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“Rescuing History: ARCE Recording Sheikh Abd el-Gurneh” Andrew Bednarski (EEG Meeting Talk)

At the beginning of September Andrew Bednarski came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about an American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) project to document the now-demolished village of Qurna. He was involved in the project from 2011-2014, so this is the time period he told us about but the project is still ongoing. This is a bit of a departure from our usual sort of talk – whilst still Egyptian archaeology, most of the subject was considerably more modern.

The “village” of Sheikh Abd el-Gurneh (or Qurna) is located in the Valley of the Nobles. This area is best known as the place across the mountains from the Valley of the Kings where the New Kingdom aristocracy built their tombs. There are also older tombs (Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom) in the area, and more recent tombs too. And various waves of habitation including Coptic monasteries. The most recent phase of occupation started in around the 16th Century when people who lived near the area began using the tombs as places of refuge from a variety of circumstances ranging from political unrest to the heat of summer. By the 18th Century there was some sense of particular tombs belonging to particular families. In the 19th Century and afterwards these families began to build houses in the area as well as making use of the tombs. Calling Qurna “a village” is a bit of misnomer, it is more a series of loosely connected hamlets each of which is associated with a particular family. Because the Egyptian government in the 1980s was concerned that modern building methods would damage the local antiquities the Qurnawi (the villagers) were forbidden to use concrete. So unlike in the rest of Egypt traditional methods & materials (mostly mudbricks) were still used up to the early 21st Century.

The Qurnawi have an uneasy relationship with the archaeologists, government and the archaeology of the region. Much of the labour force for archaeological projects is drawn from the local population, and so the Qurnawi have been involved in and useful to many high profile digs. However they’ve also exploited the antiquities for their own benefit in the past – one of the most famous tomb robbing stories is about a Qurnawi family, the Abd el Rasuls. They discovered a cache of Royal Mummies in TT320 in the 1880s. These mummies were reburied in that tomb in around 900BC as the tombs they’d come from were no longer secure (and the administration of the time also used the opportunity to recycle some of their tomb goods). When the Abd el Rasul family found them they didn’t let anyone else know and removed items from the mummies bit by bit to sell on the antiquities black market. They were eventually stopped by the Antiquities Service. After tracking the items back to the Abd el Rasul family, “persuasion” was applied by the police to find out the location of the tomb so it was official excavated. Bednarski recommended the film “The Night of Counting the Years” (or “Al Mummia”) which is a dramatisation of this story.

As a result of this concern about the Qurnawi damaging or otherwise misusing the antiquities they live in and around there have been a succession of efforts made by the Egyptian government to encourage them to move elsewhere. for instance in the 1940s a model village was built nearby as New Qurna and it was hoped the Qurnawi would like it better than their homes and so move in – but that didn’t really happen. In the early 21st Century a concerted effort was made to relocate the villagers – they were moved several miles to the north to (another) New Qurna purpose built village. This time their houses were bulldozed after they left to prevent them returning, despite the fact that this meant driving heavy machinery over a site with many underground tombs. In 2011 the money and the political will to finish the job vanished, so the site was left covered in rubble preventing archaeologists from working as well as being unsightly if any tourists did visit.

The ACRE project started at this point. They had several aims – to clear the site and study the village, to open and re-open monuments to tourists, to employ locals and to train inspectors and conservators. For the work on Qurna they employed about 600 local workmen for 3 years, and tried to pick one person from each household of Qurnawi to spread the money evenly. They moved the rubble left by the bulldozers by hand as any more machinery on the site would only further damage the antiquities. The project was fairly low budget, which meant there was some controversy about them doing the work at all. Bednarski was sure they’d made the right decision – yes, a 20 year high budget project would’ve been able to do more, but the money wasn’t there and time was potentially limited (if the political will to demolish the site returned).

