The Egypt Exploration Fund was founded 120 years ago. Jill Kamil traces some of the highlights of its achievements from the pioneering era to today's meticulously planned investigations
It took an amateur to launch the Egypt Exploration Fund -- known since 1919 as the Egypt Exploration Society (EES). Amelia Edwards, the daughter of a British army officer best known for her book, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, published in 1877, journeyed to the Second Cataract and was shocked at the wanton destruction of monuments caused by rapacious locals and foreign collectors. Her book awakened public concern and helped her to establish the institution whose continuing aim is to preserve the monuments of Egypt. As secretary of the fund she did much to promote the work of William Flinders Petrie, the renowned English Egyptologist regarded as the founder of modern archaeology whose method and technique were revolutionary in his day.
Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: Flinders Petrie at Abydos sorting out small objects; polychrome glass vessel in the shape of a fish; bronze lamp from an X-group burial at Qasr Ibrim (from the British Museum); objects discovered in the cellar of a house at Tanis; Edouard Naville lording over excavations at Deir Al-Bahari
DELTA SITES: Given the importance of the Bible to European cultures, it is not surprising that early scholars should have had a special interest in the Delta. They sought to identify monuments that confirmed biblical sources and Edouard Naville, the Swiss Egyptologist and biblical scholar working for the fund, excavated the "treasure-cities Pithom and Raames" (mentioned in the first chapter of Exodus) at Tel Al- Maskuta near Ismailiya. The discovery excited public attention: here was the enigmatical "land of Goshen". Naville later surveyed Tanis (San Al-Hagar). France's Pierre Montet had earlier excavated what was then thought (wrongly) to be the "bond city" of Zoan.
Petrie first came to Egypt to make a survey of the pyramids of Giza for the fund, but soon enough also turned his attention to the Delta. He excavated Naucratis in the western Delta and was able to unravel the mystery of the Greek settlement about which Herodotus had been "somewhat misinformed". He also excavated Tel Al- Fara'un, the ancient site of Buto, which played an important part at the beginning of Egyptian history. There were few sites in Egypt where Petrie, an acute observer and incredibly energetic scholar, did not lay his hand. He carried out even more excavations, it is said, than France's Françoise Mariette, and he made more major discoveries than any other archaeologist. More important, by systematically arranging predynastic Egyptian material, he invented sequence dating.
SCHOLARLY DIFFERENCES: Petrie was outspoken about what he regarded as the incompetence of many of his colleagues, and the difference between his approach to archaeology and that of the brilliant French civil engineer, archaeologist and geologist Jacques de Morgan, is worth mentioning. Both scholars worked at Naqada, one of the most important predynastic cultures in Upper Egypt and located in the desert west of the modern village of that name. In this vast area covering some 17 acres was a staggering number of graves -- more than 2000, packed closely together. Petrie excavated there in 1895 and de Morgan unearthed a huge mastaba tomb in 1897. The latter contained ivory tablets, pottery fragments and clay seals bearing the name of King Aha. In contrast to Petrie's small and highly structured crews who worked meticulously under his watchful eye, de Morgan tended to post squads of workers at key positions at the site where they dug somewhat haphazardly.
Similar differences in approach are evident between Flinders Petrie and Edouard Naville -- had bulldozers been invented, the latter would certainly have used them! At Deir Al-Bahari on the Theban necropolis were the remains of the temples of Mentuhotep II, Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III, which had been briefly studied in the 19th century. When Naville was given the grant to excavate there. Petrie considered it ludicrous to entrust the area to someone like him who, as far as he was concerned, would ignore the site's small objects and fail to recognise their significance. Petrie made it clear to the EES that it would be more appropriate to send Naville to Karnak where he could find massive statues and inscriptions, rather than allow him to set his hand to what Petrie regarded as still a virgin site. Naville, of course, knew that Petrie was critical of his work, but never before had he seen him so openly hostile. He sent a letter to the Fund offering his resignation -- but it was no more than a gesture. He did excavate the necropolis and the results of his work at Deir Al-Bahari over six seasons resulted in seven volumes of reports.
