Monday, April 8, 2013

high desert hike above abydos

Abydos, February 11, 2013 - looking from the edge of the escarpment across the low desert. To the east (photo right), but out of view, the Nile River. 
We spent a full day in the high desert, above the site of Abydos, bending to the demands of research, but mostly to the unyielding wind. The wind scours and scrubs that surface and it is otherworldly. I could characterize it as entirely inhospitable except that I love it.
Looking east toward the Nile - the American researchers' house and German research team's quarters are white structures out in the sands and apart from the villages.

You could survive here if you brought along food and water, made shelter to keep from the tormenting sands, and had a purpose (in order to protect your sanity). People did spend time on this exposed escarpment, and a fair amount, as these stone walls and pottery vessels suggest.
Low stone walls - an archaeological site that needs further research.

Large ceramic handle noted as I walked between the low walls.
Perhaps the perspective, the high vantage to look out from, drew people and made them stay - at least for awhile. But the litter of stone artifacts suggests human passage across this place for ages, before ceramic technology, and before the present dryness. Chert nodules likely drew some as this material is the raw stuff of tools.
a wild chert nodule
Tools, and the flakes produced in their making, are here in number - isolated fragments and areas of concentration. 
a scraper, scoured by windblown sand, and a thin blade
Beth Hart, University of Virgina, is researching raw material sources for her dissertation on the development of specialized production. She studies chert samples to find out where materials in archaeological contexts come from. This sourcing will let her know what raw materials look like before modification (tool production and heat treatment).  
Beth Hart recording chert blades and cores
Hiking with Beth, we spent several hours going slowly over surfaces; she points out desert pavement and tells me about the creative (rather than reductive) formation processes. Stooped in our inspection, bent in the wind, we go with a kind of single-minded fervor that reminds me of some others that we know came to this place - Coptic Christian monks. Seeking asceticism they carved out simple cells in canyon walls - able to indulge only in quietude.   
 Monks' cells in cliff face
Even today the high desert offers a sense of removal from the mundane world. If I stayed for long I could gather experiences that might alter my sense of reality. Already the challenges of a single day, the temperature extremes, and the strange and beautiful vastness leave me exalted.
Feeling exalted and resting. Photo credit - Beth Hart. All other photographs are my own.

Friday, February 1, 2013

walking in abydos

The Shunet el-Zebib
I walk the desert site of ancient Abydos, Egypt - early in the morning till afternoon, over rises and into troughs. Abydos sits west of the Nile and near the escarpment that divides the high and low desert. It's in the low desert and neither the high or the low desert are the kind dotted by cacti, only sand and sand-polished stone. 
climbing the escarpment above Abydos, Dec. 2008
looking south, the escarpment to the right Jan. 2013
Organic material is scant and limited to places of human activity. Villages and towns bordering Abydos add the energy of daily living. They add the sound of rural life - truck and tractor, pumps and animals, and the call to prayer many times daily. And across some of Abydos they add remnants - organic waste and plastic, animal carcasses, and Nile mud transported to make agricultural fields on top of desert. 

Exposed to wind and sun everything fades and is rebuilt or discarded. This has happened for centuries, as the living towns spill over the ancient town site. Jan. 2013
I step over concentrations of limestone, mud brick, potsherds, and bone fragments - the materials of ritual and burial, homage to another world. In Abydos the chief concern seems to have been life after this one. Many of the mounds, rather than dunes, are heaped debris from episodes of excavation and looting. The structures beneath are tombs, foundations of funerary buildings, temples, and chapels – places where the dead were buried and the living came to remember. These features are the focus of archaeological inquiry and sometimes of illegal looting.

To check the urban growth a wall was begun in 2005 and helps delineate a boundary to protect the archaeological site of Abydos. Jan. 2013 
I am glad to walk, and to work here, again - this season with the PYIFA Abydos Excavation project - and with folks from the west and Egypt, people I've had the opportunity to work with in previous seasons.  
Photo courtesy of Mark Gonzales, Jan. 2013