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Amheida II: A Late Romano-Egyptian House in the Dakhla Oasis. Amheida House B2

Amheida II: A Late Romano-Egyptian House in the Dakhla Oasis. Amheida House B2

By Anna Lucille Boozer (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World). Pp. 460. New York University Press, New York 2015. $55. ISBN 0978-1-4798-8034-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume publishes a single house excavated at Amheida, ancient Trimithis, in Egypt’s Dakhleh Oasis, under the direction of the principal author. It aims to provide the first complete record of a domestic unit of Late Imperial date from Egypt and to undertake a regional and empire-wide comparative study. Thus the volume analyzes the stratigraphy, architecture, and finds grouped according to material or type (by various members of the Amheida team), discusses parallels, and assesses the social and cultural affiliations of the occupants. Boozer identifies her methodological approach as contextual on both micro and macro levels. This is the first publication to provide such comprehensive documentation for the entire Roman period in Egypt; as such the volume is extremely useful to those engaged with urbanism and society not only in Egypt but also in neighboring areas.

The extent to which the aims are realized, however, varies. The study is clearly aimed at professionals, but the writing often seems to address a general audience unfamiliar with current archaeological theory or Roman Egypt. Implicit throughout are the premises that a single house unit can be read as a reflection of the complex cultural makeup of Egypt in the period of the house’s occupation, identified as the mid third to early fourth century C.E., and that specific aspects of the architecture (161–66) or material assemblage (196–97) can be related to varying distinct traditions, such as Egyptian, Greek, or Roman. Such disentangling of the components is surprising in light of current debate on entanglement, the paucity of material other than ceramics, and the uncertain reliability of the archaeological contexts. House B2 is not well preserved; its central room is extant to 1.65 m in height, and other parts of the structure are far shallower. Most of the building has been eroded away; while some contexts such as floors and floor deposits remained at the time of excavation, the integrity of the stratigraphy is open to question, and most of the stratigraphy represents post-abandonment episodes. For example, depositional stratigraphic unit 16 in Room 1 is identified as secure (59–60), yet it comprises structural collapse buried by other brick collapse below sand. Since the house was vacated about half a century before occupation at Amheida, the likelihood exists that its contents were disturbed on several occasions and that extraneous material was deposited. These factors complicate interpretation of the finds and architecture.

The house is identified as having been occupied by a lower-middle-class family connected with trade and transport on the basis of a small body of inscribed material, the size of the structure, and the artifacts. The date of activity is reasonably secure and is derived from the ceramic assemblage and inscriptional material, but the dating of each relies in part on the other, so the arguments are in fact circular. The house footprint is defined as clustered, with a possible open central room that is identified as an aithrion, largely because it contains an oven (106–7); it is seen to reflect “classical” inspiration in this regard (163–66). The material record is dominated by ceramics, all of local origin; other artifact categories are represented by small numbers, which are analyzed in an attempt to define activity zones and gendered space. The results are not especially convincing. Despite aiming at contextualization, the author discusses the artifacts separately by category, and even though the range found in each room is reviewed, no concordance is provided to facilitate determination of exactly what was discovered in each context. The findspots of major items, but not all items, are provided by reference to inventory numbers in the discussion of stratigraphy, but again there is no concordance of such numbers with details of the identity of the numbered items.

Turning to contextualization on a regional level, Boozer focuses on comparison of architectural forms and locating central open living spaces. Within Dakhleh, this entails comparison with the site of Kellis, at which this reviewer has conducted excavations since 1986, and focuses on trying to define a typical regional house plan; unfortunately, only five houses there have been fully excavated and several others partially examined, and there is no real consistency of layout. The author underplays variation in favor of her wish to have a common type (cf. 176, where the discussion is superficial and not accurate), in the same way that Egyptian origins for elements of the house footprint are glossed over in favor of potential classical associations (175). This is dangerous with such a small data set. In other regards, the published Kellis material, far more abundant than that from Amheida, is not considered evenly in the various discussions and is virtually absent from the sections on glass and faience. The selective use of these data and various inaccuracies in the discussion, such as with the architecture of the Kellis houses, make this reviewer cautious in accepting much of the wider regional evaluation. Farther afield, it is essentially to the record in the Fayum that Boozer turns, and again a desire to identify one common architectural form prevails. Finally, in relating House B2 to the Roman empire (apparently considered a monolithic entity) the author discusses numerous factors in a very general manner, and the reader is left to relate this directly to the house in question and its occupants.

Structurally it would have been better if this volume had presented the archaeological data in detail and then undertook analysis and comparison; as it is, the latter are interspersed throughout and often overwhelm the presentation. For example, nine pages of discussion precede an account of 10 figurines that occupies six pages, while five and a half pages precede the presentation of three fragments of woven material. The volume is best described not as an excavation report but rather as an exercise in interpretation in which critical appraisal of data is often subordinated to strained perceptions of distinct cultural identities, and for Egypt in the fourth century this may seem pointless after almost a millennium of cultural interaction with the “classical” world and three centuries of Ptolemaic and then Roman rule. On technical matters, many of the line drawings and photographs are not clear; no transcriptions of the Greek texts are provided; the sites of Qasaba and Halakah are incorrectly located in figure 1.2; and several bibliographic references are incorrect.

Colin A. Hope
Centre for Ancient Cultures
School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies
Monash University, Clayton Campus

Book Review of Amheida II: A Late Romano-Egyptian House in the Dakhla Oasis. Amheida House B2, by Anna Lucille Boozer

Reviewed by Colin A. Hope

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.hope

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