Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 May - 6 June 2007
Issue No. 847
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A search for the lost city

An all-inclusive field school supported by the American Research Center in Egypt with a USAID grant is heralding a new age for Egyptology and other disciplines

Click to view caption
Plan of the site; workmen and crew demonstrate how the gallery might have accommodated 'sleepers'

Who built the pyramids?

Mark Lehner, director of the Giza Plateau Mapping Project (GPMP), realised that the excavation of the vast ancient settlement site at Giza offered him "an opportunity to give back to Egypt something in return for all the years I have enjoyed excavating here." He envisioned running a rigorous training programme for Egyptian inspectors to guide them in the basics of standard archaeological practice around the world, and today, all over the country, selected SCA inspectors are being trained in the standard practices that are now used for stratigraphic excavation and recording in Britain, France, other European countries, and the United States.

Lehner's aim harmonised with the objective of SCA director Zahi Hawass to train Egyptian inspectors in advanced techniques of field archaeology in order, eventually, to make prior training at one of the professional field schools a condition for appointment to join foreign missions. This fits in neatly with the concern of the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) that funds be provided to train Egyptian inspectors. Gerry Scott, ARCE's recently- appointed director, reacted positively with a USAID grant.

Thus, in collaboration with the SCA, the support of the USAID grant through ARCE, and the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Science, Lehner recruited Mohsen Kamel and Ana Tavares to organise a "hands-on" training course known as the Giza Field School. It works within the impressive area of 230 metres east-west and nearly 300 metres north- south, and the chosen students come from as far afield as Sinai, the Delta cities, Beni Suef in Middle Egypt, and Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. They are being professionally guided, by a team of 55 archaeologists and specialists, including field instructors. In addition to tending basic skills and techniques, they are guided in the use of digital equipment and techniques far more advanced than the conventional stratigraphical excavations and recording being carried out elsewhere. Kamel explains: "Even the basic skills are more advanced, in giving every deposit a discrete number, recording all the stratigrahic relationships (which is to say what came before what), and sampling for all classes of material culture: animal bone, ancient plant remains, pottery, charcoal, chipped stone, and mud sealing fragments."

"This joint exercise of archaeology with professional instructors combined with a participating field school has proved a rich and rewarding experience for all," Lehner says. "Our aim is to train students in the standard practices that are now used for stratigraphic excavation and recording in Britain, France, other European countries, and in the United States. What is being taught is what is required by the SCA," to which Hawass adds, "Lehner's special talent combines scholarship with excavation techniques and administrative know-how".

"In the past, Egyptian inspectors who accompanied foreign archaeological missions did little more than act as facilitators" Hawass says. "They bought supplies and expedited permits, and 95 per cent were ignorant of the mechanics of scientific excavation. Unless you are qualified, know how to identify strata, interpret and deal with material as it comes to light, and know how to record it, you destroy the historical record."

Aware of the shift from object-finding to field archaeology, Hawass took early steps, following his appointment as secretary-general of the SCA in 2002, to release two of Egypt's foremost archaeologists, Atiya Radwan and Mansour Boraik, from their SCA duties and send them with a group of students to the field school in New Mexico.

"When they returned, ARCE responded to our needs in providing funds from USAID for further training in Egypt," he says.

ARCE took the initiative to finance the first schools, at Mit Rahina (Memphis) under Diana Patch, in Fayoum under Willeke Wendrich, at Nabta Playa in Nubia under Fred Wendorf, and in Sinai under some of Egypt's top archaeologists. Gerry Scott, keen to encourage and continue field schools, arranged USAID financing for the Giza Field School. "The grant largely contributed to the financing of the first cycle of two years of Mark Lehner's training school with beginners and specialists at Giza," Scott says.

What is emerging from the field training is that Egyptians are gaining a level of proficiency and confidence and will not in the future have to rely on foreigners. The Giza Field School is increasing their numbers, and once they graduate they become eligible, through the SCA, to conduct their own excavations as well as to teach. "This is a great leap in the right direction," Lehner says. "The school provides ongoing training for the workmen as well as inspectors, all of whom have been integrated with the dig. It is a huge operation, an enormous challenge."

