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.
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. ☺