The legacy of the early twentieth century

Hi everyone,

This past week I have been examining collections at UCL’s Petrie Museum. This museum, tucked away on the UCL campus holds over 18,000 artefacts collected from numerous excavations across Egypt and Sudan. All of these artefacts are from late nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations and were excavated by the likes of Flinders Petrie and Caton-Thompson. The museum itself is something straight out of the early twentieth century itself, containing an overwhelming number of artefacts from all of Egypt’s history (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Part of the prehistoric collections in the Petrie Museum.

Figure 1: Part of the prehistoric collections in the Petrie Museum.

These collections are important, particularly when studying the ceramics of the Fayum. What we find in the field now is mostly sherds, with little traditionally diagnostic features to interpret them by (e.g. rims, bases, decoration). So in order to interpret them, the examples of vessels we have need to be studied. These were all collected by Caton-Thompson and Gardner during their fieldwork in the 1920’s in the Fayum, and are currently held in museum collections around the world.

As of last Monday I have examined what I set out to from the Petrie museum and now I am in what I like to call bonus time, having two full Saturdays left at the museum. I am currently researching some other ceramic material housed in the museum which I can examine.

Not all of my research is based on ceramics, and some is reviewing archival material from the original excavations of the Fayum, Merimda, and Nabta Playa. This meant I needed to visit the Special Collections at UCL, as they hold material donated by Caton-Thompson. This collection reads like a whos-who of early twentieth century archaeology. There is correspondence between Caton-Thompson and Childe, Braidwood, and Leaky, amongst others. Among these letters is also the radiocarbon results from Libby sent to Caton-Thompson regarding material from the Fayum, some of the first archaeological material ever to be radio-carbon dated.

The archives also house numerous photographs from Caton-Thompson’s fieldwork, many of which have been published, but a number have not (Figure 2). What I am mainly looking for is notebooks, maps, and any other material from the fieldwork in the Fayum from the 1920’s. There are fantastic records from the Kharga Oasis fieldwork, which leads me to hope that something similar may exist for the Fayum. I have since been informed of a collection of archival material at the Griffith Institute at Oxford, which I will hopefully have a chance to review before I leave.

Figure 2: The box which the negatives and prints of the original photos from the Fayum are housed in.

Figure 2: The box which the negatives and prints of the original photos from the Fayum are housed in.

For the rest of my time in the UK I will mainly be based at the British Museum, examining their material from the Fayum and one of my comparative studies, E-75-8 at Nabta Playa.

- Josh

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Work out of the field – Five days in and three museums down

Hi everyone, Josh here. As part of my PhD research investigating the Neolithic ceramics of the Fayum, I am travelling to the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Austria to analyse museum collections prior to (hopefully) going to analyse ceramics in the Fayum in mid-October.

I have been in the UK for five days now and have been to over half of the museums I will be visiting during the UK leg of the trip. The Petrie Museum at University College London (UCL) has a wide variety of ceramics from the Fayum, and was my first stop on Friday. The assemblage at the Petrie Museum I would like to analyse is much too large for one day, and so I am going to visit the museum again this week and on Saturdays until I leave the UK at the end of the month.

After travelling up north over the weekend I began this week in Bolton, where they have a small number of ceramics from the Fayum, one of which is important for my research. The vessel in question is a large cylindrical vessel, and is the largest surviving ceramics vessel we have from the Fayum (Figure 1). During the 1920’s when Caton-Thompson and Gardner first excavated sites such as Kom K, Kom W, and the Upper K Pits, a number of vessels of this size were found, but did not survive the excavation process. The fact that this vessel at Bolton is the only one left means that it is only ways to interpret some of the sherds we find which indicate wide-diameter vessels. Also, as I found during my MA thesis, vessels of this size were scattered across Kom W and were likely used for storage purposes.

Figure 1: The large vessel from Bolton Museum with me taking a reading from it with a portable x-ray fluorescence (more on that in a future entry).

