Back to Yesterday, and the Day Before That, and the Day Before That…

Masah el-kheer (good evening),

a flowing spring we encountered on our second adventure around Amheida

a flowing spring we encountered on our second adventure around Amheida

Another report from the Dakhleh Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt! I have neglected this blog for the past few days and, in order to remedy this sorry situation, I intend to catch you up! For this purpose, we will go back to January 31st and move forward to present day from there. On the morn of the last day of January, Miriam (a fabulous Dutch archaeologist and a wonderful person) instructed us on the technique and then the practice of drawing a wall to scale. First we took detailed measurements of every important feature of the segment of wall we were assigned, and for me and my partner Kyera (a recent graduate of the University of Michigan and an anthropology major with a focus in archaeology, a phenomenal artist and genuinely sweet girl), these included two painted windows, a woven throw rug on the mastaba (bench) jutting out from the wall, and a geometrically adorned light fixture. The basic skills required to take the measurements, adhere to the scale, and to account for depth and position of the features and objects being recorded were related to the students as a whole when I was out in the field with Ellen and Johanna, so this experience of drawing was extremely useful for me. This skill and the process by which the features and objects were recorded in extreme detail proved to be not only an enjoyable experience, but an extremely useful and relevant skill to not only our particular excavation but in field archaeology in general, and I was and am extremely grateful to be gaining experience and skills in this completely unfamiliar field of study.

That afternoon I gladly returned to the ceramics area where I have been learning and working for the majority of our “training/field school” time at the dighouse. As I have done several times in the past, I attempted to piece together a ceramic vessel, which turned out to be complete up until the top of the body where the neck would have begun. Sadly, however, that most interesting feature was not included in the sherds given to me, so I did the best I could and pieced together a nice base and body of a relatively large and detailed jar. As always, I find that the uniqueness of each vessel makes the task both exciting and informative, but also the similarities Throughout this process, I have begun to notice that pots have started to align themselves into correlations and patterns as fabrics, colors, firing techniques, and forms come together to create a larger picture of the ceramics of Amheida.

Just before dinner, Dr. Bagnall shared with us his knowledge, discoveries, and theories concerning the ostraka of Amheida. Through is excellent description of both the genre of ostraka in a larger sense and the demographic of samples identified and synthesized from our Roman city, I was able to much better understand both the function of ostraka in Roman Period Egypt, and the nature of their use in Amheida. Also, as a product of the study of these inked potsherds, Dr. Bagnall and his colleagues were able to make many valuable and exciting discoveries concerning the identity and life of the owner of the villa and of the nature of the economy, political system, and private affairs of the people of Amheida. I truly enjoyed this insider perspective into this subject otherwise unknown to me. Although we are unable to excavate, I am finding this experience equally as valuable in education and the acquisition and cultivation of relevant and helpful skills and specialties and am greatly enjoying this unique opportunity to learn from and build relationships with this outstanding group of scholars.

February 1st, true to its nature as a new beginning, was excellent change of pace around the dig house/Dakhleh Oasis-land as we committed the morning to a field trip to the medieval city of Balat and to the “Painted Mountain” as Asharaf called it, a desert crossroads called Darb el-Gubbari where a road to Kharga entered the Oasis. Balat was an amazing and unreal departure from the traditional mudbrick experiences we have explored (mainly of the Roman fortress, geometric and structured city, and temple varieties) as the narrow covered roadways wound back and forth in an dizzying maze of two-story or more fortress-like mudbrick houses, plastered bi-yearly to maintain both the structural integrity and individual identity of the home, some still inhabited today. These homes were dark, small, and like the streets to which their doors narrowly opened, were cool, dank and emanated a sense of intriguing antiquity and utility unlike anything I have yet experienced in the Oasis. In this relatively unconserved and unexcavated city, we were able to re-construct the lives of its medieval inhabitants, cooking on the roof in steam ovens, going to the palm-tree-supported mill, and voicing their political concerns at the house of the Sheikh Balat, 2nd in command to the Mayor of Balat.

