By Wendy Doyon / Field Diary 2019.4 © Abydos Archaeology
When you think of archaeology in Egypt, a pyramid, or a trowel, maybe a mummy, or perhaps even a palm tree is probably one of the first things to come to mind. But a hoe and basket? These may bring to mind something closer to life on a farm than an excavation, but did you know there is a long history of adapting traditional agricultural tools to archaeology in Egypt? The طرية (tureya), for example, is a traditional type of Egyptian field hoe that was first adopted as an excavation tool in the early nineteenth century and is still in use in Egyptian archaeology today (Fig. 1). The tureya is ideal as a horizontal scraping tool, which allows for very tight control of how much one is digging, making the trowel only necessary for very fine detail work (Figs. 2,3). The common and instantly recognizable tureya is just one of the tools that highlights the close historical relationship between agricultural and archaeological fieldwork in Egypt. Other, less recognizable examples include the كربال (kirbal, pl. karabil), a traditional type of sieve — which is Egypt’s answer to the fine mesh screens used by archaeologists everywhere to ensure the recovery of even the smallest artifacts — and the مقطف (maqtaf, pl. maqatif), a palm-leaf basket used for gathering, storing, and transporting produce throughout Egypt, which has long been used by archaeologists for collecting dirt, sherds, and other small finds during excavation (Figs. 4,5).
At North Abydos, no matter how large or small an excavation from one year to the next, 100% of the material excavated — sometimes up to a thousand cubic meters of dirt at a time — is carefully screened by hand using karabil, which are crafted and sourced locally (Fig. 6). In addition, all pottery sherds or other small objects found during screening make their way into the collections via maqatif, which are also made locally by craftswomen from the nearby village of al-Hagz (Figs. 7,8). The word maqtaf, from the Arabic root for to pick, gather, or harvest, literally means something like “a receptacle for gathering the harvest.” The use of agricultural tools like the tureya and maqtaf was an expedient feature of even the earliest recorded excavations in nineteenth-century Egypt, simply by virtue of the proximity of archaeological sites to cultivation in Egypt, while more specialized tools like the sieve came into use as systematic archaeology was professionalized in the early twentieth century (Fig. 9).
Evidence for the use of palm-leaf baskets to move the huge quantities of dirt excavated from archaeological sites all over Egypt is attested in many early records and publications; the use of baskets made locally in the Abydos region, in particular, can be seen as early as 1899 in photographs of British archaeologist Flinders Petrie’s excavations for the Egypt Exploration Fund during that and subsequent seasons (Figs. 10,11). It was, coincidentally, Petrie’s attention to small finds and their importance to the development of scientific field methods that ensured the continued use of these traditional baskets for the collection and storage of sherds and other fragmentary objects at Abydos, even after modern tools like buckets had replaced the need for palm-leaf baskets in the removal of dirt.
Digging up Roots in the Field
This season, archaeological historian Wendy Doyon was privileged to visit basket makers in al-Hagz, a small community located between al-‘Araba al-Madfuna at Abydos and the larger town of al-Baliana to the east, to learn a little bit about the traditional way of making these baskets. Much like the Upper Egyptian town of Qena — about 100km southeast of Abydos — is famous for its pottery, al-Hagz is one of the best-known centers of basket making in the region. However, unlike Qena, it does not enjoy a wide reputation among non-locals. As explained by the proprietors of one workshop in al-Hagz,* the women who make the baskets begin learning the trade as girls, becoming skilled enough over time to produce one basket in just half an hour. From start to finish, the maqatif are made entirely by hand. The process begins by selecting between two kinds of palm fiber, either ابيض (abyad) — the finer “white” fiber that comes from inside the leaf, or اخضر (akhdar) — the cheaper “green” fiber made from the outer part of the leaf (Fig. 12). The green baskets are produced in higher quantities for everyday use, and are also the type used in archaeological excavation, while the white baskets are more expensive and are produced, for example, for the tourist and arts & crafts markets (Fig. 13). The brown, threadlike fibers for use in making the edges and handles of the baskets, as well as the design on decorative pieces, are woven by rolling thin, bark-like strands from the trunk of the palm tree together between the palms of the hand (Figs. 13,14).
The first step in making the basket itself is weaving the palm fibers together by hand. After braiding together a large bunch of cut and pressed palm frond strips — each no bigger than a wisp of tall grass — into long, rolled bands about two inches wide, these woven bands are dried in the sun, then soaked in water for two hours, and finally brushed clean, trimmed, and finished (Fig. 15). Next, thin cords of braided twine, also from the palm leaf, are threaded through thick metal needles, several inches long, and sewn around the inner edge of the woven band as it is coiled upward into the shape of a basket (Figs. 15-17).
Even in photographs like those taken at Abydos more than a century ago, the high quality of the baskets crafted in the Abydos region is in clear contrast to the cheaper counterparts found, for example, at markets in Cairo (Fig. 18). It is also interesting to note stylistic parallels between the craftsmanship of modern basket makers from the Abydos region and examples of palm-leaf basketry from ancient Egypt, such as those excavated at Deir el-Bahri by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1931, or other examples found in T.E. Peet’s excavations locally (Figs. 19-23). Countless generations of cultural change notwithstanding, perhaps the old adage “if it ain’t broke…” applies nicely here. After all, during any given season, hundreds of these baskets are still central to the collection, transport, sorting, processing, registration, and organization of artifacts at Abydos, including the all-important task of sorting diagnostic pottery sherds, so fundamental to our understanding of the society, culture, and everyday life of ancient Egyptians (Figs. 24-30). In other words, the maqatif are, literally and figuratively, receptacles for gathering the harvest of excavation. Finally, and not least interestingly, the long-standing relationship between archaeologists at Abydos and the basket makers of al-Hagz and the surrounding area wonderfully illustrates the deeply shared historical roots and socio-economic interdependence of modern agricultural and archaeological fieldwork in Upper Egypt.**
*The basket makers at this shop requested not to be identified on the Internet or social media.
**The broader themes of this post are the subject of the author’s forthcoming dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania; see, for example, Wendy Doyon, “The History of Archaeology through the Eyes of Egyptians” in Unmasking Ideology in Imperial and Colonial Archaeology, edited by Bonnie Effros and Guolong Lai, pp.173-200, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2018.