Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Weekly Websites - The Faiyum part 1

The Faiyum is located around 80km to the southwest of Cairo, covering 12000km.sq. The depression is often described as an oasis, but it is not fed by artesian waters. It has a large lake which is supplied by the Bar Yusef, a run-off of the Nile which has fed the Faiyum depression for thousands of years. As the Nile and its floods have fluctuated, so have the lake levels, and depending on the technology available at the time, this has impacted how the Faiyum was occupied and exploited economically.

The area has been used from prehisotric times onwards. In was used for quarrying of gypsum and basalt in the Old Kingdom when the world's oldest road was created. In the Middle Kingdom pyramids and temples were built here when the capital of Egypt was moved to the El Lisht vicinity. The first efforts to manage the water supply were made during the Middle Kingdom, and more sophisticated water management systems were introduced from the Ptolemaic period onwards. The Faiyum has an important Coptic history as well.

I have had to split this post into two because of the amount of information available. For those of you who saw an earlier verison of this post I've sorted out the text colouring problem - edit the main text in Firefox and then when you want to standardize the colours go to Explorer. Sigh.

Before humans - Wadi Al Hitan

The Wadi Al Hitan (Valley of Whales) preserves Eocene fossils of whales and other shoreline marine species and plants which lived in and on the edges of the waters of the Tethys Sea which extended down into the Faiyum area at that time. It's lovely. If you get the chance to visit do go.

United Nations Environment Programme

Wadi Al-Hitan in Egypt’s Western Desert is the only place in the world where the skeletons of families of archaic whales can be seen in their original geological and geographic setting of the shallow nutrient-rich bay of a sea of some 40 million years ago. The fossils and sediments of different periods and levels reveal many millions of years of life and are valuable indications of the palaeoecologic conditions, of Eocene vertebrate and invertebrate life and the evolution of these ancestors of modern whales. Remarkably, two species still had small hind limbs, feet and toes. The quality, abundance, concentration and state of preservation of these fossils is unequalled.

UNESCO Evaluation 2004 (English and French)
This is a fascinating report in PDF format - if you are interested in the subject do have a look.

Over 40 million years ago the so-called Tethys Sea reached far south of the existing Mediterranean. This sea gradually retreated north depositing thick sediments of sandstone, limestone and shale, visible in three named rock formations which are visible in Wadi Al-Hitan. The oldest rocks are the Eocene Gehannam Formation, about 40-41 million years old, consisting of white marly limestone and gypseous clay and yielding many skeletons of whales, sirenians (sea-cows), shark teeth, turtles, and crocodilians. A middle layer, the Birket Qarun formation, of sandstone, clays and hard limestone, also yields whale skeletons. The youngest formation is the Qasr El-Sagha formation of late Eocene age, about 39 million years old. It is rich in marine invertebrate fauna, indicating a shallow marine environment. These formations were uplifted from the southwest, creating drainage systems, now buried beneath the sand, which emptied into the sea through mangrove-fringed estuaries and coastal lagoons when the coast was near what is now the Faiyum oasis, c. 37 million years ago. . . .

Three different species of Eocene whales have been identified with certainty at Wadi Al-Hitan. All are basilosaurids, the latest surviving group of archaeocete whales, and the group which are thought to have given rise to modern cetaceans.

Prehistoric Archaeology of the Faiyum

The Prehistory of the Faiyum Depression, southern Cairo and the Western Delta

It seems more than a little self-promoting to mention one of my own websites, but as far as I know it is the most comprehensive site dealing with the subject of the Faiyum in the prehistoric period. The aim of the website was to aggregate all the fragmented information available in academic journals and books and put it all in one convenient place. The geology page has suffered from age and the maps don't load (and need to be re-done anyway) but otherwise it is a fairly comprehensive record of the area in the prehistoric periods.

Egypt's earliest farming village found near Karanis, February 2008

Archaeologists have uncovered the earliest known agricultural settlement from ancient Egypt, a new study says. (See photos of the site and artifacts.)

The 7,000-year-old farming-village site includes evidence of domesticated animals and crops—providing a major breakthrough in understanding the enigmatic people of the Neolithic, or late Stone Age, period and their lives long before the appearance of the Egyptian pharaohs.

The discoveries were made as a team of Dutch and U.S. archaeologists dug deeper into a previously excavated mound of sand concealing the ancient village in the Faiyum depression, a fertile oasis region about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Cairo.

Just centimeters beneath the modern plowed surface, in an area that had been used until recently to grow grapes, the researchers discovered evidence of structures, such as clay floors, and hearths containing homegrown wheat grain and barley.

Also unearthed were the remains of sheep, goats, and pigs—which, along with the grains, were imported from the Middle East.

