Neolithic Faiyum

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2.6 The Faiyum Neolithic/Faiyumian (formerly Faiyum A)

2.6.1 Introduction


Lower Egypt

6480+/-179 – 5540+/-70BP

Faiyum Neolithic

5410+/-110 – 4820+/-100BP


The Faiyum Neolithic is important precisely because it represents the earliest known fully agricultural economy in Egypt, a fact captured in Caton-Thompson’s 1927 remark: “In the Fayum we were on the threshold of obtaining extensive vistas of fresh archaeological material, affecting wide areas” (Caton-Thompson 1927 p.336).  As Trigger warns, the sites are not necessarily Egypt’s oldest farming sites:  “the lack of geological deposits in the Nile Valley north of Aswan which can be dated to between 8000 and 5000BC hinders an understanding of the beginnings of a food-producing economy in this area . . . It has been pointed out, quite correctly, that there is no reason to believe that the Fayum A and Badarian cultures are necessarily the oldest food-producing cultures in this part of the Nile Valley” (Trigger 1983, p.15).  However, in the absence of other data, in both the Faiyum and southwestern Western Desert sites are amongst the most important early agricultural sites for a number of reasons:

  • First, they offer the potential to discuss the origins of agriculture in Egypt:  “The Fayum A unit is what remains of the socio-economic activities of the first groups of farmers who exploited the natural environments of the Oasis which lies in Northern Egypt, to the west of the Nile” (Krzyzaniak 1977, p.57). 
  • Second they may cast important light on the origins of agriculture in North East Africa: “the NE African archaeological record – including that of the Fayyum – may have been underrated as a resource for the general analysis of agricultural origins” (Wenke 1988 et al, p.29).  
  • Third, they may contribute to discussions around and attempts to create models of the nature adoption and spread of agriculture in general: “The Egyptian record offers important examples of independent evolution of domesticates and agricultural technologies that have much to offer for current models of agricultural origins (e.g. Henry 1989, McCorriston and Hole 1991) and for the determinants of spread (e.g. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981) of agricultural economies.” (Wenke 1991, p.291).


2.6.2 Survey and Excavation Work

The first Neolithic sites in the Faiyum were found by Caton-Thompson and Gardner to the north of Lake Qarun, and form the main body of information about the Faiyum Neolithic, supplemented by more recent and very valuable work by Wendorf and Schild in the 1970s (1976), Wenke and Hassan in the 1980s, and Ginter and Kozlowski also in the 1980s (1986).  As Caton-Thompson pointed out, before her 1924 and 1925 seasons so little was known about the lithic industries of the northern Faiyum that “the only certain and agreed fact about the implements is their dissimilarity to the flint tools and weapons of the Predynastic civilizations of the Nile Valley” (Caton-Thompson 1927, p.326).

Ginter and Kozlowski (1986) identified sites IX/81, X/81 and XI/81, which are the oldest Neolithic sites in the Faiyum (judging by radiocarbon dates) and VIIA/80, which is the most recent in the Faiyum (5990+/-95BP or around 5230+/-50 BC calibrated). Sites included hearths, lithics, pottery sherds and some grinding stones.  They were probably as seasonal camps, judging from the faunal remains.  At IX/81 sheep and goat were the most well represented faunal component, followed by cattle.  Turtle, crocodile, dorcas gazelle, Clarias and water-fowl are also represented.  At XI/81 there is evidence that the marsh vegetation had been burned, (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989, p.177) perhaps deliberately for consumption.

The main Faiyum Neolithic is represented by Caton-Thompson and Gardener’s discovery of a number of sites to the north of Lake Qarun.  The three main sites discovered are Koms W, K and M, of which W and K are the most important. Koms K and W, containing settlement remains, were separated by two areas of storage silos.  The settlement koms W and K were both dated to a Neolithic phase by artefacts which included flint tools (both bifacials and flakes), hammers, bone fragments, pottery sherds and shells.  Caton-Thompson described Kom W as the site that defined the Faiyum Neolithic: “This mound, some 600x400 feet in diameter, though by no means as prolific in proportion to its size, furnished enough material to place the enigmatical ‘Fayum industry’ at last in its true context; for, contained in its 5 feet or so deposit were found whole pots of the same rough-faced hand-made pottery whose sherds we had noted on surface sites” Caton-Thompson 1927, p.331).  The settlements themselves consisted of depressions, in some cases containing charcoal and/or jars.  248 depressions were found in Kom W and 60 in Kom K.  Kom W is the larger of the two sites, around 600m long.  The less frequently mentioned Kom M contained around 90 hearths in two concentrations, in which there were wide-mouthed vessels and nearby grinding stones.  One hearth was full of burnt fish bones (Krzyzaniak 1977, p.68).

The work by Wendorf and Schild (1976) helped to open up the geology of the Faiyum, clarifying the relationship between the former lake levels and the settlement sites.

The University of Rome 1966-1968 survey of the Faiyum identified a number of sites are gathered along the northern edge of the Faiyum depression and on the northeastern side of the shores of the present-day lake, named K-I, EK-I, IIK-I, SES-4. 

Wenke, in the 1980s extended the picture of the Neolithic in the Faiyum to the south west of the area with the discovery and excavation of site FS1.  His team spent eight months conducting surveys in the Faiyum “with the objectives of trying to understand the origins of the first occupants of the Fayyum as well as to determine when domesticated animals and plants were first used in the Oasis, where they had come from, in what kind of subsistence and settlement systems they functioned, and, generally why “agriculture” appeared in the Fayumian, when, where and in the forms that it did” (Wenke et al 1989, p.30).

2.6.3 Site Decoder

Different projects use different naming conventions, and for their own purposes sometimes rename existing sites using the new naming conventions.  This table lists sites which are known by other names.

Caton-Thompson and Gardner Site Name

Wendorf and Schild Site Name

Kom W


Site Z1


?Unnamed Faiyum B site at the north edge of “X-Basin”


Site R


In his 1989 article, Brewer (1989) mentions five different sites from which he derived samples but does not say which of the excavated sites they refer to.  These are best-guesses based on the map included in his article.

Brewer Site Name

Wenke Site Name

Caton-Thompson and Gardner

Site 1



Site 2


Kom W?

Site 3



Site 4



Site 5





2.6.4 Dating

As with the Qarunian it is important to get a clear picture of what is being suggested:




QSVII/80, QSVI/80, QSXII/80, QSVID/80, FS3?



Faiyum A

Kom W, Kom K (E29H2), Kom M, FS1, QSXI/81, QSIX/81, QSV/79,  QSI/79, QSVIE/81, QSIX/79, QSXI/79

The Faiyum A therefore has a range of around 900 years, the Moerian a shorter occupation.

The Early Neolithic is represented in the middle and upper levels of the Grey Hard Silt (GHS) and the lowest part of the overlying white sand silts complex (CWSS).  There is a temporal hiatus between the GHS occupation and the CWSS, however Kozlowski and Ginter (1989) believe that this can be explained by “heavy erosion of the top of the GHS formation which may have caused the destruction of sites originating from this temporal interval, and moreover may have created limited conditions for settlement in the northern part of the Faiyum depression” (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989, p.162).


2.6.4 The Northern Sites

Kom K and Kom W

Koms W and K (Wendorf’s E29H2) is now located 3m above the surrounding area and is located between two basins which were filled with water on a seasonal basis.  It was occupied during a period of slowly rising lake levels (Wendorf and Schild 1976, p.212). Most of the conclusions about lithics, ceramics and the economy come from Kom W and Kom K (Kom K was a smaller version of Kom W). Kom W was not a natural high point.  It has occurred recently due to deflation of surrounding sands and a protective covering of cultural artifacts.

