Until recently, the study of housing in Roman Egypt mainly focused on the Fayum, where the exploration of private architecture started in the late 19th to early 20th century within the context of the search for papyri.1 However, additional investigations of house remains during the last decades in other areas of Egypt, such as Alexandria and the Western Desert, have offered new evidence. The volume under review presents one of these new houses, Amheida House B2 in the northwest of the Dakhla Oasis, which was investigated by Anna Lucille Boozer between 2005 and 2010 as part of her doctoral research at Columbia University. Whereas Boozer provides the general framework of the book, several other scholars contribute with sections on specific material categories. The result is a publication that intends to offer a holistic and contextual approach to a Romano-Egyptian house, and to develop a methodology for investigating the connection between ancient housing remains and social identity (p. 17).
The book opens with a list of figures and plates, an overview of the contributors, and a preface. The main body of the book is divided into five thematic parts. However, this useful thematic organization is only clear in the table of contents and, oddly, not reflected in the main text itself, which instead forms a continuous succession of individual chapters without further subdivision. If the thematic titles had been included at the beginning of each new section, it would have helped the reader to follow the structure of the book. An extensive bibliography and an index are included at the end of the volume.
The book starts with three introductory chapters by Boozer. In chapter one, she places the research on House B2 within the framework of the study of Romano-Egyptian daily life. This brings her to earlier work on houses dating to the 1st to 4th centuries CE in Egypt. Boozer underscores the lack of integrated research that – with few exceptions – characterizes housing studies carried out thus far: the focus has mainly been on architectural features, and artefacts have been separated from their original contexts. Conversely, she stresses the importance of a contextual approach, which allows bringing together architecture, material culture, and the users of the house. Located in an industrial-residential area, Amheida House B2 with its modest dimensions has been selected as a case study to reconstruct the daily life of a family of modest means.
Starting from this general framework, Boozer introduces the Western Desert, the Dakhla Oasis, and Amheida in chapter two, paying attention first to Dakhla. Several aspects, such as the geology and geomorphology of the oasis, its hydrology and climate, had a significant impact on its development in the Roman Period, as revealed by surveys and excavations carried out during the last forty years. Then, the author focuses on Amheida (ancient Trimithis), the largest preserved ancient site within Dakhla, and discusses the main characteristics of the site, including its topographical and architectural features, its chronology, and the history of the Amheida Project.
In chapter three, the methodology applied for the excavations in House B2, as well as for on-site analysis and off-site processing of objects is explained. The detailed descriptions of the workflow, as well as that of archaeological applications that are commonly employed in current scientific excavations (e.g. the Harris matrix), feel superfluous.
In chapter four, which forms a substantial part of the book, Boozer offers a detailed analysis of the excavations of House B2. Accurate descriptions of the stratigraphic depositional units, architectural features, artefacts, and palaeobotanical and archaeozoological remains are presented for each room and illustrated with plan and section drawings, Harris matrixes, and pictures of in-situ features and finds. The author interprets the function of each space, based on its architectural characteristics, decoration and finds. The access to the room and its relation to adjacent spaces are also considered. The combination of all available data allows a general phasing, covering the construction and original use of the house (1), structural alternations (2a-d; 2d erroneously called 2c), abandonment (3a), collapse (3b) and deflation (3c), and present-day Bedouin use (4). The analysis of the house itself is followed by a similarly detailed description of features and finds encountered in the neighboring Street S1 and Courtyard C2. The chapter ends with an absolute chronology based on pottery, ostraca, and a textile fragment, placing the occupation in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. It should be noted that headings and sub-headings are not always typographically distinguished, which somewhat hinders an easy visual understanding of the structure of the text.
The next two chapters, again by Boozer, form a separate section dedicated to constructional and architectural aspects of House B2. In chapter five, which discusses construction techniques, the house is put in line with local traditions of Egyptian mud brick architecture.2 Since mud bricks can reveal noteworthy (chronological) information, but their characteristics are not always systematically recorded during excavations, the detailed analysis of the mud bricks used for walls, ceilings, and bread ovens included here is certainly important. The construction of floors and that of the street are also discussed.
In chapter six, based on its architectural aspects (e.g. size, orientation, and layout), House B2 is compared with three – culturally defined – types of houses with which its shares characteristics: Egyptian, Romano-Egyptian, and Roman housing. Boozer concludes that houses in Roman Egypt showed a larger regional variety than often thought and did not always resemble known types from the Fayum.
In chapter seven, Boozer introduces section four, in which material culture takes the main place. The small finds recovered from the excavations of House B2 and the surrounding Area 1 are used to interpret the identity of its inhabitants and their place in society, and as a tool to help interpret contexts found elsewhere in the Roman world. The artifacts are grouped according to rather heterogenous themes (e.g. personal appearance, worship and religion, gender, and age) and related to comparative material. Some categories are a bit artificial, such as the heading ‘Activities’ for small finds attesting to weaving as well as those referring to transportation and management, or the heading ‘Diet and entertainment’, which strangely seems to consider all domestic food consumption as an indicator of feasting. Consequently, the creation of some additional categories could have resulted in a more logical categorization. Nevertheless, the discussion of the small finds, pointing towards inhabitants belonging to a mid-level economic group, contributes to an understanding of the way the house and its neighborhood were used.
