8 Days in Egypt

I have just returned from an all-too-brief but fabulously useful and interesting eight days in Egypt. This was my first visit as EES Director and my goal was to see as many friends and colleagues, particularly in the Ministry of Antiquities, as possible and to visit the five EES teams that are working in Egypt this Spring. This was something I had wanted to make a priority when I started the job, and to my delight it has been every bit as enjoyable and productive as I had hoped it would be, and much more.

The Delta city of Tanta (http://flic.kr/p/bttBvS)

It is, of course an exciting, if unsettled and difficult period for Egypt: the country is still waiting to see who will be its next president and what changes this will bring, and times are hard, particularly in those areas which rely most heavily on tourism as visitor numbers remain very low. Some are concerned at the reduction in the number of police on the streets, and there is currently an apparently inexplicable shortage of petrol which is making for long queues at the petrol stations throughout the country. Still, there is relief and joy that the revolution has brought the possibility of the changes the people want, and great hope and optimism in general.

A mixture of ancient and modern motifs among the graffiti which has sprung up around Midan Al-Tahrir since the revolution (http://flic.kr/p/bGoqAe)

It has also been a time of great excitement and optimism for the Egypt Exploration Society. We have, in the last few years, been through a lot of change brought about by a very challenging financial situation and the necessary modernisation that came with it. We have made great strides however: our financial position is much more stable and secure than it was a few years ago, and by looking very closely at all our activities and how everything is run we have been able to improve the financial situation at the same time as expanding our programme of activities in a series of key areas such as fundraising, the archives, events and online communications (I’ll be writing about these in more detail in the coming months). Having worked very closely myself on improving the Society’s work in The UK in the last few years in my role as Deputy Director, I am now relishing the opportunity to get to work on the Egyptian side of our operations. 

Meetings, meetings

During the week I met numerous colleagues from the MSA including the Minister, Dr Mohamed Ibrahim, not only at their headquarters on Zamalek, the island in the centre of Cairo, but at each of the centres in which our teams are working. I visited the site of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) by the Giza pyramids and met the Director General, Dr Hussein Bassir, who showed me around the extremely impressive Conservation Centre which is already up and running.

Work is under way at the new conservation centre at the Grand Egyptian Museum site

I also met with the British Ambassador, James Watt and his colleague Sam Grout-Smith, who were extremely hospitable and keen to hear more about the Society’s current work in Egypt. I met friends from the American University in Cairo, American Research Center in Egypt and Ancient Egypt Research Associates and elsewhere, and gave a lecture for EES members in Cairo. And of course I spent a lot of time with the Society’s Cairo representative, Mrs Faten Saleh, who accompanied me almost throughout, not least on my visits to the EES field projects.

Faten Saleh (L) and Penny Wilson at Nashwein (http://flic.kr/p/bttBuf)

Visiting the archaeologists and other specialists who make up our teams and their sites was really my top priority and my visit was timed to ensure that I could see as many of them as possible. If you had asked me beforehand, I would have said, having visited numerous archaeological projects – EES and otherwise – that site reports, online dig diaries, lectures etc are all very well, but there is no substitute for being there in person with the people doing the work. Everything from the journey to the site to the atmosphere among the team members, foreign and Egyptian, helps put the work in context. Of course you also get the opportunity to ask questions, however daft they might seem, which might be the key to helping you to understand what’s going on (“oh, I see…”). I thought I knew all this already but nonetheless I have been bowled over by what I have seen in the last few days. I feel I understand what our teams are doing much better than I did before and my enthusiasm for them all, which was never lacking beforehand, has increased dramatically.


