For those of our readers who know nothing about excavating in Egypt, this blog’s for you.
This is our third season in the West Settlement, which, as you may recall, is the area between the West Villas and Diana’s Industrial Site, west of the North Village. We began at the south end of the site, and as we move to the north, we continue to uncover traces of walls that follow the same alignment exposed in seasons 1 and 2. Last year, we found large quantities of pottery, bones, and charcoal. The squares that we have excavated so far this season have produced the same type of material, but far less of it, and we have hardly any small finds. As we move up the slope, the site seems to be petering out, perhaps because it was higher and more exposed to the elements, or maybe because we are reaching the northern boundary. We are excavating the adjacent squares to the north and west now, so hopefully we will know more by the end of the season.
View of the 2016 excavations, looking southwest. In the distance are the West Villas.
When I say we, I mean a whole team of people. I am the site supervisor for the West Settlement. Diana is the “mudira” (director) for the whole settlement area, while Peter is in charge of the palace. Both Diana and Peter are very experienced archaeologists, and I consult with them regularly to make sure I understand what we are uncovering and to decide where to go and what to do next.
Consulting with Diana as we work in the West Settlement
At the West Settlement, we work in 5-meter squares, laid out by our surveyor, Joel Paulson, on a grid aligned with the cardinal points. We put stakes in at each corner, and run strings from north to south and east to west. After we got tired of tripping over the stakes, we started putting empty water bottles over them so we could see them better, but the strings can still be a hazard! We name our squares according to their southwest corners, so, for example, I just finished working in N150/E135 and am now working one square directly north, in N155/E135. We started in the 2015 season at N120/E125, and have cleared fifteen squares so far.
Plan of the West Settlement, from the 2015-16 excavations
Within each square, we first remove the surface layer, which is generally full of large to medium pebbles in a silty matrix. There are usually sherds, but since these could come from anyplace on the site, we only keep the “diagnostic” ones (more on that later). We sometimes find interesting bits and pieces like beads, which we keep and record, but with the understanding that they may not be part of the original history of the area but may have been blown or washed in from someplace else.
Mahmoud (left) and Gahalan (right) working in the West Settlement
Most of the actual excavation is done by two skilled “trowel men,” Gahalan Mohamed Sayed Mahmoud and Mahmoud Mohamed Hassan Mohamed. These men have been with me since the first season, and have really gotten to know and understand the terrain. The West Settlement (like the North Village) is a difficult site, as we are tracing walls of which in most cases only a part of the lowest foundation brick remains. My team has to work very carefully so that they do not inadvertently remove important material. They use, as their unofficial title suggests, trowels and also large brushes.
Gahalan and Mahmoud work a few centimeters at a time, scraping away the surface with their trowels or sweeping with their brushes, paying close attention to features and fill. If the color or consistency changes significantly, they stop so we can decide what to do. They have gotten very good at identifying the different kinds of cultural remains – the walls, of course; tumbled mud brick from decayed walls, most of which is just little jumbled bits and pieces, but some of which we find just as it fell in ancient times; depositional layers of pebbly silt; desert surface, which can be quite hard and uneven, but can also be a little softer and more level; and every once in a while a bit of a level surface associated with the walls.
The fill that Gahalan and Mahmoud clear from the square is swept into a plastic dust pan by a young man with a mattock (a larger, rectangular trowel) and dumped into a “basket” – actually a rubber bucket with short handles. Our “in-betweener,” as I like to call him, is also named Gahalan, although we also sometimes have a younger Mahmoud. I think it’s just a coincidence that the West Settlement trowel men and in-betweeners have the same names! Gahalan the Younger helps our basket carriers, Mohamed Qenawi, Mohamed Ali, and Ehab Mishrigi load the buckets onto their shoulders so they can take the debris off to the dump, which is off to the west in an area that we think has no cultural remains underneath.
Gahalan Jr. helps Mohamed load a basket onto his shoulder
We work down, level by level, in 5 to 10 cm. strata. As we move to the north, the site slopes up, and it seems that the ancient builders terraced the walls that they built here. So we can’t work completely in consistent, level layers, but have to adjust somewhat to the natural contours of the site. As we go, we collect pottery sherds in yellow plastic bags labeled with the part of the square and the level in which we are working. Animal bones and plant remains such as charcoal go in smaller bags along with tags recording the same sort of information. We try to identify distinctive deposits and features so that we can assign feature numbers, which gives us a more exact location for the material (especially animal bones and plant remains) we find. We often leave features pedestalled so that I can map them properly onto our master plan. We also record the location within the square and level for our small finds. I takes notes about the work as we go, describing the matrices that we are digging through, recording feature numbers and descriptions, assigning object numbers to the small finds, and just generally trying to keep track of what’s going on.
As each level is completed, Gahalan and Mahmoud clean the exposed surfaces so that Catharine, our field photographer, can come and take a series of photographs. I also photograph the animal bones, and draw the small finds. Catharine has a field setup over near our lunch canopy, and, when the wind allows, she takes photos of the small finds.
Catharine in her field studio by the lunch canopy
As Gahalan and Mahmoud excavate, I create one or more plans of the square (assisted this season by our senior inspector, Migahid), depending on how complex the stratigraphy is. In this site, I rarely do more than two plans per square, if that: since everything is so close to the surface, we don’t usually have more than 3 strata, and there are rarely interesting features on top of one another. I plan at 1:20, and sometimes map more complex areas at 1:10. To make a plan, I lay a large meter tape along one of the sides of the square, making sure that it is taut so that it starts at the south or west at 0 and ends in the north or east at 5 meters, and take points from the string that marks the edge of the square with a smaller metal tape. When I have walls, I try to draw each brick that I can see, and plan everything as accurately as I can.
1:20 plan of Square N145/E130, excavated in 2016
Once we have exposed and planned all of the architecture, I am able to assign numbers to the walls and “locus” numbers to distinct areas bordered by walls. We don’t give these areas specific identifiers such as “room” or “courtyard” at this point because we are still working to understand their functions – locus is a nice, neutral term.
Once I get back to my office (my very comfortable room at our hotel), I transcribe my field notes into our Filemaker database. I download my photos and collect Catharine’s, add metadata, import the images into the database (where I cross-reference them so they will show up in the right places), and do various other clerical work.
The Object Register in our Filemaker database
You may notice that I haven’t said anything more about the pottery, although I promised. This year has not been so daunting, but in the 2015 and especially the 2016 seasons, we collected huge quantities of ceramics, including quite a few complete (but badly broken) vessels. We will be writing a blog later in the season about how we are dealing with this material, so stay tuned!
From left to right: Gahalan Jr., Mahmoud, Janice, Gahalan Sr., Ehab