Report on the U.C. Berkeley El Hibeh Project: Field Seasons 2001 and 2002


Dr. Carol Redmount is Associate Professor of Egyptology at UC Berkeley. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Carol has excavated in Egypt for many years.

Dr. Redmount opened her lecture by reviewing her last presentation to our group, during which she walked the attendees through the process or selecting a archaeological site and why she had selected El Hibeh as her preferred site for her next excavation project.

Since that presentation, the Egyptian government has given her approval to proceed with excavation at the site, and two seasons have been completed, one for 3 weeks in May/June 2001 and the other for 4 weeks in June/July 2002.

The site lies on the east bank of the Nile approximately 55 kilometers south of the city of Beni Suef. Its location is at a strategic point where the traffic on the river could be monitored with ease. It seems to have been a provincial town throughout the 1st millennium BCE and continued to be occupied until at least the 4th century CE and possibly beyond. The site is, today, under increasing pressure from development which is pushing cultivation and habitation to the very foot of the tell, from both north and south as well as into the desert areas. A banana plantation against the southeast edge of the tell and the rising level of the Nile have proved very detrimental, as the high water table around the temple area is seriously damaging the remains. Local villagers seem to have been looting the site on and off for years. With the advent of a new bridge that crosses the Nile at Beni Suef access is easier than ever before.

The site has two major components: a tell mound which rises to as much as 6 meters at its highest point containing the remains of the town itself, and a large necropolis in the desert adjacent to the tell on the north and east sides. The entire site encompasses approximately 2 square kilometers.

The burials in the necropolis were cut into both the desert floor and the cliff north and east of the site. Most of the graves have been badly disturbed, unfortunately. There is also a square enclosure adjacent to the necropolis on the desert floor, noted on one early map as the location of several crocodile burials. So far that is the only clue as to its function.

The town portion of the site is fairly large and comparatively well preserved. It measures about one kilometer north-to-south by 1/3 kilometer east-to-west. The town was built on an irregular outcrop of limestone and was surrounded by a massive town wall on three sides, with the fourth side fronting on the river. Today, however, the river is approximately 300 meters away from the tell, having changed its course over time. Ancient records tell of a nearby island in the river on which inhabitants of El Hibeh farmed. A remnant of that island still exists.

Within the walls of the tell it is possible to identify domestic structures, industrial installations and burials. A particularly high area on the north side of the tell has been called a "fort" and next to it there appears to be a city gate - referred to as the "North Gate". The irregular limestone base rock is visible on the surface at various places, resulting is a quite complex stratigraphy for the site. In a hollow, within the southwest quadrant of the site, stand the remains of a small limestone temple which itself is surrounded on three sides by a mud brick temenos wall, with the 4th side open to the river. Inscriptions found at the temple indicate that its construction was begun by Shoshenq I, who was the first king of Dynasty 22, and was completed by his son, Osorkon I, toward the end of the 10th century BCE.

In the late 1800s/early 1900s, a series of illicit finds, sold on the antiquities market, focused scholarly attention on El Hibeh. The finds that were reputed to have come from the site included a number of picturesque coffins and sarcophagi, and important texts in both Hieratic and Demotic. The most famous of the texts are the Tale of Wenamun which dates from the 11th century BCE, and Papyrus Rylands IX, the Petition of Petiese, which dates from the time of Darius I in the 6th century BCE. The latter papyrus is a source of information about the temple at El Hibeh during Dynasties 26 and 27. The so-called Chronicle of Prince Osorkon on the Bubastite portal at Karnak Temple mentions El Hibeh as the residence of Osorkon, the High Priest of Amun in about 850 BCE. The text calls the site "The Crag of Amun Great of Roaring", which is a reference to the distinctive local manifestation of Amun. Amun is referred to by this name in the inscriptions from the El Hibeh temple as well.

In ancient times the site was known by several different names, including Teudjoi, or "their wall", perhaps a reference to the massive enclosure wall around the town. Bricks that make up the wall are stamped variously with the names of Menkheperre, High Priest of Amun at Karnak (1035-986BC), and his wife, Esetemkheb, which overlay bricks stamped with the name of Pinudjem I, an earlier High Priest of Amun (1070-1030BCE). Based on these dates it has been surmised that the town was founded at the beginning of Dynasty 21, perhaps initially as a military fort or camp. Other names used to identify the town include, P3-ihy, "The Camp", and T3-dhnt, "The Crag". In Greek the site was known as Ancyropolis. The site may have marked the northern boundary of the territory controlled by the High Priest of Amun at Thebes for at least part of its history in the 1st millennium BCE.

The site has been investigated several times since the beginning of the 19th century. First to publish an account of El Hibeh were Daressy and Kamel. Daressy visited the site in 1892 and again in 1901 and published a description of the site and the temple. Kamel, one of the earliest and most distinguished Egyptian Egyptologists, excavated at the site in 1901, taking soundings in a number of areas including the temple and the desert necropolis. He noted that the tombs had already been plundered. Kamel is the person who mentioned the finding of mummies of crocodiles in the square enclosure.

