Excavating in Egypt
Digging itself is in general the easiest part of the excavation, and the
only archaeological activity known to the public. However, there is often
a substantial selectivity involved, often only implicit in the work, revealing
a certain political dimension; selection is inevitable, given the constraints
of time and cost on any excavator, but the criteria of selection should be
made explicit. In former times it was very often the custom to destroy the
levels at a site which the excavator did not regard as scientifically 'useful'.
For example, in Egypt it was for a long time usual to destroy Roman, Coptic
and Islamic levels without recording. As a result, we now have a seriously
limited picture of these periods. The number of Roman and Coptic houses found
in Egypt must have been very high, but the number recorded is very small.
An excavator interested in earlier periods could, reasonably, choose sites
without substantial later occupation. If this is not possible, then the duty
remains to record all higher levels before their removal in the search for
evidence from lower, more ancient strata.
Areas to be excavated are now regularly separated into sections/units/squares
(often 10 x 10 metres). However, in conditions such as loose desert sand
or underwater archaeology, it is hard to keep clear borders, whereas this
method applies well to cultivated land.
There are several options for excavating a site. A trench
or cut at a certain point is an easy and rapid way of obtaining an early
general view of the development to be expected under excavation. It is an
ideal means of revealing the stratigraphy of a place (stratigraphy
the recording of superimposed layers at an archaeological site, each representing
a different period, with the layer at the bottom the oldest and the one
at the top the most recent - stratigraphy is most important for settlement
archaeology - compare Hemamieh
An excavation of a larger area is needed to reveal the architecture and
structure of a site at a certain point of its history.
The important aspect of an excavation is RECORDING: that
is, to record all finds with their exact find spot and to record all structures
found. Excavators also need archaeological experience to be able to find
certain structures. In the 19th century several Delta sites were excavated,
but no architectural structures were found. This did happened not because
there were no structures, but because the excavators did not recognise the
mud brick walls, almost identical to the mud of the ground in which they
The arid climate can make an excavation in Egypt quite different
to one in other places. Hyperarid desert sand creates perfect preservation
conditions for organic material. However, this does not mean automatically
that all organic material is well preserved. Wood can be very soft, and
any decoration on it can disappear just with a soft wind blowing over it.
A conservator is always needed on site to consolidate structures and small
finds and ensure their preservation.
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