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The dynamics of a riverine civilization: A
geoarchaeological perspective on the Nile
Valley, Egypt
Fekri A. Hassan a
a Institute of Archaeology, University College, London
Published online: 15 Jul 2010.

To cite this article: Fekri A. Hassan (1997): The dynamics of a riverine civilization: A geoarchaeological
perspective on the Nile Valley, Egypt, World Archaeology, 29:1, 51-74

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Page 2

The dynamics of a riverine
civilization: a geoarchaeological
perspective on the Nile Valley, Egypt

Fekri A. Hassan

Abstract

Egyptian civilization depended on the bounty of the River Nile. Frequent fluctuations in the height
of summer floods influenced both floodplain geomorphology and the area cultivated. Thus agri-
cultural yield oscillated as a function of pronounced interannual variability, as well as episodic vari-
ations in response to abrupt climatic changes in the watershed of the Nile tributaries. This situation
also created a dynamic landscape and a variety of cultural responses depending on the specific cul-
tural-historical circumstances. The aggradation of the floodplain has also influenced the recovery of
archaeological remains. Predynastic settlement sites in the Delta are 4-6m below the surface and
Graeco-Roman settlements are l-2m deep. Subsidence of the Delta and sea-level change were
responsible for pronounced changes in the geomorphology of the Delta, the distribution of water-
ways and hence trade.

Keywords

Egypt; rivers; Nile; geoarchaeology; Delta; floods; floodplain.

The archaeology of a riverine civilization: on theory and method

On the banks of some of the great rivers of the world, in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and
China, humanity undertook a leap into a new dimension of social relations, embarking on
a journey that led to a world that contrasted radically with that of foragers and hunters.
In that sense, riverine agriculture was an enabling force providing humanity with the
means to alter nature and mobilize enormous resources for achievements in art and intel-
lectual pursuits. The potential for food producers to generate much more food than was
needed for their subsistence enabled the emergence of full-time managers and craft
specialists who could devote their time and energy not only to assisting in minimizing agri-
cultural failures and keeping settled, large groups together, but also to exploring in depth
the intellectual and artistic domains of the human mind.

World Archaeology Vol. 29(1): 51-74 Riverine Archaeology
© Routledge 1997 0043-8243

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A geoarchaeological perspective on the Nile Valley 61

IMBABA

DOKKI

O/Î.\6ÏZËRË'T.%:!:"

GIZA

Figure 3 Map showing the effect of the movement of the channel near Cairo in response to low
floods from AD 930 to 1070 and from 1180 to 1350. Major additions to Cairo land area appeared in
AD 942,1252,1272 and 1281.

geomorphology. The emergence of mediators to resolve conflicts probably developed
eventually into an organizational structure that served as an element in the making of
early states.

An example of the dramatic changes in floodplain geomorphology is provided by the
changes in the Cairo area (Raymond 1993; Museilhy 1988) mostly between AD 942 and
1281, coincident primarily with the major episodes of low Nile floods (AD 930-1070 and
1180-1350). Large areas of Cairo today (the north-western region) were not in existence
before the Nile shifted westward (Fig. 3).

The gradient of the river (about 1:10,000 to 1:15,000) controls the flow of floodwater over
the floodplain from south to north; in historical times this required a coordination of activi-
ties between communities to control the flow of water downstream by the building of arti-
ficial dykes, which could then be opened to release floodwater down stream. Floodwater
could also be diverted to side channels from which feeder canals might be extended to the
uplands. The continued build-up of the floodplain may deprive outer parts of the floodplain

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Page 13

62 Fekri A. Hassan

of water. Episodes of low Nile flood discharge may also have the same effect, and the
combination of the two can be disturbing.

Nile navigation: the unification of Egypt

The development of Egyptian civilization would not have been possible without riverine
navigation. It was fortunate that the Nile flowed from south to north with an average
speed of four knots (about 7.4km per hour) during the season of inundation. The trip from
Thebes to Cairo, a distance of 900km by the Nile would thus have been travelled in
approximately two weeks. Travelling at night was in general avoided because of shallow
sand islands. By contrast, during the season of drought when the water level was low, the
speed of the current was much slower (about 1 knot) and the same trip would have taken
at least two months. The trip from north to south would have been extremely slow except
when sails were developed to take advantage of the northerly and north-westerly winds
blowing off the Mediterranean. The bend near Qena, where the Nile flows from east to
west and then back from west to east, considerably slows down riverine travel. This in fact
marks a geographic discontinuity which separates the Thebaid region from the region to
the north. Sails were probably first invented during the late Nagada II, approximately
3400-3300 BC or immediately thereafter (Vinson 1994:16).

Navigation in the Nile Valley was faster during the inundation because the water was
on average about 7.5 to 10m deep. In Upper Egypt, the water during the low Nile level
season (with a minimum in June) was no more than 2m in Aswan compared with 5.3m
near Cairo.

By Nagada II (maybe earlier?), the Egyptians also transformed their boats from
bundles of reed into big ships constructed from wood planks. The boats depicted in pet-
roglyphs suggest that some were over 15m long with a crew of thirty-two men (Vinson
1994:14-16). Boats with numerous oars were already known during Nagada I (3800 BC)
and clay models of boats were found at Merimde Beni Salama in the Delta dating to the
fifth millennium BP.

In the First Dynasty (c. 3000 BC) boat pits at Abydos reveal a fleet of twelve boats
between 15 and 18m long. Pits and remnants of boats are also recorded from the ceme-
teries at Helwan, Saqqara and Tarkhan (Vinson 1994). One of the most impressive find-
ings is the boat recovered from a pit adjacent to the Pyramid of Khufu. The boat now
reconstructed and on display is 43.3m long. Sailing boats from the Fifth Dynasty
(2510-2460 BC) were already seaworthy (ibid.).

From the earliest times, boats were used to transport people between villages during
the inundation, ferry across the channel and haul cattle, grain and other substances from
one place to another. They were also used in military campaigns. Boats thus played a
major role in unifying the country. Besides the donkey, which was used for overland trans-
port, boats made possible the economic integration of the country. Food from one district
could be delivered to another struck by famine. Food stored from several districts in a
central granary could be used to secure the welfare of people in the region. The emer-
gence of kingship in Egypt might have been linked with coordinating the collection of
grain and relief activities as the most viable strategy to cope with unpredictable crop

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Page 24

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