Both of the sites were all well positioned to take advantage of the lakeside environment: “For their settlements the Fayum-A people selected sites in the lee of the low sandrock ‘buttes’ which ring the north shore of the lake, usually near an inlet or other indentation in the shoreline, where the fishing would have been good, and never very far from the level stretches of old lake bed upon which they grew their modest crops” (Hayes, 1964, 65, p.93). 

Although the lithic industry is subject to some controversy and needs further analysis (discussed in a moment) it represents a clear departure from the industries that preceded it. A mixture of tool forms are represented, all of them distinctive and showing a growing skill in the manufacture of stone tools.  There was “virtually infinite variety of concave-base arrowheads” (Holmes 1989, p.416) and many of the stone items were polished, or had polished edges.  Caton-Thompson suggested that the industry was largely bifacial but this has been disputed by recent studies of the material: “the picture of a bifacial lithic tradition that emerges from the studies undertaken by Caton-Thompson is muddied by the fact that she selected particular tools from an assemblage that is now known to be larger and more diverse” (Midant-Reynes 1992/2000 p.101)  Survey work by the University of Cracow (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989) is beginning to clarify the picture and indicates that rather than being a bifacial industry the Faiyum Neolithic is a flake-based industry which includes notches, denticulates, side scrapers, and retouched flakes, with bifacials playing a relatively minor role.   Anthony Cagle also points out that Caton-Thompson failed to collect debitage, which means that an entire part of the lithic record from Kom W has simply been ignored.

Techniques included:

  • Chipping
  • Pressure flaking
  • Grinding
  • Polishing

Raw materials included:

  • Limestone
  • Chert
  • Dolerite
  • Volcanic ash

Implements included:

  • Stone axes made from a variety of stones (over 40% of the industry)
  • Sickle blades for insertion into wooden hafts (next in frequency – there were 31 from Kom W)
  • Concave based arrowheads
  • Adzes
  • Bifacial arrowheads (17 concave-based and 6 angular from Kom W)
  • Leaf-shaped points
  • Blade tools
  • Microlithic component (mainly bladelets)

Pottery at both of the settlement sites is represented by five groups of coarsely made vessels all made of silt with a temper of chopped straw.  It was undecorated, red (occasionally black) and treated in any one of four different ways (red or black polished, unpolished with burnished slip, or rough faced).  The five groupings are made on typological grounds, describing the vessels in terms of shape:

  • Small bowls and cups
  • Cooking bowls and pots
  • Pedestalled cups
  • Cups with knobbed feet
  • Rectangular dishes with distinctive rims

These ceramics are all of a coarse low quality type.  No good quality ceramics were found.  This perhaps reflects a disposable character in the tool kit, which would be in keeping with a semi-permanent lifestyle.

Other artefacts from the settlement koms include pestles and mortars made of sandstone, palettes of diorite and limestone, polished bone objects, seashells, ostrich eggshells, pierced stone disks and amazonite beads.  Agricultural and craft components are represented by a number of artefacts: “Most of the groundstone implements found in Fayum A sites reflect the agricultural and craft components of the society and include milling stones for grinding grain, mortars, hammerstones, burnishers for polishing pottery and disc-shaped spindle whorls for weaving flax that was already grown in the area.  Ornamentation, although sparse by Upper Egyptian standards, is reflected by small pigment palettes and stone beads while a few fragmented stone bowls suggest the beginning of this craft in northern Egypt.” (Hoffman 1979, p.186).  In Upper Egypt, the practise of formalised burial was usually associated with grave goods, and personal possessions, including adornments, are often represented.  In the Faiyum Neolithic, there were no burials and therefore no gravegoods, and the known personal items are restricted to amazonite beads, sharks tooth pendants, amazonite beads, and beads made of ostrich eggshell and sea shells (all highly portable).

The granaries are represented by two zones that lie between the settlement koms, an upper and a lower site, each with silos and depressions for sunken pottery vessels.  In total there are 168 silos and 18 depressions.  They are of immense importance because they represent the first traces of cultivated plants in Egypt. The upper site has 67 depressions, 57 of which are covered with mats and straw.  They vary in size, the smallest being around 30cm in diameter to 30cm deep, the biggest being around 150cm diameter to 90cm deep. The lower granaries are 9m lower than the upper granaries and consist of 109 silos.  They are not as well preserved as the higher ones but are considered to be contemporary with them on the basis of numerous similarities.  The lower granaries were accompanied by 9 depressions designed to hold pottery vessels.

Caton-Thompson describes the silos of the granaries:  “It seems that these were prepared by first digging a circular hole of the desired size in the shelly gravel which capped the ridge:  a coating of wet mud was next applied to floor sides, serving not only to bind the loosely-consolidated deposits from crumbling in, but also as a retaining plaster for the straw lining;  this was evidently coiled up ‘in situ,’ floor and walls being made in one piece, fitting snugly into the circumference of the hole” (Caton-Thompson 1927, p.335). 

The silos sometimes contain mud-covered baskets, flint artefacts, sherds and/or shells and have produced a number of types of grain:  wheat (sometimes carbonized), barley (six-row, four-row and two-row) and traces of flax.  Other finds from the Upper  granaries include one boat-shaped basket filled with shells, three straw trays, a barrel-shaped basket, two sickles made of tamarisk containing three bifacial flints set into a central groove (“a wooden sickle 51.5cm in length with three saw-edged flints in position.  The flints are still firmly held in the groove cut to receive them  . . . by a dark glutinous substance” Caton-Thompson 1927, p.335), and pottery of the sort found in the koms.  The Lower granaries are 9m below the Upper granaries and contain 109 silos and 9 vessel depressions.

Plant remains include:

  • Wheat (some carbonized)
  • Barley (six-row, four-row and two-row)
  • Emmer-wheat
  • Flax (traces)

Animal remains include:

  • Domestic
    • Cattle
    • Sheep
    • Goats
    • pigs
    • dogs
  • Wild
    • elephant,
    • hippopotamus (possibly the most important of the hunted fauna),
    • crocodile,
    • turtle,
    • waterfowl,
    • snail (Helix desertorum),
    • fish (Nile perch and catfish)
    • freshwater mussels
    • Waterfowl
    • Lizard
    • Snake


Sites  E29G3, E29H1, and E29G1

Both E29H1 and E29G3 are stratified and “provide an indication of developmental changes through time within this industrial tradition” (Said et al 1970).  They share a number of features in their lithic industry:

  • High frequency of:
    • Backed blades
    • Bladelets
    • Microblades
  • Lower frequency of:
    • Retouched blades
    • Flakes
    • Notches
    • Denticulates
  • Fragments of grinders and grinding stones
  • Lack of endscrapers and burins

E29H2 is a site name referring to two small trenches dug into Caton-Thompson and Gardner’s Kom W.  The trenches were designed to clarify the stratigraphy of the site and produced several occupation layers (upper layers missing, probably due to erosion).  All layers contained handmade pottery with a fibre temper, simple rims, and both squared and rounded bases.  Lithics included examples of stone chipping as well as:

  • Thick flakes (notched and denticulated)
  • Bifacial tools on thin chert slabs
  • Bifacially flaked, stemmed and concave based arrowheads

Trench 1 consisted of at lest three cultural levels, the lowest of which gave a radiocarbon date of 3860BC+/-115 (I-4127).  Each occupation level was separated by “salt crusts, salt cementation and stratified lacustrine sands” (Wendorf and Schild 1976, p.212).  Trench 2 showed several cultural horizons.  Wendorf and Schild have suggested that the Trench 2 stratigraphy may cast light on the relationships between the lake levels and settlement sites: “These trenches show convincingly that Kom W was occupied during a period of rising sea levels.  It is possible that the locality might have been seasonally inundated and repeatedly reoccupied during low-water phases.  On the other hand, the site may have been flooded only during years of exceptionally high water, which might explain the occupants’ tenacity in staying at this particular place” (1976, p.212).

