Hi everyone,


Figure 1

Firstly I would like to mention the move from Stockholm, or anytime I have to fly myself and equipment to the next country, as I will this Friday when I return briefly to the UK. Because I didn’t know that we were not going to Egypt this year before I left, I packed some equipment for the field season, as well as everything I needed for my work in Europe. Top this off with the XRF and accessories and you have quite a bit of luggage coming in at over 50kg (Figure 1). Hence why I am glad there is just one more move with this lot.

This past week I have been in Vienna looking at the Merimda collections housed in the Institute of Egyptology and the Institute for Prehistory and Historical Archaeology at the University of Wien. This was the main sponsoring institution when the site was originally excavated, so they have a sizable collection. However, it is not as large as what I encountered in Stockholm and I will finish with days to spare, which means more time for additional tests and to catch up on some behind the scenes work with the data.

Figure 2

Figure 2

I was only in the Institute of Egyptology for one morning, but they were very accommodating and interested in what I was doing. The rest of the time I was upstairs in the Institute for Prehistory and Historical Archaeology, mainly in their teaching/display/storage room, which is quite impressive at dusk with all the lights on (Figure 2). The speed at which I am getting through the collection here is due to the long working hours, and I can work solidly from 8am-6pm without any problems.

So far the sherds and vessels I have looked at are the same as what I have seen in the collection in Stockholm, so, while testing and proof is required, I am quietly optimistic that I have a representative sample from Merimda. In total I will have looked at well over 2500 sherds and vessels from the site.

I am now coming to the end of this research trip, with just a week left in Vienna, a few days in London, and then home to Auckland. I was originally scheduled to be away until just before Christmas if we went to Egypt, but this early finish is ok, because as I mentioned last time, there is still a lot of work to be done on the data and then of course in writing the thesis.

Until next time,


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Last blog from Stockholm

Hi everyone,

This past month I have been busy in Stockholm analysing sherds from the Medelhavsmuseet and just finished with a day and a half to spare. In total I analysed 2531 sherds and of those 1038 were recorded with the XRF. The Merimda ceramics are a very interesting assemblage, with a lot of variability in the sizes, forms, and materials of the ceramics. Although I suspect this may be in part due to the large sample size as opposed to some of the other collections which I am looking at. My work in Stockholm has been posted to the Medelhavsmuseet website and can be found here:

Using the XRF to analyse sherds

Using the XRF to analyse sherds

The pXRF was lent to me by Bruker UK for the duration of my research. The machine, with the right settings and calibrations, records the elemental composition of an object (Figure 1). In some cases readings can be used to tell if an object is real or fake, such as in art museums. For ceramics, it is useful for identifying groups of artefacts, what sources of clay were being used, and potentially identifying trade between sites. The benefit of the pXRF is that it is small and light, looking like a ray gun from Star Trek and weighing under 10kg. This is good because it can easily be transported on planes and carried to different museums.

The staff at the Medelhavsmuseet and at Tumba have been very accommodating to my visit and have gone out of their way to make sure that I have everything I need. Most of my time in Stockholm was spent alone analysing artefacts, which is not a bad thing as it gave me time to concentrate and get things done. However, in the evenings there were archaeology lectures I could attend, which broke up the week a bit. The museum there in Stockholm is well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood, and if you do go by make sure to have a look at the Egyptian prehistory room. It is quite flash.

My next stop is Vienna and on Monday will start analysing those collections. I will be unable to go to Egypt as planned so I will likely return to the UK for a few days in the middle of October before returning to Auckland. The work does not stop there though. The XRF data requires work to make sure that the readings are calibrated correctly. Once this is done other aspects such as the size and shape of the pottery will be looked at. Sounds simple enough, the PhD will write itself! Right?

Next time, Vienna!

– Josh

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Goodbye London, Welcome to Stockholm!

Last week I finished in the British Museum and the Petrie Museum. I had a few extra days at the Petrie as I had finished up at the British Museum earlier than expected. There I examined the collection from Hammamieh, which I almost completed, with the exception of fifty or so sherds.  There is always more that could be done and I left thinking of weeks more work that I could do, but did what I went to the UK to do, so I have to be happy with that.

Figure 1: The Merimda collection in storage. All of the white boxes contain 40-80 artefacts which I will look at.

Figure 1: The Merimda collection in storage. All of the white boxes contain 40-80 artefacts which I will look at.

I hauled myself and 50kg of luggage to Stockholm and have been spending my time at the Världskulturmuseerna Medelhavet, or more specifically their off-site storage facility just outside of the city. The staff at the museum are very friendly and have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome. The collection I am examining is slightly larger than I anticipated, with over 2000 artefacts from Merimda and a small number from the Fayum. My first priority is to work through the Merimda collection (Figure 1), as hopefully I will get a large sample of Fayum ceramics in Egypt next month.

