The Archaeology of Tell el-Dab’a and its use in Relative Dating

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With its finely differentiated stratigraphy Tell el-Dab’a is a great asset to the correction of the earlier established historical records.  The archaeology of Tell el-Dab’a offers increasing insight into over three hundred years of history through Strata H to D/2, and is important to the chronology of the second intermediate period and Hyksos rule.  Located in the Eastern Delta covering an area of approximately two square kilometres on natural mounds,[1] Tell el-Dab’a provides evidence which assists in interpreting when and how foreigners established themselves in the Delta, the rise to power of the Hyksos and their end.

The Introduction of Foreign Influence into Tell el-Dab’a

Close-up of a drawing of axe blade depicting A...
Close-up of a drawing of axe blade depicting Ahmose I striking down a Hyksos Warrior, part of the burial equipment of Queen Ahhotep.

The introduction of the Hyksos into Egypt has often been seen by scholars and archaeologists as a violent intrusion, but was this the case?[2]  Hayes assesses that the introduction of these foreigners was the result of raiding the north-eastern border of Egypt, and that during “periods of internal weakness”[3] they swarmed into the delta region in huge numbers.  More recent excavations by Bietak and the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo, at Tell el-Dab’a, provide a basis for which assessments of this nature can be positively appraised or negatively criticised.

The archaeology at Tell el-Dab’a provides numerous indications of foreigners throughout the stratigraphy which can be used, in addition to previous interpretations, to establish a relative timeline of occupation and migration.  Stratum e/1-3 contains material of a purely Egyptian cultural context dating to the early twelfth dynasty, where as Stratum H = d/2 exhibits evidence of the first newcomers, after a hiatus, who were already egyptianised.[4]  Syrian ‘Mittelsaal’ houses and a ‘Breitraum’ house give an indication of the origin of the inhabitants along with burials yielding foreign weaponry and donkey burials typical of contemporary Syrian traditions.  With finds of distinctive MBIIA Levantine painted ware and jugs of Syrian types such evidence shows interactions parallel to other late 12th dynasty sites both in and outside of Egypt.[5]

The idea of a smoother introduction of foreigners into the Delta is seen in much of the archaeology of Tell el-Dab’a.  Foreign components are witnessed throughout most pre-Hyksos strata.  For example, Stratum G/4 = d/1 exhibits Asiatic burial customs which continue through to the Hyksos period showing early foreign occupation or influence. Typical Egyptian pottery is still predominant, but sherds of classical Kamares ware and exported ceramics have been discovered within the gardens of the early palace phase.[6]  This indicates an economically fuelled immigration with the rapid cultural development of the Tell el-Dab’a.[7]

The analysis of burials at Tell el-Dab’a provides a relative picture of foreign progression and occupation.  The continuation of Asiatic burials through pre-Hyksos strata illustrates this movement; a key example being Tomb A/II-1/12 no.5 which held five or six donkey sacrifices outside the entrance.[8]  Donkey burials, warrior burials and the inclusion of foreign weaponry show non-Egyptian customs in burials through different stratum at Tell el-Dab’a.[9] With a variety of foreign objects, from the handmade globular jugs of Cypriot influence in Stratum G/1-3 = c to the traditional Mesopotamian vaulted roofs seen in stratum E/1,[10] we see further evidence for foreign migration steadily into the area.  Questions of why this gradual immigration took place remain mostly unanswered but archaeology can suggest a time in the historical record for this migration.  Archaeology of this nature also provides a basis for the analysis of the different cultural groups which Tell el-Dab’a had foreign relations and trade with.

