BMCR 2022.10.23

Kellis: a Roman-period village in Egypt’s Dakhleh Oasis

, , Kellis: a Roman-period village in Egypt's Dakhleh Oasis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. 400. ISBN 9780521190329 £105,00.

This is a magnificent book, of immensely high quality and great importance that extracts every drop of information from so many different aspects of archaeology, including literary remains. The book is a must for any scholar working on Greco-Roman Egypt, the Roman empire, and every university library. It also is of great importance for those who study the development of Christianity and transition from paganism to Christianity. The scholars assembled are the leading experts in their fields and have done an exemplary job. The work is a model of what can be learned from archaeology, demonstrating what knowledge of the past can be achieved from excavations.

Although pharaonic Egypt has been extensively excavated since the nineteenth century, Greco-Roman Egypt has taken a back seat, until the last few decades. The Ministry of Antiquities of Egypt for the past four decades only has allowed new excavations in the Delta and the deserts to try to rectify this balance, especially as the growth in the population of Egypt has increased the pressure on preservation of archaeological sites. The neglected site of Kellis, a village in the Dakhleh Oasis in the Western Desert, dating from the first to the fourth centuries CE, has proven to be a treasure trove of data and artifacts about Roman Egypt. Work began there in 1977 when Anthony J. Mills helped bring together a consortium of archaeologists and environmentalists to form the Dakhleh Oasis Project. He invited Colin A. Hope, one of the founding members of the Project, to direct the project at the area of Kellis. Dr. Hope has proved to be an exemplary director, bringing together a team of outstanding archaeologists and scholars. In the past 35 plus years a cornucopia of publications on the site has increased our knowledge of Roman Egypt. In addition to many other finds, ostraca and papyri abound. These can be found in the multi-volume series on papyri from Kellis, published by Oxbow Books. One exciting volume contains the earliest fragments of the fourth-century BCE Athenian orator, Isokrates.

The site contains remains of cemeteries, houses, churches, temples, and has been a window into the transition from paganism to Christianity. In one papyrus P. Kellis Gr. 48 the manumission of a female slave, the owner invokes his Christianity under Zeus, Earth, and Sun.

This volume examines the settlement of Kellis, its material culture, social structure, economy, religious beliefs, and burial traditions. It provides the first comprehensive account of what excavations have shown about life in the village and in the Dakhleh Oasis, its relationship to surroundings regions and the Nile valley. It is “the synthesis of 25 years of excavation and analysis” (pg. 14). In addition to the two editors, there are contributions from 15 international scholars of ancient Rome and Egypt.

The book is divided into five sections I. Introduction (Chapter 1) II The Domestic Environment, (Chapter 2-4) III Aspects of Life at Kellis (Chapter 5-8), IV the Religious Context (Chapter 8-12), V. Burial Practices and Population (Chapter 13-15), and Chapter 16 Abandonment of Kellis.

Chapter 1 Introduction: Kellis in Context (Colin A. Hope) discusses the history of the Dakhleh Oasis Project, its aims of studying human adaption to life in a semi-arid environment. He discusses the size of the settlement, position on trade routes and relationship to the Nile valley and other oases. He gives a general description of the remains, churches, state of preservation, growth of the town in the Roman period. Four main areas in the Roman period were present, Amhida, Mut al-Kharab, Ismant al-Kharab and Ain Birbiyya. The Egyptian name was Qylt, rendered in Greek at Kellis.

Domestic Environment (Chapters 2-4) deal with houses, paints and crafts. Chapter 2 Houses, Households, Household Activities (Colin A. Hope and Gillian E. Bowen) discusses the domestic context of life at Kellis, in regard to architectural forms, activities and material culture. He discusses the domestic architecture-houses of the Roman period in areas B and C, houses of the Late Roman Period in Areas A and D. This discussion includes revealing papyrus P.Kellis Gr. 32 and 33 which were two leases of a single room for one year in the years 364 and 360. One leasee, Aurelia Marsis, was a native of Kellis, but lived in Aphrodite in the Nile valley. The papyri and the physical remains give a picture of the domestic environment of Kellis. Area B and somewhat D were larger structures of classical style probably belonging to elites. House types and plans were determined by social structure and environmental factors.

Chapter 3 (Helen Whitehouse) discusses the wall paintings found in various houses, which were often geometric patterns of blocks or wallpaper geometric rather than figurative. The most common motifs for borders were often the vine with or without fruit. Chapter 4 (Colin A. Hope) deals with crafts and the people who produced them. The architecture of mudbrick, wood, and stone is discussed, followed by a discussion of baskets and platters. A number of these survive in pristine condition and are illustrated in color. Ceramics as well as glass, and textiles and their production are discussed with more excellent color photos.

Section III on Aspects of Life at Kellis contains chapters on Social Structure (Roger Bagnall Chapter 5), the Economy (Chapter 6 Roger Bagnall et al.), Administration of Kellis and Dakhleh Oasis (Chapter 7 Andrew Connor), and Literacy (Chapter 8 Andrew Connor et al.). In Chapter 5 Roger Bagnall focuses on hierarchy and collegiality; absence and connection; and gender. He derives much of his analysis from the Kellis papyri. In Chapter 6 Bagnall examines the local economy, plant husbandry and local subsistence, as well as the various types of grain crops. He also examines the role of oil and fiber plants, such as flax, safflower as well as cotton cultivation, which dates in its origins to the first century CE. Olive oil dominated in Kellis and elsewhere. He also discusses vegetables, herbs and spices, fruits and nuts. His analysis shows a highly diversified agricultural system, with the long-time staples of emmer wheat, barley, fava bean, but integrated new crops such as hard wheat, pearl millet and cotton. The agriculture was conducted with a sophisticated land and water management system. As part of this chapter Gillian E. Bowen writes about coinage, its distribution, mints, and inflation in the fourth century. Most of the coinage comes from Western mints. The coinage mirrors what is known of the monetized economy of Egypt in the Roman period. The analysis of the coinage is bolstered by the many papyri which discuss contracts, and other monetary issues.

In Chapter 7 Andrew Connor begins his analysis of the Dakhleh Oasis with the Ptolemaic period where Kharga and Dakhleh Oases were the administrative district known as a nome. In the Roman period Dakhleh was administered from Hibis in the Kharga Oasis, and it is not until the third century CE that the documents give a full picture. Dakhleh was a complex network of settlements ties, linked by roads, with farmlands and wells. Administration was based in the capital city. At the head of administrative hierarchy was the prefect of Egypt. In the Roman period, Kharga and Dakhleh Oases were divided into separate nomes and Dakhleh was subdivided into toparchies. Connor then discusses judicial officials, the military, the police and village administration, scribes, and tax officials. Connor concludes that local administration in Kharga and Dakhleh Oases followed the pattern of the rest of Egypt, with a centralized government emanating from Rome, Alexandria, and Antinoopolis. Chapter 8 discusses Literacy. The numerous papyri reveal Greek, Coptic demotic, hieroglyphic, and Latin documents in Kellis, as well as archaeological remains of writing material. In Kellis different languages were used for different purposes. There were professional scribes, and there was a vast range of literacy. Connor then examines the evidence for literacy in the various languages. The chapter concludes with an analysis of writing materials by Colin Hope. Greek and Coptic were the dominant languages with Greek five times that of Coptic. Writing was part of the society of Kellis. This is a wonderful chapter where the authors manage to extract a comprehensive analysis of the multi-lingual society of Roman Egypt.

The next major section of the book is The Religious Context (Chapters 9-12). Chapter 9 (Colin A. Hope et al.) describes the pharaonic and classical religious complexes as well as the cult of Tutu. Various areas are discussed, the main and west temple complexes, shrines, dating of buildings in the complex, sculpture, and stelae. The cult of Tutu, a manifestation of Amun-Re, is discussed by Olaf E. Kaper, particularly the exceptional feature of the mammisi, which contains an anonymous pharaoh on its walls along with 400 deities. The religious life of Kellis was traditional Egyptian, with a full pantheon of gods, in line with religious worship in the Nile valley. The transition from native Egyptian gods to Christianity is illustrated in some of the papyri. The religious iconography is also consonant with the Nile valley. Chapter 10 (Helen Whitehouse) is a well-illustrated analysis of painted decoration in the main temple complex). Chapter 11 (Gillian E. Bowen) discusses the churches. In the third century CE, some of the population converted to Christianity and by the fourth century mud-brick churches begin to appear, two in the south-east, a third on the north-west. The archaeology and dating of these churches are thoroughly discussed. These are among the most accurately dated churches in Egypt and demonstrate the standard architectural style for Christian services, with an east-west orientation and apse in the east. Chapter 12 (Iain Gardner) writes about types of Christianity, its spread and organization, including a Manichaean Syriac text. These discoveries elucidate the transition from paganism to Christianity in Egypt with both archaeological and textual data.

The last section of the book, Burial Practices and Population, deal with the traditional cemeteries (Chapter 13 Colin A. Hope et al.), Christian burial practices (Chapter 14 Gillian E. Bowen) and bioarchaeological studies of human remains (Chapter 15 Tosha L. Dupras et al.). These chapters are at the same high level as the rest of the book and again elucidate the development of Christianity and life and death in this Egyptian Roman village.

The final Chapter 16 (Colin A. Hope and Gillian E. Bowen) describes how this thriving affluent agricultural community declined probably through over-exploitation of its water supply, the encroachment of sand dunes, and soil degradation, and was abandoned in the fifth century.

The book is well-illustrated with color photos, ample architectural drawings, building plans, and maps. In addition, on pages xvii-xx there is a list of Online Figures and Tables, but not until pp. xxvii does the reader find instructions to go to to access additional illustrations. When I went to the address, it was a general address for Cambridge University Press, and I was unable to access the online illustrations, something that Cambridge needs to fix. This mars an otherwise well edited and first rate book.


Authors and Titles

Colin A. Hope, Kellis in Context

Colin A. Hope and Gillian E. Bowen Houses, Households, Household Activities
Helen Whitehouse, Paintings from Domestic Contexts
Colin A. Hope, Crafts

Roger S. Bagnall, Society and Social Structure
Roger S. Bagnall, The Economy
Andrew Connor, The Administration of Kellis and Dakhleh Oasis
Andrew Connor, Literacy

Colin A. Hope, Gillian E. Bowen, and Olaf E. Kaper, The Pharaonic and Classical Religious Complexes and the Cult of Tutu
Helen Whitehouse, Painted Decoration in the Main Temple Complex
Gillian E. Bowen, The Churches,
Iain Gardner, Types of Christianity: History and Spread, Organisation, Practices and Literature

Colin A. Hope, Judith Mckenzie, and Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, The Traditional Cemeteries of Kellis
Gillian E. Bowen, Christian Burial Practices
Tosha L. Dupras, Sandra M. Wheeler, Lana J. Williams, and Peter G. Sheldrick, Revealing Life through Death: A Review of the Bioarcheological Studies of Human Remains

Colin A. Hope, Gillian E. Bowen, The Abandonment of Kellis

Appendix: Some Kellis Texts in Translation