Discovery of the First Neolithic Cemetery in Egypt's Western Desert

Article excerpt


In the course of the Combined Prehistoric Expedition's continued programme of archaeological investigations in Egypt's South Western Desert in January and February 2000, Drs. K.M. Banks and M. Kobusiewicz discovered a concentration of Neolithic sites along the shores of a fossil playa, adjacent to a prominent gebel (hill)--approximately 25 km NW of Gebel Nabta. The GPS coordinates of this gebel, slightly east of centre, are 22[degrees] 42' 37" N and 30[degrees] 30' 17" E and it stands at 278 m in elevation. Because of the abundant sand dunes near the top, we assigned it the name of Gebel Ramlah (Schild et al. 2002). During January and February 2001, the Expedition excavated a habitation site and a cemetery in the playa basin. The latter site, which is the subject of the present report, was designated as E-01-2 (Figures 1,2).



Gebel Ramlah is probably an offset ridge of the Sin El Kadab scarp. At its foot to the south, the playa developed as a relatively small, internally drained basin that was cut into the finely laminated Qusseir Clastic Member sands. The basin is filled by a sequence of silty, water-laid deposits, interlied with eolian formations. The most prominent of these is a sandy silt with large desiccation polygons of Early Neolithic age. The silt is exposed in the heart of the basin, making an expanse some four km long and over one km wide. Along its south-western edge, the silt is cut into and/ or overlain by a suite of alluvial deposits, probably of Middle and Late Neolithic age. A six-metre deep sequence of clastic lacustrine, alluvial, and eolian deposits was topped by a 50 cm thick bed of alluvial sand (designated as Unit 9). Burials in the cemetery cut through the sands of Unit 9, which was made up of conspicuously laminated, tightly consolidated, and slightly gravely yellow alluvial sand, which had been deposited by a low energy sheet wash. The sand is interbedded with extensive lenses of muddy sands with a blocky structure formed in seasonal pools. Numerous hearths and thin beds of Late Neolithic cultural material occurred throughout the sands of Unit 9. The radiocarbon ages, obtained on some of these hearths at the neighbouring locality E-01-2, camp, measured at the Radiocarbon Laboratory, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Roma da Sapienza, place the deposition of Unit 9 between c. 6,400 and 6,000 radiocarbon years BP (uncalibrated).

The cemetery

The area excavated in 2001 was 6 x 6 m, and the burials were densely concentrated in the southern half in an area measuring 4.5 by 3.3 m, apart from Burial 1 which was located to the NE of the main concentration (Figure 2). Altogether, 13 burial pits were revealed. Nine of them contained individual burials (burials 1, 3, 5, 6, 8 -11 and 14). Four pits contained multiple burials, comprising two individuals in Burial 13, five in Burial 2, six in Burial 4, and eight in Burial 7 (Figure 2). In the SE corner of the excavated square, there was a concentration of grave goods with no associated human remains (Burial 12). In three instances, grave pits had cut one another (Burials 3, 9 and 14; 4 and 5; 6, 11 and 13). Some bones and accompanying artefacts had been exposed by the wind, and were visible on the surface. However, most skeletons were deposited in pits between 60-80 cm below the present surface.

Seven graves (Burials 1, 3, 5, 8, 9, 11 and 14) contained single primary inhumations. In these cases, all skeletons had been placed in a flexed position on their right side, with the hands, more or less, positioned in front of their face; all were oriented west and facing south. In some instances, remains of a kind of container made of plant plaitwork were visible; its apparent function was to envelope the body. Five graves contained single or multiple secondary inhumations (Burials 2, 4, 7, 10 and 13). In the case of Burial 2, five adult individuals of both sexes were interred in a small, common pit. …