Walking on History
Egypt is an amazing place. I was looking around at our excavation site and the surrounding area one Thursday morning during the lab staff’s weekly site visit, still amazed after almost 10 years at the beauty surrounding us and thinking of all the history under the sand on which I was standing. Where we are is desert, entirely sand, but not far away are irrigated fields where an alfalfa-like plant grows and villages with brown brick buildings with colorful balconies. The buildings are mostly connected with narrow streets and some courtyard areas and palm trees growing around the perimeter. As with most areas in Egypt, the farmland is expanding and the villages are growing, so the Supreme Council of Antiquities built a wall around the excavation area to halt the encroachment.
Then I noticed how the sun lit up the western escarpment of the Nile Valley, a mountain of sand and rocks created by the flow of the Nile. Unfortunately, the heat and sand create a sort of smog that, on most days, obscures the eastern escarpment at least in this part of the Nile valley.
Nonetheless, it’s really very beautiful here, and it definitely grows on you; at least it has on me. I love our house (see photo at top of blog) and associating with people from all over the world as well. Archaeology is one of those small worlds. Though most of us are American (actually we’re very Colorado heavy this year), we have teammates who are Hungarian, Polish, English, Indian (from India), and Egyptian. In the past I’ve worked with an Australian, New Zealander, more English and Poles, Trinidadian, Canadian, and Spanish; and the Americans are from all over the country.
Before I return to my topic, I’ll repeat the comment I made for ABOUT that it’s up to NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts to announce discoveries so what you see on my blog is old news but with some new photographs. I’m not sure why my comment doesn’t appear in that field at the top of the first page as I thought it would. You have to click on ABOUT to find it. For additional information I’ll repeat the address for IFA’s blog: http://www.abydos.org/blog. For more background on you can read Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris, by Dr. David O’Connor. He is the senior archaeologist of our project and the professor who helped the now lead archaeologists on most of the projects at Abydos achieve their Ph.D.’s. It’s an interesting and informative read for even non-archaeologists. Having said that …….
Everywhere you walk you are walking on remnants of old Egypt, Pharaohnic, Coptic, and early Islam. Under our feet are remains of buildings, city walls, temples, tombs, and maybe more. When on our site, we walk across buried mudbrick building remains, graves of people and animals and 14 boats.
There are also remnants of temples and other structures on the surface juxtaposed with modern structures.
On my Thursday morning visit to the site, it’s amazing and sometimes exciting to see what is uncovered during the week since our last visit. Archaeology is a fascinating information gathering and destructive process. A layer of history often has to be destroyed to find what the lower level will reveal. That’s why every layer and every structural remnant or object has point readings using GIS and other systems that determine the coordinates that record it’s place in the operation (trench). It is also mapped (drawn using tape measures and plumb bobs), and photographed from every angle. At the end of the season every excavator has at least one notebook, often 2 and sometimes more, with text, levels, and drawings with explicit details of what has been revealed in his or her op.
During a couple of the seasons, Matt hired a firm from Poland to do magnetic readings of the landscape. They laid out a grid using string then walked back and forth carrying a magnetic reader. In the afternoon the information was loaded onto the computer and a map of the area appeared with different shades of gray depicting the size and shape of things under the sand and how thick and how close to the surface they are. That process doesn’t tell all, but it does give an idea of what is there and where to dig. I know satellites are used in some areas as well.
A couple of posts ago I explained about the Shenet el Zebib, King Khasekhemwy’s funeral enclosure. Over years I’ve watched it go from a very eroded version of what it was to a stabilized structure where visitors can still see the aging but can also see evidence of how it looked over 5,000 years ago. Subsidiary graves containing the remains of human adults and children, pregnant cows, donkeys, other animals, and boats have been excavated. Some have held grave goods that identify the king for whom the structure was built. Graves are sometimes anciently disturbed and occasionally intact. It is still unknown for which king the boats were buried, and there is still a funeral enclosure that hasn’t been identified. Hopefully in future seasons that information will be found.
The following photos show the structural conservation of the Shuneh and the restoration of one of the gateways.
In later years, other burials were dug into the plaster floors of structures. Cult chapels were built near temples and around the enclosures. There was an Osiris cult for many years. People would come to the area and pay priests to kill ibis, place them in large pottery vessels and bury them in the Shuneh. The ibis would then go to the afterworld to prepare the way for the purchaser. Ibis became extinct in this area and hundreds of large pottery jars were buried in one corner of the Shuneh. I’ve entered into the database and boxed a few hundred of these vessels, most with ibis and some with dogs, cats or jackals. Some even show evidence that not all priests were honest. Some pots contain a few feathers, a couple of bones, and lots of sand.
We were invited to visit the German excavations in Ohm el Ghab (Mother of Pots). The tombs of the Early Dynasty pharaohs are there. We are excavating the funeral enclosures. They finished excavating the grave of King Djer and many subsidiary graves last week. They borrowed the scaffolding that you can see in the photographs of the Shuneh to take good photographs of the area. I’ve been asked not to post photographs because it is the privilege of Dr. Dryer to announce and publish their finds. So if you are interested, search on the Internet for Dr. Gunter Dreyer or the German Archaeological Institute. During my first season we were able to visit and see the tomb of King Khasekhemway whose funeral enclosure we are currently preserving. I feel very lucky to be a part of all of this and to be able to see these tombs before they’re reburied in order to preserve them.
A friend wanted to see pictures of camel races. I don’t have any of those but here are some at Abydos and one I took on the way to our site in Sudan in 2007.