The Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1800–1570/30 BC) is one of the most complicated periods of Egyptian history, beginning after the end of the Middle Kingdom and spanning the later 13th to 17th Dynasties. This project aims to verify the existence of regionality and to investigate its possible manifestations and causes in order to question the currently favoured explanation of political fragmentation into small empires.

For a case study on the relationship of material culture and people the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1780–1570/1540 BC) is an ideal research topic. Bridging the gap from the Middle to the New Kingdom and encompassing the mid-13th to 17th Dynasties, it is a period of intense change, in which foreign influences and multiple social and political modifications culminated in the civilisation of the New Kingdom. Despite the importance of this period for Egyptian history and cultural dynamics it remains one of the most complicated to understand due to contradicting historiographic, textual, pictorial and archaeological evidence as well as problems assigning dates to important groups of material culture.

Political instability is indicated by short reign lengths of ca. 80 pharaohs in 200–250 years, a number derived from written texts and inscribed objects, and accordingly the current historical narrative mentions an increasing number of possibly concurring spheres of political influence. The Second Intermediate Period ended about 1570/1530 BC with the ›wars of liberation‹ won by Theban rulers unifying Egypt (18th Dynasty). But it is a well-known trope also that order is brought by pharaoh after chaos. The sources for the political/historical reconstruction are corrupted and fragmentary texts, far removed from the original period. Archaeological sources may contribute considerably to a reconstruction of cultural and social processes in history but remain neglected.

It has been previously argued that material culture in this period exhibits a certain ›regionalisation‹ that in essence, is thought to represent these political divisions and signifies historical events in the archaeological record. The project sets out not only to test whether such a regionalisation can be proved, but how it becomes manifest, and which possible reasons might exist beside the political explanation currently favoured. Should differences between regions be pinpointed the means and ways of communication between regions also comes into play and research if observation in the archaeological record is possible.

Local chronologies

A major hindrance to identifying spatial and chronological trends in the material culture is the unclear relative chronology of many (particularly less well known) sites that makes comparing site assemblages problematic. The project will collate archaeological contexts consisting of various object categories (e. g. pottery, scarabs, tools, metal finds etc). These objects will then be analysed in a multi-scalar approach, from the objects themselves, within their contexts to site specific relative sequences and finally to inter-site comparative analysis. Thus, a dense relative-chronological network will be established for further consideration and whether regional differences can be pinpointed – in the composition of contexts or the morphology of objects. To this end qualitative and quantitative analyses will be conducted.

Geographical range?

In order to achieve this task it is necessary to dramatically increase the number of sites in Egypt and Nubia with well documented assemblages for comparison. For this reason, the project will conduct up to date re-documentation of many older excavations which are mainly represented today by museum objects and archives (for example Abusir el-Meleq, Sedment, Mostagedda, and the Abydos North Cemetery and various sites in Thebes). This new data will then be supplemented by collaborations with ongoing excavations (for example Tell el-Retaba, Deir el-Bersha, Luxor, Uronarti) and combined with finds from current excavations. A common terminology for phasing will also be developed as it is currently rather vague and largely incompatible across ancient Egypt.


  • Qau el-Kebir

The cemeteries at Qau el-Kebir in Middle Egypt are crucial for gaining a clearer picture of the developments in material culture in the Second Intermediate Period. The continuous archaeological sequence at Qau el-Kebir makes the site a linchpin for linking sequences not only from other sites in Middle Egypt, but from sites in other regions of Egypt and Nubia. Both Egyptian and Pan-Grave burials were excavated at Qau el-Kebir and present the opportunity to engage with questions of exchange and interaction, as represented by objects and burial practices. This study will build on the foundational work of Janine Bourriau, who identified diachronic change in burial practice and material culture and found points of comparison between the Qau el-Kebir material and the Memphis/Fayum material. To strategically incorporate these burials into the larger Beyond Politics Project, objects excavated by Guy Brunton and currently housed in numerous museums will be quantitatively and qualitatively analyzed.


