A Whirlwind Ending

I’m not sure I have ever been on a dig where I’ve gotten the luxury of a leisurely amount of time to  finish up, and this season at Elkab was no exception.

Anne and I were the first to leave, so on friday we packed our bags and did a paperwork marathon. All the forms were filled out, all the maps & drawings were properly labeled, all the elevations entered, all the photos named and cross listed.

On Saturday morning, luckilly, Shadida started up and successfully got us to the site. I’m pretty sure everyone had their fingers crossed the whole way. The last things to do for any excavation are to clean, photograph and draw the profiles of the excavated units. This is actually one of my favorite parts, because you can really understand what happened in an area from a nicely cleaned profile. We managed to do it all by about 12:30.

Then we caused a small riot among the children of the village when we decided to buy baskets from them. Let’s just say I gained some insight into what it would be like to be smothered by a sea of small children with baskets. Everyone survived, even the kids, and I now have made a small dent in my christmas shopping.

With that, a last look at the puppies, and lots of Masallamas and Nashoofak essenna illy guy, we were off.

Back at the house by 1:30, we had a few minutes for a flurry of picture downloading, making backups, eating lunch, and changing clothes before the taxi arrived.

I am sad to go of course, especially when this site is so interesting and we have only scratched the surface. But hopefully I will be back for more next year!

I mean how could I say no to this crew?



To close, here are some great shots from the whole season:

IMG_0615[1] Breakfast

0319151016  The Nile

0318151646a  Art happening

0313151336 The doors of the old SCA office

0301152042 Some fashions should not be revived

DSC_0394 - Copy  After a really good find!

image Can’t get enough of these puppies

The road to Luxor-


It all comes back around, Luxor temple on the last night-


A Killing at El Kab

No one has died, but a fictional character will!

Last week Janice Susan May (Patterson) and her husband Hiram came to visit Elkab for a few days. Susan is writing a novel set in the Elkab dig house, so Dirk extended her an invitation to come and really get to know the place. She wrote another book, the Egyptian File, which also mentions Elkab. I haven’t read it yet, but it is next on my list!

The egyptian File

We had a great time thinking about the possible plot points, hearing about the characters, speculating on which room would be best for a murder, and generally trying to get Susan to divulge secret details of the book.

She says none of the characters are going to be based on real life (any of us!) We will have to read it and find out…  Look for it this fall, under the title A Killing at El Kab, by Janice Patterson.

The Work

Eddie Izzard has a great sketch about Archaeology, see it here. The highlights are ‘speed archaeology’, and  ‘a series of small walls’. Just as Eddie Izzard says, in previous seasons here we have found a series of small walls: an Old Kingdom settlement site. There is a nice article about the settlement site and the associated cemetery in Ancient Egypt magazine here complete with color pictures of the small walls.

As I mentioned in a previous post, what also interests us are the layers underneath the old kingdom settlement. The earlier Badarian and Predynastic layers, where Egypt moved from pastoralism and a series of small farming villages to an urban society, with a state, a king, writing, specialized production, and the artistic style and society that we now think of as Ancient Egypt.

Which brings us to the ‘speed archaeology’. In order to get to these layers, we have to dig small test pits and go through the Old Kingdom settlement remains. I have a mantra for fieldwork where the goal is either to dig fast or dig deep. I learned this mantra the first year I worked in Egypt from a slightly jaded contract archaeologist: “Photograph it, draw it, and remove it!”
Really it should be: “Photograph it, draw it, take the elevations, take notes, and remove it” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Of course we carefully remove features, layers and artifacts only when need be and when we are ready, but the gist of the mantra works- fully document, then proceed digging. And when I am ready to move on to the next sweep or locus, I often find myself doing a mental check, “photograph it, draw it, (take elevations)…”

We do this from about 7am to 2 pm, with a break for second breakfast around 10am. Here I am on the way back, looking a bit dusty:


But the workday doesn’t end there. After coming back to the dighouse and having lunch, a few moments of recovery, and a shower to wake back up, there is the evening work. Also known as paperwork.

