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Antiquity Vol 80 No 307 March 2006

The fire makers of El-Kharafish: a late prehistoric camp site in the Egyptian Western Desert

Heiko Riemer, Nadja Pöllath, Stefanie Nussbaum & Hubert Berke

Since 1995 archaeological research on the interaction of climate and cultural development in arid zones of the Western Desert of Egypt has been carried out within the frame of the interdisciplinary ACACIA project (University of Cologne, Germany). The main period of interest is the so-called Holocene humid phase, c. 9000-5000 cal BC, when the Eastern Sahara had turned into a dry Savannah-like environment (Gehlen et al. 2002). In recent years the focus of research has shifted towards the late prehistory and the transition to the pharaonic occupation in the Western Desert, c. 3000-2200 cal BC, since there have been a number of surprising discoveries of pharaonic and late prehistoric sites. While most sites belong to pharaonic operations, such as along the 400km long Abu Ballas Trail (Kuper 2001), the site El-Karafish 02/5 is a temporary desert camp site of the local pastoral nomads.

Figure 1

Figure 1. The hill of El-Kharafish 02/5. The second excavation (02/5-2) took place within a shelter above the rubble slope.

The site is a hill 20m high (Figure 1) situated on the Egyptian Limestone Plateau 25km north of Dakhla Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt (Figure 2). The examination of nearly 2500 excavated potsherds (Figure 3) has indicated that the site is a camp of the so-called Late Sheikh Muftah culture in Dakhla Oasis, a local nomadic culture parallel to the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom along the Nile. Even after the Egyptian occupation of the Western Desert and its oases, for which the earliest evidence is attested in Dakhla not before the fourth dynasty (Kaper & Willems 2002), the Sheikh Muftah indigenes still existed independently till the Old Kingdom exodus at the end of the sixth dynasty/beginning of the first intermediate period, although an admixture with Egyptian potsherds can be found on the sites (Mills 1999).

C14 dates and the analysis of the pottery revealed two occupation phases at El-Kharafish: a phase within the Early Dynastic with local pottery; and an early Old Kingdom occupation phase with some additional Egyptian material that makes up about 1.5 per cent of the pottery (Figure 3).

Figure 2 (Click to view)

Figure 2. Map of Dakhla Oasis and the southern Egyptian Limestone Plateau showing the position of El-Kharafish 02/5.

It has been generally accepted that sites of the local Sheikh Muftah culture are exclusively present within the oasis of Dakhla (McDonald 1999) but not further out in the desert since the climate changed towards hyperaridity and the Eastern Sahara turned into an inhospitable desert after 5000 cal BC. This is basically true, but since the discovery of El-Kharafish this picture has had to be revised to some extent. The character of a base camp affiliated with an enormous accumulation and a diverse spectrum of artefacts indicates a longer stay over weeks or months in the desert areas. Why did the people go out into the barren desert surrounding the oasis? This question may be connected to a third group of pottery that can be found at the site of El-Kharafish: the so-called 'Clayton rings and discs' were discovered at many desert places across the Eastern Sahara (Riemer & Kuper 2000). They consist of cylinders (like flower pots) open at both ends with associated pierced discs inside (Figure 3). Although their use is still open to question, it is suggested that they were especially used within the arid context, and represent people who often crossed the desert.

Figure 3 (Click to view)

Figure 3. Pottery excavated at El-Kharafish 02/5, from left to right: Fragments of Egyptian storage jars; rim sherds of Sheikh Muftah vessels; Clayton ring; collection of Clayton discs.
Figure 4 (Click to view)

Figure 4. Horn cores of small gazelles from El-Kharafish 02/5.

The environment as reflected in the faunal and floral record of El-Kharafish was mainly arid. Nevertheless, the vicinity of the site must have offered sufficient vegetation at least seasonally to attract gazelles. Meat was obtained almost exclusively by hunting gazelles (Figure 4) complemented by fowling and egg collecting. A single cattle bone indicates the presence of domestic livestock. The composition of the faunal remains suggests that El-Kharafish was inhabited seasonally after rainfall, i.e. during late winter and/or early spring.

The most impressive find at El-Kharafish 02/5 is an underlying hearth stick of a fire drill (Figure 5) that was excavated in a small sheltered room atop the rubble slope of the hill. It is 21cm long and about 2cm in diameter. Two drilled holes are applied at the one end. Each hole is connected to a notch that collects the char as it is rubbed off and enables the ember to ignite. The holes are blackened from the heat that has been produced by the friction.

Another wooden stick obviously represents a drill spindle (Figure 5). The blackened tip that rotates in the hole of the underlying stick has been ground down to a nearly flat end with a characteristic small tip in the centre. Surface abrasion perpendicular to the stick most probably results from the use of a bow (Figure 6), however, neither the bow shaft nor the socket have yet been found. Fragments of strings found together with the fire stick may be remains of the bowstring. Both, hearth board and drill were made out of the same wood material, namely Chenopodiaceae, as evidenced by the archaeobotanical analysis.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Spindle and underlying hearth stick of the fire drill (Note that these tool elements could not have been used together, as the drill bit is too thick for the underlying stick).
Figure 6

Figure 6. Fire experiment with a bow drill in 2005.

The El-Kharafish fire drill can securely be dated to Early Dynastic or Old Kingdom, as it was embedded in the sediment fill of the rock shelter connected to Sheikh Muftah and Egyptian potsherds. As for parallels, there is evidence of fire drills from Egyptian contexts, but younger in age, such as the eighteenth dynasty drill set from Kahun (Petrie 1891: pl. 7) and the decorated drill found in the Tomb of Tutankhamen (Reeves 1991: 196). However, the drill technique must have existed earlier - the Egyptian hieroglyph of the fire drill indicates an age which goes back to the times when the El-Kharafish drill was manufactured, or even somewhat earlier.

We are grateful to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) for funding the ACACIA project, to the Egyptian authorities of SCA, and to Rudolph Kuper as the head of the mission.


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Heiko Riemer (corresponding author), Stefanie Nussbaum, Hubert Berke: Institute of Prehistory, African Department, University of Cologne, Germany (Email:;
Nadja Pöllath: Institut für Paläoanatomie und Geschichte der Tiermedizin, Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, Germany (Email:

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