E29H1 is a large surface scatter of Neolithic artifacts surrounding an earlier Epipalaeolithic concentration “grinding stones and a very few potsherds, all heavily wind polished” (Wendorf and Schild 1976 p.182).

E29G3, dating to the recession of the Premoeris lake, features an extensive and dense concentration of lithics including bones and pottery set around 17 hearths in two to three clusters, located next to a seasonal pond.  It was the site of an earlier Epipalaeolithic occupation.  The ceramics were similar, but not identical, to those at Kom W and Kom K.  Lithics include large bifacials, and numerous concave based arrowheads. Bone tools include cylindrical double-pointed bone shafts.  Pottery included vessels that were generally smaller than at Koms W and K, sometimes tempered with fibre, sometimes with sand.  The single occupation floor was found in swamp sediment between two diatomites and suffered partial destruction and erosion by a fossil wadi.  Area B of the site (Caton Thompson and Gardner’s Site R) consists of two levels of occupation separated by lacustrine sands.  Wendorf and Schild believe that Faiyum Neolithic people were “no doubt attracted by the same feature of seasonal ponding that brought the earlier Terminal Palaeolithic group” (Wendorf and Schild 1976, p.211).

E29G1 has at least three and possibly four occupations and is similar to E29H1 but has a number of significant differences:

  • High frequency of:
    • Retouched blades
    • Notched blades
  • Lower frequency of:
    • Backed blades
  • Presence of:
    • Simple bone points
    • Harpoons of fish bone

Dates for E29G1 date the lowest level to 5150BC+/-130 (I-4128) and the highest level to 5190BC+/-120BC (I-4129).

“All of these settlements were accompanied by large quantities of fish bones and a few large mammal remains, indicating that these communities were mainly dependent on fishing” (Said et al 1970).


Qasr el-Sagha Sites

The Qasr el-Sagha sites surveyed by Kozlowski and Ginter (1989) have provided information about both the economy and the industry of the Faiyumian Neolithic and have contributed to building a much better picture of spatial organisation of the Faiyum Neolithic sites as a whole.

The main site is the rich QS IX/81, but all of the QS sites confirm to a basic homogenous pattern of artefact and subsistence remains. 

The lithics were made mainly from flint pebbles that occur naturally on the surface between Qasr el-Sagha and Gebel Qatrani.  Tools were prepared on small cores – most are single platform (used for producing flakes and blades) with only very few double platform cores represented.  Debitage consists of flakes.  Tools include:

  • Blades (3% of the industry)
  • Flakes with distinctive and differing methods of manufacture visible in the flakes’ scars of four main types:
    • Notched tools
    • Denticulated tools
    • Side scrapers
    • Retouched flakes
  • Retouched blades only in the uppermost level at QS I/79
  • The occasional bifacial tool (it is entirely likely that bifacial tools have been systematically looted)

Ceramics were mainly represented by sherds which could not be reconstructed to form vessels, so there is little information about the variety of forms and styles that were made. Those which could be identified include:

  • Bowls of various depths
  • Pots with hemispherical or spherical bellies, distinct necks and everted rims
  • Flat plates

There were clearly difference in the manufacture of pottery, and these variables include:

  • Mineral composition
  • Methods of manufacture
  • Firing temperature
  • Temper
    • Organic
    • Sand
    • Crushed rock
    • Shell fragments

Site IX/81 contained grinding stones, as did some of the other QS sites, indicating plant exploitation in the vicinity.  At site XI/81 there appears to have been a slaughter zone where hippopotamus was quartered.

All of the QS sites appear to have been periodically flooded and were abandoned at the end of the dry season, indicating a seasonal occupation based on exploitation of wild fauna and flora.

Near Qasr el-Sagha several Neolithic sites are located 60m above seal level near the Neolithic shoreline of the Lake:  “these sites seem to be the remains of villages whose economy must have depended heavily on water abundancy, necessary for agriculture” . . . . The mixed plant cultivation-pastoralism and the hunting-fishing-collecting economy is well reflected in the stone tool kit of the Fayum A sites:  this and other traits show the characteristics of a typical Neolithic society” (Casini 1984, p.203)


2.6.5 The South-western Sites

Wenke et al consciously aimed to open up the picture of the Faiyum Neolithic by searching for sites away from the previously studied northern Faiyum shore, by including the SW shore of the lake (Wenke et al 1988).  The survey found a number of sites which provided useful data about vegetation.  No sites earlier than the Ptolemaic were found in the area along the Pleistocene surfaces and early Holocene shore lines in the southern Depression: “Concerning the presence of Neolithic and Predynastic settlements, we walked long segments of the three ancient shore lines and found many isolated stone tools and occasional sherds that are probably of these early periods, but in our opinion, many of the Predynastic and Neolithic occupations here are buried under sediments of the great floods of the Old Kingdom. . . or under the several large Ptolemaic settlements and cemeteries in this area” (Wenke 1984,p.195). 

Wenke’s expedition, however, did locate FS1, a large and previously unreported Neolithic site located on the south-western side of the main gravel banks of the shore line, not far from Caton-Thompson and Gardner’s Site J.  FS1 covers at least 2 square miles and contains lithics, sherds, faunal remains and other debris in differing concentration and variability.  “Deflation in one area has disclosed what appear to about 30 ‘hut floors’ 1.5x1.5m ovoid-shaped concentrations of pebbles surrounded by dense concentrations of lithics, sherds, bones and other cultural debris, including grinding stones.  The pottery closely resembles that plain red wares of the Fayum A complex” (Wenke 1984, p.195).  No grain was found at the site, but sheep/goat and cattle were present as well as wild species including hippopotamus, fish, gazelle and hare.  By comparing the surface finds with records made by Caton–Thompson and Gardner, they believe that both the Qarunian and Faiyum Neolithic are represented and have been able to isolate the one from the other.

There is a great similarity between all the Neolithic sites although they span a thousand years. 


2.6.6 The Industry

Kozlowski and Ginter have overturned some of the long-held beliefs about the lithic industry of the Faiyum since carrying out extensive survey work near Qasr el-Sagha (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989).  One of their important conclusions was that Caton-Thompson’s characterisation of the industry as largely bifacial (1934) was incorrect, and was based on preferential selection – she appears to have collected bifacial tools and cores and neglected flake tools and debitage.  In their reconsideration of the Faiyum Neolithic Kozlowski and Ginter re-assessed material acquired from a number of sites including Caton-Thompson’s Kom W.  Their conclusions are that although there certainly was a bifacial component, the industry was dominated by flake tools.   New collections by them of flake implements from both Kom W and QS I/79 have been compared directly and show remarkable similarities in most areas:

Flake Typology Graph Neo

(Graph based on table in Kozlowski and Ginter 1989).

Their analysis of Faiyum Neolithic lithics and ceramics suggest that there was very little difference in lithics from different times over the 900 year span of the period:  “The Faiyumian can be perceived – at least on the evidence of material obtained so far – as a homogenous unit, typologically little differentiated” (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989, p.166).

These conclusions are given additional weight by similar findings by Wendorf and Schild (1976) from E29G3 and E29G2.

The body of evidence therefore points to a community who produced a large quantity of quickly-made and highly functional items to service their economy, with cruder tools, like flakes, used in great quantity for less specialised activities, and a much smaller finely worked bifacial component used to perform highly specific functions (e.g. bifacial arrowheads and sickle blades).  This was both a skilled and practical approach, showing efficient use of local resources to service the local agricultural and hunting economy.