Next came two British excavators, Grenfell and Hunt, in 1902 and 1903, seeking papyrus. They did find papyrus by plundering graves. The papyri they found were published in two volumes, one in 1906, which contains Ptolemaic Greek texts dating to the 3rd century BCE, and a second in 1955 which contains a mixture of texts. The Demotic texts they found have never been published. Additionally Grenfell and Hunt found 2 painted mummy portraits one of which is now in the Cairo museum, and the other in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, U.K.

Junker worked at the site in 1911, followed by Ranke who cleared and recorded the temple in 1913/1914. He trenched around at least part of the temple's exterior wall and excavated a little on the tell. An Italian mission excavated some of the Greco/Roman houses and burials on the tell in 1934/1935, like Grenfell and Hunt searching primarily for papyri.

50 years would pass before the next investigations at El Hibeh. In 1980, Robert Wenke and Cynthia Sheikholeslami spent one season mapping and doing a surface survey of the site, and excavated several small soundings including one in the pronaos of the temple.

Finally in 2001, after another gap or 20 years, Carol Redmount initiated archaeological research at El Hibeh. The UC Berkeley Project has to date conducted 2 field seasons during which work has concentrated on: 
(1) producing an accurate and detailed topographic map of the site; 
(2) surveying and excavating geologic test trenches into the North Field area of the site; 
(3) conducting test excavation within the temple temenos area; 
(4) documenting and accessing the condition of the temple with a view to conservation needs.
Not until the Wenke/Sheikholeslami investigation in 1980 was there a scientific map of the site. All the maps that preceded that work were mere sketch maps. The 1980 map was not as comprehensive as is required for a major excavation project so the production of a complete topographical map of the entire tell mound as well as some of the surrounding desert area with its burials and archaeological features was the first order of business. The map produced is accurate to within 1 centimeter horizontally and to within 1.5 centimeters vertically. The 6,000 GPS-generated data points have been plotted using TDS Foresight software to create a highly accurate, detailed map.

During the 2002 season, a survey and assessment of the desert area north of the town mound's northern wall, was conducted. The survey extended as far as the hill and road, which form the official northern boundary of the site and Supreme Council of Antiquities [SCA] land. It was initially hoped that a site for construction of an excavation house could be identified, so the survey team hoped not to find any significant antiquities in at least part of this area. A surface survey and several geological test pits were excavated. Though there are a considerable number of burials in the desert hills and scarp around the edges of the area, the finds and features in the "flat land" were few and test trenchs proved almost sterile. Unfortunately, though an appropriate site was identified for an excavation compound, the SCA has recently issued a blanket ban on any permanent construction on SCA-owned antiquities land, so the construction was not approved.

The temple temenos seems to have been left completely unexcavated by prior investigators. Only the immediate temple area has been addressed, particularly by the German expedition. The UCB El Hibeh Project began exploratory excavations in this area in order to evaluate the surrounding archaeological context for the temple, and in hopes of tracing the evolution of a provincial temple temenos through time. In 2001 work was begun in the high area south of the temple where some intact limestone blocks have been uncovered just below the surface. A structure constructed of limestone blocks, many of which are plastered, and which backs right up to the temenos wall was discovered. Two well preserved relief blocks, apparently reused from the temple, were among those uncovered. A scattered hoard of about 200 coins was also recovered, though they seem to be later than the structure itself, which appears to be of about 3rd/4th century CE origin.

In 2002 work continued on this structure, following it to the west. A mud brick wall which had begun to appear at the end of the 2001 season, was traced, and proved to be part of the same large complex. In the northwest area fired mud brick and limestone rubble, including fragments of stamped bricks and reliefs emerged. This is likely debris from the German excavation as a probe of the NW corner of the main unit produced nothing but "fill" for about 3 meters, below which was relatively sterile soil, followed by another extended "fill" full of Coptic ceramics. The bottom of this probe has not yet been reached. It is still uncertain how extensive this structure may be, or what its purpose was, so work will continue during the next season.

Also in 2002, two probe trenches were opened, one against the remaining limestone blocks at the remnant of the south temenos wall (Trench STTA), the other at a high point along the edge of the paved road (Trench STTB). STTA produced arch-itectural debris including a fragment of a round column, but the debris stopped when an in-situ mud brick wall was encountered, indicating some sort of original structure still in place at this end of the temenos. STTB produced nothing but fill and debris clear down to the water table. In the debris were fired brick, some stamped brick fragments and more bits of limestone reliefs. Again this material seems to have been dumped during the German excavation.

