2017 campaign to Dayr al-Barsha: student diary Week 1

On 9 March 2017 the new archaeological campaign to Dayr al-Barsha started. Among our team of specialists, we also have 3 students and 2 recently graduated students. In a weekly diary, we want to make you experience life on the excavation through their eyes. We start with the first week, written by Maarten Praet.

Week 1

Already more than a week has passed since we first arrived at the site of Dayr al-Barsha, located in the middle of Egypt. We, a small group of five people, were sent ahead in order to prepare the dig house for the 2017 archaeological mission of the Dayr al-Barsha team, and to wait for the rest of its members, who would only arrive three days later, on Sunday. In total, we will be conducting two months of archaeological fieldwork in the vast pharaonic necropolis of Dayr al-Barsha. One of the first things we did, while waiting for the rest of the team, was to visit some of the tombs in the necropolis. We were taken on an introduction tour by Marleen on the south hill, and by Harco on the north hill. I have to admit that, after having been to so many lectures about this, it was very impressive to finally see the splendidly preserved decoration in the tomb of governor Djehutihotep and the burial chamber of Henu, discovered by Marleen. By the way, this Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the discovery of Henu’s tomb, which we celebrated by visiting the recently reopened Mallawi Museum. Here, the wooden tomb models and ka statue of the deceased are currently on display.

On Monday, we started our first day of work, and were divided into several teams. One group is stationed in the area behind the dig house, while two others are working in the tombs of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2050 – 1800 BC) governors on the north hill of the site. A fourth group is driving through the area of Dayr al-Barsha in order to investigate the geography of the area, and to get an idea about the evolution of the ancient Egyptian landscape. In the dig house itself, several specialists are studying the finds that were found earlier.

Meanwhile, the students who joined the mission (Hanne, Ann-Sophie and myself), were assigned to help the two physical anthropologists, Lana and Sammantha. During the first week of the campaign they worked on the human remains that were found during some of the past seasons, and we cleaned them in order to prepare them for final examination. Most of these skeletons could be dated to the early Old Kingdom (2700 – 2600 BC), and were found by Bart in the so-called rock circle tombs. In order to understand this type of tombs a bit better, Bart showed us around the area on the lower slopes of the northern hill. It was interesting to see that these people were buried in simple coffins made of pottery, and that the burial place itself was covered up by a circle of big boulders.

But back to the bones! Having a huge interest in human bones myself, this was of course the perfect opportunity to expand my knowledge about this kind of material, while being supervised by experts. For most people, looking at human bones sounds a bit morbid at first, but it is actually a very important source of information, especially if you are interested in the daily life of ancient populations. For example, one can determine the age and sex of the individuals by looking at the length of long bones, the teeth, certain features of the pelvis, etc. Furthermore, Lana and Sammantha explained to us how we can discern certain pathologies on skeletal material, which provide interesting insights into the possible causes of death of ancient populations.

After having helped the anthropologists, we were taken into the field to start working in the already ongoing excavation work. The first day we were sent to the area close to the dig house, to practice taking measurements with the level and the total station. After that, I was able to start the archaeological drawing of the tomb currently being cleared by Kylie. I can tell you that drawing a skeleton is not as easy as it may seem, and I will need to practice a lot more! At the end of the week I moved to the north hill, to work in the cemetery of the Middle Kingdom governors with Georgia, Marleen and Toon. Seeing someone go down into a 10 meter deep burial shaft is quite a sight, I have to say!

Finally, after a hard week of work, we got the day off on Sunday. We visited the Middle Kingdom governors’ tombs in Beni Hassan with some of the team members. Four of the tomb chapels were open to the public, and we were amazed by the beautifully preserved mural decoration. For the experts: these tombs are the ones that have the well-known wrestling scenes on the back wall of the chapels. In conclusion, this week was already so interesting that I cannot wait for what the rest of the 2017 excavation season has in store for us. We will keep you posted!