Modern Tell el-Maskhuta was known anciently as Per Atum (hence biblical Pithom), Tukw (“The Estate of Atum in Tkw” [biblical Sukkoth]), Greek Heronpolis (Eroöpolis, Heroön), and Roman Ero (Hero). This multicomponent stratified site (30°33′N, 32°60′E) in the Wadi Tumilat region of the eastern Nile Delta was occupied during the last two-thirds of the seventeenth century BCE, and again from around 610 BCE to perhaps the early fourth century CE. It experienced brief periods of decline in the fifth century BCE and again in the first century BCE through the first century CE. Probably founded in connection with overland trade to southern Arabia during the Hyksos period, it was a control point and entrepôt on the sea-level canal of Necho II, which ran from the Nile to the head of the Red Sea via the Wadi Tumilat and the Bitter Lakes region.

Tell el-Maskhuta was the first site excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society (Édouard Naville, 1883). Prior to World War I, Jean Clédat conducted excavations, apparently largely in the temple precincts, which yielded numerous museum specimens but little of scholarly substance. More recently, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, now the Supreme Council of Antiquities, has conducted numerous excavations in the northern cemetery, along the Ismailia Canal, and in a number of areas in and on the margins of the modern village. Most current knowledge of the site derives from a major series of surveys and excavations conducted by a multidisciplinary University of Toronto team directed by John S. Holladay, Jr.

Second Intermediate Period Occupation.

During the Second Intermediate Period (Middle Bronze IIB), a small—roughly 2 hectares—unfortified village with strong Near Eastern or Hyksos characteristics occupied the center of what was to become the fortified site. It was essentially a self-subsistent entity, with numerous silos and, in the earlier strata, entombments within individual ownership plots (much as at Tell ed-Dabʿa during the earlier occupational periods). Judging from plant remains preserved in cooking-fire ashes, the village was seasonal, with no occupation during the summer months. Farming (wheat and barley) and animal husbandry (cattle, sheep and goats, pigs, donkeys, and at least one horse) formed a major part of the local economy, although they were not, apparently, the major reason for the site's existence.

Hunted animals included a small hartebeest, ostriches, and gazelle, reflecting a semi-arid savanna setting; and a variety of migratory waterfowl, indicating the regional presence of small lakes or swamps. At least some pottery—the local pottery constituted a subset of the Tell ed-Dabʿa repertory—was made on site, and there is evidence for other industrial pursuits, such as weaving on the (non-Egyptian) warp-weighted loom, and secondary copper-smelting. Flint blades (mostly segmented sickle blades) apparently arrived at the site fully formed; they were locally hafted or rehafted.

That the inhabitants were not simple peasant farmers seems most evident from the burials, which were rich and mostly in tombs. These followed Near Eastern patterns, including ass burials outside of early “warrior” tombs, and were characterized by strong age and sex patterns in the distribution of grave goods. Bronze daggers, a battle-axe, knives, toggle-pins, and other items characterized most adult burials, with amulets being reserved for juveniles. Gold and silver headbands and armbands, earrings, rings, and scarab mounts were not uncommon. Amethyst beads and an amethyst scaraboid probably were looted from twelfth dynasty tombs.

It appears that Pithom, and other Near Eastern sites in the Wadi Tumilat, existed as adjuncts—with Tell el-Maskhuta perhaps being a major reception point—for long-distance overland trade in high-value commodities with southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa. Presumably the need for such a difficult overland route arose during a period in which the Nile no longer was accessible to traffic bound for Avaris/Tell ed-Dabʿa (Holladay 1997b).

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties.

The site was unoccupied from the eighteenth dynasty through the early twenty-sixth—a conclusion that could not have been reached by Naville, working prior to the development of a critical chronology of Egyptian and foreign pottery. Naville (1903, pp. 2–5) and others found significant monuments of the reigns of Ramesses II, Sheshonq I, and Osorkon II, misleading Naville to declare that “the founder of the city, the king who gave to Pithom the extent and the importance we recognize, is certainly Ramesses II.… It is he who built the enclosure and the storehouses.… We find here confirmation of the evidence derived from other monuments that he is the Pharaoh of the Oppression, as he built Pithom and Raamses, the site of which last is still uncertain” (1903, p. 13).

