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The Future of Hellenistic Archaeology In Egypt or: how I stopped worrying and learned to love the blog

Since this is my first post, I thought I should use this space to introduce myself and to offer some insight into both the project that brought me here and other things that I’ve been working on since I arrived in Washington.  I’m here at the Center this year to work on a project, tentatively called “Power Across Frontiers: Networks of Power in Hellenistic Upper Egypt.”  This book-length project examines the material components of frontier culture in Upper Egypt during the Hellenistic era, particularly through the lens of pottery, trade patterns, religious practices and administration.  Through these material markers, I examine the way that the Ptolemaic state and local actors negotiated power structures in Upper Egypt and, in particular, the importance of material culture in that process.  This book is an extension of work that I began as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where I developed an interest in Hellenistic and early Roman Egypt, particularly the desert region east of the Nile Valley.  In the years since, I’ve continued to work in Egypt and to publish on material from the area in between stints working on material in Armenia and Syria.  I’m also currently working two shorter pieces dealing with Achaemenid art, another passion of mine, although Egypt remains at the forefront of my research interests.

Since I arrived in Washington, I’ve been working on the book project, among other things, and thinking in particular about the role that archaeology plays in our understanding of Hellenistic Egypt.  Last week I visited New Haven to take part in a seminar at Yale: “The Archaeology of Hellenistic Egypt: Current Trends/Future Prospects” (http://www.yale.edu/classics/news_conferences.html), hosted by Joseph Manning in Classics.  While the meeting proceeded as a typical academic discussion with presentations by papyrologists and archaeologists of new material and new approaches to older material, it was clear that despite our attempts to focus on the academic questions at hand, much of what was on our minds was happening on the streets of Cairo and the Egyptian countryside.  The “future” in the title was, at least for me, the most important part of the day’s mandate.  The practice of archaeology is inevitably embedded in the politics of modern life, so the practice of any archaeology in Egypt is at the moment inextricably bound up with the rapidly evolving political and cultural situation in the modern nation-state of Egypt.  For my part, the future of a project that Joe Manning and I have devoted considerable energy to try and bring about hangs in the balance.  We had hoped to begin a program of field research at the important Upper Egyptian city of Ptolemais Hermeiou (modern al-Manshah, المنشاة) sometime in the next year, which looks increasingly unlikely.

al-Manshah City Center in 2004

al-Manshah City Center in January 2011

This site, like many in the Nile Valley, lies under hundreds of years of later occupation including a large and growing modern settlement.  The damage to the archaeology of the settlement is clear on the Google Earth images above, which show looting in the city’s center at the site of a previous archaeological excavation.  This kind of damage is taking place alongside systematic renovations to older buildings on the ancient mound which also result in substantial destruction of the town’s ancient levels.  The current political climate in Upper Egypt makes it unlikely that we’ll receive permission to work in the immediate future, but we continue to advocate for permission and to monitor the situation from afar.  The future of many sites in Egypt hang in the balance and in places like Upper Egypt where sectarian violence is an ongoing problem, archaeologists must weigh the benefits of work during times of civil strife.  Hopefully, I’ll have a positive update to this post sometime in the spring when elections have taken place and the fate of archaeology in Egypt seems more clear.

 

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