At work

In light of the amount of data entry waiting for me, tonight I’ll limit myself to a photographic description of who we are and what we do:

Me, analyzing lithics:


And some of the lithics in question:

Mike & Felix, mining archaeologists (as in, they study mines):



Richard, conserving a coffin fragment:


Nora, taking care of some human remains from the tomb excavations:


Alex the surveyor, and his setup:


Mahmoud, serving a seriously delicious Thanksgiving chicken:


And most importantly, the mudira (director) Christiana, valiantly trying to get internet access so she can organize and keep track of everything and everyone for the project:

For instance, in the middle of that knot of people is the Mudira, negotiating for the storeroom construction:

Of course, we are jacks of all trades so:

Mike & Felix, doing photogrammetry:

Somewhat less high-tec, me carrying lunch up to the site:

All of us surveying:

And to close, the whole team in a tomb:

Washing artifacts in the desert

I’ve washed my fair share of artifacts over the past 10 years or so. Groundstone in New mexico, ceramics in Mexico, rocks in California, lithics, lithics, lithics, in Armenia, France, and Egypt. But always, there has been a faucet.

We are only authorized to store and work on artifacts at another site that our project is also working on. They are team Sheikh el Fadl. They have matching sweatshirts with their team logo:

We are team Wadi el Skeikh. No matching sweatshirts, we just coordinate accidentally:

I know that is a Darkside joke in there somewhere…

The reason we have to cross over from the dark side and join team Sheikh el Fadl is because there is no storage magazine nearby at the moment. The director Christiana is working on having one built, but you need a bulldozer to get through all that red tape. In fact here is the bulldozer that is supposed to be digging the trench for the magazine. Apparently even it was stymied by more red tape.

In the meantime, we do all the analysis on site, which is on a small mountain.

Here is my office:

It is filled with flies in the afternoon, but that is neither here nor there. What matters is the water. Artifacts need to be cleaned to be analyzed, and artifacts need water to get clean. All the water comes up each morning in a few 30 liter jerrycans, most of which are for drinking. The car can only bring them up so far, then they are carried the rest of the way. Clearly, supplies are limited.

To complicate matters more, our 4- wheel drive desert-traversing Land Cruiser had to go to Cairo with the director to try to extricate a piece of equipment that literally got sealed in customs due to all the increased security after the Russian plane incident. Apparently there are also whole new security departments that have opened with the most recent government, who require special paperwork for such items, and don’t accept authorization from the antiquities department. But that’s also another story. The upshot is that on the first day of washing we also didn’t have a vehicle to bring the water up. Luckilly a small 3-wheeled vehicle like a motorcycle with a tiny truckbed, called a tricycle, was arranged, and at some point water appeared. Yay!

We devised a dry brushing preparation method to conserve water and dirty it as little as possible. Mohammed has been stolidly washing away each day, which he says he prefers to carrying buckets and screening. Here’s the set up:

In the end, we got the artifacts washed, I harranged and cajoled people into doing some initial sorting for me, and a few days later I already have over 1500 lithics anyzed!!!

Since we also don’t have electricity at the site, I also have to record everything by hand, then enter it into the computer in the evenings. Endless data entry. So, I should probably get back to it!

Phase 2

What’s the best part of doing archaeology? Surveying. (Barring shovel test pit survey of course, which is horrible.) Crossing vast new landscapes everyday, new finds and discoveries, stunning views.


The silence in the desert is a stark contrast to the honking horns, barking dogs, booming weddings, and random shouts that make up town. The locality we are working on now is two kilometers long,  long enough that all 7 of us can spread out so far you can’t see or even hear each other. Walking across the expanse, with the wind blowing, and the sun in your eyes, surrounded by absolute quiet, makes it feel like you are the star of your own silent film.

Well, survey is over. We are on to phase 2: test excavations. We could spend months surveying the wadi, but unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time. Our goal is to give an initial characterization of the extent and variety of sites in the wadi, and then look more closely at one site to demonstrate the diversity and context of the lithic production and mining within a single site. In short- there is a lot more going on in Wadi el-Sheikh than has so far been known.

Phase two consisted of collecting surface material and the top 2 cm of soil from four 1 x 1 meter test units. This excavation part is probably what comes to mind when most people think about archaeology- I mean besides rescuing golden statues from the hands of scheming Nazis. However, this was actually the shortest part of what we are doing this season. Collecting the material only took two days! That is because there is so much material that I won’t be able to analyze more than that in the time remaining.

Here is the material from 1 unit:

And that wasn’t even the biggest one!

Because of the orientation of the site and the topography of the plateaus, we can’t get the car into the site. That means we had to carry down 15 large heavy bags of rocks, along with our regular equipment yesterday.  We earned our cheese and chips sandwiches that day.


A walk through town

It’s been so busy already that I have barely had time to think about anything besides rocks, let alone to write. But Friday was our day off, which is always welcome.

