The Sirius Project

The Sirius Project
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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Theban Mountains day 13

Right guys, although we've just started to put up previous blog posts here for you on our previous adventures, we will post the most recent ones too. That means that the chronological order initially will be a bit mixed up, but as each day is an adventure in itself, more or less independent on previous, you will hopefully be able to enjoy it anyway! With this said, here is the latest write up on our 11 hours walk from earlier this week, written by Dr. John Ward.

One of the quarry rooms in the area
Due to financial and work load constraints, we have been unable to continue our weekly expeditions into the Theban Mountains since November of 2010. So it has been a while since we had prepared our kit for a day’s walking and endurance. Having said that though, thankfully, we had carefully stored all the equipment after our last expedition back in November  This time we were not going by horseback, so everything had to be carried by both Maria and I, so streamlining and bare minimum was the order of the day.

It was decided in advance that we would retrace our steps from the limestone quarries opposite Wadi Maluk and make our way through the Wadi that stretches towards Thoth Hill, home to Mentuhotep III Sankhare’s Temple, which we had investigated thoroughly in 2008/9. We had previously, in 2008, made our way approximately half way along this particular wadi, having taken the decision that due to its apparent closed heads, it was not worth exploring any further than we had done so already. But, as we wished to examine the limestone quarries in light of the recent unrest here in Egypt, especially with the ongoing damage being inflicted unchecked upon the antiquity of Egypt, we felt that while we were there in the vicinity that we would take advantage of the situation and explore the wadi further, well, at least as far as we could accomplish in a day’s walk given the inevitable stops for documenting graffiti etc and other unplanned investigations.

Our driver arrived promptly at 6am and delivered us at the drop off point just a few hundred meters into Wadi Maluk, being a tarmac road that now leads to the Valley of the Kings. We diverted away from the road as usual and took the dusty road that lead between the piles of debris that was once the village of old Gurna at the tombs of the Nobles, but having been levelled by bulldozers, it now resides in undignified piles of broken mud brick and twisted palm. Since our last visit here the road, if one can call it so, had been driven upon on a regular basis, thus providing us with a level path to walk upon. The anticipation of turning the corner and laying our eyes upon the limestone quarries was like that of returning to one’s hometown and the street on which they once lived. Familiar sounds, smells and landmarks all combined lifted our spirits and excitement at returning to this familiar place. For both Maria and I the desert holds a special place in hearts and souls, we feel much more comfortable in the desert than behind a desk writing about it.

Dr. John Ward ready to document

Quarry markings

Even though it was still reasonably early in the morning Ra’s rays were still strong, as I felt my winter white skin began to burn on the back of my neck. I have never been one for sun cream, especially when working in the desert; there is nothing worse than the feeling of moist cream on your skin mixed with a fine gritty layer of sand as it works its way into the crevices of one’s skin. We could clearly see that the road had received much more traffic that it had done in the past, at first we assumed the worst and felt that given Egypt’s situation we would find to our horror some kind of illegal digging or even worse building that may have taken place in the area. But as we left the road and headed to the limestone quarry face we could see that there had been no activity in the area, the usual rubbish lay strewed around the ground from the local fly tipping that had taken place over the years. The limestone quarry face provided us with the familiar graffiti and as we inspected each place and location that we remembered we could see without doubt that there had been no further damage inflicted on this precious site. As we continued we entered the open quarry caverns and inspected the Coptic and Pharaonic graffiti within them, documenting as we went, not that we had already a plethora of well documented images, but as we were there, there was no harm in taking a few a more shots.

