In Egypt, Archaeologists Fly Kites to Detect Ancient Sites

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In the 4th century A.D. Kharga, which means "going out" in Arabic, was thought to be the southern rim of the Roman Empire. The forts may have been built during that time, when the Emperor Diocletian reinforced the Empire's boundaries.

"Romans introduced new irrigation systems, watch towers, road systems and a network of communication and control into this area," says Penny Wilson, an Egyptologist at the University of Durham in England. "Basically they made [it] bloom. Roman Egypt is a bit neglected, and there is a hell of a lot of Roman stuff in Egypt. From this point alone the area is worth a look."

The forts—whose similar architecture reflect a wide-reaching official plan—were checkpoints for import and export goods, Rossi says.

Chains of forts along desert trade routes facilitated the development of agricultural colonies, which depended upon extensive engineering works that tapped underground water supplies, says Barry Kemp, an Egyptologist at the University of Cambridge. "[These sites] deserve close study as a testimony to human endeavor in making inhospitable places inhabitable."

Churches and Temples Side-By-Side

The most impressive site in the region—which inspired the Survey and occupied the 2003 research season—is Umm el-Dabadib. Dabadib consists of a small fort in a fortified settlement with grand houses, some of them three stories tall, along with aqueducts and ten cemeteries. The cemeteries span as many as ten generations. The variation in tombs—carved rock, painted brick and ground—suggest that all classes of society lived in proximity.

One cemetery is only for children, which suggests to Ikram that a major disaster swept through the area—perhaps the plague.

Umm el-Dabadib also encompasses a temple with hieroglyphs and scenes of Egyptian deities, as well as a Christian church. While excavating a section of the temple wall Ikram stuck her digital camera into a tiny hole and snapped a photo. Within seconds the area around the camera disintegrated in a shower of dust. But the photo showed the arm and body of an Egyptian god, revealing the temple's roots. The temple and the church fascinate the researchers because the settlement may represent a transition point in worship.

"There seemed to be people with diverse religious beliefs living in what appears to be harmony," Ikram says.

NKOS is funded by the National Geographic Society, the American University in Cairo, Cambridge University's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and several other institutions.

Looters and Treasure Hunting

Kharga's value is partly its location. "In the desert the preservation of animals, plants, textiles and wood is fantastic," Wilfong says, "compared to the Nile Valley, where moisture causes things to rot."

But the extraordinary preservation of ancient buildings and materials in Kharga is increasingly threatened by looters.

"The illegal antiquities trade is rife," Ikram says, "no matter how remote the site."

About 20 years ago thieves used a bulldozer to break into the church at Umm el-Dabadib; according to legend, treasure is sealed in the church altar at the time of consecration. Before then, Rossi says, "this church was probably still intact."

Looters have invaded the cemeteries and dismembered mummies in search of gold and amulets that sometimes adorn the dead for their journey into the afterlife.

The mummies may be of Roman origin, Ikram says. In Roman fashion they still contain the brain, and the salt-dried bodies were covered in oils and wrapped in pink, red, yellow and natural-colored linen bandages. Researchers have identified Roman mummy masks by their plaster curls and eyebrow fragments.

Antiquity is fragile. Tour groups increasingly use four-wheel-drive vehicles to visit Kharga, but looters are similarly equipped.

"There are so many places in Egypt that have never been explored," Ikram says, "and we have a responsibility as archaeologists to see what is there. We need to record what is there and make these sites official."

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