Conclusive evidence against this theory lies in the fact that in deposits from the end of the Hyksos occupation of Tell el-Maskhuta until the building of the canal and new settlement under Necho II, the Wadi Tumilat Project found not a single fragment of eighteenth or nineteenth dynasty pottery out of the hundreds of thousands of sherds and intact vessels surveyed or excavated and studied at the site. As at Tanis, these earlier monuments were all transported easily by canal to the site, for the same purpose of enhancing the reputations of later kings.

Late Saite through Early Roman Period.

Locational and historical analysis, together with inferences from archaeological data, allow the firm conclusion that Tell el-Maskhuta was founded in connection with Necho II's building of the Nile-to-Red Sea canal early in his reign. Following the Hyksos settlement and its immediate aftermath, the earliest succeeding construction made widespread use of “gleyed” soils excavated from below the Wadi's permanent water table. This building period was preceded by four burials northeast of the temple site, in a very limited excavation area, of entire young bulls—one the first short-horned cow yet identified by skeletal elements in Egypt. Unquestionably there were a great many more of these currently unique “foundation sacrifices.” Almost immediately afterward, some of the early houses were razed to make way for a massive 8–9-meter (27-foot) thick fortification wall. This suggests a turn in military fortunes, such as that ensuing on Necho's explusion from the Near East in 605 BCE (Holladay 1982, pp. 19–23 and Fig. 13). Soon afterward, the site underwent massive destruction, presumably at the hands of Nebuchadrezzer II in 601 BCE. Other destructions occurred around 568, 525, and 487 BCE.

About 13 percent of the fortified area was excavated by the University of Toronto team. Evidence was discovered for Saite and Persian domestic complexes, the latter possibly those of servitors of the temple of Atum. Within the Saite and early Persian period settlement areas, it appears that the primary socio-economic structure was the household-based small estate, with beehive-shaped granaries enclosed within a square one-story housing. Evidence for baking and cooking on more than a nuclear-family basis characterized enough of these and later granaries to suggest that this was probably the norm throughout. A ruined shrine gave evidence of a small Phoenician presence in the town, presumably the local equivalent of the “Camp of the Phoenicians” at Memphis.

Large long-room Persian and Hellenistic granaries, at least two mass bakeries, and (apparently) temple-related industrial installations, including a stonecarver's workshop, a potter's workshop, and more than one site of secondary copper-smelting were found. Somewhat later, massive late Hellenistic storehouses were built at the site. Those surveyed by Naville were north of the temple area, and the Toronto group excavated similar remains. Naville attributed his to the Israelites, quoting Villiers Stuart to the effect that they had been “built of bricks without straw” (1903, pp. 11–12; cf. Exodus 5.6–19), although he also (correctly) associated them with the Ptolemies.

Where modern excavations were conducted, these storehouses seem to date, with frequent wholesale replacement, from the late third century to the last quarter of the second century BCE, but the little-explored north-western ones, including those excavated by Naville, may begin as early as the reign of Ptolemy II. In that case, the smaller granary of the same date near the eastern enclosure wall must have been intended—with its bakery—primarily as a rations facility for a group of laborers or craftsmen. The very large storehouses must be linked to the site's canal-based importance and socioeconomic function, which is illuminated by the great “Pithom Tablet,” or stela, of Ptolemy II, discovered by Naville.

Outside the northern enclosure wall, evidence for a blocked-up Persian well and a later water-sweep suggest that agricultural activities—or a much more dispersed settlement pattern—may have obtained immediately outside the fortified townsite. Nearby, traces of dozens of small cooking circles on the ground surface adjacent to the enclosure wall probably suggest the presence of nonurban client peoples, whether sojourners, local traders, or field-workers.

