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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Pedestrian survey

Matt setting up the total station

Top of today’s list of jobs was to field-walk looking for hearths and grindstones. 3 hours of walking up and down in tandem with 5 of the crew, staring longingly at the ground. Hoping to spot the illusive smoothed rocks, or the characteristic clusters of heat-altered rocks.

Finds were few and far between but an inventory after the field-walk revealed that we had located handful of grindstones and also an exciting find… At first glance the rock appeared to be a regular grinding stone, but on closer inspection it was assessed that the item may actually be a tethering stone…In addition to this we found a large portion of what appears to be a Neolithic rim-sherd of pottery. The latter of these finds got our resident pottery fiend Josh quite excited.

Unfortunately Sam wasn’t able to join us in our celebrations at these finds as she was once again incapacitated with an illness back at the dig house (refer to her blog post for more info on this situation).

The remainder of the day went smoothly, marking out and completing three transects and setting up a fourth. The total station crew of Matthew and Tash are getting into their groove, systematically marking out and surveying in the transect perimeters surface types and artifacts with new-found speed and ease. Those of us on the differential GPS are beginning to have a hard time keeping up with marking out transects for processing fast enough!

As each day progresses the team gets tighter and transect set out and survey gets faster and faster.
Work is hot and long but goes quickly with many laughs along the way. Whilst the mood is generally high with smiles and laughs, we had to pause today for a moment to mourn the loss of a fond member of our team, my hat. Who escaped into the desert as we moved locations in the Land Rover. Perhaps archaeologists working many years from now will find this hat, analysing the foolishness that led to its loss, and contemplating how such a person managed to survive the remainder of the hot day.

Today’s photo is of the bear-grills lookalike Matthew getting down to business with the total-station.

– Tara

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A personal reflection on food poisoning and camp life – the other side of field work

I don’t know what it was that did it, but it got done – I have been poisoned. Every single person you talk to about visiting Egypt warns that you’ll get it, the old Cairo Belly, but you always think/hope, “Nope! Not me!” And you’d be wrong every time. It’s probably just getting used to the country and the water (oh no, we don’t drink it!) and all the rest. I am the first to succumb, but mark my words it will get us all.

In the morning I get all my gear on, pretending that it will trick my body into thinking we’re in tip-top shape. That is a poor life choice – what the body wants the body wants, you just gotta let it do its thing. So what do you do when the entire crew goes out into the field and you have to stay behind lest ye be overcome with the desire to pay respects to the Porcelain God? I spend the days inside keeping cool and hydrated. Unfortunately, we’re still so early on in the season that there’s not a huge amount of work to do back at the house. On the plus side, we’re still in the early days of survey, working in areas where there isn’t a huge density of surface artefacts. This means, selfishly, that I’m not missing out on too much. But hey, we’re here for five (!) weeks, so there will be plenty of time in the field!

I’m not the only one home sick! At least two others working out at Karanis (a Greco-Roman town also in the Fayum that’s a wee bit later than what we’re here looking at) are home with a flu and vomiting. But we’re keeping our spirits high, because eventually we’ll be fighting fit once more and rearing to go. Depending on your scale of sickness you’re either huddled in bed next to a bucket, or doing paperwork and other tasks in between visits… elsewhere.

There is some simple work to do – fixing some things with our DSM (Digital Surface Model, in our case a highly detailed scan of the desert surface including features like irrigation canals and roads along with man-made and natural mounds and depressions), and working out a way to streamline our photo registry process each night. To be fair, these can be very long processes of experimentation with different methods, but once that stuff is done…

With any luck I’ll be ready to rock tomorrow or the day after. In the meantime I have a Masters proposal I should probably be thinking about. And hey, as far as places I could be sitting for inspiration this ain’t half bad.

–          Sam

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Day One: Prepare for trouble-and make it double!

The day dawned fine. Those old familiar words from the February 2012 GMIP echoed in our minds as we woke from our well deserved and unlikely to occur again late slumber. The time was 5:30am. The residents of the Princess Palace (Figure 1) did their morning stretches and emerged from their abode to a delicious breakfast of ~aMaZiNg~ feta cheese, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches and tea. There was a great commotion on the road which transpired to not be a welcoming party, but rather a massive number of cars precariously carrying multiple calves to the cattle market just up the road from the dig house. The cow packing is really quite a marvel, with calves shoved into every available seat, surface or railing. The noise and smell was definitely a new experience, but one which we are told we will become accustomed to as this commotion occurs every Saturday. Following this, the gear for the day was packed in the back of a surprisingly well kept Land Cruiser. And we were packed into a shabab-mobile. Which was less well kept. But it started (somewhat surprisingly)! So off we zipped, into the desert via the Highway of Terror.

