The Northeast Fayyūm Lakeshore Project (NFLP)
Archaeological research reveals human activities and interventions at Northeast Fayyūm.
The Northeast Fayyūm Lakeshore Project (NFLP) is investigating how environmental conditions affect systems of communication between urban settlements around Lake Qārūn in the Fayyūm governate. The NFLP has been investigating a concession in Egypt previously held by the URU Project (UCLA). The goals of the current project are three-fold: 1) to investigate the subsistence patterns of the population living in the northeast Fayyūm; 2) to reconstruct the foundation, development, and abandonment phases of domestic sites in relation to changing environmental conditions around Lake Qārūn; and 3) to advance research relating to knowledge transmission between settlements of differing sizes. Our research at the sites of Karanis (modern Kom Aushim), Al-Qārah al-Ḥamrā, and Qarat Rusas has shown that there was a short-lived increase in the density of settlements around Lake Qārūn from approximately the fourth century BCE to the second century CE. Smaller settlements, like Al-Qārah al-Ḥamrā and Qarat Rusas, subsisted largely on fishing and limited agricultural production on the lake shore but were connected to trade networks within and beyond the Fayyūm region. To better understand the mechanisms by which goods, people, and knowledge circulated between the network of settlements in the northeast Fayyūm, we engage a range of specialists who can map the landscape and analyze the material culture.
The URU Project (2002-2015), led by Drs. Willeke Wendrich, René Cappers, and Simon Holdaway, investigated the site of Kom Aushim, ancient Karanis, which was a major townsite for the Fayyūm region. Excavations previously conducted by the University of Michigan (1924-1935) had uncovered multiple levels of occupation dating from the Ptolemaic to Late Roman periods, and part of the mission of the URU was to investigate changes within the region over these periods with respect to agricultural productivity, changing demographics, and shifts in daily life activities. These studies provide updated information about the chronological development of the site during its occupation and abandonment phases, along with other large townsites of the region (Tebtunis and Soknopaiou Nesos, to name a few) with similar historic or modern excavation projects. Karanis remains a long-term component of the Northeast Fayyūm Lakeshore Project, as its size and lengthy occupation period make it a necessary site for understanding long-term socio-economic change within the region.
While those investigations (2002-2015) focused largely on Karanis, the most recent NFLP work has redirected to the small ancient settlement at Al-Qārah al-Ḥamrā (2016-2018), located on the north shore of Lake Qārūn. The region also includes the comparably sized site of Qarat Rusas; both sites provide different models of ancient life to compare to the nearby town of Karanis.
Excavations at al-Qārah al-Ḥamrā have taken place on a 5-meter grid that was established by the URU Project team according to Tomaz Herbich’s 2004 magnetometric study. Sub-surface architectural remains have so far matched precisely to the survey imagery. The excavated trenches confirmed that despite groundwater issues, charred organic materials (among other artifacts), and mudbrick architecture have been preserved at the site. The environmental archaeological data indicate that the population of al-Qārah al-Ḥamrā largely relied on fish but was also involved in small-scale agriculture on the lakeshore. Moreover, an excess of catfish crania found in one trench suggest that fish was being preserved—with the heads removed—for export from the site. Preliminary analysis of charred plant remains include the presence of barley as well as both emmer and hard wheat, the former of which was phased out in later Roman times. Olive, lentil, cucumber, and peas were also present at Al-Qārah al-Ḥamrā.
Numismatic and ceramic studies have begun to narrow down the dating of human presence at al-Qārah al-Ḥamrā, whose ancient name remains unknown. The ceramic corpus from all trenches indicates that the site was occupied already in the late third century BCE and was likely abandoned by the second century CE. The determination of the end of occupation is, however, complicated by the current lack of architectural remains on the surface and evidence that the site was eventually submerged under the lake. The variation of lake levels is, therefore, key to our understanding of life, not only at Al-Qārah al-Ḥamrā but also at Qarat Rusas and Karanis.
Owing to the presence of these three sites within the concession, our project looks forward to illuminating how processes of inter-site dependency, competition and cooperation in resource acquisition, and exchange network creation operated in Graeco-Roman Egypt. Moreover, research at Al-Qārah al-Ḥamrā has preliminarily shown that the site was inhabited for a limited span of time (ca. 300 BCE-200 CE), providing an interesting case study in the expansion and contraction of urban settlements in the region. Through our research, we deepen not only our understanding of the history of the Fayyūm during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (3rd century BCE to 4th century CE) but also integrate archaeological evidence for work on inter-site connections with previous textual studies. We continue to nuance the landscape perspective at a local level with the material evidence from smaller sites to the network. By considering how a variety of settlements existed within and communicated through the particular topography of the northeast Fayyūm, this study will take environmental change—especially the rise and fall of water levels in Lake Qārūn—into consideration.
The Northeast Fayyūm Lakeshore Project has been under the directorship of Dr. Emily Cole and Dr. Bethany Simpson since 2015 and is currently active.
Work in this concession was carried out from 2002-2014 under Dr. Willeke Wendrich (University of California, Los Angeles) and Dr. René Cappers (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen), with the addition of Dr. Simon Holdaway (University of Auckland) in 2010.
The project would like to gratefully acknowledge the support of his Excellence the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Dr. Khaled el-Anani and the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Dr. Mostafa Waziri. We would also like to extend our sincere thanks to members of the Fayyūm Inspectorate, especially the Director Sayed Elshora and our seasonal Inspectors: Rania Moustafa (2016), Ahmed Hassan (2017), and Yasser Youssef Abdul Sattar (2018).
This project would not be possible without the generous financial support of Harris Bass (2016), the University of California, Los Angeles and Willeke Wendrich (2016, 2017), the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University (2017), and an Archaeology Grant from the Rust Family Foundation (2018, 2021). Additional field equipment was kindly supplied by Microsoft Research Outreach.
List of team members: