The New Season of Egyptian Archaeology

A scholar of the Center for remote sensing of the University of Boston, Farouk el-Baz, indicates in the natural sculptures existing in the western Egyptian desert the models of the funeral monuments of the Giza plateau: these are small limestone hills, modeled, in pyramidal or with the appearance of crouching lions, first from the erosion of the waters (in the wet phase, between 11,000 and 5000 years ago) and then from the action of the wind. The interest with which the news is received is proof of the attention paid to archaeological research in Egypt, which in recent years has led to numerous important discoveries.

The resumption of discoveries

When the first International Congress of Egyptologists was held in Cairo in 1976 (a surprisingly late bloom of a now rich congress season), the general feeling that most of the scholars present felt was that the great period of archaeological discoveries in Egypt was now, and long ago, finished: the essential of what was to be unearthed had been found and the soil of the country, which had been so rich in the past – the peak was reached, between the 1920s and the 1930s Century, with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen and the royal necropolis of Tanis – it was, so to speak, sterile.

Wanting to widen the limits of a season singularly rich in archaeological innovations, to these findings, known to all, one could add those, actually due to unofficial excavations, not to mention clandestine, and in any case without documentation, which in the early 1930s they had brought to light the Manichean texts in Coptic (3000 pages of papyrus codices) in Medinet Madi in Fayyum, and the equally sensational discovery of an entire Gnostic library (also in Coptic) in Nag Hammadi in 1945. Also Italian archeology had been present in this successful research: still in Medinet Madi in the Fayyum, a mission of the State University of Milan, directed by Achille Vogliano, had found, in an excellent state of conservation, a temple of the XII dynasty (reigns of Amenemhat III and IV),one of the only two still standing that until today have come down to us from this historical period of crucial importance in the history of Ancient Egypt.

After the Second World War the excavations had gradually expanded to the whole country, with the return of the missions that had already worked there in the past and of others from countries where the study of Ancient Egypt was a fact. recent. But the results were not such as to suggest a season comparable to the one that had just ended. Clarifications and clarifications could certainly have been expected, but perhaps it would have been not much more than detailed completions. It is no coincidence that the most widespread themes at the Cairo Congress were those concerning philology, with the purpose connected to it to exploit the advancement of knowledge of the language in the examination of previously known texts.

Fortunately, however, the following years proved that this was not the case at all. Indeed, we have reached what may now appear to be the opposite extreme: the almost daily announcement in the press and in the media of ever new discoveries, regularly qualified as ‘sensational’. One thing is certain: Egyptology is experiencing a happy season and the thickening of important findings is a real fact, even if, as is natural, some distinction must be made in the mass of novelties.

According to Rrrjewelry, an example can be indicated precisely in the announcement of the discovery in the desert of prototypes, if they can be qualified as such, of pyramids and sphinxes, modeled by the wind, spontaneously, in the malleable limestone of the Egyptian deserts. Of course, this is an experience that many, perhaps all, have had in Egypt, watching the landscape in the desert flow under their eyes: the wind erosion shapes large and small pyramids and other shapes that then everyone reads in their own way, perhaps even sphinxes. This is a real fact, but it is difficult to think that between these natural phenomena and the construction of the pyramids or sphinxes there was a relationship of cause and effect. The one (the pyramids) and the other (the sphinxes) are born at internal of precise conceptions of a religious and ritual nature and are the result of a thought that is projected into architecture (or sculpture) to transmit to others an ideology that thus becomes easily grasped. What cannot be denied is that the Egyptian architects were well aware of the landscape data that surrounded them, so that it is by no means excluded that they took them into account in the elaboration of their projects: it would not be the only case.

But, apart from this attitude that we could perhaps define ‘sentimental’, many of the new and relevant discoveries of Egyptian archeology lie within a substantial change in the approach of scholars towards field work in Egypt. This change has only begun to manifest itself in recent years, but it is evident that abundant fruits are already reaping from it.

The Libyan desert

It remains to talk about the external oases of the Libyan desert in which archaeological research is practically unprecedented. The state of the works is very different case by case: very relevant in the south (oasis of El-Kharga and El-Dakhla), at the stage of projects, in some cases with an implementation principle, in the center (oasis of Farafra and Bahryya) and to the north (Siwa oasis).

As for El-Kharga, the excavations carried out for some years now by the Institut français of oriental archeology have brought to light evidence of some grandiose aspects of the presence of Egypt in the oases since the earliest period of its history, with abundant documents writings and burials of eminent officials. With this the problem of the relationship between the oases and the ‘metropolitan’ territory is solved, with the recognition that those, however far back we can go, were fully part of Egypt and were not, so to speak, an appendix to it. external or colonial.

In El-Dakhla, on the other hand, in a practically intact archaeological terrain, papyri have been found which appear to be exceptional from a quantitative point of view, even if for now it is premature to comment on the contents. The study of the prevalent part of them will make it possible to make important contributions to the reconstruction of the life of the oasis in the late period. But there are certainly also literary texts: the recent finds of works by Isocrates and Manichaean texts in Coptic in the same dialect as those of Medinet Madi give good hope for the future, also in consideration of the linguistic variety – Demotic, Greek, Coptic, Syriac – so far identified in the papyri.

Among other oases, Bahriyya has become the ‘star’ of the new archeology, thanks to the discovery of an immense cemetery of mummies that certainly spans many generations. Thanks to the prompt disclosure of the Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass, this discovery will make it possible to greatly advance knowledge on the funerary uses of a peripheral environment such as the one in which it is located.

Among the many successes, however, we must also remember a failure, which serves as a warning on the caution with which the results of the work in the field must be evaluated. There has been a lot of talk in the media and also in scientific conferences about the possible discovery of the tomb of Alexander the Great in Siwa, a location that would have been contrary to what all the ancient sources affirm. This would not have been an impossible problem to overcome, given that one of the tasks of archeology is to confirm or disprove other kinds of evidence. In this case, however, the identification was based only on an inadequate assessment of the findings. Alexander’s tomb has not yet been identified, but it must certainly be sought in Alexandria.

The New Season of Egyptian Archaeology