Figure 1: The large vessel from Bolton Museum with me taking a reading from it with a portable x-ray fluorescence (more on that in a future entry).

On Monday afternoon I visited Manchester Museum, which also hosts a small collection of ceramics from the Fayum, which Dr Campbell Price and Susan Martin were kind enough to grant me access to. As is the case with Bolton, Manchester has the only surviving example of an odd shaped vessel . This relatively large vessel, unusually, has a stepped base on it, why this is I am still considering. Also at Manchester was a vessel shaped like a modern dish which is relatively common amongst the Fayum assemblages, and corner sherds are often found. As well as ceramics I plan to have a look at other forms of material culture such as grindstones, which Manchester had a nice example of.

The last of the smaller assemblages was at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, my visit to which was facilitated by Imogen Gunn. Here a number of small sherds comprising mainly of rims and bases were analysed.

I am using a number of different techniques to analyse the pottery which I will talk about in future entries, but what is all adds up to is one heavy bag which needs to be taken with me when I travel to non-London collections. I am now back in London and very grateful that I do not have to carry everything too far from now on, as I am staying about a 10 minute walk from both the Petrie and British Museums.

Stay tuned for more entries in the coming weeks regarding progress on my research, the different techniques I am using, and any interesting pieces I may encounter.

Josh

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Secret Document Proves that there is a Spy amongst the Kiwis!

While searching for a missing charger, Josh discovered the following letter:

 

December 12, 2012

Subject: Topsecret message to the Lewis Binford Center for the Improvement of American Archaeology at UCLA

 

I apologize for the delay in submitting my first report, but the Kiwis are rather serious archaeologists: they work from 6 A.M. To 6 P.M., producing massive amounts of data but leaving little time for writing up my observations.  There are also severe language issues, as I discuss further below.  As we suspected, however, the Kiwi archaeologists are highly sophisticated methodologically and therefore indeed deserve our surveillance.  Their key method involves cross-shaped survey areas, with each of the two arms 100 meters long and 10 meters wide.  They survey these areas more intensively than I have ever seen archaeologists do before, indeed spending much time standing in place searching every inch (although they use some unit called “centimeter”) of the survey area.  This has made me realize just how many subtle lithic artifacts one can find with careful observation.  They record all these artifacts using a robotic total station, a fine device I had never before seen with my own eyes.  The speed of recording with this machine makes such intensive survey feasible.  The Kiwis also record the geomorphology of these cross-shaped survey areas using the total station, thereby producing a record that from the very start has important data for interpreting the presence and absence of artifacts on various surfaces.

Matt, probable British archaeological spy, concealing himself for better methodological observation

All in all, the Kiwis’ methods strike me as very worthy of American emulation.  As Matt (who is more willing to explicitly discuss these matters with me as he is almost certainly an agent for the Ian Hodder Institute for the Improvement of British Archaeology) remarked to me, these methods strike a fine balance between extensive and intensive survey.  In other words, we cover huge areas of the landscape but also capture the very fine-grained detail of the archaeological record.

There are, however, serious obstacles to my observation of the Kiwi team.  They employ a secret code-language to conceal the secrets of their archaeological greatness from possible spies such as myself.  For instance, at a recent lunch in the field when I posed a question about archaeological methods to Simon, he responded to me with, “Cheers, mate, you took the Vegemite so I reckon I’ll nick your Eurocream, ta.”  The words I understand in this statement are restricted to “you,” “the,” “so,” “I,” and “your” (even these, however, are spoken in a bizarre manner); if you have any guesses regarding the rest I would appreciate the help.  Regarding the mysterious substance mentioned in this statement, Vegemite, I am forced by Simon’s above comment to conclude that this substance is the secret to their methodological sophistication.  I am, however, reluctant to recommend its use by American archaeologists due to its general distastefulness.

