The American Research Center in Eygpt

Stealth Archaeology

Stealth Archaeology

Stealth Archaeology

By Willeke Wendrich, UCLA

In 1934 two pioneering female field researchers wrote: “The Northern Fayum desert as we know it, with all its diversified archaeological and physiographical features is probably doomed to vanish in a few years. The pressure of Egypt’s teeming population, and her economic expansion, are bound before long to play their part in the reclamation of every acre of desert ground”  (Caton-Thompson and Gardner 1934:12). From 2004 to 2012 the URU Fayum Project, a collaboration of the University of California, Los Angeles, the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, The Netherlands and the University of Auckland, New Zealand returned to the Fayum to re-investigate these important remains, which were thought by many to be completely destroyed.

The 1934 publication cited above made the Fayum instantly famous among prehistorians because the north shore of Lake Qarun yielding the earliest evidence for agriculture in Egypt was found. Caton-Thompson was trained in French prehistoric archaeology and had worked with Flinders Petrie in Egyptian Predynastic archaeology. She understood the importance of what we now call geoarchaeology and invited geologist Elinor Gardner (Wendrich 2007).  Together they were well equipped to understand these prehistoric remains, which they interpreted as a cultural regression: the quite advanced Neolithic Fayum A culture was in their minds replaced by the more primitive Fayum B culture. This was based on the supposition that the Lake in the lowest part of the Fayum Depression continued to shrink from the Pleistocene period when the lake level was approximately 45 m above sea level (asl), to the present when Lake Qarun was much smaller, with an average level that was 69 (229 feet) meter lower (Caton-Thompson and Gardner 1929). In 1969 Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild (1976) worked briefly in the region and upended Caton-Thompson’s theory with the help of radiocarbon dating which showed that the Neolithic cultural remains at elevations of around 12-14 m asl were in fact younger than the “primitive” cultural remains found around 4-6 m asl. They also concluded that there was a gap of almost a millennium between the older Epipaleolithic and the Neolithic habitations of the region, with the advent of agriculture and domesticated livestock causing a dramatic shift in subsistence as part of the Neolithic revolution (Wendorf and Schild 1976).

Book cover illustrating the surface recording method.

Our work, to be published this month (Holdaway and Wendrich 2017) has shown that the habitation of the prehistoric Fayum lasted much longer, with at most a few hundred years for which we have no dates. Middle Holocene hearths and scatters of animal bone can be dated to ca. 7200-5800 Cal. BCE, while the stratified sites of Kom K and Kom W (so named by Caton-Thompson and Gardner) seem to be mostly contemporary and date to ca. 4500-4100 cal. BCE. The perceived “gap” of 1300 years does not exist if dates from hearths around Kom K are taken into account, which give a time span from ca. 5680-4440 Cal. BCE . Furthermore, although the late Holocene surface and stratified remains show that the inhabitants used domesticated wheat and barley, as well as domesticated sheep, goat, cattle and pig, the most important food source by far in the entire region and throughout time is fish. This is not surprising, considering the proximity of the lake, but it shows that selective attention to particular evidence is misleading. The Fayum north shore is a continuous cultural landscape in which we can discern a way of life that probably did not change dramatically over time, in spite of the opportunistic addition of domesticates. Such low-level food production complemented rather than replaced fishing as major food source.

As may be clear from this brief description, most of the important new evidence on how to understand Egypt’s adoption of agriculture was collected through meticulous recording of surface remains, as illustrated by the book cover of the 2017 publication. Any damage to the surface record, therefore, means an irrevocable loss of information.

Google Earth photograph of the project research area in 1984 and 2016 with the new 6-lane high way looping around the Neolithic sites of Kom K and Kom W.

To illustrate: The Google Earth photo compares the Fayum north shore in 1984 and 2016, when a new highway connecting the Western Desert Road to the Alexandria road was created. The road looped around the two stratified Neolithic sites: just north of Kom K and just south of Kom W. Recording surface remains is, therefore, a race against the clock: not just because of the building of the highway (and the extensive surface scraping with bulldozers that built the dyke on which it was built), but also because of an increase in looting after the 2011 Arab Spring.

Figure 3 shows the situation at Kom W: in 2012 the site, which had been quietly and unobtrusively sitting in the desert, found sudden interest of looters and unfortunately we archaeologists are to blame. During the time we worked in Fayum we noticed that if we paid attention to any particular area the seemingly empty desert appeared to have eyes and ears. Upon return to the same spot we would find large holes drilled with mining equipment. Clearly attempts were made to recover hidden antiquities.

Looters at Kom W in 2012. Photo: URU Fayum Project/Marcus Thomson.

We stumbled upon such a party at Kom W and even though we were there with our police escort, the local miners were not inclined to give up their work. Upon our question what they were doing there they answered “we are preparing the area for agriculture”. Because large drills seemed to be unlikely instruments to do so, we asked how they explained the enormous hole they had drilled into the site (which only has a stratigraphy with a depth of 50 cm, so they had drilled 6 meters into virgin bedrock). The reaction was one of defiance: they did not need to heed the authorities (or foreign archaeologists for that matter). After that encounter we decided to engage is what I would call “stealth archaeology”: quick recording without showing particular interest in any area, let alone spending much time in one particular spot. Unfortunately, with the deteriorating security situation in the Western Desert we were no longer allowed to go into the desert to record this unique cultural landscape. We would have like to do more work in the region, but nevertheless did manage to add considerable new information and a better understanding of Egypt’s early history.


Caton-Thompson, Gertrude, and Elinor W. Gardner. 1929. "Recent work on the Problem of Lake Moeris."  Geographical Journal 73:20-58.

Caton-Thompson, Gertrude, and Elinor Wight Gardner. 1934. The Desert Fayum. 2 vols. London: The Royal anthropological institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Holdaway, Simon, and Willeke Wendrich, eds. 2017. The Desert Fayum Reinvestigated. The Early to Mid-Holocene Landscape Archaeology of the Fayum North Shore, Egypt, Monumenta Archaeologica. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.

Wendorf, Fred, and Romuald Schild. 1976. Prehistory of the Nile Valley. New York: Academic Press.

Wendrich, Willeke. 2007. "Gertrude Caton Thompson (1888-1985). Famous Footsteps to Fill."  Archéonil 17:89-106.

Wendrich, Willeke, and Simon J. Holdaway. 2017. "Basket use, raw materials and arguments on early and Middle Holocene mobility in the Fayum, Egypt."  Quaternary International. doi:

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