Between two rocks and my happy place

16 May 2016
Lawrence giving a guided tour on the history of Gebelein
Lawrence giving a guided tour on the history of Gebelein

Egypt: the mysterious land filled with pyramids and mummies, the land of the recent ‘Gods of Egypt’ blockbuster disaster, and the land where I spent three months earlier this year.

From January to March 2016, I had the opportunity to take part in fieldworks at Gebelein in Egypt.

Gebelein is the modern name given to the two-rock formation located around 30km south of Luxor on the west bank of the Nile. The site was occupied from the Predynastic Period (c.4000 BCE) until the Ptolemaic Period (88 BCE) of Egyptian history.

The mission that I was a part of, the Gebelein Archaeological Project, is headed by Wojciech Ejsmond, and is funded and supported by the University of Warsaw in Poland.

So how did I end up on a Polish mission in Egypt? Long story.

I met Wojciech and a number of other Polish scholars at the annual Current Research in Egyptology (CRE) conference in Oxford in April last year. It was at this time that I found out that he was leading a team at Gebelein, and he became aware of my research on Demotic narratives. However, it wasn’t until a recent research trip to Copenhagen — courtesy of the Doctoral Research Fund — that we worked out that I could be quite useful on the mission as a Demotist.

There was a thriving Ptolemaic military settlement at Gebelein, and this has yielded a substantial amount of Greek and Demotic papyri, some of which are housed in the Papyri Carlsberg Collection in Copenhagen. By having an understanding of Demotic, I could assist the mission’s geographic information system (GIS) specialist with identifying and mapping important points of interest for further studies based on the information from the Demotic archives.

So after a few more months of conversation, there I was, travelling to Egypt.

As a student of Ancient History specialising in Egyptology, being able to return to Egypt was an amazing feeling. It was a mixture of nostalgia, excitement, and uncertainly. It’s been five years since the last time I was in Egypt, but it’s the first time that I've been there for three months for a mission.

The mission itself had a bit of a bump at the start. Like many other missions, there was a delay in receiving permission to begin archaeological work this year. Since we were staying in Luxor, the silver lining was that we were able to do some sightseeing and get to know some of the other missions working around the area.

Lawrence in the process of mechanically removing salt build up on the temple wall
Lawrence in the process of mechanically removing salt build up on the temple wall

A few weeks and a 28-hour back-to-back train ride to and from Cairo later, we began our fieldwork.

For a first-timer, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Luckily, the mission members were friendly and supportive, and took the time to make sure that I knew what I was doing. I did have to take a quick crash course on Polish though, since it is the lingua franca of the mission. Many hilarious mispronunciations and awkward phrases later, I was able to get the basics — and more importantly, pronounce people’s names correctly.

While on site, I mainly took part in the conservation of a formerly undocumented rock-cut temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor by mechanically removing the salt build up on the rock surface. It’s not at all what I expected to be doing on the mission, but it was the project that required the most urgent attention, so I was more than happy to pitch in.

Turns out, it was surprisingly enjoyable, and incredibly satisfying for my OCD. By the end of a few weeks of cleaning, we managed to uncover carved relief that was previously under the layers of salt, which brought us one step closer to understanding the purpose of this 3500-year-old rock-cut temple.

The city of Luxor itself is fantastic to be in. Yes, there were frequent water shortages and the occasional power outage, but that didn’t bother us. We were lucky to be able to stay on the west bank, which is much quieter compared to the bustling tourist end on the east bank. It’s my favourite city in Egypt, since the people are nice, and the food is cheap.

Plus, I got to wake up every morning overlooking the Valley of the Kings — you can’t get better than that!

Currently, the mission is preparing for the publication of our findings from this season of fieldwork, and insha’Allah (Egyptian Arabic for ‘hopefully’ or ‘god willing’), we will be able to return to Egypt again next year.

It all goes to show how important it is to travel to conferences and meet likeminded people during your postgraduate study. They’ll take you places… literally.

Lawrence Xu is currently a doctoral candidate in Ancient History, and in the process of completing his thesis on the dramatisation of Demotic narratives – a case study on the Inaros Cycle.

Find out more about studying Ancient History