Quarry chisel marks
The quarry face continues till the well-trodden pathway begins its ascent above wadi Maluk and continues all the way to Farshout. We on the other hand were taking the route on the other side, further to the north and entering the wadi from a different direction. We first headed for the now open cavern that was once inhabited by a group of people after the quarries had served their initial purpose. The ancient mud brick together with a mixture of pottery shards and fired Roman brick lay strewn around the entrance to the cavern. A drop of God’s nectar was indeed the reason for our stop. As we sat there silent we could hear: nothing. Beautiful, the silence penetrated the air like a knife through butter; the atmosphere was alive with the voices and noises of the ancient caravans that once travelled past this humble abode. One could easily imagine the excitement as a caravan emerged on the brow of the hill in front, laden with goods, spices, material and other wares from distant lands.

Coptic presence in the quarries

One of many ceramic items

Just in front of us, perched a little higher on a small hill carved out of the landscape by the great floods that once washed through these valleys; the remains of a more identifiable structure can be found. The walls to roughly half a meter still stand with other rooms leading from the main rectangular room, one can imagine its purpose as stopping point for the caravans, maybe a tax collection, or home to Roman garrison, tasked with protecting the entrance to Thebes. This is the beautiful thing about the deserts of Egypt, very little excavation has taken place, and when one comes across such a place, the amount of evidence that still remains gives one sometimes the perfect picture of what was there once upon a time. Far better than reading some stuffy archaeological report detailing each grain of sand and the various seeds and organic matter that had been found while dissecting site, which often are so impersonal; but at the same time invaluable to reaching a better understanding of those that once lived out here in this harsh environment.

We headed for the Roman outpost that stood on top of the second limestone quarry a little further to the north. Taking for a short while the well trodden trade route, we climbed the slope and then diverted taking a lesser pathway over and into the wadi beneath. On climbing down we took the opportunity to once again explore these quarries; well to be honest it is difficult to resist the opportunity, even though we have done so on countless occasions before. One particular cut out enticed us a little further and to our amazement we discovered some graffiti that neither one of us could recall having seen personally before. There in faint red paint the body of hunter accompanied by his dog was lying peacefully upon the wall, with bow and arrow in hand, to the left of him an arrangement of other animal figures, unfortunately so badly damaged by environmental conditions that it was uncertain as to what they resembled. After carefully documenting them we continued on our descent into the wadi and took upon the well driven road once more. Following the road that lay in front of us as it took the easiest of routes amongst the larger stones that had been brought down the wadi by the rains. We continued along the road until the surface of the cliff face became smoother as to allow someone to place their mark upon it in the guise of what we now refer to as graffiti, but back then, it was their mark to say that they had passed this way, or in a mark of respect for those who were buried out here or at the loss of passing tradesmen etc. Deep in the western desert we have documented the graffiti marks of the slaves that were driven along the harsh and deadly Darb el Arbaein (40 days road). The graffiti left by them resembles their hometowns and the wildlife of southern Africa as it was then, with elephants, giraffes, lions and tigers, zebras, etc. As I have said before, it is amazing to think that so much life has passed along these now deserted paths and that only now, are we truly beginning to document their endeavours.

Red painted graffiti
From our past explorations we were aware that the southern side of the wadi held the most graffiti while the northern side was almost barren and void of any graffiti, probably due to the fact that the southern side could provide shelter from the blistering sun once the sun had moved over into the southern skyline, leaving the northern side open to the heat of the day. On previous explorations we had not afforded ourselves the time to document or record the previous excavations that have taken place in this wadi. The length of the southern side is strewn intermittently with open trenches approximately 1 meter in length and 1 meter in depth by half a meter in width at the intervals of approximately 5 to 10 meters depending on the landscape and the surrounding the environment. There are many dry water gullies that have eaten their way down the southern cliff face and left their marks, some have been dug to or investigated one should say, but it never ceases to amaze me that one would take the time to excavate an obvious, otherwise inappropriate location for a burial at the end of a run off. One only has to see the tell tale marks left by the running of water that it would be pointless to place a burial in such a location, but again all opportunities should and must be explored I suppose.