For this I made myself a list rather than a mantra.

‘Forms’ here is such a little word, but encompasses oh so much!


8 different kinds of forms, all cross referencing each other. Eventually it all gets digitized, but we are still working from a perspective where sun and sand bar computer in the field, and sand and frequent power outages are more powerful factors than time saving devices of direct to computer entries. So I had better get back to it!


This year, we have a lot of great dogs around the site!

Egypt in general is not a country of dog lovers. Dogs are not well loved in Islam, and to call someone a dog is a derogatory term. Cairo is a bit of a different story, and many people have lap dogs, and even a few bigger dogs there. But in upper Egypt usually dogs usually are found living on the fringes of the desert, kind of feral, or sometimes kept with the livestock to guard them, but just another animal, not usually a family pet. However perhaps the tide is beginning to turn, even in Upper Egypt.

First meet Bobby (pronounced like puppy, but with b’s instead of p’s):


He belongs to our house guard Arby, and as you can see Bobby is not your usual desert mutt, but looks like some sort of boxer mix. And while he is ostensibly a guard dog, he seems to have moved in the family pet range, with a collar, a leash, and we have seen bobby being walked in the wee hours of the morning.

One of the first few days we were going to the site, Arby brought Bobby out to meet us. Of course we immediately fawned all over him, petting him and coddling him etc. Arby let him off the leash so he could really enjoy himself. And then we tried to get in the car and drive away. Bobby would have none of that. He started running behind us, and alongside us, and (stupidly) in front of us. We tried yelling at him to go home in a variety of languages, but he just happily sat and waited for the car to start going again. He seems to have thought it was a great game, running free and fast with his new buddies. But we went far. To get to the main road from the house we have to drive about 2 kilometers or so on a very bumpy dirt road, through some new villages that we springing up. Then we can cross some railroad tracks and get on the main road. Bobby never let up the whole way, so we had to stop before the tracks and load him into the back of the Landrover. I don’t think Bobby had ever been in a car before, and we couln’t get him to jump in. we put his paws up on the back and tried to lure him with sandiwches, but he just looked around in cheerful cluelessnes. Finally Phillip had to get out and pick him up. Then we drove on the main road back past the house and delivered him to Arby who was waiting with a very short leash!

Then just a few days later at the site, we saw that there were not one, not two, but three litters of puppies!


All under 2 months old, some really looked only a few weeks old. At one point we counted abot 14 puppies. Needless to say these puppies are adorable and make are day going to and coming back from the site every day. Just look at the bonding between puppy and Mudir (Director):


One of the puppies is named Hibs. I didn’t catch the others’ names. At least one or two of the mothers belonged to a house nearby where we park, and though covered in flies, she was very friendly to people and seemed to be used to being taken care of. These puppies even have their own little makeshift dog house:


The guy who takes care of them keeps trying to get us to take them home. I haven’t succumbed. Yet.



The most satisfying moments

Ostensibly the most satisfying moments on an archaeological excavation are the moments of discovery, but those are actually few and far between. Often it takes time to understand aspects of a site, or even the significance of an artifact. But in the meantime there are a number of other extremely satisfying, if surprising moments.

“Sheel tub”- As I said in a previous post, what I am really interested in are the earliest periods at the site. However to get to those, we often have to dig through a fair bit of later mud brick architecture. So after finding a wall in my pit, and fully documenting it with photographs, drawings, notes and elevations, I take great pleasure in being able to say “Sheel tub!” which is Arabic for “Remove the bricks!”

An even more enjoyable moment is taking a good lie-in on Friday mornings. Fridays are the days off in Egypt- it is the Muslim holy day, so our workmen don’t work, so we don’t go to the field either! There is just nothing like working really hard in the dust and dirt for 6 days, and then getting to sleep in and slowly wake up to the sounds of the birds chirping and knowing you don’t really have to do anything today.