The rise to power of the Hyksos has been a long and widely disputed point.  The analysis of the archaeology of Tell el-Dab’a can not determine any exact process for this rise to power but it can assist in correcting the historical record.  The first indication of a social ranking system can be seen in the early Stratum F = b/3 above the first indication of foreign occupation.  The development of this social stratification continues to be seen throughout Stratum E/3 = b/2 with enlarged villas with kitchens and simple living quarters set apart from them along an enclosure wall.[11] The archaeology, indicating social structure developing throughout a mixed ethnic community at Tell el-Dab’a, is the first suggestion that the Hyksos rise to power was more gradual than Hayes and others initially assessed.  The introduction of structured housing and burials at Tell el-Dab’a within it’s well defined stratigraphy also assists in working out when transitions through egalitarian to state societies took place in the Eastern delta region.[12]

These archaeological features also allow for the assessment of social structure and culture within the Hyksos period. Hayes expresses that there were two stages in the Hyksos rise to power; half a century of waves of Asiatic princes into Avaris and Salatis ousting the contemporary Egyptian ruler from the capital city of Memphis.[13]  The archaeology at Tell el-Dab’a illustrates a far more complex and long term transition into positions of power.

As previously commented, scholars such as Hayes,[14] have blamed raiding and force in the Hyksos’ ‘takeover.’ This is not a theory which generally holds ground in present publications.  Booth disagrees with Hayes’ initial statements, commenting that there is very little archaeological evidence to suggest a violent takeover and variations between pottery of the 14th and 15th dynasties at Tell el-Dab’a are subtle and actually suggest a peaceful change-over in political leadership.[15]  The archaeology at Tell el-Dab’a provides more evidence for a political changeover between the Egyptians and the Hyksos.

The Termination of the Hyksos Rule

Scarab bearing the name of the Hyksos pharaoh ...
Scarab bearing the name of the Hyksos pharaoh Apophis. Made of steatite, from the time of the Second Intermediate Period. Now residing in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The termination of the Hyksos rule is a point in the historical record which remains to be substantially explored. The archaeology at Tell el-Dab’a does though assist in determining when and how this came about.  Stratum D/2 which presents highly egyptianised archaeological material and architecture represents the last occupation of the site by Asiatic influence.[16]  The analysis of this stratum, in comparison to previous underlying strata, assists in correcting when in the historical record the Hyksos rule ended.  Unfortunately D/2’s archaeological evidence for the development which led to the termination of the stratum is largely destroyed by Ramesside foundations and sebbakh digging.[17]  Excavations in Area A/II and Area A/V contemporary with Stratum D/2 have not produced obvious evidence of a violent termination popular in earlier explanations of the Hyksos’ disappearance from Egypt’s historical record.[18]

Most of our evidence for the end of the Hyksos period is wrapped up in the written sources from the Theban side.  The archaeology at Tell el-Dab’a assists in constructing the Hyksos side of the historical record. Kamose stelae and contemporary copies on writing stelae in Theban tombs tell the Theban side of the end of Avaris with an account of Kamose reaching Avaris, but there is limited evidence of how Kamose’s campaign actually effected the site.[19]  The end of Avaris (Tell el-Dab’a) and Ahmose’s campaign is primarily told in three contemporary sources; the biography of Ahmose which focuses on his own involvement, the physical evidence of Tell el-Dab’a, and narrative relief fragments from Ahmose’s temple at Abydos.[20]  The slaughter after Ahmose’s victory as told in the written sources is contradicted partly by the material evidence, creating the picture of mass exodus[21] described by Josephus. The idea of exodus has become widely accepted, as seen in Finkelstein and Silberman who even make comment on the possibility of an exodus becoming more prevalent in comparison to the expulsion of the Israelites from Egypt in the biblical texts and Manetho’s account of the transition of the Hyksos to Israel.[22]

The place and details of the termination of the Hyksos reign of power in the historical record is defined by several aspects of the archaeology at Tell el-Dab’a.  Primarily this end is indicated by a clear cultural break in the gap between the latest Hyksos stratum and the earliest 18th dynasty throughout the whole site. And after this break there is no obvious evidence of continued occupation by the Hyksos peoples.  Unfortunately the later stratum D/2 has also been damaged greatly by modern ploughing but there is no current evidence of a layer of slain soldiers and destruction leaving it debatable whether D/2 was indeed destroyed by warfare as the written evidence suggests.[23]  This is accompanied by the distinct break in stratigraphy with no occurrences of evidence such as the previously well-represented tombs with a wealth of Asiatic weaponry and traditional donkey sacrifices.[24] Hatshepsut’s boasts of defeating the Hyksos have also been debated due to the work of Bietak and the Austrian institute at Tell el-Dab’a.[25]

