Back to the
Cracow Conference
Main Page
International Conference
Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt

(Cracow, Poland: 28th August - 1st September 2002)
Back to
Early Dynastic Egypt
Main Page


On the Origins of Memphis - The New Excavations in the Early Dynastic Necropolis at Helwan

E. Christiana KÖHLER

Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia)


Although the archaeological site to the south of Ma'assara, which is today better known as Helwan / Ezbet el-Walda, was already explored during the 1930s by the Swede H. Larsen this vast Early Dynastic necropolis was the focus of most intensive archaeological investigation by the Egyptian archaeologist Z. Saad between 1942 and 1954. Over at least 12 seasons of excavations he uncovered more than 10.000 graves which he dated to the First and Second Dynasty. Apart from less substantial archaeological activities during the 1960s and 70s by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation the site remained largely unexplored until 1997 when the Australian Center for Egyptology at Macquarie University in Sydney resumed excavations under the directorship of E. Christiana Köhler. This new work has been carried out over five seasons thus far and has not only confirmed the importance of this site for the history and material culture of the Early Dynastic Period in general and the region of Memphis in particular, but it has also demonstrated the urgency of archaeological excavation as Helwan's significant remains are threatened by the urban sprawl of modern Cairo.

Summary of research activities since 1997

The project's original aim was to re-excavate select tombs previously uncovered by Saad in order to clarify outstanding issues pertaining to their architecture, construction and chronology. Such work was successfully carried out in the first season of 1997/98 when one of the famous stone tombs (40.H.3 in Saad's publications and Op.1/1 in the new project's designation) as well as a typical representative of a subterranean chamber tomb (Saad 25.H.4, new: Op.2/1) were excavated in the north-western part of the site. Both tomb structures and the areas surrounding them, including minor graves, were excavated, mapped and precisely dated to Naqada IIIC/D with the assistance of ceramic material from nearby spoil heaps of Saad's work. This material also indicated that this part of the site was continuously in use at least until the Middle Kingdom.

During the first and the following seasons another large subterranean tomb, identified as one of Saad's storage tombs (Op.3/1; the Saad number is unknown), was excavated and cleared of its contents. It contained a total of almost 800 ceramic vessels, human long bones of 27 adults and 9 juveniles as well as a number of stone vessels. Importantly, a large number of pottery vessels were still labeled with Saad's tomb numbers and can now be re-assigned to their original provenance, i.e. a number of tombs excavated during Saad's 9th and 11th season. This material now enables us to not only date particular grave assemblages but also to determine the date of the earliest ancient occupation of the site, which currently goes back to Naqada IIIA.



The last four seasons of excavation in 1998-2002 particularly focused on an area which was previously un-excavated and which forced us to modify the project's objective as this area is currently threatened by the expansion of a modern village. This section is designated Operation 4 and has proved most productive for a number of reasons.

An important aim of the exploration of Operation 4, which covers an area of approximately 150 x 100 metres, is to establish a precise chronology of the graves and to consequently investigate the area's spatial development. Forty out of an estimated number of up to 200 graves have thus far been excavated; the majority of which dating Naqada IIIC/D, although also uncontexted earlier material (early Chalcolithic and Naqada IIIA) has been recovered in the fill of these tombs. The tombs' size, contents and preservation vary considerably and although most were found to be plundered since early antiquity, many still provided very well preserved grave assemblages, which allow for a slowly unfolding social hierarchy of graves in this part of the cemetery. A wide spectrum of ivory objects, clay sealings, stone vessels, and other small finds as well as large amounts of well-contexted ceramics provide valuable insights into the nature and chronology of the graves, the latter of which is especially significant for the further definition of Naqada IIID, in particular pertaining to its characteristics, subphases and possible ending. Of special interest was the recent discovery of three well preserved Early Dynastic funerary stelae at the bottom of a robbers' shaft leading to the subterranean burial chamber of an early Naqada IIID tomb (Op.4/19), which add to the already existing corpus of 34 Helwan stelae.

