Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.20

Donald M. Bailey (ed.), Archaeological Research in Roman Egypt. The Proceedings of the Seventeenth Classical Colloquium of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum, held on 1-4 December, 1993. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series number 19. Ann Arbor, 1996. Pp. 263. ISBN 1-887829-19-9.

Contributors: V. A. Maxfield, D. P. S. Peacock, W. E. H. Cockle, J. Bingen, R. S. Tomber, D. Rathbone, P. Piacentini, D. White, R. Morkot, P. Sheehan, M. Baranski, S. Snape and S. White, R. Bland, J. McKenzie, G. R. H. Wright, D. M. Bailey, J. R. Harris, D. Montserrat, K. Parlasca, J. Ogden, B. Lichocka, D. M. Bailey, Z. Kiss, A. Stauffer, R. M. Janssen, J. Whitehorne, and N. Goldman.

Reviewed by Roger S. Bagnall, Classics, Columbia University,

The reader might be pardoned for wondering why twenty-seven miscellaneous articles on the archaeology of Egypt should be collected in a special volume, even if they were all given at one conference. After all, the archaeology of Egypt is a large and well-established field, with a voluminous bibliography and plenty of journals. The answer is, first, that Egyptian archaeology for the period of Roman rule, as for the Ptolemaic period, has for long been a rather disappointing field, failing to excavate where it should, failing to conduct needed regional surveys, failing to publish what is excavated, failing to ask the necessary questions;1 and, second, that this deplorable situation has begun to change substantially in the last decade or so. This volume takes stock of that change, surveying work ranging from the Mediterranean coast to both the Eastern and Western deserts of Upper Egypt and from regional survey to the study of religious iconography. It is encouraging both that the level of work has picked up and that the integration of texts and objects is central to many of the contributions to this volume. What follows is a rapid survey of the contents of the volume, with a few comments on points of particular interest to me.

A first group of five articles concerns the Eastern Desert, where there has recently been both a great deal of survey work2 and the important excavation at the quarry site Mons Claudianus, yielding nearly ten thousand ostraca. Maxfield provides a general discussion of the sixty-plus small forts found so far in the area, from which the army supported the quarrying and mining operations in the desert (in the northern zone) and protected caravans to the Red Sea ports (in the southern zone). She notes the extreme fragmentation of the military implied by this system of desert stations and the small size of the resulting detachments.3 Peacock's paper argues from both the dispersal he has observed of stone chips from particular quarries and the evidence of the ostraca that the entire quarry zone was a unified system centered on Mons Porphyrites. Some confirmation may come from the inscription (probably from Hermopolis) in purple paint published by Cockle of a hosp(itium) tabular(iorum) Porphyr(itis) et aliorum metallorum. Bingen looks at the Mons Claudianus ostraca as objects rather than as texts. He points out that only a few come from primary deposits, i.e., were found more or less where they were discarded. The rest were thrown in the street or an alley, tossed into an abandoned room used as a trash dump, or (for the vast majority) found where they had been given secondary deposit by being used as rubbish to fill and level spaces about to be built on. The implications for the study of the texts are significant. Tomber looks at the non-Egyptian pottery from Mons Claudianus, which constituted less than five per cent of the assemblage. Even that amount, however, is striking, for the variety of amphoras found is far greater than is usually found not only at sites as far inland as this but even in ports. The largest group comes from the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyrenaica, but significant numbers also are found from the rest of North Africa, from the West (Gaul and Spain), from Italy, and from the Balkans. They point to the privileged access the imperial staff stationed at the quarries had to high-value imported foodstuffs, including olive oil, grape syrup (defrutum), fish products, and wine.

