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“Digging in the Delta” Rebecca Bradshaw (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Rebecca Bradshaw came to the Essex Egyptology Group to give a talk on the archaeology she did in the Delta area of Egypt earlier this year. She’s currently a PhD student at the University of London, and she had asked the EEG (and other Egyptology societies) for help with funding her trip to the Delta to get archaeological experience between her MPhil & her PhD (the trip was originally planned for spring 2011, but had to be postponed because of the unrest in Egypt). The group had given her a donation towards her expenses, with the request that she come & talk to us about the work when she was back – and this was that talk. The work she was doing is part of the Western Delta Survey, a long term project that is currently run by Penelope Wilson (Durham University), and was split into two parts – which provided us with a nice place to break in the middle for coffee & cake 🙂

The Western Delta Survey is aiming to map, catalogue and categorise all the ancient sites in the Delta, both to get a broad overview of the relationships between the sites and to make it easier to decide which sites should get more in depth investigation. The first 6 weeks of Bradshaw’s time in Egypt were spent working on the overview side of the project – she and Wilson visited several sites across the Delta and did the basic initial survey. They start with a visual survey of the site, looking for signs of mud brick foundations and at what pottery can be found where. The most time consuming part of this work, and why Wilson needed an extra person along, was the topographical surveying. Bradshaw explained how this is done – one person has a tripod set up in the centre of the area surveyed with a device on it that can record the distance to and height of a prism on a pole that the other person carries to various points. Obviously you need several readings from all over the site, so this can take anything from hours to days depending on the size of the site.

The second 6 weeks were spent at one of the sites that had been identified during a previous year of surveying as being interesting enough to survey further. This is effectively more of the same stuff that they were doing on the overview survey – but done much more thoroughly, and including some different techniques. Bradshaw was again involved mostly in the topographical work, I imagine partly because she was one of the least experienced people in the team and that’s an area that requires less of an in depth theoretical background. The team was bigger for this part of the trip – there were ceramicists with them, there was a chap who analysed soil samples (including by tasting the soil?!) which were dug up from various points around the site. They were supposed to have a geophysicist come to survey the site, but unfortunately he had double booked himself so didn’t make it. The outcome of this survey was that they had a detailed map of both the landscape and the remains of the structures on the site, and some dates for when the site was occupied – from Ptolemaic times through to the late Roman period. This is interesting in its own right – particularly in terms of how the sites were settled in relation to the landscape, what environmental features they required for a viable town, and in terms of the overall history of that area of Egypt. It’s also useful as the preliminary to an actual excavation if it’s later decided to be interesting enough for funding to be obtained.

One of the things that was particularly interesting about this talk was to hear about how the work is actually done – Bradshaw being at an early stage of her career wasn’t giving us an overview of the high level aims and findings of a project, but instead a personal account of the actual work. You could tell from her talk that even though she found some of it boring (because, frankly, anyone and everyone would find it boring to walk around all day with a pole stopping every metre or so for days on end) she was absolutely fascinated with her subject and excited by the prospect of doing the work & finding out more about the ancient sites she worked on. She also fleshed out her descriptions of the work with anecdotes and pictures of the non-work portions of the trip – the accommodation (first a tiny tiny hotel room for the two of them, later a slightly bigger flat for the whole team), the occasional day trip to Alexandria, the interactions with locals (who always want to come and see what these weird people are doing).