EES Dig Houses in Egypt. (article & photographs courtesy of Mr. Chris Naunton, EES)
The second dig house, unlike the expanding building at Amarna, is no longer in use. The Armant expedition house is now simply another set of ruins, like the Bucheum itself – Margaret Drower describes how it was in its heyday. A plan of the house appears in “The Bucheum, vol. III pl. XI (7).
Armant: the Bucheum House
remembered by Margaret Drower
Fifty-one years ago is a long time, and memory often deceives, but I still have a clear picture in my mind of the expedition house at Armant where I spent the best part of two winters, in 1935-7, my first experience of Egypt. Some of my letters home were kept by my family and they bring back vivid impressions of what it was like to live and work ‘on a dig’.
Bucheum House was built in the winter of 1929-30, through the generosity of that great patron of Egyptology, Sir Robert Mond, who was at that time our Society’s President. He undertook financial responsibility for the excavation of the Bucheum, the burial place of the sacred bulls; during the first season Henri Frankfort and his team lived in tents, then, in anticipation of a number of years’ work not only in the Bucheum area but also in the numerous cemeteries and the town of Armant itself (all of which lay within the society’s concession), a permanent house was decided upon.
It was designed largely, I believe, by Oliver Myers, who took over the direction of the excavations during the second season. He had been one of Flinders Petrie’s team at Tell Far’a in southern Palestine: while avoiding the austerities of a Petrie camp, his plan incorporated some of Petrie’s practical ideas, born of long experience in the field.
In many respects the new house was ideally suited to its purpose, and was probably the best of the Society’s many dig houses up to that time. It was built in the low desert, above the Bucheum and a few miles north of the town of Armant.
From the outside it had a somewhat forbidding and fortress-like appearance, like something out of Beau Geste: it was square in plan, with bare mud brick walls whose only feature was a row of small windows protected by wire mosquito gauze. From the water tower on the roof the Union Jack flew when we were in residence. A wooden floor in the centre of the front wall led into the main courtyard, in which there was a small garden planted with henna bushes, nasturtiums, sunflowers and small palms.
Our bedrooms opened off three sides of the courtyard; instead of wooden doors, over each doorway hung a long rush mat rolled up by day; a tug on a cord closed the room at night (eventually one day, swallows decided to nest in my mat; for the rest of the season I had little privacy). Each bedroom had a small washstand, a table and chair, and a bedstead of palm ribs, hard and unyielding at first, though one soon slept soundly. Clothes were kept in one’s suitcase, or hung on hooks.
All the rooms were floored with soft sand brought from a nearby dune, Comfortable to walk on, warm in winter, a sand floor had many advantages: it was easily swept and could be replenished with fresh sand, and dropped objects did not break (but woe betide you if you dropped your soap!) When we came back hot and dusty from work in the evening, ‘Abdul the houseboy would bring each of us a Tisht (round shallow tin bath) and a large and welcome jug of hot water.
Along the north side of the courtyard were two long benches on which pottery was sorted and washed. Behind was a large antika room where objects were drawn and recorded, pottery mended, and the season’s finds stored on shelves.
The dining room occupied the further comer of the courtyard, and communicated by a service hatch with the kitchen in the second court, where the cook performed miracles on three primus stoves. Here too were the rooms of the domestic staff, and a small room which housed a very temperamental petrol engine; this. when operating, generated our electric light.
There was also a darkroom where our photographer developed his plates by a dim red light. This room had no door: a labyrinthine passage about 6 ft high, its walls and ceiling painted black, turned several times at an acute angle to ensure absolute darkness within. I was glad that I seldom had reason to enter the darkroom: as one groped one’s way along the passage, the bats which made the room their home came swooshing out, one after the other. inches above one’s head; in spite of assurances that they never became entangled in one’s hair, it was always something of an ordeal.
Water was brought up by donkey from the village well, and stored in a large zîr in this inner courtyard.