The Western Desert also comes in for some attention, although the paper on the excavations at Ismant el-Kharab (ancient Kellis) by Colin Hope was not published in the volume. Kellis is represented by an article by John Whitehorne on the writing tablets found there, particularly the two codexes found together in one of them, one with three orations of Isocrates and the other with an agricultural account.4 The description here is (Whitehorne notes) based on an article by John Sharpe and information in site reports by Colin Hope. Kellis offers a rare opportunity to see a tablet-maker's work in detail. The article of Morkot gives a general description of the Roman remains in the Kharga Oasis, particularly of the Roman forts built around temples (mainly of the Persian period). Morkot argues that the desert roads south from Khargeh may have been more extensively used in antiquity than is generally believed, and he describes their medieval and modern usage. With the camel, the routes were certainly usable in the Roman period, but the actual purposes Morkot cites are Islamic pilgrimage and the West African slave trade, neither of which was a factor in the Roman period, and his argument seems to me wholly speculative.

For the Fayum, we find Rathbone's account of his work in the southwest region (the ancient Polemon district), attempting to reconstruct ancient geography from a combination of the extensive papyrological information and surface survey, to which a fair amount of museum archaeology has also contributed in the form of old photographs and excavation records. This important project offers the prospect of a virtually complete sense of the settlement pattern (minor farmsteads aside) of an area the economy and society of which have for nearly a century played an important part in the study of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Across the Fayum, at Bacchias, an Italian team has begun excavations, described in Piacentini's contribution.5 This is very much a preliminary report of the start of work, but it raises hopes that the site is not yet so ruined as to prevent it from yielding significant results.

The Fayum also plays a role as the main source of the mummy portraits, to which two contributions here are devoted. One is an article by Montserrat about the small group of portraits that have the name of the individual written on them. Mummies usually had wooden tags attached by a cord, and writing directly on the portrait was thus unusual; it is hard to say why it happens in the cases where it does (twenty-five out of about 1,000 portraits, Montserrat says). The article is devoted in particular to assessing the value of palaeography for the vexed question of dating the mummy portraits;6 Montserrat finds that the handwriting often does not support the dates proposed by Klaus Parlasca. Parlasca's brief comment notes, but does not try to reply to, the challenges to various aspects of his interpretation and dating of the portraits. Eighteen months after the colloquium published in this volume, the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the British Museum organized one on burial customs in Roman Egypt, the papers from which have now also appeared, and the issues relating to dating are there dealt with from several points of view.7 Anyone interested in the subject will also wish to consult the splendid catalogue published for the British Museum's exhibition of portraits, masks, and related objects which opened in March, 1997.8

The other archaeological papers cover sites in other regions. White describes the attempt to recover something of ancient Paraitonion, on the coast west of Alexandria at the boundary with Marmarica (of which it was the Byzantine capital), from the records of excavations earlier in this century, before the pace of real-estate development had done quite so much damage, obliterating the ancient harbor and suburbs. Sheehan reports briefly on the systematic recording of the surviving remains of the late Roman fortress at Babylon (today in Old Cairo). He assigns its construction to the late third century and views the location of an earlier Roman fort in the area as uncertain. Baranski reports on Polish excavations and documentation of the Great Basilica Church at Hermopolis, which was located at the junction of Antinoe Street and the Dromos Hermou. Earlier excavations had failed to record buildings of other periods below the basilica. Snape and White describe rescue excavations south of ancient Pelusium, near the el-Salaam canal currently under construction. These have turned up a group of cisterns and a cemetery. The cisterns were probably filled by closing a dike across the Pelusiac branch of the Nile and the water thus captured used for irrigation of orchard crops after the inundation season; the cemetery apparently dates from after the abandonment of this irrigation scheme.

Several articles deal with architectural matters. Wright tries to reconstruct the process of building the temple at Kalabsha in lower Nubia, Egyptian in style but Roman in date. It uses large blocks which were dressed in place, after the Egyptian fashion. Wright argues that this method offered advantages both technically (the blocks stayed in place better without mortar) and in schedule (dressing in place was faster and took place in many cases after the end of construction, stretched over many years). He estimates that this temple took twenty years for fifty skilled workers. Bailey looks at the process of hoisting large monoliths, which probably involved towers and ropes with pulleys; smaller ones could be raised with cranes. McKenzie argues for the existence of a distinctive Alexandrian style in architecture, exemplified here mainly by column capitals and the early use of some baroque features. She notes similarities in the Justinianic church of St. Polyeuktos in Constantinople, attributing them to Egyptian influence.

