BIR UMM FAWAKHIR: 1993 SURVEY PROJECT
By Carol Meyer, Research Associate,
The Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago
(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 138, Summer 1993, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)
Technology: Byzantine, early Byzantine at that. I was plotting the day's houses by the light of a wick floating on oil and water in a tea glass. Lisa was drawing sherds illuminated by four candles (technology: Medieval?). We also had a rather good four-battery flashlight (twentieth century) and a kerosene lantern, the kind with a reflector behind the chimney (nineteenth century), or at least until it started stinking too much. The guys were burning garbage outside (fire: lower Paleolithic).
Our desert camp had its drawbacks. Yes, we were supposed to have electricity, and yes, the houses were wired for it. The vast mining offices and sheds were stocked with tools and equipment to keep the generator and other installations in repair, but the fact of the matter was that we were out in the heart of the central Eastern Desert of Egypt. To be fair, we did have electricity six and a half nights, three of which were working nights, but after the camp engineer sent off for repairs for the second time in one week we started practicing fatalistic Arabic phrases, cursing, and lighting candles.
The desert camp also had its advantages. First and foremost, it was only a couple of kilometers from the site at Bir Umm Fawakhir, which saved us a good three and a half hours commuting from Luxor daily. We were a small team, seven altogether, and so could stay in a couple of the six small houses or villas built to accommodate the engineers at the old British gold mining camp. The villas are solidly constructed (if short on window glass), each with a common room or dining room, a kitchen of sorts, a cement-slab type of bathroom, and two or more bedrooms. House number two had the only functioning kitchen, plus a broad hallway that served as auxiliary lab space. Water piped in from the wells at Bir Umm Fawakhir was probably pretty good, the aquifer being granite, but nonetheless we spent a considerable amount of time acquiring, boiling, or purifying drinking water. It may have helped-no one got sick.
Another advantage to the camp was the desert itself. Commuting we had seen it only in the blazing middle of the day, and dawn and dusk are when the birds come out. We counted little sand-colored jobs with legs like black wire, buff ones with a black "V" on the chest, large crows, and our favorites, the sassy little white-capped blackbirds. They have white bodies, black wings, tails, necks, and heads, and a jaunty white cap. For a hyper-arid desert, critters are surprisingly abundant. We spotted lizards but no snakes, though their tracks were plentiful. The first night out, Terry thought he heard a turkey outside his window, and we joked about cooking that turkey for the rest of the season. The last night, however, I heard a strange yelping, a cat trying to bark like a dog or a dog trying to sound like a cat. Next morning the sand outside was dented by large paw prints, five-toed and not dog tracks. I guessed one of the ghostly, brushy-tailed desert foxes, Terry wanted a wolf because they are reported from the Sinai, and Lisa held out for a hyena.
The night skies were all anyone could wish for, Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, Canis Major and Minor, Auriga, Cassiopeia, the Milky Way, and Gemini blazing overhead. One spectacular evening the sky was a deep purple and the jagged mountains to the south a dense flat black. A thin and shining sliver of moon was riding towards the mountains like a little silver boat, carrying the rest of the delicately outlined moon disk. Brilliant Venus stood a little above, and satellites were sailing just below. I may never see the like again.
The 1993 season was another short one, twelve working days between January 16 and 28. Mercifully all our datum points, black enamel rectangles on granite boulders, survived so we could set up and start work right where we left off in 1992. Last year we plotted fifty-five buildings, and this season we mapped buildings 56 through 105. Again, we were fortunate in borrowing the Oriental Institute's Lietz Set 3 Total Instrument Station, inadequately described as a laser theodolite, affectionately known as Lucy. The TIS bounces an infrared beam off a prism held over a point and calculates the north and east coordinates, distance, slope distance, angle, and a lot of other data we never needed. All this information was stored directly on the data collector, dumped and copied later on a Chicago House Macintosh in order to prepare a computer aided version of the map in the States.
Terry Wilfong was the most dedicated instrument man, shooting hundreds of points and handling the data collector, but we released him from time to time to hold the prism. Generally speaking, Lisa Heidorn or Mohamed Omar or I would sketch a building or small group of buildings in our notebooks, then hold the prism over selected points such as corners or doorways and number the points on the sketch. For variety someone could slither up and down cliffs for points to map in the contours of the enclosing wadi. Unlike the classic tell sites that rise hill-like over their surroundings, Bir Umm Fawakhir is situated down on the bottom of a long, narrow wadi whose cliffs served as a sort of town wall and whose sandy bed became the main street. The houses and outbuildings are laid out on either side, and those at the southeast end where we were working are especially well preserved. Some of the walls still stand over a meter high, and in many cases built-in features such as niches or benches can be seen. Like the buildings mapped last season, those plotted in 1993 seem to be domestic, either two- or three-room houses, or several houses agglomerated into a larger unit, or one-room outbuildings.
Every evening all the day's points were transferred to the graph paper map and all the day's buildings were plotted by connecting the dots according to the notebook sketches. If all the points were entered on the data collector, why the hand plotting? Several reasons. If we made mistakes-and none of us are civil engineers-we could correct them the next day. If there were gaps in the contours we could fill them in before leaving the field, and finally, we needed a map to give to the Egyptian Antiquities Organization with the end of season report.
Once work started, discoveries came in rapidly. The first morning Steve found the first two ostraca, or more accurately, labels painted in red ink in Greek on wine jars. We expected a few ostraca, but in the end recovered nearly forty. Extremely cursive and mostly fragmentary, only one word has tentatively been read so far, "sweet," presumably referring to the quality of the wine.