Not far from the dig house, at the side of the track leading down toward the cultivation, was the house of the reis, ‘Ali es-Suefy. Then in his seventies, he had been Petrie’s most trusted and devoted helper ever since, as a lad, he had worked for him at lIlahun.
Like ‘El Basha’ (as he called Petrie) he had an extraordinary visual memory and a keen eye; to walk with him in the desert was an education. His sharp eye would pick out tell-tale depressions in the ground where there might be graves; he would pick up sherds of pottery, and at once identify them by date: ‘zay Hû’, he would say: ‘like the Hu pottery (Pangrave)’, or ‘Twelfth (Dynasty)” or whatever it might be.
For our own good he insisted in talking Arabic to us, though he understood English perfectly well. Although not himself from Quft, he knew all our Quftis, some of them descendants in the second or third generation of those who had learned their skill from Petrie. On the dig, he kept an eye on every section of the work, and saw to it that things ran smoothly. His house was a cluster of mud huts, surrounded by a fence of maize stalks: here he lived all year round , acting as guardian of the concession in the summer months.
Sometimes I was invited to visit his two wives and his daughter Fatma. His womenfolk baked our bread every day; the Quftis, who camped nearby. brought their own bread with them , hard little loaves like large dog-biscuits baked three months in advance, which had to be soaked in water to be edible.
Below the house, at the edge of the cultivation, was the village from which some of our workers came. As we drove past it on our way to work, the dogs would come out and race after the truck, barking madly until they had driven it away. Armanti dogs are a specia1 breed, handsome and fierce; legend has it that they are the descendants of dogs brought to Egypt by Napoleon’s expeditionary force. In camp we had a theory about the best way to stop being attacked by one: if he rushes at you, pick up two stones. Lob the first towards him: he will stop in his tracks to watchit coming. Then hit him hard in the ribs with the second one.
The temple in which we were at first working is in the centre of the town of Armant al-Hayt, in a large open square buried deep in potsherds and the insalubrious rubbish of centuries. As it took over half an hour to reach the site in our lorry over a hazardous road (in places there were irrigation ditches on each side of the road, with only an inch to spare), we did not go back to the house at midday, but ate picnic lunches in a bell tent on the site. It was a long day: breakfast at six, off at seven, an hour at lunchtime, then on again till five-thirty when the work stopped; on returning to the house, after a bath and change, the evening’s work of recording began.
Monday was suq (market) day; on Sundays the whistle blew early and the whole workforce, men, boys, and girls, would come up to the house and, ranged by ‘Ali, sit in a circle on the ground outside.
Chairs and a table were brought out and one by one their names were called, and each worker in turn produced from his pocket a crumpled pay slip, given to him at the beginning of the week and signed every day by one of the staff, on which his wages and any bakhshish due to him were recorded.
At Oliver’s insistence, Monday was our rest day; often we would take the truck up to Qurna to explore sites on the West Bank, or cross by ferry to Luxor for shopping or to consult the library of ever-hospitable Chicago House.
Evening was the time for letter-writing and, in the cool winter evenings, for silting round a crackling log fire in the dining room, listened to Beethoven symphonies or a Verdi opera on the Myers’ portable gramophone. Sometimes Oliver would put on a comic song, ‘Abdul the Bulbul Emir’, the chorus of which would reduce Abd es-Salaam, always known as Abdul, to helpless laughter. (He was a Nubian, a loose-limbed, scatter-brained, likeable fellow whose features bore a striking resemblance to those of the Pharaoh Akhenaten.)
In the winter of 1937-8, Bucheum House was the base for the desert survey of Gilf el-Kebir, but, with the death of Sir Robert Mond in October 1938, and gathering war-clouds, the Society felt bound to give up the Armant concession. The house was closed.
After the war I believe it was used for a little time by the Egyptian Antiquities Service, but it fell into disrepair. Tourists occasionally visit the temple area in Armant town, but I have met no-one who has seen what remains of our fortress in the desert.
Status of historical research: Finished
Status of article: Finished