Coptos and the Eastern Desert, Egypt: 1987-95

Area of Hellenistic houses at Coptos before 1990 excavation.

Coptos and the Eastern Desert
1987-95
Sharon C. Herbert and Henry T. Wright, Directors

This project was designed to document the earliest interaction between the Mediterranean and South Asia, when traders from the Ptolemaic kingdom of Hellenistic Egypt (323-33 BC) opened routes from the Nile Valley, across the Eastern Desert, down the Red Sea, and over the Indian Ocean to South Asia. The Michigan team focused on surveying and dating the fortified campsites in the Eastern Desert that provided the infrastructure for the overland leg of this route.

Excavations were also undertaken at the cosmopolitan city of Coptos, the transshipment point at the juncture of the Nile and the desert routes, to provide a stratified sequence of local ceramics, which, analyzed in conjunction with finds from the fortified stations in the Eastern Desert, would allow close dating and better understanding of the Graeco-Roman trade routes to the Red Sea. Excavation was conducted at Coptos in four seasons from 1987 to 1992; survey took place in the Eastern Desert in the winters of 1987, 1988/89, and 1990/91, and in conjunction with study seasons in the winters of 1993/94 and 1994/95. The survey and excavation teams worked in tandem, sharing personnel and resources. The project was designed in cooperation with, and overseen in Egypt by, Ahmad El-Sawy of the Sohag branch of Assiut University.

Coptos lies on the east bank of the Nile, 38 kilometers northeast of Luxor. Inhabited from at least the Early Dynastic period (third millennium BC) to the present, it was the capital of the fifth, or Coptite, nome of Upper Egypt. Its location at the point of the Nile closest to the Red Sea made it from earliest times an important trade center and gateway to the mineral resources of the Eastern Desert. Today the greater part of the site lies under the growing market town of Qift, which encircles ancient Coptos and is encroaching upon the numerous, but diminishing, exposed archaeological remains. The protected archaeological zone serves as the municipal dump. Consequently, the site presents something of a depressing lunar landscape with isolated pillars of preserved antiquities surrounded by modern apartment buildings, cut through by modern roads, and inhabited by herds of goats and packs of feral dogs living off the garbage deposited daily. In recent years the Supreme Council of Antiquities has made serious efforts to preserve parts of the site, but it remains in danger of disappearing entirely.

The University of Michigan/University of Assiut team excavated at Coptos from 1987 to 1992 in largely Ptolemaic-Roman levels to the north and east of the Min temple uncovered by Sir William Flinders Petrie in his 1893 work at the site. Stratified deposits ranging in date from the Middle Kingdom to the 5th century AD were recovered and, after some years of study, published in 2003. Evidence to date the eastern wall of the temenos (sacred precinct) to the reign of Nectanebo I or II (4th century BC) was discovered, as well as a sequence of early Hellenistic houses within the temenos. Remains of a later (mid-2nd century BC) temenos wall, supplanting that of Nectanebo, were found to the north of the temple. Interestingly, the room in the northeast angle of this wall was decorated by painted stucco in Macedonian style imitating carved stone blocks.

The Michigan/Assiut excavations at Coptos recovered more than 5,000 kilograms of pottery, the great bulk of which is found in stratified contexts of Hellenistic or Roman date, although some Late Period and Middle Kingdom remains were also uncovered. The pottery corpus was predominantly of local manufacture, and there were surprisingly few imports or other closely datable artifacts among the finds. Nonetheless a sequence of four Hellenistic and four Roman assemblages was identified, ranging in date from the late 4th century BC to the 5th century AD.

Using the ceramic dates made possible by the stratified sequence from the Coptos excavation, the survey team has been able to distinguish chronologically distinct caravan routes through the Eastern Desert. The earlier, Hellenistic, tracks run south, not from Coptos but from the more southerly Nile port of Edfu to Berenice, a Ptolemaic foundation and the most southern port on the Red Sea. Later routes run more directly east from Coptos to the central and northern ports on the Red Sea established by the Romans, although the southern routes probably remained in use as well. The finds from the survey remain under study and will be published in the near future.