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As some of you know, blue jersey dad and I just returned from two weeks in Egypt. We are part of the excavation team at Amheida, a city known as Trimithus during the Roman period. The site is located in the Dakleh Oasis in Egypt's Western Desert, about 12 hours by car southwest of Cairo. The excavation is a multinational, multidisciplinary project under the direction of Professor Roger Bagnall from NYU, and it is also part of a semester abroad project for undergraduates from NYU and Columbia/Barnard. This year we rode out to the site with the undergraduate students in early January.

For the past several years, the excavation has focused on the Villa of Serenus, a wealthy, 4th-century CE residence that produced spectacularly painted walls, including both geometric decorations and scenes from pagan mythology. Please follow me below the fold to learn more about our research.

The excavated villa and the wall paintings are in very poor condition, and painted rooms were re-buried after excavation. However, as part of the excavation project, a life-size reconstruction of the villa has been constructed, and several members of the team are working to recreate the wall paintings. This recreation will serve not only as a tourist attraction, but also as an educational aid for the local population.

This picture shows some of the reconstructed wall paintings in the villa:

and here is a view of the outside of the reconstructed villa:


Dad and I are responsible for the zooarchaeology, studying the animal bones to understand 4th-century diet, animal husbandry, and hunting practices at Amheida. Late year we look at a lot of the animal bones that had been recovered from rooms inside the villa between 2004 and 2008. We identified lots of pig and chicken bones, as well as smaller numbers of cattle, sheep and goats, and gazelles. This year we looked at the bones that were recovered from areas just outside the villa, including s sigma-shaped dining area and the surrounding streets. The most interesting find from the dining area was the skull of a pig that would have been about three years old when it was slaughtered, along with lots of other pig and chicken bones. The street area just outside the villa produced quite a large number of bones (mostly heads and feet) of Dorcas gazelles, indicating that wild game was also on the menu. Here you can see some of the gazelle horn cores:


A week ago Friday, we had the opportunity to visit the site of Balat, located on the eastern part of the Dakleh oasis.  Here is a map showing the location of the Dakleh Oasis:
map source

Balat is the best-preserved Old Kingdom site in all of Egypt. It includes a governor's palace, monumental tombs for the governors, and a walled town. When the Old Kingdom Egyptians began to explore the Eastern and Western Deserts, they were initially interested in minerals. In the Dakleh area, this included red and yellow ochers which were used as pigments. By the 6th Dynasty (ca. 2200 BCE), a substantial settlement was established at Balat. it served as a link in the trade routes that led to southwest Egypt and then to Nubia and other parts of Africa. Traders traveled the desert with teams of 300 donkeys, who an go up to three days without water. Oases such as Dakleh provided water and fodder for the animals.

Here you can see one of the monumental (unexcavated) mastaba tombs of one of the governors of Balat:


and here you can see one of the tombs that has been fully excavated:


And here are some of the preserved painting from inside the tomb:


Here is one of the rooms from the governor's palace. The circular feature in the front would have held hot coals to keep the room warm. The four stone blocks are foundations for a larger wooden structure, sort of like a day bed or litter:


Last Sunday, we left the Western Desert on a flight from the Kharga Oasis, located just east of Dakleh. The flights run once a week by a company called Petroleum Air Services. We arrived at the airport more than an hour too early, so we had the chance to visit the 3rd to 7th-century Coptic cemetery of Bagawat (accompanied by an entire car full of tourist police). The name, Bagawat, means "domes" in Arabic, and you can see all the domed mud brick funerary chapels here:


Some of the most spectacular tombs have paintings on their domes. Most show scenes from the Old Testament. Here you can see an image of Adam and Eve from the Peace Chapel:


Here is a chapel that was made into a church in the 5th century. It is the oldest Christian church in the oases:


We left Cairo Tuesday night and were back at JFK early Wednesday morning. On Thursday, we were shoveling snow, and tomorrow I will be back to work. Dad and I are here to answer any of your questions.

Originally posted to blue jersey mom on Sun Jan 23, 2011 at 02:53 PM PST.

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