Paint With all the Colors of the Spring Mound

Hello again!

Vibrantly Colored Mineral Deposits from a Spring Mound

Vibrantly Colored Mineral Deposits from a Spring Mound

Another week, another set of adventures for me here in the Oasis. Daily life remains very much the same as we go about our respective duties and lessons in and around the dighouse and, subsequently, every day has been as wonderful, exciting, and educational as the last. Still without our permit, each and every team member has been slowly chipping away at the backlog of information and field reports, drawing and cataloging pottery and small finds, creating a new online database for the project, learning how to digitize and map images from the site, and compiling a new catalog for our ceramicists. In a departure from my usual lesson in the morning ceramics in the afternoon routine, I was invited by Ellen to accompany our newly-arriving geologist, herself, and one other student (Mat, he’s an amazing 32 year old senior at Columbia in New York, planning to attend law school in the fall to practice antiquities law) on a pseudo-geological-and-cultural-material survey in the land around Amheida, a carefully delineated area surrounding our dig site, a great portion of which Ellen had surveyed during last year’s excavation. Of course, I was thrilled and honored to join them on their trip into the desert, and I eagerly packed my backpack the next morning for a day of discovery.

And so, at promptly 9 AM we departed for our demonstrably-not-on-site desert query (it would have been VERY bad to enter the site without our permit, and the last thing we wanted to do was make this already precarious situation more so) about 30 minutes on the other side of the Oasis from our home. The adventure that followed was, honestly, one of my favorite experiences of my already fabulous time spent in the Oasis. We eagerly traipsed up and down brilliantly colored outcroppings of dried up spring mounds, deposits of vibrant orange iron-rich hematite, paleolake sediments (remnants from a time when the Oasis was a much wetter, forgiving savannah environment containing a large lake), and layers upon layers of loosely cemented, crossbeded windblown sand. It was as if we were visitors to an unknown desert planet; an eerily barren yet complex world of sand, rock, and sun, where the stories of eons were intricately displayed for the eager student, diaries of past worlds left behind in the many colors and faces of rocks just waiting to be read. As we hiked and explored we stumbled upon hundreds upon hundreds of flint tools, handcrafted by our sub-humanoid ancestors 200,000 years ago. These unique artifacts ranged from large and formidable hand axes, to delicate yet severe blades and knives, to the cores and flakes of flint left over from the creation of these precious lithics, to pieces of ancient ostrich eggshell, as well as pottery sherds from the Paleolithic all the way to the Roman Period, lying together on the surface of this world dominated by the all-powerful will of the wind, a force of change so powerful that it can erode and uncover meters of earth and sand each year. I think it is this very miracle of the conjunction of earth and humanity that I love so much about geology: the history of our planet and the history of our very selves is recorded in the stratigraphy of our hometowns, beneath our cities, and within our deserts as the earth and the human race change and evolve simultaneously.

You Can See Where the Water Rose to the Surface

An Ancient Spring Mound: You Can See Where the Water Rose to the Surface

Our Strange Desert Landscape

Our Strange Desert Landscape

Some Lithics and A Paleolithic Hand Axe

Some Lithics and A Paleolithic Hand Axe

Exhausted from the unrelenting sun and physical exertion, we eagerly sat beneath the only patch of shade we could find which was graciously granted by an inclined outcrop in the center of this area and ate our picnic lunch of oranges, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, and bread (for the other there of course) which, true to form, meant I got to bring back the notebook-paper-plate I’d grown so fond of in Kharga. The rest of our afternoon was spent exploring and discovering the area, attempting to piece together the story fragments to form a clear environment from which our Roman city and its predecessors would have lived. At 4 that afternoon, we returned from a quick visit to Ain el-Gezareen, an Old Kingdom Settlement only a few kilometers away from Amheida, and boarded the bus that would take us back home. I returned elated at my good fortune, new knowledge and understanding of the geologic past (provided graciously and expertly by Joanna our geologist) and cultural history of the area, as well as my renewed enthusiasm for both our project and the disciplines I have grown to love. It was truly amazing.

