Fig. 1: An aerial view of the well-preserved but now threatened mining site of Wadi el-Hudi in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Photo courtesy the author.
In this essay, Kate Liszka, director of the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition in Egypt’s Eastern Desert and one of CAORC’s first grantees for the J.M. Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative, discusses the innovative and high-tech methods being used to document an important but now threatened mining site from Egypt’s pharaonic past.
Wadi el-Hudi is a series of nearly 30 remarkably well-preserved sites in the Egyptian Eastern Desert that are what remains of ancient Egypt’s bold endeavors to discover and procure rare semi-precious stones in the most challenging of environmental conditions. The gold, amethyst, and rock crystal gathered here in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–1700 BCE) and in the Early Roman Empire (c. 1st century CE) were used in ancient objects of beauty, especially in jewelry for the elite. Any fine jewelry made of the characteristically purple amethyst, such as Tutankhamun’s scarab bracelet, likely was carved from stone discovered at Wadi el-Hudi. But despite its historical importance, tourists are not allowed to visit Wadi el-Hudi.
Today, the sites we are investigating consist of the remains of the ancient mines, settlements for the workers (the walls of which still stand to their original heights), and hundreds of inscriptions carved into the rocks. These document the ancient expeditions, the identity of the workers, and how workers spent their spare time in the desert. By studying these extraordinary archaeological and epigraphic artifacts, the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition has been rediscovering and seeking to retell the story of the people who lived and worked in these places. We seek to understand who the workers were (Egyptians, Nubians, common workmen, administrators, or slaves), what their daily lives were like, when they worked at Wadi el-Hudi, and how they managed to get through and remove massive amounts of stone to discover the semi-precious prizes that were the objects of their efforts.
Yet, despite standing like time capsules in the desert for millennia, the sites of Wadi el-Hudi are today under imminent threat of destruction because modern mining companies are being allowed to remine the desert for its stone resources, including gold, barite, and granite. The modern mining companies, however, are targeting ancient mines as places where they know they will find sure-fire prizes. It is a modern gold rush on ancient gold mines which threatens to obliterate what they preserve for us of the past.
Fig. 2: Modern mining activity is threatening the preservation of the nearly 30 archaeological sites found at Wadi el-Hudi. Photo courtesy the author.
Consequently, the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition has been striving to record as many of these ancient monuments as possible before they disappear. We are racing against time to record what we can. Using cutting-edge technology now available, we are recording sites in 3D, as well as excavating samples and artifacts for typological study and scientific investigation. And we plan in the coming years to turn all the data from the archaeological sites and their associated artifacts into a virtual three-dimensional experience, so that people who want to learn more about Wadi el-Hudi can “rediscover” it in a digitally reconstructed view of its original location. People will be able to explore the site, relive our excavations, and study artifacts from their home. The reconstruction of Wadi el-Hudi online will also place significant pressure on modern mining companies to preserve the archaeology in the desert, too.
Thanks to the generous support of the J.M. Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative, the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition was able to take the first steps towards preserving these sites virtually. In January 2018, our team rendered thousands of photographs of Sites 2, 4, 5, 6, and 9 (the largest sites at Wadi el-Hudi) in Agisoft Photoscan and overlaid them with our mapping survey data (Fig. 3). This process produced 3D models of the sites that people can “walk through” in Google Earth. Next season, we hope to complete more detailed photogrammetric mapping of the ancient sites to produce high-definition models of Wadi el-Hudi. In the coming months, these 3D models will be available at our project website.
Fig. 3: Image of Site 5’s 3D model made from Agisoft Photoscan and thousands of photos. Image courtesy the author.
Additionally, our team is working to make 3D models of artifacts to incorporate into the virtual landscape, so that users can find objects just as archaeologists do. In this effort, our team worked tirelessly in January 2018, studying almost 60,000 pottery sherds. We also began to study, photograph, reconstruct, and make 3D models of other artifacts that we had excavated previously. These artifacts include over 40 ostraca (letters and accounting documents written on broken potsherds), seal impressions documenting governmental administration, and several broken stelae (inscribed rocks) that need to be reconstructed.
During this examination, exciting discoveries came to light. For example, Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) of one pot with etching on it revealed that it has, in fact, a rare sketch of a scribe holding an ink palette (Fig. 4). Perhaps the scribe in charge of organizing the workers and writing to the vizier sketched an image of himself in his spare time.
Fig. 4: Etched pot sherd with image of a scribe holding an ink palette. Photo courtesy the author.
In making 3D models of these artifacts, we also discovered that several fragments of a stela that we excavated from Site 4 fit together with fragments of another broken stela housed in the Aswan Museum on Elephantine Island, discovered originally at Wadi el-Hudi in the 1940s by the famous Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry. With the recently discovered excavated fragments, we can reconstruct and preserve nearly 60% of the original stela virtually. In future seasons, we will look for more of its pieces, reconstruct the stela, and put it on display in an Aswan museum. This particular stela is important because it provides the latest dates to mining activity in Wadi el-Hudi in the Middle Kingdom at the time of the pharaoh Sobekhotep IV.
To complete the 3D preservation of Wadi el-Hudi, our team is also working in archives and museums to study unpublished and under-published objects from Wadi el-Hudi that had been removed from the desert over the last century. In January 2018, our team also recorded over 40 stelae from Wadi el-Hudi that are housed in a dark storeroom of the Aswan Museum. We took thousands of photographs of these stelae in order to create perfect line drawings, new translations, and 3D models of each object. The 3D models are already producing exceptional results (Figure 5). For example, detailed photographs of one particular stela revealed a rare image of an Egyptian soldier wrestling an Aamu (translated either as an Asiatic or an Eastern Desert nomad). This type of scene is highly unusual in a desert encampment. It may allude to a popular interest in the sport of wrestling among the common people of the military or police forces in these expeditions, as similar wrestling scenes have been found only in a few elite tombs.
Fig. 5: A scaled 3D model of Stela WH21 in the Aswan Museum made from Agisoft Photoscan.
The Wadi el-Hudi Expedition is fighting tirelessly to record, preserve, and publicize the sites in this magnificent arid landscape. We want them to be preserved for millennia to come. For even if they are destroyed as a result of modern mining, we still want all of this unparalleled information to be preserved digitally for people to enjoy in perpetuity. We are in a race against the clock with sites being destroyed regularly. Thanks to the Responsive Preservation Initiative, we had the opportunity to begin this arduous, but rewarding process. To learn more about our expedition, to donate to our project, and (in the coming months) to see examples of the models we created, please visit www.wadielhudi.com.
Wadi el-Hudi Expedition 2018 team.
About the Author
Dr. Kate Liszka is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at California State University, San Bernardino, and has directed the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition in Egypt’s Eastern Desert since 2014. Her areas of specialization are Nubians in Egypt, the Medjay, ethnicity and identity in antiquity, multicultural interactions in frontier regions, and large-scale mining expeditions in antiquity.
The J.M. Kaplan-funded Responsive Preservation Initiative (RPI), administered by CAORC, provides critical funding to support urgent preservation, documentation, and site management efforts at cultural heritage sites around the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. Learn more about RPI-funded projects at www.caorc.org/rpi-grantees.