Figure 2: The Merimda ceramics in the Prehistoric section of the Världskulturmuseerna Medelhavet

Figure 2: The Merimda ceramics in the Prehistoric section of the Världskulturmuseerna Medelhavet

The Världskulturmuseerna Medelhavet has a very good prehistoric Egypt display which has recently been redeveloped (Figure 2). There are a number of unique examples of Merimda vessels on display which unfortunately cannot be taken off display, but metric data pre-exists from these items which I can use. The ones on display are the most complete ones, but there is at least seventy more vessels in the collection which I can examine. While in the grand scheme of things this may not seem like much, it is a lot compared to the Fayum where we have less than 40 or so surviving vessels.

In the past week I have managed to analyse close to 800 artefacts. If I can keep a pace similar to this I should have no problem finishing the collection before I leave for Vienna at the end of the month. Of those artefacts I have subsampled about a third to use the XRF on, as to do them all would take quite a long time.

Until next time,


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Sherds and archives

Figure 1: The quiet entrance to the British Museum

Figure 1: The quiet entrance to the British Museum

Since my last post I have analysed 918 ceramic sherds from the Fayum and E-75-8 at Nabta Playa. I have just over one week left in the UK and 450 sherds left, so it shouldn’t be a problem to get them done. I have been working at the British Museum, where after a few days you learn the tricks to avoid the many tourists in and around the museum, mainly the back entrance (Fig. 1) and the quieter galleries on the way there.

The British Museum has artefacts from every corner of the globe from all human time periods, but what is on display is only a fraction of their collections and in storage there are countless more artefacts. Of the roughly 1200 artefacts I am examining from the British Museum, only about seven are on display to the public (Fig. 2). A large proportion of the artefacts I am examining come from the Wendorf collection, donated to the British Museum by Fred Wendorf from his field expeditions to Egypt over 40 years. These collections are unique in that most, if not all, ceramic artefacts were collected, not just those with typological significance (e.g. rims and bases). This makes the collections very important for examining collections from otherwise inaccessible places such as E-75-8 at Nabta Playa.

Figure 2: The objects on display from the Fayum and Nabta Playa

Figure 2: The objects on display from the Fayum and Nabta Playa

The museum also houses a large amount of archival material in the form of field notes from Wendorf’s work in the Fayum and Nabta Playa, which are invaluable for gaining a deeper understanding of the archaeological record at these places.

As I am not using the pXRF at the British Museum, I have been moving a lot quicker and in some cases coming close to examining 200 ceramic sherds a day. This is over my estimates and has allowed me some extra time to examine the archives which I did not think I would be able to do.

I leave for Stockholm in a little over a week to study the Merimde Beni Salama collections in the National Museum, and so am trying to make sure I have everything done in London before I go, which is easier said than done as I did not realise there was a bank holiday on Monday. Oh well.

– Josh

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The legacy of the early twentieth century

Hi everyone,

This past week I have been examining collections at UCL’s Petrie Museum. This museum, tucked away on the UCL campus holds over 18,000 artefacts collected from numerous excavations across Egypt and Sudan. All of these artefacts are from late nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations and were excavated by the likes of Flinders Petrie and Caton-Thompson. The museum itself is something straight out of the early twentieth century itself, containing an overwhelming number of artefacts from all of Egypt’s history (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Part of the prehistoric collections in the Petrie Museum.

Figure 1: Part of the prehistoric collections in the Petrie Museum.

These collections are important, particularly when studying the ceramics of the Fayum. What we find in the field now is mostly sherds, with little traditionally diagnostic features to interpret them by (e.g. rims, bases, decoration). So in order to interpret them, the examples of vessels we have need to be studied. These were all collected by Caton-Thompson and Gardner during their fieldwork in the 1920’s in the Fayum, and are currently held in museum collections around the world.

As of last Monday I have examined what I set out to from the Petrie museum and now I am in what I like to call bonus time, having two full Saturdays left at the museum. I am currently researching some other ceramic material housed in the museum which I can examine.

Not all of my research is based on ceramics, and some is reviewing archival material from the original excavations of the Fayum, Merimda, and Nabta Playa. This meant I needed to visit the Special Collections at UCL, as they hold material donated by Caton-Thompson. This collection reads like a whos-who of early twentieth century archaeology. There is correspondence between Caton-Thompson and Childe, Braidwood, and Leaky, amongst others. Among these letters is also the radiocarbon results from Libby sent to Caton-Thompson regarding material from the Fayum, some of the first archaeological material ever to be radio-carbon dated.