The first thing to know about driving in Egypt is that you don’t talk about driving in Egypt. Just know that it is terrifying. After 35 hair-raising minutes we pulled alongside one of hundreds of concrete canals carved into the landscape. Initially these channels were built for irrigation of modern agriculture, but water availability is a problem and so they are unused. While meaning little for modern farmers, they, and other unused agricultural fields, disturb the surface archaeology across the landscape. Sometimes rendering large sections of transects unable to be analysed and potentially losing the context of large numbers of artefacts. Regrettably these developments are growing in number every year.

The first transect of the day was marked out and work for the day began in earnest, marking in geomorphological features and artefacts along the way. Matthew and Natasha ran the total station for the day whilst the rest of us were on transect set up and field walking for lithics, pottery, bone and features.

Despite our initial enthusiasm and vigour we found very little. Understatement. We found nothing. But as Dr. Evil, aka Simon, constantly says: A null result is still a very interesting result. And so we soldiered on, enthused by our lack of finds. By the end of the day we had marked and analysed 2 full transects and found a few Palaeolithic flakes and a bunch of very pretty but naturally occurring rocks and a heap of sand. Rachel our resident pretty rock specialist was particularly pleased with the finding of some particularly sparkly gypsum and a rock which looks like a pyramid. On a more serious note the team is settling into work well and the data being generated is starting to get us excited :3

Another hair-raising ride through traffic bought us back to the dig-house where we unloaded gear and then reloaded personnel for a trip into Fayum city for passport checks, bread, beer, coke, comedy, 90s music and several interesting run ins with donkey-carts. Fayum city traffic is more or less like Tetris, with people manoeuvring their vehicles into very close proximity with each other, using various honkings to signal anything from anger, ‘OMG I’M SLOWLY WALKING ACROSS THE ROAD DON’T HIT ME’, and ‘WHY DON’T YOU LET ME MERGE!?’ to ‘You have a car, I also have a car – cool!’, and ‘Thanks’. We arrived unharmed. The passport checks went smoothly and it wasn’t long before we were back out in the traffic, navigating our way to acquire fresh cooked bread and drinks. Following this it was a quick trip through the backstreets where we encountered a rather angry man with a donkey and a young man sporting the bumper sticker: “Don’t play with me. Sorry girls, memory is full”. We don’t know what that is supposed to mean either. At this point an array of horrifying 90s music was put on at loud volumes and we continued to disco our way back home, dancing and singing along the way.

Dinner was probably fish, and tasted better than the 2minute noodles us post-grads had become accustomed to over the past year. Soon after this it was finishing up with downloads and return to the princess palace where we slumbered soundly till dawn.

What archaeology awaits us tomorrow? How much sand will we encounter? Will Tara’s Hello-Kitty watch survive another day in the desert? – These are the questions awaiting us in the new day. Hoorah!

TEAM ROCKET

Sam and Tara

DEAR MOTHERS AND FATHERS AND CONCERNED RELATIVES, know that we are safe and in good health!

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Equipment!

Gear ready for collection in Auckland

Organizing the equipment for a field project requires weeks of preparation. We need to take everything we could need in Egypt from New Zealand. This includes GPS units, artefact bags, cameras, calipers, artefact scales, and all of our personal equipment. Each member is required to bring their share of the equipment in addition to their own, which is why we are grateful for a large baggage allowance on the airline. Once organized the more fragile or oddly shaped items (such as the theodolite or the theodolite pole) need to be safely packed away to ensure they safely make the journey (along with all our chocolate!).

We were lucky in that all our equipment arrived in Egypt without harm and at the same time as us, something which previous members will tell you is not always guaranteed.

Gear in Egypt

Once at our dig house, all of the equipment was collated and set up in one of the offices downstairs, while upstairs we organized desks for each of us and a working space. It is important to keep things organized so that we can keep track of them and not forget them on days they need to be taken into the field. Each member will be in charge of a particular item each day and needs to make sure that it is in the truck ready at 6am. The next challenge will be keeping items clean!