Continuation of Hyksos Influence

With the end of the Hyksos reign of power the details of the historical record again fall into debate about whether the Hyksos influence continued in some capacity into the following periods.  Bietak states that we cannot exclude the possibility that a small number of former carriers of the Hyksos rule [26] stayed behind at Tell el-Dab’a and that their influence did not completely dissipate.  Limited assemblages excavated within the temple precinct of Seth in stratum D/1 support Bietak’s proposed possibilities.[27] The ceramic material dating to the mid eighteenth dynasty within this stratum indicates that the precinct continued to be used in some limited capacity after the late Hyksos strata. The evidence of a continuation of Hyksos cultural influence does not appear to continue outside the precinct into the settlement areas yet it does indicate that the important cultic centre was allowed to continue on a restricted scale.[28]  Unfortunately, Bietak appears to see the evidence found at Tell el-Dab’a above the Middle Bronze Age Stratum irrelevant to his hypotheses and has not yet fully explored these post-Hyksos strata.

Egyptian Relative Dating Systems

The archaeology at Tell el-Dab’a provides a base from which to correlate breaks and inconsistencies within the historical record, for instance, the correlation of the Egyptian relative dating system comprising of Kingdoms and Dynasties and the Middle Bronze Age chronologies.  The analysis of archaeological assemblages within stratum D/2 indicates that MBIIC cannot have ended with the beginning of the New Kingdom through the absence of piriforms jugs and the continuation of Tell el-Yahudiya types.[29] On the other hand the presence of late Cypriot pottery, especially Bichrome ware, found in Stratum D/2 indicates that this stratum was already of the late Bronze Age.[30] Bietak states that this Cypriot pottery cannot be used as an indicator of the Bronze Age, but its appearance within the stratum helps in drawing up the bigger picture and should not be excluded.

Stratum D/2 also provides evidence for determining whether the destruction and abandonments over a number of sites happened at approximately the same time.  The archaeology in Stratum D/2 is indicative of the end of the Hyksos period, and though the date of this “common phase” is debatable, being raised even to Thutmosis III and by some to the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty, it provides a point of comparison for other sites.  For instance, the existence of base-ring ware found at Stratum D/2 is compatible to wares found in the Stratum XVIII destruction level at Gezer and the temple site of Nahariya.  Oren also agrees with this assistance of Tell el-Dab’a archaeology, assessing that the MB IIC-LBIA development which was previously undisturbed at this site and others became indicative of a break during the second quarter of the fifteenth century BC.[31]  The question ‘who is responsible for such destructions and abandonments?’ remains open, but their possible temporal position can be correlated with the help of the Tell el-Dab’a archaeology.

The succession of kings in Ancient Egypt is a topic which has sparked much debate from Manetho to the current day.[32]  The archaeology of Tell el-Dab’a helps in the relative placing of several kings in the historical record.  This is achieved in relation to the well-defined stratigraphy of the site stretching from the Middle Kingdom through to the start of the New Kingdom.  Henige asserts that in past interpretations of king-lists there has been a common habit of representing individuals and dynasties in succession when they could in fact be occasions of shared time.[33]  Assumptions such as this has long caused king lists to be misinterpreted.

The architecture and archaeological assembly at Tell el-Dab’a assists in correcting some such misinterpretation.  Stratum F = b/3 includes the area of TempleIII which presents a fine example of how Tell el-Dab’a’s archaeology can be used to assign a certain monarch to a certain period.[34]  Two fragments of different limestone jambs with the names of king Nehesy (aA-zH ra) were uncovered in pits in Strata A/2 and B, this evidence along with other associated artefacts suggests that Temple III was constructed under the direction of Nehesy.[35] Through the association of artefacts and architecture is typical of the end of the eighteenth century BC..