The next twelve chapters are written by different specialists of material culture. These chapters, accompanied by useful catalogues, drawings, and/or photographs, form an important reference for other sites. In chapter eight, Delphine Dixneuf gives a detailed overview of the pottery and offers chronological data for each individual space of House B2. Since this is the only contribution in French, a translation into English would have made the volume more uniform. In chapters nine and ten, Paola Davoli analyses stoppers, loom weights, and miscellaneous unfired clay objects, while Boozer discusses figurines and their use. In chapters eleven to thirteen, Angela Cervi presents small finds related to adornment, glass vessels, and faience vessels. In chapter fourteen, the limited numismatic evidence, three coins dating to the 1st or 2nd century CE, are discussed by David M. Ratzan.
Apart from material data, the excavations in House B2 and the surrounding Area 1 also revealed textual evidence, supplementing and confirming the material remains. Thus, the 3rd- and early-4th-century CE ostraca, analyzed in chapter fifteen by Giovanni R. Ruffini, shed light on people belonging to a lower-middle social echelon, including linen-weavers and camel-drivers.
In the next chapters, the attention shifts to organic material. In chapter sixteen, Pam J. Crabtree and Douglas V. Campana analyze the faunal remains, which are characterized as conventionally Egyptian. This is followed in chapter seventeen by a discussion of the plant remains from House B2, by Ursula Thanheiser and Johannes Walter, who conclude that the paleobotanical material reflects a typical household of the 3rd century CE in the Dakhla Oasis. Finally, in chapters eighteen and nineteen, Cervi examines the rare wooden objects from the excavations and Boozer discusses the woven material.
The volume ends with a concluding chapter by Boozer, forming the fifth and last part of the book. After a summary of the occupational chronology of House B2 in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, its place within the context of Romano-Egyptian housing is once more defined. Furthermore, Boozer summarizes the activities and practices that took place in the individual spaces of the house and links them with inhabitants of a moderate social status. Lastly, she inserts House B2 in the wider framework of the Roman Mediterranean, before ending with suggestions for future lines of inquiry and an extremely brief conclusion.
With its integrated analysis of the stratigraphic units, architectural features, and small finds of House B2, the Amheida II volume forms a much-appreciated contribution to the study of ancient housing in Roman Egypt, surpassing earlier studies that mainly focused on architectural aspects. Apart from offering crucial information about a modest house in the Dakhla Oasis, it can be considered a most important addition to our knowledge of private housing in Roman Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, which is still an underinvestigated research field. A major outcome is the understanding that various regional housing types existed in Roman Egypt, making clear that the concept of a ‘standard house type’ should be abandoned. It is strongly hoped that Boozer and the Amheida Project team will continue their in-depth studies on housing at Dakhla in the future.
Table of Contents
Part I: Introduction, Settings, and Methodologies
Chapter 1. Domestic Archaeology and the Romano-Egyptian House: An Integrated Research Agenda, Anna Lucille Boozer (17–32)
Chapter 2. Situating the Case Study: The Dakhla Oasis and Amheida, Anna Lucille Boozer (33–45)
Chapter 3. Approaching the Romano-Egyptian House: Research Methodologies, Anna Lucille Boozer (47–53)
Part II: The Excavations
Chapter 4. Layers of Building, Living, and Abandonment: Stratigraphies of House B2 and its Surroundings, Anna Lucille Boozer (55–140)
Part III: Building Techniques and Architectural Interpretations
Chapter 5. Building Domestic Space: The Construction Techniques for House B2, Anna Lucille Boozer (141–55)
Chapter 6. Situating Domestic Space: An Architectural Analysis and Reconstruction of House B2, Anna Lucille Boozer (157–81)
Part IV: The Material Culture of Everyday Life
Chapter 7. Artifact and Activity: The Material Culture of Domestic Living, Anna Lucille Boozer (183–99)
Chapter 8. La Céramique de la Maison B2, Delphine Dixneuf (20–80)
Chapter 9. Unfired Clay Objects, Paola Davoli (281–9)
Chapter 10. Figurines, Anna Lucille Boozer (291–307)
Chapter 11. Adornment, Angela Cervi (309–17)
Chapter 12. Glass Vessels, Angela Cervi (319–39)
Chapter 13. Faience Vessels, Angela Cervi (341–47)
Chapter 14. Coins, David M. Ratzan (349–51)
Chapter 15. Transport and Trade in Trimithis: The Texts from Area 1, Giovanni R. Ruffini (353–67)
Chapter 16. Faunal Remains from Amheida, Area 1, Pam J. Crabtree and Douglas V. Campana (369–73)
Chapter 17. Plant Use in a Romano-Egyptian Household in the Third Century CE, Ursula Thanheiser and Johannes Walter (375–92)
Chapter 18. Wood Objects, Angela Cervi (393–5)
Chapter 19. Woven Material, Anna Lucille Boozer (397–404)
Part V: Concluding Thoughts and Discussion
Chapter 20. Towards an Integrated Interpretation of Life in a Romano-Egyptian House, Anna Lucille Boozer (405–27)
1. P. Davoli, L’archeologia urbana nel Fayyum di età ellenistica e romana, (Bologna, 1998): Generoso Procaccini gives a useful overview of the development of the Fayum settlements and their investigation.
2. For mudbrick architecture, see A.J. Spencer, Brick Architecture in Ancient Egypt (Warminster, 1979); B. Kemp, “Soil (including mud-brick architecture),” in P.T. Nicholson and I. Shaw (eds.) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, (Cambridge, 2000), 78–103.