A “Hollow Scraper” from the Middle Paleolithic / MSA of Ancient Thebes

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Ancient Thebes was home to some of the greatest monuments of the ancient world—built to honor the living, the dead, and the divine. The city, known as Waset to ancient Egyptians and as Luxor today, was the capital of Egypt during parts of the Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1750 B.C.) and the New Kingdom (circa 1550 to 1070 B.C.).

Paleolithic artifacts from Thebes were collected since the 1850ies and are part of many important prehistoric collections in the western world. This is a wonderful example of a “hollow scraper” very characteristic for the Thebes Paleolithic (Fig.1. and 2). The brown patination of the tool is essentially diagnostic for Paleolithic chert tools from the area.

The famous archaeologist Worsaae first drew attention to flint tools discovered on the borders of Egypt in 1867. In the following years Arcelin, Hamy and Lenormant reported further examples. An influential publication came from the famous John Lubbock in 1875:“Notes on the Discovery of Stone Implements in Egypt”.

Despite such reports, several prominent Egyptologists argued that the flint implements recovered had only been used during the Dynastic Period for the construction of tombs or had been employed during mummification rituals.  The man who drew renewed attention to a possible Pleistocene age of “Egyptian Cherts” in 1882 was A.H. Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (On the discovery of chert implements in stratified graves in the Nile Valley near Thebes; 1882).  It was not ignorance, but the insistence on  a certain scientific rigor to insist, that similarity between contextualized Paleolithic European and non- stratified Egyptian artifacts did not suffice to proof a very old age for the latter. It finally took many years  and a century of research of stratified MSA sites in Egypt until the Paleolithic age of these findings was generally accepted.

In addition, early doubts about the antiquity of Egyptian Paleolithic artifacts persisted for a long time because they did not match well with the 19th / early 2oth century idea that humans originated in Europe.

The piece, displayed in this post is a large crescent-shaped flint artifact. It is heavily reworked and retouched all over the concave edge 100 mm across. The artifact is called “hollow scraper” and very characteristic  for the  area around Thebes. The first description comes from Pitt-Rivers 1882 report. Figure 3 shows a nice example of Victorian illustration. Here Pitt-Rivers argued that Paleolithic artifacts were washed down from the high plateaus around Luxor to the great Wadi of the Tombs of the Kings, where these flints were first found. Fine examples of hollow scrapers are displayed on the internet portal of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

aggsbach thebes

MSA assemblages in the Thebes area are usually discovered from surface scatters.  Many of these had been already plundered during the late 19th early 20th century and are nowadays cleared  from the “best pieces”.  In general, the artifacts tend to be large to medium in size. Typologically they include Levallois flakes, Levallois points, various sidescrapers, notched pieces and denticulated pieces. Hollow scrapers are often present in low quantities in such ensembles, while they were never noticed in association with tools from later periods. It therefore seems reasonable to link them to the local MSA.seligman thebes

The MSA of Northern Upper Egypt is manly ascribed to the Nubian Complex, but scatters from the “local” complex are also present. The stratified sites near the Nil and from the Western Oases have a documented Paleolithic sequence from the Acheulian, MSA and Early and late Paleolithic. The MSA was dated to MIS6 and 5, while stratified tools from MIS 4/ early MIS3 are unknown, most probably due to the hyperarid conditions during this time.

Seligman, in 1921 was the first to call attention to the fact, that hollow scrapers were probably prepared cores,  that were reworked for further use after their primary function had been accomplished. An early example of a “chaine operatoire” approach (Fig. 4)!

Seligman’s reconstruction remains very convincing. Judging from the retouches, a scraping function of these tools seems to be very probable, although the functional meaning of “hollow scrapers” remains essentially unknown, because the state of their preservation precludes further evaluation by use ware analysis.

Diffusion of innovation remains a key issue in Paleolithic research, because its reconstruction gives answers to group interaction and evidence of awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption of technical strategies by our ancestors. Why the production of “hollow scrapers” remained a regional phenomenon of Northern Middle Egypt remains a mystery.

But there are convergent phenomena: Until recently I tought, that these scrapers were specific for the MSA oft he Thebes vicinity, but one of my readers sent me a pic from an almost identical tool from the the middle terasse oft the Rur valley in W-Germany and mentioned a similar piece from the La Grande Vallee site a Colombiers in France.  In addition hollow scrapers are also known from the MSA of Maroc- same circumstances-same solution…

There are no modern Prospections or excavations in the Thebes area. How old is the Acheulian / MSA in this region? Two chert artifacts from the Thebes Mountains  have yielded concentrations of cosmogenic 10Be that allow calculation of nominal exposure ages of around 300,000 years. These exposure ages represent composite ages, comprised of exposures both before and after working.

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