Tuesday, March 29, 2011

abydos, or if an expedition was a goose

Abydos, Egypt - morning on site, February 2011
If not for a revolution in Egypt the NYU IFA Expedition to Abydos would have wrapped up excavation and survey this past week. We would now be on our way toward Cairo, probably by train, and then off to our homes or on other travels. I had planned for Turkey. Perhaps by next season (2012) this will be possible. There will be a future a season, but after the events of this February and March it’s hard to know what that research plan will look like. It seems that looting Egypt's archaeological sites including Abydos, was heavy immediately following the ousting of Mubarak. 

Before Tahir Square filled with peaceful protesters, we were set to survey great swaths of desert – at least, that’s how I had prepared myself, mentally to think about that time. I expected to be away from home. I’m staying in Abydos to do two jobs, I thought – I’ll spend 4 months. The time period seemed daunting. My jobs were to excavate for Brown University, then work as a surveyor for NYU's IFA expedition. The survey and mapping project is, like the excavation, a longstanding one with many contributors. I was excited to add my own small effort to helping record the vestiges of history! I would think of it that way when I felt especially homesick. I’d remember the larger picture, our efforts in context of what we were all contributing to – a greater understanding, a mission for science and humanity! The drama helped. But then, after only about two weeks into this survey – it all came to an end.  We were very depressed. The archaeologist, the Egyptians we worked with – all of us sad to give it up.

Alex Makovics - readying the scarf. 
Christina Chavez - morning, on site
I was working with two surveyors who had experience with the site. There were a few Egyptian guys that helped us regularly – we had our roles, our plans. And then, one morning, we did not. The end. Before that came I was going to tell you the story of surveying Abydos. Along with my survey partner, Christina Chavez, we created a plan to relate the story of our work in Abydos to our DACC students in New Mexico, who were, in theory, going to follow along virtually.  We made a funny movie preview to set the tone.

Then the tone shifted – considerably. Almost too radically. I no longer know what to say. After leaving Egypt by way of extraction, and being informed by our director that the site has undergone heavy looting, I wonder what is left. Of course a lot is left. But the nature of archaeology (though destructive) is part tedium, to equal parts minutia, and precision. It is patient, detailed documentation (when done right) – it’s an intensely concentrated level of energy and effort, which is why you cannot excavate or survey without pause, thus the need for expeditionary seasons. The sad news is this coming season may or may not exist. And the archaeological record of Abydos is surely changed. The nature of looting is simply destructive – fast-paced, dangerous, and possibly driven by desperation, or greed. Inherent to the act is a deep miscalculation of what exactly is being gained and what is being lost.
That fable about the goose that laid the golden egg might apply here  . . .  if you can imagine an archaeological site and the associated long-term effort of an expedition - as a goose. Here it is all plump, ancient, surly (typical goose) and stretched across a finite expanse, and stretched too are it’s finite resources (funding, etc.). Sites expand, like a goose, in three dimensions – and maybe, like an ice burg now, a lot more of what's there extends into places you cannot see – the sands underfoot.  And what animates this operation – goose or otherwise – is multifaceted. Gathering the eggheads, gaining the permits, finding the funding, then there’s the interaction between institutions in Egypt and universities abroad.  And there are the inherent benefits to the locale – jobs, yes, for Egyptians, cultural tourism, and questions of history . . . well, made less murky. It’s the intrinsic nature of all of this that is hard to communicate across cultural and economic divides. If everything is looted - the goose is plundered, plucked.  What motive is left for the archaeologist to return?

To get to those layers you must peel back – but with care! Each deed considered; each find recorded. A goose cannot be understood otherwise. There are hours and days – sometimes wearisome amounts of time - without discovery and then, a golden egg! You can't reach inside a goose and find all its eggs. The value is in the living, continuing nature of the thing, not in the innards.
That last day on site there was a terrible wind. It was strong and made it hard to hold the survey pole steady. I was trying to find the prism, attached to the top of that pole, through the total station's scope. I glared into it – and squinted out the grains of sand that encroached my singular vision. One eye sacrificed, I worked as well as I could to relieve my stalwart companion out across the desert, holding a pole and waiting from some data to enter, by laser and trigonometry, into our devices. Everyone wears scarves as a matter fashion and practicality and ours surrendered on our behalves, fraying in the wind, relinquishing the desert to looters who would come. Only that day we hoped, we imagined, that they wouldn’t. We had to think this I suppose.
I don’t know how to endear the goose, or engender a desire to protect it, or ensure that it survives – as site, expedition, and research base. When we left Abydos we could imagine that there was work enough for hundreds of seasons. And there still will be, but will it be mitigating the damage left by looters?  

It is in the goose – stubborn, itinerant, gritty – and its return, that we hope.      

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