Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt

Alexandra Villing, Marianne Bergeron, Giorgos Bourogiannis, Alan Johnston, François Leclère, Aurélia Masson and Ross Thomas

With Daniel von Recklinghausen, Jeffrey Spencer, Valerie Smallwood, Virginia Webb and Susan Woodford

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Supported by

The Leverhulme Trust
  • The Shelby White - Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications
  • Christian Levett and the Mougins Museum of Classical Art
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Alexandra Villing

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The 7th century BC saw the opening of Egypt to the Mediterranean world and the development of close contact between the two great civilizations of Greece and Egypt. Egyptian Pharaohs of the Saite dynasty began to employ Greek mercenaries in their army. Greek goods appeared in Egypt and Egyptian goods in Greece. Greek culture began to incorporate Egyptian traits, based on first-hand knowledge of Egyptian monuments and ideas.

Fig. 1: map of the Egyptian Nile Delta (satellite image of 02 05 2003, Visible Earth Record no. 24588 (Jacques Descloitres, Modis Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC) with ancient sites, Nile channels and canals marked. © François Leclère

The town of Naukratis in the Egyptian Nile Delta was the pivotal point of contact and exchange between the two cultures. Situated on the Canopic branch of the Nile between the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Memphis, not far from the royal city of Sais, Naukratis acted as a privileged gateway for trade and exchange between Egypt and the peoples of the Mediterranean, channelling goods, people and ideas. As the earliest Greek settlement in Egypt, it was home to both Greeks and Egyptians. Its Greek name, Naukratis, derived from its Egyptian name, Nokradj; another Egyptian term for the site was Per-Meryt, the-House-of-the-Harbour. Greeks began to trade and settle at Naukratis at the end of the 7th century BC and lived here in close contact with Egyptians for centuries, joined at times by Cypriots, Phoenicians, Persians and other foreigners as visitors or co-residents. After the foundation of Alexandria in the late 4th century BC the city continued to flourish. Even as its international importance declined Naukratis remained a major regional centre until early Byzantine times.

In 1884 the site of ancient Naukratis was rediscovered by W. M. Flinders Petrie, pioneer of Egyptian archaeology. Four excavation seasons were conducted between 1884 and 1903. The fieldwork brought to light large parts of the town, notably the Greek sanctuaries of Aphrodite, Apollo, Hera and the Dioskouroi, the Hellenion sanctuary, a faience workshop, a (Greek) cemetery, streets and houses, as well as the large ‘Great Temenos’, later identified as an Egyptian temple complex for the god Amun-Ra. A wealth of archaeological finds was discovered in and around these buildings, dating from the late 7th century BC through to Roman and Byzantine times. They include a large and highly significant body of painted Greek pottery – some 2,700 inscribed sherds, the largest corpus of votive graffiti on pottery known from the ancient Greek world – as well as Egyptian and Cypriot pottery, Greek, Egyptian, Cypriot and Phoenician inscriptions, stone sculptures, terracotta figurines, faience scarabs and amulets, alabastra, bronze figurines, tools, architectural elements and numerous other kinds of objects.

With its rich and unbroken record covering many centuries, Naukratis thus has a unique potential to shed light on the momentous interaction between Greece, Egypt and other civilizations, on networks of trade, processes of contact, and the roles played by trade, religion and material culture in this city over more than a millennium. However, our understanding of Naukratis to date remains patchy and controversial. The reasons for this are twofold. First, the original site publications were highly limited, the over 17,000 extant finds from the site are today scattered over more than 70 collections worldwide, the majority unpublished and unstudied. Second, scholarly attention traditionally focused on only a few groups of finds and topics, notably Greek painted pottery, the earliest history of the site, and its political status as a Greek polis and emporion. The Egyptian aspects of Naukratis and the site’s later development remain poorly known and understood.

A systematic re-evaluation of the site and its finds was thus clearly needed – in particular, a comprehensive catalogue of the surviving finds from the early excavations at the site, re-contextualized with the help of excavation diaries, letters and photographs, museum records and publications, with each object and each context re-evaluated in the light of modern archaeological methods and knowledge. This is what the present catalogue aims to do. It is one of the outcomes of a major project investigating Naukratis and Greek–Egyptian relations based at the British Museum, and funded by the Museum itself alongside grants from the Leverhulme Trust (Research Project Grant F/00 052/E), the Shelby White and Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications, and various other institutions and individuals. Reuniting and analysing the over 17,000 extant objects from Naukratis, it provides a basis for reassessing and amending the original 19th-century excavators’ interpretations and for a new understanding of the history and significance of the city.

The catalogue of finds from Naukratis is of significance beyond the immediate confines of the site. Many of the objects constitute evidence for the development of Greek, Egyptian and Cypriot art and craftsmanship, religion, trade and interaction in general. The large body of Greek votive inscriptions, for example, sheds light on the development of ancient votive practices and Greek script; the enormous assemblage of painted pottery holds in store many new insights into the nature of Greek ceramic production and distribution, especially concerning the East Greek area; the substantial body of stamped handles from trade amphorae enhances our knowledge of Mediterranean trade networks connecting East Greece, central and northern Greece, Italy, Tripolitania and Egypt; Archaic stone and terracotta figurines imported from Cyprus add significant aspects to our understanding of that island’s complex multi-ethnic culture and web of international connections; while locally produced terracotta, stone and (probably) bronze figurines give reason to reconsider and revise existing notions of the development of Late Period to Ptolemaic craft production in a period of increasing contact with the outside world.

The following chapters provide a general overview of the site and especially to its rich material culture. Analyzing the numerous archaeological finds from the early excavations at the site that are detailed in the accompanying catalogue, they tell the story of the site and its inhabitants over the more than one thousand years that it was a crossroads of ancient cultures. They will also illuminate the history of the early exploration of the site, its aims and method, the distribution of finds and the site’s evaluation by scholars across the ages.