Qasr Ibrim camp life, by Nettie K Adams

EES Dig Houses in Egypt. (article & photographs courtesy of Mr. Christ Naunton, EES)

The third dig house in the series is not strictly speaking a house at all: the Gerf Hussein, a houseboat in Lake Nasser, is home to the Egypt Exploration Society’s Qasr lbrim excavators. Nettie Adams, who has worked for many years in Nubia with her husband Bill Adams, is currently Textile Analyst with the Ibrim expedition.

Qasr Ibrim camp life, by Nettie K Adams

Because Qasr Ibrim is located in the area that was flooded by Lake Nasser, expeditions there have always lived on houseboats hired from the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. During the early years of excavations, they had a succession of boats, but in 1972 and every season since then we have had the Gerf Hussein. It is a comfortable old boat, long and narrow, completely flat on top, with a pointed bow and a rounded stem. It is made of wood throughout; shaped paneling for the walls and doors, carefully fitted wood floors, and heavy, porcelain bathroom fixtures all bespeak the careful craftsmanship and restrained elegance of the boat originally.

The lower deck contains the individual cabins, laundry areas and two full bathrooms. The upper deck, reached by stairs at either end of the boat, has two large common rooms, workroom and the dining room, along with a kitchen, pantry, storeroom and servants’ quarters.

View of the citadel of Qasr Ibrim from the river.
View of the citadel ofQasr Ibrim from the river.

Verandas along both sides and around the stern of the upper deck allow access to these rooms. Electricity is generated in the early morning and in the evening by a generator located under the lower deck at the stern. Two large water tanks on top of the boat provide water by gravity feed to the kitchen and darkroom on the upper deck, and to each room on the lower deck. They are filled by a pump powered by the generator.

The cabins are spacious for one person, adequate but somewhat cramped for two. Each has a window with separate sliding panels of glass, screen and shutter, so that light, insects and ventilation can all be controlled. A washbasin with running water is located opposite the window, next to the door, and an electric light is above the washbasin. Basic furniture consists of a bed, mattress and pillows, and either a nightstand or a wardrobe. Those who are able to do some work in their rooms also have a table and chair. Individual additions of curtains, Nubian-made palm-leaf floor mats, photographs and calendar pictures give each cabin a distinctive, personal homey feeling for the duration of the season.

Moving to the upper deck, the dining room is the social heart of the Gerf Hussein. Two large tables placed end-to-end furnish seating for up to 16 people. Three sideboards against the walls hold table-ware, dishes and provisions. A refrigerator keeps fresh meat frozen and provides storage for cheese and butter. Tucked away between the dining room and the work room are a storeroom and darkroom. The work room is the largest room on the boat. It has windows around three sides; tables line the same three sides, affording a continuous U-shaped work space. The fourth wall has shelves reaching almost to the ceiling.

The top of the boat, reached by stairs at the stern, presents a large (approximately 65 feet by 22 feet) flat area floored by rather splintery wood. In addition to the two water tanks, clotheslines have been erected to hold the never-ending laundry, an unavoidable pan of any large archaeological expedition. The area is also used to sun-dry the hundreds of round loaves of bread which are purchased in Aswan to last the entire season. When completely dry, they are stored in coarse bags which allow for circulation of air.

The area’s most constant use, however, is for the sorting and analysis of potsherds. This task must be done after each day’s excavation in order to maintain the strict stratigraphic controls and the chronological accuracy which have become a hallmark of the Ibrim excavations. Although it presents an ideal space for the sherd analysts to do their work, the sherd deck, as it is often called, is not without its hazards. The lack of any railing makes it very easy to step off the edge if we are distracted or forgetful. A second hazard is the system of water pipes which distributes water to various areas of the boat. They stand just about ankle height and seem to be forever lying to wait to trip us up. Finally, the condition of the deck often leaves those working here with splinters in various parts of their anatomy!

A typical day during periods of excavation begins for most of us when we hear the generator rumble to life. Ramadan, our cheerful, efficient servant has already been up for some time preparing early morning lea. At 5.15 he wakes the mechanic, and puts tea on the table at 5.30. The staff appear at various times during the next hour – archaeologists come immediately, as they must be present on the site when the labourers arrive at 6.00. Others need not be quite so prompt, but everyone has plenty of work to do and early morning tea is usually cleared away by 6.30.

We work al our appointed tasks until 9.00, when our cook, Desuqi, produces a bounteous breakfast for some very hungry people. Plenty of coffee and tea, beans of one sort or another, cheese, bread and jam, occasionally eggs or tamia serve to case our ravenous state and keep us going through the morning.

Everyone spends most of each day on the site, except the registrar. His work space and supplies are in the work room, along with the small finds. Sometimes an artist does some of the drawing there. The photographer is in and out, depending upon where his services are needed and the state of the weather. The analysts of leather, basketry ,textiles, bones and seeds each has a work space in the cathedral – a large building protected from the wind by the highest standing walls in the site.

At 1.30 the Quftis’ work day is over and the rest of us bring our work to a good stopping place. Some of us used to bathe in the clear waters of the lake, but the sighting in 1986 of a large crocodile in our swimming place put an end to that most welcome activity! By 2.15 everyone has washed up and is ready for dinner – another delicious meal in which Desuqi’s culinary and creative talents have full expression. He works wonders of variety with a limited number of ingredients, and everything from his kitchen is presented with style and artistry. At Qasr Ibrim one might say that we don’t eat, we dine.

After dinner, work continues until about 5.15, when afternoon tea is taken, often on the veranda. There we relax and enjoy watching the sunset. Sometimes it is a sky full of fiery colour; other times the sun is a huge red ball as it slips behind the horizon. Each time the vast expanse of water in the foreground doubles the beauty of the sky in its reflection. By this time the generator has come on, and we continue with tasks which can be done on the boat, such as documentation, working on maps, or personal activities such as letter writing. A glass of Ouzo or Egyptian brandy is enjoyed in the dining room by some before supper, served at 7.30. To anyone who has approached our solitary isolation from the vastness of the lake at night, the Gerf Hussein presents the illusion of a glittering, floating palace. The glimmering light from each window reflecting off the water below, and the generator’s rhythmic beat, suggest a feeling of excitement and activity, of luxury and indulgence akin to that of the great steamers in the heyday of the North Atlantic crossing. The truth is very different: in reality we are a small group of people who have been up since before dawn, intensely involved in our work all day, and are looking forward to nothing more than bed.

With lights out at 9.00 pm, the silence allows us to hear the jackals’ high-pitched yipping and howling in the distance, as we gratefully drop off to sleep.

Status of historical research: Finished
Status of article: Finished