Pictures of construction workers digging up a statue of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II in the Matariya district of Cairo last week brought to mind the many Egyptian excavation workers who have worked with foreign missions on archaeological excavations.
For more than 100 years, a number of Upper Egyptian families, hailing from Qift in the south of the Qena governorate in particular, have been known for their efforts in the field of archaeology. These families’ contributions to excavating archaeological sites have echoed among both Egyptians working in the field and foreign missions working in the country from Aswan in the south to the Delta in the north.
Excavation workers face numerous challenges, among them being the huge pieces that are found and are in need of restoration. In order to move them, the pieces are placed on round stones and pushed forward and lifted by al-sabya, a system of wooden scaffolding that weighs over two tons.
Talal Al-Keriti at an archaeological site; and with the Czech presiden
The next challenge is the equipment needed to carry the larger pieces, and for this a darfil is used. This is a system used in transferring pieces from one place to another, but usually only the head of the excavation workers has the expertise required to use it without risk of the pieces breaking.
Among the families working on the excavation sites, the names of Al-Selik, Deraz and Al-Keriti are the most famous. Abdou Al-Keriti was a member of the Al-Keriti family who participated in excavating sites in addition to discovering and contributing to the restoration of the solar boat found on the Pyramids Plateau in Giza.
When the statue of Ramses II was excavated in Matariya last week, Abdou Al-Keriti was fondly remembered by archaeologists on the site. The statue of Ramses II and other pieces were dug up using heavy equipment for the first time in the history of Egyptian excavation under the supervision of the German mission working in the area.
Among those present was Zahi Hawass, former secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who spoke about his work in the field of archaeology.
Archaeological researcher Shazli Donqol told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the reason why families from Qift have such a good reputation in the field is that their ancestors worked with famed archaeologists like Selim Hassan and Abdel-Aziz Saleh. They have passed on the profession from one generation to the next since the 19th century. Today, all Egyptian and foreign archaeologists testify to the work of these families and their ability to preserve any artefacts that are found.”
Frist lady at the Egyptian Museum
Many excavation workers have also been honoured for their contributions in unearthing and preserving ancient Egyptian artefacts, Donqol said. “Among those honoured have been Abdel-Hamid Suleiman, who hails from the Dhaferiya area near Qift, and Al-Amir Al-Selik. The latter participated in the mission of the German Institute at the archaeological site of Elephantine Island, the largest island in Aswan.”
The mission’s work was later published, and Al-Selik’s efforts were honoured on the occasion of celebrating 100 years of work on Elephantine Island, Donqol said. A celebration to honour Al-Selik and Suleiman was held at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The son of Abdou Al-Keriti, Talal Al-Keriti, also spent his life in the same profession before dying a few years ago. Talal had been passionate about archaeology since the tender age of eight. Unlike many children of his age, he was not interested in playing with his friends, but preferred to accompany his father during his missions at archaeological sites.
This led Talal to be acquainted with famed archaeologists like Selim Hassan, Zaki Saad, Abdel-Salam Hussein, British archaeologist Walter Bryan Emery, whom he met at the Saqqara archaeological site, and Ahmed Fakhri whom he met at Dahshour.
Talal’s son Hazem told the Weekly that “Talal Al-Keriti started his career working at the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, taking part in many important discoveries that shed light on ancient Egyptian civilisation throughout its different eras.”
Among Talal’s achievements, Hazem said, was “working with a Czech mission led by Czech Egyptologist Miroslav Verner that excavated the Pyramid of Neferefre Isi of the Fifth Dynasty in the necropolis of Abu Sir. The papyri archive of the Pyramid gave us great insight into how pyramids were built at that time. He also discovered the head of a statue of Neferefre that is now on show at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. The head depicts the god Horus embracing the head of the king from the back.”
“At Abu Sir, Talal discovered the Pyramid of queen Khentkaus II of the Fourth Dynasty and her papyri archive, the unfinished Pyramid of shepseskare in Abu Sir, the Lepsius Pyramid, and the tombs of Kar, Inty, Senedjemib and Gahouresnt. It was Talal who discovered and restored the tomb of Iufaa.”
“He exerted an enormous amount of effort in the latter tomb because the coffin and its cover were huge, and the distance between the coffin and the walls was very narrow. The tomb could have been ruined if it had not been for Talal’s expertise in lifting and managing the heavy pieces the way the ancient Egyptians did,” Hazem said.
Talal Al-Keriti’s contributions at the necropolis of Abu Sir are undeniable, and Hamza does not fail to mention them. “In addition to discovering and restoring numerous tombs like those of Ib-Nkao and Fetka, Talal cleared the ramp leading up to the Sahure Pyramid of huge stones. He also restored the entrance so that the Egyptologists could enter it. In recognition of his efforts, Talal was honoured by the Czech president and prime minister and given an honorary certificate from Charles University in Prague.”
In Saqqara, “Talal unearthed many tombs and the Pyramids of queen Iput, wife of Teti, of Khuit, Teti’s second wife, and of Gahour. These discoveries were made in collaboration with Zahi Hawass. With archaeologist Mahmoud Abdel-Razek, Talal unearthed the tomb of Nikao,” Hazem told the Weekly.
“Together with French Egyptologist Jean-Philippe Lauer, my father worked on Djoser’s Pyramid. He also worked on the Anba Armia Monastery in Saqqara. He helped unearth the Saqqara Serapeum with Mohamed Ibrahim, a former minister of archaeology. He also worked with Japanese and French missions south of Saqqara,” Hazem said.
“The tombs of Ka Im Msu and the physician Imri were also worked on by Talal. This is not to mention the many tombs from the first and second dynasties that were discovered with Mohamed Hagrass, former head of the site of Saqqara. Talal also worked on the Valley Temple belonging to the pharaoh Unas, the ninth and last ruler of the Fifth Dynasty,” he said.
Talal Al-Keriti worked with several foreign missions, including French, Italian, German, Australian and British ones. “With the latter, Talal worked on unearthing the Maya tomb under the leadership of Jeffery Martin. This was located in a well 20 metres deep. To save it from destruction, Talal moved the pieces to ground level, and disassembled and numbered them before reassembling them in the same way as had earlier been done with the Nubia Temples,” Hazem said.
At Dahshour and Giza Talal worked closely with Hawass. With the foreign missions he contributed to discovering and restoring major parts of Egypt’s heritage, leading the universities of Berlin and Hanover in Germany to present him with honorary certificates.