2009 Field Season Archive

Buried again

Posted on Apr 14, 2009

As I packed my bags to leave Egypt today, many of my AERA teammates were still buried in work. It’s archaeology but it’s not in the dirt, which brings up a question I’m sometimes asked.

What does the team do with the excavation site once the season is over? They bury it (backfill) with clean sand. To leave the site open to the elements and foot traffic would be irresponsible, as we’d likely come back to much less archaeology than we left the previous season. The Giza dig site is now completely backfilled.

But the heavy lifting goes on. Digging is only one part of the process in archaeology. Excavation is pointless without written reports of the work. AERA’s archaeologists and specialists use reports written by previous excavators to understand features that are sometimes no longer in existence. Future generations of diggers will need to know what AERA has done at Giza. For the rest of April, some of the team members continue their work here in Cairo writing reports.

Word processors, databases, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are as important to modern archaeology as are trowels, brushes, and total stations. It’s a tremendous amount of work for already-tired people working in the non-air-conditioned dig house during Cairo’s soaring April heat.READ MORE »

The colors of antiquity

Posted on Apr 5, 2009

What can color tell us about an ancient culture? Possibly a lot, according to Dr. Laurel Flentye. She’s doing a comparative study of the pigments found by AERA archaeologists at the Lost City of the Pyramids and the nearby tombs of the Fourth Dynasty (the Eastern Cemetery and the G1S Cemetery).


There is little published on ancient Egyptian pigments, particularly those of the Fourth Dynasty. One of Laurel’s goals is documentation. Some of the tombs that still show color may one day be denuded due to time and pollution. It’s important that the pigments are recorded in context so we can try to understand the practical and religious considerations that played a part in the choice of color.

Why did the ancient Egyptians use certain colors? Are colors, materials, and schemes used in the Giza tombs different than those used on objects and surfaces at the pyramid settlement? Who were the artisans who made and used these colors? These are some of the questions Laurel is asking.

The Egyptians used a fairly restricted palette for decoration: red, yellow, blue, green, black, and brown. They made most colors using minerals, such as red ochre or hematite for red, and yellow ochre for yellow.READ MORE »


Keeping his hand in

Posted on Apr 4, 2009

Despite his heavy responsibilities as Director of AERA, Mark Lehner is at heart a field archaeologist. One foggy morning at Giza recently, I found him alone, mapping features in the area between the Menkaure Valley Temple and Khentkawes Town. 

Mark and his good friend, Zahi Hawass, have an ongoing joke about which one of them first started wearing their signature hats in the field. It’s a question happily without resolution, as they both wear it well. But it’s only one of many hats that Mark wears.

Mark leads a very large, international, multidisciplinary team during long field seasons. He has to spend the rest of the year raising the funds that support the excavations, the field school, and the processing and analysis of vast amounts of data from the digs. He is the principal writer and final editor of all AERA publications, and he also gives lectures.

Yet he makes time to do what brought him to archaeology in the first place.

Mark spends part of every day during the field season in the field, walking from area to area within AERA’s concession, taking pictures and talking with team archaeologists. He asks about features they’re excavating, suggests alternative interpretations, or offers a tie-in from some obscure but relevant report written by a long-dead excavator that he read a decade ago.READ MORE »

Graduation Day

Posted on Apr 2, 2009

“I feel like new born,” said field school graduate ‎Amr Zakaria Mohammed when asked how he felt at the end of the AERA/ARCE Giza Field School. Graduation day was the culmination of eight weeks of very, very long days and hard work.

The graduates, all Egyptian antiquities inspectors, have been out in the cold and heat of Giza, on their hands and knees in the dirt, patiently scraping, drawing, surveying, and recording. They’ve spent afternoons and evenings six days a week in lectures, late-night study, and taking exams.

Sunday they head back to work all across Egypt. Thursday, the SCA and Dr. Zahi Hawass sent them home with congratulations and encouragement for the future.

Mark Lehner began the ceremonies with an acknowledgment of the hard work of the students, their instructors, and especially Joint Field Directors Mohsen Kamel and Ana Tavares. Without them there would be no field school.

He also gratefully acknowledged the partnership of the American Research Center in Egypt and introduced SCA Project Director, Dr. Janice Kamrin. Janice told us ARCE Director Gerry Scott regretted he could not join the students at graduation, since he believes that training is an essential part of ARCE’s mission in Egypt.

Janice then introduced Secretary General Dr.READ MORE »

More to come…

Posted on Mar 30, 2009

I’m preparing more posts (objects, pigments) but it’s been a very busy couple of days. There is a dinner for the Field School at the hotel tonight and we’re going to Saqqara tomorrow. So, insha’allah, I’ll get the new posts written, edited, and posted in the next day or so. Stay tuned…

Brian Hunt

I’m preparing more posts (objects, pigments) but it’s been a very busy couple of days. There is a dinner for the Field School at the hotel tonight and we’re going to Saqqara tomorrow. So, insha’allah, I’ll get the new posts written, edited, and posted in the next day or so. Stay tuned…

Use the calendar on the right to view posts from February, March, and April, 2009.