TEL AL-AMARNA: Within a large crescent- shaped plain more than four kilometres long and about 800 metres wide on the eastern bank of the Nile, across the river from the modern village of Deir Mawas, is Akhet-Aten, "The Horizon of Aten", present day Tel Al-Amarna. This was the site chosen by the Pharaoh Akhenaten (1360- 1343 BC) for his capital. In 1887, a peasant woman was digging for sebakh, the earth rich in accumulated debris of ancient houses and refuse heaps deposited around dwelling areas and widely used as a fertiliser, when she unearthed 300 clay tablets, now known as the Amarna letters. Such of them as have survived are now divided between the British Museum, the Berlin Museum, and Cairo Museum. These objects are of immense interest and historical value. They are letters written by Egypt's vassal princes and governors in Syria, and give a first-hand picture of the various kings of Babylonia, Mittani, Hatti and Assyria and their relations with the Pharaoh of Egypt.
Discovery of the tablets aroused intense interest among archaeologists, and first on the scene was Petrie. From 1891-2 he excavated the South Palace, the Great Temple of the Aten, and the city centre. More tablets were found, and glass factories, as well as a whole residential quarter. The second phase of the EES work at Al-Amarna started in 1931 under the direction of John Pendlebury. This was when the so-called House of the North, Nefertiti's house, was excavated. Describing his excavations at the site in 1935, Pendlebury wrote: "one of the most fascinating points about the work is that we are concerned with the private lives of the whole population, slave and nobleman, workman and official and the royal family itself. So strong is this homely atmosphere that we feel we really know as individuals the people whose houses we are excavating. Alike as these houses are in plan, each one shows little variations indicating the tastes as well as the profession of the owner."
The next phase of the work was entrusted to Barry Kemp, who has now worked on the site for nearly a quarter of a century. When the EES renewed its concession at Al-Amarna, it was decided to remedy the lack of a large-scale plan showing all the sites uncovered at various times by both British and German missions and carry out a complete and coordinated survey to evaluate past efforts, as well as to assess the site's future potential. Entrusted with this exacting task, Kemp undertook the preparation of a 1:5000 scale map of the whole area, and a 1:2500 scale map of the main city site. Over the two seasons during which this work was carried out, some small but significant discoveries were made, and a palace bakery was found among the storerooms south of the Great Temple. Al-Amarna is unquestionably one of the best studied and understood urban sites of ancient Egypt, and work there continues.
SAQQARA: The EES mission at Saqqara peaked between 1965 and 1970, when Walter Emery decided to search the necropolis for the tomb of Imhotep, vizier of the Pharaoh Djoser (2654-2635 BC) and builder of the Step Pyramid. He chose a site in north Saqqara, west of the 3rd-Dynasty tombs, which he believed to be the centre of a popular healing cult in later times. His dig revealed shaft burials and a network of underground catacombs dating from Graeco- Roman times. Mummified ibises and hawks were found stacked from rock-bed to ceiling. The ibis birds were encased in clay pots, some with their wrappings beautifully decorated with images of deities. He also found shafts containing mummified baboons and a cemetery of cows -- the mothers of the sacred Apis bulls; one skull was intact, in a decorated clay plaster casing. The tomb of Imhotep was not found. After Emery's death, Harry Smith classified his material in preparation for publication and also began a survey on the eastern edge of the Saqqara escarpment, adjacent to the pyramid of Teti.
In 1975, Geoffrey Martin and Hans Schneider, in a joint expedition sponsored by the EES and the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, embarked on the relocation of the already documented New Kingdom tombs at Saqqara. They were searching, in particular, for that of an official called Maya who served in the reign of Tutankhamun(1343-1333 BC). Luck would have it that they located the important tomb of Horemhab that same year.
Horemhab was the army general who made his first appearance on the political scene in the reign of Akhenaten; he served also under Tutankhamun and, after the short reign of Aye, himself became Pharaoh of Egypt (1328-1298 BC). Finding this tomb was, therefore, an unexpected and valuable reward; it was built when he was still a general, before excavation of his royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings was begun. One inscribed block of stone discovered at Saqqara bears parts of the cartouches of Tutankhamun which were usurped by Horemhab, thus settling any possible controversy of the date of the tomb. Museums around the world, especially the Museum of Leiden, which possess fragments of blocks from the tomb, have sent plaster casts to Egypt to enable as complete a restoration as possible.
