Geophysical and Palynological Investigations of the Tell El Dabaa Archaeological Site, Nile Delta, Egypt

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The site of Tell El Dabaa, located in the northeastern Nile Delta (FIGURE 1), has been known since 1885. This part of the Nile Delta is generally characterized by a low alluvial plain with southwest-northeast trending belts of higher ground known as geziras (Arabic: sand-islands) and archaeological sites known as tells which are accumulations of ancient settlement debris (FIGURE 2). Excavations at the site have been conducted since 1966 (Bietak 1996). Tell El Dabaa is connected with the capital Avaris lying below deposits of silt and modern cultivation. Excavations yielded information about the gradual settling of Asian immigrants in the Delta under the so-called Hyksos, foreign rulers who held sway for over a century during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BC, Davies & Friedman 1998). The Hyksos had forged a strong power-base in the northeast Delta, an area of great strategic importance. From this stronghold they were well-placed to control the lucrative trade routes, by land and by sea, with the Near East and the Mediterranean world. The Tell El Dabaa site is also identified with the site of Piramesse, the Delta residence of the 19th Dynasty and biblical town of Ramses.


Although the work of Bietak (1975) at Tell El Dabaa has brought modern archaeological techniques to the Nile Delta, there has been little consideration of the associated sedimentary or environmental contexts. By the time that Bietak began work at the Delta site of Tell Ibrahim Awad in 1988, the project had embraced a suite of scientific approaches to archaeological inquiry (Van den Brink 1988), especially the study of plant macrofossils, sedimentology and animal bones (Van Zeist 1988; de Roller 1992; Andres & Wunderlich 1992). Fossil pollen was also investigated at the site (Bottema 1992), but in showing only a very sparse flora, it was perhaps suggestive of inadequate preservational conditions in a site that had suffered seriously from ploughing activities over the last two decades (Van den Brink 1992a; 1992b).

In non-archaeological contexts, five palynological studies have been published on the emerged Nile Delta and northern Egypt: Saad & Sami (1967) in the Berenbal region of the late Pleistocene and Holocene; Mehringer et al. (1979) at Birket Qarun in the last 325 years; Sneh et al. (1986) east of the Suez Canal, of Holocene age; Leroy (1992) on the Upper Holocene sediments of the eastern Nile Delta; and Ritchie (1986) at Dakhleh Oasis on modern pollen spectra. Some of these showed low pollen concentrations, which could indicate the difficulties of working with some of the deltaic deposits. There is also a study of modern pollen rain compared to the evidence from short alluvial profiles (Ayyad et al. 1992).

The archaeological importance of the Nile Delta does not require elaboration, but the lack of palynological research into the deposits is truly astonishing given the potential of pollen analysis to reveal so much about environmental and economic conditions through time (cf. Moore et al. 1991). There is a pollen study by Ayyad et al. (1991) which examines the pollen content of three samples taken from mudbricks at the Giza Pyramid area, but it is limited in the amount of agricultural information that it was able to provide.

There remains a surprising lack of knowledge concerning the detailed subsurface environmental history of the Nile Delta during the Quaternary period, and especially the impact of prehistoric and historic communities upon early environments. Palynology is a key approach to the appreciation of such issues, but the utility of deposits for palynological research is largely un-assessed. We present a preliminary investigation of deposits close to the Tell El Dabaa archaeological site, with a focus upon the utility of the deposits for pollen-based study. It seems appropriate, however, to precede the palynological deliberations with a geophysically based report on the near-surface conditions of the area. …