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Michal Kobusiewicz, Jacek Kabacinski, Romuald Schild, Joel D. Irish, Maria C. Gatto & Fred Wendorf. Gebel Ramlah: Final Neolithic cemeteries from the Western Desert of Egypt.

MICHAL KOBUSIEWICZ, JACEK KABACINSKI, ROMUALD SCHILD, JOEL D. IRISH, MARIA C. GATTO & FRED WENDORF. Gebel Ramlah: Final Neolithic cemeteries from the Western Desert of Egypt. 276 pages, 179 colour & b&w illustrations, 23 tables. 2010. Poznan: Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences; 978-83-89499-69-1 hardback $95.


Until recently our knowledge of fifth-millennium BC Egyptian mortuary contexts was limited to a handful of sites, all seemingly dated to the latter part of the millennium: el-Omari (south of Cairo), Merimde Beni-Salame (western Delta), the Badari region (northern Upper Egypt) and a few isolated graves in the Eastern Desert. This has been increasingly marched by much richer discoveries to the south in central Sudan, such as at el-Ghaba and Kadero, along with those in the Dongola Reach, including Kadruka and R12. Notably, from the Middle Egyptian Nile to Khartoum the forms that these funerary structures take and the material performances they encompass are remarkably similar. Nevertheless this still left a conspicuous gap in the archaeological record around Egypt's southern margins. Fortunately, just over ten years ago, the Combined Prehistoric Expedition discovered a series of Neolithic sites in the Egyptian south-western desert at Gebel Ramlah. Amongst their number were three small Neolithic cemeteries. This volume represents the final publication of the material from these important burial grounds and the data presented here affords the opportunity to assess the nature of social networks around the Nile Valley in this period.

Gebel Ramlah lies along the shores of a fossil playa, approximately 20km from Nabta Playa, site of the so-called 'megalithic' structures. The three individual cemeteries, E-01-2, E-03-1 and E-03-2, each contained a dense concentration of largely intact graves, totalling 39 across all three and containing the interments of 69 individuals. The presentation of these finds in this volume is organised into eight sections: cemetery overviews (Kobusiewicz and Kabacifiski), chronology (Kobusiewicz and Kabacinski), pottery (Gatto), environment (Schild and Wendorf), skeletal remains (Irish), mollusc shells (Kurzawska), archaeobotanical remains (Litynska-Zajac) and conclusions (Kobusiewicz and Kabacinski). Surprisingly, there is no section devoted to the analysis of the lithics found, despite their potential for illuminating lifeways and social networks. The illustrations are superb, and all the photographs are in colour, capturing some of the vibrancy of the material world of the pastoralist communities that once inhabited this landscape. It is just a shame that the listings of the grave contents are difficult to cross-reference with these figures on account of the different numbering systems employed.

Despite the small number of burials, the associated offerings were numerous, including abundant beads and pendants, large numbers of flint implements, several bone tools and distinctive pottery containers. The range of materials articulated together here is striking, attesting to the existence of networks that permitted the acquisition of raw materials from equatorial Africa, the Red Sea and Sinai. It is the pottery, however, that is particularly significant in terms of evaluating the temporal and spatial relationships of ancient communities. Therefore, whereas many of the observations and finds published here have been communicated elsewhere previously, Maria Gatto's discussion of the pottery is one of the most significant new contributions offered in this excavation report. Her thorough treatment of fabrics, manufacturing processes and vessel forms, particularly when juxtaposed with data from elsewhere (such as known Tasian calciform beakers), is exceedingly useful. Similarly thorough are the environmental and skeletal data analyses, the latter strongly indicating an absence of cereal consumption given the healthy nature of the teeth studied. Since Gebel Ramlah lies at such an important juncture between Neolithic communities in the Sudan and the Badarian groups of the Middle Nile, the rigorous assessment of chronological position is crucial. It is a pity, therefore, that the section devoted to the discussion of this is so short, being just two pages long, and hinging largely upon a very cursory overview of only four radiocarbon dates from the site. From comparative analysis with the handful of dates available elsewhere it is concluded, in this section at least, that this "confirms the dating of the Ramlah cemeteries to the beginning of the first half of the V millennium BC calibrated age" (p. 120). This would seem to privilege the oldest of the radiometric dates obtained, namely the one from burial 5, which would definitely position this cemetery as the oldest known in Egypt. Yet it is too briefly mentioned here, but more clearly elaborated elsewhere in the volume, that the charcoal fragments which yielded these dates were most probably secondary, deriving from hearths within which the burials were dug. It hard to adjudicate this, however, as the contexts from which these fragments were extracted are not sufficiently documented in the section discussing the burials, and several candidates are listed in the archaeobotanical portion of the text. Overall, considering the material affinities with other sites, a mid-fifth millennium date is much more likely, as the measurement of [sup.14]C in bone collagen from one of the burials indicates. This later date overlaps with the oldest radiometric dates currently available for the Badarian. At this temporal distance from dynastic Egypt, and given the diversity of practices evident in the intervening period, a direct lineage from the Gebel Ramlah interments to dynastic constructions of death are perhaps overstated in the final conclusions, with comparisons remaining somewhat generalised. There is no denying, however, that this site represented a significant focus of social engagement for these late Neolithic groups.

While the information collated in this monograph is useful, the volume would have benefitted from a stronger editorial hand, given that English is not the first language of many of the contributors and their otherwise meticulous observations are marred by the occasional awkward sentence or odd turn of phrase. There are also, unfortunately, a fairly high number of typographical errors throughout the text. That aside, this publication will form a valuable reference point for years to come as the mosaic of fifth-millennium BC Neolithic communities across the entire Nile Valley comes into better focus.


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Author:Stevenson, Alice
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Date:Jun 1, 2012
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