Egypt’s Archaeology and Revolution

3 mins read

Chris Naunton, Director of the Egypt Exploration Society

A scene from the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, Medinet Habu, showing the ceremony of the severed hands.
A scene from the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, Medinet Habu, showing the ceremony of the severed hands.

It is worth reminding ourselves just how thrilling archaeology in Egypt has continued to be, despite the widely held belief that there probably isn’t much left to find. My personal highlights in recent years include: evidence at Tell Ed-Daba by Manfred Bietak that corroborates the well-known iconography showing that the Egyptians cut off the hands of captured enemies; the first ‘tomb’ to be discovered, by Otto Schaden, in the Valley of the Kings since Tutankhamen’s in 1922 (CWA 16); the excavation by Krzysztof Cialowicz at Tell Farkha of solid gold late Predynastic anthropomorphic figures of a previously unknown style; and now, Angus Graham’s pioneering work in Luxor showing that the site of the temples of Karnak may have been an island when they were originally built.

Angus’ work exemplifies one of the most significant trends of the last decade: a shift towards understanding sites and monuments in the context of the wider natural landscape. The focus of archaeology has shifted away from the minute details – copying hieroglyphic inscriptions and excavating tiny objects – towards archaeological reconnaissance covering less detail but more ground, made possible by the increased use of satellite imagery (thanks in no small part to Google Earth) and other remote sensing techniques, especially magnetometry.

The January 2011 revolution will probably turn out to be the most significant event to have occurred during CWA‘s first ten years. In the short term, it has been damaging: the rise in opportunist crime, specifically looting, has led to sites and monuments being damaged, and artefacts and information being lost. But looting has always been a problem. Perhaps the heightened awareness of it brought on by the revolution will be positive if it leads to action, encourages the public to provide support to organisations like the EES, and improves understanding of the practicalities of protecting the country’s heritage.

A great success of the last ten years has been the concerted effort to train Egyptian archaeologists in modern field techniques. Egypt’s historical legacy deserves to be stewarded by the best people the world has to offer, and needs every last bit of help it can get. Now is the time.

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