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In 1997 the Egypt Exploration Society began a survey project at the ancient city of Sais in the western Egyptian delta. The aim of the survey was to record standing monuments, produce an archaeological map of the site and assess the viability of future work there. The site lies at the modern village of Sa el-Hagar which still retains the ancient city name ‘Sa’. The city was the centre of the cult of the huntress goddess Neith and was possibly the centre of a Lower Egyptian kingdom in Predynastic-Early Dynastic times c. 3100 BC. In the 7th and 6th centuries BC Sais was the capital city of the whole of Egypt. Its kings refounded the temples of the gods of the city, built palaces and administrative buildings and were buried there. This was also the first time that Egypt had so completely been dominated by a westward-looking dynasty of kings, to the extent that they hired Greek mercenaries to fight for them and further opened up trade with the western Mediterranean. The Greek historian Herodotus visited the city on his visit to Egypt around 450 BC and wrote an impressive description of the splendour of the royal city. However, after visits by 19th-century explorers, the site has proved to be an archaeological disappointment, with only a few rescue excavations conducted in the area over the past 150 years.

Previous Work

The 1997-1998 EES survey established that there are two main archaeological areas at Sais. The first of these is a Northern Enclosure about 1km to the north of the village, comprising the last vestiges of an enclosure wall about 750 by 700m in area and containing two protected areas of antiquities called Kom Rebwa. These low mounds seemed to be the remains of mud brick buildings recorded as still standing in the 19th century. The second area lies just to the north of the village and is the ‘Great Pit’ containing a few granite blocks, limestone monumental remains and excavated mud brick structures.

Following successful completion of the topographical survey and an encouraging trial with a magnetometer, it was decided to obtain environmental and other data by beginning a series of drill cores across the site. In 1999 and 2000 this work resulted in 53 cores being taken at the site, as a result of which some small scale excavations were begun in 2000.

The Drill Core Survey

Full analysis of the results of the survey have not been completed, but the preliminary findings suggest future avenues of enquiry. The modern course of the Rosetta Branch of the River Nile lies about 2km away from the village of Sa el-Hagar and the site. It forms a huge westward bend away from the town, but inside the bend are clear levees or artificial dykes closer to the settled areas. They suggested that the river has moved westward over time and, in fact, is still doing so. The drill cores clearly showed that the river channel had changed and that it might once have run almost beside the site. Further, the drills also picked up evidence for a possible buried sand island (or gezira) lying on the western side of the village. The gezira seems to be lying at an oblique angle north-west to south under the present village and out to the western side of the archaeological areas. In Predynastic times, gezira were the focus for settlement in the delta, as they provided high ground above the level of the annual inundation. Over time many of the islands were buried by alluvial mud, but this area could have been the first settled part of the site. One of the drill cores from the west side of the Great Pit brought up pottery from 7m below the ground surface (approximately 8m below sea level), of which some was black topped and some was burnished, suggesting a possible prehistoric date. In 2000 we dug a small test trench in this area to ascertain whether it was possible to retrieve material from beneath the water table, as has been done elsewhere in Egypt. In the end we were thwarted at a depth of 3m by the sandy matrix and by a broken water pump. However the sand also contained pottery, lithics and bone which is Pre-Early Dynastic in date (c. 3100 BC). This suggests that the original pottery from the drill augur is older and possibly of Buto-Maadi culture date around 3500 BC. However the contexts in which both sets of material were found are not clear. The excavated material may have come from a river deposit against a shore or beach at the side of the gezira, and in this case may not have originated at Sais. There are clearly important questions still to be answered and as this area is earmarked for building development, further excavation is planned here in 2001.

The drill core survey picked up human cultural material in the form of pottery and burnt brick from various places around the site itself, suggesting that there are other archaeological zones beyond the limits of our original survey. A magnetometer sweep in a field between the Pit and Enclosure in 1998 had indeed picked up substantial walls of a large building. The drill core survey confirmed that they were of limestone and that the soil contained stone fragments from the destruction of a monumental building some 3m below the surface. In one of the areas to the west it is possible that there may be a harbour for the city and to the north-east of the site there is a small village called Kawady which seems to have been the site of a satellite necropolis from the Late period onwards.

In the North Enclosure, drill results from the ‘walls’ themselves could be interpreted as the last remaining 3m of foundation wall from the main enclosure. This area had many of its mud-brick buildings removed over the last two hundred years, for use as fertiliser on reclaimed agricultural land. However the drill cores showed substantial layers of destroyed pottery and stone up to 3m thick and often down to depths of about 7m below the modern ground surface. In field walking and the drill cores a few small sherds of Greek black gloss ware and one of East Greek pottery were also found, suggesting that comparisons with the relatively nearby Greek colony of Naukratis might be possible one day.

