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Black rat (left) and Nile rat (right): their interaction perhaps a significant factor in the history of disease in Egypt.

Environmental History

Archaeological sites preserve traces of the natural world in which the people of the time lived, elements of which they often found useful as commodities. Evidence of this kind is a valuable supplement in filling out the picture of ancient life. It can also contribute to the reconstruction of climatic conditions and to climate change. It covers vegetation, thus actual plant remains (including wood, roots and leaves), resin, and charcoal; animals and insects. The record is always bound to be partial and different types of site preserve evidence differently. The dryness of the desert can preserve organic material very well, yet deserts are also home to tiny forms of life, amongst them termites, which scavenge and feed off such materials. It is noticeable at Amarna that the parts of the site most distant from the river (notably the Workmen’s Village and Stone Village) are richer in organic remains, presumably because they are more inhospitable to scavengers.

Although most of the deposits excavated derive from the Amarna Period, the Late Roman/Christian sites (especially the monastery at Kom el-Nana) have also contributed significant amounts. Thus we have material from two ancient periods, separated by around two thousand years. A further gap of thirteen centuries brings us to the present and the possibility of making comparisons with species of flora and fauna that occupy the present landscape.

Bones are perhaps the most robust category of organic debris. Their study has much in common with the study of human bones from cemeteries. On this web-site both are included in a separate section entitled Recent Projects/Faunal and Human Remains.

Since the expedition began a number of specialists have worked on various categories of material that can be conveniently classified as ‘environmental’. These are:

  • Plant remains (including wood specimens). Mostly they derive from species of direct use, especially for food. These are primarily cereal crops (that lead to a study of ancient baking and brewing practice) and flax, the raw material of the ancient linen industry;
  • Charcoal from trees and shrubs that contributes to a picture of the range of species present and available for use;
  • Insects, including those that live closely with human communities, some of them scavengers, others communicating disease.

Their studies have led to numerous publications that are listed in the section entitled Publications/Environmental History.

It is intended that future updates will bring in more summaries of work done. For the present this section contains a summary of a study of organic residues that has contributed significantly to our understanding of the ancient trade in resin and incense.


Website first posted September 2000; last updated October 2017 | enquiries concerning website: email bjk2@cam.ac.uk