Archaeologists excavating the port settlement of Marea in Egypt have discovered that a significant portion of the site used to be a large-scale and well-planned urban colony that was founded in the sixth century AD.

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Settlement of Marea _© Mariusz Gwiazda

The ancient city of Marea used to be one of the most active ports along the northern coast during Roman-era Egypt (30 BC to 640 AD). Marea, or the modern village of Hawwariya, is on the southern shore of Lake Mareotis, around 45km southwest of the city of Alexandria and 17km north of the Christian sanctuary of Abu Mena. The origin of the city dates back to 332 BC and was said to be founded during the time of Alexander the Great. The city was a bustling industrial center and harbor, inhabited through the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic eras and ultimately abandoned in the 8th century AD. Based on its location, the town would have served as a stop along the route to Abu Mena, which was located around 50km southwest of Alexandria and researchers believe that the pilgrims who were traveling to the Christian shrine in Abu Mena helped build some structures in this small town.

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The ruins of the Abu Mena sanctuary _© www.express.co.uk/news/science/1471049/egypt-archaeology-christian-town-ruins-discovery-marea-scn

Egyptian, American, French and Polish archaeologists have been conducting archaeological excavations at this ancient Roman wine-producing farm since the late 1970s. Since 2017, The Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw (PCMA) has been conducting extensive excavations of the entire site using non-invasive geophysical technologies.

Dr. Mariusz Gwiazda from the Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw, Poland, said: “In recent years we have revolutionized our understanding of this ancient city. All thanks to the use of non-invasive and geophysical methods in conjunction with excavations.”

A topographical survey followed the excavations, and this was used to develop a comprehensive plan of the architectural surface remains. The result revealed a dense urban area with no defensive walls. The archaeologists identified the existence of an ordered development, with a complex system of streets, comprehensive design of one-story structures, and extensive port infrastructure spreading across almost 13 hectares, dating back to the 6th-8th century AD.

The first wave of construction development in this region had occurred during the Hellenistic period, and later, when the Romans conquered the area. By the Islamic period, the urban settlement was so large, there was no need for further development, so these discoveries baffled the archeologists. Commenting on their findings, Dr. Mariusz Gwiazda from the PCMA said: “It was a great surprise for us, considering around this era there were no new cities created in Egypt.”

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Map of the Byzantine urban development area in Marea _© A.B. Kutiak & W. Małkowski, University of Warsaw

The western part of the built area showed substantial quantities of excess soil. It is presumed that the purpose was to raise the land for the second phase of buildings, post the construction of the waterfront area on the eastern side. Some of the soil tested was discovered to be waste that comes from the production of lime and gypsum. Ceramic vessels and terracotta figurines found here during excavation show that these buildings were probably constructed during the second half of the 6th century AD.

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Levelling layers under buildings _© M. Gwiazda
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Excavated fineware vessels and terracotta figurines _© K. Danys; photographs by T. Derda

The buildings typically comprised modules with repetitive plans of the same size, 14mx10m. Each had a row of three shops that faced towards the eastern waterfront. Behind each shop were two rooms for habitation, with a porch at the back that led out to the street. There was no connectivity between any of the modules, suggesting that each module was an independent unit. All the functional modules within each building together formed a structure that had a frontage of 260m.

Studies also showed a monumental 18m-wide central street that was possibly designed during the same period, connecting the Great Basilica in the north to the southern baths. There was a bath building comprising two identical frigidaria (cold pool rooms) on the western part of the waterfront. On either side of the communal bath, there were two houses with workshops. Each had four modules of identical size and layout. The similarity in the plans of the houses shows the buildings were not constructed individually but were all built as an integrated part of the urban design.

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Modular buildings in Marea _© M. Gwiazda & A.B. Kutiak

Another unique element of this settlement was the artificial waterfront that stretches across the entire shoreline. This was constructed using rows of limestone rocks joined using hydraulic mortar. The waterfront comprised a parallel linear street connecting the buildings abutting it. There were also around five public latrines, which were identified by the sewage channels built in the structure that led directly into the lake.

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Latrines connected to the artificial waterfront _© M. Gwiazda

During the excavation, archaeologists also found a set of ostraca — pottery with writing inked on the surface — which provided them with important information about the settlement. The ostraca documented a workshop that engaged in repair in the settlement and also provided information about a nosokomeion, or hospital.

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An ostracon mentioning the renovation of the nosokomeion (hospital) _© T. Derda

The results of the excavation showed that Marea was a very well-planned settlement. The amount of detail that went into the design of this town, from healthcare to sewage systems, was highly advanced. The design of the town accommodated the fundamental needs of the population and also preserves the prevailing ideals of the time.

References:

Gwiazda, M. and Derda, T. (2021). Marea: a swan song of ancient urban planning. Antiquity, 95(382). ‌

Kettley, S. (2021). Egypt archaeologists uncover Christian town hidden among ancient ruins: “Revolutionary.” [online] Express.co.uk. Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/1471049/egypt-archaeology-christian-town-ruins-discovery-marea-scn

Anon, (n.d.). Archaeologists find new urban precinct in the Egyptian settlement of Marea – World of archaeology. [online] Available at: https://www.worldofarchaeology.com/archaeologists-find-new-urban-precinct-in-the-egyptian-settlement-of-marea/

HeritageDaily – Archaeology News. (2021). Archaeologists discover new urban precinct in Egyptian settlement of Marea. [online] Available at: https://www.heritagedaily.com/2021/07/archaeologists-discover-new-urban-precinct-in-egyptian-settlement-of-marea/139777

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Artist, dancer and writer Sanjana Ramesh is a soon-to-be architect trying to find the time to add ’amateur guitarist’ to the beginning of this sentence. Loves puppies and all things chocolate. She’s also really good at bad jokes. She hopes to find her place in the world of design through her words and illustrations.

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