Chickens in Africa: The Importance of Qasr Ibrim

Article excerpt

An articulated hen's skeleton, set under the doorway of a building at the celebrated desiccated site of Qasr Ibrim in Egyptian Nubia, is cause to look again at the flight of chickens into Africa.

This paper was submitted in honour of Dr Juliet Clutton-Brock of the British Museum (Natural History).


The introduction of the chicken into Egypt and its use, whether ritual or alimentary, has remained a subject of active supposition over the past 70 years (cf. Carter 1923; Zeuner 1963; Darby et al. 1977; Houlihan 1986). Ongoing excavations in Egypt stand to provide important archaeozoological data which may clarify the development of the chicken as an important economic, and perhaps symbolic, resource in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. In Nubia, the site of Qasr Ibrim (FIGURE 1) has already shown significant changes in agricultural regimes during the first half of the 1st millennium AD. Preliminary work by Rowley-Conwy (1989a) suggests that the later Meroitic and post-Meroitic periods (c. AD 1--550) witness the first appearance of a number of tropical African crops in Nubia, as well as the spread southwards from Egypt of new types of wheat. These agricultural innovations would seem to reflect more wide-ranging contacts between the Lower Nile Valley, Central Sudan, and, indeed, other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Within this context, the discovery of chicken remains at Qasr Ibrim is of particular interest.


Archaeological context

Qasr Ibrim was an important Nubian settlement from at least the early 1st millennium BC until the 19th century AD. A programme of excavations, sponsored by the Egyptian Exploration Society, has continued at the site since the early 1960s. During the 1992 season, work concentrated on a complex of Post-Meroitic rooms, X-265 (previously X-29) lying on the east side of Magazine Street at the south end of a range of buildings adjoining Tavern Street (Plumley et al. 1976: 34--5, figure B). Here, as elsewhere at the site, preservation of organic materials is phenomenal due to extreme aridity. During the excavation of the primary floor of Room 8 on the west side of this complex, a semiarticulated cluster of bird bones was recovered sealed within the packed mud floor of the room, just inside the doorway. While faunal samples from previous seasons have yet to be systematically analysed, preliminary work has indicated that bird bones are uncommon in the site's faunal assemblage during this period (Rowley-Conwy 1989b). The condition and arrangement of the bones suggested careful deposition. The highly comminuted nature of the sub-floor deposits relating to an earlier plaza makes it almost inconceivable that these intact bones from a single individual were included by chance in the floor make-up. Furthermore, on the north side of the doorway underlying the door jamb, a large group of feathers had been deposited. The taxonomic affiliation of these feathers has yet to be assessed, but they may well pertain to the near-by skeleton. The notion of a 'ritual' deposit was supported by the discovery of part of a copper-alloy anthropomorphic statue and a number of liquid-soaked textile fragments built into the room's stone walls. Comparable bundles of liquid-soaked cloth, possibly some form of votive offering, had been found in contexts of similar date within one of the late temples on the site during 1986 (Driskell et al. 1989: 27--8). Architectural analysis of the building indicates that this room was a late addition to the core structure, which is consistent with preliminary ceramic studies, which also suggest a relatively late Post-Meroitic ('X-Group') date, probably in the late 5th century AD.

The fowl

The remains recovered were those of a single individual. The bones were well preserved, with very little breakage, and some skin and ligaments still adhering to the tarsometatarsi. A knotted piece of plant fibre, found in association with the remains, may have been used to bind the legs. …