The archives also house numerous photographs from Caton-Thompson’s fieldwork, many of which have been published, but a number have not (Figure 2). What I am mainly looking for is notebooks, maps, and any other material from the fieldwork in the Fayum from the 1920’s. There are fantastic records from the Kharga Oasis fieldwork, which leads me to hope that something similar may exist for the Fayum. I have since been informed of a collection of archival material at the Griffith Institute at Oxford, which I will hopefully have a chance to review before I leave.

Figure 2: The box which the negatives and prints of the original photos from the Fayum are housed in.

Figure 2: The box which the negatives and prints of the original photos from the Fayum are housed in.

For the rest of my time in the UK I will mainly be based at the British Museum, examining their material from the Fayum and one of my comparative studies, E-75-8 at Nabta Playa.

– Josh

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Work out of the field – Five days in and three museums down

Hi everyone, Josh here. As part of my PhD research investigating the Neolithic ceramics of the Fayum, I am travelling to the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Austria to analyse museum collections prior to (hopefully) going to analyse ceramics in the Fayum in mid-October.

I have been in the UK for five days now and have been to over half of the museums I will be visiting during the UK leg of the trip. The Petrie Museum at University College London (UCL) has a wide variety of ceramics from the Fayum, and was my first stop on Friday. The assemblage at the Petrie Museum I would like to analyse is much too large for one day, and so I am going to visit the museum again this week and on Saturdays until I leave the UK at the end of the month.

After travelling up north over the weekend I began this week in Bolton, where they have a small number of ceramics from the Fayum, one of which is important for my research. The vessel in question is a large cylindrical vessel, and is the largest surviving ceramics vessel we have from the Fayum (Figure 1). During the 1920’s when Caton-Thompson and Gardner first excavated sites such as Kom K, Kom W, and the Upper K Pits, a number of vessels of this size were found, but did not survive the excavation process. The fact that this vessel at Bolton is the only one left means that it is only ways to interpret some of the sherds we find which indicate wide-diameter vessels. Also, as I found during my MA thesis, vessels of this size were scattered across Kom W and were likely used for storage purposes.

Figure 1: The large vessel from Bolton Museum with me taking a reading from it with a portable x-ray fluorescence (more on that in a future entry).

Figure 1: The large vessel from Bolton Museum with me taking a reading from it with a portable x-ray fluorescence (more on that in a future entry).

On Monday afternoon I visited Manchester Museum, which also hosts a small collection of ceramics from the Fayum, which Dr Campbell Price and Susan Martin were kind enough to grant me access to. As is the case with Bolton, Manchester has the only surviving example of an odd shaped vessel . This relatively large vessel, unusually, has a stepped base on it, why this is I am still considering. Also at Manchester was a vessel shaped like a modern dish which is relatively common amongst the Fayum assemblages, and corner sherds are often found. As well as ceramics I plan to have a look at other forms of material culture such as grindstones, which Manchester had a nice example of.

The last of the smaller assemblages was at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, my visit to which was facilitated by Imogen Gunn. Here a number of small sherds comprising mainly of rims and bases were analysed.

I am using a number of different techniques to analyse the pottery which I will talk about in future entries, but what is all adds up to is one heavy bag which needs to be taken with me when I travel to non-London collections. I am now back in London and very grateful that I do not have to carry everything too far from now on, as I am staying about a 10 minute walk from both the Petrie and British Museums.

Stay tuned for more entries in the coming weeks regarding progress on my research, the different techniques I am using, and any interesting pieces I may encounter.


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Secret Document Proves that there is a Spy amongst the Kiwis!

While searching for a missing charger, Josh discovered the following letter:


December 12, 2012

Subject: Topsecret message to the Lewis Binford Center for the Improvement of American Archaeology at UCLA


I apologize for the delay in submitting my first report, but the Kiwis are rather serious archaeologists: they work from 6 A.M. To 6 P.M., producing massive amounts of data but leaving little time for writing up my observations.  There are also severe language issues, as I discuss further below.  As we suspected, however, the Kiwi archaeologists are highly sophisticated methodologically and therefore indeed deserve our surveillance.  Their key method involves cross-shaped survey areas, with each of the two arms 100 meters long and 10 meters wide.  They survey these areas more intensively than I have ever seen archaeologists do before, indeed spending much time standing in place searching every inch (although they use some unit called “centimeter”) of the survey area.  This has made me realize just how many subtle lithic artifacts one can find with careful observation.  They record all these artifacts using a robotic total station, a fine device I had never before seen with my own eyes.  The speed of recording with this machine makes such intensive survey feasible.  The Kiwis also record the geomorphology of these cross-shaped survey areas using the total station, thereby producing a record that from the very start has important data for interpreting the presence and absence of artifacts on various surfaces.

