The American Research Center in Eygpt

ARCE Emergency Grant for Salvage Archaeology: In the Nick of Time at Ancient Heliopolis

ARCE Emergency Grant for Salvage Archaeology: In the Nick of Time at Ancient Heliopolis

ARCE Emergency Grant for Salvage Archaeology: In the Nick of Time at Ancient Heliopolis

The team of autumn 2015 after transporting blocks to the Obelisk Museum

Heliopolis once stood at the centre of the ancient Egyptian sun-cult, a core element of ancient Egyptian religion for more than three millennia. Today the site is seriously threatened by new construction and a rapidly rising water table. Eight meters of domestic and industrial waste as well as building rubble have been dumped on the site in the past four years. Added to this bleak scenario is the fact that the level of the water table on the site has risen alarmingly, and continues to do so. Between 2005 and 2015 it has increased by 1.3 meters, with the result that it now covers the archaeological layer by between 0.5 and 1 meter. These factors combine to make Heliopolis a most challenging environment for salvage archaeology.

In early April 2015 it became apparent that governorate plans to transform a five-feddan (slightly over 5 acres) section of the site into schools, playgrounds and youth clubs would forever destroy the possibility of deriving archaeological data from the area. Even though redevelopment would provide the community with much needed amenities, Dr. Dietrich Raue, Custodian of the Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig, and Dr. Aiman Ashmawy, Director of Regional Excavations in Upper and Lower Egypt, were concerned that pressure from the governorate to rapidly redevelop the area would affect ongoing documentation and excavation from this major, yet underexplored, site. 

Drs. Raue and Ashmawy, who have run a joint mission at ancient Heliopolis since 2005, decided to carry out a salvage excavation in the last days of the field season in an area measuring 40 x 15 meters, at the base of an eleven-meter-high garbage dump. Previous seasons had proven the area was rich in material culture. As the volumes of debris requiring removal were so great, the mission employed mechanical loaders to get close to the archaeological layers. Pumps were hired to allow detailed excavation and recording to proceed. The finds from this area were startling: a fragment of a large alabaster vessel of the Old Kingdom inscribed with the titles of Merenra; a nine-meter-thick mudbrick wall of the New Kingdom, a large fragment of a colossal granite statue in a kneeling position with outstretched arms bearing the titles of the Pharaoh Merenptah [1213-1203BCE], and the architectural remains of a stone temple built above the wall by Nektanebo 1 [380-363 BCE].

The stone fragments of this hitherto unknown temple were recorded in situ and then immediately removed to the adjacent external display area of the Matariyya Museum, close to the obelisk of Senwosret 1. The blocks, all made of basalt from Abu Zaabel, were from the level of the soubassement of the temple and had relief decoration that depicted a procession of kneeling Nile gods. Four large blocks in seven pieces, were collected from an area measuring only 5 by 9 meters, and it was expected that many more blocks would require extraction from adjacent squares.

Bandeau text on top of the Upper Egyptian geographic procession with the throne name of Nektanebo I

With the discovery of these rich remains, Drs. Raue and Ashmawy applied for an ARCE Emergency Grant through the Antiquity Endowment Fund (AEF) Program that would enable the team to remain on site for a six-week-long emergency salvage campaign and safeguard the site until the next field season began in September. By June 2015 when the team began its emergency salvage campaign, the governorate had already completed the construction of the youth center and the expansion of the local municipal building was underway. These construction projects were a direct threat to unexplored areas within the temple grounds. Acting quickly, the Egyptian-German Archaeological Mission met the first week of July and defined the areas to be prepared for emergency excavation. Five 10 x10 meter squares were identified based on inscriptions uncovered during earlier excavations that revealed clues as to the temple’s orientation. The removal of 13-meter high rubbish dumps exposed the excavation area. As anticipated, the temple was located within the identified squares. The ability to lower the water level through the purchase of pumping equipment led to the discovery of the first basalt blocks of Nektanebo I, some 80 cm below the water table. According to the project directors, the Egyptian-German team has stratigraphically excavated the largest area ever in the temple of Heliopolis. Dr. Raue additionally noted that the attention generated at the site has had a positive impact on the governorate’s coordination of construction projects and the protection of the area from illicit construction.

Collection of reliefs and inscriptions from the temple of Nektanebo I.

Commenting on the excavation Dr. Ashmawy noted, “The number of blocks from a limited area proves beyond any doubt that indeed the excavation area is the very site of the original building built of limestone reliefs and columns, with lower wall zones made in black basalt and other parts constructed of red silicified sandstone. The columns seem to point to a kiosk with rather elegant slim columns. Other relief fragments attest to larger ritual scenes. The inscriptions on the blocks mention royal projects and dedications to the Heliopolitan Hathor-Mistress of Hetepet and the King who is “beloved by Atum, Lord of Heliopolis the Great God, Lord of the Central Sanctuary”. Other blocks conveyed additional evidence for the representation of geographical processions consisting of Nile gods with accompanying texts.” Dr. Ashmawy further noted that, “In general, the artistic quality of the blocks and the execution of the hieroglyphs in sunken relief are exceptional. In addition, the discovery of objects like a sculptor’s practice piece found in the same area point to the proximity of workshops for various branches of crafts. The same holds true for a stratum of the New Kingdom that was identified in the southern part of the excavation area. Finds of pigments point to a workshop within the temple during the New Kingdom. Large quantities of alabaster were also found indicating different crafts were located nearby. It is quite probable that fragments of Old Kingdom alabaster vessels from this area were processed and recycled in this workshop.”

Sculptor’s practice piece from the foundation debris of the temple of Nektanebo I


During a site visit on October 1, 2015, Dr. Mamdouh Eldamaty, the Minister of Antiquities, stressed the importance of the site and its museum. He emphasized the importance of opening of the Matariyya Museum with the Obelisk of Senwosret I (ca. 1950 BC) to the public and developing further plans for the protection of this important archaeological site.

All photos courtesy of D. Raue.

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