Joanne Rowland taking levels at Quesna (http://flic.kr/p/bGoqCi)

Our adventure began last Tuesday (20 March) with a drive to Quesna in the central Delta (see this map) to see Jo Rowland and her team. The site is located atop a very large yellow sand gezira (mound) surrounded by fields, factories and a landfill site. At one end of the site lies a Ptolemaic and Roman mausoleum excavated by the SCA in the 1990s, a spectacular jumble of vaulted mudbrick chambers and the occasional stone sarcophagus, one with a very finely modelled human face. Jo’s excavations focus on the Ptolemaic and Roman cemetery nearby, in which a series of well-preserved and articulated human remains have been found, and in the 140m long sacred falcon gallery. Here, thousands of mummified birds were placed in ceramic jars and deposited in the galleries. This would of course have been similar in function to the catacombs devoted to a variety of sacred animals discovered by Emery at North Saqqara in the 1960s. It might not look like much at the moment but with Jo’s help it wasn’t too difficult to imagine a very impressive structure at the centre of local religious beliefs and one I thought might lend itself to some kind of virtual reconstruction. Jo also showed Faten and I the site of the Old Kingdom mastaba she discovered in 2011 but has not yet been able to excavate completely. We talked about the possibility of increasing the size of Jo’s team in the future in order to expose the entire monument; funds permitting this is something we would both like to do.

The atmosphere on-site in fantastic. Jo has the largest workforce of any of the teams I visited which, along with the constant banter, not least with Geoffrey Tassie (known universally as ‘Tass’ or ‘Mr Tass’) whose ‘shiq shaq shoq’ dance is extremely popular, makes for a very jolly working environment.

Left: Jo Rowland and her team; Right: Tass performs the ‘shiq shaq shoq’ for his colleagues! (http://flic.kr/p/bttBpw)

We left Jo and Tass and their team after a tour of the workroom and headed north to Kafr Es-Sheikh which Pat and Jeff Spencer and Penny Wilson were using as the base for their work at Kom El-Daba (not the Daba / Avaris of the famous frescoes but another site of the same name) and Nashwein respectively. We caught up over a delicious fish dinner then, after a good night’s sleep, set off in the morning, first to Daba in Pat and Jeff’s hire car.

Kom El-Daba

Jeffrey Spencer (with hat) supervises excavations at Kom El-Daba (http://flic.kr/p/bGoqDK)

It may not look like much more than a muddy area of lumps and bumps, but the mud at Kom El-Daba is in fact the remains of what was a sizeable town in Ptolemaic and Roman times. The team here are excavating the substantial remains of a Ptolemaic ‘tower house’, a type of building which could reach several storeys high. Daba would in ancient times have been much more high-rise than you’d ever imagine just from looking at the site as it is today. The work, a part of the Society’s wider Delta Survey, has now reached the point at which Pat and Jeff believe they have gathered as much information as is necessary and it is likely that they will decide to concentrate resources on another, uninvestigated site next year.

Pat and Jeff decided to end the working day early so that we could all drive to Nashwein to visit Penny on what was the first day of her season of Delta Survey work. The drive itself was great fun. This part of the world is so relatively remote and developing so quickly that there are no maps which can be relied upon to show the best roads. Jeff therefore uses satellite images to identify what look like the best roads – asphalt and with cars on – to a given site, and then uses other landmarks such as built up areas, canals, bridges which appear on the images to navigate the route which, in the absence of any signage is the best method available. I was given the job of reading the satellite image / map – I have never felt more involved in Egypt Exploration!

Egypt exploration: navigating by satellite image (http://flic.kr/p/bttMB9)


Nashwein is a another very large site. Penny will be unable to do more than a basic topographical survey and inspection of archaeological material visible in the surface before heading to a more involved excavation at another Delta site, Tell Mutubis. This in itself will be of enormous value however. It is difficult to overstate just how little we know of Delta archaeology: just to establish the extent, condition and date of these sites, and in some cases that they exist at all has been an enormous achievement of the Delta Survey and every piece of information, however small, adds to our knowledge.

L-R: Jeff Spencer, Penny Wilson and Pat Spencer explore Nashwein (http://flic.kr/p/bGoqF2)

Tell Basta

Our next stop was to be Tell Basta, a few hours to the south-east. We decided to break the journey by stopping overnight in the city of Tanta and arrived in good time the following morning (Thursday) to join Eva Lange and the rest of her team. The Tell Basta project is collaboration between the EES, the MSA and the University of Göttingen. The Society’s involvement is relatively recent – the project has been in existence since the 1990s but we have only been involved since 2008, but of course the Society has had a very strong connection with the site since Naville’s excavations in the temple in 1887-9.