Brian Hunt


Archaeology is not pretty

Posted on Mar 28, 2009

“Ceramics can tell you everything! Well, not everything but a lot.” So says AERA’s Polish ceramics team, led by Dr. Anna Wodzinska.

People often ask when you work in archaeology, “What are you discovering?” They have the romantic notions about finding tombs and treasure. 

“Archaeology is not pretty,” Anna told me. The treasure being sought today is not pretty things, but information about our past.

She told me a story from several years ago about sitting surrounded by hundreds of pottery sherds at Saqqara. A woman walked up and asked what she did on the project. 

“I study ceramics.”

“Oh, where are they?” 

We have little awareness of the things we use every day but they tell a story about us. A pen, a spoon, a screwdriver, or a Tupperware bowl all say something about how we negotiate the mundane tasks of living. Looking at ancient every day objects brings us closer to the people who used them. 

For example, Aleksandra Ksiezak and Edyta Klimeszewska related how ancient ceramics speak volumes about cultures that did not toss things away as easily as we do. 

“In the Sudan,” Edyta told me, “we find these wonderful pots that have been repaired with string.”READ MORE »

Where data goes to live

Posted on Mar 27, 2009

“Do artifacts ever leave Giza?” Good question. The answer is NO! Nothing ever leaves Giza. AERA collects and analyzes everything they excavate and everything goes into SCA-sanctioned storage.

The Giza storeroom and lab are overseen by Dr. Mary Anne Murray. I have a special affection for Mary Anne. With her warm and witty personality, she was the first one to really make me feel like part of the AERA team.

After stumbling through a couple of weeks of supervised digging and a set of menial tasks designed to see if I would quit in 2004, she said one day, “You’re doing ok. We’ll have to see if the boss [Mark Lehner] will have you back.”

Five years later, I spent a recent morning talking to her about her work as AERA’s Director of Archaeological Science.  Her international and interdisciplinary team of specialists from 12 countries analyze the artifactual and environmental evidence from the excavations.

Mary Anne herself is a highly experienced archaeobotanist (studying ancient plants) and a field archaeologist who has worked on archaeological digs every year since the age of 16. With her knowledge of the field, she also hires most of the diggers and specialists. 

Having worked with Mark Lehner since 1997, Mary Anne was initially unenthused about taking on the task in 2006 of organizing the growing stores of cultural material from the dig.READ MORE »

To sleep, perchance to dream

Posted on Mar 26, 2009

The field school’s wireless server at the hotel only reaches far enough to put my room just outside the bubble. So I park myself outside the room with the server (not convenient for Skype). The other night I noticed I wasn’t the only one in the hall.

Field school students, Nagwan Elhadedi and Noha Bolbol, were sitting there for hours studying. As I walked by for the third time, I stopped to chat with them and took their picture.

This is their third field school. Nagwan said she’d been in the Basic FS, the Salvage Archaeological Field School that AERA and ARCE ran last year in Luxor, and now the Advanced FS.

When I got back to my room, I wondered why they were sitting uncomfortably in the hall instead of in their room. I went back to ask.

At first they mentioned the fact that male colleagues were studying with them earlier and they wouldn’t invite them into their room.

Finally, Nagwan revealed the most salient reason, “Because, if we see the bed, we sleep.” 

Already past 10:00 p.m., I left them to go see my bed.

Brian HuntREAD MORE »

A big chance to learn

Posted on Mar 25, 2009

Afaf Wahba has worked for the Supreme Council of Antiquities for nine years. She began as a curator at the Coptic Museum in old Cairo and for the past two years, she’s been an inspector at the Central Department of Giza. This job does not usually entail field work, but that did not stop Afaf from dreaming about it.

Afaf heard about the AERA/ARCE Field School in 2006. A colleague encouraged her to apply.

“I never imagine they will take me. I said, ‘No, no.’ and didn’t apply.”

One week before the application deadline, a friend sent her the application and insisted she apply. Despite the late date, she got an interview and was accepted into the Advanced Field School. She was determined to excel.

“Zeinab [Saiad Hashesh] and me, we drive our instructor crazy, study all the time. Sleep only one, two hours every night. She said, ‘Please, please sleep.’ But we want to do very well.”

Her instructors sensed her ability and during the course of the field school, she was encouraged to do things she thought she couldn’t do. “I would say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.” And they would say, ‘Yes, you can do it.’”READ MORE »

Staying on…

Posted on Mar 24, 2009

Just a quick note to say that although I should have left Egypt this morning at 2:00 a.m., I’ve decided to stay and finish out the season with the blog. Please stay tuned for more postings.… READ MORE »