Bone and ivory were used to make a variety of bone points and harpoons which were used for, amongst other things, fishing. Ceramics and Basketry

The pottery of the Faiyum Neolithic was very crude and had a distinctly disposable feel to it.  It was made of silt and tempered extensively with chopped straw.  There is never any decoration, although some vessels were polished on the exterior (red vessels more often than black).  Some were burnished.  This approach to pottery, which was either unskilled or reflected the disposable nature of this part of the industry, when considered in tandem with the lack of permanent settlement structures, lends weight to the suggestion that site were semi permanent.  In short, the pottery was functional, disposable and well suited for its purpose.

Basketry skills are well attested to from the Faiyum.  Both very fine and much cruder baskets were woven, some as stand-alone vessels, others as lining for silos. Overall

Overall the industry supports the view of a semi-permanent well-adapted community who were focused on subsistence activities rather than the promotion of social status and the creation of specialist goods.  It also, perhaps, suggests a much longer term ability to produce lithics, and a much less skilled and therefore more recent familiarity with pottery.


2.6.7 The Economy

Animal remains are poorly preserved as a whole in the Faiyum due to “weathering and diagenesis under desert conditions following fragmentation during butchery” (Gautier 1976, p.370).  Kom W, the main Neolithic site, provided cereal remains but few animal remains due to collection methods, but E29G3 provided a good sample of bone remains so there is a mixture of surviving remains providing evidence for subsistence activities.  The mixture of sites provide a view of a mixed type of existence during the Faiyum Neolithic.

Based on all the sites found so far, it is clear that the Faiyum Neolithic/Faiyum A economy was agricultural:  “The economic basis for these Lower Egyptian settlements was the cultivation of barley, emmer-wheat and flax.  Cattle, sheep, goats and pigs were kept, as were dogs.  Hunting and fishing continued to be practiced” (Phillipson 1993, p.136).  Stemler suggests that cultivation of grain was practiced “presumably by sowing seed along the receding margins of the lake at Fayum as the dry season progressed” (Stemler 1987, p505), while Krzyzaniak suggests that “they probably sowed the grain on narrow strips of land which were inundated by the annual fluctuations in the level of the waters of Lake Moeris . . . . Wheat and barley were cultivated and these grains were probably sown on mono-cultural plots, separately reaped and threshed and stored in separate containers” (Krzyzaniak 1977, p.58).   Wetterstrom (1993, 1995) makes the point that the plant component of the diet as represented in the archaeological record is probably skewed by variable survival of plant remains, because deliberately preserved and more durable species will have survived where more fragile species would not.

The sites were probably only semi-permanent, although it is possible that there was a division of responsibility, with one small element of the community remaining permanently to care for the agricultural investment while others were only semi-permanent.   Hassan (1980) sees that ecological circumstances and human responses to them as an essential factor in the process of change towards food production, which, however, did not immediately lead to a permanently sedentary existence:  “A seasonal congregation of populations during the fall-winter season was probably followed by breaking camp and dispersion of population in the form of small groups along the river.  With utilization of grain, a more stable source of food seems to have been secured, allowing for denser population in one area.  The collecting of grain would have coincided with the fall-winter season where food from other resources was also abundant.  Thus  . . . camps continued to be broken up seasonally” (p.438).  He suggests that this seasonal movement is the reason that larger social units did not develop at this time.  If this is so, there should be an indication in the archaeological record that sites of increasing size and complexity accompany an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

Kozlowski (1983) describes the Faiyum Neolithic as a mixed economy, an “agricultural-breeding economy, revealed only in large base camps such as Kom W, while the sites discovered in the Qasr el-Sagha region represent rather seasonal (dry season) specialisation based mainly on fishing” (Kozlowski 1983, p.70).

The botanist who contributed to Caton-Thompson and Gardener’s studies was of the opinion that around 400g of grain could be stored in each medium-sized granary, and on the basis of this Krzyzaniak calculates that the average granary “must have contained crops collected from plots of 0.5-0.6ha” (1977, p.58).   According to Hassan (1984, p.223) barley was the most dominant cereal under cultivation, at least 50% more important than wheat.  At Naqada barley represented 70.7% of the cultivated grain, and at Faiyum it represents 72.3%. In Kom K silos “the proportions of wheat and barley vary widely, with Silo 14, for example, being almost entirely barley, and Silo 34 containing 38% wheat” (Wenke et al 1988, p.39).

The domestic economy was supplemented by hunted animals:  “Younger sites are dominated by domestic animals, but game was still on the menu” (Gautier 1976, 378) including elephant, hippopotamus (possibly the most important of the hunted fauna), crocodile, turtle, waterfowl, snail (Helix desertorum), fish (Nile perch and catfish) and freshwater mussels.  It is clear that hunting played a considerable role: “While Fayum A people were clearly agriculturalists and may have kept domesticated animals, they appear to have remained dependent on hunting and fishing to a considerable degree (Trigger 1983, p.22). The fauna has yet to be examined in depth by modern analysis.  Brass believes that the combination of elements at Koms W and K suggest that “the inhabitants possessed a mixed pattern of subsistence and residential mobility, a combination of fully agricultural sedentary communities, nomadic herders and hunter-gatherers” (Brass 2003, p.2).  Economically speaking, “there is little to differentiate animal exploitation patterns in Qarunian and Neolithic times except for the addition of some sheep/goat and small quantities of cattle” (Wetterstrom 1993, 1995 p.208).  Sheep/goat is the most important of the domesticated animals, followed by a large type of cattle (Gautier 1976 p.378).  Gautier suggests that most of the ovicaprids were probably sheep and identifies the species as probably O.longipes palaeoegypticus  (Gautier 1976 p.378).  Although Caton-Thompson identifies pig remains, no pig remains were identified in either Wenke or Wendorf and Schild excavations.

Brewer’s analysis (1989) of four Faiyum Neolithic sites to the north of Lake Qarun show a predominance of domesticated flora and fauna supplemented partially by wild game and to a considerable degree by fish.  Only a very small number of wild water birds are represented at the four sites, but all of these were shallow water varieties, none of them open water species.  As with the Qarunian both shallow water and deep water strategies were exploited.  Of the shallow water varieties Clarias was by far the most favoured fish.  There are rather more deep water varieties represented in the Faiyum Neolithic rather than in the Qarunian sites analysed by Brewer (Lates and Synodontis).

Fish Pies

(Graphs compiled from data in Brewer’s 1989 lists for all four Faiyum Neolithic sites in his analysis)

As with the Qarunian, the skeletal growth rings on Clarias suggests that they were collected at two periods of the year – late spring/summer and summer/autumn, taking advantage of the spawning season and then the concentration of fish in shallow pools during low lake levels. 

Hoffman suggests, on the basis of the type of game that has been found that “at least a light forest cover of tamarisk trees and lesser undergrowth continued to thrive around the lake’s perimeter, providing the Fayum A peoples with a source of firewood to warm them in winter, cook their food, and bake their pottery” (Hoffman 1979, p.186). 

Wenke’s results at FS-1 have suggested some patterns of agricultural processing activities: “Although our excavations at FS-1 did not produce any remains of domestic cereals, the distribution of stone tools that might have been used to process these grains is interesting  . . . grinding slabs and sickle blades occur most frequently within a relatively narrow range of elevation and seem to be distributed mainly in areas with relatively low frequencies of other artifacts and animal bones.  It is quite possible that the distribution of these artefacts marks the areas where cereals were exploited . . . . Some of the grinding stones may mark areas of grain processing, and the sickle blades may reflect some episodes of blade manufacture and re-sharpening.  Since this area, which is at the far end of the lake, would receive very little waterborne silt from the Nile, it is possible that cereal cultivation was restricted to a fairly narrow topographic region, where the water table was sufficiently high that no artificial irrigation would have been necessary and where retreating lake waters uncovered land fertile enough and sufficiently moist to make cereal cultivation worth the effort” (Wenke et al 1988, p.39).  The tools at FS1 were very similar to those at Kom W but the food was different, with more wild animals, less domesticated animals and, as mentioned, no grain.