There is one distinct difference with this particular wadi that stands out from the others that we have been investigating these past expeditions. And that is the distinct lack of pottery sherds laid upon the ground. There is little or no pottery to be found as in the others. There is an occasional water pot, usually Coptic or Roman but even those are few and far between. We have from time to time come across the odd shard that possibly could be related to the Middle/New Kingdom, but again these are very few in their number and indeed fragmentary. Now, this could be due to many explanations, such as environmental, where either precipitation has hidden them from view, burying them beneath the silt deposit, or they have been totally washed away with flood waters that have cascaded down the wadi at one point or another. However, at this point we have concluded that this particular wadi is free from the usual high deposits of pottery shards because it was not a main thoroughfare and therefore, obviously did not need the watering holes that we have become accustomed to in the other wadis and the given the lack of human traffic, obviously leads to the lack of discarded pottery as what we would today call rubbish. I think this is the most reasonable conclusion o reach at this point until or if further evidence presents itself or is discovered.

We continued walking deeper into the wadi hugging the southern shoulder as we did so; eventually we came across the reason for the heavily used road, the new lighting station for this particular wadi. For those of you, who are not familiar with the Theban lighting project, sometime in 2010 the Theban hills took on a whole new appearance in the evenings. Thanks to heavy international investment and internal investment by the Egyptian government, the Theban Mountains are now lit by a succession of lighting grids that illuminate the mountains like a string of pearls. It is truly an amazing view and engineering achievement to wire each lighting unit together over such mountainous terrain. The true cost will never be known I expect, but the result is truly breathtaking, something that the ancient pharaohs themselves would have approved of I am sure.

Anyhow the road began to widen as we approach a makeshift hut made from a mixture of fired red brick and mud brick, a lone figure appeared in what looked like an all in one long-john affair, and began to wash what I believed to be his dishes, obviously from his morning’s breakfast. As we approached him, he was oblivious of our presence, some watchman! But we made ourselves known by heavy footsteps and the odd call to one another at a heightened volume as to allow him to be aware of our impending arrival. As soon as he had noticed us he left this dishes and disappeared back into the hut only to reappear with another Egyptian male both now wearing gallabeya, the traditional Egyptian dress for an Egyptian male. As we approached closer the usual flurry of coordinal greetings were being shouted across to us: all in Arabic of course. We responded duly with the appropriate replies and approached the two men with my hand outstretched ready to receive his hand in gesture. Smiles and again the exchange of morning salems were offered, then in broken pigeon English the usual questions: “where you go”? “Where you from”? “You English, German, American”? Responding with my usual humour, I declared that we were in fact looking for the pyramids and that we were from Japan: never fails to bring a smile and little laugh from the recipient. After, though, fully explaining where we were from, where we were hoping to go and what we were hoping to discover we bid our farewells, not before though I might add being asked a million times whether we wanted to stay for breakfast, chai, hot water, bread and any other consumable item you care to mention, after declining each and every offer politely and respectively we continued on our journey.

The road has disappeared now; its purpose had ended, so now it was back to our usual and well known terrain of uneven stone and water worn gullies to manoeuvre over and about. The wadi took a dog left turn and in doing so the cliff face became a vertical face reaching in parts at least 30 if not 50 meters in height in some places. Most of the faces though were too rough to have executed any graffiti that could last the test of time (although we did record a few, hieroglyphic and Coptic), so we continued to the point that we had made back in 2008 and decided to take lunch in the same spot as before.

Hieroglyphic inscription commemorating a scribe. This particular inscription has been documented in a previous survey of the area.

