UCLA Opens Egypt's 1st Official Archaeology Field School for US Undergrads

Willeke Wendrich, a renowned UCLA Egyptologist, and her co-director Ren Cappers of the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in the Netherlands, lead the 36-person field school. They arranged nine pairs of American-Egyptian student teams to work together.

In general, they don't want undergrads excavating in Egypt. They want only professionals.

UCLA Today

By Alison Hewitt

IT'S A LONG DAY for students excavating the ancient town of Karanis in Egypt's Fayum oasis.

They're up at 5 a.m., so early that UCLA's field archaeology program includes a first and second breakfast to keep them fueled until lunch. But you won't hear them complaining – much. Instead, they and their Egyptian cohorts in the field school are sending text and video blog postings back to UCLA, raving about seeing the pyramids and excavating the Greco-Roman town.

"Last year, I learned about Karanis at UCLA, but I never imagined this!" wrote Mallory Ditchey, a UCLA undergrad who joined the fall dig. "Karanis is HUGE, a wasteland of ruins scattered throughout the desert. When you look at it all, you can just imagine the thriving town it used to be. ... The excitement of discovering what's underneath makes the 5 a.m. wakeup call for eight hours of hard manual labor worth it. Maybe."

It's all part of the adventure of being in Egypt's first officially sanctioned field school for American undergraduates.

Egypt's agency in charge of protecting the country's cultural heritage, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), tends to be picky about who gets to dig, said UCLA archaeology Professor Ran Boytner, who helped arrange the university's new study-abroad field school program and its first Egypt program for students.

"In general, they don't want undergrads excavating in Egypt. They want only professionals," Boytner said. "Egypt is the most popular place in the world to do archaeology. It has always been at the top of the general imagination as the most fascinating place to do archaeology."

But the Fayum field school had a few things in its favor. The first was Willeke Wendrich, a UCLA professor and renowned Egyptologist. Wendrich and her co-director René Cappers, a professor and archaeobotanist from the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in the Netherlands, lead the 36-person field school and arranged nine pairs of American-Egyptian student teams to work together.

"Willeke is one of the world leaders in Egyptology, and she has a very close relationship with the inspectors on the Supreme Council of Antiquities," Boytner said. "She has great academic capital to spend, and she chose to spend it on this."

Wendrich also won SCA over by offering to include Egyptian SCA inspectors-in-training in the dig. These future inspectors are all college graduates in archaeology, but few have field experience, Wendrich said. That gives everyone involved not just archaeology experience, but also a deeper exposure to another culture.

The new inspectors have blogged enthusiastically about their first field experiences, posting their thoughts in both English and Arabic. Wendrich is also organizing video postings from the field.

For the UCLA students, exploring the sprawling agricultural settlement that was Karanis and uncovering plant remains and animal bones from the fourth through sixth centuries is turning into the trip of a lifetime.

Just two weeks into the dig, the field school has made some new discoveries.

"Based on dates in Greek papyri previously found at Karanis, the city was thought to have been abandoned in the fourth century … but the section we are working on dates from the fourth to the sixth centuries, which expands the occupation of Karanis by approximately two centuries," Wendrich said. "It certainly was rural, but it was also a large town, in which the inhabitants, mostly small landowners, created a comfortable life for themselves."

There are more mysteries to uncover, she added.

"One of the main mysteries is how the city inhabitants were provided with water," Wendrich said. "Karanis lies in the desert at the edge of the Fayum depression, and there were several canals that ran near the town. To date, six bath houses have been identified, but it is as yet unclear how the water from the canals reached the town."

Karanis is now believed to have been inhabited from 300 BC to the sixth century. The field school is uncovering plant remains, animal bones, textiles, basketry, leather and fragments of papyrus. After the first week of classes, including a crash course in Arabic, they began excavating. They draw plans, take photographs and measurements, excavate, sieve and sort finds. Nearby, modern life in the Fayum oasis continues

"At present, the region is in development as a large industrial area with factories and bakeries. We occasionally excavate in a sweet breeze, with an aroma reminiscent of doughnuts," Wendrich said. "Our excavation house and tent camp is 3 miles away in a rural area at the desert edge. Very quiet, except on Saturdays, when hundreds of vehicles bring in water buffaloes, cows, donkeys, sheep and goats for the local weekly animal souk."

The team excavates Sundays through Thursdays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m, then attends a lecture before a dinner break. After dinner, it's time to complete paperwork from 7-9 p.m. before falling into bed and starting over again. Undergrads get Fridays and Saturdays off to explore Cairo and relax in the dig house.

"I have learned much more in the field than I would have in a standard, four-walled classroom," blogged UCLA philosophy major Sandra Garcia. "The passion that the instructors share with those willing to learn is definitely making the field school an experience of a lifetime – and the fact that this field school is right in the middle of Egypt does not hurt one bit."

Read the blog or read postings from Egypt.

Published: Tuesday, November 04, 2008