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TWO WEEKS IN THE EGYPTIAN DESERT

THE BIR UMM FAWAKHIR PROJECT, JANUARY 1992

By Terry G. Wilfong, Ph.D. Candidate,
The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, The Oriental Institute,
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 136, Winter 1992, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


The Bir Umm Fawakhir Project was a twelve day preliminary survey of a Byzantine settlement site in Egypt's Eastern Desert, sponsored by the Oriental Institute, in January 1992. The project was conceived and directed by Carol Meyer, Research Associate of the Oriental Institute, Artist for the Epigraphic Survey, and veteran of many archaeological excavations. The project staff consisted of Lisa Heidorn, a University of Chicago graduate student, Henry Cowherd, a photographer with extensive experience on archaeological sites, Mohammed Omar, a geologist from the Egyptian Geological Survey, and me. We spent an intense two weeks surveying and exploring the unexcavated and little-known settlement site of Bir Umm Fawakhir.

Way out in the middle of nowhere is the easiest way to describe the location of Bir Umm Fawakhir. More precisely, Fawakhir is roughly halfway between Luxor and the Red Sea, just off the long road that connects Quft (ancient Coptos) with Quseir (fig. 1). It's about an hour and a half by taxi from Luxor; one goes from the green and populated cultivated lands near the Nile into the arid desert, and from there into the rocky, `mountainous' regions farther to the east. There are little stone buildings atop the cliffs every few kilometers or so that are Roman signal towers. The final approach to Fawakhir is through the famous Wadi Hammamat, the cliffs of which are covered with graffiti from the prehistoric period to the present day. After a few further twists in the road, one reaches the modern settlement of Fawakhir, which consists of a guard post, a tea house, a mosque under construction, and a few other small buildings. This is the `last stop' for many miles, where all the buses make a rest stop before heading out to the Red Sea. The ancient settlement can only be seen obliquely and briefly from the road.

Although activity in the region near Fawakhir, especially in the Wadi Hammamat, is attested for the prehistoric and pharaonic periods, the earliest traces of habitation at Fawakhir date to the Ptolemaic period (323-30 B.C.). More evidence comes from the Roman period: a signal tower nearby, some graffiti in a gold mine, and a group of texts on ostraca (inscribed potsherds), found at Fawakhir in the early part of this century. All of these date to the first few centuries A.D., a time of great mining activity throughout the Eastern Desert. The settlement at Fawakhir, however, is later than this; from the pottery found on the surface and other evidence we can date the site to the fifth-seventh century A.D. The settlement appears to have been a mining camp that housed the men employed in mining either granite or, more probably, gold. As a settlement, Fawakhir does not seem to have lasted very long, probably only a few generations at most.

As an archaeological site, Fawakhir is simply amazing: huddled in a shallow wadi are hundreds of little stone buildings, some with walls still standing as high as five feet. Seen from the ground, the site is impressive, confusing, and even daunting; seen from the cliffs high above, however, the plan of the settlement is clear and the view is breathtaking (fig. 2). There are over two hundred buildings of dry-stone masonry that preserve such features as doors, niches, benches, and trash pits. The site is more or less covered in broken pottery, to which the name Bir Umm Fawakhir-Well of the Mother of Potsherds-refers. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to walk on the site without stepping on broken pottery of some sort.

Bir Umm Fawakhir is not exactly an unknown, "lost" city, but it has never been properly surveyed, excavated, or published. We spent our limited time recording as much information about the site as we could. Since we did not have permission to excavate, our main priorities were to map as many of the standing buildings and surrounding topography as possible and to record surface finds (mostly pottery). In addition to the very limited time we had in the field, our work had an added element of urgency. The site has numerous looters' holes that attest to illegal digging for antiquities. Not only does this activity destroy the archaeological record of the site, but the holes left by the diggers have also potentially weakened the standing walls and made our work all the more imperative.

The Fawakhir Project was a "commuting" expedition, in that we spent the day working in the desert but commuted back and forth in a taxi from Luxor. Few archaeological expeditions in Egypt have as pleasant accommodations as we did in Chicago House, which sponsored our survey in Egypt, housed and fed us, and gave us access to their computers and library. I must record a great debt of thanks to everyone at Chicago House who made our stay there so productive and enjoyable. Every morning we got up at six o'clock, had a quick breakfast, loaded up the taxi, and headed out. One and a half to two hours later, we arrived at the modern town, hauled our equipment out to the ancient site, and began to work.

The most complicated piece of equipment we had with us was a Leitz Set 3 Total Instrument Station, a laser theodolite used for surveying. Since we wanted to map as much of Fawakhir as we could, we borrowed this extremely useful instrument from the Oriental Institute. To use the total station, we started from a base point, located on a prominent rock in the middle of the buildings. We had to set up on this point every day, making sure that it was centered and leveled precisely over the base point. One person operated the theodolite, while another person held a prism on a pole at the point being mapped (fig. 3). The person with the prism also made a sketch of the building being planned to record measurements and locations. The theodolite bounces a laser beam off the prism, which returns to the instrument and gives information about the point being mapped, including elevation, distance, and x and y coordinates with respect to the base point. We recorded the information in an electronic data collector (and on paper, just to be safe); the data was then downloaded to a computer at Chicago House each evening, and points were plotted on a map. This method enabled Carol and Lisa to draw up an accurate plan of the buildings on the site in a fraction of the time it would have taken by traditional surveying techniques. In twelve days we shot over 1000 points (features of buildings and topography), which enabled us to plan 55 buildings; the map shown in figure 4 represents about a quarter of the main settlement.

In addition, we also wanted a full photographic record of the area we were surveying. This was carried out by Henry, who clambered around on the cliffs in search of the perfect view of the individual buildings and whose excellent photographs are an important part of our recording of Fawakhir. Our geologist, Mohammed, made a detailed survey of the geological makeup of the region. Collection and recording of surface pottery was done primarily by Lisa. Potsherds were collected at various locations around the site and in some of the houses; drawings of these were incorporated into our pottery corpus. Some Byzantine glass fragments were also found, but these, like the pottery, had to be left on the site. I was assigned to record the graffiti in an abandoned gold mine near the site. Two were drawings: an elaborate boat and a lion. One graffito was an inscription in South Arabian, surprising until one considers the relative proximity of Fawakhir to the Arabian Peninsula. The best-preserved texts were four graffiti in Greek. One was carved by a man named Longinus-a good Roman name-as a prayer to "all the gods," which indicates a date before Christianity reached southern Egypt (probably third-fourth century A.D.). Two of the Greek texts were by the same man-Dorkon, whose name may seem unfortunate to us, but was perfectly acceptable in the first few centuries A.D. The mine also contained the marks of mining-sunburst-like traces of hammering where stone was to have been removed-and bits of pottery as well.

After two short weeks, the survey of Fawakhir was completed. We accomplished much more than I had expected, both due to Carol Meyer's careful planning and direction and to everyone's enthusiasm for the project. We now are preparing the results of our survey for preliminary publication. Obviously, much remains to be done on the site, and we hope to go back to Fawakhir in the future. Fawakhir was my first archaeological experience in the field, and I can't think of a better or more enjoyable introduction.


N.B. After this article was written, the Bir Umm Fawakhir Project was given the go-ahead for a short season in January 1993. A preliminary report of the 1992 survey was completed and submitted for publication.

Revised: February 7, 2007

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