Of course we usually do catch-up on paperwork and go visit other archaeological sites, because hey, archaeology is cool, we just can’t get enough of this stuff…(ahem).

But by FAR the best feeling of the whole excavation is…(drum roll please)…Taking off your shoes after getting back from the field. I cannot describe it and do it justice, but trust me on this one. And a close second to this is washing your face and hands after getting back.  Most days it is a toss-up, which to do first, but shoes often win.


Now the Mudir says my blog paints too pretty a picture, so to balance things out here is just a selection of the most annoying things about being here:

-Lurking mosquitos: We really have a lot of mosquitos in the house this year. I have a mosquito net and we have some chemical wall plug in for our room so we can sleep at night, but if you don’t wear socks and shoes around in the evening they will attack your feet under the work desk with abandon. Also the mosquitos really enjoy lurking in the showers and the bathroom. They bite your butt while on the toilet and whatever they can get in the shower. Creepers.

-Adolescent boys- a bane everywhere and here is no exception- I would guess that something like 50% of the adolescent boys that we drive past get the sudden and what they think is original idea that it would be great fun to stand in front of the car so we can’t pass or jump at the car as if we are going to hit them as we pass. Brilliant guys, really brilliant, and hilarious. Keep it up. No really.

Also adolescent boys coming by the trench and being annoying, saying annoying things to us while we are stuck at a railroad crossing, shouting things at us when walking around, etc. Anything for attention. Le sigh.

-No privacy- We live and work all together, 24/7. We have shared bedrooms and shared bathroom sinks. You can even hear the person in the next toilet stall over. I’ve given up trying to find privacy to skype, and my poor roommates are subject to listening to my chats with nick.

-I’m not even going to go into the bureaucracy, that wouldn’t be politic. Luckily for the rest of us, the Mudir takes the brunt of that effort.


The air is filling with sand…

On Tuesday we had to quit work early because of high winds that were kicking up the sand. Otherwise known as a sandstorm. Now I have never seen a sandstorm in Egypt such as those portrayed in the movies- like in one of the mummy movies or in Mission impossible IV. You never see a wall of sand coming at you. Instead you just get more and more annoyed with the wind until you look up and notice that everything is a bit hazy, and the haze is thicker in one direction, where the wind is coming from. (Actually the English patient did a pretty good job with their haze-in-the-distance sandstorm).

In our case, around breakfast time (10 am) we were commenting on how windy it was. I had been trying to take a photo in my unit, and Mohammed was cleaning the exposed surface. By the time he got half of it brushed off, the wind would blow in dust and bits of vegetation, covering what he just cleaned. Finally I just had to take the photo as is. Shortly after that we could see that the sky had gotten really hazy and brown in the distance and it just kept getting windier. This sort of wind makes it really impossible to work because it just blows around and around in the test pits and never really clears, so you can’t see what you are doing. Wouter decided to call it. After cleaning up we went back to the car by the Nile to wait for a bit and see if it would clear. The wind was hot, over 100 degrees (F)- as Wouter said going outside was like walking into a hair dryer.

While we were waiting to see what would happen with the storm, two Dahabiyas were pulled up by where we park. A Dahabiyya is an old style of boat, but now they operate like small personal cruise ships.


I have always wanted to check these out, so I invited myself aboard. The owners were very nice and immediately gave us some Karkade and showed us all around. One of the boats was occupied by a couple from Virginia, small world! I don’t know if all the Dahabiyas are the same, but these were gorgeous!




I have to do this sometime! The company that operated these boats is: nourelnil.com

The irony of these boats is that you can’t actually sail fast enough to keep up with visitors’ short time schedules, so while selling a peaceful journey up the Nile from another time, they actually get pulled down the Nike by noises tugboats!


My internet suddenly stopped working earlier today (this happens to me a lot in Egypt), but after purchasing a recharge card and a surprisingly easy call to the phone company, it is working again. Humdulilah. So now I can think about more important things, like the site.