Marcus, UCLA Geography spy

I must unfortunately conclude this first report with a complaint regarding Marcus, my counterpart from the UCLA Geography Department’s espionage team.  My complaint is that Marcus does not make sufficient efforts to conceal his affiliation and purpose here, thereby jeopardizing my own mission.  I attach a photo that demonstrates my point rather clearly; note that each and every article of his clothing is problematic in some way.

- Karl

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Archaeology, Ambassadors, Feasts

We are currently the only team from New Zealand working on an archaeological project in Egypt. So, on Saturday we were visited by the New Zealand ambassador.

The day started out normal as we continued to work on transect 24 in the L-Basin, which we had been working on for a few days previously. This transect was particularly dense with artefacts, and so it was decided to leave the centre and southern arm unexplored to use as a demonstration for the ambassador.

The ambassador arrived with a small police escort. Simon introduced our visitors to the crew, and while he was explaining exactly why we were out in the middle of the desert meticulously recording small pieces of rock, two teams went ahead analysing the artefacts, one team shot them in with the total station, and a final team were off excavating hearths.

The ambassador and his group took a particular interest in what we were doing, and lots of questions were asked. Overall, the visit was a great success. As was the day’s work – another 400 artefacts were analysed, bringing the total to the 1000 mark.

The day was not over yet, though. We returned to the dig house (only slightly earlier than usual…) to a fantastic BBQ with Australian beef and New Zealand sausages which the ambassador had brought, and which was cooked to perfection by our camp manager, Hamam. Even better than the food was the selection of New Zealand wines, much to the delight of a few of our team members. But the best part was the beer – Mac’s Rock hopper. Egyptian beer is good, but it was great to drink something familiar, especially one of your favourites. And all the other members of the Fayum project appreciated the feast. Score one for Kiwi hospitality.

At the end of the night, everyone went to bed in high spirits. So all up, it was a pretty decent Saturday.

Now only one and a half weeks of field work left!

-          Matt

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Valley of the Whales

Crew relaxing at the Valley of the Whales

The day for the kiwi crew began like any other, heading to the field at first light to shoot in and analyze artefacts as per usual. However, the rest of the day was to be anything but ordinary. Field work finished up at 1pm and we headed back to the dig house for a hasty download. Today we headed to the Valley of the Whales for a night under the stars.

The planned 2pm get-away soon turned into a 3.30 as the download went astray with ArcGIS licenses not behaving as they should. Following some hasty packing by Haman we hastened off to the valley with BBQ, food, drink and two trucks filled with people.

The ride was going relatively smoothly right up until we acquired our second and third police men. Technically this was not the biggest deal in the world, except for the fact that we literally had no room. At all. After some repacking we managed to squeeze the second policeman on top of our first policeman’s lap and the third policeman next to Josh, with his head poking out through the sunroof.

The ride continued relatively smoothly up until the police barricade, at which we spent 35 minutes debating with the policemen. The plan had originally been to arrive before sundown, however, as plans often do in Egypt, this changed as we got more and more delayed.

Finally we arrived at the valley as the sun disappeared, and we set about locating our campsite. This involved driving around in a very large circle for quite some time before the ranger rescued us and showed us to our camping location. Whilst we could not see all that much due to the darkness, we could see that the stars were amazing, there was nobody else around and that our campsite was absolutely perfect!

For the past year a plan has been in action to create the perfect situation for a proposal. And as it transpires, this perfect situation was on this eve. Several of the team had been roped into to transporting champagne, gifts and other celebratory items and everyone was in on creating the perfect situation. Everyone except for Rebecca. So Josh took the opportunity to take a “walk” with Rebecca and the rest of us began preparations back at the camp for their return. Several minutes later and preparations were complete and we awaited their return.

Soon they returned. With news to make a good night great.

She said yes!

The champagne was poured and the nights frivolities started in earnest.

Another excellent bbq courtesy of Hamam!!