Parallel to the excavation on-site, the collection of finds from Saad's excavations is currently under study in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Stored in 158 wooden crates in the basement of this museum the more than 6000 objects further contribute to the primary data collection of material from Helwan. Among these are all known Helwan stelae, select pottery vessels, jewellery, metal tools and vessels, stone tools and vessels, cylinder seals, textiles and ivory objects, many of which have already been recorded.

The new work at Helwan, apart from providing and detailing valuable information about this largest of sites in the Memphite area in general, has especially shed new light on the chronology and origins of the city of Memphis during the Early Dynastic period. There is now substantial evidence in support of the foundation of this urban centre in Naqada IIIA and Mortensen's suggestion that the region of Memphis has to be regarded one of the most crucial for the understanding of the formation of the early state in Egypt.

Select Bibliography

ADEEB, H., 1991.
Excavations of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization at Ezbet Kamel Sedqi in Helwan. Journal of the Ancient Middle Eastern Society, 2.8: 10-18

EL-BANNA, E., 1990.
Une nécropole inédite d'époque Archaïque découvertée près de Hélouan, au Sud du Caire. GM, 117/118: 7-54

The Historic Landscape of Early Dynastic Memphis. MDAIK, 50: 143-173

KÖHLER, E.C., 1998.
Excavations at Helwan - New Insights into Early Dynastic Stone Masonry. BACE, 9: 65-72

KÖHLER, E.C., 1999.
Re-assessment of a Cylinder Seal from Helwan. GM, 168: 49-56



KÖHLER, E.C., 2000.
Excavations in the Early Dynastic Cemetery at Helwan. A Preliminary Report of the 1998/99 and 1999/2000 Seasons. BACE, 11: 83-92

KÖHLER, E.C., with contributions by BIRRELL, M.; CASEY, I.; HIKADE, T.; SMYTHE, J. & ST.CLAIR, B., (in press)
Excavations in the Early Dynastic Cemetery at Helwan I. The Excavation Season 1997/98, SAGA Band 24. Heidelberg.

Wine Jars with Incised Serekh-Signs from Helwan Recently Retrieved from the Cairo Museum. GM, 187: 59-81

KÖHLER, E.C. & SMYTHE, J., (in press)
Early Dynastic Pottery from Helwan - Establishing a Ceramic Corpus of the Naqada III Period. Cahiers de la Céramique Egyptienne, 7

KÖHLER, E.C. & BIRRELL, M. with a contribution by JONES, J. (forthcoming),
The Early Dynastic Funerary Stelae from Helwan.

LARSEN, H., 1940a.
Tomb Six at Maassara, an Egyptian Second Dynasty Tomb. Acta Archaeologica, 11: 103-124

LARSEN, H., 1940b.
Three Shaft Tombs at Maassara, Egypt. Acta Archaeologica, 11: 161-206

MORTENSEN, B., 1991.
Change in the Settlement Pattern and Population in the Beginning of the Historical Period. Ägypten und Levante, 2: 11-37

SAAD, Z.Y., 1947.
Royal Excavations at Saqqara and Helwan (1941-1945). Suppl. ASAE, vol.3: 1-25

SAAD, Z.Y., 1951.
Royal Excavations at Helwan (1945-1947). Suppl. ASAE, vol .14:1-52

SAAD, Z.Y., 1957.
Ceiling Stelae in Second Dynasty Tombs. Suppl. ASAE, vol .21.

SAAD, Z.Y., 1969.
The Excavations at Helwan: Art and Civilization of the 1st and 2nd Egyptian Dynasties. Oklahoma.

WILKINSON, T., 1996.
A Re-examination of the Early Dynastic Necropolis at Helwan. MDAIK, 52: 337-354

WILKINSON, T., 1999.
Early Dynastic Egypt. London - New York.

WOOD, W., 1987.
The Archaic Stone Tombs of Helwan. JEA, 73: 59-70.


Back to the Cracow Conference Abstracts
Next Page >>>