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Naukratis (or Naucratis) was a town in Egypt in the Nile delta near the modern village of Kom Gi’eif. The archaeological remains of the city are complicated, and still badly understood more than a century after excavations began. The interpretation of the site relies heavily on short references in two ancient authors, Herodotus, a Greek historian of the 5th century BC, and Strabo, a Roman geographer of the 1st century BC.

 

 

The ancient authors both describe Naukratis as a town founded by Greeks that was important for trading, but they apparently disagree is about when the settlement was established, and which of the Greeks was responsible. According to Strabo (17.1.18), it was an enterprise by the Milesians around the time of Pharaoh Psammetichos, usually understood to be Psammetichos I, who ruled Egypt 664-610 BC. Herodotus (2.178-9), recorded that it was a joint enterprise by many Greeks and was instigated by the Pharaoh Amasis (Ahmose) who reigned 570-526 BC. Amasis gave the land to the Greeks to settle and set up temples, becoming the only Greek trading port allowed in Egypt.

Since the discovery of the site in the late 19th century, archaeologists have focused on reconciling the archaeological and literary evidence. Flinders Petrie first identified Naukratis in 1883, and excavated there in 1884-1885, followed by an 1886 excavation by Gardner working under Petrie’s direction. These excavations uncovered the remains of several enclosures, which were identified as sanctuaries to the Greek gods Apollo, Hera, Aphrodite and the Dioskouroi, based on the inscriptions on the pottery dedications. Petrie also found a faience factory for making scarabs. In the south of the site he discovered a large open-air structure that he named the Great Temenos (A), and which he believed to be the Hellaneion, a temple for all the Greeks described by Herodotus.

 

Detail of Petrie’s plan of his excavations at Naukratis, showing the Temple of Dioskouroi, Temple of Apollo and The Great Temenos. Source: W.M. Flinders Petrie, Naukratis (London, 1886), Plate XL

Subsequent excavations by Hogarth in 1899 and 1903 confirmed the identification of the Greek temples, but suggested that Petrie’s ‘Great Temenos’ was actually an Egyptian building, perhaps a fortress, suggesting that there was an Egyptian settlement at Naukratis before the Greeks arrived. Hogarth believed the Hellaneion was in the northeast of the site, but that remains controversial. Limited excavations and surface surveys in 1977-8 and the 1980s have uncovered remains of later Ptolemaic houses in the south of the site, but no evidence of the ‘Great Temenos’.

While the architectural evidence remains unclear, the masses of pottery at the site suggest that this was a town where people from all over the Greek world congregated, bringing pottery to dedicate or trade. The earliest Greek pottery (from Corinth, the east Greek islands and Athens) dates to about 620 BC, proving that a town existed and enjoyed Greek contacts before the reign of Pharaoh Amasis. By the mid 6th century BC Greek pottery was being custom-ordered, with inscriptions painted before the pot was fired, naming both the dedicator and the divine dedicatee.

The early excavations were funded by the Egypt Exploration Society, and a proportion of the finds from the site were divided amongst the contributors to the Society, which included the Fitzwilliam Museum. Some of the Naukratis material which arrived in the Fitzwilliam in 1894 and 1899 is now on display in the Greece and Rome gallery (Gallery 21, showcase 2) and the Egypt gallery (Gallery 20).

The area of ancient Naukratis as it appears today. Photo  © Dr Penelope Wilson, 2010

 

Today, much of the Egyptian site is underwater, covered by a lake that formed in the early excavations of Petrie and Hogarth. However, scientific investigations, such as the Western Delta Survey Project continue in the area, while the evidence uncovered by the old excavations is being re-studied. The British Museum research project Naukratis: the Greeks in Egypt is studying all the excavation material that is now scattered around the world in over sixty museums.

Further reading

Albert Leonard Jnr, Ancient Naukratis: Excavations at a Greek Emporium in Egypt. Part 1, the Excavations at Kom Ge’if (American Schools of Oriental Research, 1997).

John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas, Their Early Colonies and Trade (4th edition: London, 2000), Chapter 4.