A falcon shrine from the late Roman period was uncovered by archaeologists during the excavation of a religious complex at the ancient seaport of Berenike in Egypt’s Eastern desert, according to a study published in the American Journal of Archaeology this month.
Researchers from the Sikait Project, overseen by Joan Oller Guzmán from the Department of Antiquity and Middle Age Studies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain, link the results of the January 2019 excavation season at the 4th to 6th century C.E. religious complex to the presence of the nomadic people Blemmyes.
The port city was originally a Red Sea harbor founded by Ptolomy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century B.C.E. It continued to operate through the Roman and Byzantine periods, at which point it became a central commercial hub for ships coming from Cape Horn, Arabia, and India.
Researchers believe the city was at least partially occupied and controlled by the Blemmyes, a nomadic group of people from the region of Nubia who were expanding into the area during the Late Roman period.
While excavating the site, along the Northern complex, which contains several buildings, the team found evidence of the Blemmyes including inscriptions and the falcon shrine.
The falcon shrine is Egyptian shrine with two small consecutive rectangular rooms, Its walls are lined with white anhydrite gypsum ashlars with an alcove of marble revetment. The first room contained a large stone offering table and a lidless coarse ware jar. In the back room was a cube statue, which features a head emerging from a block of stone, with a damaged Greek inscription, and an offering stand. Among the finds were 735 animal remains comprised of skeletal fragments of various fish, birds, and mammals, as well as pieces of bird eggshells—the bulk of which included fifteen headless falcons.
In the anteroom, to the east of the falcon shrine, a round-topped stele with traditional Egyptian iconography and Greek text was found. The unfinished raised relief shows the pharoah offering a round object to three gods, including the falcon god. The inscription, on the other hand, warns against a religious taboo, reading, “It is improper to boil a head in here.” Also found were a harpoon of unknown provenance and coins.
A nearby room along the southwest side of the Northern complex contained a large wooden box-like structure tentatively identified as an altar. Other finds include several statuettes, a lamp base, and a pot sherd inscribed with a cross. Researchers believe the room served as a ritual space until it was abandoned in the 5th century C.E.
At the complex’s northern-most end, a large inscribed Greek lintel was found at a shrine entrance. The inscriptions refer to Blemmyan king Isemne. Researchers believe it was likely carved in the late fourth or early fifth century C.E. In an adjacent shrine, another Greek lintel inscription mentions a Blemmyan king Kabantia.
While the specific purposes of each shrine are not entirely clear, the complex would have had religious importance. The scale and structural complexity of the site further indicate its significance in the city.
“The material findings are particularly remarkable and include offerings such as harpoons, cube-shaped statues, and a stele with indications related to religious activities,” Oller said in a statement.
Although the worshiping and burials of falcons for religious purposes have been documented among the Nile Valley, this is the first time researchers have found the birds buried within a temple and accompanied by eggs. Typically, among other sites, only individual specimens have been discovered.
This, combined with a stele inscription, the researchers believe, indicate the emergence of new groups and a broader socio-political reorganization of peoples in the region among shifting cult rituals.
“All of these elements point to intense ritual activities combining Egyptian traditions with contributions from the Blemmyes, sustained by a theological base possibly related to the worshipping of the god Khonsu,” explains Oller. “The discoveries expand our knowledge of these semi-nomad people, the Blemmyes, living in the Eastern desert during the decline of the Roman Empire.”