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The Dakhleh Oasis Project

Update : March 2020

A.J. Mills

The Oasis Project (DOP) is a study of an Egyptian oasis to determine its cultural evolution and parallel environmental evolution.  Data is collected by examining the surface of the area, through aerial photography, archaeological excavation, mapping, restoration, modelling, the examination of minute and large objects, comparisons, and teamwork amongst the variety of scholars who come to study the oasis in detail.  The field work is done with the permission and participation of Egyptian officials, as well a participating scholars from countries as diverse as Australia, Canada, USA, Netherlands, Austria, France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Britain, and others.

This international team began this study in 1978 with six members and now numbers well over 100 people.  In the oasis, the project is housed in two large buildings at 'Ain el-Gindi, near Mut the oasis capital.  Teams assemble in the oasis each winter between October and April.  There are geologists, botanists, zoologists, physicists, archaeologists, photographers, draughtsmen, conservators, surveyors, papyrologists, art historians, Egyptologists, epigraphers and students of various disciplines.  Daily, in the field camp, there is a transfer of information and ideas, and cooperation between various team members on problems that arise as the result of new discoveries.

The field work began in 1978 with a walking survey of the oasis landscape, when detailed observations of ancient sites and landscape indications and features were noted and discussed.  This occupied project members from 1978 until 1982.  A total of 450 ancient sites, dating somewhere between the Middle Pleistocene, 400,000 years ago,  when man first appeared in the oasis region, down to the present day.  Old Stone Age hunters, Neolithic settlers, ancient Egyptians, Romans, Christians, Muslims, have all been a part of the cultural evolution in the oasis region – truly a microcosm of the whole eastern Saharan and Egyptian landscapes.  Since 1982, after the completion of the walking survey, the project has undertaken various excavations to investigate various details of all the various aspects of our discoveries. 

Discoveries include the prehistoric rock art made by man during the Neolithic, which includes a wide variety of animals, both domestic and wild.  One of the most interesting of these are the many scenes of giraffes, being held by a tether held by a human; yet no physical remains of a giraffe have been discovered, despite the discovery of the bones of many other large African animals.  During the Neolithic, many cultural traits first appear, which are followed, some 500 years later, in the Nile Valley.  At about 100,000 years ago, we have discovered that most of the Dakhleh Oasis was submerged beneath a lake which was at  least thirty-five metres deep.  There were at least seven stone-built  temples in Dakhleh, located in various settlements.  These date to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, although two of them go back into Pharaonic times.  They are well made and decorated with relief carving.  There are in addition, several mud brick temples, also of the Ptolemaic-Roman periods which are undecorated and were probably built by locals.  There is a large and important archive of 18th - 19th century documents of the villagers of el-Qasr, and there is an archive of Manichaean texts which comprise about one-quarter of all known texts of this Middle Eastern cult of the 2nd - 10th centuries AD.  Greek texts, written on thin boards include two bound books – the earliest codex books ever found in the world.  There is the only known temple dedicated to the god Tutu; and, at another temple,  a new  deity, Amun-Nakht, never before known to Egyptology.  There are many more.

Aims of the Dakhleh Oasis Project are many and varied and depend on the individual scholars who participate.  Discoveries are physical and intellectual, and will often be joined together.  A coherent picture of the whole, including the cultural and physical evolution of man in a changing environment is one goal we all share.  Restoration, both on paper and in the oasis is another.  So, we are restoring the multi-storey mudbrick houses of el-Qasr; a replica of  a Roman villa, complete with painted decoration on the inside walls, has been built on site at Amheida.  A decorated capital from the forecourt of the temple at 'Ain Birbiyeh is being recovered from its fallen location and will be rebuilt either at the site or at the new Dakhleh Oasis Museum.

Currently, there are some eight teams being fielded by the DOP.  These include the Islamic village of el-Qasr, the Pharaonic and Roman settlement at Amheida, the epigraphic study of the temples at Deir el-Hagar, Amheida, Mut el-Kharab, Ismant el-Kharab,and 'Ain Birbiyeh; excavation at the settlement sites at Amheida,  'Ain el-Gazzareen, Mut el-Kharab, Ismant el-Kharab. 'Ain Birbiyeh;  physical anthropology of the human remains at the cemeteries of Ismant el-Kharab; excavation of the Roman walls at el-Qasr; mapping and study of  stone quarries for temple construction; studies of rock art from prehistoric, Pharaonic, late antiquity, and Islamic times studies of texts in ancient Greek, in Coptic, and in Arabic languages; and a linguist studies the differences in the dialects between villages in the oasis.

Our publications are numerous, including several hundred in various academic and scientific journals, some sixteen monographs on various aspects of our oasis work published by Oxbow Press and by the National Archives Documentary Service in Cairo; museum collections in Toronto, at the Royal Ontario Museum, at the New Valley Museum in Kharga Oasis, and in the National Museum in Cairo. The project holds open meetings each three years as public symposia, which are also published. The Next Dakhleh Oasis Project Symposium is planned to be held at The British Museum, London, in September 2021.

Further detailed information about the Dakhleh Oasis Project will be found in the websites of the Dakhleh Trust, of Monash University and of New York University.

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