After carefully weaving our way out of the mangled city we drove out to an area of exquisite rock formations as layer upon layer of cross bedded, loosely cemented, vibrantly-mineral-tinted shades that can be eroded by the hand into million-grained rainbows just beneath the wind-blown sandy surface. Personally, as a huge rock nerd, this site was one of my favorites as the geology was not only visually captivating but intriguing as I tried to make connections between the landscape and environment during their formation and tried to extrapolate the dominating influence of the scarp which ushered in the traders and pilgrims from Kharga.

After lunch, Sara (my beautiful and extremely computer-savvy roommate, a recent graduate of Pitzer College) gave Andrew (a Columbia Ancient Studies major, and a junior also) and I a crash course in AutoCAD, a very intuitive and quite extraordinary program wherein you can digitize exact plans of entire sites (i.e. the villa which we used for demonstrative purposes today) and minute details within the individual rooms, stratigraphic units, features, an objects therein. Although I am typically technologically inept, I found this tutorial very straightforward and am excited to apply these skills and watch as an archaeological site is immortalized and made extraordinarily available to the masses through digitization. It was cool, needless to say ☺.

To conclude our day, we listened to a fascinating and particularly interesting discussion of the meshing and eventual evolution, selection, and exclusion of Egyptian and Greco-Roman funerary iconography and the depiction of the deceased, particularly in the Behnasa Stele group from the late 2nd to early 4th century AD. In his presentation Sander (another fabulously kind and intelligent Dutch archaeologist) included comparisons between the depictions of the deceased as a Greco-Roman statesman from a tomb in local Muzawakka, a similarly represented stone relief of the deceased in a Behnasa Stele, and further the also analogous depiction of the deceased in traditional Greco-Roman garb from the Faiyum Portraits. Interestingly, the Faiyum portrait and the local tomb painting depict the deceased in a traditionally classical manner, but were surrounded by Egyptian figures and popular funerary iconography, including interaction with Egyptian gods. This melding together of cultural, societal, and religious conventions was particularly interesting to me as it displays how the integration of two cultures was manifested in funerary art as well as how the individuals within the culture chose to construct their identity in death in visual iconography and cultural association. I very much enjoyed his insights and studies and found them particularly relevant to the Oases where the clash of cultures must have been a relatively frequent conflict as we see the Sheikh Muftah, Pharonic Egyptian Pagans, Greco-Romans, Persians, Christians etc. came to this isolated island in the desert and were forced by sheer remoteness and centralization of resources to interact and find some cultural camaraderie and collective identity.

The morning of February 2nd morning marked another very useful and fascinating lesson for our pseudo field-school; photogrammetry with Fabritzio and Sylvia. Before this instruction, I had had no idea what this skill entailed or the purpose in an archaeological setting, but I soon discovered that, for the purposes of publication and educating the masses, creating a comprehensive and accurate picture of the excavation, and for reconstruction, this particular set of integrated skills is of tantamount importance and value. First, we were shown the theory of photogrammetry with the “Total Station”, a automatic level-on-steroids of sorts that can swivel on 2 axes and works in cooperation with a prism and a laser beam to extremely accurately plot a series of many points from a fixed point, that will eventually be compiled together in the computer to re-construct the feature (for our purposes the wall at the front of the dig house). These coordinates in combination with a digital photograph of the feature can be placed into AutoCAD and then made into an amazing 3-D image of the entire villa for example, in all three building stages. This truly was an incredible experience and I was awed by the precision and the detail available in these digital renderings of archaeological sites as the paintings and graffito on the walls of the villa were placed upon the walls of their original context so one could digitally stroll through the same environment as the archaeologists on site.

In the afternoon, I took the very much pleasure and relief in working on my research paper. I had been feeling slightly anxious about this project as of late (mainly due to the obvious time constraints, limited comprehensive information, and my laughable inability to actually do valuable work in paper writing in the library) and this time, used to research my topic and scan into PDF on my computer any valuable or relevant information, established a sort of safety net (for if I cannot finish or do quality work here, then I have the materials I need when I get home to feel comfortable and prepared) and made me feel much better. Although I have miles to go and many hours to devote to research and collection of thoughts and formation of theories, I think this time helped the process along, and I look forward to further developments and discoveries concerning this most interesting of topics (to me at least hehe).