Warrior tomb at Tell el-Dab’a

One of the most prevalent artefacts found in the Tell el-Dab’a stratigraphy, which assists with the formulation of a less unlikely arrangement of monarchs, are scarabs.  In Stratum E/3 a scarab was uncovered with a corrupt writing of the name Sebekhotep.  This find can be used to relatively date the stratum as it is terminus post quem.[36]  The Sebekhotep scarab had the second part of the name reversed along with an nwb-sign indicating a date in the second part of the 13th dynasty.  Scarabs such as this, which are uncovered at Tell el-Dab’a in significant numbers, can be compared to other finds within a stratum and then can be relatively dated in relation to them.  Subsequent information gained from these finds can be cross referenced with Mantheo’s Aegyptiaca, contemporary and non-contemporary royal and private inscriptions, and king’s lists such as the Turin canon to create a more detailed picture of successions.

These scarabs and other artefacts associated with monarchs can also be compared by designs and motifs to assist in placing the named individuals in a particular period.  For instance, the first appearance of scarabs bearing the motif rdy-ra have been founding Stratum E/2 = b/1.[37]  The typical Hyksos rdy-ra motif, with other finds and seriations, can assist in working out when the Hyksos rulers first became established in the region.[38] Dever expresses though that Bietak had a record of misreading scarabs, but with the correct reading of these artefacts dates can then be applied to help place kings more correctly in the historical record.[39]  The Hyksos kings still remain largely unknown in name and period so scarabs, such as found in Stratum D/3 = a/2 showing the name of an unknown Hyksos ruler named zA-Ra SnSk wHm anV, are of great benefit in correcting the line of Hyksos kings within the historical record.[40]

Without confirmation from other sources it seems unwise to use scarab distribution as an indicator of a king’s influence throughout Egypt, the same can be said for the design and shape.[41] But in relation to a time when very little is known of the monarchs and with limited written evidence, such material evidence with the names of individuals is of essential importance to a relative chronological placement of kings.

Tell el-Dab’a as a Chronology Cross-Reference

Tell el-Dab’a allows for a better insight into the correlation of chronologies within Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Near East.  The stratigraphy at Tell el-Dab’a has been used by Bietak in recent years to date finds within periods of around thirty years.  This dating technique created from the archaeology is seen in similar circumstances at Memphis as achieved by the EES and also at Karnak by the French institute; and though it helps little to ascertaining absolute dates it holds significance in its assistance to relative dates.[42]  For instance, Kamares ware obtained during Tell el-Dab’a excavations has been dated to the thirteenth dynasty and holds significance in the correlation of Minoan chronology.  The same is seen with Levantine Middle Bronze Age wares which can be finely dated in relation to Egyptian ceramics assisting the determination of chronology for both Syria and Palestine.[43]  In the case of Tell el-Dab’a the archaeology has become a solid base for cross-referencing.

The ability to define seriation of materials allows the archaeologist to compare similar material from elsewhere which may in the long run lead to a better understanding of the chronology of a location.  The round bottomed drinking cup’s seriation from Tell el-Dab’a allows for comparison of similar cups found throughout the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period in other Egyptian contexts.  For instance, at the excavations of Dieter and Dorothea Arnold at Dashur in the pyramid complex of Amenemhat III where a number of the round bottomed cups have been uncovered.[45] Bietak’s seriation of the round bottomed drinking cup shows that their development at Tell el-Dab’a can be followed throughout twelve Strata, D/2 through to d/2, which can be cross dated with Dashur strata.[46]  This permits for a relative understanding of the chronology of the two sites in reference to this typology.

New data from a range of pottery seriation studies in the area has assisted in the analysis of data for the twelve and thirteenth dynasties and the Second Intermediate Period. A vast array of these typologies have been created by archaeologists from the material evidence at Tell el-Dab’a including beer jar, water jar and Marl-C typologies.  Bietak affirms that the stratigraphy and typologies from Tell el-Dab’a are a ‘precious instrument in transposing both the relative and absolute chronology of Egypt to other regions.’[47]  For instance, the marl C (fabric II-c) shows a change in shape in Stratum G/4 indicating a change from twelve dynasty shapes to those of the thirteenth.[48]  Marl C (fabric II-c) from other localities can then be compared to the typology created from Tell el-Dab’a’s material to correct the dates of stratum within other sites and regions.

