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Excavating Everyday Lives in Ancient Egypt

By Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted September 30, 1998

The phrase "Egyptian dig" usually conjures up visions of pyramids, treasure-filled tombs, mummies, gargantuan statues of pharoahs and sphinxes. But two Berkeley researchers decided to investigate something less romantic but every bit as important -- the life of the common person in ancient Egypt.

In 1991 Carol Redmount, associate professor of Egyptian archaeology in the Near Eastern Studies Department, went looking for a site that would turn up new information.

She picked Tell el-Muqdam, about 50 miles north of Cairo and unlike usual Egyptian archaeological sites in three ways: it was a town inhabited by common people rather than royalty; it was in the Nile delta instead of the better known and preserved desert sites in upper Egypt; and it dated from the relatively recent Third Intermediate and Late Periods (1070-332 BC) instead of the more glamorous Old, Middle, or New Kingdoms.

Excavation at Tell el-Muqdam began in the summer of 1992, after permission had been granted by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. Population growth had already encroached on the site, as it has on ancient sites throughout Egypt, says Redmount.

In 1993 she was joined by Joan Knudsen, registrar at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology and a PhD student in Egyptian archaeology. They were joined by archaeologists from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium and Denmark and local men and women were hired to help with the excavation.

By the end of May, heat, humidity and mosquitoes in the Nile delta become almost unbearable, but that's the only time of year Redmount and Knudsen can escape campus duties for the dig.

"This kind of excavation isn't glamorous, but it's the work that moves us forward in our archaeological understanding of ancient Egyptian culture," says Redmount. "This is the nuts and bolts of what archaeology is all about."

They returned to Tell el-Muqdam in '95 and '96 to continue excavating, and again this past summer for a "study season" to describe and draw thousands of pottery shards -- the most common object found at the site. They hope to return for one more study season, depending on funding. Meanwhile they are writing two volumes on their research -- one on the excavation and one on the pottery and other objects found.

"Most of what we know about Egyptian society and culture comes from the elite, the royal, the religious," says Knudsen. "We've unearthed the life of the common man -- how you and I might have lived in Egypt then."

Redmount adds, "We've gained an understanding of how people actually lived in Egypt during the Persian Period between 525 and 406 B.C. We've uncovered a neighborhood fragment, including roads and houses. We've also charted the development of the town, how it moved over time."

Nothing from the site can be taken out of Egypt, so drawings must be made of the thousands of objects. This past summer Knudsen worked on a computer database using a Mac Powerbook and portable printer. An inspector from the Egyptian Antiquities Office kept watch over the work, as did 14 gun-toting guards sent by the government to make sure nothing happened to the foreign visitors.

"It's constricted our movements," says Redmount of the round-the-clock armed protection. "We're surrounded by guards wherever we go -- army trucks or police cars in front and back of us, sometimes with sirens shrieking."

"We've been involved in two processes," explains Knudsen, "the excavation and daily interaction with people in the village, which is sometimes just as important. The social interaction is part of what makes this work so much fun. Your neighbors become your friends. It's a very tight-knit community. They enjoy watching us and we enjoy watching them. It's like a soap opera. I can't wait to go back," Knudson says. "The minute we arrive, it's like we never left."

Summing up their work, Redmount says, "we've taken a little-known site endangered by encroaching modern development and made baseline studies. By taking soil samples from below the water we discovered that the town was founded around 1,000 B.C. We've placed Tell el-Muqdam in the history of Egypt and made the first scientific map of the site. Now others can focus in on individual questions the site poses."


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