Online Review: Book

Bi'r Minayh: Report on the Survey 1998–2004

Stephen E. Sidebotham

115.1

Edited by Ulrich Luft (Studia Aegyptiaca Series Maior 3). Pp. xi + 319, b&w figs. 205, color figs. 92, tables 12, fold-out drawings 2, fold-out maps 2. Archaeolingua Alapítvány, Budapest 2010. €116. ISBN 978-963-9911-11-6 (cloth).

This handsome, large-format tome, with contributions by 13 Hungarian scholars, pre-sents in detail the results of a survey and test excavations at Bi'r Minayh in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. This is not, however, as the dust jacket claims, "the first time that one particular site in the Eastern Desert has been published to the full extent." Other projects in the region have been published in detail, including excavations by the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale (IFAO) at Mons Claudianus, the University of Southampton at Mons Porphyrites, the University of Delaware/Leiden University at Shenshef, the University of Delaware at Sikait, and the IFAO at various Roman praesidia and skopeloi along the Quseir al-Qadim/Myos Hormos–Nile road. Published projects along the Red Sea coast include the University of Delaware/Leiden University/University of California, Los Angeles, excavations at Berenike and the University of Chicago and (later) University of Southampton excavations at Quseir al-Qadim/Myos Hormos.

The volume begins with a brief account of earlier visitors to Bi'r Minayh—F. Green, H.A. Winkler, and H.T. Wright—and the geology and geodesy of the region. Based on comparanda, the earliest prehistoric lithics from Bi'r Minayh are Middle Paleolithic "sandstone" tools (36), which date to ca. 100,000–70,000 b.p. (although I question whether tools could be made of sandstone). These and Neolithic (ca. 6900–5600 b.p.) implements (primarily created from quartz and flint) are nicely illustrated and include cores, flakes, retouched flakes, blades, scrapers, points, bifaces, hand axes, and bifacial hand axes but no polished stone tools or pottery of Neolithic date. There are a few rock shelters, which the authors believe to be prehistoric.

The team recorded approximately 400 petroglyphs (many previously noted by Green and Winkler early in the 20th century) dating from the Neolithic period to late antiquity (and later) at and in the vicinity of Bi'r Minayh. These depict both feral and domestic animals and humans, but they are difficult to date, and the authors use comparanda to do so. Documented inscriptions range from the Egyptian Old Kingdom (the earliest from the Fourth-Dynasty Pharaoh Snefru) to the Middle Kingdom (most numerous at the site) and New Kingdom. Most inscriptions appear to be in hieroglyphs, a few are in Arabic, and one is in Minaean (a South Arabian language). Texts include names of pharaohs, government officials, and mercenary soldiers. Wusum (Bedouin tribal symbols) include well signs (dalu), the meaning of which the Hungarian team did not understand.

The authors are uncertain of the function of Bi'r Minayh, the architectural remains of which comprise 300 buildings, 140 tombs, 38 other structures of undetermined function, and signal/watch towers (skopeloi). Dating primarily from the fourth to sixth centuries C.E., the researchers speculate that Bi'r Minayh could have been a gold mining or prospecting settlement, though they found little evidence to support this interpretation. (Dating is based on ceramics: African Red Slip Wares; Egyptian coarse cooking wares; Late Roman Amphora 1 sherds; Eastern Desert Wares; sherds with either red or black dipinti, which the authors refer to as "Greek dockets" [194–96]; and two coins.) There is no indication of quarrying or military use. Settlements similar in appearance, date, and general location somewhat removed from major communication routes have been documented elsewhere in the Eastern Desert; other scholars have suggested these to be Christian hermit (laura) communities (cf. Sidebotham et al., "Five Enigmatic Late Roman Settlements in the Eastern Desert," JEA 88 [2002] 187–225). This may have been the case at Bi'r Minayh, and the authors entertain this possibility. Edifices at Bi'r Minayh are cell-like features—oval, round, rectilinear, or horseshoe-shaped in plan—and comprise primarily single rooms, though there are buildings with two or more rooms. Original heights of the buildings' dry-laid stone walls are 0.8–1.2 m, suggesting that superstructures above them originally comprised wood or tentlike arrangements, which have since disappeared.

Excavation of six smaller test trenches and complete excavation of two single-roomed structures revealed ash layers suggestive of cooking or remnants of flammable superstructures. All the excavated layers indicate very short occupations.

Graves scattered among a number of necropoleis around the settlement have been thoroughly robbed. There are four types of tombs, approximately circular in plan, with the largest measuring 10 m in diameter. Tombs were built using dry-laid cobbles and small boulders; this doughnut-shaped sepulcher is quite common in the Eastern Desert. In addition to pottery, other documented small finds include 87 beads, a few glass and iron fragments, two coins, pieces of stone containers, and some reworked sherds in the form of the letter "T," similar to ones (both T- and Y-shaped) documented from other sites throughout the Eastern Desert. Though the purpose of these reworked sherds has never been determined (cf. Sidebotham et al. 2002, 206, pl. 18.3), they may have been gaming pieces. Contrary to the authors' belief that the climate was wetter in the fourth–sixth centuries C.E. (202), the region had by that time become as hyperarid as it is today.

One must compliment the Hungarian team for its thorough, high-quality presentation of the material, which includes many excellent plans and drawings, numerous photographs (including 16 color plates), and four folded inserts at the back of the volume (site plans and larger-format drawings of some of the petroglyphs). As with most archaeological projects these days, they conducted their exemplary work on an extremely limited budget, a fine tribute to their dedication and professionalism.

There are minor typographical errors, but a significant, frequent flaw is the stilted, awkward, and occasionally incomprehensible English. The volume would have been vastly improved by a native English speaker's editorial talents. These criticisms aside, this publication is a welcome addition to the growing number of monographs and articles appearing on this often-neglected, but important, desert area of Egypt.

Steven E. Sidebotham
Department of History
University of Delaware
Newark, Delaware 19716
ses@udel.edu

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1151.Sidebotham

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