Monday, November 23, 2015


Elisabeth R. O'Connell (ed.), Egypt in the First Millennium AD: Perspectives from New Fieldwork. British Museum publications on Egypt and Sudan, 2. Leuven; Paris; Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2014. Pp. xiv, 230; 68 p. of plates. ISBN 9789042930711. €95.00.

Reviewed by Jennifer Cromwell, University of Copenhagen (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The study of the archaeology of Late Antique Egypt has suffered in the past through a bias towards earlier phases of the country's history. This situation is changing, with increasing work being undertaken on the history, culture, and archaeology of the first millennium AD, spanning the periods of Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic rule, and the introduction of Christianity and later Islam. The current volume epitomises this changing tide. It is a result of the twenty-first annual British Museum Egyptology Colloquium (held in 2012), which was the first in this series to be dedicated to post-pharaonic Egypt. Fifteen chapters present the results of new archaeological research on different types of site from across Egypt.1

The contributions are organised according to four major themes. O'Connell's introduction not only provides an excellent overview of these, but contextualises each chapter within a broader framework of research being undertaken on contemporary sites. This provides an important synthesis of current work and is a valuable bibliographic resource. I provide here brief overviews of each contribution, with some paper-specific observations, before discussing the importance of this volume as a whole.

I: "Settlements". Settlement archaeology faces several major challenges, but this does not mean that excavation of ancient towns is impossible, as these four papers demonstrate. Boozer analyzes the processes of urban change at Roman Trimithis (Amheida) in the Dakhla Oasis, utilising the entirety of the available evidence unearthed since excavations began in 2004.2 In addition to the question of diachronic change at the site (which is viewed on both a micro and macro scale, i.e., on individual structures and the relationship between structures), Boozer's contribution is of broader value, analyzing city development in Roman North Africa. Egypt within the wider Late Antique world is an issue also raised by Wilson, in her overview of Delta sites, based on the Egypt Exploration Society Delta Survey database and a seven-tiered typology of site types.3 The Delta has always been a difficult region to excavate, resulting in its importance in the late antique Mediterranean world being overlooked. Wilson highlights the value of the ceramic material being discovered for the analysis of life in the Delta, as well as its position within Mediterranean economic and trading systems, and the possibility to analyze cultural interaction across the whole region. Moving to Aswan, Müller explores several neighbourhoods, providing snapshots of living conditions and activities, which have been uncovered through the Swiss-Egyptian mission.4 As the mission has no chronological limitations, we can see how different areas developed over time. Wild and Wild do not focus on the architectural evidence for Qasr Ibrim, a site that has garnered increased interest in recent years, but on its textiles. The ebb and flow of textile culture shows the impact of the changing social and political situation, from Napatan, to Roman, to Meroitic, to Christian influences. We find significant changes in textile production, from flax (as used throughout Egypt), to the introduction of cotton (and stronger connections with the south during the Meroitic period), to the increased use of wool and new dress styles following the introduction of Christianity from the north.

II: "Cemeteries". At Tuna el-Gebel (the necropolis of Hermopolis), one of the largest Graeco-Roman cemeteries in Egypt, Lembke analyzes changes in burial practices in Late Antiquity, including materials, iconography, and the form and increased congestion of 'house tombs'. These developments show changes in practice, with a move towards greater display. While Lembke touches on the issue of Romanisation, she stresses that much more work is required to assess the process – and if it is even the correct term for what changes took place. Grossmann's survey of churches in necropoleis and intramural burials in churches is impressive, on account of the breadth of sites covered (from the Delta, Nile Valley, and Western Oases), drawing upon his vast (and unrivalled) knowledge of the subject. Fluck's chapter focuses on a single woman's tomb in Antinoupolis, and specifically on the textiles on and around the body. The size and condition of the textiles are quite stunning. Comparison with other burials from Antinoupolis shows that clothing played an important role: indeed, they remained quite individualistic. While it is too early to draw strong conclusions, some tendencies are observed, and directions for future research are noted, especially concerning Persian elements (e.g., the leather boots on the body) that are characteristic of Antinoupolite burials in Late Antiquity.

III: "Rock-cut tombs and Quarries". The problems dealing with settlement archaeology have been noted. Conversely, valleys and mountains provide more information and were used in later antiquity for a range of purposes, both for the living and the dead. Asyut is a case in point. Little is known of the city itself, but its necropolis (Gebel Asyut al-gharbi) offers greater opportunities for archaeological investigation. Of the different structures found here, Tombs III and IV on the south-eastern part of the Gebel (which Kahl argues was the burial place of the important 4th century monastic figure John of Lycopolis) highlight the nature of the use and reuse of space over several millennia. Importantly, this serves as a reminder that (re-)use did not end in antiquity: in the early 20th century, the tombs were used as a base for archaeological excavations, affecting interpretation of the archaeological record now. Amarna, the new city built by Akhenaten, is one of the best-known of pharaonic sites. Its Late Antique remains are less-well known. Pyke's overview of the later remains, the majority of which are monastic, highlights the pragmatic nature of the reuse of space and the different types of modification that some spaces required, depending on why they were reused (e.g., monastic cells versus churches). The second two papers, van Loon and De Laet's survey of Dayr Abu Hinnis and Faiers' look at the pottery from Wadi Sarga, focus on different aspects of the archaeology of these reused quarries, but are complementary analyses. Dayr Abu Hinnis has some inscriptional evidence, but otherwise no textual remains. GPS survey of the site allows the identification of a northern and southern section with discrete features, of which the first can be identified as a structured monastic community. Conversely, Wadi Sarga was excavated in 1913/14 and study of the site now rests on the material discovered then, as the Wadi is now a military zone. This includes a large body of texts, some of which were published in 1922, and a larger corpus of unpublished material.5 Faiers presents a preliminary report on her study of the ceramic material from the site, showing that the majority is locally produced and its trade networks were predominately regional, not international. Of note is that both these studies refer to the respective monastic communities as self-sufficient (p. 171 and 188–9 respectively). These are bold statements and without studying how the monasteries procured their essentials for daily-life (land holdings, donations, barter and exchange, etc.), it is premature to describe either as such—and the different nature of the evidence for each site presents problems concerning whether such a statement can definitively be proven. There is much scope here for future research and debate.

