Malqata is a particularly amazing site as it is a settlement—and not just any settlement, but one that contains palaces, temples, workshops, and dwellings for the elite as well as for workers. Such sites are rare to excavate as most places that were convenient to live in during ancient times are still considered desirable dwelling places, and therefore are inhabited continuously and unavailable to archaeologists. Luckily, Amenhotep III’s festival palace complex now lies in the desert margins, so, for the most part, no new buildings have been built on it and we can easily reach the levels of Amenhotep’s time.
I am delighted to continue my work at Malqata. For my Ph.D. I worked on bones that had been excavated in the 1970s, and since then have been adding to that material with what the JEM has been digging up in different areas, which is expanding our knowledge not only of the site, but also of what different groups of people were eating there.
This year I worked on the animal bones coming from a series of mud brick structures in the West Settlement, excavated by Janice Kamrin. The bones were found in corners of rooms or courtyards, or along walls, often mixed in with broken pottery. These were meticulously collected by hand—even very tiny fish bones have made it into the sample.
The bones from this year’s work showed that the people who lived here were eating cattle, probably quite young and tender as they were under two years of age when they were butchered. Clearly, the king’s herds were providing food for the people here. They were also eating sheep, goats, and large quantities of poultry and fish. The poultry consisted mainly of ducks and some geese, all of which are pictured on the pavements and walls of the palace, and were either brought from near the Nile or were maybe even bred along the edges of the Birket Habu, the huge ceremonial lake just east of Malqata. The fish, mainly Tilapia and Nile Perch, might also have come from the same place. But not all the fish were Nilotic—this year there was a fabulous surprise. One of the fish bones that was identified came from a Gilt Headed Seabream (Sparus aurata), which thrives in both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. These fish also venture into brackish water, and thus might have been acquired from the Delta rather than from the sea. This would suggest that some of the fish that was being eaten at Malqata was imported from the Delta, probably coming in as salted fish.
As there was no refrigeration in ancient Egypt, the Egyptians depended on salt to preserve meat, poultry, and fish. In fact, their salted fish was so famous that it was exported all over the Mediterranean! Once the fish had been caught, it was gutted, washed out, and then packed in salt for a week or two. After that, it would be hung out to dry a bit more, and then packed in jars, and sent wherever it needed to go. Some of the jar labels found at Malqata list Tilapia as their contents—maybe the Seabream was caught, along with the Tilapia, in the Delta, salted, packed into jars, and sent south to be eaten at the royal palace.