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Interim Field Report of Work at White Monastery 12 December 2006–24 January 2007: White Monastery Federation Project

Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, Wittenberg University, Project Grant 2006–2007


Fig. 1: Map of the White Monastery Site (Brooks Hedstrom 2006–2007)
Fig. 1: Map of the White Monastery Site (using Pythagoras CAD Software), 2006. Scale 1:5000.
The White Monastery Federation Project began its second campaign on 12 December 2006 and ended on 24 January 2007. The second season of work at the White Monastery achieved six objectives as a joint expedition between the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the White Monastery Federation Project.

First, we continued to survey and map the area of the White Monastery including new archaeological work, mapping previously excavated structures and modern changes to the physical landscape of the site.

Second, we conducted sub-surface GPR survey of select areas over the 256-hectare site.

Fig. 2: Map showing the areas of GPR survey conducted in 2006. Scale 1:5000.

Third, we resumed excavations in Area 1 that contained mud and fired brick buildings from the Late Byzantine and Islamic periods (Units H, I, J, K and L). Fourth, we cleaned, mapped and documented mud brick structures that were excavated previously by the SCA in the late twentieth century (Unit M & O). Fifth, we documented and conserved part of a unique tri-conch tomb chapel located on the western edge of the site. Sixth, we photographed the entirety of the White Monastery church to produce a photographic record of the state of the church's interior and exterior in 2006.

Survey Work at the White Monastery

Mapping of the White Monastery included the addition of modifications to several modern structures that encompass the site and the construction of walls that now separate the monastery from the modern village. A second phase of mapping included the first stage of surveying and documenting areas excavated previously by the SCA, such as the mud brick structures in Area 3, the Tri-Conch Tomb Chapel and a large mud brick building, both in Area 1. The third phase included the addition of new architecture and deposits exposed by the new stratigraphic excavations in Area 1 that extend from the previous season (Units H-L).

Jaroslaw Majewski and Anna Groffik conducted eight days of GPR sub-surface survey in three areas of the White Monastery. Their work completes the second phase of geophysical survey that we have conducted at the site. The previous year's magnetometric survey results were affected by the presence of metal on the surface; it was hoped that the GPR results would produce more clear indications of ancient structures.

2006 Excavations in Area 1

Fig. 3: Excavation Units H–L in Area 1, from 2006 (Brooks Hedstrom 2006–2007)
Fig. 3: Excavation Units H–L in Area 1, from 2006. Scale 1:150.
Stratigraphic excavation continued in Area 1 from 12–30 December 2006. Five excavation units (H-L) were opened to examine the extent of a red brick-walled and limestone-paved room discovered in Unit A in 2005. Unit I is a 5 x 5 m square that opens directly to the south of Unit A. Units H and L form a 10 x 10 m area to the east of Unit A. Unit J and K form a 10 x 10 m area directly south of and east of Unit A.

Unit H and I contained architectural features that align with previously excavated material and form part of a limestone paved and white plastered structure. Unit H, J, K and L all contained elements of crudely constructed buildings made of mud or animal dung. These walls are very irregular and appear to form several small pens in this area.

Mapping and Documentation of Exposed Architecture

Two areas of previously excavated mud brick structures were cleaned, photographed and mapped in collaboration with our SCA colleagues. Unit O in Area 1 and Unit M in Area 3 were both excavated by the SCA from the 1990s onwards. Our joint project with the SCA is aimed at more detailed documentation of this earlier work to allow these structures to be reburied and conserved.

Fig. 5: Unit O mud brick building in Area 1 (Brooks Hedstrom 2006–2007)
Fig. 5: Unit O mud brick building in Area 1. Scale 1:150.

Unit O, in Area 1, contains several features such as a large mud brick hall (16.8 x 16.5 m), with seven rooms. The building was expanded in later phases and includes additional rooms to the west, south and east. To the east of this building are two cisterns along with several surviving areas of ceramic piping. The only structure fully documented in 2006 was the original core of the structure that demonstrates several building phases and provides examples of common construction patterns used at the monastery in the late antique and early medieval period.