Returning to the taxi at the end of the first day we found a piece of the long-sought Ptolemy III temple, a segment of a basalt column with cartouches. The temple, described by early travelers, was destroyed by modern mining activity, but we hoped to find a few surviving blocks or some clue as to the temple's former location.
Steven Cole, who had charge of photography and the ridge top survey, came across the first of the cemetery areas a few days later, and they are actually quite easy to miss. High on the ridges overlooking the main site, the graves are usually no more than natural clefts in the granite with rough stone cairns piled over. All burials spotted so far have been looted, though there were significant sherd scatters in the vicinity.
Mohamed Omar, a geologist from the Egyptian Geological Survey, walked out the segment of the Roman road that lies within the concession. He found a large but hitherto unreported cluster of ruins in a sheltered bay, a number of old gold mines and granite quarries, and stone huts at the foot of one of the Roman watch towers. Most of the mountain sides are pitted with ancient gold mines, usually shallow shafts or trenches following a gold quartz vein. One of the most poignant finds, near one of the open trench mines, was a simple ore crushing block, a chunk of porphyritic granite with a pecked depression on top. Fist-sized pieces of quartz lay scattered around, abandoned when some workman walked away from his thankless chore over a thousand years ago and never returned. More prosaically, the block tells us that this kind of stone was used in this sort of locus; most of the crushing or grinding stones at Bir Umm Fawakhir are reused and out of their original context.
On our lone Friday weekend several of us took the opportunity to investigate some of the outlying areas, and did we ever find ruins. Between our camp and the main site we found four clusters, two of which had over forty huts and another that was connected by a path over a saddle to the main site. We already knew of three outlying clusters of ruins, one behind the modern mosque, one on the Roman road near the largest of the granite quarries, and the one Mohamed found. The pottery from the outliers is less abundant than at the main site, but it is the same date, Byzantine, late fifth through sixth century A.D. Thus we now distinguish the "main site" or "main settlement" where the detailed mapping was done from the seven known outlying clusters. We suspect that there are even more small groups of ruins, but it would take a month of Fridays to explore all the nearby wadis in this rugged mountain region.
The next to last working day Steve found a guard post. If, as we believe, the major product of ancient Bir Umm Fawakhir was gold, we would expect some protection for the gold and its transport to the Nile, if not for the workmen, their families, animals, and homes. Although the steep walls of the wadi might constitute some protection, no formal defensive structures have yet been found. The guard post high on a granite knob is little more than a couple of sheltered nooks plus a few very sketchy Greek graffiti, but it does command a fine view of most of the main settlement, some of the outlying clusters of ruins, and all three roads approaching the wells.
Finally, the last hour of the last day, when we were waiting for the driver to return to collect us and the last of the dig supplies, I did something I should have done much earlier (when?). I walked over the mine tailings near our houses and from the heaps pulled out a handful of sherds, mostly first-second century Roman plus some probable Ptolemaic and pharaonic ones, but none of the ribbed Byzantine sherds we had been getting by the basketful from the main site. So that is where that group of ancient mines may have been, not at Bir Umm Fawakhir itself but a few kilometers further southeast.
In the end, what do we have? A very large site for one thing: 105 buildings have been mapped in detail and at least 116 more counted in the main settlement. We can no longer call ancient Bir Umm Fawakhir a gold mining camp; it is a town, and one of the largest in the Eastern Desert at that. The plan of the town house by house and room by room will permit us to make unusually accurate estimates of the ancient population, something that is not too easy on an excavation that uncovers only a limited segment of a given occupation level. The other features we investigated-the cemeteries, guard post, roads, wells, mines, and outlying clusters-add an element of completeness to the picture of the town, fringe parts that are often difficult to detect archaeologically. Lisa now has a rather large corpus of Byzantine pottery to analyze for the Bir Umm Fawakhir 1993 report. (Her fault; she cannot resist a datable sherd.) We can already say, however, that the dates cluster around the late fifth through sixth centuries, a significantly narrower time range than the broad fifth to seventh century date we were working with initially. By and large gold mining towns do not last three hundred years; even half that span is respectable. In a sense, Bir Umm Fawakhir ought not exist at all. The setting is so harsh that, apart from water, the inhabitants must have been supplied with all necessities from the Nile Valley, just as we were. Also, older historical accounts of Byzantine Egypt state that the Eastern Desert was virtually abandoned to nomadic tribes. The growing number of archaeologically investigated Byzantine period sites in the desert suggests that this simply was not so. Soon we may have to rethink the late antique exploitation of the Eastern Desert, and Bir Umm Fawakhir is not the least of the evidence.
Such are some of the results, to be published in due order, but what else will I remember of the season? The hardworking team that produced so much in so short a time, all the people from Cairo to Qena and Luxor and back who helped us along the way, and the patrons who made the project possible. I will recall the mornings hauling the equipment down the sandy main wadi, past the tumbled stone houses, to the day's instrument station. The intensity of sketching, plotting, writing notes, and moving steadily from house to house down the wadi. The first cool beer when we got back to camp at 1:30. The intensity of the afternoons out on the porch as everyone tried to take advantage of the remaining daylight: Steve to photograph artifacts, Terry to tease out faint lines on faded ostraca, Lisa to draw the most difficult of the day's sherds. I can visualize the bare, rugged granite mountains, Precambrian bones of a continent, rising to an unblemished blue sky. And the stars.
Carol Meyer received her doctorate in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Chicago in 1981. She has worked with archaeological projects in Arizona, Mexico, England, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.
Revised: February 7, 2007