Of the articles on objects, a significant cluster, not surprisingly, concerns religion. Harris reviews the sketchy archaeological evidence for Roman-style Mithraism in Egypt, concluding that it does not take us beyond Memphis and Hermopolis at present. The Memphite material may have come from a cache. Bailey discusses several small clay imperial portraits, most (he thinks) probably destined for household shrines. He reassigns one (the parallels to which have usually been seen as representing Diocletian triumphing over Blemmyes) to the second century (perhaps Hadrian and the Jews, he speculates). Kiss discusses an unusual terracotta of Harpocrates with a patera held behind the rider; he identifies this as an identification of Harpocrates and the Thracian rider god Heron. Goldman tries to reconstruct the knotted mantle of Isis.

On the numismatic side, Bland argues that it is a mistake to see the coinage of Alexandria in isolation from that of Rome; indeed, he thinks that Alexandria functioned more like a branch mint of Rome than like an ordinary provincial mint and that it was remarkably quick to react to proclamations of new emperors. Its volume pattern, too, resembles that of Rome. The argument is to my mind hard to judge in the absence of a wider context, which of course a brief paper could hardly provide. Lichocka publishes some coin-molds from the later fourth and early fifth century, which were used to produce "unofficial" cast coinage. The types used were well worn imperial coins of various reigns. There was clearly a much larger demand for these small denomination bronzes than official production could meet, and they are known from other parts of the Empire as well; but the molds themselves are known so far only from Egypt.

Ogden shows that the surviving gold jewelry from Roman Egypt corresponds in weight very closely to theoretical standards based on the drachma and the mna, and later the Roman pound (for which he gives too high a weight on p. 195). Using papyri as well as objects, he points up well the centrality of weight in the valuation of objects in precious metal in antiquity; the value of the raw material greatly outweighed that of even very skilled labor. Stauffer describes the surviving fragments of ancient cartoons on papyrus, the 1:1 models for weavers of tapestries, curtains, and garments which were fixed behind the warp threads. These cartoons were often very sketchy and carried repeating elements like borders only to a limited distance, as the weaver would know how to continue once started in the right position. Janssen describes an extraordinary group of soft toys, mainly rag dolls, found mainly at Hawara and Oxyrhynchos. These are the Barbie and Ken of the ancient world and came with a wardrobe in linen and wool plus various paraphernalia (basket, mirror, and so on). They are often anatomically correct, and Janssen argues that they were aimed at pubescent girls as part of their preparation for womanhood and marriage.

Like any such miscellany, this volume is uneven. But many of the contributions bring textual and archaeological material together in an encouraging fashion, and some really break new ground in an exciting fashion. And this is only a fraction of what is going on in the archaeology of Roman and Byzantine Egypt today. Don Bailey deserves thanks for accomplishing the difficult task of turning a stimulating colloquium into a volume of equal merit.


1. See my comments in "Archaeology and Papyrology, JRA 1 (1988) 197-202 and in Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton 1993) 6-7.

2. See now Steven E. Sidebotham, "Newly Discovered Sites in the Eastern Desert," JEA 82 (1996) 181-92 for more recent survey results.

3. In a similar vein, see Richard Alston, Soldier and Society in Roman Egypt (London 1995).

4. The information given (241 n. 4) about publication of these tablets can be updated: the Isocrates codex is to be published by K. A. Worp and A. Rijksbaron, the agricultural account by me.

5. On the excavations of Grenfell and Hogarth, see now D. Montserrat, BASP 33 (1996) 133-76.

6. An erroneous "correction" to one inscription is given in 179 n. 17, where the epithet A)I/MNHSTOS (i.e., A)EI/MNHSTOS) is corrected to A)IMNH/STH because it refers to a woman; it is, of course, a two-ending adjective. The woman's name, DHMW=S, is otherwise unattested as far as I can see, and of dubious formation; the correction proposed already by Preisigke in Sammelbuch I 3963, DHMW/ <W(>S (followed by the age) is surely correct.

7. M. L. Bierbrier, ed., Portraits and Masks: Burial Customs in Roman Egypt (London 1997).

8. Susan Walker and Morris Bierbrier, eds., Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London 1997).