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Archaeology and the Shasu Nomads: Recent Excavations in the Jabal Hamrat Fidan of Jordan
by Thomas Levy -- Russell Adams and Adolfo Muniz (2018)


Updated July 28th 2019

The Shasu were a social group of nomads who are known from Egyptian texts -- wall reliefs and monuments dating from the 18th Dynasty (circa 1550–1295 B.C.E.) through the Third Intermediate Period (circa 1069–747 B.C.E.). To date the term Shasu is known only from Egyptian sources. Scholars differ in identifying the origin and identity of the Shasu. Even the derivation of the word Shasu is uncertain: it is related either to the Egyptian verb ‘to wander’ or to Semitic ‘to plunder’. According to Ward an Egyptian origin for the word seems more likely. Because the Egyptian sources report the Shasu from vast tracts of the southern Levant it can be assumed that they were not an ethnic group tied to only one specific region. Rather the Shasu seem to represent a social class of nomads who reflect an ancient equivalent of the term Bedouin which crosscuts different ethnic groups and relates more to a generic socioeconomic subsistence organization devoted to pastoral nomadism than to ethnicity. Ward presents a detailed summary of all the sources that make reference to the Shasu. With regard to the region of Edom he states:

Another group of texts places the Shasu in S Transjordan. Short lists of placenames in Nubian temples of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II record six toponyms located in “the land of Shasu”. Those that can be identified are in the Negeb or Edom. One of the six, Seir in Edom, is found elsewhere in connection with the Shasu. A monument of Ramesses II claims that he “has plundered the Shasu-land, captured the mountain of Seir”; a 19th Dynasty model letter mentions “the Shasu-tribes of Edom”; Ramesses III declares that he has “destroyed the Seirites among the tribes of the Shasu”. From the Egyptian viewpoint then the Shasu were a prominent part of the Edomite population.

As we get closer to the Late Bronze – Early Iron Age interface and the period of direct concern to our research in the Jabal Hamrat Fidan region in Edom the links between the Shasu nomads and Edom become clearer. For example, approximately 60 years after Ramesses II, during the 8th year of Merenptah (about 1206 B.C.E) the term “Edom” appears for the first time in Papyrus Anastasi VI (lines 51–61):

We have finished with allowing the Shasu clansfolk of Edom to pass the fort of Merenptah that is in Succoth (Tjeku) to the pools (brkt) of Pi-Atum (Pithom) of Merenptah (that is/are) in Succoth to keep them alive and to keep alive their livestock by the will of Pharaoh (L.P.H. or life -- prosperity and health) the good Sun of Egypt; along with names from the other days on which the fort of Merenptah that is in Succoth was passed [by such people . . .]

Kenneth Kitchen in his highly useful summary of Egyptian texts related to Transjordan and Edom in particular garners useful evidence that links extra-biblical data with biblical texts related to developments around the tenth century B.C.E. -- the time when the Wadi Fidan District 40 Cemetery described below was occupied. Accordingly Papyrus Moscow 127 states “Oh that I could send him [his local oppressor] off to Nahar(in) to fetch the hidden tmrgn with whom he had (previously) gone to those of Seir!” Kitchen suggests that the term tmrgn is a Semitic loanword for ‘guide or interpreter’ and proposes that Papyrus Moscow 127 is close in date to the alleged flight of Hadad, the baby prince of Edom, into 21st Dynasty Egypt after David’s forces conquered Edom.

The History of the Ancient Near East Electronic Compendium