shoreline of Lake Qarun in the Fayum. The dating of the use of the hearths, where organic material is available, can be assessed, whereas the analysis of micro-organisms embedded in the shorelines – such as diatoms – give an indication of the past environment. Taken together, these datasets give information on high and low lake levels, and thus provide information about the timing of climate change. These various methods will help to generate reliable data to distinguish the beginnings of, and development of, Egyptian agriculture in the Neolithic.


Author: Udo Felbinger



Image above: The current antiquities land of Merimde Beni Salama | Photo/Copyright: J. Rowland/Egypt Exploration Society

Image teaser: The Nile Delta from orbit | Source: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC | Public Domain