The Nile. A Natural Landscape and a Cultural Landscape

International Conference, 22-23 February 2013

That the Nile was of crucial importance to Egypt, a country surrounded by desert, is obvious to all, and was realized already in Antiquity.

Nevertheless, the river as an environmental and cultural factor has been less intensively studied by archaeologists and Egyptologists than might be expected. Often, for instance, texts and scenes about Nile deities or religious customs related to the river are explained by referring to notions like 'ideal floodheights', which are never defined. These studies usually fail to consider what is known about the river as a natural phenomenon.

Other scholars did take into account scientific evidence, but usually they based themselves upon a small amount of studies produced around the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century by British civil engineers. Although these latter offer remarkably detailed accounts of the hydrology of the floodplain and of the then current land use, their perception that agricultural practice in nineteenth century Egypt was very primitive, suggested to them that they were witnessing modes of subsistence that had been in use since the pharaonic age.

Egyptology has been slow in developing its own more informed interpretation of the evidence. In this regard, Karl Butzer's publications mark a watershed. Outdated though many conclusions in his Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt (1976) may now be, its lasting importance lies in showing that an integration of Egyptological evidence and data produced by the natural sciences works, and in for the first time pointing out the kinds of questions that can be approached in this way. The areas intensively dealt with by Butzer were (settlement) archaeology, economic history, technology, and demography. However, one might also add religion, as the cycle of the Nile had such a great impact on all aspects of life that it also co-determined for instance the religious calendar and the phasing of rituals.

More recently, Stephan Seidlmayer's book on historical and modern flood levels (2001) has created a new basis for understanding some of the effects of the Nile. It shows that we are facing a natural phenomenon, the study of which is fundamentally the domain of the natural sciences, but also that available evidence includes ancient and culturally biased material of a kind that lies far beyond the competence of most natural scientists.

The problem in addressing the dispersed and incongruous sources of information is that an intensive interaction between numerous disciplines with little tradition of collaboration is needed. Nowadays, significant progress is being achieved particularly in integrating earth sciences and Egyptian archaeology.

One aim of the symposium is to enable natural scientists to compare the methods they deploy and the kinds of results they attain at the various sites.

Another aim will be to compare the results of regional interpretations from different parts of the country to address broader issues (like the size of the floodplain, the validity of hypotheses about the drift of the Nile bed, or the potential for economic and demographic analysis).

A further aim is to assess ancient indigenous evidence testifying to how the Egyptians reacted to the environmental conditions imposed by the nilotic environment. For this, archaeological indications could be the spatial distribution of sites in relation to landscape features with an impact on the local hydrology (e.g. settlement spread); the system of irrigation, or the date when certain changes in land form, land cover, or land use occurred.

The importance of spatial data for modeling the modern and ancient landscape with the help of remote sensing and near surface geophysics will also be discussed. But ancient Egyptian written and iconographic reflections on the landscape can be equally important. Specialists in these areas have been less prone to look at scientific evidence, and their work is often less accessible to the natural scientists. The evidence to be discussed will not be restricted to typically Egyptological classes of data, but also to ancient records from outside Egypt, and medieval Arabic sources on the fluvial regime.


Further information

Planning & Organisation: GFK-Fellow Prof. Dr. Harco Willems, Jan-Michael Dahms

Location: Senatssaal (Raum 07-232), Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät (ZDV) Johann-Joachim- Becher-Weg 21 55099 Mainz (>campus map)

Registration & Contact: Jan-Michael Dahms