A large Persian tomb and a separate shaft tomb with a massive limestone coffin were discovered by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, together with store facilities and other large building remains, in an extramural area near the present village, southwest of the Atum temple. Part of another limestone coffin of probably Hellenistic type was dredged up during the clearance of the canal to the north of the present site, and a third, anthropomorphic and probably Hellenistic, was found in the excavation of a nine-room tomb near the canal. These coffins, together with the large temple, its accompanying naos and statues, and the large Pithom Tablet indicate the presence of important Persian and Ptolemaic officials. For the Persian period, this conclusion is strengthened by the discovery of a burnt bulla of Artaxerxes I and a calcite (Egyptian alabaster) bowl with the cartouche of Artaxerxes I. Considerably to the west of the enclosure area, between the village and the present schoolhouse, an area of dense housing remains had been uncovered.

Severely disturbed Roman remains (with frog lamps but lacking African Red-Slip ware and lamps with molded disks) overspread much of the site (Holladay 1982, pls. 31–35), which, together with very slender coin information, suggests a terminal date before or during the early fourth century CE. Several square, domed tombs were excavated in a necropolis about 250 meters (800 feet) east of the fortified area. Though robbed, the remains showed injuries and an age curve consistent with a military population. Some inhumations, including children in amphora burials, were Christian, to judge from orientation and epigraphic data.

Trade-related Aspects of the Saite—Roman Town.

Whereas Herodotus (Persian Wars II, 158–159; Rawlinson 1952, pp. 197–198), the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (Casson 1989), and the “Pithom Tablet” (Naville 1903, pp. 18–21, pls. 8–10) give more than usual attention to “mere commerce” involving the sea-level canal, the archaeological record of Tell el-Maskhuta yields an astonishing view of the body of traffic moved along the canal. For example, the very large percentage of foreign—particularly Phoenician—amphoras during the Saite and Persian periods; Greek amphoras during all periods; a small Phoenician shrine during the Saite Period, probably destroyed by the Persian invaders; and the four great stelae of Darius the Great, which began near Maskhuta and marched on down to Suez all describe how he completed the canal and caused oceangoing ships to go to Persia. The Persian and Ptolemaic periods were characterized by numerous incense altars (for South Arabian incense) and some minute Himarytic coins, presumably also South Arabian, as well as the Tell el-Maskhuta Bowls (Rabinowitz 1956), probably a trade gift to Hathor (“the lady,” cf. Holladay 1992, p. 591), and literally thousands of Athenian tetradrachma coins, presumably also trade gifts to the temple, but possibly merchant-bankers' hoards, found at the site. Similarly, quite apart from the Great Stele erected at Maskhuta by Ptolemy II, which lists the imports from his great African expedition, the huge storehouses of the Ptolemaic period would have no function in a town divorced from the means of moving large masses of materials on a routine basis. During the late Ptolemaic and early Roman periods, large “top” or “carrot”-shaped Egyptian amphoras, some apparently made at Naukratis (Coulson and Leonard 1981) became the container of choice and were exceedingly common. During this period, Roman and Palestinian amphoras were present, but not common.

Ultimately, apart from the historical, archaeological, and (quantified) socioeconomic illumination afforded upon Hyksos activities in the Wadi Tumilat (Holladay 1997b) and the operation of the sea-level Saite and later canal, the site's most lasting contributions to Egyptian archaeology will lie in the extensive quantified publication of its stratified pottery assemblages (see Holladay 1982, pls. 1–35; 1997b, pls. 7.1–18; Paice 1987). These include Paice's stratigraphically derived chronology of Phoenician amphoras, the publication of the plans of stratified domestic and industrial structures and installations, as well as their accompanying artifactual assemblages (for houses of the Second Intermediate Period at Maskhuta, see Paice, Holladay, and Brock 1996).


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John S. Holladay, Jr.