Exposed at Last

The Alan Rowe Expedition to Meidum, 1929-1932

Dr. Gary Lease (California State University Santa Cruz) spoke to the assembled members of the Northern California Chapter on January 22nd,1998 relating his interesting though somewhat frustrating search for information from an excavation conducted over four seasons at Meidum and in the surrounding cemeteries by Alan Rowe between 1929 and 1932.

Rowe's papers are stored at the University of Pennsylvania, and caught Dr. Lease's eye because of references to a "Coptic Christian cemetery" among the many Old, Middle and New Kingdom, as well as Ptolemaic and Roman cemeteries surrounding the pyramid at Meidum. Rowe was not the first to dig at Meidum, some 45 miles south of present-day Cairo, in the 21st Nome of ancient Egypt. Sir William Flinders Petrie had conducted excavations at the site in 1892, 1910 and finally in 1912. Thought to have been built by King Sneferu, the Meidum pyramid dates from the 3rd Dynasty. Rowe's excavation produced a substantial collection of ceramics, artifacts, drawings, maps, tomb inscriptions, photos and field notes, all of which were deposited at the University Museum in Philadelphia. Rowe prepared preliminary reports at the end of each field season, but only the 1932 report ever made it into print. No other results of his work at Meidum were ever published. With the onset of the Depression, and the lack of funds, his notes were relegated to obscurity.

Dr. Lease determined to investigate the materials from the excavation during the summer of 1985, after finding Rowe's type-written note taped to the cover of a copy of the Museum Journal containing the 1932 preliminary excavation report. Rowe's note pointed out that "...a large Greco-Roman and Early Christian cemetery was found at Meidum in the 1931-32 season". Dr. Lease considered this an astounding revelation. If Rowe had, in fact, uncovered an Early Christian cemetery so near the Faiyum, it might well prove important to current researchers concerned with the early origins of Christianity in Egypt.

Rowe had mentioned vast Ptolemaic and Roman cemeteries in his field notes. The early Ptolemaic tombs consisted of "...roughly circular pits with one or more chambers hollowed out in the rock...". The burials contained little except brightly painted anthropoid coffins containing mummies covered in panels of cloth or papyrus cartonage, and hooded, with the image of the deceased painted on the hood. The late Ptolemaic/early Roman burials, on the other hand, were in deep, square shafts, with rectangular chambers cut at the bottom of the shafts, many of which were carefully blocked with brick, and generally containing several burials in each. An enormous number of objects were contained in these graves - amphorae, jars, bowls, dishes, incense stands, lamps, figurines, divinities, bronzes, and drinking vessels and coins - were all found. Hundreds of dog burials were associated with these late Ptolemaic/early Roman cemeteries - the dogs being placed in the tomb beside their masters.

In the 1930-31 season Rowe reported an extensive Roman cemetery dating from the 1st Century A.D., and excavated 23 tombs. These tombs were cut horizontally into the rock hillsides and the entrance passages led to spacious, rectangular halls, high enough to stand in. Niches were cut into the walls in where the actual burials were located. Most of the bodies were bare, with no wrappings and no indications of mummification. Nothing was found placed in or around the actual graves. Rather, pottery, figurines and other objects were found on the floor of the entrance passage. RoweÕs primary experience was in Palestine, so he concluded that these Roman tombs "Éwere practically the sameÉas those of the same date found in PalestineÉ".

During his final excavation season - in 1931-32 - Rowe's team, while using an airplane to search for pyramids, "...discovered a great brick wall..." some 7 1/2 kilometers long, stretching NW across the desert from ancient Kerke near the Nile cultivation, to the city of Bubastos. The wall averaged two meters in width and Rowe believed that it had been built to protect a caravan route crossing the desert to the Faiyum. In fact, he was keen to extend his excavation concession so that he could clear the entire wall all the way to Bubastos!

Rowe's team uncovered what he deemed a Christian Cemetery in January 1932. The Coptic burials, north and west of the pyramid, were in small chambers cut in the rock, or in shallow pits lined with bricks, or in sand alone. The bodies were not mummified but were dressed in multicolored, sometimes embroidered garments, and with sheepskins, dyed yellow, piled over the head to a height of 1/2 meter in some cases. Some of the sand burials included baked bricks, and in one case the body was placed on "...three transverse sticks fixed in the sides a little above the floor". A large amount of pottery, some wooden figurines, and lamps were found with these burials. One lamp bore the ancient Egyptian symbol for "life", the ankh, which Early Christians sometimes confused with the Christian cross. Some ostraca with Coptic inscriptions were found, as well as a hoard of 4th and 5th century coins.

In little more than 6 weeks, Rowe had plowed through 3 different cemeteries and several hundred graves. Rowe stated that the first cemetery's graves were "...always Christian in date...". The second cemeteryÕs graves were reported as being Ptolemaic and Christian in origin. The final cemetery contained Ptolemaic, Roman and Christian graves, according to Rowe. He reported finding two large "family graves" consisting of several vaulted tombs placed together. Two Coptic ostraca, and a name list which ends enigmatically with a word Rowe translated as "hemp", were also found.

Rowe identified one "typical Christian grave" as consisting of a red-brick, rectangular tomb, 83 cm long by 32 cm wide, in sand about 120 cm below the surface of the desert, containing the body of a girl -child buried with her head to the north. No grave goods were included in the burial.

What led Rowe to proclaim this and other graves as "Christian" burials? His dig diary identifies tomb ANS-99 as "a family grave", but he appears to have changed his mind later as he showed a shard containing a long Coptic inscription to Walter Till in 1957 and identified the shard as from a "...brick-built church". This shard, with an alphabet in Coptic, and the name list ostraca which ends in the word translated as "Hemp", both came from ANS-99. Clearly they, along with other ostraca, played a role in his identification of the site. Till, however, dated the ostraca to the 7th century.

The hoard of coins, most of which were minted prior to 396 A.D., though some were of later date, which were found near the family grave/church - or perhaps it was just a house - were not brought back to Philadelphia. There is no record of them in Cairo, though they are explicitly listed in Rowe's diary (e.g., 45 with the name of the Emperor Arcadius, 54 with that of Theodosius, 23 with Valentinian, 22 with Honorius, 14 with Constantius, 2 with Gratian, and assorted single mints). Although their whereabouts are no longer known, the information allows for dating usage to the late 4th century/early 5th centuries.

Pieces of linen cloth with fringe and embroidery are probably pieces from shrouds, but beyond identifying them as Coptic, little else is known. Other artifacts that cannot be dated to stratigraphic levels appear to be Coptic in origin as well. Among the ceramic finds there is Coptic painted ware of 5th century origin.

In summary, what emerged from Dr. Lease's study, was a picture of a hurried, second priority investigation (Rowe was also excavating in Palestine and shuttled between the two sites), occurring at the very end of the Meidum expedition. Dr. Lease stated that, "...both the analysis of the ceramic remains and the coin hoard located in the Christian cemetery reveal an early 5th century deposit which reflected the economic chaos of the time and the general impoverishment of the once-rich Faiyum. The tombs, though not excavated with any care for stratigraphic recording, demonstrated an often hurried burial practice - burials shoved higgley-piggley into older Roman grave sites - with shoddy attention to the care of the corpse. Instead of late stage mummification or coffin use, bodies were simply covered with untanned sheep skins. As to the character of the Christianity exercised at Abu Nur at the beginning of the 5th century, how Christianity may have arrived at the village or what it's development up to the Arabic arrival may have been, the remains bequeathed to us by Rowe and his excavation do not allow even a supposition."

  • Nancy Corbin
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