Processing Palm Fruits in the Nile Valley -- Biomolecular Evidence from Qasr Ibrim

By Copley, Mark S.; Rose, Pamela J. et al. | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Processing Palm Fruits in the Nile Valley -- Biomolecular Evidence from Qasr Ibrim


Copley, Mark S., Rose, Pamela J., Clapham, Alan, Edwards, David N., Horton, Mark C., Evershed, Richard P., Antiquity


One of the most common species of palm found in Nubia (comprising modern-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan) is the date (Phoenix dactylifera L.), although other palms are seen in varying numbers, such as the dom palm (Hyphaene thebaica (L.) Mart.) and the rare, if not extinct, argun palm (Medemia argun Wurttemb.). These palms, and especially the date palm, can survive in dry climates provided that there is sufficient water through irrigation or a high enough water table (Brown 1924: 7-8; Nixon 1951: 285) and are therefore well suited to the Egyptian and Nubian environment.

In modern Nubia palms are an economic staple, with it being recorded that they have been offered as collateral for loans; given as gifts; used in the manufacture of baskets, ropes, rugs, furniture and fencing; as well as being used for animal feed and fuel (Treloar 1884: 18; Beadnell 1909: 218; Adams 1977: 53; Lucas 1989: 444; Gale et al. 2000: 347-8). Due to the fact that the timber from the dom palm is stronger than that of the date palm, it has also been preferred in Upper Egypt for the construction of furniture and buildings (Lucas 1989: 444; Brewer et al. 1994: 50). However, one of the main economic uses of the palm is for its fruit; the date fruit is a berry, and comprises a pericarp and seed. The fleshy pericarp has a high carbohydrate content (c. 75-80% dry weight), comprising glucose and fructose (Samarawira 1983), with the remainder of the organic portion of the fruit being proteins and lipids. Economically, the dom palm is less useful than the date due to the fact that it is more sensitive to changes in environment, producing fruit of varying sizes (Brewer et al. 1994: 50) and of a distinctive taste (Beadnell 1909: 219). The third type of palm mentioned above, the argun, is said to be extinct in modern Egypt, and although is reported to have been exported from Upper Nubia to Egypt in antiquity (Brewer et al. 1994: 51), this has not been substantiated.

The date would be expected to be as important to the Nubian economy and society in the past as it is today in the region. Though date kernels are often found at Nubian sites, direct evidence for the processing of dates has not been proven to any great extent through the archaeology of the region (Welsby 1996: 160). Indeed, although Strabo says that the palm was found `in abundance' in Aithiopia (Nubia) (Strabo XVII.2.2), the primary archaeological evidence for this has been through the excavation of goods manufactured from the palm tree and the desiccated remains of the fruit (Murray 2000: 618-19). Within Egypt as a whole, from the Early Dynastic period onwards, there are depictions of palms in tombs (Tackholm 1958: 211) and linguistic evidence for the word for date (Murray 2000: 619). The first evidence for date and dom palm fruit is from the Late Palaeolithic (de Vartavan & Asensi Amoros 1997: 134; Murray 2000: 621), with the cultivated forms tending to appear more in the Middle Kingdom (Tackholm 1958: 219,284; de Vartavan & Asensi Amoros 1997: 193). The argun, now said to be extinct, was possibly imported into Egypt from Upper Nubia and has been reported from the Middle Kingdom onwards from sites in Egypt. It is said that the fruit is inedible unless buried in the ground until it gains a sweet taste (Tackholm 1958: 298-9), although it may be that these archaeobotanical remains have been misidentified in the past.

This investigation focused on archaeological deposits associated with the site of Qasr Ibrim which is situated on the Eastern side of modern-day Lake Nasser, approximately 50 km north of the Egyptian-Sudanese border. It lies on a cliff-top promontory which would have overlooked the Nile Valley before its flooding with the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. Qasr Ibrim was occupied from approximately 1000 BC to AD 1800, and lies within Lower Nubia, close to what was the border with Ancient Egypt, and comprised a fortified citadel which gained religious, administrative, commercial and strategic importance (Horton 1991).

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