As some of you know, blue jersey dad and I have been in Egypt for the past couple of weeks working on the animal bone from a 4th-century Roman site. The site is located in the Dakleh Oasis in the Western Desert about 12 hours southwest of Cairo. While this diary has nothing to do with the Massachusetts senate election, health care reform, or the Obama administration, I wanted to show you a little about what we were doing in Egypt and what life is like today and in the past for the inhabitants of this remote location.
Please follow me below the fold for an introduction to the archaeology of the Dakleh Oasis and life in this remote region of Egypt.
Dad and I landed in Egypt on January 7th, which is a national holiday for Coptic Christmas. We had the opportunity to visit the Egyptian Museum before we headed out to the western Egypt. The Museum is a late Victorian structure that is home to many of the greatest treasures of Egyptian archaeology, including the palette of Narmer (which represents the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt at the beginning of the 1st dynasty) and all 5000 objects that were discovered in the famous tomb of Tutankhamun. Here is an example of the statuary that sits in the museum's courtyard.
At 8 pm that evening we boarded the night bus for Dakhleh, which was an interesting experience in and of itself. The bus ride takes about 12 hours with two short comfort stops--one at midnight and the other at about 6 am. We were the only non-Egyptians and the only non-Arabic speakers on the bus. We struggled a bit to make sure that we were getting off at Mut, one of the towns in the Dakhleh Oasis. When we got off the bus, we entered a very different world. After 12 hours of travel through the desert. the oasis at Dakhleh is remarkably green. Electricity was first introduced here in the late 1980s, and the primary mode of transportation is still the donkey cart:
While concete and rebar are replacing many of the traditional mud-brick houses, animals are still housed in mud-brick stables that have not changed much since the time of the pharaohs:
The dig-house itself was built out of mudbrick, as you can see here:
Dad and I went to Egypt to work on the faunal remains from the Late Roman town of Amheida. We were interested in learning what the animal bones could tell us about the diet and ways of life of the people who lived at the site over 1600 years ago. The excavations at Amheida have been ongoing for the past several years under the direction of my colleague, Prof. Roger Bagnall. Here you can see the site itself, which lies close to the edge of the oasis:
It is absolutely covered with pottery sherds and other traces of late Roman occupation. (Parenthetically, this is far more pottery than we would ever find at any site in Ireland):
The excavations so far have revealed the well-preserved remains of a Roman villa, a smaller Roman house, and a temple. A model of the villa is being reconstructed on site, and one of the crew members is working to reproduce the frescoes that covered many of the walls.
The animal bones from the site tell a really interesting story. The animal bones from the smaller roman house included the remains of cattle, goats and sheep, and donkeys. As you can see from this picture of the local Bedouin herders, these animals are still kept by farmers in the area today:
The inhabitants of the small Roman house also supplemented their diet by hunting Dorcas gazelle, a small gazelle that is found across many parts of north Africa and in the Sinai.
The inhabitants of the villa had a very different diet. The most common animals were pigs and chickens. There were also smaller number of pigeons, and many of the houses in the Dakhleh region still have dovecotes today. Here is part of the bath house from the villa:
The fauna from the temple included more cattle bones, plus the skeletons of a number of wild birds that will be examined by one of our Egyptian colleagues. The single cat bone we found was from the temple.
The Dakhleh Oasis has been occupied from Middle Paleolithic times to the present. While the surrounding landscape would have been more steppe-like during the Pleistocene (Ice Age), Dakhleh has been an oasis in the desert for much of the Holocene, and most of the larger African wild mammals, such as giraffes and hartebeest, had disappeared by Middle Kingdom times. The oasis provided water in an otherwise barren landscape. However, the water is a finite resource. The Romans appear to have pushed the limits of what was possible, first for grain production and later for olive oil. Population declined dramatically at the end of the Roman period and did not recover until the late medieval period.
Today about 96% of Egypt's population lives in a small strip along the Nile Valley. The Egyptian government would like to make the southern oases into a New Valley, using a combination of canals to draw water from Late Nasser and artesian wells in the oases themselves. In the oases, the wells are going deeper and deeper and drawing off more of the water from the aquifer, which is not being recharged. The long term effects may be disastrous.
As you know, dad and I had to come home from Egypt a few days early because my 91-year-old mom fell and broke her hip. Here is a view of the great pyramids from the car service as well approach Cairo on our way home. Note that the air pollution around Cairo is so bad that it is hard to see the pyramid.