To complete my week of immense pleasure and discovery, my fellow students and I accompanied the owner of a local hotel, Sammy (as we call him), a band of his friends, and a Bedouin band complete with “flautist”, drum, and tambourine into the middle of the desert for a “Bedouin desert party” last night to celebrate Annie’s birthday (a Junior at Barnard College in New York, a fabulous and sweet girl we all love). After getting over the relatively terrifying ride into the desert that was attempted in patches of total darkness (as Egyptians are not fond of using their headlights and prefer to boost the excitement of the outing by nearly killing themselves and all passengers by running off the road…into a donkey cart…over a ravine…whatever…) despite the rocky, steep terrain, we all exited our exhausted and vehicles (which ultimately were discovered to have been in varying states of disrepair all the way to straight up broken) and were overwhelmed by the cool desert air, the warm, welcoming bonfire, and, most awe-inspiring, the night sky, so full of stars it seemed to blur the limits of the horizon, breaking the traditional heavenly register and completely dominating both the celestial and earthly landscapes.

The evening was spent in music, laughter, dancing, singing, and fellowship between friends, old and new, all enjoying the food, fire, and authentic Bedouin atmosphere of the desert gathering. We departed to cries of “welcome” from our Egyptian hosts and arrived back at the dighouse with a renewed appreciation for the hospitable, kind, and fun-loving Oasis culture, this remarkable experience, and each other. Needless to say, I far overstretched my admittedly early-and-old-ladyish bedtime and am therefore not exactly running on all 4 cylinders today after a very long and active week and a late night, but I would not have changed a second, and would do it over and over again. Now, it is Friday in the Oasis, the Muslim Holy Day (and therefore our only day off in the week), and I am back in the library doing research. Its 4:15 here and the sun is starting to hang lower in the sky, signaling the coming evening and the beginning of a new week in Dakhleh; a week that is sure to bring adventures and lessons as varied and wonderful as the last, and much, much more. Masalema (goodbye), friends. Best wishes from Egypt. I’ll be in touch. ☺

The Real World Dakhleh: Daily Life in the Dighouse

Greetings once again from the Dakhleh Oasis!

My Arabic Class in the Courtyard of the Dighouse

My Arabic Class in the Courtyard of the Dighouse

Well, as I said, I thought I’d now take this opportunity to share with you a bit about daily life here in the desert, my now somewhat familiar and beloved home. The dighouse sits a few miles outside of the capital of the Oasis, Mut, and lies atop a small hill that we share with the dighouse for the Dakhleh Oasis Project proper. Daily life at the house begins at 8:00AM with breakfast (my favorite meal of the day!). Lunch is always enthusiastically received at 1PM and dinner at 7PM. Basically our eager stomachs drive our desires and occupies our thoughts as nearly all the students count the minutes until the next mealtime; a habit we have grown comfortably accustomed to due to our outstanding kitchen and our love of food ;). Tea is served midmorning and mid-afternoon to break up the extended periods of library and work time (and give our stomachs yet another event to look forward to!) and is graciously received. It would be a safe estimate to say that in the past month I have consumed more tea than I did the entirety of last semester and I have grown very fond (dare I day dependent?) on its daily presence.

The Courtyard of the Dighouse with the "Restront" (notice spelling ;) hehe) on the Right