Gautier’s analysis of the Wendorf and Schild sites (1979) was based mainly on the E29 series of sites because very few remains were derived from the Caton-Thompson excavations due to collection methods. 

Krzyzaniak speculates on the usage of tools found at Kom W and other Faiyum Neolithic sites, as follows (1977):

  • Hafted sickle blades
    • Reaping
  • Curved wooden ticks of tamarisk up to 0.95m long
    • Threshing
  • Hammer stones
    • Removal of hard husks
    • Pounding dried meat
  • Querns
    • Grinding of grain
  • Bone harpoons
    • Fishing and hunting
  • Denticulated shells of Spatha calliaudli
    • Scaling fish?
  • Axes, bows, spears and maces
    • Tools
    • Weapons

No settlement structures were found at the biggest sites, Koms W and K, which is one of a number of factors that suggest that the sites were not occupied on a permanent basis.  All seems to point to short-term occupation.  “We did an extensive statistical analyses of the spatial distributions of pottery, animal bones and other debris, but there is little in their distribution to suggest anything other than temporary encampments of people who relied heavily on fish and hunted animals in addition to (presumably) domesticated sheep and goats” (Wenke et al 1988, p.46). 

It has therefore been speculated that these sites were probably seasonal ones (Trigger 1983, p.22), and it is one of the interesting features of the Faiyum Neolithic that early adopters of agriculture failed to live sedentary lifestyles.  The Faiyum “appears to follow quite a different pattern of evolution from other areas.  While forager-camps in the Nile Valley seem to have been transformed rather quickly into full-fledged farming communities, the Faiyum Neolithic people apparently remained mobile hunter-gatherers” (Wetterstrom 1993, 1995 p.203).  This may be partly because of the importance of hunting, and fluctuation in the productivity of agriculture: “The tentative steps towards the beginning of agricultural life at Kom W, and indeed the Fayum as a whole, could well have been hindered by the pitfalls of pursuing agriculture along the Fayum lake shores.  Coupled with this was the high productivity and stability of the marsh fauna and flora that would have attracted the inhabitants towards fishing, hunting and gathering” (Brass 2003). This may well account for the fact that Faiyum Neolithic sites did not achieve the same sort of cultural sophistication visible in the southwest Western Desert or Badarian: “There is no evidence in that area of villages that became increasingly complex, as in Upper Egypt, however it is possible that aquatic resources were sufficiently concentrated in the Fayoum that agricultural intensification was not required” (Bard 1994).   This pattern of agricultural activity without permanent settlement is not unique to Egypt.  For example the South Eastern European agricultural site of Stracevo was apparently semi-permanent.  Similarly in the Early Neolithic of Scandinavia, “the economy, including domesticated crops and cattle, included a considerable amount of hunting, gathering and fishing” with limited clearance for agricultural purposes, and “the overall impression gained is one of a varied adaptation to the environment but with many sites being relatively impermanent and with a considereable reliance on wild resources” (Hodder 1990, p.185). 

Hassan has raised the subject of territoriality amongst Faiyum groups, and suggests that the Faiyum may have consisted of “a few to many related families who may not have owned land properly because of the non fixity of arable land.  A group may, however, have claimed territories along the lake shore” (1988, p.150)

Other writers agree - for example,  Hassan 1986 suggests that fluctuations in the rich lake environment may have encouraged a “para-agricultural economy” (p.483).  Wenke et al suggest that the need to make use of deposited silts which will have had different in terms of thickness and quality annually may have influenced the choice of site to cultivate on an annual basis:  “Given substantial variation in annual lake levels and the relatively shallow gradient of the Fayyum area, the location of agricultural areas may have varied enough each year to make permanent villages inappropriate . . . . It may be significant in this context that apparently there were no large permanent settlements in the Fayyum until the Middle Kingdom” (Wenke et al 1988, p.46-7). 

Kozlowski and Ginter (1989) have identified three main types of settlement type which fit in with all the available data and represent different aspects of the Neolithic subsistence strategy:

  • Large settlements of a semi-permanent character (e.g. Koms W and K)
  • Base seasonal settlements (e.g. QS XI/81)
  • Hearths representing fishing trips (e.g. QS X/81)

2.6.8 Social Organization

Although when considered as a whole, the economic basis of the Faiyum may not represent a radical change from the Qarunian, there are some indications of change in social behaviour and organisation.  The first indications of social organization lie in the management of the granaries at Koms W and K. Hendrickx and Vermeersch (2000, p.37) suggest that “because the storage pits are in groups, it is supposed that agriculture was practiced on a community basis.”  Social organization is also implied by the management and co-operation needed to plant, gather, process, store and distribute a communal resource.  However, in spite of these indications and the fact that some very few ornamental personal items have been found, there is no sign of religious or hierarchical elements, both of which were highly prominent in Upper Egyptian at this time.

It is worth noting that visibility of hierarchy in the archaeological record is not a definitive sign that it did not exist.  Gamble has pointed out that even in hunter-gatherer societies they may well have existed.  At the very least, increased economic complexity implies increased social organisation and structure.

In the Faiyum data is almost exclusively economic in nature, from which a minimal amount of social information can be extrapolated. That Caton-Thompson expected to find burials accompanying the settlement is made clear by her comment about establishing a relative chronology for her Fayum sites:  “This, I think, will probably be achieved only by the discovery of the graves” (Caton-Thompson 1927, p.336).  However, no burials were found in association with the Faiyum Neolithic: “The absence of any burial grounds prevents a reconstruction of the social structure and religious beliefs of the Fayum groups of people.  It can only be presumed that the large complex of grain containers could have been owned by a single human group, and this, in turn, might point to the fact that a collective form of cultivation and property had existed” (Krzyzaniak 1977, p.68). 

A great deal of emphasis has been put on symbolic and cognitive ways of interpreting archaeological remains over the last few decades.  Hodder’s “Domesticating Europe” and Pearson’s “Archaeology of Death and Burial”, for example, look at how e can take the ways humans express themselves in religious and symbolic terms, how they explain society to their own satisfaction and characterize different elements of it in codes, rules, traditions, conventions and ritual activities.    A vast body of symbolic data is being drawn upon elsewhere in Egypt – from funerary contexts in the Badarian of Middle Egypt, rock art in the Eastern Desert and megalithic construction in the Saharan Neolithic of the south-east Western Desert.  Much of this information is being used to develop an understanding of the social and religious complexities and is being married to economic data to provide a more complete picture of the earliest Egyptian sedentary groups.  One of the challenges presented by the Faiyum is to build a coherent picture of the Faiyum Neolithic, it s origins, connections and organization, without this data.

While there may be no overt attempts to characterize or express itself as a social or symbolically affiliated entity, the Faiyum Neolithic has left enough of itself behind in the lack of artwork, specialized craft skills and religious behaviour and the presence of clearly defined economic decision making processes and patters of existence to allow commentary to move beyond comments about subsistence strategies. 

Lack of symbolic and burial evidence is often believed to indicate that societies were egalitarian and lacked social stratification, but this is an oversimplification of the situation.   The Faiyum represents centralized organization of resources, decision making capability, risk analysis and the ability to adapt to seasonal resources while maintaining a year-round settlement with storage to enable seasonal resources to be stretched into less productive months.  They also made beautifully crafted tools, which represent much greater skill and specialization than is present in the production of their crude ceramics.