After a toast and some further drinking we set out our sleeping arrangements whilst Haman began cooking up our dinner feast. Chicken, kofta, chilies, eggplant… Dinner was consumed under the sterling sky by the light of the BBQ and a small fire. A perfect end to an amazing day, and the perfect start to an amazing night!

From this point on the evening was dedicated to stargazing and chatting until midnight at which stage even the hardiest of the party-makers crashed out beneath the perfect skies.

Waking time was at sunrise to the X Files theme music, a great start to the day. The rest of the day was to be dedicated to packing up the campsite, exploring for geo-caches and walking the trails of whale remains in the valley.

Searching for geocaches

The first of the geo-caches was located 200m or so to the side of our campsite. Some slightly dodgy GPS points led us up a steep slope, around several corners and back down the same slope to no avail. Matt then decided that it was time to take off a few of his extra layers and so he disappeared behind some rocks to change, in the process, stumbling upon the cache.

From here the group split in half, several of the members pursuing the geo-caches located on the ridge of the valley whilst the rest of us walked the whale-trail!

The whale-trail is a truly amazing experience. Out in the middle of the desert, with sand in every direction and then, all of a sudden, whale bones! Vertebrae, jaws, limbs as well as fossilized remains of mangroves, turtles and all manner of other burrowing creatures!

The walk itself took some 2 hours to complete and by the end of it we were all ready for home time. We returned to the trucks, piled in and set back off towards the dig house, thankful for the amazing experience of the last day and night, but ready for a well earned sleep before returning to the field in the morning.

- Tara

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Half way through already

Early morning survey

It’s been two weeks since we started our work on the north shore of the Fayum and already we have achieved the first set of targets for the season. We began the season working north of Kom K. One of the project goals is to understand landscape use around the stratified Neolithic sites Kom W and Kom K. To answer this we have surveyed the area north of Kom K this season concentrating in the area that is not under modern day agricultural production. We aim to cover large areas systematically but also to record the position, type and nature of individual portable artefacts (mostly stone artefacts and pottery fragments). One of the issues we have to deal with is that archaeological sites are very difficult to define based on visual estimates of artefact density alone. To see the individual artefacts you have to literally walk slowly across the desert gazing straight down at your feet. We cannot cover the whole area of interest locating individual artefacts in this way so we having a sampling design that involves marking out 1900 square meter transects (100x100m lines 10m wide in the shape of a north-south, east west cross). This season, we have completed 29 of these transects north of Kom K.

To ensure comparability, we record each transect in exactly the same way whether or not it contains artefacts. We map in the surface describing the sediments in ways that let us assess how easy it is to see the artefacts we are recording. Obviously if the surface is covered with sand then it will be hard to see artefacts in comparison to those exposed on a gravel surface. By recording the nature of the surface we can determine the density of artefacts on each of the transects allowing for differential visibility.

While it may seem strange to record transects even where there are no artefacts, finding out where people did not leave artefacts can be as informative as recoding places where we find lots of remains. People left artefacts in places where they made and used them. We are of course interested in those places, but we are also interested to know about places where these activities did not happen. By recording both types of places we build up an idea about the way people used the landscape in the past.

Beginning Saturday, we will move to the west, working out from an area called XB11 that was surveyed in previous seasons. Our goal is to extend the survey west to link up with the area in which we worked in 2010. The results will give us an understanding of how people who inhabited the area used the ancient lake shore extending along about 9km. In future seasons we will extend this area even further working along sections of the ancient lake edge still further to the west.

At the half way stage we have made good progress. Rebecca and I have a fantastic crew (University of Auckland and UCLA students) who have worked very hard both in the field and when we return to our dig house each evening. Because the records we take are all electronic we make sure that the data is entered into databases each evening and carefully backed up. Our project data set is approaching 150 gigs in size. It represents a huge amount of work so we are very careful to make multiple copies.