Now it’s at this juncture in my report that the Egyptian wasp takes an entrance on stage left, larger than its European counterpart, in fact much larger, and due to its size and heightened sound it makes as it flies through the air it obviously commands that little more respect. Now as usual this particular wasp was enjoying its daily flight around the wadi when it smelt a unusual sweetness in the air, which was not normal, but being the inquisitive type he followed his nose, which led him to two brightly coloured stones that seemed out of place to him. Taking a fly by as one does, one of the stones began to wave its elongated appendages like a palm tree being thrown back and forth by a strong hamseem wind, followed with strange noises too. Unperturbed by this strange encounter his curiosity took the better of him and he felt that a closer inspection was required, the sweetness was so overpowering. He landed some distance from the two stones and began to approach them cautiously at first, but the sweet smell was too much, he needed to get closer. So without causing the other stone to start waving again, he walked along the stony ground, which then turned into a soft but pleasant surface beneath his feet, as he took one step closer the sun began to dim until darkness was around him. It was at this point that Maria at the command of my hysterical behaviour around wasps decapitated it with one full step of her trusty Merrell’s (not an easy choice for a true animal lover I must say, but what does one not do for love? [Maria’s note]). Laying there with its head in one part and its body having now been kicked across the floor, silence once again reigned in the wadi as I continued to enjoy the rest of my sweaty cheese sandwich, which was pure bliss by this time regardless of its moist condition and disposition. Washed down with a cup of God’s nectar, while we took a moment to recoup and gather our strength before heading off deeper into the wadi.

After lunch we continued on our way this time hugging the northern cliff face as this offered the better opportunity of discovering graffiti, as we walked the wadi itself was taking a dog left turn and in doing so we left the northern side and rejoined the wadi in the middle as to turn into it.  The southern side became again the most obvious surface to inspect and as we did so we walked even deeper into the wadi. The ground in front of us took a drastic change changing from the uneven stony ground that we have been traversing to a level and sandy but firm beneath the feet surface. Tired with us walking on the upped most tiers with two further tiers beneath us, the third being the run off obviously where the water had been driving the stone and larger boulders down the wadi. What became apparent though, and something that we had not really seen in such a state of preservation since our expeditions to the western desert towards the Gild el Kirbir, were the camel tracks that were being laid out in front of us. Around 5 possibly as many as 7 in number, their distinct pattern and layout were unmistakable. We followed them along this now even ground until the landscape changed again to a rough uneven surface and we lost the tracks amongst the stones and uneven debris. We were unsuccessful in discovering any further graffiti, counting the odd very worn pottery shard, totally smoothed by the elements and in such a poor state and size as not to give us any clue as to its date or providence. We recaptured the camel tracks a little further on only to lose them once again amongst the wadi floor. By this time we could see the heads of the wadi in front of us.

The wadi itself split into two heads, one leading northwards and the other southwards, neither of which offered an easy route lined with heavy boulders and the actual wadi floor narrowing as we continued. We took the southern wadi head and continued to the point where it was obvious that there was no way out. With my filed glasses I could see that there were no pathways leading out of this wadi to the upper levels and that it was pointless to continue, plus time was not our friend we had been out now for just over 6 hours and we would have to make our way back if we were to return in day light hours.

One of many flints that are scattered in the area
It was at this point that due to the evidence that we had been presented with that we took the decision to return to the limestone quarries and meet with our driver. The walk back as always takes much less time than entering the wadi. We met back up with our newly acquainted Egyptian friends at the lighting station where we enjoyed a cup of refreshing God’s nectar with them and shared in some of our supplies that we had brought with us. After exchanging a few stories and personal anecdotes we approached the tarmac roadway on its approach to Wadi Maluk at just past 5pm in the evening, our driver waiting with cold beverages and a few choice fruits for our return drive back home. It has been decided that we will indeed return again once more to this wadi to explore some of its off shoots that we were unable to explore this time due to time restrictions and now that we have documented and investigated its cliff faces it makes the journey into the wadi that much easier on time and speed. The intriguing part of today’s expedition was the camel tracks that we had discovered so deep within the wadi itself. Where had they come from and more importantly where were they heading for? There were no obvious exits from the wadi that we had seen and given the harshness of the terrain, it did not present the characteristics of a well worn trade route that we are accustomed with: an intriguing and as yet unsolved question.

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