Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Terry G. Wilfong, Andrew W. S. Ferrara (ed.), Karanis Revealed: Discovering the Past and Present of a Michigan Excavation in Egypt. Kelsey Museum publications, 7. Ann Arbor, MI: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 2014. Pp. viii, 192. ISBN 9780974187396. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Bethany Simpson, University of California, Los Angeles (

Version at BMCR home site

The volume under review was produced as the result of a two-part exhibition organized by the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan in 2011 and 2012. The exhibit focused not only on objects from ancient Karanis, a Greco-Roman settlement in the Egyptian Fayum, but also on the history of Michigan's archaeological mission at the site from 1924 to 1935. The exhibit combined artifacts and papyri with archival evidence. The resulting volume thoroughly details not only the history of Karanis, but also the excavation: how it was recorded, archived, studied, and published.

The publication is divided into three chapters. The first introduces the reader to the Karanis materials housed in both the Kelsey Museum collections and in the archives. The second chapter contains the exhibit catalogue, and the third section comprises individual papers outlining current research that pertains to the Karanis materials. Finally, indices include the museum accession numbers and field numbers for Karanis artifacts, designations for buildings specifically referenced in the text, a complete list of illustrations, and a general subject index.

The first chapter, "Archives," begins with an introduction by Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager at the Kelsey Museum. Encina outlines the history of Michigan's project in Egypt as preserved through the archive's materials. This includes a discussion of sources relevant to the development of ancient Karanis and the history of the dig itself, and gives considerable insight into the daily life of the excavators who worked at Karanis.

Next T. G. Wilfong describes specific resources of the archive in detail. First is a brief introduction to the varied sources for research and their filing and organization. These include Michigan's original excavation find books, photographs, and the original manuscript that Enoch Peterson prepared at the completion of the expedition, but which remain unpublished. Wilfong mentions that the full manuscript will be added to the Kelsey Museum website by the time of the book's publication; however, it remained unavailable at the time of this review. Wilfong also includes information on the 1979 volume Karanis Excavations of the University of Michigan in Egypt 1924-1935: Topography and Architecture by Elinor Husselman.1 This remains the major source of contextual information for both architecture and finds from the Karanis excavation, as it is the only published source to contain substantial maps and plans of the site. Wilfong credits Husselman as one of the "unsung heroes" (20) of the Michigan Karanis project. He then concludes with an appendix on the Karanis field numbering system, explaining how it was designed to encode information of each object's findspot.

Wilfong's next entry, "Silent Movies from the Michigan Expedition to Egypt," describes the project's efforts to create a documentary film of the excavation, from its inception in 1924 by Francis Kelsey and expedition photographer George Swain, to the material's transfer from cellulose nitrate to acetate film and then video tape format, and finally to the digitization of about two hours of the footage for use in the "Karanis Revealed" exhibitions. Wilfong includes descriptions of the films' content and some still photographs. Excerpts of the digitized footage have since been made available online (see Karanis Motion Picture Footage).

In "The Michigan Papyrology Collection and Karanis," Adam Hyatt explains how many of the papyri acquired by Michigan were obtained through purchase or undocumented excavation, before the official Michigan excavation in Karanis began to record findspots systematically. The papyri from Karanis form a major source of information about the ancient site, and many have been digitized and made available for study through the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS).

In the chapter's concluding essay, "Karanis Findspots and Stratigraphy," Thomas Landvatter explains the complex system devised by the original excavators, not only to record find context, but also to sequence the entire archaeological excavation by stratigraphic layers and temporal phases. While Landvatter's explanations are thorough, he cautiously admits that the designations "proposed by the excavators cannot be universally applied site-wide" (39) and are only useful within isolated architectural sequences.

The second chapter, "Artifacts," comprises the catalogue of the 2011 and 2012 exhibits by T. G. Wilfong and Andrew Ferrara. Here objects are grouped according to broad subject divisions, each with a brief introductory paragraph or two. These subject categories reflect the display of the original exhibits, and include chronological phases, as well as special topics regarding artifact classification or themes of current research. Although the black-and- white photographs are often small, the quality is excellent and each object is depicted according to its most characteristic angle. A publication history is included for each object, as are the museum accession numbers and original field numbers, the significance of which was explained in the previous chapter by Wilfong and Landvatter.

Entries for the final chapter, "Research," focus on current studies of materials in the Kelsey Museum and its archives, and are presented as individually authored papers. All of these are brief discussions, but highlight the potential for new and continuing research.

The first pair of papers discuss an extremely rare Roman-era cuirass made of leather lamellae. Andrew Ferrara explains its historical and archaeological significance and explores further evidence of the Roman army in the Egyptian Fayum. Claudia Chemello offers a detailed analysis of the cuirass' construction and modern conservation.

Next is a paper is by Thomas Landvatter, "A Skeleton from the Michigan Karanis Excavation." Although Landvatter's analysis is thorough, it is of a single example of human remains from the site, without known temporal or even burial context from a site with more than 800 years of occupation history, and therefore cannot be considered representative of the population of ancient Karanis. Following that is a study of clay sealings from a Karanis granary by Jennifer Gates-Foster, which not only examines the impressions on the obverse, but also includes careful consideration of the impressions on the reverse side made from affixing them to various objects. This extra information allows the author to postulate the actual use of the sealings.

