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Excavating the Cradle of Egyptian Civilization

Masahiro Baba
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The appeals of Egyptian civilization

“Egyptian civilization” conjures up images of pyramids, sphinxes, and Tutankhamun. The media often picks up these images, which best symbolize “Egypt civilization.” The magnificent gigantic structures of the Great Pyramids of Giza, the subtlety of Tutankhamun’s treasures, and the majestic murals of tombs characterize and attract us to ancient Egypt. Egyptian Civilization would not have developed such culture if not for the pharaohs. Pharaohs, placed at the top of the centralized government, exerted enormous power. They used this power to build awe-inspiring gigantic structures and their court culture promoted and refined dazzling and exquisite crafting techniques. It is truly amazing that the pharaohs passed down such power and culture for generations, sustaining Egyptian Civilization for approximately 3,000 years.

Symbol of Egyptian Civilization, Pyramids (Giza)

Egypt’s awe-inspiring culture inspired me to study Egyptian archeology. I am currently investigating the period immediately before the birth of the first pharaoh and am extremely interested in how pharaohs formed the nation of Egypt and turned it into such a unique civilization.

Cradle of Civilization: Hierakonpolis

Earliest artificially produced mummy in Hierakonpolis ©Hierakonpolis Expedition

The Egyptian Dynasty had begun around 3000 BC, when the first Pharaoh Narmer took control of the lower Nile valley. The period leading up to this is called the Predynastic Period (up to 4000 BC) when society grew increasingly complex as it developed into a nation. Located in southern Egypt, Hierakonpolis is the largest town that we know of from this period. It is now a rural area, but it used to be Egypt’s political, economic, and regional center and it is considered the origin of Egyptian civilization. Scholars believe Hierakonpolis to be the birthplace of Pharaoh Narmer.

Researchers and archaeologists have investigated Hierakonpolis for over 100 years. A team from the British Museum is now excavating the site and making many discoveries that could reshape its history. Hierakonpolis was the first urban center to have powerful rulers. The ruler’s tomb was six meters long and surrounded by many attached structures. This arrangement reminds us of later pyramid complexes. The earliest evidence of mummification was found in Hierakonpolis. Bodies were found with their arms and faces covered by linen soaked in resin. It is assumed that the first mummy was the result of burying bodies in the extremely dry desert, but the bodies found at Hierakonpolis suggest that mummies have been artificial from the beginning.

The World's Oldest Beer Brewery

The Beer Brewery installation

I joined the Hierakonpolis expedition team in 2003. We investigate our own allocated area in the site and are constantly making new discoveries. My first discovery was the remains of a pottery kiln. Structured kiln such as up-draft kiln did not exist during the Predynastic period and there was no way of knowing how to fire pottery. Our research revealed that it was pit-kiln in which pots were arranged in a pit and entirely covered with clay and potsherds. Next to the kiln, we found the well-preserved remains of a beer brewery consisting of at least five large vats. These freestanding vats were arranged in two rows and bounded by walls on two sides. At a height of 40 to 60cm and a diameter ranging from 60 to 85cm, these vats were installations heated from the outside.

Supported by the Asahi Group Foundation, archaeobotanical analysis of beer residue shows that its users utilized malt of emmer wheat as an ingredient. Yeast, which is necessary for fermentation, was also found in the residue. The condition of starch granule indicated that the malt was heated with water and starch conversion (wort production) occurred in the large vats. Just like beer from the Dynastic Period, Hierakonpolis beer was made without hops and little filtration. Therefore, Ancient Egyptian beer did not have an aroma, bitterness, or go down smoothly. It was likely similar to a yogurt drink with a wheat flavor.

Details of the brewing vats

According to results of radiocarbon dating and examined associated artifacts, the brewery dates back as far as 3800 to 3600 BC. It is the world's oldest beer brewery. However, the age of this brewery is not the only significant aspect. If the five large vats operated simultaneously, they would produce 325 liters of wort at a time. This is far more than regular household consumption and suggests there was a group of full-time beer makers that produced beer in massive quantities. Where was the beer consumed? The beer brewery’s adjacency to the rulers' tombs leads to us to assume that beer was a burial accessory or produced for ceremonial feast in front of the tombs. The latter is more likely as beer is an alcoholic beverage. Rulers likely ordered construction of the beer brewery and managed producers. The large-scaled beer production was a by-product of a society that grew in complexity under the power of rulers.

Waseda University's Egypt Expedition Team

Using Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research, I have been carrying out excavation in a very small team with six Egyptian workers. It is a small expedition but requires excavation techniques and the ability to communicate in Arabic. Management skills are also necessary to conduct research smoothly with Egyptian members. I was able to join the Hierakonpolis expedition and excavate independently because of Waseda University's expedition team. My former teacher, Sakuji Yoshimura, who established the field of Egyptian Archeology at Waseda University, believes in providing his undergraduates with valuable experiences by taking them to Egypt to let them learn things they could not in a classroom. In Europe’s expedition team, students must at least be part of a doctoral program in order to join the expedition. While European students are learning how to hold a shovel, we are already instructing Egyptian workers how to proceed with projects. Professor Yoshimura trained a large number of young researchers this way.

Professor Yoshimura went to Egypt for the first time in 1966. Next year is the 50th anniversary of his first survey. Aizu Museum is hosting a special exhibition to commemorate this anniversary. I hope many of you come to learn about the 50-year history of Waseda University's Egypt expedition.

Masahiro Baba
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University


Masahiro Baba has a Ph.D. in literature and became Assistant Professor at Waseda University’s Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2014. Other experiences include being an Assistant in at Waseda’s Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences (archeology), part of a research fellowship for young scientists at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (PD), and a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University in Wales. He completed the doctoral program at Waseda’s Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He was born in Chigasaki, Kanagawa in 1974. He is the author of Ejiputo Sen-Ocho Jidai no Doki Kenkyu [Study of Pottery in the Egyptian Predynastic Period] (Rokuichi Shobo) and the coauthor of Ajia no Oubo [Tombs of Asian Kings] (Koshishoin).