The Tell el-Balamun Excavation since 1991

Summary of results

After 10 years' work in El-Ashmunein, British Museum curator Jeffrey Spencer went on to direct excavation at the site known as Tell el-Balamun in the northern Nile Delta. This huge and relatively intact stratified archaeological mound marks the position of Behdet or Sma-Behdet, the northernmost city of Pharaonic Egypt, established by 2400 BC and continuously occupied down to the beginning of the sixth century AD. The mound is over a kilometre in diameter and rises to a maximum elevation of nearly eighteen metres above the surrounding agricultural land. In antiquity it was a port on the estuary of a branch of the Nile, but the advance of the Delta coastline means that the site now lies some fifteen kilometres from the sea. By the New Kingdom the town had acquired the additional name of Paiuenamon, "The Island of the [god] Amun", from which 'Balamun' is derived.

Excavation began in 1991 and continued each Spring until 2008. As a city-mound in the fertile land of the Nile Delta, excavation at Tell el-Balamun is very different from work on the desert sites of Egypt, the ground being compact and muddy. Having attracted only limited attention from previous excavators, so little was known about this site that it proved possible to make major discoveries very rapidly. Chief among these were the following:

The finding of three enclosure walls of sun-dried bricks which surround the temple area. The largest of these, over twenty metres in thickness and enclosing an area of 16,000 square metres, dates from the Thirtieth Dynasty or about 360 BC. Within it on an only slightly smaller perimeter is an earlier wall from around 650 BC, with ruins of a brick-built citadel at the south corner. Subsequently, an enclosure of the Ramesside Period was discovered closer to the temple of Amun. The processional approach to this temple from the entrances of the enclosures of the Twenty-sixth and Thirtieth Dynasties was later overbuilt by a paved street in the Roman Period, for secular use.

The remains of three destroyed temples inside the Late-Period enclosures. The plans of these had to be recovered from the outlines of their vast sand-filled foundations. Buried in the foundation sand was crucial dating evidence in the form of several foundation deposits containing small objects inscribed with the royal names of the founders. These temples comprise the main temple of the god Amun and subsidiary temples of Psamtik I and Nectanebo I. Two smaller temples, dated less accurately to the Third Intermediate Period and the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. were discovered by magnetometry in 2005 and 2006. The latter temple contained much remaining limestone masonry among which were many decorated blocks, re-used from an older monument of King Sheshonq III (about 800 BC).

A small elite cemetery, discovered unexpectedly at the front of the main temple site, a location usually reserved for the burial of important persons. Some of the tombs were built of sun-dried bricks but others contained chambers or coffins of limestone. They were excavated with great difficulty since they had been entered by subsoil water, the level of which has risen since antiquity. The burials date from between 900 and 700 BC and had been equipped with fine sets of inner coffins decorated with gold leaf.