In the evening (pre-dinner) I also helped Andrea (an alumni of this program and a 3 year returning ceramicist, an enthusiastic and joyful girl), Iris (Barnard College Junior archaeology major), and Kayla (Cornell Junior archaeology major) sort pottery from room 15 in the villa at Amheida (famous for its amazing wall paintings) into diagnostic forms (straight sided bowls, small bowls with incurved and outturned rims, basins, bases, handles, jars, and miscellaneous collections of sieves, body sherds, and other strange pieces). This process allows ceramicists to collect important data concerning the numbers and types of pottery contained within a constrained, positive context and allow them to extrapolate demographic data from these numbers, further illuminating the function of the room, the wealth and kind of family or individuals using it, and the purpose of the vessels. It is this kind of activity that, although tedious, makes me appreciate and enjoy ceramics so much, as it provides an excellent and exciting view into the lives of the inhabitants of an area, and that is a unique gift only clay carries.

outcrops and fields from our lunch spot

outcrops and fields from our lunch spot

an old well beneath the colorful mineral remnants of a spring mound

an old well beneath the colorful mineral remnants of a spring mound

Yesterday, was the lovely and talented Ellen Morris’ birthday, and to celebrate (well not really, but it was a celebration for me!) Ellen invited me to accompany Johanna and herself once again into the field to discover litihics, pottery, and other cultural material of the distant, Paleolithic past in the area around Amheida. In the company of these amazing women as well as my fabulous roommate Sarah and the ever-endearing Andrew, we set out from the Bedouin village of Amheida in the morning ad proceeded, with many wanderings, hill (or as often happened, rubble pile) scalings, and collections of flints and sherds, all the way through Quasr to the foothills of the escarpment, where we rested our eager feet (that had not stopped pressing forward from when we arrived until about 1pm when we gave in to hunger and sun-educed tiredness) and ate lunch with a view that rivaled anything I had yet seen in the Oases. To the left of our picnic spot was the majestic and intriguing escarpment, foothills, outcroppings, and a beautiful hilltop hotel to the front, and an Islamic cemetery, the city, and miles of impossibly green agriculture crisscrossed with imposing sand dunes to our right. It was incredible. On the way back to the village we took the “scenic route” through the fields, wells, springs, farmhouses, and palm trees, enjoying our beautiful, yet intense walking tour of the Western Oasis. To put the day into perfect conclusion, we stopped atop a hill right on the edge of the village to look for more cultural material and rest a bit before continuing our search and were almost immediately joined by about 10 children and several men who had worked at Amheida. These kind and welcoming people brought us ice-cold water (a liquid everyone treasured as they had not had cold water in a month) and delicious mint-tea. The last half hour of our day or so was therefore spent taking pictures with the kids and enjoying our friendly encounter with the local people. Admittedly I was rather uncomfortable as the many, MANY children giggled, danced, and yelled following us all the way to the bus, but even though I cannot seem to understand and therefore appreciate children as I wish I could, I still found their little parade amusing.

Walking back to the bus with our Kid Parade

Walking back to the bus with our Kid Parade

); well, at least I'm consistent) on the top of our foothil, that's the amazing scarp in the background

me (looking foolish as always :); well, at least I'm consistent) on the top of our foothil, that's the amazing scarp in the background

Back at the dighouse, the after dinner hours until bed time (a very short span for my old-bones) I had the great pleasure of listening to Olaf Kaper’s discussion of Ein Berbeia, a badly destroyed limestone temple to the unique, local god Amun-Nacht here in Dakhleh. This quite extraordinary temple was interned in sand up to roof level and for years, the land atop and around the temple was fed by a well and used for agriculture; therefore the temple was severely cracked and damaged by the wet soil. I really enjoyed learning about its many idiosyncrasies and innovative attributes as Olaf presented them; mainly the unusually precise date given to the decoration of the temple with the deciphering of the cartouches of Galba in his early and later names as well as the influence of Osiris, Seth, Horace, and possibly many other gods in the iconography of the oasis-made-protector god Amun-Nacht. I very much enjoyed this unique piece of Oasis religious architecture, iconography, and cult practice, and am very excited to view the parallels and influences on the characteristics of Amun-Nacht in the valley temples during the tour.

WHEW!!! Well that was excessively wordy and detailed! ☺ Hope my oh-so-dry prattling on about nerdy details did not put you to sleep, and I also hope that you, like me, are having a fantastic week and are making the most of every moment, as is my dearest ambition. Until next time,

Ais