After a long and tiring journey, which consisted of a flight from Chicago to New York, a nine-hour layover in New York, a flight from New York to Frankfurt, Germany, a three hour layover in Frankfurt, a flight from Frankfurt to Cairo, an over-night stay in Cairo (the flight got in rather late), and a three hour drive…we finally arrived at Mendes! Do not get me wrong, the flights were smooth and the company of the other expedition members made the trip much more tolerable than had I been alone, but in total, I was awake and on the move from 8:00am Monday morning until 8:00pm Tuesday night, and that does not include the over-night in Cairo nor the drive to Mendes.
We arrived, got settled into the house, and I perused my lab space and the common areas (the library, the kitchen, the dining room, the roof etc.). Arriving early to the site (before all of the undergraduate field participants) gave me a chance to get comfortable in my new surroundings. Perhaps ‘comfortable’ is too casual a word, considering it was extremely hot and I was very tired from the previous two-days-worth of travel. I got acquainted with what would be my home for the next five weeks.
The undergraduates arrived a few days after me, two other staff members, and the director and co-director. At first glance they seemed to be a very amenable group of students, if also a little travel-worn and weary (and in desperate need of the bathroom; they came sprinting into the house and directly to the bathrooms after their long drive from Cairo!).
The excavation season was in full swing at 6:00am the morning after the students had all arrived. They were separated into two groups of four, and assigned to different areas of the site under the watchful eyes of the two site supervisors. For my part, I did not begin excavation the same day as the rest of the team owing to the fact that the First Intermediate Period burials had to be uncovered (they were identified in a previous season and went unexcavated). I busied myself with work in the lab with intervals of recreational reading sprinkled in. After two days in the field, the burials were uncovered and my work began.
Who knew excavating in Egypt in June and July would be so hot and uncomfortable? Everyone, I suppose. The students worked on a rotation with me (two per burial) and that gave everyone a chance to excavate human remains and work with “the bones guy.” The first two students had, quite possibly the worst burial I have ever had the misfortune to work on. It was not for the fact that the burial itself was in any way “bad”, but that the conditions under which we were excavating were brutal, to say the least. After one day of excavating (note: we were in full sun and in a unit which was easily two meters deep, preventing all air-flow), it became readily apparent that something needed to be done or we were going to have an excruciating and frankly unsafe excavation. Rather cleverly, I must admit, and with the help of the site supervisor and a few Egyptian workers, we managed to rig up a tarp to cover over the burial and keep the direct sun off of us as we worked. That brought the temperature in the unit down from about 130 degrees to about 115 degrees. Suffice it to say that it was a long, uncomfortable, sweaty, dirty job.
The excavation of the other burials uncovered this season progressed much more smoothly than the first, thankfully. Three adults and two children were uncovered and excavated during this season, so it gave all of the students a chance to see what burial excavation in the Delta is like (dirty, hot, poor preservation…and totally amazing!).
At each weekend the entire team took field trips. We went to Giza, Saqqara, Tanis; toured the sites of ancient Alexandria and enjoyed some amazing seafood; wandered aimlessly through the Kanh el-Khalili and took in all of the vivid colors, exotic scents and boisterous sounds of ancient market, and then it was time to depart.
Unlike the front-end trip, all of the students and staff (save two—one who chose to remain in Egypt for a few extra days, and one Australian student) were all together for the return journey. Once again it was a smooth, if extremely long sojourn. The students and staff were all so exhausted from the field season that the majority of the return was spent in silence reading, or watching movies, or in many cases catching up on desperately needed sleep! After slowly negotiating our way through the labyrinthine convolutions of the US Customs line at JFK at a pace that was the envy of every glacier in existence, we all retrieved our luggage and said our goodbyes.
All in all, despite minor ups and downs, as will happen at any field school, it was a good season overall. Thanks to the generous support of the ASOR Platt Excavation Fellowship and the donors who make it possible, I was able to join this remarkable expedition and work with a fantastic group of people.
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