Similarly, apart from some very rare items of personal adornment, none of which are in any way aesthetically special, there is very little in the way of artistic endeavor visible in the Faiyum Neolithic:  “Whatever artistic tendencies the Neolithic Fayumis may have possessed seem to have been confined to their superbly fashioned and often beautiful stone tools and weapons.  Decoration of any sort is exceedingly rare on any of the other classes of objects found” (Hayes 1964, 65 p.96).

Hassan examined evidence for population sizes.  He sees significance in the fact that Koms K, W and M were located quite closely to each other with the granaries between them “strongly suggesting that they belonged to a single community.  If we assume one granary per family and that grain was stored for a year, the settlement would have held about 280 persons.  This should be regarded as an upper limit” (Hassan 1988, p.149). 


2.6.9 Contact Outside the Faiyum

Africa, Sinai and the Red Sea

Links with areas at some considerable distance from the Faiyum are suggested by seashells (made into beads) from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, turquoise (probably from Sinai), amazonite (from either Tibesti in the Sahara or the Red Sea hills) and a shark tooth (that may have come from the Red Sea). 

The mechanism by which they arrived in the Faiyum is unknown but has been the subject of speculation and could have been acquired by trade, exchange or other processes. Hoffman believes that decorative items like the perforated shells could indicate the existence of exchange mechanisms and points out the importance of acquiring a much better understanding of what these items represent: “If the contact among the three Predynastic traditions of Egypt (Upper Egypt, the Delta and the Western Desert) was an important force in the emergence of a national Egyptian culture with the first dynasties, then it is absolutely essential that we understand the social and economic context of goods like beads - goods that point toward social exchange sand the whole body of ideas, relationships, and even myths that often accompany exchange” (Hoffman 1979, p.189). This is obviously an area that requires more detailed interpretation of existing data and, almost certainly, the discovery of new and more informative data.  

What these foreign items imply is that the occupants of the Faiyum Neolithic did have a value for exotic goods, and were possibly limited to what they could or was practical to acquire and keep based on a semi-nomadic existence.  Functional items of considerable beauty were possessed (like arrowheads and polished axes).

Cairo and the Western Delta

Most writers agree that a number of important south Cairo area and Western Delta sites are related to those of the Faiyum: “Faiyum, el-Omari, Merimda and Maadi are all sites or regions which are distinguished from the Upper Palaeolithic cultures both by the nature of the excavated material and by the fact that they incorporated settlements” (Midant-Reynes 1992/2000, p.4). 

However, realistically the Faiyum Neolithic sites are probably only contemporary with Merimde, although the Faiyum legacy probably defined the evolution of sites like el-Omari and Maadi. Alternatively, all three could have a common origin: “The many analogies already noted between the Merimdan and the Faiyum A cultures leave little room for doubt that they are closely related one to another and are without much question descended from a common ancestor or combination of ancestors” (Hayes 1964, 1965, p.116).  Hoffman (1979, 185) agrees: “Faiyum A has often been compared to Merimda and presents a striking contrast to the rich Predynastic sites of Upper Egypt”. 

Kozlowski and Ginter (1989) in an analysis of the Faiyum Neolithic sites that they discovered in the Qasr el-Sagha area and those discovered by Caton-Thompson and Gardner (1934) have suggested that the lithic toolkit as represented by Koms W and K have a closer affinity to Merimde than that found at the other Qasr el-Sagha sites, particularly in respect of the bifacial component and elongated sickle blades.

Merimda, el Omari, and Maadi are discussed in detail in the Western Delta section, although Hoffman warns that the question of how the development in the Faiyum relates to that at Merimda is “still an answerable question” (1979, p188).  Chronologically, the Faiyumian sites appear to have been the earliest, in spite of Eiwanger’s theory that the earliest level at El Omari predated the Faiyum Neolithic sites.


2.6.10 Physical Anthropology

In so far as the physical anthropology of the Ancient Egyptians is concerned, there is no data from which to speculate.  Some studies in the past have attempted to make generalisations based on the few remains discovered in other areas, but as Wenke (1991, p.293) puts it, “Too few Egyptians of the Neolithic period have been found . . . to determine their similarity to other groups.” 

Likewise, the lack of burial remains has meant that there is no data available about the lives of the Faiyum occupants that might be provided by the condition of skeletal remains and dentition.


2.7 The Faiyum Moerian

2.7.1 Introduction

The Moerian was identified by Kozlowski and Ginter on the basis of their excavations in the Qasr el-Sagha area.  They have suggested that there were two distinct types of sites – those that represent the Faiyum Neolithic and those which represent a later phase which they at first referred to as Unit II, but later named the Moerian.  As Kozlowski said in his book on Qasr el-Sagha: “the differences are marked to such a degree that it may be said that the later part of the Neolithic sequence represents a distinct culture, most probably of a different origin” (Kozlowski 1983 p.38).  This is a very important point because the idea that there are dual origins for Neolithic occupation in the Faiyum suggests that there are different dynamics at work in Egypt during the fourth millennium and that the development of Egypt during the predynastic was likely to be the product of different influences from different areas.

There were a number of bases for the distinction between the two phases, and the differences are summarised as follows (Kozlowski 1983):

  • Lithics
    • Different production method of blank flakes
    • Morphologies of retouched tools
  • Ceramics
    • Different raw materials
    • Different ceramic styles
  • Habitation Structures
    • More complex camps in the Moerian, with several hearths and light shelters
  • Exploitation
    • Functional differentiation of camps in the younger phase


2.7.2 Origins, Dates and Geology

The available dates for the Neolithic appear to identify a discontinuity of occupation in the Neolithic, which Kozlowski and Ginter (1989) convincingly suggest represents a gap between two different Neolithic occupations and that there are two clearly identifiable Neolithic traditions in the Qasr al-Sagha region of the Faiyum, the earlier of which is the Faiyum Neolithic (Faiyum A) and the later of which has been termed the Moerian.  These indicate that there may be 100 years between the Moerian and the previous Faiyum Neolithic, which Kozlowski and Ginter consider to be consistent with the typological profile of the lithic artefacts.  The hiatus is also represented by the stratigraphy of site QS X/81.

Kozlowski and Ginter 1989 suggest that while the Faiyum may have had its origins in the Near East, the Moerian may have originated in the Eastern Sahara. Caneva explains (Caneva 1992, p.221): “The late Neolithic Moerian of the second half of the 4th Millennium BC is thought to be ascribed to the displacement of people from the Western Desert”. In other words it is possible that as increasing aridity in the desert regions forced people to seek favourable circumstances elsewhere, a new influx of people were responsible for a new industry (the Moerian). “The chronological sequence of the cultures in the Fayum shows that the influences from the two regions reached the Fayum in separate times, first from the Levant and later from the Western Desert” (Caneva 1992, p.223). The Moerian is not, however, in any way analogous to Merimde.  As usual, more data would be helpful.  Kozlowski (1983 p.70-71) suggests that on the basis of shared components in the Faiyum Neolithic and the Moerian (e.g. discoidal blade cores, tool morphologies and pottery) that contacts between the two was possible.

The Later Neolithic sites were contained within a formation which corresponds to a dry recession phase:  “as a result abundant traces of settlement are found in the eastern part of the investigated area” (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989, p.159). 

The earliest Moerian date from the Qasr el-Sagha sites is 5410+/-110BP and the most recent is 4820+/-100BP indicating a 600 year time span for the Moerian. 


2.7.3 Excavation and Survey

The Moerian is represented by a number of sites in the north east of the Faiyum, the most important of which are VIIA/80 and VII/80, categorized by the similarities between the artefacts (lithics and pottery) found. They feature hearths and some faunal remains, as well as lithics.  They were identified by a mission of the Polish university from Cracow, and reported in 1983 (Kozlowski 1983) and 1989 (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989).


