Reconstructing Egyptian History with Archaeology Excavation Techniques

From the lecture series: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Although no written records exist of Egyptian prehistory, historians can use several archaeology excavation techniques to construct a reasonable timeline, as well as to discover what life was like for Egypt’s earliest inhabitants. These methods include studying pottery remains, as well as carbon dating, and stratigraphy.

Archaeological site near the temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahri.
Archaeological site near the temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahri located on the western bank of the Nile (Image: Olha Solodenko/Shutterstock).

Development of Civilization in Neolithic Art

The last stage of Egyptian prehistory, meaning before writing, is known as the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age. Evidence shows people forming settlements and transitioning away from a nomadic lifestyle for the first time in this region.

The Neolithic people developed organized communities with the division of labor, engaged in politics, and buried their dead.

Early Egyptians also carved slate palettes, which have flat surfaces for grinding cosmetics. But they carved the palettes in the shapes of animals—sometimes whimsical animals—a hippopotamus or a turtle.

This is a sign that perhaps life had gotten a little easier. The creation of art and leisure demonstrates these were people who care about the finer things in life.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Female Figure, ca. 3500-3400 B.C.E. Terracotta, painted, 11 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. Brooklyn Museum
An example of a figurine made out of clay by Neolithic people ca. 3500-3400 B.C.E. (Image: unknown/Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 07.447.505./Public domain)

They also had small statues or figurines made out of clay, often in the shape of wide-hipped women. Historians suggest that these figurines were fertility symbols. While they could be, we have to be careful making judgments because we aren’t sure of their true purpose.

Egyptian Neolithic people began to decorate their cookware and ceramic vessels through creative decorations and methods of firing. One example was black-top pots, which are red, Nile clay pots with black rims.

Potters would take the finished pot and invert it in a fire to carbonize the rim. Decorations included incisions on the pots, as well as wavy lines to indicate the vessel was for water.

Later, pots were painted with animals and objects present in their environment, including ostriches, boats, and palm trees. The production of art and decoration shows these weren’t a people who were struggling to survive; the pottery rises to the level of culture, as opposed to pure subsistence.

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Dating Sites with Pottery

Pottery is crucial to an excavation. Pots do break, but the fragments remain forever in any kind of soil. But, because pottery is virtually indestructible, it gives clues about the development of civilization, allowing archaeologists to date a site. These clues are how we know what we know about Egypt.

Many of the findings in Egypt are largely the result of one man, Sir William Flinders Petrie.

Portrait of Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, 1903.
Many of the findings in Egypt are largely the result of one man, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie. (Image: The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology/Public domain).

Petrie wasn’t trained as an Egyptologist; Egyptology wasn’t a field of study in the 19th century when he started. He was a surveyor who went out to survey the pyramids, fell in love with Egypt, and excavated there for the next 70 years.

Petrie was searching for knowledge. He excavated in places that no one else wanted to excavate, places that weren’t promising, but had pieces of pottery. In his day, people at these sites were looking for treasure, gold, and statues.

Going to various sites, Petrie noticed the differences in the pots that he found. Over time, his observations helped him to learn the styles that developed and gave discernible clues for which site was earlier than another.

Let’s say you find one site with a typical undecorated water pot, while another site has pots with wavy lines and different sizes.

Same kind of pot, same shape, but with wavy lines, perhaps indicating it’s water. At another site, there is the same kind of pot, with wavy lines but it also has handles, suggesting an advanced technique.

Petrie realized that artifacts ranged from simple designs to complex ones. We can use pottery to date a site by whether it’s complex or simple, all due to Sir Flinders Petrie.

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Pottery is crucial to prehistorians where there is no written record. This method is called relative dating. We don’t know exactly how old the object is, but we know it dates earlier than the other site.

Using Stratigraphy and Carbon-14 Dating

Another means of determining a relative date is called stratigraphy, or dating by layers in an excavated site. Usually, people don’t move. People in a village live then die, the next generation arrives, and the site builds up; it gets higher and higher as people build newer houses on top of the older structures.

This is what we call a tel, essentially a mound. When you go to a village and you see a tel, you know the earliest occupation and the oldest sites are at the bottom of the tel.

During excavation, archaeologists are very careful to record the level they find something at, because each level reveals something new about that time. Stratigraphy, then, is an important part of archaeology for the prehistorian. But it doesn’t give us an absolute date.

Accelerator mass spectrometer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Measuring carbon-14 is now most commonly done with an accelerator mass spectrometer. (Image: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory- https://web.archive.org/web/20111015020236/https://bioams.llnl.gov/equipment.php/Public domain).

That’s where carbon-14 dating is used, as a relatively recent development. Carbon-14 dating is based on a principle that everything that’s alive or has lived absorbed carbon during its lifetime.

Every living thing has the same proportion of carbon-14—plants, animals, and humans. But when we die, it starts to decay and break down. Carbon-14, an unstable radioactive isotope, has a half-life of 5,730 years.

Archaeologists calculate the age of something based on the amount of carbon-14 remaining in a sample. This means that if there is one gram of carbon-14 and we wait for 5,730 years to pass, there will be half a gram. Wait for another 5,730, and there will be a quarter of a gram.

If we find some material in a dig that was once alive, maybe a tree used as a beam in a house, we can carbon-14 date it to get a rough approximation of when it died. Carbon-14 dating, then, is crucial in giving us a date for a prehistoric site.

But there are limitations. It won’t work for supernal things or things older than a certain age, such as past a million years old. Things that were never alive, like a stone, never took in carbon and cannot be dated.

Learn more about the difficulties of studying a prehistoric civilization

Because there are limitations, we have to be careful that we don’t use something that’s been reused. Someone may have taken a beam and reused it to construct their home, and the beam is 1,000 years older than the house. Dating items is a delicate task.

Paleobotanists and Paleozoologists

One other important technique in prehistory involves looking at ancient plants. On excavation sites, paleobotanists are people who can look at the pollen and tell you what plants were alive at the time they were buried.

They might even be able to figure out what season it was by what flower or plants were in a house when it collapsed.

Paleozoologists are the experts who can confirm from an animal bone, for instance, if a society domesticated animals. By looking carefully at a bone, you can examine the marks on it to determine if the animal was slaughtered or died of natural causes.

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Often the prehistorian uses a variety of experts—the ceramicist, paleobotanist, and paleozoologist—to reconstruct the earliest part of Egyptian history.

Common Questions About Archaeology Excavation Techniques

Q: What are the three methods of excavation?

The three methods of excavation are remote sensing (for instance, taking photos via drone), soil surveys, and walk-through or surface surveys.

Q: What methods do archaeologists use to find sites?

To locate sites, archaeologists can conduct surface surveys, which involve having groups of people travel over areas of land and marking any spots that look promising with a flag. They can also rely on technology such as Google’s satellite imagery and air balloons as an efficient method for locating sites.

Q: What is the process of excavation?

Excavation involves displacing rock or soil using tools, which can be as simple as a shovel or as complex as an explosive depending on the scale of the project. Excavation is used in archaeology and construction.

Q: What are the methods of archaeology?

It is the role of the archaeologist to unearth artifacts in a manner that minimizes damage, as reckless digging could cause harm both to the environment and the artifacts themselves. Archaeologists plan a dig carefully, creating topographical maps and a grid system that keeps track of artifact locations. Digging is done slowly and carefully. They also take care to avoid contaminating the artifacts they dig up.

This article was updated on November 6, 2019

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