This season we are excavating a settlement site. In Egypt historically much of the attention for excavations has been on cemeteries, partly because of all the spectacular finds. But in the past few decades (which is recent in Egyptological history) more attention has turned to settlements & daily life. During the time period I am interested in, the Predynastic, which is the period covering state formation, most of the sites are in the low desert. Later, at the beginning of the Pharaonic period people moved in closer to the Nile, so it is hard to study that transition in settlements. Elkab is an amazing and unique site because it actually has meters of stratified remains from just before the Predynastic through state formation, and into the Old Kingdom pyramid building era. (see our preliminary report here.) Our goal this season is to excavate test pits around the site in order to determine the extent and composition of the Predynastic settlement.

The preservation of the settlement was aided because a few thousand years after the original settlement began, Ancient Egyptians built a huge wall around the site. The wall is in the background here (not the part sticking up in the middle!)


The site right on the Nile, and the shift of the Nile over the years actually ate away part of the wall, and recently a small fishermen’s village (Elkab) has developed right on the banks of the Nile.


Half of the workmen we hire come from this small village and half from the village near our dighouse.  Important to try to keep everyone happy.

We park right by the water and then walk into the site.


The water view is lovely, especially after digging in the dry dirt all day


Bayt Clarke- The dig house

Another reason I love working on this project is that we stay in one of the most beautiful and unique historic excavation houses in Egypt.


This past weekend a group that is researching and documenting all the old excavation houses visited us – so we had it straight from them, this really is the best one!  (I’m pretty sure they said that at least…) Here is a link to their website for more information on the Elkab dig house (“Bayt Clarke”) and others: http://www.t3wy.org/

The Elkab dighouse house was built in 1906 by Somers Clarke. At the time he had his pick of the land, so he chose a beautiful spot just a few kilometers from Elkab, on a hill right on the Nile.

The view from the roof:


Since the house is over 100 years old, it is itself historic- the perfect place for a group of archaeologists- Digs for the diggers, if you will.  The house is built out of mudbrick, with tall cathedral ceilings and domes capping the main areas.


The mud brick and tall ceilings keep the house quite cool, which is wonderful to walk into at the end of a long hot day in the sun. No need for air conditioning here.

The heart of the house is of course the dining room-


We sleep in shared bedrooms- Here is the ladies’ bedroom.


My bed is the awesome one in the middle with the pyramid on the footboard and the elaborately decorated lamp.


Another great thing about this place is that they updated the bathrooms and showers a few years ago, so no hardships there. The showers are particularly wonderful because there are not too many people in the house relative to the size of the hot water tank- a critical calculation for any project. I can actually wash my hair every now and again without half the team getting mad at me for using up all the hot water!


Off of the dining room is our main workroom here:

0308151712                     0308151712a

We also extend out and use some of the covered Porches for work. Stan’s ceramic analysis set up:


There would be more room for such outdoor work, but a few years ago the porches on the main entrance side of the house collapsed. Here you can see where the arch should have gone over the rest of this porch


The house is badly in need of restoration work including this porch collapse reconstruction, along with other issues such as wiring (which is a bit jerry-rigged), and the roof needs to be adjusted so water can runoff properly (it does rain sometimes!)

In Egypt now, with its rapidly expanding population, there is a lot of cheap and fast construction out of concrete or limestone blocks. In the face of all this maintaining houses such as Bayt Clarke is important not only for their aesthetic value or as a piece of historic cultural heritage, but also as an example of construction which used local sustainable materials to build a house that is comfortable for all seasons, and doesn’t need to rely on heating or air-conditioning. The catch is that an estimated 20,000 dollars is need to complete the restoration work. An article with more details about the house, the past restoration work, what still needs to be done, and information on donating can be found here: Saving Beyt Clarke

In the meantime, I am heading out to the porch to enjoy the sunset.0223151743b