Review of The Survey of Memphis II. Kom Rabi’a: the New Kingdom and Post-New Kingdom Objects, by Lisa Giddy.

Eras Journal – Stevens, A: Review of “the Survey of Memphis Ii. Kom Rabi’a: The New Kingdom and Post-New Kingdom Objects”, Lisa Giddy

Lisa Giddy ,The Survey of Memphis Ii. Kom Rabi’a: The New Kingdom and Post-New Kingdom ObjectsEgypt Exploration Society, London, 1999.Isbn 0-85698-147-8.

Whilst the important role of settlement sites in the study of Ancient Egyptian society is now widely recognised, there remain significant problems with the artifact records from such sites, particularly those of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1070 BCE). The artifact assemblages of settlements excavated by earlier generations of archaeologists are generally flawed by methods of excavation, recording and publication that are inadequate in relation to current standards. The artifact records of major settlement sites such as Deir el-Medina and Gurob have been thus affected. The object records of some sites, such as the settlement of Sesebi in Nubia, simply remain largely unpublished. Work at sites such as Tell el-Dab’a, Deir el-Ballas and Amarna has provided, and continues to provide, significant additions to the artifact record. Some material from these sites has appeared in excavation reports, but we await further publications. As such, Lisa Giddy’s recent report on the objects from Kom Rabi’a is an important addition to the corpus of publications of artifacts from Egyptian settlement sites.

Kom Rabi’a itself comprises an area of settlement located in the vicinity of the temple of Ptah at the ancient capital of Memphis. Excavations have exposed houses dating from the late Middle Kingdom to the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1780-712 BCE). Those of the New Kingdom and later appear to be the habitations of ‘relatively humble’ members of the community. The volume under review incorporates the objects recovered from contexts dating from the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1550 BCE) onwards, with the earlier finds reserved for future publication.

The report is arranged according to general categories of object, and incorporates material ranging from jewellery and small amulets, figurines and models, household items and fittings, tools and instruments, non-ceramic vessels, and architectural and sculptural fragments. An introduction to each object class is provided, along with a general discussion of shape, material, method of manufacture, provenance, date, parallel material and significance. Many artifacts are then discussed in detail in an individual catalogue entry, although the information regarding finds such as beads is provided in tabular form. An effort has been made to illustrate the majority of objects, or object types.

The primary aim of any excavation report must be simply to communicate a quantity of technical information clearly to the intended audience, in this case largely an academic one. The Kom Rabi’a volume achieves this. The technical information regarding the shape, material and manufacture of the object classes is detailed, yet concise. Information regarding the dates of the contexts in which the material was found is readily accessible, and enhanced by comprehensive indices listing each object, along with the deposit in which it was excavated. It should be noted that only general information regarding the nature of specific find contexts of individual objects is provided. The large quantity of artifacts recovered prompted the decision to publish them separately. As a result, the volume is not self-contained, and we await the publication of the general excavation report to provide further details regarding find contexts.

However, the sections incorporating comparative material and discussions of the significance of the objects are also noteworthy. Giddy has recognised gaps in the knowledge of many categories of artifact, and has taken the opportunity both to present useful overviews of relevant parallels and to posit new interpretations of the function and significance of the material. The discussion of male figurines (pp. 43-49), a category of artifact that has received relatively little attention, illustrates this. Although the publication does not allow scope for elaboration of new interpretations, it adds to the scholarly dialogue and opens avenues for further research.

Giddy (p. 8) notes, however, that these discussions should be considered preliminary forays only. This point should be stressed, as it is in these sections that the shortcomings of current knowledge of some categories of artifact are displayed. This is illustrated in the discussion of pottery cobra figurines. Giddy (pp. 17-18) cites a small number of parallels from Amarna and Deir el-Medina, but concludes that free-standing cobra figurines have been found only rarely in Egypt, with the closest parallels originating from the Sinai and Syria. In fact, over 100 fragmentary pottery cobra figures were found at Amarna, some of which may have been attached to vessels, but many of which are likely to have been free-standing figurines. Many of these remain unpublished, and the author cannot be expected to have known of them. To these can be added pottery cobra figurines from New Kingdom burials at Abydos, in D. Randall-MacIver and A. C. Mace, El Amrah and Abydos 1899-1901 (London, 1902, p. 91, pl. LI) and those published only recently from Saqqara, in K. Sowada, T. Callaghan, T. and P. Bentley, The Teti Cemetery at Saqqara. Volume IV. Minor Burials and Other Material (Warminster, 1999, p. 13, pls 6, 35). Similarly, a note is required of the publication of a small, hand-modelled clay artifact as an ‘unidentified object’ (pp. 333-334). Giddy observes that similar objects have been excavated at Kahun, Amarna and Deir el-Medina, but does not recognise their form and significance. These appear, in fact, to be plaques in the form of rudimentary female figures, and may provide further evidence of the significance of human fertility in domestic cult.

The importance of the volume as a collection of data is certainly not diminished however, and as Giddy (p. 11) notes, the Kom Rabi’a volume now needs to be used. The material is obviously of value for studies of areas such as domestic industry, social relations, domestic cult and living conditions at Kom Rabi’a itself. Moreover, this publication provides a corpus of material that serves as a point of comparison for studies of the artifact records of other sites, and for evaluating the material from earlier excavations. Comparative research that incorporates the Kom Rabi’a data is already underway. Ian Shaw’s recent study, ‘Egyptian Patterns of Urbanism: A Comparison of Three New Kingdom Settlement Sites’ in C. Eyre (ed.), Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists(Leuven, 1998, pp. 1049-1060), for example, incorporates data from Kom Rabi’a, Malkata Site J and the Amarna ‘Workmen’s Village’ to assess the similarities and differences in the artifact assemblages of these residential areas, and the subsequent implications for understanding of the activities that occurred at each site.

In using the Kom Rabi’a data for comparative purposes, it is important to recognise it as the remnants of activities undertaken by citizens apparently of relatively low socio-economic status, who were possibly reliant on a degree of institutional support, living in a large urban centre in close proximity to major cult complexes. It would be unreasonable to expect either Kom Rabi’a or any other settlement site to provide a ‘typical’ domestic assemblage. In effect, the volume highlights the potential diversity of settlement contexts and the amount of further work that is required to provide material from a wider range of settlement sites, in order that greater use can be made of this component of the archaeological record. As such, this publication is a highly welcome contribution.

Anna Stevens.
Centre for Archaeology and Ancient History, School of Historical Studies, Monash University.