It never ceases to amuse me that as archaeologists our day off from tramping around the desert looking for artifacts is to tramp around the desert visiting sites where we already know there are artifacts. We went to visit the Middle kingdom tombs of Beni hassan. These tombs have some of the most famous scenes of daily life, including bread, beer, and wine making, harvesting, statue production etc. They even include a few scenes of lithic tool production. Coincidence? I think not. No photos allowed in the tombs, so here is a dredge from the internet-

Drawing of the wine production scene:

Wrestling or fighting:

And foreign tribute bearers:

These were really some of the most impressive tombs I have seen in Egypt. I can’t believe I haven’t seen them before. What have I been doing for the last decade?

In the afternoon, because a day off is no time to rest, I went on a mission to find a bucket. Why, you might ask? It all starts with the team wanting to be closer to the site. Last year we were only allowed to stay in Minya, so we had a 1.5 to 3 hour drive EACH WAY, to get to and from the site. This year Christiana, the director, worked her mudirial magic and got us permission to stay in a town much closer to the site. We are staying in a 10th floor flat in a town bigger than a village, but with a somewhat village feel. Our flat is quite nice, with 2 bathrooms and many bedrooms, and great views of the Nile. The problem is the water pressure doesn’t really make it up to the 10th floor. And if anyone else is running any sort of water (dishes, hand washing, toilet flushing, laundry) there is literally only a dribble. To compound problems I have a mass of long hair which does need to be washed in occasion.

So I decided to implement the bucket and bowl showering system which I haven’t had to do since staying in a real rural village in the yucatan, over a decade ago. Others had shoping to do as well, so we walked through town stopping at vegetable and fruit vendors, grocery stores, a sunglasses stand, and every place that sold plastic items. I found a bucket about halfway through, and, as if we weren’t spectacle enough, I was now a foreigner carying a plastic bucket through town….

But I have to say people were much more relaxed and nice than I have sometimes encountered in Cairo. There were no catcalls, and no one was trying to rip us off. No one was pushy either, one shop owner just tried to get his shy daughter to practice English with us, and that was just sweet.

Here is town:


Luckily I managed to escape being photographed with the bucket. And I am happy to report that the bucket style hair washing was successful. Even pleasant!

It just goes to show how complicated the logistics of running a project are. There are a zillion details from where to live and how to get to the site, to how many and what size towels are needed….

And on Saturday we were back in the wadi trying to understand not only how the gajillions of stone tools were made, but how the pharaohs got enough people out in the desert for enough time, and with the supported needed to move tons and tons of stone and sand, often just to make the little teeth for harvesting sickles. And people say Ancient Egyptians continued using flint well into the bronze age because it was cheap and easy… We’ll see about that!

Chips, Chips, & Salt

The first day in the field was absolutely fantastic.

Before going to the field, even having seen the site last year, I worried about how our samples would be affected by site disturbances caused by previous researchers and visitors, and about being careful to leave the best areas for the most detailed analysis. And then I saw the site again. HAHAHAHA. It is mind boggling how much material there is here. We can bulk collect a few 1×1 meter areas without even making a dent. We will still have a field of options available for future point provenienced recording and even after that there will still be more left for future researchers.

Here is just a taste:

Felix, one of the team members new to the wadi this year  said Michael had prepared him, and he was ready for a lot of material, but then he saw it…. He couldn’t even believe it: “An indescribable amount of material”

Alex  our surveyor estimated that just one of the localities is approximately 80-100,000 square meters. And projecting from what we have surveyed so far there  may be over 100 such localities- 10 million square meters of landscape full of artifacts. And so far we estimate the wadi at somewhere in the ballpark of 54 million square meters, so there may be even more of it with artifacts. Of course not all of it is the same density as the above photo, but much of it is. Any way you look at it it is a S*&$-ton of artifacts! Unfortunately Christiana says I can’t use S*&$-ton as a technical term, but it really is apt.

‘Chips’ are flakes from making stone tools that are below 1 cm in size. And granted most of what we surveyed today was much larger than 1cm, but taken loosely, you could say we saw a lot of chips today.


Since the project is just in its first few days, and it is a new project, the lunch details are still getting worked out. We ended up with a lot of sweet things and few savory items for lunch- pretty much only chips and bread for the non-sweets. So Mohammed brilliantly put the chips in the pita bread! It was surprisingly good. I thought that the french-fries-in-pita sandwiches at Abydos were innovative, but this takes carb-on-carb  a step farther. No photo. I was too hungry.


To finish the day we visited another field of quarry pits that we had seen on google earth. Very different from the other pits we have so far seen.

Luckily Omar, a man from a nearby village, was with us and knew all about them. So I carried out some spur of the moment ethnographic interviews and learned all about about modern quarrying practices for salt extraction. (I knew all those years of studying Arabic would come in handy.) remember that scence in the English patient where Ralph Fiennes is interviewing the old Bedouin man about desert routes? Yeah that was pretty much me yesterday 😉 I’d love to insert a link to the clip, but that is really beyond the capacity of my internet access.


