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Volume 25, Number 2March/April 1974

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Diary Of A Dig

Written by Elizabeth Rodenbeck
Illustrated by Don Thompson

South and east of modern Cairo, between the old Roman fortress called Babylon and a cemetery known as the City of the Dead, lies a square mile or so of utter desolation. Nothing grows, there is nothing green. In every direction stretch endless low gray mounds.

Unpromising? Perhaps. But those heaps of dirt are worth another look, for they are not just dirt. They are the rubbish dumps of Cairo, and have been for the last 800 years. Underneath them, sometimes as much as 18 feet down, lie the foundations and remains of a city that flowered 1,000 years ago, Fustat, City of the Tent, founded in the 7th century by the Muslim conquerors of Egypt.

For some 500 years after the Arab conquest of Egypt, Fustat flourished as a center of commerce and trade which extended east to China and west to Spain. In the 10th century, however, the Fatimids came to Egypt from Tunisia to found a city nearby: Cairo, soon to be the center of a new caliphate and a new empire.

Two hundred years later Fustat was little more than a memory. To stave off the Crusaders in 1168, Fustat was set on fire and flames raged for 54 days. Fustat was burned and later vanished under the low gray mounds by the City of the Dead.

In the 20th century, archeologists have uncovered a great complex of streets and houses and retrieved ceramics, glass and woodwork. Some are still at it and one of those involved in this work is the author of this sketch.

I was a midwestern housewife and until 1971 spent most of my time looking after my family, shopping and chauffeuring the children to school. Then, in the fall of that year, my husband returned to teaching at the American University in Cairo (A.U.C.) after four years at the University of Michigan. We renewed an old acquaintance with Dr. George Scanlon, the American archeologist who has been excavating at Fustat since 1964, and suddenly there I was being asked to join an archeological expedition in Egypt as a pot sorter and artist! I had taken courses in Islamic Art, I have a good eye and a steady hand at drawing, but best of all, from Dr. Scanlon's point of view, I would be in Cairo at the right time.

It meant abandoning my family to the uncertain hazards of cook and nanny for two months. It meant getting up every morning at 6 a.m., driving to Fustat and squatting on a campstool for two or three hours a day. And it meant learning a cryptic terminology as I pawed through heaps of Mameluke and Fatimid graffiti and tried to distinguish between lead, tin and siliceous glazes, or to identify a Coptic doll, a glass weight, a piece of stucco sculpture. But I didn't hesitate and for the next two months joined the dig.

The other members of the expedition were Dr. Wladek Kubiak, the deputy director, and Antoni Ostrasz, the architect, both from Poland; John Forsyte, a history student and novice like myself, who sat in my vicinity on his campstool most mornings, also muttering; Clare, a glamorous lady draftsman with auburn hair, pencil behind the ear, who kindly guided me through my first tottering steps as an archeological artist; and two raven-haired undergraduate nymphs from A.U.C. With them I shared joys, troubles, cigarettes, coffee and jokes.

After the day's pot-sorting was finished, we would move to a massive book, wherein are recorded details of all the trophies from Fustat found in the past five seasons. Similar information was also recorded on cards and the objects would be sketched and put for safekeeping into shoe boxes or, if valuable, into locked wooden boxes. When work stopped around one o'clock my motherly instincts struggled to reassert themselves; flagging and famished I went home.

Meanwhile about 200 yards south of the tent area our team of Quftis did the work of digging. Named for Quft, their home village in Upper Egypt near Luxor, Quftis have been trained archeological diggers since the time of Sir Flinders Petrie in the late 19th century and have become the labor force upon which most archeologists in Egypt rely. They are highly skilled in carefully laying bare stratum after stratum of the excavation, without damaging potsherds and other artifacts.

The foundations and remains of 8th-through 11th-century Islamic buildings,—areas of flooring, sections of wall, steps, lintels—and water courses constitute a fascinating three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. To piece together the puzzle required painstaking study which I noted, day by day, in what would be my diary of a dig.

Saturday, September 18. The day I have been looking forward to for months has arrived. I turned off the main highway between barren hills toward the Cairo city dump and walked south. Three tents appeared above the rubble in the early morning haze, then four more lower down the slope. In the distance, a ring of mosques, the cries and clatter of the city faint on the fringes of the emptiness. The sand around the tents was raked and clean. Eight baskets of potsherds stood against one canvas wall. Antoni, the Polish architect, was there and introduced himself and two other helpers, who lost no time in putting me to work.

They first initiated me into the business of sorting the potsherds onto a clean plastic sheet. In each basket were 200 or 300 pieces of broken pottery, most of them locally made. More interesting and obscure pieces invited closer scrutiny: there were imported wares from Spain, Tunisia, the Eastern Mediterranean, Persia and China; then there were small bottles and fragments of delicately shaded glass, wooden spoons, ivory backgammon pieces, beads, coins, stucco, metal and bone, combs, kohl (mascara) sticks, and other ancient household debris. I puzzled slowly over my baskets for about two and a half hours. Then one of my new colleagues explained how to draw the objects which merited registration and how to take precise measurements. It is a trial to my soul to be so absolutely accurate, and to resist the temptation to make a drawing look as one thinks it ought to look rather than as it really does look.