In the dighouse we also have many curious habits and rules that have been fashioned to adapt to desert living. The bathrooms for example are operated under the maxim: “if its yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown…” well you get the picture! Also, due to our very limited water resources and fairly temperamental waste disposal tank, we only dispose of really REALY dirty toilet paper, throwing the only slightly soiled stuff in the trashcans that are emptied daily for our olfactory satisfaction and sanity. Showering is similarly a no-funny-business, in and out experience as we are all under the “navy shower” rule: rinse, soap up, rinse, and get out. Usually this is a particularly enjoyable experience nonetheless due to the fact that no matter how much you try, you are always a sandy-dusty-dirty individual by the end of even the most indoor-sedentary day. The only possible hitch in the glorious cleansing is the water temperature, which can be temperamental at best. The bipolar hot and cold knobs, despite patient coercion and attempted mastering of the tricky equation of cold to hot so that it stays consistent throughout your allotted 3 minutes of shower time, the pipes more often than not have a mind of their own, changing temperatures from freezing to scalding whenever the mood strikes them and appear to be unwilling to listen to reason. However, the ups and downs of temperature are greatly preferred to the complete absence of H2O, a state of dehydration that occurs relatively frequently around here. For example: yesterday during the middle of the day (prime shower time, as it is often too chilly in the morning or in the evening to shower in the as-close-to-outside-as-you-can-be-with-a-door-and-a-ceiling shower area) the waste treatment plant at Sheikh Wadi, the little town closest to our dighouse, malfunctioned, sending waste water through the fresh water pipes and effectively mucking things up for an entire afternoon as the water was turned off during this nasty backwash.

The Hallway with Toilets at the Front and Showers Down the Hall

The Hallway with Toilets at the Front and Showers Down the Hall

However, these problems are more entertaining than unfortunate, and are just an amusing part of the Oasis life I have come to love. Having spend the entire morning and afternoon piecing together a shattered Roman-Period fine ware bowl and getting completely caked in charred 2000 year old firing remnants that easily rub off the potsherds, I was filthy and covered in ceramic glue which essentially fused the grunge to my hands, face, clothes, and hair. Of course, I loved every minute of my 3-D puzzle work and grew more and more excited as my teeny tiny sherds, which at the beginning of the process appeared to be as random and unrelated as bread molds and amphorae, began to take shape: coming together to form a piece of pottery that once sat on the table of a resident of Amheida. It was amazing and surreal, and this is just the beginning of many similarly awe-inspiring encounters with the past I will experience as time marches by here in the Oasis.

Our Little Library...we're in here a LOT.

Our Little Library...we're in here a LOT.

Since we are still stuck in “permit purgatory”, we as students have been divided up into small groups to be trained in various aspects of fieldwork and excavation. I have been placed in the ceramics group for both preparation as well as the first part of the excavation (here’s hoping), so I am spending time getting to know the fabrics and shapes of Amheida’s pottery, a task much to my liking. This morning, however, we were divided up into two groups to be taught how to take levels, elevations, and absolute heights in the field; an essential skill and a really fun little workshop put on by Roberta and Miriam, two of our phenomenal archaeologists that are the supervisors of the Temple area and the Villa respectively. They had set up 12 points to calculate all around our little hilltop home and we had a blast moving the automatic level around, fussing with the tripod and measuring sticks, and laughing together at funny little mistakes and not-so-little struggles with the orientation of the level to the points of measurement. This is one of the greatest things I have experienced here in Dakhleh: everyone, regardless of age, nationality, specialty, role, or identity with the larger context of the dig is always patient, kind, jovial, enthusiastic, easy going, and so passionate about this place and this excavation that even permit-imposed doldrums cannot staunch their smiles and enthusiasm. I have so much to learn from them and I am reminded daily how truly blessed I am to have that unique opportunity.

Well now that I’ve TALKED YOUR EAR OFF, It’s time for me to go. Stay tuned for more news from the dunes here in Dakhleh, and I wish you all the best. Take care.

Sheikh Wadi from the Roof

Sheikh Wadi from the Roof

The Dighouse from the Front

The Dighouse from the Front

The Oasis, just outside the front door

The Oasis, just outside the front door

A Shift in Gears

Afternoon all!

