Shift away from Nile incision at Luxor ~4,000 years ago impacted ancient Egyptian landscapes

In a new study published in Nature Geoscience, a team of earth scientists, archaeologists and Egyptologists present evidence of how the landscape of the Egyptian Nile Valley has been shaped by climatic and environmental changes over the past 11,500 years.
Shift away from Nile incision at Luxor ~4,000 years ago impacted ancient Egyptian landscapes

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Here we outline our work to investigate and map the subsurface of the Egyptian Nile Valley near Luxor (ancient Thebes) in order to better understand cultural dynamics and the ancient Egyptians’ relationship with their riverine environment.

 The Nile River forms the fertile green corridor that links the Nile’s headwaters in equatorial Africa to its delta in the Mediterranean. Understanding its evolution is pivotal to discussions of river system dynamics and ancient cultural development. Our research area in Upper Egypt includes the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Luxor and Karnak temples located in the Nile’s present floodplain as well as the Millions of Years temples and other necropoleis on the Western Desert margin. These places were connected both physically and mythologically to the riverine landscape.

With our team of five geoscientists (Jan Peeters, Willem Toonen, Ben Pennington, Tim Winkels and Kathryn Adamson), managed by the project’s principal investigator (Angus Graham) and assisted by our team of local workers led by Reis Omar Farouk and Reis Alaa Farouk, we drilled over 80 sediment cores in a ~10 km-wide transect spanning the Nile Valley near modern-day Luxor. Information about the subsurface was collected by a combination of hand-operated augers (Photo 1) and a gasoline-powered percussion corer.

Photo 1. Hand-auger team in action in a Berseem field on the Nile’s West Bank. Credit: Angus Graham

Every ~10 cm interval of the Nile’s Holocene river deposits were studied and had their characteristics such as sedimentary texture, grain-size, colour and sorting logged in the field. Our boreholes reached an average depth of ~8 m, while many penetrated the subsurface to a depth of 10 metres or more. Their spacing varied from ~20 to 200 m, depending on the heterogeneity of the subsurface. The cross section was strategically placed to span the entire river valley, perpendicular to the main axis of the Nile Valley and the current river, while following governmental policies and regulatory procedures for working in and around protected Egyptian Antiquities areas.

After detailed recording of the Nile’s deposits, the sediments were wet-sieved into two classes (2-4 mm and >4 mm), which were then sorted manually into ceramic and other small finds by our meticulous team of local workers supervised by Luke Sollars and Virginia Emery. All this sieved material is stored at Karnak in the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities storerooms, where the uncovered ceramic fragments were studied by Aurélia Masson-Berghoff and Marie Millet. In addition to the sediment coring, geophysical survey along the transects was conducted by Kristian Strutt and Dominic Barker.

Based on the initial interpretation and reconstruction of the Nile Valley’s Holocene record, specific core sites were then selected and revisited by Jan Peeters, Angus Graham and Dominic Barker to take geological samples (Photo 2). Initial sediment analyses were supervised by Hosni Ghazala at Mansoura University (Egypt) and were then forwarded to the Oxford Luminescence Dating Laboratory (UK), where robust age information from strategically targeted sedimentary units was acquired through optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) ages by Julie Durcan.

Photo 2. Percussion-corer team drilling for geological samples in a sugarcane field in front of the Theban Hills.  Credit: Angus Graham

Without doubt, our most interesting find is the rapid change from valley incision, occurring from the start of the record until ~4,000 years ago, to massive floodplain aggradation. We argue that this relatively abrupt change in the riverine landscape near Luxor is linked to a shift towards a drier hydroclimate around this time. Such a dramatic change in river sediment dynamics almost certainly will have had consequences for the agro-economy in the ancient Theban region.

Our palaeoenvironmental reconstruction near Luxor shows that the single-channel of the Egyptian Nile today is not analogous to the Nile system throughout much of the Holocene. For most of this time, the Egyptian Nile consisted of multiple mobile branches and the current single-thread, largely immobile Nile River, positioned centrally in its valley, only became established around 2,000 years ago.

These new insights into the evolution of the Egyptian Nile Valley near Luxor provide essential landscape context for archaeologists and Egyptologists to re-interpret ancient sites in the region and re-consider locations of settlements in the Nile valley. This work also forms the basis for future research by the Theban Harbours and Waterscapes Survey team, which focuses on the origin and palaeoenvironment of Karnak Temple, arguably one of the largest and most important temple complexes in the ancient world.

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Earth Sciences
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Earth Sciences
Environmental Archaeology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Archaeology > Environmental Archaeology
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Geography > Physical Geography > Geomorphology
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Earth Sciences > Sedimentology
Physical Geography
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Geography > Physical Geography
Archaeology and Heritage
Humanities and Social Sciences > Archaeology > Archaeology and Heritage

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