The drills also produced samples of soil for analysis which should give information about the plants which grew in the area in the past. Most interesting was a thick black, organic layer lying about 8-10m below the lowest ground surface (at sea level). In some places this layer was up to 80cm thick and may represent a thick peat level, perhaps the remains of the marshy reed beds of the prehistoric delta.

Excavation in Kom Rebwa

In order to obtain pottery for dating analysis and to assess the amount of structural data left behind at the site, a small test area was excavated in Kom Rebwa. The trench contained a large 5m wide wall running through it and on either side of the wall there were substantial amounts of pottery, some still in situ. On the west side of this wall were a number of pottery emplacements or cupboards where vessels had been left. Most distinctive among them were carinated bowls, tall pot stands and amphorae of early Saite date (early 7th century BC). However a fragment of Old Kingdom ‘Medum Bowl’ found here suggested that the interest of the Saite Egyptians in the earlier phases of their culture extended not just to high art, but even to some of the characteristic pottery types from almost fifteen hundred years earlier.

On the lower, eastern side of the wall, the remains of an earlier structure were identified underneath, with clear signs that the earlier building had been cleared away and that the material from it had been destroyed. Amongst patches of burning were found gold leaf attached to wood or cartonnage, some glass beads, a human tooth and a flint working area with blades and debitage. This earlier building had smaller walls about 0.5m thick and the chambers inside it had mud-tile flooring. Amongst the top layers of debris were also found fragments of many terracotta votive cobras, probably from a local cult of the cobra goddess Wadjyt. It seems that the later layers of material have been removed for the most part, leaving behind evidence for at least two main building phases in this area, which is most likely to represent the Saite palace complex.

Survey of Standing Monuments

It seems probable that the Saite palatial complex inside the North Enclosure was abandoned after the fall of the Saite kings and that the town contracted back to the original site near the modern village. In this area there are dumps of Roman pottery and a hellenistic bath-house, confirming the later development of the village. It is probable that the main cult temple of Neith with Osiris Hemag was located here, in the most ancient area. The limestone wall and granite blocks which survive in this area may be the last vestiges of the temple, and possibly come from its pylon at the front of the building. In this case the surviving wall suggests that it was of a comparable size to the temple complex at Karnak itself. The ‘Great Pit’ was quarried out at the end of the last century but the surface traces show areas of limestone chippings which are typical of destroyed monumental buildings in Egypt. There are also sandy patches which may derive from temple foundation sand-boxes and the remains of casemate foundations in this area. Numerous statues and blocks in museums all over the world testify to the reason why Sais was a magnet for collectors and antiquarians. A number of inscribed blocks and objects have been found in nearby villages or at the site and brought to the Police Office at Sa el-Hagar. They have been recorded by the EES survey along with mud brick walls excavated by the Supreme Council for Antiquities in the 1980s.

Future Work

The survey work has shown that, contrary to appearances, there is still much archaeology at Sais. Working on the material is not straightforward, however, because most of it is buried below several metres of alluvial mud and the groundwater level. Traditional techniques of archaeological excavation will be difficult and expensive. However, by using a combination of geophysical survey to locate underground material with drill augurs to ascertain the depth and nature of the material, some progress can be made. The fields are preserving the remnants of the city and its suburbs and at this point in time some progress can be made towards understanding the limits of the settlement and the buildings and satellite sites associated with it.

The most ancient part of the site, under the village, is perhaps more at risk from modern development for this will bring with it additional waste water seepage problems. However, again, using ‘pin-prick’ archaeology perhaps a key-hole into the Predynastic development at Sais can be obtained and the nature of the gezira settlement understood.

The most important player in the development of the settlement may, however, be the River Nile itself. Its fluctuating floods which created numerous channels of water must have been a constant problem for habitations and their occupants. Perhaps at some times the whole course of the river may have changed, sweeping away settlements and forcing the people there to move and settle nearby on new ground. This may be one of the explanations in Egyptian archaeology for the lack of material from certain periods at certain sites. It may also be a key factor in understanding the rise and fall of political power in the Egyptian State. Future work will be aimed at understanding how the Nile channels of the delta may have fashioned Egyptian history and how settlements such as Sais responded to the vagaries of the river.