Archaeologists head to centre of pharaonic Egypt to save "phenomenal" forgotten sites

By Ben Miller | 18 March 2016

Giant temples and bull mummification sites are being protected under the guidance of a York archaeological team working at a centre of pharaonic Egypt

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
The column capital from the Hathor Temple, depicting the Goddess Hathor, at Memphis. The remainder of the column still lies buried, awaiting excavation© Bassem Ezzat, 2015
Finds from Ancient Egyptian rubbish dumps might have given us some of the most telling archaeological discoveries about life more than a century ago, but in modern-day Egypt archaeologists are trying to stop excavated sites from becoming bins.

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
A carving on the south-east face of a remaining wall block at the Hathor Temple© Bassem Ezzat, 2015
Setting up a field school to train 80 inspectors from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, archaeologists from York are working with their peers from Ancient Egypt Research Associates, focused on a site at Memphis – Egypt’s capital for centuries – and backed by £1 million in funding from the United States Agency for International Development.

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
Base of a column from the throne room of the Palace of Merenptah, featuring the cartouche of King Merenptah dated to the New Kingdom© Bassem Ezzat, 2015
Their monuments include the western gate and hypostyle hall of the Great Ptah Temple, which was excavated in the 19th century, and the White Walls Chapel, with students and 120 locals helping to clean and stabilise the precinct. More than half of the Egyptian team’s teaching staff are women.

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
Portion of a giant column from the hypostyle hall of the Ptah Temple West Gate, now surrounded by water© Bassem Ezzat, 2015
“There’s so much to say about the programme that we are running and the incredible history of the site of Memphis,” says Dr Sara Perry, the group leader from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York.

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
Close-up of a red granite statue of King Ramses II, flanked in the background by the head of a god© Amel Eweida, 2015
“It was the political and religious centre of pharaonic Egypt for thousands of years, the pyramids are part of its cemetery complex and it is the home of the Apis House – the only site of its kind, where bulls were mummified as part of an elaborate ritual process. Alexander the Great was sacrificed to the Apis bull and was crowned king here.

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
Remnants of a colossal statue sit alongside other material remains from the enormous Ptah Temple© Amel Eweida, 2015
“It was long a tourist and pilgrimage destination for everyone from ancient Romans to Greek philosophers to antiquarian travellers, and it was ‘lost’ – no one could quite locate its remains – until just two centuries ago.

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
One of Memphis’ major attractions, the sphinx is one of the largest monuments ever made in alabaster, and stands today in virtually the same place it was uncovered more than 100 years ago© Bassem Ezzat, 2015
“Memphis is a truly phenomenal site which is already well known in the popular imagination. It has the potential to become an internationally renowned cultural destination.”

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
Giant striding statue of King Ramses II on display in the Memphis Museum, Egypt. The statue is one of the few remaining monuments at Memphis which still retains traces of the elaborate colours that once adorned the site's grand architecture© Amel Eweida, 2015
Only Luxor is said to be comparable in political, religious and economic significance. One of the monuments contains group of three seated statues – the deity Ptah flanked by two female deities, now identified as Tjesmet and Menefer.

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
Field school students and instructors on the Memphis Site and Community Development Project pause for a break in front of Memphis’ alabaster sphinx - referred to by some as ancient Egypt's second greatest sphinx© Amel Eweida, 2015
Dr Perry outlines the work ethic of the team, working six days a week on panels, guidebooks and websites to create “something completely new” from a “very difficult” and “virtually forgotten” archaeological place. “It has been inspiring,” she says.

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
The museum's colossal statue of King Ramses II© Amel Eweida, 2015
“This project aims to inspire people both locally and globally in the regeneration of what is one of Egypt’s most important sites, giving the world a greater insight into its significance for human history.”

A photo of a site of archaeology in ancient egypt
A massive embalming table used to prepare ancient Egypt's sacred Apis Bull for the afterlife© Amel Eweida, 2015
Some members of the first set of students will become instructors for future intakes after their training, with the aim to make the school sustainable locally.

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Three galleries to visit Ancient Egypt in

Great North Museum Hancock, Newcastle
The Ancient Egypt exhibition takes visitors through a fascinating journey which explores how the Ancient Egyptians were shaped by the Nile and how they lived their everyday lives as well as their mystical religious beliefs. Visitors can take a dramatic journey through the transition from Life to Death by passing though a tunnel which spans a virtual River Nile.

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
The current exhibition, Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt, shows how coffin design developed over 4,000 years, reflecting significant changes both in the status of affluent ancient Egyptians and in the gods that were important to them. Until May 22 2016.

Two Temple Place, London
Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt shows extraordinary coffins and funerary head coverings alongside ancient mirrors, combs and hairpins, bracelets, necklaces, sandals, textiles, cosmetic vessels, scent jars and other ornaments, as well as tablets giving us insights into elite styles of the age, which have echoes in the fashion and lifestyle magazines we read today. Until April 24 2016.
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