As noted above, the small, limestone temple at El Hibeh was initially constructed by Shoshenq I in Dynasty 22. Dr. Redmount explained that, "Shoshenq was probably one of the most powerful and successful of the 3rd Intermediate Period kings of Egypt. He initiated a sort of renaissance in Egyptian culture and power, invading Palestine in the 5th year of the reign of King Rehoboam of Israel (also known as Shishak)". He dedicated the temple to a distinctive manifestation of the god Amun, known as Amun Great of Roarings, who seems to be unique to El Hibeh. Work on the temple was ultimately completed by Shoshenq's son, Osorkon I. According to Dieter Arnold, the pronaos was prob-ably added by Nectanebo in Dynasty 30. The temple consists of a hypostyle hall of two-by-four pillars, an offering chamber, and a bark sanctuary with four side rooms for the cult images. Dr. Redmount noted that "time and the hand of man have not been kind to the provincial Amun temple at El Hibeh". It has suffered considerable loss of structural integrity and most of its relief decoration has disappeared. The main walls of the temple are still standing, however, and a complete plan can be traced. Damage to the temple has increased during the past 20 years and the temple today is at, or perhaps already past, a critical point.

The El Hibeh Project team has concentrated, during its two seasons of work, on accessing and documenting the condition and conservation needs of the temple. When the team first arrived in 2001, the temple was overgrown with weeds, grass, and a palm tree, which had taken root in the center. The vegetation was cleared and the palm tree cut down, and it was found that the temple had been burned at some time in the past. A guard attempting to kill a snake also set fire to the vegetation nearby during the excavation season, and caused further damage to the temple. Salt damage to the limestone blocks is on-going, caused by alternately wetting and drying the blocks as the ground water rises and falls. Emergency conservation measures on some blocks were undertaken in 2001 to stop the reliefs from flaking away. 

An assessment of the water table and water chemistry was conducted during the 2001 season. A series of auger cores both inside and outside the temple were drilled and water samples were collected. A small pond, formerly a probe trench in the temple pronaos, remaining from the 1980 work, provided a means of monitoring the rise and fall of the water table. The work in 2001 revealed that: (1) the water table is now 60 centimeters above the limestone floor of the temple; (2) a significant flushing of the ground-water system does not occur; and (3) evidence exists - at least in the northwest part of the temple temenos - of ground-water stagnation, or at least very limited movement of water through the soil.

Analysis of bits of stone that had spalled off the limestone blocks, proved the stone to be from the Qarara Formation of the Mokatttam Group formed during the lower upper Eocene to upper middle Eocene period. The stone is poorly cemented with a high concentration of clay, so able to absorb a great deal of water. The stones throughout the temple vary considerably in quality, reflected by the color of the stone. The greater the quantity of iron-stained clay in the packstone, the poorer the quality and the more yellow in color it is. The front of the temple seems to be composed of better quality blocks than the back, which explains why the reliefs on the blocks in the front of the temple are better preserved than those at the back. The lower courses of stone are currently saturated with sodium chloride salts derived from the local ground water. The upper courses have been weathered by intensive solar radiation heating combined with humidity and dew-drop.

When the team returned in 2002 the state of the temple was of the utmost concern. The palm tree that had been cut down at the center had sprouted new fronds and the halfa grass had grown back with a vengeance. The water table had risen so high that a path cut in the front of the temple was often filled with standing water. At the higher elevation at the rear of the temple the ground was damp, and many blocks on the surface were soaked with water. The blocks that had been treated in 2001 had not fared very well; all were damp from ground-water absorption. A probe trench cut on both the inside and outside of the back wall of the temple reached ground-water so quickly that there was no possibility of locating the foundation of the temple. The trench did serve, however, as a means of measuring the rise and fall of the water table.

The team was able to trace the source of the changing water table to the irrigation of the banana plantation immediately to the south of the site. When the bananas were irrigated and the ditches were full of water, so was the temple site. As the irrigation ditches emptied so did the temple. The banana plantation was planted only about 7 years ago, and largely contributed to the rapid rate of destruction of the temple.

To preserve the building it will be necessary to remove the water and humidity, conserve existing blocks and possible replace some of the most badly damaged blocks. Interventions being considered include: modifying the elevation of the ground water, raising the level of the temple, consolidating of the limestone blocks, providing structural support for the temple and perhaps attempting to buy the banana plantation!

In the immediate future the project will continue with mapping of the desert around the site, explore the temple temenos and temenos wall more fully, continue to monitor and record the status of the temple, and work to establish a viable intervention plan for the structure. Long term plans include: investigation of the looted burials and remains that are scattered in the desert, investigation of the outer town wall and the structures within the town and on the plain, and investigation of the areas along the road which are most susceptible to looting and ground water damage. Dr. Redmount concluded her presentation by stating that "there is much work to be done, and El Hibeh has much to tell us about life in an Egyptian town of the 1st millennium BCE and CE. Stay tuned for further reports as or research progresses".

Donations to the project can be made by sending a check made out to The Regents of U.C. /El Hibeh Project and sent to the Treasurer, ARCE/NC, 439 Buena Vista Avenue, Redwood City, CA 94061.


Nancy Corbin

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Berkeley, CA 94712-2352

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