Field of Offerings

It has been an exciting several days here on the excavation.  Today I’ll bring you up to date on the new excavation we began six days ago, north of the Ramses II temple.  For background this area was previously discussed in the second half of the blog post of January 31 (which you can find on our website, if you’ve received this post by email), and the geophysical survey which led to the work there is discussed in our last newsletter the “Oracle” no. 5 beginning on page 9 (and named “Area 2”).

Beginning the trench.

Beginning the trench.

In short, the geophys. results indicate a large area of intentionally deposited fill about two meters deep covering a large stone structure about 12 x 22 meters which seems to have the form of a temple.  On February 6 using the geophysical survey results, measurements from satellite photos, and on-the-ground measurements to various landmarks, we drove an iron rod flush into the ground over what we hope to be the center of the structure.  In the past any excavation squares laid out and left overnight would have the pegs/string stolen by villagers, so we returned the following morning to lay out the trench and get the work started.  After finding the iron rod, we made it the center of a 2 x 14 meter trench running compass north-south.  And we also had the idea to run an east-west trench over the same point to maximize our chances of catching an edge of the structure if we weren’t over the center of it after all, making a big "X."  Because the compass directions address the underlying structure diagonally, we actually put one west running section at the north end of the north-south trench and one east running section at the south end making a big “Z” shape which is likely to catch more of the underlying structure.  On the first day of work, February 7, after laying out the trenches, our workers managed to dig about 30 cm deep across the whole “Z” so that we can remove our stakes and string (to avoid nighttime theft) and use the edge of the trenches for our reference in drawing the contents.

2nd-3rd century pottery appearing just at the surface.

2nd-3rd century pottery appearing just at the surface.

Contrary to expectations of clean fill from the geophys. results, before our break at 10AM the team working the south half of the trench began getting pottery, starting right at the iron rod in the center of the trench.  By the end of the day's work the north team had it as well (to a lesser concentration), and pottery was widely spread in a silty layer all over the trench.  But interestingly the pottery was not of mixed eras - the only types we found closely match the set of types we excavated a few years ago in the North Roman Cemetery where we found the tombs of some of the city’s earliest inhabitants.  (For information on the North Roman Cemetery see the “Oracle” nos. 2, 3 and 4 which can be downloaded here:  http://antinoupolis.net/newsletters/  )  There are two things that can be noted regarding this.  One is that the dating of this pottery is 2nd to early 3rd century A.D.  We found no pottery of other dating mixed in which at the very surface in this archaeological site generally is extremely uncommon since so much of the city has been chewed up and pitted by looting.  It is also quite unusual here to encounter any area which is not overlaid by pottery of eras much later than the city's founding, such as the early Coptic and Islamic eras.  The other thing to note is that it would seem to be unusual that a set of pottery used in a funeral context (mostly small offering vessels and amphorae)  would be found at all inside the boundaries of the city with a date near to the city’s founding.  Such pottery should only occur in cemeteries and perhaps in temples as well.  On the downside, the trench is near the village, and when the villagers dig a new foundation, they often dump ancient debris on the site which would explain such early pottery right at the surface.

The trench after reaching the clean sand layer with the animal burials.

The trench after reaching the clean sand layer with the animal burials.

But I am happy to say that this is not the case.  In subsequent days, as our team excavated, we found the uneven layer of 2nd-3rd century pottery to be about 30-40 cm deep diminishing through that depth as the silt increased.  Now that we are much lower in the excavation we can say that this layer was not disturbed, and was sealing the material that lay below.  As the pottery lessened, the layer changed from silt to sandy silt and then to clean sand.  Yesterday, at the top of the clean sand layer we found three sets of animal skeletons which appeared to be uniformly bovine in character at the baulk edges, and one human skeleton mostly still in the baulk.  Much discussion ensued about possibly intrusive burials (meaning they were later and cut into the layers), but that would mean pits cut in the pottery layer, and such lines of disturbance are usually visible in the baulk.  No pit cuts could be found.  Sacrificed animals as offerings in a temple or tomb context would be normal, but not so a sacrificed (or at least buried) human – not since Egypt’s pre-dynastic period in any case.  Today the mystery – or the debate about offerings vs. a family burying their dead cattle and a relative – was solved.