Fig. 9: Unit M view north (Brooks Hedstrom 2006–2007)
Fig. 9: Unit M view north.

Unit M, in Area 3, includes several mud brick structures and a few fired brick structures. The earliest structures in this area are the boundary wall of the original monastery, together with several associated mud-brick buildings in the southern part of the area. This wall was severely damaged by an intense episode of burning. The next phase of activity appears to have been associated with the construction of the monastery church and is represented by a huge dump of limestone chippings at the northern edge. Several fired brick structures or tanks in this area are probably contemporary with this limestone chippings deposit and may have been associated with this construction activity. The original boundary wall was subsequently repaired and refaced and a new entrance inserted through it, whilst the ground level inside the wall was raised by around 0.3m. This allowed for the construction of four plastered underground storage chambers against the face of the boundary wall. One of them contains a very large in situ storage jar. This phase also saw the construction of a large square semi-subterranean mud-brick building in the north-east part of this area, which was probably used for storage. The buildings of this period seem to have suffered another catastrophic episode of burning, but a number of features suggest a re-occupation of this area may have followed immediately after this event. The buildings of this phase, which seem to have reused bricks from the fire-damaged parts of the original boundary wall, mark the final stage of occupation in this area. The area was backfilled on completion of our recording.

Conservation, Mapping and Documentation of the Tri-Conch Funerary Chapel

Fig. 6: Unit N Tri-Conch Chapel. Scale 1:200.

Conservation consultant Luigi De Cesaris carried out an assessment of the state of the late antique paintings preserved at the tri-conch funerary chapel (Unit N). A team of four conservators worked for four days to stabilize the paintings on three pillars and on the exposed surfaces of two lobes of the tri-conch.

Photography of the White Monastery Church

The goal of the White Monastery Church Survey is the thorough recording and documentation of the present state of the church believed to have built by St. Shenoute in AD 455. The survey team included Prof. Bentley Layton (Church survey director), Dr. Michael H. Burgoyne (Survey architect), and Dr. Joe Rock (Survey Photographer). This work consisted of nearly three hundred black and white rectified photographs recording both the interior and exterior of the church building. These photographs will be produced as black-and-white archival quality prints. It is intended to continue this survey work in subsequent seasons. The photographic documentation will provide a record of the various changes that have been made to the church and provide a foundation for further technical study of the church construction and its history.

The tri-conch funerary chapel

Fig. 11: Italian conservators stabilize painted plaster on pillars of the Tri-Conch chapel.

Work at the funerary chapel involved careful cleaning of the structure as revealed by the SCA excavations in 2002, followed by recording and photography. Selective excavation of preserved stratigraphic sequences was also carried out, and limited extensions of the area to the east and south were made to clarify the archaeological sequence and the original form of the building

Work in the funerary chapel has allowed us to suggest four major phases of construction and use. The earliest of these is represented by the remains of an incised plaster floor and mud-brick walls. The second phase saw a remodeling of the building with the insertion of piers in the south hall and the construction of the tomb chapel in the northern part of the building. Both buildings were floored with large stone slabs and there is evidence that significant areas of the tomb chapel were paved with marble at this time. The third phase seems to have involved the addition of piers with stone plinths and the construction of the tri-conch. This phase also saw the construction of a plaster floor at a higher level above the original stone and marble floor and the enclosure of areas of the building that previously had been open. After the abandonment of the tomb chapel and extensive robbing of its stone floors and brickwork the building appears to have been converted into a domestic house with clear evidence of a barn in the former south hall and an oven in the northern part of the building. Remains of this phase survive in several mud-brick walls in both the northern and southern part of the building.

Much of the work consisted of recording the location of extensive plaster fragments in the debris around the chapel as part of the intended project to reconstruct its decorative scheme. Further excavation is required in order to gain a fuller understanding of the development of the building over time. This should involve examination and documentation of the structures to the south as well as the east of the current building.