‘This is not a treasure hunt’

After Egypt’s revolution, a Chicago archaeologist keeps close watch on the ancient past.

By Elizabeth Station

Egypt had not yet reached a boiling point on January 20, the day I interviewed a group of young faculty in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for Tableau, the Humanities Division magazine. But for weeks afterward, I couldn’t help wondering how closely Nadine Moeller, an assistant professor of Egyptian archaeology, was tracking events there.

Since 2005 Moeller has directed a major archaeological excavation at Tell Edfu, some 475 miles south of Cairo on the Nile River. The site has garnered attention for its unusually well preserved buildings that cast light on early Egyptian economic life. Moeller and her team—which includes her husband, archaeologist and Oriental Institute research associate Gregory Marouard, and three Chicago graduate students—spend every autumn quarter at the site.

With the Middle East in turmoil, Moeller and other scholars have worried about the safety of cultural sites. Egypt differs from Iraq, where looters have raided countless archaeological sites in search of antiquities to sell on the international market. But concerns have been raised about the security of Egyptian sites and storage magazines. Last week, Moeller spoke about the situation from her Chicago office.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhen you’re in Chicago, what happens to the excavation site at Tell Edfu?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe site is in the middle of the modern town of Edfu, next to the Temple of Edfu, which is a major tourist attraction. So it actually is located within a protected area that’s marked as an ancient site. The local inspector and the people who are part of the antiquities organization have an on-site office. There’s a fence around it; people can’t really access it. In that respect we’re really lucky compared to sites in the desert where you have no fence and no protection. At Edfu there is also usually a police presence, mainly for the tourists, but they obviously stop anybody from walking on the tell, on our excavation site.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow do you stay in touch with colleagues there?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI usually call them once every couple of months. There are Egyptians who are really good friends—some of the workers and people from the Edfu inspectorate. When the revolution happened, I called several people just to see whether they were OK, more than anything. And I asked whether they knew anything about the sites and our magazine, which is a protected storage building half an hour north of Edfu. Every object we find on the site is shipped there at the end of our season.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat kinds of artifacts do you find and keep?
QandA_ADrop.jpgWe don’t have anything like statues or gold or precious materials. We have a large number of ostraca stored there—around 150 pieces. These are pottery sherds that were inscribed with ink in Hieratic, which is a cursive script of the hieroglyphs, with administrative notes. One of my students, Kathryn Bandy, is writing her PhD on that material. The ostraca give you an insight into the economy of an ancient town at a given period. These are objects that don’t necessarily have a great value for an art museum—but they have a great value for research.
In the magazine we also have a lot of seal impressions; these are pieces of clay impressed by scarab seals. At their base, they have different motifs. Every ancient Egyptian official had his own scarab with his own motif—sometimes it was a name, sometimes just a decorative pattern. They would stamp objects like wooden boxes, doors, baskets—any sort of commodity that was going from Edfu to the capital, for example, or coming from another place to Edfu. We find only the little pieces of broken seals that were discarded once these things were opened.
QandA_QDrop.jpg What do seal impressions tell you?
QandA_ADrop.jpgIn some cases, the seals have the complete names and titles of people like the mayor or the overseer of the temple. When we know their names, we get a glimpse of the people who lived and worked at ancient Edfu and we learn more about their roles within the town and temple administration, which are closely linked. These pieces can also help to date archaeological remains in conjunction with ceramics.
But these objects are very small and fragile. They’re just pieces of sun-dried clay that’s not even fired. We have almost a thousand pieces and they’re just a few centimeters wide, so we store them in a variety of boxes and plastic containers. All this material goes to the magazine and of course, if somebody broke in and went through all that, it would be a mess. But luckily we have managed to take photographs of most of them as well as all the ostraca.
QandA_QDrop.jpgDuring the protests and revolution, were you afraid of looting at Tell Edfu?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI haven’t heard anything that would make me feel worried about the site. The locals and the inspectorate at Edfu have said that everything was fine, even though they had some time without a police presence at the magazine. There’s nothing that made me think there was looting going on.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat about elsewhere in Egypt?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI can only say from hearsay. I also consult a website called the Egyptological Looting Database 2011, which is a site-by-site database of damage to antiquities in Egypt. The looting is nothing on the scale of Iraq, first of all. It’s absolutely not comparable. There are certain instances of problems but mainly in the north, the area around Cairo and the Nile Delta. For example, I heard—which means I have no proof of what the real situation is—that the Austrians working at the site of Tell el Dab’a, in the eastern Delta, had their magazine broken into and some objects were removed.
The south seems pretty normal. I have not heard about problems at Luxor, where we have Chicago House and the Oriental Institute’s Epigraphic Survey. The director, Ray Johnson, has been in Egypt through the revolution; he never left. They just finished the season and he was saying everything was fine.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhen will you return to Tell Edfu and what will you work on next?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI’m planning to go back in the autumn again because we have an NEH grant for the project. I don’t think there’ll be much change from before—that’s just my feeling.
We basically finished our main excavation area for the past five years that focused on the excavation of a large granary court, a major grain reserve for the town; there are lots of silos for grain storage as well as an earlier administrative building complex.
And now we’re going to start work on a new area to find out about the earliest settlement remains at the town. We’re looking for the origins of Edfu and for any types of buildings from official to private houses. We’re going to be excavating in an area that’s very close to the much-later temple. So I think we might be in more of an official quarter than a purely domestic area.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat do you hope to find?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI’m hoping we’ll find proof that Edfu already existed in the Third Dynasty, at the time of King Djoser [2667–2648 BC]. There are some indications that Edfu already existed then, but we don’t have any archaeological evidence yet. I would like to find some archaeological data or proof to show that Edfu was actually founded much earlier than we thought it was. We know so little about these very early periods of ancient Egyptian history, so it would add a lot to our research and understanding of the origins of an urban center and regional capital, which is what ancient Edfu was.
QandA_QDrop.jpgAre you nervous about returning?
QandA_ADrop.jpgObviously we have to see what the situation at the magazine is. We are also starting a new project at a small pyramid about four kilometers south of Edfu. We'll focus on the cleaning and conservation of this monument to create public awareness for its protection, since it's currently endangered by a fast-growing modern cemetery and village in the vicinity. This is also the last undisturbed pyramid among a group of small step pyramids that were erected in the provinces at the end of the Third Dynasty.
But the site is currently not protected very well, and the local people saw us spending two days there last year. So you never know; they might think there must be treasure there—why else would foreigners be interested in a heap of stones? Whether you have a revolution or not, unfortunately, it’s something that can happen from time to time regardless of the political situation.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat’s the best way to protect sites from looting, regardless of politics?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe best strategy is to create awareness among the population about the importance of their cultural heritage and the need to protect ancient sites—to make them realize that this is not a treasure hunt; we’re actually trying to understand and study the Egyptian past. The more you can educate people about the meaning and importance of their own past, the more they will protect the sites.

April 26, 2011