Seriations of Tell el-Yahudiya ware is also exemplary of how Tell el-Dab’a’s stratigraphy and archaeology can assist in correcting the historic record as Tell el-Yahudiya ware has distinct chronological connections throughout Egypt. Bietak’s excavations have uncovered a vast number of Tell el-Yahudiya wares first appearing as mainly ovoid vessels between Stratum H and F and then developing through handmade globular forms, piriforms, biconical and combed forms through to stratum D/2.[49]  Occurrences of Tell el-Yahudiya and other wares identified at Tell el-Dab’a can be recognised over a wide area of the Delta, from Tell Fauziya to Tell Geziret el-Faras well to the west of the Tanitic Nile branch.

Tell el-Dab’a’s finely differentiated stratigraphy has released a variety of archaeological material which can assist in the correction of the historical record.  Through the efforts of excavators such as Bietak and the Austrian Archaeological Institute evidence has come to light that can help in correcting previous misinterpretations such as with the successions of kings and dynasties, how the Hyksos people came to the Delta and established a degree of power and how this power came to an end.  The archaeology also assists in the correlation of sites in Egypt and the Near East and provides a vast array of seriations from which to do so.

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[1] Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient (London, 2003), p.76

[2] The Hyksos, automatically associated with foreigners as their name to Egyptian contemporaries was Hiq-khoswet – “rulers of foreign countries,” – Hayes, W.C., (New York, 1990), p.3

[3] Hayes, W.C., The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volume II (New York, 1990), p.3 – Hayes does assert that the opinion of a few instances of invasions led to power gain was no longer held at the time of 4th edition publishing in 1990 but maintains the view of violent intrusion over a long period of time.

[4] Bietak, M., Egypt and Canaan during the Middle Bronze Age, in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No.281, Egypt and Canaan in the Bronze Age (Feb., 1991), p.31 – Stratum e/1-3 being the earliest excavated pre-Hyksos stratum, located in Area F (Centre of town)planned orthogonal settlement of Egyptian culture.  Stratum H appears contemporary with d/2 (Area F) and is located in Tell A Eastern Suburb, an open settlement with enclosure walls (Bietak, M., (Oct., 1984), p.476)

[5] Ibid., p.32 – Mittelsaal à Mesopotamian, Syrian middle room house. MBIIA is Middle Bronze Age period 2A – the analysis of the Mittelsaal and Breitraum rooms has been subject to many scholars including Bietak and Giles, the extensiveness of these analyses is great.

[6] Ibid., p.36 – Minoan jewellery from the Middle Minoan period has also been uncovered in one of the palace tombs of this phase providing links to Middle Minoan chronologies.

[7] Shaw, I., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (New York, 2003), p.176

[8] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.39

[9] Donkey burials – indicative of the differing burial customs of the Hyksos peoples in the Delta, some belief that they were a source of sustenance for the deceased but have also been assessed accompanying weapons and jewellery to be an indication of the deceased place in society (Grajetzki, W., Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor (London, 2003), p.61)

[10] Ibid., p.42

[11] Ibid., p.40 – E/3 = b/2 is described as a sacred area surrounded by cemeteries with mortuary temples, the concentration of mortuary cult provides a base for analysis of social stratigraphy but any conclusions made from this material are subject to questions as mortuary evidence provides more of base for the funeral organisers rather than the deceased individuals.

[12] This often believed to have taken with the introduction of the twelve dynasty

[13] Hayes, op.cit., p.4 – Salatis, c.1675BC

[14] Hayes interpretations are subject to the understandings of the period he was writing in (1959) and lack the insight one is able to obtain through the study of Bietak’s and the Austrian Institutes more recent and extensive excavations at Tell el-Dab’a.