Edouard Naville among his workmen at Tell Basta. See further here.

The elite Middle Kingdom cemetery at Tell Basta with the palace just beyond (http://flic.kr/p/bGoqKe)

Though it is mainly famous for its temple, a jumble of massive, beautifully decorated and well-preserved stone blocks, the archaeological area is in fact much larger and encompasses domestic and cultic buildings, a palace and cemeteries, all of which dates from the Old Kingdom to Roman times and most of which has never been explored. The potential of the site is breathtaking. At present we have only a vague understanding of what is there and in the next few years Eva and her team plan to improve this situation by undertaking a comprehensive non-invasive survey (geophysics and augering) of the entire area, which will, we are hoping, lead to more focussed work on specific areas. One aspect of the work which the Project may be able to take on in the near future is the recording of the very fine decoration in the tombs of the Old Kingdom. We have been hoping to revive the Society’s epigraphic activities for some time and this would provide an ideal opportunity.


After heading back to Cairo, Faten and I flew to Luxor the following day (Friday) to visit Angus Graham and his team which had just begun the augering phase of the Theban Harbours and Waterscapes Project. We met with Angus and his colleagues, Ben Pennington and Morag Hunter, that evening as we had all been invited to dinner at Chicago House. We had a great evening with old friends including the Director Ray Johnson and a good few new acquaintances as well. Luxor has changed a great deal in the last few years not least due to the excavation of the avenue of sphinxes in the centre of the town which continues to generate much discussion, and it was fascinating to talk to Ray and Chicago House architect Jay Heidel about some of the issues, and the fascinating, more recent – medieval and modern – history of the area.

The excavations of the avenue of sphinxes connecting the Luxor and Karnak temples (http://flic.kr/p/bttSgy)

The vast excavation trench has had a dramatic effect on the centre of the city (http://flic.kr/p/bttSfj)

I joined Angus and co first thing the following morning and was immediately reacquainted with my good friend and member of several EES teams Reis Omar Farouk (who also appears in our Petrie film, see my earlier post). We drove from the east bank across the bridge to the village of Nagaa Raml Al Alqalta to begin augering in the fields close by. This is the area that was, three thousand years ago, in the 18th Dynasty, the southern end of the entranceway to the Birket Habu, the massive, artificial harbour created by Amenhotep III in front of his palace at Malqata.

L-R: Morag Hunter, Ben Pennington, Warda el-Nagar (MSA Inspector) and Angus Graham analysing samples in the Birket Habu area, with the Theban mountains in the background (http://flic.kr/p/bttBy9)

Having undertaken a short season of geophysical investigations earlier in the year the team are now analysing the soil down to a depth of 9m in an attempt to improve their understanding of conditions in the area in ancient times, and specifically whether or not there was water, and of what kind – standing, flowing, seasonal etc. – here at the time of Amenhotep III.

It was a great thrill for me to see this work in particular. First of all I am very fond of the area: the fields and villages, set against the backdrop of the Theban mountains, are very beautiful, and I spent several seasons a few years ago living and working in the area with the Italian Mission to Luxor (and specifically the Tomb of Harwa). Secondly, I hadn’t realised how entertaining it would be to watch the augering in progress. Reis Omar and his crew have to really heave to get the auger in and out of the ground, and their circular procession around the kit as it is driven downwards looks like some ritual dance. Best of all, Omar leads them in song almost throughout. It’s very entertaining!

A short video of the augering in progress – listen out for the singing!