The Giza Plateau Mapping Project (GPMP) can be measured not only in the size of the exposed ancient settlement but also in the growing number of students in training. "We processed 247 applications and interviewed 190 applicants at the SCA Zamalek headqarters in mid-March 2006," said Kamel. "On November 16-17, in the middle of the Advanced Field School, we interviewed over 300 applicants for our 2007 Beginners Field School session, which opened in February 2007- a snowballing interest in professional archaeology."

Lehner says this is a unique opportunity for students to participate in an ongoing excavation side by side with professionals in our archaeological team. "One of our goals is to integrate the field school into the overall excavation so that we do not have isolated 'practice' squares," he says. "Instead, each team works in a square adjacent to a main excavation area. The students' results are as important as everyone else's in helping us understand the site."

The team members are multi-disciplined. Ceramist Anna Wodzinska has collected, categorised, and studied the Old Kingdom pottery. Together with seven other specialists she is working on a manual of Egyptian pottery from predynastic Fayoum A to modern, a task of immense importance to students. Wodzinska has noted that 70 per cent of the pottery mass at Giza are bread pots. Jessica Kaiser, an osteoarchaeologist, has an enthusiastic and devoted following among the students, is studying the large number of Late Period burials and has prepared a thick binder with tabbed categories for human skeletons.

"This is an opportunity to study the bones of people of modest means who were buried some 2,000 after the site was abandoned by the pyramid builders," Kaiser says. The skeletal remains were so fragile that they had to be thoroughly documented in situ before an attempt could be made to lift them. "It proved to be too time-consuming, so I managed to computerise the process and now we have the largest collection of scientifically dug low-status burials from the period between 664 and 343BC. It is unique, and our workmen have learned a great deal in the process; they know the Latin names of the different bones, and have helped me label the bone bags and lift and pack the burials."

Kamel calls it salvage archaeology, a "hands-on", practical training programme on which the students have proved to be dedicated and very serious. "They have integrated easily with professionals," he says. "Apart from learning practical skills in mapping and documentation, they have to write weekly reports, prepare general reports at the end of the programme, and attend lectures given by instructors on specific topics. They also give lectures and PowerPoint presentations themselves in order to acquaint other members of the team with what is happening in each area of the excavation. In the advance course, they specialise in ceramics, human osteology, survey, archaeological illustration, or excavation, and attend workshops on these specialisations.

The GPMP is not about monuments or discovery: it is about information. "It is the interdisciplinary approach which provides a rich context for instruction," Tavares says. "We assume no prior knowledge. We teach students the basics of how to take measurements, lay out grids, and record features by hand.

"The best archaeologists can be trained with very simple digging tools - a tape measure, a compass, and a note-book and a pen," she adds, "! Mud-brick archaeology -- the medium from which the worker's settlement was built -- is very fragile. If not recorded on the ground, the information is lost. It's difficult and time-consuming work and it has to be done meticulously."

Once the students have passed their field training they themselves will be eligible to give SCA training courses. "This is a tremendous incentive," Kamel says. "There is no doubt that the experience gained at Giza provides inspectors with a solid foundation for managing other sites around the country." Indeed, when the first batch of the students were handed a certificate, bearing logos of the SCA, ARCE and AERA at the offices of the American Research Centre in Cairo at the conclusion of the 2005 field season, all expressed the wish to continue the programme.

And so, at the foot of the pyramid plateau at Giza, the parts of the large and complex archaeological jig-saw puzzle that have yet to be joined are being put together. Lehner is directing a vast enterprise that includes some 175 Egyptian and foreign experts, four field school groups excavating in different areas, and a following of devoted students who are confident of becoming competent archaeologists.

"It's an SCA/ARCE partnership, achieved with the support of The Charles Simonyi Fund for the Arts and Sciences" Lehner says. "We have introduced to Egypt the standard practice as outlined in the MoLAS (Museum of London Archaeological Service) Manual in tandem with regular interdisciplinary GPMP excavations, and the chosen students are working concurrently with the experts. They are an active -- be it vigilantly supervised -- part of the interdisciplinary, long- term project.

One student on his way to work looked out over the expansive site, the assembled crew of workers, foreign colleagues, and his compatriots from all parts of the country and, recalling the heyday of pyramid building, reportedly said: "Just think! All of Egypt is united here! Could it have been so for those who lived 4,500 years ago in the city we are discovering?"


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