Sunday, February 17, 2008

7000 Year Old Village, and Opportunistic Archaeology

Remains of a Neolithic village in Egypt are being excavated and studied. The village dates back at least 7,000 years, which puts it way before the Pharoahs and makes it the oldest village found in that area. People there harvested barley and emmer wheat, kept pigs as well as herd animals like sheep, and traded for shell ornaments.

The site is about 50 miles SW of Cairo, at the Fayiem depression.

"It's clear that this was not a bare existence that people had here. They made a pretty good life for themselves," says one of the researchers (Willeke Wendrich of UCLA) according to the National Geographic story. More pictures (also courtesy of National Geographic, which funded the dig) are here.

"Farming probably occurred much earlier in Egypt, experts agree, but those first settlements would most likely have been along the banks of the Nile River and would have been obliterated by the periodic flooding and course changes of the river." (from a Los Angeles Times story by Thomas Maugh.)

The story is exciting by itself, but it also points out the opportunistic nature of archaeology. We can't find everything. We only find, by sheer luck, bits and pieces that survive.

No one is rewriting the book on Egyptian history, because of course there were villages in Egypt before the rise of the Pharoahs. Historians were sure of it. But to actually find the remains of one is extraordinary. Fayiem will be studied and we'll know a lot more about how people lived--and lived well--7,000 years ago.

My favorite quote on this topic is from Stuart Piggott's book, The Druids: "Archaeological evidence in itself consists of the accidentally durable..."

Accidentally. If trained PhD's find the site and make careful records, the best they can do is say "We found this, and we think it implies this."

That's the best case. But what often happens is that looters dig up a pot or arrowhead, sell it to someone who fakes a document, and so the guesses made later about "this implies this" are even shakier. Sad, huh?

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