Thursday, September 22, 2011

Egypt in the context of African archaeology

This January I travelled to Egypt as a part of a study abroad program called the Amheida Project. In this program, undergraduates, like myself, are allowed the opportunity to live in the Dakhleh Oasis of Egypt’s Western Desert, not only to learn about the long archaeological history of the Oasis, but also to participate and assist in ongoing archaeological excavations at the Roman-era city. Throughout the course of the seminar we explored (both academically and physically) Dakhleh’s archaeological history and relationship with pharaonic Egypt and the greater Nile Valley, as well as its more recent Coptic and Muslim history.

One of the questions we came to again and again, especially in our study of Dakhleh’s early development was that of the peopling of the Oasis. Who exactly were Dakhleh’s first settlers and how did they come to live in such an isolated and remote part of the Western Desert? Dakhleh offers a great deal of evidence of the pre-Dynastic inhabitants, mainly in the way of pottery sherds, but very few clues as to these peoples’ origins. The earliest written accounts of the Oasis come to us from Old Kingdom colonial expeditions to Dakhleh seeking an unidentified resource, sometimes hesitantly translated as pigment.

Still, these accounts are not particularly instructive, as they refer to a native population that presumably predated the colonial encounter. Furthermore, these same Old Kingdom accounts mention the presence of two barbaric Libyan tribes in the area as well. How can we explain this diffusion and movement of people across such a dry unforgiving landscape as the Sahara Desert, and, more fundamentally, where are they coming from? This is certainly an interesting question in light of the very contentious debates on the ethnicity and race of the ancient Egyptians.

The second part of the program was to participate in the ongoing archaeological excavation of the ancient city of Amheida, a Roman-era merchant town in the Oasis, but with occupation markers and structures dating back to the Old Kingdom and pre-Dynastic times. Although we were only a week into excavations before being evacuated due to intense political protests and rioting in Cairo as well as many other main cities up and down the Nile Valley, it allowed us an exhilarating and interesting opportunity to be a part of and observe an Egyptological excavation.

Although Egypt is often irrationally viewed as separate from Africa in the academic world (as well as in the larger public imagination), archaeology within Egypt is subject to many of the same problems and limitations as greater African archaeology and provides an interesting case study in how African archaeology can be carried out.

Certainly a controversial figure, Dr. Zahi Hawass, who got his Ph.D. in the United States, returned to Egypt to become the Minister of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, a council that governs and oversees archaeological work and concessions within the country. Under his leadership, many of the biggest issues facing African archaeology have been dealt with, often with very divisive results. From the point of view of many Western archaeologists, Hawass is domineering, and the Supreme Council of Antiquities is a bureaucratic nightmare that impedes, or at the very least frustrates foreign excavation missions in Egypt. Particularly the stipulation that Hawass himself can choose to announce any discovery for the archaeological team who actually made the discovery, is irritating to western archaeologists who claim he merely courts media attention for his own gain.

And yet, much of what Hawass has done for Egyptian archaeology was long overdue. In a country that was historically plundered for its rich and beautiful antiquities, Hawass was instrumental in passing laws that prohibited the removal of any antiquities material from Egypt without express permission from the Supreme Council. Violation of this law results in a life-long ban from the country (I learned of this penalty only because it happened to a member of the Dakhleh Oasis Project in the 1980s). Hawass has also done a great deal to improve the funding for preservation and maintenance of archaeological sites, although not without controversy (the recently restored Tomb of Nefertari, which houses some of ancient Egypt’s most spectacular paintings, can only be visited in 10 minute increments for multiple thousands of dollars per person).

Furthermore, Hawass has taken great strides to ensure a practice of Egyptian archaeology by Egyptians by requiring all excavations to collaborate with Egyptian archaeologists and employ Egyptian workers. While an excellent practice in theory, in actuality cooperation between the two groups of archaeologists can be difficult (as became evident in our dig house), and the mandate of having Egyptian workers on site sometimes felt a little too close to the colonialist excavations of the early 20th century, where European archaeologists oversaw “native” workmen.

Despite all of these reforms, many of the problems plaguing African archaeology continue in Egypt as well. Looting of archaeological sites for sale on the black market, especially by locals, is still a huge problem within Egypt. Within Dakhleh alone there have already been countless instances of looting where archaeological sites such as Amheida were disturbed in the off-season by looters seeking valuables. Cemeteries in particular are favored looting spots, as thieves often hope to find rich grave goods or intact ceramic-ware.

As a result many artefacts are broken or smashed beyond repair and left, alongside human remains, out on the surface of the desert to be degraded by the sun and winds until, removed from their original contexts and badly damaged, they can no longer provide us with any useful information.

These problems, and the way they have been dealt with within Egyptian archaeology, can thus provide an interesting, if not necessarily instructive case study for greater African archaeology, as just one of the possible solutions for a growing field still in its infancy.


  1. I enjoyed this reflection on your experiences in Egypt and on the state of archaeology there at the moment very much - Thanks for a great post!

  2. The relationship between the archaeologist and the local population at a site continues to both fascinate and flummox me. Idealistically one wishes for a situation in which the locals are able to benefit from the archaeologist's findings in tandem with the archaeologist himself, but of course it's easy to see how this ranges from being a challenge in the best case to an impossibility in the worst (for example, concerning sites that the local population wishes to remain untouched). I read an article last year (I think by Rosemary Joyce but I'm not positive) about how using a database can be really helpful in this case, providing a means of collaborative interpretation involving both archaeologists and the local community. The idea is that even though the archaeologists are primary in unearthing artifacts and interacting with the site, they can share the task of forming an understanding of their findings. Similarly, Professor Ann Stahl gave a talk at Columbia recently titled "Communities past and present: Analytics and stakeholder communities" that discussed among other issues the success of a community center that is a collaborative and educational hub for the archaeological activity within the community.