Excavations carried out to unearth burials at Fag el-Gamous cemetery.
Project DirectorKerry Muhlestein
AffiliationBrigham Young University
Project SponsorSPARC (Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cultures), BYU Kennedy Center & BYU Religious Studies Center
There are two main parts of the BYU Egypt Excavation Project. The older remains are from the excavation of the Seila Pyramid. Our discovery of a stela with two of the names of Snefru, first king of the Fourth Dynasty, revealed who had built the pyramid. It lies 10 km due west of the Meidum Pyramid, and in terms of its elevation and the ratio of its construction, there are some clear links between the two pyramids. The Seila Pyramid has evidence for ritual activity on both the north and the eastern sides. It has a causeway on the eastern side, but no valley temple. It represents an important witness of Snefru’s innovations in regards to pyramid complexes, and play an important role in the development of pyramids. Besides the stelae, other important artifacts include an altar, the remains of a small statue, a foundation deposit jar, a model oar, and the remains of several limestone tables or altars.
The other part of the excavation is the Fag el-Gamous cemetery. This cemetery was in use during the Graeco-Roman era of Egyptian history. In the early 1900’s some Mummy Portraits were found there by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. The cemetery is very large and densely populated with burials. Some lie in the mudstone escarpments, where tombs were carved into the rocks. These are typically somewhat wealthier burials, including a golden masked mummy who was the daughter of a priest in the Ptolemaic period. Most of the burials lie loose in the sand. These burials range from being fully skeletalized to being extremely well preserved. They range from just after 300 BC to about 500 AD. During that time period nearly all of the inhabitants of the Fayoum converted to Christianity. There is some evidence for this in the burials. We are doing vigorous research attempting to determine if there are more detectable archaeological markers pointing to Christian burial practices.
This large cemetery population allows for significant statistical studies of burial practices. It has afforded a marvelous opportunity for demographic studies. Our textile analyses are providing significant new insights into changing burial patterns and the multiple and varied uses to which textiles were put. Because all of our textiles derive from a known setting, some of our most important work involves identifying and describing original in situ contexts that can be generalized to the many museum collections of uncertain provenance. We have also been able to study weaving practices, the use of tunics in various time periods, the use of sprang hairnets in various time periods, and a number of other textile studies. Analysis of amulets, figurines, pottery, jewelry, and other burial goods has also been possible. The site is among the most promising for telling us statistically significant information about burial practices in Graeco-Roman Egypt for the common person.
Our most recent publications may best highlight some of the research that is possible from the longstanding excavations performed by Brigham Young University (BYU):
Kerry Muhlestein, editor in chief, Krystal V. L. Pierce and Bethany Jensen, eds., Excavations at Fag el-Gamous and the Seila Pyramid, Harvard Egyptological Studies vol. 7. (Leiden: Brill, 2020).
This book includes chapters on the geography and history of the region, history of the BYU Excavations, the ritual ramifications of the excavation of the Seila Pyramid, a report on ritual objects on the northern side of the Seila Pyramid, an analysis of common burial practices at the cemetery, a ground-breaking report on which mummy portraits came from Fag el-Gamous, an analysis of the kinds of weaves used in burial clothing, an analysis of the use of jewelry in burials, an analysis of the kinds of dyes used to obtain purple clothing in the burials, a paleopathological study of some of the crania found among the burials, an analysis of pottery with a specific kind of hole, a report on the kinds of grain found with burials, a translation of papyrus found in the cemetery, and a report of a survey done of the nearby town of Philadelphia.
Kerry Muhlestein and R. Paul Evans, “Death of a Child: Demographic and preparation trends of juvenile burials in the Graeco-Roman Fayoum,” in Children in Antiquity. Perspectives and Experiences of Childhood in the Ancient Mediterranean, Lesley A. Beaumont, Matthew Dillon, and Nicola Harrington, eds. (London and New York: Routledge: 2021), 533-544.
Anne Kwaspen and Kristin South, “Sprang hairnets from the necropolis of Fag el-Gamus in the Fayum, Egypt,” in F. Pritchard (ed) Crafting Textiles from the Bronze Age to AD 1600: a memorial volume to Peter Collingwood. (Oxford: Oxbow books, 2021).
Anne Kwaspen and Kristin South, “Textile finds from burial 2003-NW-39 of the Fag el-Gamus necropolis,” in Proceedings of the 11th conference of the research group ‘Textiles from the Nile Valley’ (Tielt: Lannoo Publishers, forthcoming 2021).
Anne Kwaspen and Kristin South, “The tunics of Fag el-Gamus (Egypt): a survey of types,” in Purpureae Vestes VII: Proceedings of the Conference held 2-4 October, 2019 (Granada: University of Granada, 2020).