"A Rediscovered Agricultural Hinterland of Karanis" by R. James Cook describes the larger regional context of Karanis and other Greco-Roman sites of the Fayum, focusing on ancient hydraulic features. Cook examines the location of ancient canals through satellite imagery, the survey of early twentieth-century researchers Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor Gardiner, and his own fieldwork.

Andrew Wilburn's paper, "Excavating the Karanis Archives and Finding Magic in the Kelsey Museum" includes discussion of find context and especially the importance of so-called "magical bones," painted faunal remains that seem to have had magical or ritualistic functions. Wilburn is co-author of the following paper, "The Karanis Housing Project: a New Approach to an Old Excavation," along with R. James Cook and Jennifer Gates-Foster. This is among the most promising and ambitious projects described in this volume: the study plans to "reintegrate the study of texts and artifacts" (158) by using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to visualize the site throughout the settlement's history. The results could potentially solve many of the problems in the analysis of Karanis' complex stratigraphy, and provide an exceptionally useful research tool for the scholarly community.

W. Graham Claytor discusses an archive of papyri discovered under a domestic threshold and ultimately judges it to be a deliberately curated ancient collection assembled by a local Karanis grapheion manager of the second century AD. Another papyrological analysis follows with Rebecca Sears' "Reconstructing the Context of a Greek Musical Papyrus from Karanis," which is a summary of the author's dissertation and includes a brief discussion of musicology and ancient Greek musical notation.

In "The Sonic Landscape of Karanis: Excavating the Sounds of a Village in Roman Egypt," T.G. Wilfong focuses less on musical composition than on instruments and other noise-making objects from ancient Karanis. A final paper by John Kannenberg details the "artistic practice" (179) of collecting sample sounds in the modern Fayum for the Kelsey exhibit. This paper also includes website information where one can hear original and remixed digital recordings.

Because the publication focuses on the "Karanis Revealed" museum exhibit, all entries make excellent use of the Kelsey's artifact collections and archives. However, the emphasis on resources in Michigan may have caused the contributors to overlook more recent work at Karanis, including excavations by Cairo University and l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale in the 1970s2 as well as ongoing excavations by the University of California Los Angeles, the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in the Netherlands, and New Zealand's University of Auckland.3 The absence of citations from these sources is notable, particularly since they might have cleared up some of the volume's lingering questions, especially with respect to the site's stratigraphy and dating.

The entire publication is ambitious in presenting ancient materials along with a thorough investigation of the excavation that discovered them. However, the scope of the volume does not always lead to clear organization. The thematic grouping of the catalogue materials makes it difficult to compare objects of similar temporal or topographic contexts. Some classes of artifacts fall under multiple headings: coins are included in several sections but never treated as a whole. Objects of religious or magical significance are presented separately from each other, and the magical "mysterious bones" discussed by Wilburn are included nearly 30 pages after the first two topics. The format does, however, favorably highlight the work of individual researchers, which, in turn, emphasizes the potential of museum archives for providing new avenues of scholarly research, an important contribution of this book within the larger context of such publications.

Perhaps more seriously, the publication lacks a site map: this is strange considering the continual emphasis by volume contributors on the importance of excavation context. While care was taken to explain the significance of Michigan's field numbering system as a clue to excavation context, these numbers tie directly to architectural designations that can only be discovered on the excavation's own maps and plans, which remain largely unpublished and unavailable outside of the Kelsey's own archives. The volume could also have provided a general overview map of Karanis, showing its relative position in the ancient or even modern Fayum landscape, including its distance from the edges of Lake Quaroun.

In conclusion, this is a rich publication on ancient Karanis that contributes to both Greco-Roman and Egyptian archaeology in many ways. The catalogue offers information and analysis of many previously unpublished (or scarcely published) materials. It also highlights the work that can be done with archival materials. This is significant as modern archaeology shifts away from large-scale excavation to more targeted, limited field work: archival studies of this nature will likely become more and more significant in the development of future archaeological research. This volume provides an important reminder that good record-keeping is of vital importance to modern excavation to allow future generations of researchers to contribute to the study of archaeology.


1.   Husselman, E. 1979. Karanis Excavations of the University of Michigan in Egypt 1924-1935: Topography and Architecture. A Summary of the Reports of the Director, Enoch E. Peterson. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology Studies, 5. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
2.   el-Nassery, S. A. A., Wagner, G., and Castel, G., "Un grand bain gréco-romain à Karanis" Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale 76, Cairo 1976, pp. 231-275.
3.   Wendrich, W., Cole, E., Cappers, R., Jones, D., and Holdaway, S. 2013. "The Fayum Desert as an Agricultural Landscape: Recent Research Results," in C. Arlt and M. Stadler (eds.) Das Fayum in Hellenismus und Kaiserzeit: Fallstudien zu multikulturellum Leben in der Antike. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. Wendrich, W., Simpson, B., and Elgewely, E. 2014. "Karanis in 3D: Recording, Monitoring, Recontextualizing, and the Representation of Knowledge and Conjecture." Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 77, No. 3, Special Issue: "Cyber Archaeology" (September 2014), pp. 233-237.

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