IV: "Temple-Church-Mosque". This final section presents three very different case studies. Effland looks at the later use of one of the best-known sacred sites in Egypt, Abydos. The site regained importance especially in the 4th and 5th centuries due to its oracles (Osiris and Bes), and the practice of incubation and necromancy. Boraik presents the work undertaken by the Supreme Council of Antiquities in and around Luxor and Karnak temples: 1) the area west of Karnak, towards the Nile (Ptolemaic and Roman bath complexes); 2) the sphinx avenue between the two temples (largely industrial zones); 3) the mosque of Abu el-Hagag in Luxor temple, which was damaged in a fire in 2007. As a result of this work, considerably more is now known about the eastern bank of Thebes. Finally, Fragaki turns to Alexandria, which, by Late Antiquity, had contracted immensely from its Ptolemaic heyday, leaving ruins and a rich source of building materials. Focus is placed on the reuse of columns (six main categories of which are identified) in two different structures: cisterns and mosques. The nature of each construction dictated how the material (spolia) was integrated, with mosques showing a more meticulous and orderly use, with aesthetic concerns exercising important influence, rather than a merely pragmatic integration of the material in cisterns. Fragaki raises important questions on the intentionality of the process of reuse (moving beyond the purely pragmatic and economic), which the two case studies aptly demonstrate.

Egypt in the First Millennium AD succeeds in its aims, of giving priority to sites for which there is comparatively little published synthesis, of providing a wealth of information for a wider scholarly audience, and of looking at the evidence of continuity and change in these centuries and their changing political, cultural, and religious characters. The volume complements recent published work on better-known sites and areas in Egypt, e.g., Antinoupolis,6 Old Cairo/Fustat,7 and monastic remains throughout the Nile Valley. As such, it is an important contribution to the current scholarly discourse on Late Antiquity.

The great breadth of locations, including the Delta, Nile Valley, western oases, and Nubia, highlights the different issues faced by archaeological research across the country (in terms of human and physical geography), as well as the topics and issues that can be addressed by different site-types. Within this volume alone, there is great scope for comparative research. These have already been noted for Dayr Abu Hinnis and Wadi Sarga; as just one other example, the two textile studies (Wild and Wild, and Fluck) provide an obvious comparison of different influences on material culture.

The major recurring theme that unites these papers is the reuse of space and material, as O'Connell notes in her introduction. Several of the contributors raise questions about how to deal with this, in particular Fragaki. Pyke uses the archaeological evidence for monastic institutions and reuse of space to question literary ideals for where monks chose to reside and why. Moving forward, integration and adaptation are two significant research questions. Yet, the main concern is not only about how pharaonic space was utilised and reshaped. Egypt is located within its wider Mediterranean and African world. Wilson calls for the need to integrate the Delta area into studies of the economy of the Late Antique Mediterranean; Boozer contextualises Trimithis within urban patterns in Roman North Africa; and Grossmann's broad study is situated within the development of Christian-specific cemeteries in Rome and Egypt.

This volume is not (and is not intended to be) an introduction to Late Antique Egypt and its archaeology, but it is a valuable tool to historians and archaeologists alike, across a range of disciplines (Egyptology, archaeology, art history, early Christianity, etc.) and research interests (e.g., urban development, trade and economy, burial practices, material culture). It succeeds in making accessible a varied wealth of material from a country—and world—in transition.


1.   Of the eighteen papers presented at the colloquium, not all are published here (pp. IX–X present the full programme of the meeting). In general, the papers not included concern well-known sites, e.g., the White and Red monasteries of Shenoute, Antinoupolis, and the Sarapeion at Memphis.
2.   The website Excavations at Amheida, NYU should here be noted, as it provides regular updates on work at the site, as well as an up-to-date bibliography.
3.   See Egypt Exploration Society for the Survey's on-going work.
4.   P. 59, n.1, provides the website for the mission's work. One should also highlight the annual reports published online, which include the work undertaken on Late Antique remains.
5.   A British Museum project, under Elisabeth O'Connell's direction, focuses on the study of the material from Wadi Sarga; see Wadi Sarga at the British Museum.
6.   R. Pintaudi (ed.). Antinoupolis II: Scavi e materiale III (Florence, 2014).
7.   P. Sheehan. Babylon of Egypt: The Archaeology of Old Cairo and the Origins of the City. Revised Edition (Cairo, 2015).

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