Matt, probable British archaeological spy, concealing himself for better methodological observation

All in all, the Kiwis’ methods strike me as very worthy of American emulation.  As Matt (who is more willing to explicitly discuss these matters with me as he is almost certainly an agent for the Ian Hodder Institute for the Improvement of British Archaeology) remarked to me, these methods strike a fine balance between extensive and intensive survey.  In other words, we cover huge areas of the landscape but also capture the very fine-grained detail of the archaeological record.

There are, however, serious obstacles to my observation of the Kiwi team.  They employ a secret code-language to conceal the secrets of their archaeological greatness from possible spies such as myself.  For instance, at a recent lunch in the field when I posed a question about archaeological methods to Simon, he responded to me with, “Cheers, mate, you took the Vegemite so I reckon I’ll nick your Eurocream, ta.”  The words I understand in this statement are restricted to “you,” “the,” “so,” “I,” and “your” (even these, however, are spoken in a bizarre manner); if you have any guesses regarding the rest I would appreciate the help.  Regarding the mysterious substance mentioned in this statement, Vegemite, I am forced by Simon’s above comment to conclude that this substance is the secret to their methodological sophistication.  I am, however, reluctant to recommend its use by American archaeologists due to its general distastefulness.

Marcus, UCLA Geography spy

I must unfortunately conclude this first report with a complaint regarding Marcus, my counterpart from the UCLA Geography Department’s espionage team.  My complaint is that Marcus does not make sufficient efforts to conceal his affiliation and purpose here, thereby jeopardizing my own mission.  I attach a photo that demonstrates my point rather clearly; note that each and every article of his clothing is problematic in some way.

– Karl

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Archaeology, Ambassadors, Feasts

We are currently the only team from New Zealand working on an archaeological project in Egypt. So, on Saturday we were visited by the New Zealand ambassador.

The day started out normal as we continued to work on transect 24 in the L-Basin, which we had been working on for a few days previously. This transect was particularly dense with artefacts, and so it was decided to leave the centre and southern arm unexplored to use as a demonstration for the ambassador.

The ambassador arrived with a small police escort. Simon introduced our visitors to the crew, and while he was explaining exactly why we were out in the middle of the desert meticulously recording small pieces of rock, two teams went ahead analysing the artefacts, one team shot them in with the total station, and a final team were off excavating hearths.

The ambassador and his group took a particular interest in what we were doing, and lots of questions were asked. Overall, the visit was a great success. As was the day’s work – another 400 artefacts were analysed, bringing the total to the 1000 mark.

The day was not over yet, though. We returned to the dig house (only slightly earlier than usual…) to a fantastic BBQ with Australian beef and New Zealand sausages which the ambassador had brought, and which was cooked to perfection by our camp manager, Hamam. Even better than the food was the selection of New Zealand wines, much to the delight of a few of our team members. But the best part was the beer – Mac’s Rock hopper. Egyptian beer is good, but it was great to drink something familiar, especially one of your favourites. And all the other members of the Fayum project appreciated the feast. Score one for Kiwi hospitality.

At the end of the night, everyone went to bed in high spirits. So all up, it was a pretty decent Saturday.

Now only one and a half weeks of field work left!

–          Matt

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Valley of the Whales

Crew relaxing at the Valley of the Whales

The day for the kiwi crew began like any other, heading to the field at first light to shoot in and analyze artefacts as per usual. However, the rest of the day was to be anything but ordinary. Field work finished up at 1pm and we headed back to the dig house for a hasty download. Today we headed to the Valley of the Whales for a night under the stars.

The planned 2pm get-away soon turned into a 3.30 as the download went astray with ArcGIS licenses not behaving as they should. Following some hasty packing by Haman we hastened off to the valley with BBQ, food, drink and two trucks filled with people.

The ride was going relatively smoothly right up until we acquired our second and third police men. Technically this was not the biggest deal in the world, except for the fact that we literally had no room. At all. After some repacking we managed to squeeze the second policeman on top of our first policeman’s lap and the third policeman next to Josh, with his head poking out through the sunroof.

The ride continued relatively smoothly up until the police barricade, at which we spent 35 minutes debating with the policemen. The plan had originally been to arrive before sundown, however, as plans often do in Egypt, this changed as we got more and more delayed.

