The site of Kafr Hassan Dawood (KHD) is located slightly to the east of the Egyptian Delta. It is located in a dried-out tributary of the Nile called the Wadi Tumilat, which was once used as a trading route ("the Canal of the Pharaohs") between the Egyptians and their neighbors towards the coast.
In prehistoric times the whole area was extensively used by hunter gatherers, then gradually by agriculturists. These are among the earliest sedentary sites known anywhere, and are of huge importance in understanding the evolution of human society. The appearance of valuable items in some burials hints at the emergence of local elites, and also long-distance trading to Upper Egypt and the Middle East.
KHD is one of these important early sites, and is famous for having the largest Predynastic cemetery in the Delta area. Local Maadian groups saw more and more influence from the Naqadans of Upper Egypt from around 3500 BC. Egypt's unification under King Narmer c. 3150 BC may well have affected the site; finding out just how (and even if) this happened is a key aim of the KHD Research Project.
As a bioarchaologist I am fascinated by how actual humans were affected by the historical events through which they lived. Studying bones can give a more intimate look at real lives, and once we have profiled a population through time we can start to ask big questions about the nature of society, the roles of the sexes, and how statehood affected social structure.
KHD is the greatest site of its type in the Delta. It straddles prehistory to history, from the local culture of the Maadians to the new, unified Egypt of Narmer. Three thousand years later Late Period and Greek/Roman peoples came by, building temples and burying both humans and animals. The KHD burials are an invaluable and threatened resource, and we are doing all we can to rescue this valuable information before the site disappears
The area is susceptible to rising groundwater - which is detrimental to human skeletons/mummies - while development of agricultural land and rampant construction also poses a significant threat. This is our last chance to rescue vital data from the site, so we have to take urgent action. If you want to help the project, please visit the ECHO Website (Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation) and see what you can do.
The KHD Research Project was initiated in 2018 by Dr Geoffrey Tassie and Dr Lawrence Owens as a joint project with Ministry of Antiquities (MoA, now Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, MoTA) to be co-directed by Dr Lawrence Owens (University of Winchester) and Dr Rizq Diab (MoA/MoTA), with Dr Geoffrey Tassie as the project Deputy Director. Regrettably, Dr Tassie died suddenly in 2019 before the first season of the joint project took place. This joint project set in place an ambitious new programme of research to build upon the findings from the 1995-1999 seasons, to include mapping the extent of the cemetery, establishing its connection with the nearby settlement, examination of temporal trends in the cemetery's development, and an examination of biological and cultural change between the Late Predynastic to Early Dynastic periods.
The 'big picture' is to understand how society changed - if at all - when Egypt was unified by King Narmer in around 3150 BC, and the impact of the newly centralised administration at Memphis upon villages, towns, and people. We are also interested in how the site was used in later periods, notably by Late Period, Ptolemaic and Roman populations who buried both humans and animals here three thousand years later.
The 2019 season consisted of an exploratory programme with a small, core team to assess the archaeological area, and to consider what would be possible for our longer term research. We mapped in and opened up a series of 10 x 10m squares in the northern part of the western cemetery, near to the original excavation centre and abutting the edge of the historical Islamic cemetery. Workers from the nearby village, together with specialist archaeologists from Quft, cleared back several feet of sterile sand, before arriving at the ancient flood plain, a much muddier, darker horizon (caused by repeated Nile inundations) upon which the original inhabitants of KHD made their home. The ancient village is also nearby, but little is known about it at present, and it will be subject to future investigations.
In the 2019 season, we located a series of graves containing human remains and cultural artefacts. The dates are yet to be confirmed but all individuals seem to have been interred between about 3300 and 3000 BC. Most burials contained ceramic vessels, and some also contained offerings such as red, black and white stone beads that - judging from their positions in the graves - were probably necklaces and bracelets. The range of grave goods was not as extensive as the 1995-1999 seasons, suggesting internal differentiation – perhaps based upon status, or chronological phase – within the cemetery.
These were typically single interments, but several contained multiple individuals. What this means is uncertain – it may indicate familial ties, although the reuse of graves may reflect some form of social hierarchy or affinities. As with most burials dating from the Neolithic to the Early Dynastic period, the bodies were interred in a flexed or 'foetal' position, in oval, rectangular or circular graves: this accords with most of the human remains recovered from 1995-1999. Most individuals were buried with their heads facing towards the North, and their faces towards the East, although the presence of other variations may relate to the beliefs of the various groups within the KHD community.
Children were under-represented in the sample, as were males; while this may purely reflect the choice of trench location, it also seems possible that different ages and sexes received different treatment, and perhaps burial locale. The average adult age at death was in young adulthood - only two of the individuals recovered seemed older than 50 years of age. People were largely healthy insofar as we can see from bones; there were some slight markers of childhood stress, suggesting some form of hardship (such as illness or starvation) during development.
It is early days, but the cemetery has revealed a great deal of information already – more than we could have expected after a first season. While preservation is often less than perfect, enough remains to assess the population’s possible biological origin, as well as factors such as diet, activity levels and behaviour. The ceramologists and small finds specialists also have a great deal to work with, plotting artefact origin and function, and relating these to the individuals in the graves. We also have all the data from previous seasons to collate and combine with the 2019 findings, and once we have that it will make this the largest and best understood Predynastic cemetery site in the Delta area.
We can then use this formidable dataset to address the bigger questions: what were women's status or roles? Did they change through time? Who wielded power - locals or incomers? Did the village change over time? Did people get ill more or less often? Was this to do with diet or other factors? Did people die younger or older? Were childhoods more or less healthy? We can then compare our findings with funerary evidence from Lower and Upper Egypt, to contribute to the wider understanding of local/regional/supraregional health-related developments. All of these are important issues to be considered within research into the dynamics of the origins of the state.
As with all scientific enquiries, these initial investigations have led to many new questions.
We will keep you updated, so do visit the website again!
Geoffrey “Tass” Tassie came late to the field, yet by the time of his death he was known all over the world as a major force in Egyptian archaeology. He had been a noted celebrity hairdresser during what he called the ‘roaring 80s’, but while on holiday in Egypt in the early 90s he fell into a love affair with Egypt that was to possess him for the rest of his life. He did his Ph.D. research at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, focusing first on ancient Egyptian hairstyles then on the Predynastic period. He co-founded the Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation (ECHO), worked on numerous important sites, wrote dozens of major research articles, taught at SOAS and the University of Winchester, and carried out research at the Freie Universitat, Berlin. His reputation led him to a curatorial position at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, in charge of the world’s most important Predynastic and Early Dynastic archaeological collections.
I first met him in 1999, worked with him on various books and papers, excavated with him in Egypt, and was his housemate for the last eight years of his life. He was always the life and soul of every party, while becoming more and more engrossed in his subject, piling the house with heaps of books and papers, switching on his laptop at 7 in the morning, and falling asleep over it at 11 each night. Egyptology was his greatest love; in her service he drove himself on mercilessly, maybe too hard. By the time he died in Spring 2019 he was known all over the world not just for his academic abilities, but for his his tenacity, his intense loyalty, his kindness, and the quiet, unshakeable principles that lay beneath his perpetual joie de vivre. His friends and I are continuing his work as his favourite site – Kafr Hassan Dawood – and in running ECHO. He remains forever in our thoughts.
Geoffrey John Tassie: 1959-2019