NUBIA: Between 1960 and 1969 the stretch of the river Nile known as Nubia witnessed the most spectacular and concentrated archaeological salvage operation of all time. Scholars, architects and engineers from some 30 countries laboured against time to conserve or excavate ancient monuments, settlements and cemeteries doomed to destruction by the rising waters of Lake Nasser following the completion of the High Dam at Aswan. The EES took responsibility for the dismantling of the Buhen temple, one of the most important in Nubia, and its relocation in Khartoum. Another two temples, at the Semna fortresses, though small, had survived the ages well and had finely executed reliefs and historically important texts; these were reexamined in the light of modern scholarship before removal by a joint EES and Brown University project. The EES also studied X-Group tomb concentrations in Lower Nubia, at Kalabsha and Qasr Ibrim, under the direction of Walter Emery. At the latter site Emery had the good fortune to find two storerooms overlooked by the plunderers. They yielded a fine collection of bronze vessels, lamps and glassware of the same types as those he had unearthed at Ballana 30 years before.
QASR IBRIM: Riding above the waters of Lake Nasser, about 15 kilometres north of Abu Simbel, is the island of Qasr Ibrim, all that remains of an important frontier post in Roman times when it was still part of the mainland. Excavations directed by J M Plumley began in 1963-4 and continued until 1976. Qasr Ibrim, a great rock and possibly a holy place, commanded a view of the Nile valley and desert for miles around. Founded in the early 12th dynasty as one of a chain of Nubian forts, it was regarded between 30 BC and AD 395, during the Roman occupation of Egypt, as the official border between Egypt and Nubia.
The stronghold of Qasr Ibrim by the Roman general Petronius is well documented. His task was to contain the Blemmys and the Nobodai tributes of the Eastern and Western Deserts. Later, the kingdom of Napata-Meroe, a continuation of the Egyptian-influenced Napatan culture and a distinctive African culture, spread northwards as far as Qasr Ibrim and a temple was built there -- possibly on the site of an earlier temple of 25th- dynasty Kushite King Taharqa. Meroitic grave- stelae in the cemeteries show that people using the Meroitic language were buried there.
Christianity spread to Nubia at the beginning of the 6th century, and the inhabitants converted to the new faith. The ruined temple was converted into a church. A great cathedral was later built on the site in the 12th century. During his excavations in the 1960s, Plumley uncovered a body clad in the Episcopal robes of the Eastern Church: in its folds were two long scrolls written in Arabic and Coptic. Qasr Ibrim was besieged when Nubia was invaded by Turan Shah, the elder brother of Salaheddin. The Moeroites were defeated, the town destroyed, and a Muslim garrison was set up, manned, so it was said, by Bosnians.
This unique site, so rich in history, has proved to be a worthwhile field for archaeological research. Among the most important discoveries so far made there are ancient documents written in a host of languages: Old Nubian, Arabic, Coptic, and Greek; they are private and official letters, legal documents and petitions dating from the end of the 8th to the 15th centuries. Mark Horton, working for the EES, excavated the ruined town and fortress, and restoration of the cathedral is envisioned.
MEMPHIS: Despite its importance and continuous occupation for thousands of years, only a small part of the central city of ancient Memphis has ever been excavated -- not more than 10 per cent. The first comprehensive study of the site was by Petrie in 1908-13. This was followed by several excavations by the Egyptian Antiquities Service and the University of Pennsylvania, but after 1955 excavations were sporadic and short-lived.
A survey of Memphis by the EES was carried out in 1981-82 under the directorship of David Jeffreys, with Harry Smith initiating the fieldwork. The long-term goal is ambitious: to draw up a stratified map of ancient Memphis giving, where possible, ground plans of different structures at various stages of history. One early task was to locate the original course of the river and trace its slow movement eastward throughout the life of the city. In the mid-1990s, Jeffreys and Liza Giddy carried out work at Tel Rabia, to the north of the small temple of Ptah, and they anticipate being able to excavate from the Late Period to the Middle Kingdom before hitting the water table. Pumping would only give another metre or so, still in the Middle Kingdom strata, so only geophysical survey and drill cores will reveal what still lies beneath.
For the great part of its 120 years, the EES's work in Egypt has been financed wholly from funds provided by its members -- some of whom have borne the costs of complete excavations. After World War II the society received funds for fieldwork from the British government through the British Academy. Nevertheless, it is the support it continues to receive from private and institutional members that enables it to continue is ambitious programme of activities.
The Egypt Exploration Society's office in Cairo is at the premises of the British Council, 192 Shara Al-Nil, Agouza. In addition to assisting expeditions facilitate formalities, it organises an interesting education programme of lectures, courses, and site visits for its Cairo members. Tel: 301 8319. Fax: 344 3076.
Excavating in Egypt: The Egypt Exploration Society 1882-1982, Ed. TGH James, British Museum Publications Ltd. 1982.