YouTube link for iOS users and others without Flash Player: http://youtu.be/mndj3uYZid0

Over the course of several hours what is, in effect, a column of soil samples of up to 9m is brought out of the ground in sections, each from slightly deeper down than the last. Each time, once the drill head has been brought back out of the ground, the sample is then scraped onto a tray by Omar and then passed to Angus, Ben and Morag for analysis. I find it utterly fascinating that what looks like any old mud to the untrained eye might potentially tell us so much about the building and other activities of one of the most interesting characters in ancient history, Pharaoh Amenhotep III. I can’t wait to hear the results of the season’s work set into context by a series of other experts on the period at our study day in London on 9 June: ‘Grand Designs’: Amenhotep III and the landscape of Thebes

After a few more visits and social calls, including Reis Omar’s house in Luxor for dinner, I flew back to Cairo and then home the following day (Sunday).

The next steps

As I write this I’m still bursting with enthusiasm about the work our teams are doing, and elated at the atmosphere of positivity, energy and good humour I encountered at every one of the sites. It is my job now, along with my colleagues on the Board of Trustees and staff, to try to build on this and take things further forward. There are several areas in which I can see we might be able to make some progress:

   First of all I’d like to engender more of a spirit of community / collegiality between our field teams, and my colleagues on the staff etc. One of the happiest aspects of the trip for me was getting to know our teams that bit better, and I’m really glad from this point of view that Faten was able to join me. We are planning to involve team members as well as directors more directly in our events and to get them all together more regularly with everyone involved in the organisation – staff, Trustees, members and sponsors as well as fellow field workers

   I want to make sure that out teams and their work are as ‘visible’ in the archaeological and Egyptological communities as possible, and that they benefit from discussions with colleagues outside the EES by hosting more workshops (like the recent Delta event), seminars and social events particularly in Egypt, during the field season.

   I also want to make sure that our teams are as well coordinated as possible in terms of sharing resources – expert personnel and equipment etc.

   Most of all I want to ensure that each one of our projects is able to realise its potential, by supporting our teams throughout the process from fieldwork, to study and research, and finally, publication. We have in that past focussed only on supporting the fieldwork and publications costs but there’s an awful lot more to the process than just that. We aren’t going, suddenly, to be able to pay for everything but I think, with a little more flexibility and awareness of what might be able to do, we might be better placed to achieve our ultimate goal of finding out X about ancient Egypt and then telling the world about it.

All the above will come at a cost of course and will be subject to funds being available. However, the Society’s financial situation is much improved as I mentioned above and we are now much better placed than we were only a few years ago to raise funds for targeted initiatives in particular. 


As you might imagine I have also been giving an awful lot of thought to the Society’s presence in Egypt, in terms not only of the work we are doing, but also of our profile among the Egyptological community and more widely, and the way the organisation is perceived. I was really pleased to hear colleagues talking so warmly about the Society and its work, and its long history and status as the pioneer organisation of its kind. We should all take great pride in that. I was a little concerned however that some felt a little ‘in the dark’ as regards our current projects, and activities in Cairo, but encouraged that everyone was hoping for a resurgence of sorts, and I think that without too much difficulty we ought to be able to bring this about with a few fairly straightforward initiatives. These might include:

   Improving the ‘education and outreach’ programme in Cairo as we have in London in recent years;

   Increasing ‘traffic’ between the UK and Egypt: we hope that Faten will be coming to London this summer and that Roo Mitcheson will visit Egypt later in the year;

   Using both these initiatives to improve educational opportunities for Egyptians and MSA employees in particular by:

1.     Providing more educational activities – lectures, but also seminars, colloquia, short courses and tours – and offering a number of free places for MSA employees;

2.     Bringing more Egyptians to the UK, to contribute to and/or benefit from our own education programme and from visits to other Egyptological institutions in the UK

Can’t wait to get back

All in all, this was a fantastic trip. It was a privilege to be able to see the fabulous work my EES colleagues are doing and I was really taken by the warmth and openness shown by everyone I met, and by their enthusiasm for what the EES is doing now and, perhaps more excitingly, what it could be doing in the coming years. I can’t wait to get going on all of this, and can’t wait to get back to Egypt.

More photos from my trip are here:

iPhone / Instagram

Proper camera / Facebook (no log-in required)

Graffiti near Tahrir / Facebook (no log-in required)

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