“…OK, let me see if I have this right” Clorice said, referring to the copious notes she had been taking.
“The P.R.I.K.s are a multidisciplinary group of researchers from all over the world. The project was initiated in 1978 when the Canadian Society of Egyptologists were awarded a research concession in the western quadrant of the oasis by the former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of National Treasures.
“The only work that had been done in the region prior to the intrepid P.R.I.K.s was by Gertrude Caton-Thompson and her “partner”, geologist Elinor Wight Gardner during their groundbreaking prehistory survey in the early 1930s. Their astonishing collection of stone tools is housed in a small rarely visited room in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Currently there are four independent research projects working in the concession.
“First: The Dustbunny Team, which is lead by Dr. Maxine Churcher of the University in Alberta. They are studying environmental change and human activity in the region over the last 400,000 years using proxy data found in the sediments of different landforms. They are currently in the process of testing the hypothesis that this part of the world has been dominated primarily by large scale 23,000 year-long wet-dry climate cycles – that is to say 11,500 years of wet climate followed by 11,500 years of dry climate. Based on the geomorphology they believe that each successive cycle is drier than the cycle before it. As a result, through time, the size of the oasis and therefore the total area that protohumans and humans have occupied in the oasis is shrinking.”
“That’s right,” Jesse interjected. “The last wet phase, which was called the Holocene Wet Phase terminated sometime around 5,000 years ago. Its termination was contemporaneous with the beginning of the First Dynasty of the Old Kingdom – the mythical period when the still yet-to-be-discovered legendary city of Thinis, located somewhere on the Darb el-Arbain trans-Saharan trade route, was the capital. If this particular climate change hypothesis is correct, then the area should become increasingly drier for the next seven thousand years, give or take a couple. This will be the primary focus of the Dustbunny Team’s work this year.”
“Second,” Clorice continued, “is the Temple of Hathor Team, led by Dr. Omar el-Tahtawi, American University in Cairo. This will be their fifth field season. This is the first known major temple complex dedicated to the goddess Hathor found in the Western Desert. Omar’s team is primarily focusing on excavating the principal temple.”
Jesse interrupted again: “Yes, this site is likely to become a major tourist site in the near future, assuming generous donations from philanthropists and the Egyptian government. Her Very Specialness, The Secretary General of the Supreme Council of National Treasures, is in the process of trying to establish a Western Desert Oasis Tourist Trail to try and recapture the tourist market, which has become rather fickle since the 2011 revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood’s audacious shenanigans. Even after the military intervention and the election – the crowds have still not returned. There has been some discussion of reconstructing this site and turning it into a living “Pharonic Village” and research institute on the Cult of Hathor. If I manage this right, it could end up being a funding cash-cow, excuse the Hathorian bovine pun, and inject long-term interest and cash into the P.R.I.K.s’ coffers for decades.”
“Third,” Clorice went on, having mentally noted Jesse’s concern with funding the dig, “the Grave Digger Team led by Scott (a.k.a. Poop and Scoop) Boernwhore, University in London, is focused on collecting and analyzing palaeofecal thin sections from one cemetery that may have been used continuously for 3,000 years. The cemetery is located at the edge of the walled Hathor temple complex. The primary goal is to use markers in intestinal human fecal material to look at genetic changes in gut bacteria and diet through time, in one space, from a relatively closed breeding group. The data from this group will ultimately be fed into the Palaeo Genome Project.”
Jesse continued, “What I forgot to mention was that in the cemetery, in addition to the underground burials, there is a necropolis and a mastaba – a mud-brick, flat-roofed, rectangular platform shaped tomb that looks like the base of an unfinished step pyramid. The importance of the mastaba, besides it being a sexy discovery, is that it is a clear indicator of individual wealth during the pre-dynastic or early dynastic period. Thus the oasis had a social elite and therefore a “rank” society.”
“And last, but not least,” Clorice continued, purposefully ignoring yet another of Jesse’s rather bad anthropology puns, “the Epigraphy Team, led by Virginie Montcul, Universite de Paris. On the last day of last year’s field season they broke through a wattle and daub wall and found what appears to be an extensive library of scrolls and wooden books. The wall was promptly put back in place and has been guarded 24-7 by men with guns. Nothing is yet known about this site beyond its existence and it may prove to be one of the most important finds of the century.
“This site cannot be officially found until Her Very Specialness, The Secretary General of the Supreme Council of National Treasures, uncovers it and opens it up on live television, making the discovery herself in front of the world. This event will probably happen within the month, though there have already been two false alerts, called off at the last moment by some unknown bureaucratic archaeo-crises. You are expecting a hoard of press and tourists when the news of this find breaks.” Clorice’s head was spinning trying to process all the information.
“Bang on!” responded Jesse to Clorice’s synopsis. “I think now we can have a relaxing drink of some of that Coptic rum we purchased on the way here, and call it a night!
“Remember we are leaving at six in the morning. We will be stopping in Asyut for a few hours to gas up, buy some more supplies, and meet up with Professor Said, at the University in Asyut. Said is the expert in the geology of evaporites from the late Cretaceous Tethys Sea sedimentary rocks in the Western Desert. Last week, Archie identified a strange chemical fingerprint – which was dominantly alum, but also contained small amounts of manganese, nickel, zinc and cobalt, in a blue paint that completely covered the walls in what is left of an early Coptic church. Archie, who appears to have retired for the evening,” noted Jesse, looking around the room for Archie without success, “is convinced that, given the extravagant use of the pigment, there may be a cobalt mine in the area.
“If we could demonstrate that archaeology can be used as a modern tool to help locate a forgotten mine that might have significant economic potential, this could then be spun as the past helping support current regional economic development beyond archaeo-tourism. That in turn would help the P.R.I.K.s in getting additional community support and streamline the annual approval process.” Said Jesse, as Clorice watched him run his hands through his still dark yet silver-flecked hair.
“If it is OK with you, while you and Archie meet with Dr. Said, I think I will visit the necropolis – it is supposed to be one of the most interesting in the country. I have never visited Asyut and may never have another chance” Clorice said, thinking that she might also use this opportunity to touch base with Bishoy’s brother Amides.
“No problem – we should be in Asyut for about four to five hours – more than enough time to see the necropolis! Just make sure to have your sat phone turned on – so we can coordinate pickup” Jesse replied.
[Next post in this novel: Chapter 4>]