Old Kingdom

Gypsum and Basalt Quarries (Elizabeth Bloxham)

Fine-grained white gypsum or alabaster occurs as a dense network of 25-30 cm-thick sub-vertical cross-cutting veins and was exploited for small vessels, plaster and mortar between the 1 st and 4 th Dynasties (c. 2900 – 2465 BC). The quarries have only been described by Caton-Thompson and Gardner (1934), during their investigations of the Northern Faiyum Desert 70 years ago. The archaeological record comprises three workshop mounds, located approximately 200 m north of the quarries, containing gypsum debris, pottery in the form of beer jars, object ‘blanks' or partially worked vessels and hand-held stone axes. The stone tools are of particular interest as most are of stone not local to the area, in particular, dolerite and Chephren Gneiss sourced 1,000 km south in the Aswan region. Located on the plateau above the workshops is an area of 250 stone circles, thought to be the quarrymen's settlement, yet there is more evidence to suggest that places of habitation were in natural rock-shelters in the overhanging escarpment.

Fayoum's Ancient Quarry Under Threat

The site also bears evidence of one of the oldest infrastructures of road planning in ancient Egypt. A 2.5m-wide and 11km-long road stretching across the area is the oldest and most pristine example of a paved road in the world. It was constructed from flagstones and built to gain easy access to the quarries of Widan Al-Faras and to facilitate the exploitation of its geological resources and the transportation of the basalt blocks. A total of eight quarries are connected by side roads to this long main road, which leads southwards to a quay on the shoreline of Lake Moeris (today's Lake Qarun), the huge body of water at the heart of the Fayoum oasis.

When the stone blocks had been extracted from the quarries they were dragged by wooden sledges along the paved road. Once they reached the lake shore, the heavy blocks from the Widan Al-Faras quarries were loaded onto boats which carried them across the lake on a course set for the Bahr Youssef Canal, which ran through a gap in the hills between Hawara and Lahun.

Middle Kingdom

EgyptSites - Medinet Madi by Su Bayfield

The temple remains are in a well-preserved condition, probably due to its isolated location, but are ever threatened by the encroaching sands of the desert. The inner chambers are the oldest part of the structure which is one of the few surviving monuments of the Middle Kingdom, a rare example of architecture from this period. A small columned hall leads to three shrines which contained statues of deities and the two kings. The Dynasty XII reliefs are very worn but it is possible to make out depictions of the pharaohs Amenemhet III and his son and co-regent Amenemhet IV offering to deities in the shrines as well as rare depictons of the cobra-headed goddess Renenutet.

Medinet Madi in the Fayoum of Egypt by Joerg Reid

During the first season of excavation under the Milan team directed by A. Vogliano, the remains of a temple dedicated to Isis Hermouthis, the Greek version of Renenutet was unearthed. Though later transferred to the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, pilasters incorporated into the temple structure were inscribed with Greek hymns to this goddess. However, one line in one of the hymns also referred to an earlier Middle Kingdom temple on the site dedicated by Amenemhet III. That now famous temple was later unearthed in the second excavation campaign. Also uncovered from the sand was a second Ptolemaic temple, back to back with the Middle Kingdom one. However, this series of excavations only lasted for two additional seasons. Afterwards, it was not until 1966, under the direction of Dr. Edda Bresciani that excavations resumed.

EgyptSites El-Lahun and Hawara by Su Bayfield

The region of el-Faiyum thrived during the Middle Kingdom when the fertile area around Birket Qarun began to be developed as a pleasure-ground in which kings and high officials pursued their sports of hunting, fishing and fowling. It became so popular that the Dynasty XII kings Senwosret II and Amenemhet III chose to site pyramids here as their final resting places, at the far reaches of the existing pyramid fields to the north. Senwosret II's pyramid complex is situated at el-Lahun (sometimes called Illahun) and Amenemhet III's complex is at Hawara on the southern edge of the oasis, just off the Beni Suef to Cairo desert road.

The pyramid of Amenemhet III at Hawara by Alan Winston

The pyramid itself was built in typical 12th Dynasty fashion with a mudbrick core and a casing of fine white limestone. The entrance to the subterranean levels was located in the actual face of the pyramid on the south side, very near the southeast corner. Within the pyramid, a descending corridor with a stairway first lead north. This corridor, which descends to a lower level then the burial chamber, was sheathed in fine white limestone, continued until reaching a small chamber, and continuing straight leads to a blind dead end. However, the builders used an elaborate device first seen in the Abydos tomb of Senusret III. A second corridor is hidden within the ceiling of the small chamber. It was originally meant to be blocked by a 20 ton quartzite slab. This corridor very shortly arriving at a second chamber. From this chamber, two corridors depart, one north, and another to the east.

A virtual exploration of the lost Labyrinth

This project explores the possibility of reproducing a destroyed historic site from its remaining artefacts using VR (virtual reality) technologies. We will build an experimental model for an online reconstruction that allows public users to explore and visualise the range of possible forms of the ancient architecture. The project will focus primarily on the Hawara Labyrinth site, a unique combination of buildings and artefacts from two different eras and cultures: an Egyptian pyramid complex, and Roman period cemeteries.

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