Finally we arrived at the valley as the sun disappeared, and we set about locating our campsite. This involved driving around in a very large circle for quite some time before the ranger rescued us and showed us to our camping location. Whilst we could not see all that much due to the darkness, we could see that the stars were amazing, there was nobody else around and that our campsite was absolutely perfect!

For the past year a plan has been in action to create the perfect situation for a proposal. And as it transpires, this perfect situation was on this eve. Several of the team had been roped into to transporting champagne, gifts and other celebratory items and everyone was in on creating the perfect situation. Everyone except for Rebecca. So Josh took the opportunity to take a “walk” with Rebecca and the rest of us began preparations back at the camp for their return. Several minutes later and preparations were complete and we awaited their return.

Soon they returned. With news to make a good night great.

She said yes!

The champagne was poured and the nights frivolities started in earnest.

Another excellent bbq courtesy of Hamam!!

After a toast and some further drinking we set out our sleeping arrangements whilst Haman began cooking up our dinner feast. Chicken, kofta, chilies, eggplant… Dinner was consumed under the sterling sky by the light of the BBQ and a small fire. A perfect end to an amazing day, and the perfect start to an amazing night!

From this point on the evening was dedicated to stargazing and chatting until midnight at which stage even the hardiest of the party-makers crashed out beneath the perfect skies.

Waking time was at sunrise to the X Files theme music, a great start to the day. The rest of the day was to be dedicated to packing up the campsite, exploring for geo-caches and walking the trails of whale remains in the valley.

Searching for geocaches

The first of the geo-caches was located 200m or so to the side of our campsite. Some slightly dodgy GPS points led us up a steep slope, around several corners and back down the same slope to no avail. Matt then decided that it was time to take off a few of his extra layers and so he disappeared behind some rocks to change, in the process, stumbling upon the cache.

From here the group split in half, several of the members pursuing the geo-caches located on the ridge of the valley whilst the rest of us walked the whale-trail!

The whale-trail is a truly amazing experience. Out in the middle of the desert, with sand in every direction and then, all of a sudden, whale bones! Vertebrae, jaws, limbs as well as fossilized remains of mangroves, turtles and all manner of other burrowing creatures!

The walk itself took some 2 hours to complete and by the end of it we were all ready for home time. We returned to the trucks, piled in and set back off towards the dig house, thankful for the amazing experience of the last day and night, but ready for a well earned sleep before returning to the field in the morning.

– Tara

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Half way through already

Early morning survey

It’s been two weeks since we started our work on the north shore of the Fayum and already we have achieved the first set of targets for the season. We began the season working north of Kom K. One of the project goals is to understand landscape use around the stratified Neolithic sites Kom W and Kom K. To answer this we have surveyed the area north of Kom K this season concentrating in the area that is not under modern day agricultural production. We aim to cover large areas systematically but also to record the position, type and nature of individual portable artefacts (mostly stone artefacts and pottery fragments). One of the issues we have to deal with is that archaeological sites are very difficult to define based on visual estimates of artefact density alone. To see the individual artefacts you have to literally walk slowly across the desert gazing straight down at your feet. We cannot cover the whole area of interest locating individual artefacts in this way so we having a sampling design that involves marking out 1900 square meter transects (100x100m lines 10m wide in the shape of a north-south, east west cross). This season, we have completed 29 of these transects north of Kom K.

To ensure comparability, we record each transect in exactly the same way whether or not it contains artefacts. We map in the surface describing the sediments in ways that let us assess how easy it is to see the artefacts we are recording. Obviously if the surface is covered with sand then it will be hard to see artefacts in comparison to those exposed on a gravel surface. By recording the nature of the surface we can determine the density of artefacts on each of the transects allowing for differential visibility.

While it may seem strange to record transects even where there are no artefacts, finding out where people did not leave artefacts can be as informative as recoding places where we find lots of remains. People left artefacts in places where they made and used them. We are of course interested in those places, but we are also interested to know about places where these activities did not happen. By recording both types of places we build up an idea about the way people used the landscape in the past.

Beginning Saturday, we will move to the west, working out from an area called XB11 that was surveyed in previous seasons. Our goal is to extend the survey west to link up with the area in which we worked in 2010. The results will give us an understanding of how people who inhabited the area used the ancient lake shore extending along about 9km. In future seasons we will extend this area even further working along sections of the ancient lake edge still further to the west.

At the half way stage we have made good progress. Rebecca and I have a fantastic crew (University of Auckland and UCLA students) who have worked very hard both in the field and when we return to our dig house each evening. Because the records we take are all electronic we make sure that the data is entered into databases each evening and carefully backed up. Our project data set is approaching 150 gigs in size. It represents a huge amount of work so we are very careful to make multiple copies.


– Prof. Simon Holdaway


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