Dispatches from B’ir Samut: Blemmyes, Trogodytes and the new textual and archaeological evidence for the indigenous peoples of the Egyptian Eastern Desert in the third century BCE
Recent archaeological work in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, east of the Nile River Valley and south of the Sinai, has revealed a network of fortresses and way stations constructed in the mid-third century BCE by the pharaohs of Ptolemaic Egypt. These installations were constructed to supply and protect caravans transporting battle elephants from the coast of the Red Sea to the Nile Valley, as well as to provide support to mining expeditions dispatched to this mineral-rich region. The remains of these remote outposts demonstrate a significant investment by the Egyptian monarchs in the exploitation of this desert landscape and a remarkable period of intensive occupation that lasted some seventy years, ending in the early second century BCE in the years after the Great Revolt in Upper Egypt in 206 BCE.
The occupants of these desert forts left behind a remarkable material and textual record that gives detailed new information about their daily life, foodways and the network of contacts that sustained this desert community, including interactions with nomadic peoples of the region. This latter evidence will be the focus of this lecture, particularly newly discovered texts and ceramic vessels that attest to contact between the residents of the 3rd c BCE fort and a group of desert peoples, called Blhm.w(Blemmyes) in the demotic ostraka and Τρωγοδύται (Trogodytes) in the Greek ostraka found at the site. Handmade pottery was found in the middens of the fort along with the ostraka and is certainly associated with this group. These vessels, which have no published parallels, are similar but not identical to the pottery of the early Meroitic period in northern Sudan and with the ‘Eastern Desert Ware’ attested in the later Roman era in this desert region. This later type of pottery was also recovered at B’ir Samut in rooms that were reoccupied in the second half of the third century CE. Taken together, this new evidence points to B’ir Samut as a location of sustained contact between desert populations and residents of the Nile Valley both in the Hellenistic and later Roman eras.