It has been almost a week since my return from the trip to Kharga Oasis and my life here has substantially changed gears in the past couple of days. This past Friday marked the end of our first class here entitled “the Oases of Egypt” as well as our daily Egyptian Arabic instruction. The past month has been a wonderful blur of intense academics, trips to sites, research projects and presentations, daily classes, and no days off. So, needless to say, we were all ready for a breather when Friday came and we had the day to relax and prepare for the upcoming excavation. Originally, plans were set to begin the field season Saturday, however, archaeology in Egypt is no simple or straightforward day in the desert with a trowel; it is an arduous process involving many time consuming preparatory arrangements and much paperwork. Despite excellent and timely submission of permit forms and many other bits of antiquities red tape, our dig at Amheida only received 2 of the 3 necessary permits to begin our excavation this season on time. As far as we know, nearly every excavation had been delayed due to this very reason this winter, and the delay ranged from only a few days to more than a week: a probability that is both disconcerting and frustrating to a house full of internationally renowned archaeologists eager to begin their work and to have a successful season. As of this moment, since we have yet to receive this from the Egyptian Military (the missing permit; this is absolutely vital since the Oasis is classified as a military zone in Egypt) we are at a bit of a preparatory standstill in the dighouse. However, everyone is upbeat and all smiles and appears to have made an unspoken yet collective commitment to stay positive and hopeful, and do everything we can to prepare for the season doing whatever there is to do in the magazine, database, and with the small finds and ceramics we have in house.

As students, we have begun training for the tasks ahead by learning how to accurately and properly fill out the forms we will use on site as well as how to enter them into the database, and have been taught how to identify, sort, weigh, and catalog ceramics. These skills are invaluable to us as students of field archaeology and will prove to be essential as we contribute what we can to the team and to the excavation as a whole. Tomorrow, I begin my first assignment working on pottery here, a task very much to my liking as so much about the lives of the ancient inhabitants of Amheida can be used from the clay vessels left behind. Also, (and I recognize that this officially makes me even MORE of a nerd than you already know I am if you have been reading this blog 😉 haha) during training I realized that principles of geology greatly apply to identifying pottery as one uses grain size, mineral presence, identification and form, fabric, luster, hardness, and texture of the material to determine its individual identity, date, use, and place of production; characteristics that in turn speak volumes about the individuals and society that crafted them. In case you did not know, I am a self-declared rock nerd; I love all things related to geology, earth systems, minerals, rocks, etc. and am eager to apply my training in these subjects to the best of their ability. Therefore the chance to further my training in this area by applying these principles to antiquities is a thrilling prospect for me, and I cannot wait to begin my real training and work in the morning! More to come on this as things develop… Sadly, that’s all for now, I must return to the magazine, but bokra (tomorrow) I hope to chat a bit about life here (the boring stuff) and give a brief overview of daily life here. So, until tomorrow: Salamu Aleekum!

A Mosque in Mut

A Mosque in Mut

view from the driveway

The Escapment At Sunset: view from the driveway

"The Arches" that mark the entrance to our dighouse
An irrigation ditch just outside our house at sunset

An irrigation ditch just outside our house at sunset

Bikes in Mut

Bikes in Mut

It’s been far too long….but I’m back!!

Hello again blog-readers!

It’s been far too long since my last post. So much has happened since we arrived and there is much to tell. No time like the present, however, to fill in the gaps! Here goes nothing:

The past few weeks in Dakhleh have been spent largely in the classroom learning about the Oases of the Western Desert, Dakhleh especially. We have been collectively learning about this astounding Oasis’ history through geology, human occupation, and the development of its many cultures and civilizations throughout time starting in prehistory and continuing through Pharonic Egypt, the Ptolemies, the Roman Period, the Christian Period, all the way to present day. Squeezing so much history into a few short weeks was quite the ride, but what I learned from my experiences in the classroom and on the road (we visited many of the sited we discussed in both Dakhleh and Kharga Oasis) was both enjoyable and invaluable.

Around our Oasis, we were guided by Olaf Kaper, a phenomenal archaeologist and a venerated member of our team, who expertly uncovered the secrets and history of Ain Aseel (an incredible Old Kingdom settlement) and its tombs which housed the eternal resting places of the governors of the Oasis (tombs which mimic those of royalty in miniature of the Nile Valley in structure and iconography), the beautiful stone temple of Deir el-Haggar (a temple to Amun associated with Amheida), and el-Muzawakka (impressive stone-cut tombs carved out of the rocky outcropping of an area outside of yet associated with Amheida).

