Skip to main content

The Desert Fayum in the twenty-first century

  • Simon Holdaway (a1), Rebecca Phillipps (a1), Joshua Emmitt (a1), Veerle Linseele (a2) (a3) and Willeke Wendrich (a4)...

From 1924–1928, Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor Gardner surveyed and excavated Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic sites across the Fayum north shore in Egypt, publishing a volume entitled The Desert Fayum (1934). Since then, a number of researchers have worked in the Fayum (e.g. Wendorf & Schild 1976; Hassan 1986; Wenke et al. 1988; Kozłowski & Ginter 1989), and most recently the UCLA/RUG/UOA Fayum Project. The long history of research in the area means that the Fayum is a testament to changing archaeological approaches, particularly regarding the Neolithic. Caton-Thompson and Gardner's study is recognised as one of the most progressive works on Egyptian prehistory, and their research provided the foundation for many subsequent studies in the region (e.g. Wendrich & Cappers 2005; Holdaway et al. 2010, 2016; Shirai 2010, 2013, 2015, 2016a; Emmitt 2011; Emmitt et al. 2017; Holdaway & Wendrich 2017). A recent article in Antiquity, however, uses Caton-Thompson and Gardner's preliminary interpretations of their excavations at a stratified deposit in the Fayum, Kom W, to generate a series of speculative statements concerning agricultural origins in the region (Shirai 2016b). The majority of these statements are very similar to conclusions initially made by Caton-Thompson and Gardner in the first half of the twentieth century, and new data and theory needed to reassess earlier conclusions are not considered. Recently published studies concerning the Fayum north shore and adjacent regions provide a different view of the state of research in this region and the Egyptian Neolithic in general. Here we acquaint Antiquity readers with current archaeological approaches to the Fayum north shore Neolithic, with the intent of stimulating academic debate.