– Josh

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Count down anticipation 2012

Tash working at Karanis (Fayum) in 2009

We have less than two weeks to go until we get on that plane, fly over 16,000km back in time to Cairo, drive another 100kms to our dig house in the Fayum, unpack equipment, choose our tent, unpack our gear, SLEEP, wake at 5am (4am for the adventurous), hit the dirt track and get our archaeology freak on. However before this unfolds the team has to make several important decisions that could have a huge impact on the success of this project, starting with the packing of our bags and organising the field gear. Each team member has to pull-out their field clothes, trusty medical kits, home snacking essentials (coffee and chocolate for me) and pack this into a bag whilst remembering to leave half the backpack space available for “remain-sane” gear; Gear that could break or make this endeavour (field gadgets, surveying equipment and coffee plungers).  No sweat. Everyone on the team this year has had a good deal of experience in the field and for all involved this process is familiar territory. This will be my fourth season as an archaeologist on the Fayum Project and one I hope to be the best yet.

When it comes to the final count down, it doesn’t matter what your participation count is, the anticipation never goes away. The excitement of reuniting with colleagues from past seasons is always my favourite part, the airports and the flying not so much. I also never get use to the speed at which the project goes. Within a few days the project unfolds before your eyes, “veterans” and new team members merge, with everyone lapping up the project plan and pumping out a day’s work like a well-oiled machine. Once this starts, the season becomes a completely new and fresh experience and always a great learning curve. All the team members this year, including myself, have additional projects that directly relate to this field work. Some of us have just finished postgraduate projects that draw on data from the previous field seasons, and others will be starting and continuing to work on their projects whilst over there (my Masters for example). This year I’m producing a Master’s thesis currently titled “Assessing early- to mid-Holocene evidence for human behavioural change in Northeast Africa” and of course one of my case studies is the Fayum, all the data collected by previous campaigns in the region and the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence our project’s gathered since 2004… I anticipate long work days and nights with this additional task in the mix. So yes coffee is important and, believe it or not, this is the only time in my year where Coca-Cola becomes a serious medicinal part of my diet. The hardest thing for me to decide right now is what I want to be working on whilst over there, what I need to complete before leaving for Egypt and what can I afford to take with me in terms of research material (which always threatens to bump the luggage weight past the limit…). There’s also the (not so) small task of making sure my skills are up-to-speed for using the surveying equipment and analysing the archaeological remains we are bound to find. No sweat.

Natasha (aka Tash)

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We are finished the fieldwork for Fayum 2010!

packing up the office

We are finished the fieldwork for Fayum 2010! Today we are in the house packing up and most importantly backing up. We have built a GIS during the course of the season but there are always clean up jobs to do at the end of the season. We spent last night going over the structure of the GIS making sure that the symbols we use to represent the various types of data we have recorded are consistent. Kane established a symbol set for the codes that we used to describe the surface sediments on the transects that we recorded. Tash reset the photo names for the transects so that we can implement dynamic links in the GIS. Josh took photos every 20m across the transects both EW and NS before logging began. These are filed for each transect along with all the other data we recorded at that location. The dynamic link means that anyone using the GIS can view these photos just by clicking an icon. It helps when we are back in NZ, the US and the Netherlands (project members come from all three countries) and need to remember what the locations we recorded looked like.

Because team members will be working on the data we gathered throughout the year it’s important that the GIS and associated folders of data are very well structured otherwise it will be a continual headache finding where we put a particular record. We have adopted an ‘object orientated’ approach. We have a small set of types of units that we have recorded in the field: the survey transects, hearths, grindstones, geomorphic sections. These are individually numbered and the data is structured so that every data record (total station survey, photo etc.) relevant tot that object is stored within the object folder. We use the GIS to integrate the different data types that we have collected – exploiting the database management function of the GIS. Because we are dealing with such a large area (the X1 region we worked in this season was 3km wide EW) a GIS is also essential for understanding spatial distributions.

Photographs are a critical part of our data acquisition and are one of the reasons that we amass such a large quantity of data during the season. We save high resolution photos because sometimes it is necessary to look at images in detail. The downside is that data backup takes some time – the master data files for 2010 are around 20 gigs. We also keep copies of the data that was downloaded from the various instruments we use. This means that if for some reason we found an error we could track back to the original data file where the error occurred. But we hope that we have found and fixed any errors in the field!

We backup onto several different machines and portable disks. The danger of data loss is an issue but can be overcome by making sure that there are lots of copies. We send the data back on a variety of different machines with people flying in different directions. Back in our various home universities the data is backed up again onto servers. This minimizes the threat of data loss to acceptable levels. We really have little alternative – given the type of data requirements needed for this project a ‘paper record’ would be impossible to create.

– Simon

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