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The Egyptian Delta Monastic Archaeology Project: John the Little: Season 2 (May 14–June 16, 2007)

Stephen J. Davis, Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, Dawn McCormack, and Gillian Pyke, Project Grant 2006/07

Abstract

The archaeological research at John the Little's Monastery in Wadi Natrun included two objectives: first, to continue mapping the archaeological features of the site; and second, to continue stratigraphic excavations with the focus this season upon a small mound, roughly 40 m in diameter, which contained visible walls. The mound was located directly west of the midden excavated in Season 1 and was selected because of its smaller size and its proximity to the midden. By excavating this area we seek:

  1. to reveal the spatial layout and phases of the monastic residences (manshubiyyat) at John the Little;
  2. to ascertain if the location of the dwellings reflected any apparent correlation to lines of footpath access within the settlement; and
  3. to investigate how the manshubiyyat at John the Little relate to the manshubiyyat found at other monastic settlements, such as those further north at Kellia-Pherme.

Survey

The surface mapping of the site of John the Little included three objectives. The first objective was to continue mapping the extent of the koms, or mounds, that are visible on the surface. This season we added 70 mounds to our overall map of the site.

The second objective was to produce a strip of topographical mapping (135 by 135 meters) that would assist us in creating a detailed map of the surface of the site. The third objective was to establish an identification system for labeling the archaeological features at the site.

Excavation

A small mound (roughly 700 sq. meters) was selected for excavation as a sample manshubiya site. We selected an area that had visible architecture, a structure that would allow us to begin studying the methods of monastic construction and renovation at John the Little. What we found was a well-preserved example of a multi-room monastic residence (residence B). The proximity of this residence to the midden we excavated in season one will provide us with the opportunity in the future to excavate the area between the building and a dump to identify possible foot paths and other features, such as mastabas or pens for animals that might be found along exterior walls. In documenting this structure, we want to know how the layout of the residences may relate to the architecture and layout of the well-known monastic community of Kellia, where the surface features share similarities with the mounds found at John the Little.

To begin our investigations we excavated an area (340 sq. meters) on the southwest section of a small mound with visible walls. The mound is located directly west of the midden excavated in Season 1. It was selected  with the hopes that, because of its smaller size, we could complete excavation of the complex in three years. Accordingly, we excavated approximately one-third of the mound in the 2007 season and plan to finish excavating the remaining rooms in 2008 and 2009. Our results from 2007, however, have provided us with enough information to begin formulating hypotheses that address key research questions concerning the settlement and history of the settlement.

The following conclusions can be drawn based upon our initial study of monastic residence B. First, we have a sample of a building that is unique in comparison with the typology of buildings found at Kellia. Unlike at Kellia where the central residence is found in the northwest of the complex, this residential complex seems to have its core in the southwest, with later remodeling and extension to the north and the east. This information suggests that there may be regional differences in architectural layout, differences that we will continue to explore as we excavate more manshubiyyat. Second, the dated ceramics and wall paintings date the occupation of the residence from the ninth to the eleventh century. In light of this dating, the settlement seems to represent a rare example of a semi-hermetical community that survived into the medieval period.

Third, inscriptions were discovered on the interior walls of the building, documentary evidence that will assist us in reconstructing the identity of the monks who used and lived in this structure and perhaps their role and status within the larger monastic community. It is possible that this way of marking residential space, similar to that seen at the communities at Esna and Kellia, will provide information for producing a detailed history of the site.

Currently the earliest phase of occupation corresponds to the ninth or tenth century, and the latest use of the building (in the area that contained an outdoor oven), dates to the tenth and eleventh centuries. Our dating is based upon the ceramic evidence analyzed by Gillian Pyke. An examination of the walls of the building demonstrated at least four distinctive phases of construction or remodeling. We reached floor level in only one of the thirteen rooms identified during the excavation. Room 2 proved to have nothing informative on the floor and therefore one of our primary goals next season will be to reach the floor and wall bases in all exposed rooms.

The finds recovered from the excavation include: fragments of glass windows with geometric patterns; glass cups; two Islamic coins; small animal bones (mostly of rodents); white plaster from walls, ceilings and floors; painted plaster with geometric and figural motifs; and ceramics. Room 3 had the highest yield of painted plaster in fallen fragments and we documented two Coptic inscriptions still on the walls of Room 3.

The majority of evidence for painted decoration was found in room 3 and can be divided into painted plaster that still remains in situ and that which fell off the walls in ancient times. The painted decoration still in situ was restricted to the west wall and the west end of the south wall of room 3. It consists of two red-painted Coptic inscriptions, one located at the west end of the south wall, close to the doorway leading to room 1. The second is on the west wall, between the doorway to room 1 and the doorway to room 2. The placement of these marks may indicate the original pathways through room 3 into rooms 1 and 2. Crosses in both red and black were also located on the west wall.

The architectural history of the building already demonstrates that the complex was remodeled in three or four phases. The earliest phase of the building consisted of four large rooms (Rooms 1–4) on the southwest side of the mound with rooms that were plastered at least twice. Later modifications included the addition of new walls designed to reinforce the original structure. The presence of air-shafts, the blocking of windows and doorways, and the addition of cuts into abutting walls are all in evidence in the area we excavated. In addition, internal walls were added to divide larger spaces into smaller rooms that may have been used for the purpose of storage at the end of the building's period of residence.

A first remodeling created a division that produced rooms 1 and 2 on the west side. Rooms 3 and 4 were the two central rooms on the south side of the courtyard. Evidence of the apex of a dome covering room 3 was found in the tumble on the north side. Room 4 was redesigned to include two smaller rooms on the southwest corner and to be entered on the north side by an arched foyer. The additional rooms 5 and 6 were cut directly into a central north-south wall. Room 9 later functioned as a kitchen with an oven after the western rooms had fallen into disuse. This room also produced our highest yield of ceramic material.

Goals for next season

In 2008, building on the foundation of work established during this season, we plan to continue excavating the rest of the architectural complex in order to outline the entirety of the complex in detail and examine its role as a monastic residence. We will also continue to refine both the site map and the topographical map. Both of these surveys will add further to our understanding of local topography and the layout of the monastic settlement as a whole.

Acknowledgements

Funding for season two was provided by grants from Dumbarton Oaks and the Simpson Trust for Egyptology at Yale University. Without this generous support, the work of EDMAP would not have been possible. In addition, the project would also like to acknowledge all the officials and representatives of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, both nationally and locally, who made the 2007 field season possible. Special gratitude is extended to Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General; Dr. Farag Fadah, Director of Islamic and Coptic Monuments; Dr. Magdi al-Ghandour, Director of Foreign Missions; Mr. Abd al-Rahim Salim Wahbi, General Director of the al-Buhayra Region; Mr. Abd al-Fattah Zaytoun, Director of Antiquities in the Wadi al-Natrun Region; Mr. Muhyi Basyuni 'Abd al-'Aziz, Director of Academic Documentation in the Wadi al-Natrun; and Mr. Gamal Fathi, Senior Inspector in the Wadi al-Natrun.

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