The American Research Center in Eygpt

Archaeological Assistance in the Groundwater Lowering Projects at Kom Ombo Temple and Kom el-Shuqafa Catacombs (Alexandria)

Archaeological Assistance in the Groundwater Lowering Projects at Kom Ombo Temple and Kom el-Shuqafa Catacombs (Alexandria)

Archaeological Assistance in the Groundwater Lowering Projects at Kom Ombo Temple and Kom el-Shuqafa Catacombs (Alexandria)
Archaeological Desk-based Assessment
Alexandria and Kom Ombo

Engineering works on archaeological sites can have devastating consequences for the preservation of standing and buried archaeological remains. To mitigate unwanted consequences developers gauge the archaeological potential of a site by conducting a desk-based assessment (DBA). The DBA provides baseline data on archaeological and heritage assets lurking above and below the ground that are likely to be affected by the proposed development.

The View of Kom el-Shuqafa catacombs site looking northwest from adjacent buildings. Photo by Michael Jones. 

In September 2014 ARCE received a grant from USAID to conduct archaeological desk based assessments for two sites, Kom Ombo Temple in Upper Egypt and Kom el-Shuqafa Catacombs in Alexandria prior to commencing groundwater-lowering projects in both locations. The DBA involves collecting all accessible data from published and unpublished sources, including maps, photographs, drawings, written narratives including reports of previous surveys and excavations, interviews with local people and observations at the sites themselves that can build up a picture from dispersed materials of how the site achieved its present condition. These data are augmented by results of monitoring and recording on-site investigations such as borings, geo-physical surveys and mapping of current conditions to create a database of the known archaeology within the project area. The detailed knowledge thus obtained serves two purposes; firstly it is a record of the archaeological and conservation history of the site in its existing condition now, and second, it provides the basis for an objective assessment in terms of high to low risk impact that can guide the engineers and archaeologists in devising suitable mitigation plans. These might be engineering works designed to avoid impacting predictable buried remains as much as possible or working with appropriate archaeological support to make sure archaeology discovered during project implementation can be recorded properly.

The DBAs are being carried out in collaboration with the design engineers, Camp Dresser McKee Smith (CDM Smith). Results generated by the DBAs will be used to inform the design of engineering works that consider the vulnerability of these archaeological sites when confronted with major infrastructure projects. Four Egyptian archaeologists, Essam Shehab and Ahmed Omar in Alexandria, and Hussein Rekaby and Mohammed Abd el-Rahman at Kom Ombo, have carried out the DBAs. All four are graduates of the Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) field school, under the supervision of Freya Sadarangani, a British archaeologist and AERA field school instructor.

Interior of the Kom el-Shuqafa catacombs showing green algae growing on the wall close to the hot spot light in the humid atmosphere. Photo by Michael Jones.

At Kom al-Shuqafa infiltration of groundwater in the lower levels of the catacombs began soon after Giuseppe Botti cleared out the underground chambers in 1901. The standing water was a hindrance to further work by Alan Rowe in 1940-41. Since then, the area surrounding the rocky hill in which the catacombs were excavated in the first or second centuries AD has become densely built up so that water naturally entering the catacombs from the nearby Mahmudiyah Canal is now augmented by faulty house connections and leaking septic tanks. In the 1990s the Supreme Council of Antiquities installed pumps that drew down the water, thereby making the catacombs easier to visit, but the very high levels of humidity have continued to be a major conservation issue causing flaking of the bedrock that affects the relief decoration and encouraging growth of green algae around the bright, hot lighting installations. The entrance to the catacombs is inside a walled enclosure that also contains reconstructed tomb chapels brought here from other parts of Alexandria and numerous other artifacts including Roman sarcophagi and architectural pieces. The full potential of the site has not been exploited due to difficulty of access in its urban location and the high water table, which this project will address. There is thus a great opportunity here for further development that would benefit Alexandria and the local inhabitants as well as the broader tourism marketplace.

First court of Kom Ombo Temple showing moisture affecting the paving slabs and footings of the screen walls. Photo by Michael Jones.

Kom Ombo Temple stands in an archaeological landscape that has been dramatically altered since the 1890s when an enormous portion of the ancient site was removed to expose the stone temple. At the time, the temple was surrounded by remains of a largely intact settlement mound (the kom); today, the surviving parts are mostly to the east of the temple where it still rises to a considerable height. In the 1880s a Turkish fort stood on this surface high above the eastern corner of the temple. Photographs published in 1895 show conditions at the site before and after the mounds were cleared away. The part of the kom that originally rose to the highest elevation on the northern side, from which Francis Frith photographed the temple in 1858, is now the lowest - deflated by sebakhin - local farmers who were given license by the government to clear these rich mounds of archaeological compost. This clearing, however, eventually exposed the earliest known settlement of the site dating to the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period, which was recorded in a 1979 survey.

Boring rig in the corridor at the back of the temple. Photo by Michael Jones.

In addition to alterations to the immediate vicinity of the temple, agriculture has encroached on the outlying aboveground sections of the site. Further changes resulted from construction work in the 1980s and ‘90s including the building now known as the ‘Crocodile Museum’ that destroyed much of the Old Kingdom settlement remains, as well as poorly conceived infrastructure projects such as the construction of a lengthy stone and concrete embankment, steps and walkways on the Nile side of the temple that have seriously reduced the evaporation of moisture from beneath the temple. There is also clear evidence that the kom itself, abutting the northeast and southeast sides of the temple, contributes to the moisture content of the ground under the temple.

Exemplary collaboration between the engineers and archaeologists on this project is heartening. The groundwater lowering projects are important aspects of cultural heritage conservation and fall directly within the agenda of the USAID-ARCE partnership to conserve historic monuments and sites and enhance their preservation through site management. It is hoped that further funding will be available for continued ARCE archaeological involvement during the implementation stages in 2016-17. 

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