Monday, September 20. I did a lot of sorting, making very tentative distinctions, then went down to see the human bulldozers at work clearing off the mounds. Strings of men and boys were hauling baskets of dirt up the hill from the level of the excavation, silhouetted against the skyline, chanting to the lead of the old rais. The coffee boy brought a kettle of hot water from his Primus stove somewhere behind the scenes, and we had a welcome cup of coffee. I continued to struggle with drawings and with my own high-handed attitude toward facts.

Tuesday, September 21. I find leading a double life, wife-mother/pot sorter-artist, a bit taxing physically, but the dividends are worth the expenditure. I got very discouraged trying to draw a sort of multi-faceted but irregular lump of pentametrical marble of inexplicable origin and purpose. I went to see the Quftis, but was mystified by the jigsaw puzzle of the dig.

Wednesday, September 22. I labor on my apprentice drawings. The girls are critical of my accuracy.

Thursday, September 23. I went exploring the site with a map. The categories of pottery are coming a little clearer. Keep the faith and perhaps light will dawn. They are excavating one of the drainage pits, and today they found an unglazed amphora, rosy, Roman-looking and undamaged. Curved lip, narrow neck, sloping shoulder, bulbous body and pointed bottom! To be drawn to scale, reduced to a quarter of its original size.

Monday, September 27. I went to work at 6:45 a.m. and saw the sun rise as we drove along the Corniche beside the Nile. The whole city lay misty and pearly, bathed in an apricot haze. The camp was cool and quiet. The mudir told us marvelous tales of previous seasons, while I was trying to reproduce accurately dribbles of green and yellow glaze on an ancient, significant but unattractive pot.

Wednesday, September 29. This morning I went very early and sorted three or four baskets. Then I drew a complicated small piece of carved wood with scrolls and leaves—probably an inset in a screen or piece of furniture; wood, being rare, was used conservatively and lovingly by early Islamic architects and artisans. I had a long talk with the mufetish, or government inspector, Midhat.

Thursday, September 30. Today was biweekly payday. The mudir arrived about 11:30, hot and bothered, having spent three hours at the bank because they hadn't enough five-piaster notes. The Quftis and all the 150 workers straggled up from the bottom of the mounds to the pay tent where Dr. Scanlon and Antoni sat behind a table, a pile of money in front of them. Next to Dr. Scanlon on his right sat Ramadan, calling out the names in a rasping voice, specifying how much each man had earned, getting them to sign their names as they received their money. Next to Ramadan in the door of the tent sat the blue-robed rais, a man of considerable dignity, who very graciously motioned me to a chair, ordered me a glass of water and gave me a cigarette. Most of the younger men could write, quite a lot of the older ones had seals with their names on them, and one or two had no seal and let Ramadan take their thumbs, press them in the purple ink and then in the space for their names. There were at least eight or nine very old men with seamed faces who looked tired after six hours hoeing and carrying dirt in the hot sun. Then they ranged all the way down in age to the youngest, who appeared no more than eight, and who still had a look of merry curiosity in his eye, an antediluvian tennis hat on his head and red sneakers. They waited, shuffling their feet, their eyelashes full of dust.

Saturday, October 2. A hydraulic chemist from Detroit came looking for soil samples from the pits, which acted as sewers as well as repositories of broken crockery and therefore were the receptacle of plenty of germs and microbes beautifully preserved in uric acid crystals.

Saturday, October 8. Today we had a tour of the elaborate drainage tunnels under the foundations of a large Fatimid house. We were let one by one down a pit and walked for several yards underground, expecting to find the entrance to a cave. Then we received an explanation of the funerary route which they are uncovering. It is a not very wide street, running from west to east, from Old Cairo to the Tulunid graveyard east of Fustat. The road predates the houses and the lowest level of the roads is all seventh and eighth century. Dates are established by means of glass weights, coins and pottery types.

Sunday, October 17. The tempo has changed a little now that they have finished clearing away the rubble and are concentrating more on careful clearing of pits, canals and foundations. Not so much stuff comes up to be sorted, and it is of a different nature and mostly from the early period; there is very little glazed ware, a lot of redware, some tinted glass, and some precious pieces of white Chinese porcelain. Dredged up from the undisturbed strata of the pits, these items are of far more value as scientific dating materials than the potsherds from the rubbish dumps, and must therefore be preserved and recorded with greater attention.

Today we went for a long walk with Midhat, the inspector, across Fustat, first to a 10th-century Fatimid house reconstructed by an Egyptian archeological team, which gives some idea of the type of structure that would have stood over our foundations. There are interesting variations of brick and stonework in the walls and vaults. Then we went over the mounds to the current Egyptian-supervised dig, where we were greeted by another chorus of cheerful Quftis. They have uncovered a long section of water pipe running through the garden of a house and off towards the wall of Saladin, all embedded in masonry with special devices for making the water run uphill.