2.7.4 Sites

The main Moeriean site is QS VIIA/80, which was particularly rich.  Others include QS VII/80, VS VI/80, QS XII/80, QS VID/80.  All are located in the Qasr el-Sagha region to the north of Lake Qarun.   It is possible that FS3, to the southwest of Lake Qarun, was Moerian although it may be predynastic (see Naqada II section).

QS VIIA/80 is located in a small butte at the edge of a cliff formed by erosion of the Neolithic lake shore at the mouth of a small wadi at around 17.2m above sea level at its highest point.  The site consists of two main occupation phases, a lower and an upper level, both of which represent the later Neolithic: “in both main culture layers and in all stratigraphic units there occurred a culturally and technologically fairly homogenous material (stone artefacts, pottery) representing the late phase” (Kozlowski 1983, p.40).  The lower level consists of hearths, and a set of preserved postholes in the centre of the site which the excavators interpreted as huts which probably served as sleeping areas:  “It may be assumed that the area next to the sheltered sleeping places differed in function form the area of domestic activities directly by the hearths (Kozlowski 1983, p.40).  Ceramic fragments were found in the centre of the site, debitage at the edges and ceramics and retouched tools in the hearth area.  The upper level consists of sunken hearths and a concentration of artefacts.  The site provided a date of 5070+/-110BP (Gd-895).

QS VID/80 was preserved in a cliff formed of slits and sands of the Neolithic lake.  It is located c.300m west of VIIA/80 and at its highest level was 17.5m above sea level.  It was older than VIIA/80 by about 300 years, with a carbon 14 date of 5410+/-110BP.  It consists of a hearth surrounded by ceramics and lithics (mostly debitage) covered in a topping of different types of stone:  sandstone, mudstone and organogenic limestone (Kozlowski 1983).

FS3 is considered by some to be Moerian.  Although the same site will be mentioned under Naqada II and III, re-excavation of the site has identified a number of ceramic similarities with the Maadian, although carbon 14 dates suggest that the site was earlier than Maadi-Buto sites (Flores 2003, p.15).  It has therefore been suggested that FS3 was actually Moerian rather then ‘Predynastic’.   Rizkaner and Seeher, however, do not consider that the ceramic evidence is conclusive enough to make any firm statements (1987, p.62-3).

2.7.5 Industry

Lithics are made on small flint pebbles and cherts sourced locally and some larger concretions that are not available locally.  Tools are made on single and double platforms.  Debitage has a higher frequency of flakes over blades.  Tools include:

  • Flakes (25-30% of all tools) and retouched flakes
  • Blade tools (the highest percentage)
    • Backed blades
    • Micro-retouched blades and bladelets
    • Retouched blades
    • Perforators
  • A few side scrapers
  • Notched tools
  • Denticulated tools
  • Rare bifacially touched tools (although the presence of bifacial retouch in the debitage does suggest that bifacial tools may have been lost to looters)

Pottery was made from local tertiary clays and is represented by a number of forms including:

  • Hemispherical bowls with rounded walls
  • Vessels with hemispherical/spherical bellies and everted rims
  • S-profile vessels
  • Pots with cylindrical necks and everted or thickened rims
  • Deep vessels with rounded bottoms
  • Vessels with conical bottoms

The  pottery from QS VIIA/80 in the later part of the sequence consists of 463 sherds.  Kozlowski (1983) divides them into four groups based on a number of criteria: 

  • Group I
    • The biggest group, consisting of 435 sherds (94% of the total)
    • The fabric is slightly porous
    • The outer surface is usually smoothed
    • There is a plant temper
    • Colouring is reddish brown or black
  • Group II
    • The next biggest group but represented by only 13 sherds
    • Surfaces can be uneven or smooth
    • Less plant temper than Group I vessels
    • Brick red, brown or black colouring
    • Mineralogically and petrographically similar to Group I
  • Group III
    • Represented by only five sherds
    • Fine sand temper
    • Brick-red and black-brown
    • Possibly made from lacustrine sediments
  • Group IV
    • Represented by ten potsherds
    • Coarse sand temper
    • Brownish-red
    • Weak and friable
    • Mineralogically different to the other groups

Both the ceramics and the lithics indicate differences from the Neolithic:  “Both in respect of lithic inventories as well as ceramic types the sites of the Moerian differ form those of the Faiyumian in an essential way” (Kozlowski and Ginter 1989, p.169). 

2.7.6 Economy

The faunal assemblages, mainly from VII/80, indicate a heavy reliance on fish (tilapia, clarias, Nile Perch and Synodontis).  Only a few sheep/goat are present, together with infrequent remains of gazelle and waterfowl.  Clearly, from this sample, there are fewer traces of domesticated species than in the earlier Faiyum Neolithic.

In contrast with the Faiyum Neolithic Kozlowski suggests that the Moerian is “more evidently connected with the blade tradition of Epipalaeolithic industries from the Sahara . . . . The origin of our Unit II should be ascribed to precisely this cultural zone” (Kozlowski 1983, p.70).


2.8 Neolithic Summary

Wendorf, Schild and Close (1984) suggest that Bir Kiseiba and Nabta in southeast Egypt provide evidence of domesticated animals, pottery and other cultural elements which are usually associated with early developments of agriculture.  They believe on this basis that Bir Kiseiba and Nabta may provide evidence of an independently developed pastoralist economy in the southwest of Egypt.  The Faiyum was occupied at a similar time and shows cultural similarities, but seems to have evolved in a different way, incorporating southwestern Asian elements.

It is possible that the agrarian components of the Faiyum Neolithic came to the Faiyum from the Levant, introducing an agrarian and pastoral economy based on imported domesticated wheat and sheep/goat accompanied by undecorated pottery and by an industry with a strong flake component and bifacial tools.  Similarities with the Faiyum Neolithic and the Cairo area sites support an eastern origin for the Faiyum sites.

A later economy and industry may be accounted for by the arrival of people from the Western Desert.  However, these hypotheses are so far untested by any interim findings in the northern oases or on traditional routes to the Levant.

The Neolithic in the Faiyum area was, as a semi-permanent food producing and pastoralist economy, supplemented by hunting and fishing.  Storage of food would have allowed longer periods of sedentary living, but occupation appears to have been semi-permanent and seasonal.  It is likely that the richness and variety of wild local resources combined with the vagaries of successful crop cultivation were the main reasons why local groups had no motivation to settle on a permanent basis.

The material remains show considerable richness in lithic craftsmanship and aesthetic appreciation, but pottery is strictly functional, and personal ornamentation, though exotic in terms of its origins, is simple and portable.  These elements are all entirely consistent with a way of life that included the need to abandon settlements on a seasonal basis.  Items would have had to have been portable or disposable.

Social organization is implied in the apparently shared nature of the granaries, and the management needed to plant, gather, process, store and distribute a communal resource.  In addition, although it is an isolated item, there is also a macehead from Kom W (UC2528, at the Petrie Museum), an artefact usually associated with status.

It appears that there may have been at least two phases of the Neolithic in the Faiyum – the Faiyum Neolithic and the Moerian.


2.9 Palaeolithic and Neolithic Faiyum: Conclusions

The earliest prehistoric periods in the Faiyum are represented by the Palaeolithic and the far more important and numerous Epipalaeolithic sites.  The Epipalaeolithic sites are separated from Faiyum Neolithic both by a period of time and by industrial and economic differences.  Both Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic are unique to the Faiyum and when considered together with environmental information, present a picture of a close relationship between early groups and the changing ecological conditions of the area.

Although most of our knowledge is based on the northern Faiyum sites of Kom W, it is supplemented by very valuable data from the survey projects of the University of Rome in the 1960s, Wendorf and Schild (1976) Wenke (1983) and, Ginter and Kozlowski (1989).  From these projects it is clear that numerous sites existed both here and elsewhere in the vicinity of Lake Qarun, and that there was variability in these sites both temporally and functionally.

