Sunday, 24 October 2010

EES North Launch Event: Landscape Development and Climate Change in Ancient Egypt: the Delta and the Valley

Yesterday afternoon (October 23rd) marked the inauguration of the new EES North Lecture Series with a Day School entitled "Landscape Development and Climate Change in Ancient Egypt: the Delta and the Valley". The event took place in the Days Inn Hotel, Manchester, and was well-attended by over 60 delegates; the audience comprised of both academics and interested members of the public, many of whom belonged to regional Egyptology societies.

The afternoon commenced with an opening address from Dr. Karen Exell, and the first lecture was given by Dr. Penny Wilson of Durham University entitled:  "Fishing, Feasting and Famine: A Guide to Ancient Nile Delta Environments". Dr. Wilson is the Field Director of the joint Durham University/Egypt Exploration Society/SCA project at Sais (Sa el-Hagar) in the Egyptian Delta. She presented fascinating evidence for food acquisition, processing and consumption at Sais during the Prehistoric and Predynastic Period, based on her 10 year's work at the site. 

The 'Great Pit' filled with water
A key feature of this account is the so-called 'Great Pit' that has been excavated to the south of the site, which contained both Prehistoric and Predynastic pottery together with a very thick layer of burnt fishbones and vessels preserving a 'fishbone' motif. The team have recovered over 15,000 fish bones, and one hippopotamus bone, though only 5000 of the bones can be identified with any certainty. The bones included those of the Catfish, Tilapia fish and Nile Perch, and an analysis of the remains suggests that the fish were being processed. Another interesting feature of the site is a late Ramesside 'house' area in the Northern Enclosure, which preserved may smashed vessels and an assortment of burnt botanical remains. Dr. Wilson suggests that this may be evidence of a feast which took place before the roof of the house collapsed and destroyed the pottery vessels.  

Angus Graham then presented a paper entitled: "Islands, Marshes, Sloughs and the Nile: Karnak within a Dynamic Theban Floodplain" on behalf of the EES Karnak Land- and Waterscapes Survey, an Amelia Edwards Research Project. Angus is always a very entertaining speaker, and despite a few technical hitches the lecture was very well received and produced several intriguing ideas concerning the area in and around Thebes. The data was based on Angus' sediment coring work on the East Bank at Luxor; his team have investigated 27 augersites at Karnak alone in five seasons (2002-8). 

A fascinating point to note is that evidence may begin to emerge  in the coming seasons of an Old Kingdom settlement on higher ground at Karnak; I for one will be looking forward to those potential results. Angus concluded by stating that Karnak really was the 'ideal' location for a cult temple in ancient times: it had access to water, it was placed on land which was not eroded by the river, it preserves evidence of biodiversity and it was clearly an area where the natural and cosmological world are unified. 

Aerial photograph indicating the ancient Nile courses at Karnak
Dr. Judith Bunbury (St. Edmund's College, Cambridge) and Dr. David Jeffreys (UCL) then co-presented a paper entitled, "New Work at Memphis: White Walls in Text and Context". Dr. Bunbury began with an illuminating lecture based on the idea of climate change early in Egyptian history, and the effect that changing temperatures had on human movements and changes in the vegetation of desert regions. Dr. Bunbury's data, like Angus', comes from her auger-boring work at several sites, including Hierakonpolis, Giza, Gurob and Memphis. She reiterates the idea that throughout Egyptian history there must have existed a long-running dialogue between the people of the deserts, and the landscape, and that Memphis in particular certainly persisted from the Predynastic Period, but was constantly re-founded on account of it's highly important strategic position at the base of the Delta. 

Ruins of the Temple of Ptah at Memphis
Dr. Jeffreys ended the day with a fascinating lecture on his work as the Director of the Survey of Memphis since 1980. Several interesting ideas were presented, which focussed on the point that Dr. Jeffreys is determined to always challenge and question past presuppositions concerning Memphis and the surrounding area. He referenced the work of Joseph Hekekyan (1807-1875), an Armenian geologist - and perhaps the world's first geoarchaeologist - who illustrated possible reconstructions of Memphite features, including the great Colossus of Ramesses II on display at Mit Rahina

Dr. Jeffreys and his team recently excavated a area of Ramesside priest's houses, where interestingly they discovered a layer of sand, which is suggestive of climate change and the associated dessication of the landscape. It is clear that the team must work quickly: the land in and around Memphis is all privately owned, and buildings are being erected fast upon the archaeological site. But the results of the Survey to date have revealed much about the history of Memphis and the Nile movements in the area, and one can only hope that the authorities involved allow the team to continue their work at a reasonable pace over the coming seasons.

A wine reception then followed, which  was an excellent opportunity to meet the speakers and to socialise with members of the Society. Overall, the Climate Change Day School was a success - an outcome which was clearly a result of the excellent choice of speakers, who provided an  entertaining and thought-provoking afternoon of lectures.

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