for National Geographic News
The Tell Edfu site includes a public town center that was used for collecting taxes, conducting business, recording accounting, and writing documents.
The discovery paints a picture of a relatively advanced system of society during ancient times, with commerce playing an intricate part of daily Egyptian life, according to the University of Chicago and the Egyptian Supreme Council on Antiquities.
Until now, information on common life in Egypt had come mostly from scrolls of papyrus and other documents. Part of the cause is that archaeologists have long focused on monuments and gold artifacts associated with royalty.
"Town settlements have not been excavated very much, and people were not very interested in it," said mission leader Nadine Moeller, an assistant professor in Egyptian archaeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.
"These towns were all made of mud-brick, so that's obviously not as glamorous as stone architecture."
(Related: "Egypt's Earliest Farming Village Found" [February 12, 2008].)
Heart of Things
The settlement was discovered several years ago next to the Edfu Temple, one of the best-preserved large temples from ancient Egypt.
The town center contains an open hall with eight silos, partially used to collect grain taxes from farmers.
Ranging from 18 to 21 feet (5.5 to 6.5 meters) in diameter, the silos are the largest ever found in an Egyptian town center, archaeologists say.
Above the silos are rectangular storage containers containing gray ash to protect them from pests. The silos hail from the 17th dynasty, which lasted from about 1570 to 1540 B.C.
The whole complex was attached to a 16-column hall, part of an old governor's palace that eventually was transformed into a center of commerce and administration, the archaeologists say.
Part of the reason so little is known about ancient Egypt's basic settlements is because there are so few.
Many were destroyed during thousands of years of construction or from farmers who used the ancient Nile mud for fertilizer at the turn of the 20th century.
Archaeologists also say that interest in studying ancient Egyptian settlements has only bloomed in the last 20 or 30 years.
"This has been changing, and people are more and more interested in how settlements were organized and how normal people lived," Moeller said.
Vivian Davies is an archaeologist at the British Museum who is excavating at a nearby site in Edfu.
"[The Tell Edfu settlement] rectifies the imbalance in our picture of ancient Egypt, which is largely derived from tombs and temples," Davies said.
"We need to complement that picture with archaeology in the places where Egyptians lived, as opposed to the places where they worshiped and where they were placed when they were dead."
The find also helps illuminate the complex political relationships during the 17th dynasty. At the time pharaohs were based in the city of Thebes south of Edfu, where they were beset by aggressive neighbors such as the Hyksos in the north and Nubian Kushites in the south.
"We do know something about these people, but it's one of the more obscure periods of ancient Egyptian history," Moeller said.
Local authorities wielded considerable power, due to the pharaohs' eagerness to recruit allies.
For instance, Queen Sebekemsaf, wife of pharaoh Antef Nubkheperre, was actually the daughter of the governor of Edfu, Moeller said. "We know that from bracelets that have been found with her name as well as her husband."
The pharaoh's remains have been found in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes, but records indicate that Sebekemsaf was buried in Edfu.
Archaeologists say the queen must not have been royalty if she was buried locally, supporting the idea that Theban kings made ties with local governors.