Yale archaeologists unearth Egyptian city

After 18 years of excavation, a Yale archaeology team has unearthed a large industrial center in the deserts of Western Egypt, shedding light on a little-known period in Egyptian history, the University announced last week.

Egyptology professor and Department Chair John Darnell and his team worked their way through the previously unearthed site of Umm Mawagir in the western deserts of Egypt and discovered large piles of ash next to clay ovens, buried in the sand. At first, the team wondered why so many ovens were clustered so close together in the northern part of the town, far from areas where people lived. They realized the ovens must have been used for large-scale production, not private use, at the newly discovered site — once an oasis but now a no man’s land.

“Very little of what we do is the classical announcement of a find,” saidDarnell’s colleague and wife, Deborah, coordinator of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. “We don’t have a lot of the flashy objects. Our objects are humble but of staggering importance.”

The Darnells began exploring the roads in the desert west of Luxor in 1992, when they unearthed outposts along the way suggesting that a major urban center had once existed in the remote region.

The site they eventually found, Umm Mawagir, is more than 3,500 years old, and what they discovered could change how archaeologists and historians view the late Middle Kingdom, a period of civil war between outside invaders and the then-pharaoh’s government. In the past, it was thought that there were three regions along the Nile competing with the pharaoh for power. But with the discovery of Umm Mawagir, John Darnell said, it seems a fourth power in the Western Egypt could have also played a part in the conflict. Darnell said the existence of Umm Mawagir, which is connected with the central city of Thebes by trade routes and could have been an ally, might explain why the pharaoh’s weaker forces overpowered its enemies.

Umm Mawagir contained an administrative building, as well as mud brick structures, silos, bread molds and ovens, indicating that it was a major center for bread production, he said.

The city produced enough bread “to feed an army,” he added. Many of the bread molds and locally produced pottery differed from artifacts found in other kingdoms, indicating Umm Mawagir was an independent region. The locations of the objects found also suggest that the city had specialized sections with different tasks.

Eventually though, a decrease in the local water supply and political-economic instability might have led to Umm Mawagir’s decline, Deborah Darnell said.

Artifacts from the excavation will remain in storage magazines, as they cannot be taken out of Egypt, John Darnell said. So far, the team has only excavated 1 percent of the site, and it will continue to explore the area, he said.

Aside from Umm Mawagir, many sites in the Western Desert remain to be excavated, giving Darnell and his team a “lifetime” of work. But many of the locations are threatened by robbery or development, Deborah Darnell said. And because the expeditions only last about one month at a time, the team prioritizes the excavation to remove the most important artifacts first.

Still, these were not the only challenges the archaeologists faced: There were extreme temperatures, sandstorms (like archelogists of yore, the team wore goggles and scarves to keep out the sand) — and poisonous horned vipers. In the early morning, the team members would leave their tents to see the criss-cross pattern the snakes make while moving about in the sand.

“It could either be a swarm of vipers or just a few overactive ones,” John Darnell said with a laugh. “We never knew.”

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