In our exploration of the cities and towns of ancient Egypt we have seen the different sources of evidence that can be used to interpret the places where the ancient Egyptians lived together as small or large communities. Some of that evidence comes from the visible physical remains of houses, streets and administrative buildings, but actually surprisingly little of it. In fact it is astonishing how even the largest and most impressive of ancient Egyptian cities can disappear. Of the four greatest cities of the New Kingdom – perhaps the high point of Egyptian civilization – we have seen that the obviously impressive temples and tombs at Thebes are only the monumental core of the ancient city, that Amarna was reduced to a bleak desert plain, that Memphis is only visible in tiny scattered fragments and that Pr-Ramesses had completely vanished under the fields of the Eastern Nile Delta. But we have also seen that those very cities, especially Amarna, Memphis and Pr-Ramesses, have been, and continue to be, slowly and patiently brought to light by the work of archaeologists who are using a range of sophisticated methods of site location and site investigation to recover all that can be discovered about these great urban centres.
Those same techniques are also being used to explore a great variety of settlement sites throughout Egypt and its border regions. The stories of Amarna, Memphis and Pr-Ramesses tell us how remarkably easy it is to lose an ancient city and how difficult it can be to find it again. For smaller ancient settlements the problem is often greater. Our ancient sources (such as town-lists or the presence of nearby cemeteries) might provide evidence of the existence of particular towns, but there is no guarantee that we can locate them with any accuracy, let alone explore their remains. At the same time the effort that has been put in recent years into archaeological survey and prospection in traditionally unexplored areas, especially in the Nile Delta, has revealed a wealth of interesting data, which is revolutionizing our understanding of the settlement of ancient Egypt.
The future of settlement archaeology in Egypt is both exciting and challenging, and there is still much work to be done before our understanding of the cities and towns of ancient Egypt can truly be said to be complete.
The rediscovery of the city of Avaris in the Eastern Delta is an important example of the way in which a range of different archaeological techniques can be used to explore superficially unpromising sites. Here two of these techniques – geophysical prospection and aerial photography – have been combined to provide a composite view of what is visible both above (colour) and below (black and white) the ground near the modern village of Ezbet el-Ezzawin. Österreichisches Archäologisches Institut Zweigstelle, Cairo.