[15] Booth, C., The Hyksos Period in Egypt (Buckinghamshire, 2005), p.10

[16] D/2 shows an extensive amount of late Hyksos material and tradition which fails to appear after this level.  These include late Hyksos period burials in family vaults within the structures of houses and evidence of strong trade links with Cyprus (Bietak, M., (Oct., 1984), p.477)

[17] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.47 – sebbakh digging is the digging to provide irrigation to the land

[18] Ibid.,  p.47

[19] Bourriau in Shaw, I., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (New York, 2003),  p.200

[20] Ibid., p.201

[21] Ibid., p.202

[22] Finkelstein, I., and Silberman, N.A., The Bible Unearthed (New York, 2001), p.55 – the archaeology for the debate between exodus and defeat is wide and cannot be fully accounted here, these examples are primarily to give one an understanding.

[23] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.45 – written evidence provides a bias towards the actions of Ahmose and Kamose, Ahmose’s biography in particular recounting a significant victory against the Hyksos.

[24] Ibid., p.46

[25] Bourriau, op.cit., p.203 – Hatshepsut boasts that it was she that defeated the Hyksos.  The archaeology at Tell el-Dab’a puts the end of the Hyksos rule far before the reign of this 18th dynasty queen who stated that it was she who “banished the abomination of the gods, and the earth has removed their footprints.”

[26] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.47

[27] Seth (Set, Setekh, Suty, Sutekh) – was worshipped by the Hyksos in the second Intermediate period and previously, associated with the thunder god Baal (A Levantine deity), and retained strong ties to Avaris and the Hyksos throughout their existence. (Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient (London, 2003), p.265)

[28] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.47

[29] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.57 – Tell el-Yahudiya wares are named after a site where a vast amount of them have been excavated.  Black-fired wares, often with a lustrous surface and designs of incised zigzag lines commonly filled with white and made only in Egypt and Levant. (Hope, C.A., Egyptian Pottery (Buckinghamshire, 2001), p.38)

[30] Ibid., p.57

[31] Ibid., p.58

[32] Manetho – third century BC Egyptian priest and historian, history survived in fragments, as a priest had access to much of the archives of Egypt’s temples which have failed to survive to the present day (Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient (London, 2003), p.169)

[33] Henige, D., Comparative Chronology and the Ancient Near East: A Case Study for Symbiosis, in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No.261 (Feb., 1986), p.63

[34] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.51

[35] Ibid., p.51

[36] Terminus post quem – no later than; the stratum is dated terminus post quem by such finds as scarabs, in this case the stratum can not have been begun any later than the time of Sebekhotep (Bray, W. and Trump, D., Dictionary of Archaeology (London, 1982), p.240)

[37] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.51

[38] Ibid., p.51

[39] Dever, W.G., Tell el-Dab’a and Levantine Middle Bronze Age Chronology: A Rejoinder to Manfred Bietak, in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No.281, Egypt and Canaan in the Bronze Age (Feb., 1991), p.76

[40] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.52 – Bietak believes that in relation to the stratigraphy and the situation within Avaris at the time that this ruler was a major rather than a minor ruler.  It is of importance especially because the names of the rulers of the 15th dynasty are missing and this could provide some insight into at least one of them.

[41] Shaw, op.cit., p.180 – shapes include Hathor heads and concentric circle designs, such scarabs can be used alongside other indicators of monarchs such as bronze plates of King Neferhotep (Bietak 1986).

[42] ISIS Conference Report, High, Middle or Low? The Second International Colloquium on Absolute Chronology (1990) in Egyptology Bulletin, P.90

[43]ISIS, op.cit., p.90

[44] Bietak, M., Problems of Middle Bronze Age Chronology: New Evidence from Egypt, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.88, No.4 (Oct., 1984), p.480

[45] Bietak, M., (Oct., 1984), p.480

[46] Ibid., p.481 – strata D/2 and d/2 are actually on opposite sides of the spectrum of stratigraphy though they have similar names, D/2 referring to strata in Tell A and d/2 in Area F (absolute dating according to Beckerath, Helck and Hornung puts strata d/2 just after 1800BC and strata D/2 at about c.1540BC)

[47]ISIS, op.cit., p.90

[48] Bietak, M., (Feb., 1991) op.cit., p.36

[49] Ibid., p.45

[50] Shaw, op.cit., p.184


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