After this local exploration, the other students and I, our wonderful and brilliant professor Ellen Morris, our sweet and knowledgeable TA Heather McCarthy, and our remarkable expert guide and friend Asharaf Barakat loaded up the filthy desert-ready “autobis” (bus) to drive the 3 hours to Kharga Oasis. Immediately after arrival we hurried down a picnic lunch consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, several different kinds of cheese, bread, bread, and more bread, the very popular “Kiko” cookies which my fellow students covet, bananas, oranges, and did I mention bread? Being gluten intolerant and unable to eat the bread which served double duty as plates for lunch, I improvised, eating my veggies and cheese from a piece of paper torn out of my oh-so-handy notebook; an adaptation that made my considerate and light-hearted companions laugh every time we ate.

Lunch having been consumed with fervor, we once again boarded the bus and headed to Hibis Temple, one of the most amazing structures I have ever had the good fortune to experience. This Temple was originally constructed by Darius the First and was dedicated to Amun Ra. It was added on to and re-constructed by the Ptolemies, Romans, and eventually the Christians who added a church onto one side of the temple and served as a major administrative and military center during the Roman occupation of the Oases. Next we journeyed to many Roman temples and mud brick fortresses, Dush temple, Necropolis of Bagawat (a city of the dead housing hundreds of Christian chapels and tombs), a monastery associated with Bagawat (quite a climb to the top of a huge and inaccessible hilltop), and many other amazing sites. Our days in Kharga were jam-packed from dawn till dusk with lessons, hikes, visits, more hikes to sites, and long, seemingly endless treks into the desert at the end of which would lie another architectural and historical secret of the sands.

One such trip was mid-Saturday afternoon where we got off the bus in the middle of nowhere and headed straight into sandy nothingness, an hour long desert expedition during which we encountered some of the most enormous sand dunes I have ever seen. The size of a 2 story building, one particular dune peaked our interest, and, after an unsteady, sweaty, yet amazingly fun and hillarious climb to the top we collectively jumped/rolled/ran/fell/tumbled down the steep edge of the dune (sooooo much fun!!!!!) laughing, and having a fabulous time (an exercise Ellen deemed “dune diving…good for the soul” she says, and she’s right!).

However, all good things must come to and end, and after 3 (ish) days in Kharga, we returned, sleepy-eyed and sandy, to our beloved home in Dakhleh; a welcome and anticipated reunion with our comfortable dighouse and its wonderful inhabitants. This evening was to be our last as our small group of pre-season students and early-arriving archaeologists, for the entire team was to arrive the next day (Yesterday).

The arrival of twenty-some new faces, new specialties, new languages, and new personalities was a much anticipated and exciting event for our little group, as we had only been around the same small group of people for almost a month and, although we love each other and are having a great time, the prospect of so much diversity and the arrival of our respected, accomplished, and brilliant director, Roger Bagnall, was definitely an event. Now, the team has been united for less than 24 hours, but the dighouse has truly come to life and I’m thrilled to get to know and spend time learning from these outstanding individuals in the upcoming excavation.

the view from the top

my feet: the view from the top

this is me peeking out from one of the many maze-like rooms

this is me peeking out from one of the many maze-like rooms

Pre-departure: the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

Well hello there everybody reading this blog! (awkward introduction, I know, but how else does one begin such an elaborate yet uniquely detached correspondence?  Ah well, I did my best!)

My name is Aislinn Lowry, and I’m a Junior Greek and Roman Studies major, religion minor here at Illinois Wesleyan University.  I’m thrilled to report that I will be keeping up this happy communication throughout my spring semester, wherein I will be traveling to Egypt (specifically the Dakhleh Oasis in western Egypt) with New York University, and in partnership with Columbia University, to participate in an archaeological excavation undertaken at the ancient city of Amheida (known as Trimithis in the Roman period) in a unique combination of archaeological fieldwork and educational programming.