 

- Prof. Simon Holdaway

 

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Dimeh visit

Changing the tire…

Last Saturday we got a sleep in (until 7am) and then set off for a day in the desert to see some sights. Our first stop was Dimeh, but on the way one of our land cruisers got stuck in the sand and punctured a tire. After realising we didn’t have a shovel and resorting to trowels to dig ourselves out (archaeologists always carry a trowel) we continued on, ‘discovering’ the speculated-upon new tar-sealed road that goes half way around the lake (but not our half).

Site tour at Dimeh

At Dimeh, the co-director Paola Davoli met us and gave us a tour of the site, which was nice as last time some of us visited it in 2009 we only had ourselves as guides. Due to the relative isolation of the site, until recently, it has been mostly protected from robbers and outside interference. After the official tour we were able to wander around the site before moving on, some of us took this opportunity to explore the surrounding desert in search of Neolithic material.

Qasr es-Sagha

Our next stop was Qasr es Sagha, a Old/Middle Kingdom temple. Once we found the old road there (which the new road does not easily reach) we had lunch before exploring the area. Some of us climbed over the temple, others searched for Neolithic material, while others explored the surrounding area. While there are several (mostly missing) Geocaches in the Fayum, we found one several hundred meters west of the temple beyond the rock-cut tombs, overlooking a abandoned Coptic monastery, Abo Liefa (http://coord.info/GC3JEGT).

Abo Liefa

Kom W 2012

As the day was getting on we trundled back to the house, but not before stopping at Kom W for the first time this season. We were based mainly in the area in our 2010 campaign and may be close to the area again later this season, so we were eager to see the site. However to our dismay the site had once again been plundered, this time much worse than before. Nevertheless it was good to see the Kom again. Finally, after taking some photos for the planned new EarthCache for the Fayum to raise awareness about the fragile nature of the environment (http://coord.info/GC3BJRT) we headed home for a well needed rest on our extra day off.

- Josh

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Dimeh visit

Changing the tire....

Last Saturday we got a sleep in (until 7am) and then set off for a day in the desert to see some sights. Our first stop was Dimeh, but on the way one of our land cruisers got stuck in the sand and punctured a tire. After realising we didn’t have a shovel and resorting to trowels to dig ourselves out (archaeologists always carry a trowel) we continued on, ‘discovering’ the speculated-upon new tar-sealed road that goes half way around the lake (but not our half).

Excavation tour at Dimeh

At Dimeh, the co-director Paola Davoli met us and gave us a tour of the site, which was nice as last time some of us visited it in 2009 we only had ourselves as guides. Due to the relative isolation of the site, until recently, it has been mostly protected from robbers and outside interference. After the official tour we were able to wander around the site before moving on, some of us took this opportunity to explore the surrounding desert in search of Neolithic material.

Qasr el-Sagha

Our next stop was Qasr es Sagha, a Old/Middle Kingdom temple. Once we found the old road there (which the new road does not easily reach) we had lunch before exploring the area. Some of us climbed over the temple, others searched for Neolithic material, while others explored the surrounding area. While there are several (mostly missing) Geocaches in the Fayum, we found one several hundred meters west of the temple beyond the rock-cut tombs, overlooking a abandoned Coptic monastery, Abo Liefa (http://coord.info/GC3JEGT).

Abo Liefa

Kom W 2012

As the day was getting on we trundled back to the house, but not before stopping at Kom W for the first time this season. We were based mainly in the area in our 2010 campaign and may be close to the area again later this season, so we were eager to see the site. However to our dismay the site had once again been plundered, this time much worse than before. Nevertheless it was good to see the Kom again. Finally, after taking some photos for the planned new EarthCache for the Fayum to raise awareness about the fragile nature of the environment (http://coord.info/GC3BJRT) we headed home for a well needed rest on our extra day off.