They aimed to record the stratigraphy of the site through to the most modern time as it’s not a separate thing from the antiquities – it’s a part of the continual use of this land for the last several millennia. The work was primarily done by Egyptian archaeologists, who were trained in Western archaeological methods, and used to train more archaeologists. They tried to only remove loose debris, and also took care not to expose walls too much as the government was concerned people might move back in if that was done. Because the people who had lived in these houses were involved in the excavation it was possible to get a much more completely picture from the evidence than is usually possible. When there were features that weren’t clear they could ask questions. Despite these houses being built in, on and around tombs the archaeologists and workers were forbidden to enter any tombs as the government was convinced that they were “really looking for the next KV62”, as they couldn’t see why anyone would be interested in the last 200 years of the site’s history. Bednarski said he wouldn’t really have wanted to enter the tombs they did clear modern debris off – several had been used as latrines!

Overall the project found and recorded over 3000 features, and recorded more than 1000 objects. Some of these objects were small pieces of ancient material sometmes damaged during the bulldozing of the site. These included limestone fragments and mudbricks. There were also bits of tourist souvenirs from the last couple of hundred years – ranging from local crafts to pieces of imitation antiquities. And other more unusual objects – like a modern magic/curse object intended to render a man impotent which had to be ritually disposed of before the workers would continue excavating. As well as these sorts of things they found a lot of pottery, and now have the largest corpus of modern Egyptian pottery. They’ve constructed a typology, and what they found has helped date the earlier parts of the settlement. This corpus has also opened up more questions – for instance there’s no fineware (the equivalent of a fancy dinner service for guests), why not? Or was that all taken away when they moved? But you’d still expect some broken and discarded over 200 or so years. There’s also nothing between the end of the Christian period and the beginning of the modern period – no Islamic wares. But there is textual evidence of people living in the area during this period, so it seems odd not to find pottery (or the textual evidence is wrong).

Despite being forbidden to enter tombs during the excavations at Qurna, the ARCE (and Bednarski) did have permission for some excavations of antiquities. He finished his talk by telling us a bit about the excavations at TT110, which is the tomb of Djehuty, Royal Cupbearer to both Hatshepsut and Tutmosis III. Even though this tomb has been damaged in the past (and was dismissed by early 20th Century archaeologists for this reason) it is still of historical interest – it has representations of both Pharaohs that Djehuty served, even though Hatshepsut fell out of favour late in Tutmosis III’s reign. The project also provided a training opportunity for Egyptian archaeologists, and a third aim was to provide a new tourist site. A lot of the tomb was filled with debris, and they discovered that this included about 60 bodies. There was evidence that the tomb had been reused as a tomb in antiquity particularly during the Greek & Roman periods, but a lot of the fragments came from its use in more modern times as a “mummy processing area” by tomb robbers. They took mummies from other tombs and burnt them to release the gold & other precious objects. The fires are part of why the tomb was so damaged, and the leftover parts of the mummies were flung into another room of the tomb to dispose of them. The project was able to clear the pillared hall of the tomb from debris and clean up the reliefs in the transverse hall to allow them to be read & recorded. There’s evidence of the removal of Amun’s name during the Amarna period, which adds to the historical interest of the tomb.

The forecourt of TT110 showed evidence of changing use throughout the millennia since the tomb was first constructed. The top layer was village rubbish as expected. Below that there were more pieces of antiquities, indicating it had been used a dump by tomb robbers just as the inside of the tomb had been. Below that was evidence that the forecourt had been lived in during Late Antiquity. The original forecourt had included a mudbrick wall to shore up the rock face that the tomb was cut into – clearly some worry that it might collapse. During the very last week of work on the site that season, whilst they were clearing the forecourt for tourist access they discovered two New Kingdom era coffins containing Late Period mummies, buried next to a pottery assemblage from the Late Period or Greek era. And since Bednarski has left the project they’ve also discovered two more tombs that share this forecourt – a tomb of an 18th Dynasty doorkeeper called Amenhotep (or Rabiu) and the tomb of his son Samut.

Bednarski’s talk was more focussed on the archaeology than the history (as it was mostly modern-ish structures he was excavating). One of the things that made it particularly interesting to me was the idea that he kept coming back to about how they were in a unique position of being able to excavate and record at a point where they could still ask people who’d lived there questions. The data from that project could be invaluable in future when interpreting other similar sites excavated when they’re are less contemporary.