Our dig is becoming one of the attractions of Cairo. More visitors: the treasure box is displayed and our precious objects taken out of their cotton wrappings to be admired, especially two prize pieces found in a pit: a lustre albarello with coppery gold peacocks facing each other, and an exquisite silvery white glass ewer with small pointed pouring lip and moulded decoration of a geometrical fountain.

Tuesday, October 19. The mudir came with a svelte former ambassadress in tow who was borne off in wonder to view pits, canals and Quftis at work. The contents of the treasure-box were displayed with consummate showmanship and an invitation extended to lunch on the houseboat where the team lives. The hope: a helpful and informed voice in Washington, D.C., source of our support.

Wednesday, October 20. It is the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. By noon the Quftis, who have had nothing to eat or drink since dawn, are looking peaked and drawn. They will fast until sunset. The sun is paler and an almost chilly wind is blowing through our camp. I sorted the pots by myself, no John to chatter with. He was down among the foundations supervising and recording a section of the east-west street, which looks like a slice from a rather gritty layer cake.

Monday, November 1. I laid out five baskets of unglazed redware and tried to get the hang of recording it from Dr. Kubiak. Imported wares from the Eastern Mediterranean are his special pets, and he spends the morning prowling round the plastic where the sherds are laid out, rapt in contemplation, whistling to himself.

Tuesday, November 2. Plenty of work. Many objects to be registered and drawn, many baskets of different things to be laid out and recorded. Rather a feverish atmosphere hangs over the camp. People are a bit edgy—apparently a common complaint of archeological expeditions after the first excitement has worn off. But the weather is glorious: it actually rained, the dust was laid, and the earth refreshed. In a last bid to find more treasure, a makeshift pump was set up and bucketfuls of muddy water dredged up from the bottom of a couple of flooded pits. Alas, no dramatic results.

Tuesday, November 9. We are winding up the dig. All but five of the Quftis were paid off; they dismantled their tents and left on the train for Quft. I typed up the mudir's interim report, a gutsy document. Everything has to be sorted out, photographed and disposed of. I laid out for photography all the special potsherds, glass, beads, wood, marble, stucco—an intriguing but at times rather exhausting job, as it involves so much bending over. Even the least interesting objects still have subtle color, texture, shape, and one could

Sunday, November 14. We finally lined everything up. John and I sat in the grid where all the contents of the pits and foundations had been carefully kept and examined, but were no longer inherently useful. We heaved them into the huge slit trenches left from previous soundings. The contents of the tents were packed up and neatly labeled by Clare. All the tents but one were dismantled; a white horse and a black donkey appeared with gharrys. All was loaded up and taken away to the storeroom.

Wednesday, November 17. Today, I witnessed the dismantling of the last tent, the mudir in an orange sweater with hatband to match and in, for him, a very bad temper, engaged in a game called "waiting for the inspector." We eventually proceeded to the storehouse. Our progress was hampered for most of the way by a good-natured multitude of people in holiday spirits. Piled onto flat-bottomed donkey carts in bright-colored confusion dramatically set off by the black meleyas of the older women, the whole populace, it seemed, was making its way to the graveyards east of Fustat to celebrate the Little Bairam, the end of the Ramadan fast, with oranges and sugar cakes to be eaten in the company of the dead. This custom is extremely ancient, and dates back to Pharaonic times, a thousand and more years before the advent of Islam.

The storehouse stands in a moon landscape in the south-western section of Fustat, which was excavated 40 or so years ago. It is quiet and cool inside, lined with dozens of boxes of loot from previous years. The few remaining unrecorded objects still had to be drawn—a zoomorphic head of a marmoset with a lopsided mouth and pop eyes, a reconstructed redware pitcher, an ibex head, two sherds of Mameluke graffiti—one depicting an eagle pouncing on its prey and the other a hand holding the legs of a falcon; the beautiful green glass bottle, delicately shaped and fluted, that my husband had reconstructed out of a dozen fragments during a visit to Fustat, now stuffed with cotton-wool and swathed in string, and a complete early Aladdin's lamp decorated with hearts and sprigs. Also a complete qulla (water bottle) filter, lavishly intricate for such a common household object, thanks to the exuberance and fancy of the Fatimid potters.

No more rising at crack of dawn to go to the rubbish dumps, but I spent two more leisurely weeks inking drawings and typing entries on the houseboat in the surprising chill of late November and early December. With the sunlight falling across the Nile and through the bow window onto the worktable, Clare and I made inked drawings, typed cards and knew the 177 registered objects of the '71 season by heart by the time December arrived.

The team flew off to various parts of the world one by one, Dr. Scanlon and Dr. Kubiak bearing copious documentation to be labored over and compiled into scholarly shape during the coming months.

I was quickly engulfed by household and family and their multiple demands once more. It was high time. The cook was proving a Mameluke of the kitchen, extravagant and bossy, the nanny had left and it was time I returned to my poor neglected children.

Elizabeth Rodenbeck grew up on a farm in Sussex, England, and later traveled to America, where she met her husband, a professor of English literature.

This article appeared on pages 10-13 of the March/April 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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