Doing the Digging

You might have read that Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, but this doesn’t mean that Carter himself was on his hands and knees scraping away with a trowel, or swinging a pickaxe. Almost all archaeological missions in Egypt, from the beginnings of modern Egyptology to the present day, employ a team of Egyptian workmen, from foremen and skilled excavators to bucket-carriers and boys to mind the donkeys that fetch water, and it’s these people who do the actual digging.


Different sites require different excavation techniques, and therefore different kinds of teams, ranging from a few specialists to large gangs of labourers. A site with large standing ruins or statues, e.g. a temple, will require teams of epigraphers to copy and translate the hieroglyphic inscriptions. Some roles on site, such a excavating competently and carefully without damaging the archaeology or missing anything, require specialist training and knowledge, which isn’t always easy to come by locally, especially if the site is quite isolated or there isn’t much other archaeology in the area. When Flinders Petrie worked at the ruins of the town and temple at Quft in Upper Egypt in 1893, he recruited local workmen and trained them to excavate systematically to his standards, and later brought them to work with him at all of the sites he excavated in Egypt. The Quftis continue their tradition of working as specialist excavators and supervisors to this day, and are still employed on many archaeological missions working in Egypt.

Abydos day bookThis image shows a page from the front of a day-book kept by H. R. Hall and T. E. Peet when they working at Abydos over the winter season of 1909/1910. The list of the Egyptian personnel employed by the project, with the men listed according to their jobs, their names, their wages, and, interestingly, their hometowns. Of the total of sixty Egyptians on the payroll, the largest group was of the 29 men described as “Kurnâwi”, who came from the village of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, built among the tombs of the nobles on the other side of the ridge from the Valley of the Kings. Eight of the Egyptian workmen were some of Petrie’s Quftis.

Tanis catashrophe 1884001NOT ALL FUN AND GAMES

Excavating in Egypt can be risky, but it’s rare for anyone to die on excavations. However, when Flinders Petrie was working at the town and temple site of Tanis in the Nile Delta in 1884, that’s unfortunately what happened. The incident is detailed in this letter (click to zoom) written by Petrie to R. S. Poole at the British Museum, who helped to found the EEF. Petrie writes that the fatality occurred when a cutting approximately 8 feet (2.4 metres) deep, “thought to be sound” collapsed, burying two local boys under a small landslide. One of the boys was pulled out unhurt, but the other was found dead, and the body was returned to the boy’s family along with compensation for his loss. A local doctor and two policemen were called to the site in response to the incident, but the inquest into the incident found that Petrie and his mission bore no responsibility for the boy’s death, and recorded a verdict that the cause of had been an “Act of God”. Petrie himself was very deeply affected by the boy’s death, as he wrote to Poole. This incident is the only known fatality to have occurred on any Petrie excavation.

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