The Epipalaeolithic groups were hunter-gatherers but mostly fishers, exploiting lake and wetland environments with great effectiveness.  Their origins are unknown, but their industry indicated that they were a successfully evolved final Palaeolithic culture that was well adapted to the Faiyum, taking advantage of natural food resources and raw materials, shifting on a seasonal basis.

A hiatus in the occupation sites in the Faiyum suggest that a) interim sites are still awaiting discovery or that b) the Faiyum was abandoned at this time due to drying up of wetlands and substantial decrease in (if not total drying up of) Lake Qarun.

The Egyptian Neolithic, represented in its earliest forms at Bir Kiseiba/Nabta and the Faiyum, develops all over Egypt in response to both cultural and ecological factors and, again, is poorly understood in the context of other sites, areas and countries. 

The Faiyum Neolithic occupants arrived on the scene with a fully evolved albeit simple cultural and economic identity and their origins are also a matter of speculation. 

Like their Qarunian predecessors they were well adapted to the local ecology.  They took taking advantage of fertile land to cultivate, process and store grain and other plants, and kept domesticated animals.  At the same time they used the natural environment to supplement their diet with fish (some of which they may have dried and stored) and with hunted wildlife.  Material equipment, settlement remains and faunal remains are consistent with a semi-permanent lifestyle, which would have been easy to maintain in such a rich environment. 

Differences between the Epipalaeolithic and the Neolithic appear in a number of obvious and more subtle ways.  There are no domesticates in the Qarunian (of either floral or faunal variety).  There are differences in the time of year that fish were collected – in the Faiyum Neolithic fish collecting took place later in the summer than in the Qarunian and Nile Perch, while still secondary to Clarias, represented a much higher percentage of the diet.  There are also conspicuous differences in the faunal species exploited, visible in faunal assemblages:

Qarun vs Neo

In addition, it is notable that there are more varieties of water fowl exploited in the Qarunian, including:  Great Crested Grebe (Policeps cristalus), numerous varieties of duck (Ana) including shellduck (Tadoma tadoma) and coot (Fulica alva).

The Qarunian was an economy based on exploitation of the environment, a cyclical existence which moved as required, and which had a material culture based on a frequently moving lifestyle.  The Neolithic, on the other hand, was based not on exploitation f existing resources but on the production and management of specific plant and animal foods, developing a particular subsistence strategy and an evolving social organization.  The organization and skills-management required suggest the development of a leadership aspect of society, the existence of skilled workers and an affiliation to a single given area that implies social adjustments on an important scale.  Permanence, with all (or most) of society’s participants located in one place for succeeding generations leads to patterns of a human interactive nature rather than an environment-based transitory state.  In other words, differentiation appears and social systems begin to develop beyond what was previously possible.

There are also similarities between the two periods.  Both showed a preference for shallow water fishing, and in shallow condition both preferred Clarias over other species (notably Tilapia): “Both Faiyum A and B groups appear to have exploited the same species, and with the exception of Faiyum A demonstrate, in similar relative abundances, using similar strategies and during the same time of year” (Brewer 1989, p.136).

As far as the industry goes, the only material available for direct comparison is stone, because pottery did not exist in the Qarunian and there is a poor survival rate for bone and wood items.  In an analysis of the lithic assemblages at FS2 (Qarunian) and FS1 (Neolithic) Cagle observes that the reduction process of lithic tool manufacture at FS1 “was more complete and complex than at FS2” (1994, p.6) and that continuity is only visible in the debitage.  He also points to differences in the raw materials:  “From an initial analysis of the debitage, it appears that the Epipalaeolithic assemblages contain a much more eclectic blend of raw materials than the Neolithic” (Cagle 1994, p.6).  Both assemblages contain a wide variety of cherts.  There also appear to have been differences in the way in which raw materials were used for tool production. The Epipalaeolithic tool makers appear to have ah a much more random approach to using specific material for tools, whereas the Neolithic tool makers appear to have had a much clearer strategy for using certain raw materials for the manufacture of certain tools.  One raw material “a chalky-white cortex” was used extensively in the Epipalaeolithic but was not used at all in the Neolithic (Cagle 1994).

Gamble (1986) points out that a given environment can support a number of different economies and societies – that the environment is a “determinant in that it set s out what is available for exploitation” but that social organisation specifies how that environment is going to be exploited (for either hunting and gathering or agricultural activities):  “The environment does not, in most cases, determine which.  It is the social system” (p.30).

Only rare traces of predynastic occupation are found following the Moerian.  A  few individual finds and scatters are listed by Caton-Thompson and Gardner, but these amount to around 50 in all (Caton-Thompson and Gardner 1934, p.69).  Two sites dating to this period are E29G4 to the north of the Lake Qarun and FS3 to the south west.  These are discussed in the next section (3.0).  In general the focus shifts away from the Faiyum towards the Western Delta, until later Predynastic times.  It is unclear why the Faiyum would have been abandoned for permanent occupation at this time, if indeed it was.  The reasons for the abandonment of the Faiyum Depression in favour of Nile and Delta locations can, Wenke and Brewer suggest (1992 p.175) be explained as follows:

  • The Faiyum is probably less productive for agricultural exploitation than the Nile
  • It appears that the climate changed c.4000BC to hyper-arid conditions which would have meant that exploitable flora and fauna would no longer have existed around the Faiyum edges
  • The Faiyum was subject to more unpredictable floods and lower silt levels than the Nile
  • The Faiyum was far from the main communication artery of Egypt

If the impact of the climate has been over-emphasised by Wenke and Brewer, it would seem hard to accept that successful adaptations to this productive environment would have moved, leaving a resource-rich area behind. Further analysis is obviously required. 

Field work, consisting of survey and excavation of both archaeological and geological features would help to provide more data.  Further field work is threatened by the number of important prehistoric sites have either been destroyed or are under threat.  Kom K, FS1 and FS2 have all been destroyed in land reclamation projects and are now beneath agricultural land.  Kom W survives, but this and other sites are under threat from construction work on the northern shore of the lake.  However, if no additional sites are located within the Faiyum, further elucidation of the Faiyum is possible by applying new methods to the existing data.  For example, lithics can be compared with those in other areas, agricultural practise can be compared with that at Merimde and El Omari, settlement patterns can be analysed, spatial distribution within settlements can be discussed, the availability of geological resources for lithic and ceramic production can be traced, and statistical variability and significance in differences between the Qarunian and Faiyum Neolithic can be observed. 

Merimde is generally believed to be the site most closely related to the Faiyum Neolithic sites outside the Faiyum.  Located north west of Cairo, its excavator Junker believed that its earliest levels predated the Faiyum A sites, but in later phases there were similarities as well as significant differences.  Similarities include bifacial knives, concave-based arrowheads, and the use of storage pits.


2.10 Faiyum “Predynastic”

Identified by Caton-Thompson and Gardner, a phase described as “of Nile Valley predynastic type” by was identified in the Faiyum (Caton-Thompson and Gardner 1934, p.69) “sporadically distributed over the northern and western desert areas, though in relatively small numbers – we collected under fifty in all”.  It is characterized by lithics and pottery which are much later in type from those of the Faiyum Neolithic and the Moerian.

Although too few to enable any firm conclusions to be drawn, these finds do argue for some form of continued occupation after the Moerian and before the Old Kingdom occupations.



I will leave the final word on the Faiyum with Michael Hoffman:  “when more prehistoric settlements in the Faiyum have been excavated with some care, and when today’s sophisticated analytical techniques are applied to problems like the nature of the transition from food gathering to food producing – from Faiyum B to Faiyum A – we will have answered one of the most important questions in Egyptian Prehistory (1979, p.190).