- Josh

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I like sand up my nose by Sam age 25

Hearth excavation in progress

Today we went into the field and we dug some hearths. We have dug hearths in the field for three days now. Hearth features used to be fire pits used by people a very long time ago. Today they look like piles of rock on the surface, and sometimes they poke out above the surface like a dome. When this happens, it is called deflation. In the desert sand blows around a lot! Over a long time, the sand blows all the way around the hearths so even though they were once buried, they are now on the surface. The rocks put inside the fire pit, called heat retainers, protect the charcoal and other material inside the pit from being deflated. We can take charcoal samples from inside the pits to tell how old they are. By doing this, we can see how people used the landscape in the past! Sometimes we get faunal remains, like bone or wood, and this can tell us even more – what the ancient people ate, used for fuel, and what lived around them!

On Sunday we did a field walk looking for surface hearths and grindstones. This means we walk in a line of people back and forth forever (well, for a few hours over more than 76,000m2). Any time someone spots what could be a hearth or grindstone they flag it. A second team goes around each of these flagged locations to make sure it is a hearth or grindstone. If it is not, they move on to the next spot. If it is, they take a GPS coordinate, take a series of measurements, and a photo.

On the first day of excavation I learned how to dig the hearths and what to record on the feature forms. This is very different from what we have done so far, so it was cool to learn something new! Even though we try to make sure that hearths are hearths, sometimes they are not. This is pretty easy to tell – if there are no signs of burning, like charcoal, oxidized sediment, or burnt rock, then it is unlikely to be a hearth. If it is a hearth then all of the above are present. We take progress photos throughout the excavation

Today was a terrible day for excavation! It was the first day we’ve been in the field where the wind has kicked up more than a breeze. If you’ve ever been to the beach and tried to build a sand castle when it is windy you have an idea of what digging in the sand is like. I fashioned a face mask and head scarf to keep the sand out of my mouth and nose, and my hair looking fabulous, which sort of almost worked. Alas, nothing could save my eyes. All in the name of science, I suppose. We collected bags of bulk samples of sediment from each hearth, and then smaller samples where we found deposits of large-sized charcoal for radiocarbon dating. In some hearths we find bone, bits of almost or not burned twigs, seeds, and insects. Sometimes the insects are modern, and have burrowed down into the deposits so we must pay close attention to their condition and how juicy they look. It can be hard to tell what you’ve found in the field, so if we’re unsure we bag it and bring it back with us for a better look in the lab.

Tomorrow should be the final day on hearth excavation in this area. Who knows what next week will bring!

- Sam

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Friday trench tour at Karanis

Trench tour at Karanis

On Friday we had planned to head out to Kom W first thing in the morning to look at the condition of the site. This didn’t exactly work out as one of the Land Cruisers wouldn’t start. We skipped this part of the day and finally headed out to Karanis (Kom Aushim) after breakfast for a tour of the trenches excavated by the team working on this Graeco-Roman site. Visiting such places is always a refreshing departure from the usual prehistoric remains (i.e. stone artefacts and pottery) we deal with. It was interesting to see new areas of the site uncovered and the extension of a number of trenches excavated in previous seasons. Team members engaged in some interesting discussions regarding interpretation of certain structures and features. New members of the team were also able to view some of the famous structures at Karanis such as the north and south temples and the large hole left by sebakhim diggers in the later part of the 19th and early 20th century. This digging destroyed much of the site before the University of Michigan began excavations in the 1930s. We were also able to look at the work done on the Beit Sobek, the site information center  which is the restored dig house of the University of Michigan.

Mud brick construction for the Beit Sobek in 2008

The building was constructed from mud brick, originally taken from the site (!), in the 1920s and 1930s, and has now been restored using freshly made mud brick on site. The building is beautiful and utilizes traditional roofing techniques. It has been amazing to see the transformation of this historic building from a state of disrepair to use over the last few years. The information boards look great and hopefully Karanis will see more visitors in the near future to enjoy this great site.

We finished the day with our annual Thanksgiving dinner which was enjoyed by all.

- Rebecca

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