But seriously we learned some very important information from which we can construct a model for of independent small scale extraction. It is very clear how this approach plays out on the ground in terms of the size, distribution, and organization of the pits, along with the meager infrastructure. So although the pits were not chert, and they weren’t as old as we thought, they are certainly interesting and expand the diversity of quarrying activity in the wadi and help us to understand and interpret other pits.

From young to old in Cairo

After a thankfully uneventful arrival in Egypt, including all my luggage arriving at the same time, my first few days in Cairo were personal days that I arranged so that I could attend the baptism of my friend’s twins.

The baptism started at the (for Egypt) shockingly early hour of 7:30 am. And we all were only about 15 minutes or so late, which was pretty good! Luckily there weren’t any other babies being baptized the same day, so we had the baptism chapel to ourselves. Last time I was there for a baptism there were seven babies in total, and the small room built for about 20 held at least 50 people, all throwing elbows and vying to get to the best positions to see and take pictures!

The babies did great, even with the full-body dunks:

One highlight was the part where the priest had to be the first to dress the babies after they were anointed… Which included putting the diapers on them!

And the babies looked absurdly adorable (as did we):

The next day I played Egypt guide and took some Cairo-first-timers to visit Khan-el-Khalili, the main old Egyptian market. In good Egyptian style we had a hair-raising taxi ride to get there. Really I have been in a lot of, as my friend Meg would say, ass-clenching taxi rides, and this definitely qualified.

I probably haven’t been to Khan-el-Khallili in about two years, but over the course of the last decade or so I have visited there so many times that I feel pretty familiar with it and comfortable navigating the alleyways and finding my favorite shops. However when the taxi driver pulled over and said “Khan-el-Khallili,” I didn’t recognize a bit! I couldn’t even tell we were there! Partly it was because he stopped in an unusual spot, but it turns out they removed a large pedestrian bridge, a major landmark. But it really threw me off and made me realize that I have been visiting Egypt and Cairo long enough to see how things change on the scale of a decade. Was the pedestrian bridge removed in order to decrease access into the Khan (a major tourist destination), and therefore increase security? The dip in tourism was blatantly evident in how few people were in the khan. But other changes in Cairo have nothing to do with the ripple effects of recent political events: The rise of cupcake shops, the proliferation of starbucks-like cafes, the advent of mid-range Egyptian food restaurants– not just street food, fastfood or high end foreign restaurants.  I don’t know what all this means except that I am getting older and probably should wear more sunscreen.

First we went to Bab Zuweila- one of the old gates to the medieval city, still standing with two large minaret-like towers flanking it, that you can climb up for fantastic views of the city. If you don’t have claustrophobia or fear of heights that is. It’s 1000 years old.


When in Khan el-khallili it is also essential to stop and have tea at Fishawys- a cafe that has been operating, practically 24-7 for over 200 years:

Bab zuweila and Fishawy’s have certainly seen Cairo change on a scale that puts my decade squarely in the realm of paltry! There is certainly no shortage of history here. Tomorrow I’ll go on to start researching rocks that have barely moved for 4000 to 40,000 years. Even Bab zuweila is young from that perspective!

Minya 2015: Wadi el-Sheikh Rocks!

Holy Moly I’m going to Egypt tomorrow. I am even all packed. Unfortunately I have yet to master the skill of packing light:


This season I am going to Minya, which is about halfway between Cairo and Luxor, to work with a University of Vienna Project at Wadi el-Sheikh. (The same one I visited briefly last November.)

There we will be studying and documenting a massive complex of chert quarries. Chert was the material from which Ancient Egyptians made their stone tools: Knives, sickles, axes, arrowheads, drills, and many more. To get the chert they had to dig for it, from shallow pits that barely scratched the surface, to deep shafts better thought of a quarries or mines.

The whole landscape of the wadi is speckled with quarry pits for miles and miles. So basically we will be looking at rocks and holes in the ground– thousands and thousands of them.

We want to know a lot of things about this place:

How long was this site used as a chert quarry? It is possible that some quarries date as far back as the middle Paleolithic (say about 100,000 years ago) and continue up through the New Kingdom, (only a mere 3,000 years ago).

How many people worked at the quarry in its prime? How long did they stay? Where did they stay?

What tools did they make in different time periods?

How far did those tools get exchanged?

The last question is particularly important, because it will help us understand the workings of the Ancient Egyptian economy. How much did the government really control and organize? Did the goods from their desert expeditions reach all kinds of people, or only the privileged few? Were there middle men involved? Did it change over time?

Since our current world is faced with debates over the best ways to organize our own economic systems, why not learn what one of the earliest and longest-lasting state societies did? What problems and ‘pitfalls’ did they face?

This season’s work should set u on the road to answering these questions. But for now, I’ll leave you with an image of one of my favorite Predynastic stone knives: