Revealing Egypt’s international port

From the late 7th century BC, the Nile Delta port of Naukratis was the world’s gateway to Egypt. Yet, despite early archaeological research at the site, it has languished in the shadows. Who lived there, how did the port operate, and what (sometimes salacious) secrets remained hidden? Alexandra Villing and Ross Thomas explain how their new project is finally bringing the site’s lost history to life.

The 2015 Naukratis riverfront excavations, with excavator Edwin DeVries in the middle ground.

In 1883, the young Flinders Petrie was at the pyramids of Giza when a local Egyptian man offered him an unusual small alabaster statuette for sale. He immediately recognised it as not Egyptian but Greek or Cypriot. ‘I at once gave the man what he asked for (never run risks in important cases) and then enquired where he got it. “From Nebireh”, was his answer.’ Petrie went to investigate, and found near the modern town of Nebireh, an ancient settlement mound in the process of being dug up by locals, keen to use the rich earth for fertiliser. The area was littered with Archaic and Classical Greek pottery: ‘walking across it’, Petrie says, ‘was like walking across the site of the shattered British Museum’s vase rooms.’ ‘I laded my pockets with scraps of vases and of statuettes and at last tore myself away, longing to solve the mystery of these Greeks in Egypt.’

Solve it he did. The following year, in 1884, Petrie returned to excavate Nebireh on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund, and on 4 December of that year he made the find that clinched the identification: an honorary decree of the city of Naukratis for its priest of Athena: ‘All that day “Naukratis” rang in my mind, and I sprang over the mounds with that splendid exultation of a new discovery long wished for and well found.’

W M Flinders Petrie, shown here in c.1886.

Petrie’s first excavation season in 1884/1885 was followed by one more season, mostly under the direction of his collaborator Ernest Gardner. David Hogarth, the director of the British School at Athens, returned to the site in 1899 and 1903. It is these first four seasons that to this day provide the basis for much of our understanding of Naukratis, as a flourishing, cosmopolitan river port on the Canopic branch of the Nile. Yet for a long time little was known about the site. Most of the finds made during those early excavations had become forgotten and were gathering dust in museum basements. Important questions remained unanswered: was Naukratis a late 7th-century BC Greek ‘colonial’ trading port on Egyptian soil, as was generally assumed? Or was it a long-established Egyptian town in which Greek traders had been allowed to settle, to cement good relations between the Pharaoh and his newly rising Mediterranean counterparts? And given the strong Greek presence, did the town then fall into decline once their enemies, the Persians, dominated Egypt after the later 6th century BC? Moreover, what did Naukratis even look like, and how did it work as a port? Who lived there, and what was life like for the inhabitants of the town? Since 2011 researchers on a British Museum project have been working to piece together the site’s colourful archaeology and history – from its earliest days to the times of its modern rediscovery – and the picture that is emerging is rather different from what had been expected.

Unexpected discoveries

A Chian bowl discovered during the original excavations at Naukratis by Petrie and Gardner. Just one of the many Greek finds from Naukratis, it was uncovered at the Aphrodite sanctuary. Dated to the late 7th century BC, it is decorated with an animal frieze, and carries a votive inscription to Aphrodite by Sostratos.

In order to understand more about the town’s waterfront, we opened a trench on the long stretch of the town’s riverbank. Rich layers, dated to the 5th to 3rd centuries BC, contained thousands of local and imported artefacts, which serve to demonstrate how Naukratis continued to prosper and to participate in international trade. Thus, besides much imported fine Athenian black glaze pottery plus Greek amphorae still lined with pine pitch sealant (both categories of finds of little interest to early excavators), there were sea-worn ballast stones from the Mediterranean and even a fragment of a wooden ship plank, discarded following a hull repair. Added to this we found plentiful waste from the town’s households, with fish and animal bones and other organic remains well preserved in the waterlogged deposits. Egyptian figurines also came to light here: a rider wearing Persian dress, representations of the goddess Isis-Hathor in a shrine, a ‘cultist’ holding a model phallus and wine amphora, and even a wooden phallus. It is possible that some of these were deliberately thrown in the river during Egyptian Nile inundation festivals, such as the rather wonderfully named ‘festival of drunkenness’.

Well-travelled figurine: Cypriot limestone statuette of a hunter found in Naukratis’ Aphrodite sanctuary, inscribed with a dedication by Kallias, and dated to c.575-540 BC.

Hundreds of similar figurines are also preserved from the early fieldwork at Naukratis. They were so frequent among the finds that 19th-century scholars coined the term ‘Naukratic figures’ for the seemingly ‘erotic’ images. Deemed unfit for publication or display, they were secreted in the depths of storerooms and forgotten. Today we know that they are not unique to Naukratis but are common in Egyptian towns of the Late Period (664- 332 BC), especially in the Nile Delta, and that they have a religious function. They were used in rituals concerning fertility, specifically that bestowed on Egypt during the annual Nile inundation associated with the worship of Isis-Hathor, Osiris, and Horus-the-child (Harpokrates). It celebrated the conception of Horus (the king) by Osiris and Isis. The fact that we find such figures at Naukratis is a clear sign that traditional Egyptian religion was practised here by a local Egyptian population.

Intriguing new discoveries were also made regarding the Greek sanctuaries. It appears that the Hellenion, for example, was at least in part built on an Egyptian-style mud-brick platform. Beside the Hellenion, a small platform, perhaps for an altar, belongs to the neighbouring Dioskouroi sanctuary, as confirmed by the 2015 discovery of a cup with a Greek dedication to the Dioskouroi nearby. The Dioskouroi Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus, were popular as divine protectors of seafarers, whom they guided as bright stars in the Gemini constellation, ‘bringing light to the black ship in the night of trouble’. Alongside the platform we found undisturbed deposits of 7th- and 6th-century BC votives, including Cypriot limestone statuettes and fine Greek pottery from Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Chios, and other sites of the East Greek world, of the kind well known among the material brought back by Petrie and Hogarth. But there were also surprising new finds, such as numerous heads of pigs and sheep, discarded parts of animals that had been sacrificed (and consumed in sacred feasts) in the sanctuary.

This is an extract from a feature published in CWA 77. Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.