  • Tell Edfu (in cooperation with the Tell Edfu Project of the Oriental Institute/University of Chicago)

Despite recent contributions to Second Intermediate Period culture studies, critical questions regarding developments in Egyptian material culture and identity and how these developments might differ across Egypt remain. The provincial capital of Tell Edfu provides a rare opportunity to document and analyze a substantial archaeological sequence spanning the late Middle Kingdom through the early New Kingdom, filling many of the current gaps in data for Upper Egypt. This study by Natasha Ayers aims to employ material culture as a way to access societal change and as a tool for achieving a more nuanced understanding of Upper Egyptian identities during the Second Intermediate Period.
The archaeological material from Tell Edfu will serve as a case study and starting point for comparative analysis with other Upper Egyptian sites (to be accessed via publications, museum collections, and ongoing excavations). Incorporation of a range of object classes, analyzed with methodologies derived from material culture theory, will produce a clearer picture of the developments in Upper Egyptian material culture and help elucidate concepts of local and regional cultural identities in the Second Intermediate Period. This study will test the traditionally held assumption that uniformity in Egyptian material culture is the default state and regional (or even site-by-site) diversity is the exception. The incorporation of current anthropological theory relevant to material culture studies will ensure holistic and analytically robust results. Change in material culture and its technology (chaîne opératoire) is viewed as a social process, rather than a process of unidirectional Darwinian evolution, and the change we identify archaeologically can reflect societal change. Results of this study will contribute a more in-depth Upper Egyptian perspective to the larger Beyond Politics Project.
Study of the Tell Edfu material is conducted in cooperation with the Tell Edfu Project of the Oriental Institute/University of Chicago, Nadine Moeller (project director), and Gregory Marouard (project codirector).


  • Elephantine (in cooperation with the Swiss Institute for Architectural and Archaeological Research on Ancient Egypt, Cairo)

Through a cooperation with the Swiss Institute directed by Cornelius von Pilgrim a sequence of archaeological finds from the end of the Middle Kingdom to the beginning of the New Kingdom is being recorded and analysed. The material is derived from Area B XXXVI, a segment of the Middle Kingdom town wall, which was excavated in two seasons in 2011 and 2012. The town wall comprises a number of building phases and several layers of deposited material on both sides of and below this wall.
While the context of this material implies its broken and disused nature, it is a sequence of either intentionally laid down material in order to strengthen the wall or a sequence of dumped waste. Whatever the case, the fact that a stratified sequence of assemblages of the Second Intermediate Period is available for analysis makes those finds very valuable for the project »Beyond Politics« as pottery, small finds, and stone and ceramic tools were found together. The analysis of these items of material culture will provide first hand experience and data from the region of the very south of ancient Egypt. Thus, inferences can be drawn on raw materials, its possible acquisition, the chaîne opératoire of the pottery and object’s production as well as regional developments of certain object classes, if there are any. All these points can then be compared to productions of other regions in Egypt.

A new theoretical approach

The stress on contextual study of material culture will provide an additional level of interpretation for research into the behaviour and various identities of the people who created and engaged with objects. Some aspects of material culture theory derived from the large field of social anthropology enable insight into beliefs, ideas, values and identity, which are unconsciously inherent in the production of objects (chaine operatoire). Also the traces of use and use patterns will be studied. Engaging with the field of material culture studies, therefore, is critical for achieving a better understanding of social and cultural processes.


  • Elke Kraft


  • Janine Bourriau (University of Cambridge, McDonald Insitute for Archaeological Research)
  • Christian Knoblauch (University of Swansea)
  • Slawomir Rzepka, Jozef Hudec (Tell el-Retaba Joint Polish-Slovak Mission)
  • Peter Lacovara (The Ancient Egyptian Archaeology and Heritage Fund
  • Cornelius von Pilgrim (Swiss Institute for Architectural and Archaeological Research on Ancient Egypt, Cairo)
  • Regina Hölzl (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)


FWF Start Preis 2014 [Projekt Y754]


Project repository