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An Oasis City
October 2017 (121.4)
An Oasis City
By Roger S. Bagnall, Nicola Aravecchia, Raffaella Cribiore, Paola Davoli, Olaf E. Kaper, and Susanna McFadden (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World). Pp. xvi + 240. NYU Press, New York 2015. $55. ISBN 978-1-4798-8922-8 (cloth).
This volume is a synthesis of the excavations conducted over a period of 11 years under the direction of Bagnall at Amheida, ancient Trimithis, in Egypt’s Dakhla Oasis. It is an extended version of Bagnall’s Eine Wüstenstadt: Leben und Kultur in einer ägyptischen Oase im 4. Jahrhundert n. Chr. (Stuttgart 2013), which itself originated from a series of lectures. The English edition includes sections written by five other members of Bagnall’s Amheida team. The book is organized thematically, within a chronological framework, and comprises an introduction and seven chapters, each divided into subsections, all of which are multiauthored. The book is also published in an electronic version (http://dlib.nyu.edu/awdl/isaw/oasis-city/). As Bagnall notes, producing the manuscript electronically enables the team to update the information as required.
At Amheida, a full site survey has taken place, and excavations have been conducted in the area of the temple and four major structures: two houses, a bathhouse, and a small church. These structures, their architecture, decoration, and texts, as well as decorated blocks retrieved from the temple, are the focus of this book, and their descriptions are contextualized in terms of the administrative, economic, religious, and sociocultural institutions of the region and Egypt in general.
Chapter 1 is a general overview of western Dakhla, its geomorphology, and its religious and economic landscapes. This is followed by evidence for activity at the site during the Dynastic period as revealed mainly in the region of the temple, which has been completely demolished for sebbakh and building materials. The ceramic assemblage reveals activity from the late Old Kingdom to the 13th Dynasty. Numerous decorated stone blocks were left behind by the pillagers, and from these, Kaper, the project’s associate director of Egyptology, is able to show that the temple itself was operational from the New Kingdom to the Late Period. The following chapters relate to the Roman and Late Roman–period structures, and Davoli, the project’s archaeological director, gives a comprehensive description of the architecture of the bathhouse (B6), House B1 and the adjoining structure B5, and, to a lesser extent, House B2 (ch. 3). The bathhouse, built over the remains of an earlier Roman bath, is still in the process of excavation. Thus far, 23 associated rooms have been identified, and 20,500 unused tesserae indicate that the structure was to receive a mosaic decoration. The presence of such a lavish structure was a completely unexpected find in this oasis community. A large fourth-century residence, B1, identified as belonging to one Serenos, was richly decorated with classical and geometric wall paintings and yielded quantities of ostraka; dipinti found on the wall of B5 indicate that it functioned as a schoolhouse. The paintings and texts have yielded invaluable information for our understanding of the socioeconomic status of some residents of Amheida, and their discussion forms an excellent chapter by Cribiore and McFadden, who, together with Bagnall, place Trimithis in the context of the eastern Roman empire (ch. 7). Religious practices are discussed by Kaper, Aravecchia, Davoli, and Bagnall (ch. 4). The section on Egyptian cult practice is a brief expansion of the discussion given in chapter 2, with an attempt to estimate the size of the temple; Aravecchia, the deputy field director, describes the small Amheida church and places it in the context of the six other early churches that have been excavated or surveyed in Dakhla. Bagnall combines information from the Trimithis ostraka and the Kellis papyri to assess the economy of the city and its society; this is supplemented by Aravecchia’s discussion of excavations at ʿAin el-Gedida, the only attested example of an epoikion (ch. 6). It is surprising that the book lacks a concluding chapter.
Attempts to synthesize multiauthored volumes notoriously result in a significant amount of overlap and repetition, as has this volume, which would have benefited greatly from further editing. Illustrations account for at least one-third of the book’s length, but many are reproduced poorly, and the purposes of several are puzzling. The site plan is duplicated (figs. 5, 45), and a detailed plan of the habitation area is also provided (fig. 53); Areas A and B are unlabeled. All three plans are reproduced at far too small a scale, making it difficult to determine the location of the excavated structures.
There are some inaccuracies in the section on Christianity. Kharga Oasis does not have more churches than Dakhla (119); currently five are known from Kharga and nine from Dakhla. The plan of Deir el-Malouk is reproduced from Grossmann’s modified version, which was itself produced to conform to a cruciform type. Aravecchia should have used the original plan and description made during the 1979 survey of the monument by the Dakhleh Oasis Project (A. Mills, “The Dakhleh Oasis Project: Report on the Third Season of Survey, September–December, 1980,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 11  175–92, pl. 10), which was available to him (146 n. 35).
Two further points are of particular note. The first relates to the methodology adopted for dating the various structures. For instance, the precise date for the occupation of House B1 (ca. 330–365 C.E.) is based on the ostraka found in the upper floor levels and the latest coins to be retrieved, dating to 355; no consideration is given to the process of abandonment or the longevity of coins.
The second point addresses Bagnall’s statement in the introduction that an area of interest at Amheida was urbanism; he asks, “How similar is Trimithis to Kellis? What distinctions within village and city and within the region would we find?” (10). However, few of the authors attempt to contextualize the finds from Amheida with those of Kellis, where several large, elaborately decorated residences also exist.
As Bagnall notes, this book is premature; excavations “have barely scratched the surface of a large and complex site” (xv, vi). Yet, owing to the political situation in Egypt and the current restriction on excavation in the oases, the 2015 excavation season may have been the last opportunity to work at the site for some years to come. The authors have produced a useful synthesis of the work carried out thus far, a valuable contribution to the growing literature on our current knowledge of Dakhla, especially in the Roman period. The book will appeal to those interested in this particular period of Egypt’s history and in the study of peripheral regions.
Centre for Ancient Cultures (SOPHIS)
Book Review of An Oasis City, by Roger S. Bagnall, Nicola Aravecchia, Raffaella Cribiore, Paola Davoli, Olaf E. Kaper, and Susanna McFadden
Reviewed by Gillian Bowen
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/3537