Fathy cleaning the crocodile.

Fathy cleaning the crocodile.

Within ten minutes of beginning work this morning in the north end of the trench, we began uncovering a set of bones which turned out to clearly be an adult crocodile skeleton.  The quite large crocodile was buried lying on its back and with its lower jaw removed.  You may ask:  how does this solve the debate?  With the presence of an interred crocodile, there is no possibility we are dealing with anything other than a field of offerings.  Through the day we found at least a half dozen other sets of bones, mostly bovine, including one large mass of bovine bones directly underneath the crocodile.  I am writing “bovine” because I’m not a bone specialist, and there were many types of cow-like creatures in the ancient period in Egypt, though not, I am told the gamousa (which is the water buffalo that today in Egypt one sees commonly in the countryside).  So I will leave that to the eventual expert we can get to analyze the bones we have collected.  But they are large cow-like creatures with horns similar to the bulls/cows one sees in pharonic temple reliefs.  There were also other small vertebrate creatures the species of which is not clear to me as well as some bones in the baulk itself where it is impossible to speculate the species of the animal.

Ragab with the mixed bovine material found beneath the crocodile.

Ragab with the mixed bovine material found beneath the crocodile.

All skeletons were located beneath the silt and pottery layer and in the top of a thick layer of clean yellow sand.  This clean sand (beginning at about 0.75 meters from the surface) should be the homogenous infilling noted by Kris our geophysical engineer in his results.  He didn’t tell us it was going to be full of animals!

An interesting detail is that the crocodile was interred whole (except for the removal of its lower jaw), while the bovine animal skeletons all seem to be disarticulated (cut up).  None of the creatures so far have been mummified, but it may be that the bovine animals were butchered as one sees them shown in piles of offerings on a pharonic temple wall relief (and as they were found stacked in the burial with, for example the head – with horns! – stacked above long leg bones and ribs, etc.), while the non-food creatures associated with dieties like the crocodile were buried whole as offerings (as they often are at other sites).  The human was also buried whole with his head oriented to the west (in the pagan manner – later Christian burials normally orient the head of the body toward the east).

And this brings up the question of the human burial.  If you’ve followed the analysis above, you know we have a thick clean sand layer containing a large number of unmummified animal offerings sealed beneath a thick layer of silt and 2nd-3rd century pottery.  The human burial is sealed in the same clean sand layer as all the other offerings, and the not unreasonable, but somewhat uncomfortable, hypothesis must now be that at least one human was sacrificed and offered with the animals.

An unidentified creature (horse?) near the lime carrying jars.

An unidentified creature (horse?) near the lime carrying jars.

We are working to reach a two-meter depth which is the shallowest we might expect to encounter a stone wall, but bones must be excavated carefully – and s-l-o-w-l-y – which has slowed us down.  Also slowing us down is another strange feature.  In the south end of the trench at its eastern end is a small lime kiln with an adjacent lime “floor” layer where it appears burnt lime chunks were ground up.  (Briefly: limestone and/or marble was often burned in a kiln to produce lime which when hydrated with water produces quick lime which is a major component of mortar and concrete for making buildings.)  Next to the lime floor we found three jars containing lime in the bottom which must have been used to transport the ground lime to where it was needed.  All of this is sitting at the top of the clean sand layer and was sealed under the silt layer with the buried animals.  Again the lime kiln and production area is not intrusive because, though half the baked brick kiln disappears under the baulk, there is no pit cut visible in the baulk.  The only explanation I can currently offer is that lime was produced on site for the building of whatever monument we are excavating.  When enough lime was produced for the construction, the builders didn’t remove it before they installed the offerings, but left it in place and covered it over as well as covering the offerings, knowing it would never be visible.  It seems that the clean sand layer with the offerings and the kiln were covered by the builders with Nile silt which was then irregularly covered by offering vessels, perhaps by worshippers bringing offerings to the monument we hope to find below.

This brings you fully up to date on our progress as we “ground-truth” the geophysical survey results from the north area of the site.  In archaeology one almost never finds what one expects, and there is certainly more to this monument than I thought we would find!  I promise to keep you updated on what we find in the excavation in the near future.