Corresponding author
*Author for correspondence (Email:
Hide All
Bar-Yosef O. & Belfer-Cohen A.. 1989. The origins of sedentism and farming communities in the Levant. Journal of World Prehistory 3: 447–98.
Barrett M. 2014. Flake to core ratios and human mobility: an investigation of stone artefact assemblages from Egypt and Australia. Unpublished MA dissertation, University of Auckland. Available at: (accessed 1 August 2017).
Byrd B.F. 1989. The Natufian: settlement variability and economic adaptations in the Levant at the end of the Pleistocene. Journal of World Prehistory 3: 159–97.
Byrd B.F. 2005. Reassessing the emergence of village life in the Near East. Journal of Archaeological Research 13: 231–90.
Caton-Thompson G. & Gardner E.W.. 1934. The Desert Fayum. London: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
Close A.E. 2000. Reconstructing movement in prehistory. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 7: 4977.
Dibble H.L., Holdaway S.J., Lin S., Braun D.R., Douglass M., Iovita R., McPherron S.P., Olszewski D.I. & Sandgathe D.. 2016. Major fallacies surrounding stone artifacts and assemblages. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 24: 813–51.
Edmonds M. 1995. Stone tools and society. Working stone in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. London: Routledge.
Emmitt J. 2011. Investigating ceramics from the Neolithic occupation of Kom W, Fayum, Egypt. Unpublished MA Dissertation, University of Auckland.
Emmitt J., Sefton B., Phillipps R., Wendrich W. & Holdaway S.J.. 2017. Reimag(in)ing the past: adding the third dimension to archaeological section drawings. Advances in Archaeological Practice 5: 4453.
Hassan F. 1986. Holocene lakes and prehistoric settlements of the western Faiyum, Egypt. Journal of Archaeological Science 13: 483501.
Holdaway S.J. & Wendrich W.. 2017. The Desert Fayum reinvestigated: the early to mid-Holocene landscape archaeology of the Fayum north shore, Egypt. Los Angeles (CA): Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.
Holdaway S.J., Wendrich W. & Phillipps R.S.. 2010. Identifying low-level food producers: detecting mobility from lithics. Antiquity 84: 185–94.
Holdaway S.J., Phillipps R.S., Emmitt J. & Wendrich W.. 2016. The Fayum revisited: reconsidering the role of the Neolithic package, Fayum north shore, Egypt. Quaternary International 410: 73180.
Holmes D. 1991. Analysis and comparison of some prehistoric projectile points from Egypt. Institute of Archaeology Bulletin 28: 99132.
Kelly R.L. 1992. Mobility/sedentism: concepts, archaeological measures, and effects. Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 4366. 1146/
Kozłowski J.K. & Ginter B.. 1989. The Fayum Neolithic in the light of new discoveries, in Krzyżaniak L. & Kobusiewicz M. (ed.) Late Prehistory of the Nile Basin and the Sahara: 157–79. Poznań: Poznań Archaeological Museum.
Linseele V., Van Neer W., Thys S., Phillipps R., Cappers R.T.J., Wendrich W. & Holdaway S.J.. 2014. New archaeological data from the Fayum ‘Neolithic’ with a critical assessment of the evidence for early stock keeping in Egypt. PLoS ONE 9: e108517. 0108517
Linseele V., Holdaway S.J. & Wendrich W.. 2016. The earliest phase of introduction of southwest Asian domesticated animals into Africa. New evidence from the Fayum Oasis in Egypt and its implications. Quaternary International 412: 1121.
Phillipps R.S. 2006. Neolithic surface stone artefact assemblages from the Fayum, Egypt. Unpublished MA dissertation, University of Auckland.
Phillipps R.S. 2012. Documenting socio-economic variability in the Egyptian Neolithic through stone artefact analysis. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Auckland.
Phillipps R.S. & Holdaway S.J.. 2016. Estimating core number in assemblages: core movement and mobility in the Holocene in the Fayum, Egypt. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 23: 520–40.
Phillipps R.S., Holdaway S.J., Emmitt J. & Wendrich W.. 2016. Variability in the Neolithic settlement patterns of the Egyptian Nile Valley. African Archaeological Review 33: 277–95.
Shirai N. 2010. The archaeology of the first farmer-herders in Egypt: new insights into the Fayum Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic. Leiden: Leiden University Press.
Shirai N. 2013. Was Neolithisation a struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, or merely the survival of the luckiest? A case study of socio-economic and cultural changes in Egypt in the Early–Middle Holocene, in Shirai N. (ed.) Neolithisation of northeastern Africa: 213–35. Berlin: ex Oriente.
Shirai N. 2015. Filling the gap between the Fayum Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic, in Kabaciński J., Chłodnicki M. & Kobusiewicz M. (ed.) Hunter-gatherers and early food producing societies in northeastern Africa: 221–38. Poznań: Poznań Archaeological Museum.
Shirai N. 2016a. Establishing a Neolithic farming life in Egypt: a view from the lithic study at Fayum Neolithic sites. Quaternary International 412: 2235.
Shirai N. 2016b. The Desert Fayum at 80: revisiting a Neolithic farming community in Egypt. Antiquity 90: 1181–95.
Shott M. 1989. On tool-class use lives and the formation of archaeological assemblages. American Antiquity 54: 930.
Smith B.D. 2001. Low-level food production. Journal of Archaeological Research 9: 143.
von den Driesch A. & Boessneck J.. 1985. Die Tierknochenfundeaus der neolithischen Siedlung von Merimde-Beni Salâme an westlichen Nildelta. München: Institut für Paläeoanotomie, Domestikationsforschung und Geschichte der Tiermedizin.
Warfe A.R. 2003. Cultural origins of the Egyptian Neolithic and Predynastic—an evaluation of the evidence from the Dakhleh Oasis (south-central Egypt). The African Archaeological Review 20: 175202.
Wendorf F. & Schild R.. 1976. Prehistory of the Nile Valley. New York: Academic.
Wendrich W. & Cappers R.. 2005. Egypt's earliest granaries: evidence from the Fayum. Egyptian Archaeology 27: 1215.
Wendrich W., Taylor R.E. & Southon J.. 2010. Dating stratified settlement sites at Kom K and Kom W: fifth millennium BCE radiocarbon ages for the Fayum Neolithic. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research B 268: 9991002.
Wengrow D. 2006. The archaeology of early Egypt: social transformations in North-East Africa 10,000 to 2650 BC. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wenke R.J., Long J.E. & Buck P.E.. 1988. Epipaleolithic and Neolithic subsistence and settlement in the Fayyum Oasis of Egypt. Journal of Field Archaeology 15: 2951.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 15 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 92 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 9th February 2018 - 19th February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.