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Karanis, Egypt



1924–1925: J. L. Starkey

1926–1935: Enoch E. Peterson

Before the University of Michigan began its excavation at Kom Aushim, the site of ancient Karanis, the sebkheen (diggers for fertilizer) had plundered the mound looking for black dirt for their cotton crops. The heart of the mound had been dug to bedrock and resembled an extinct volcano. Yet these diggers had unearthed the glass and papyri that led the university expedition to believe that the site would prove rich in archaeological material. The first season convinced the staff that the site would, in fact, be the most productive of the three surveyed.

In the ensuing years, archaeologists laid bare the plan of this Graeco-Roman town to the minutest detail in house construction and decoration, and peopled the houses and temples, the streets and passageways, by revealing the objects used long ago in daily life. According to Enoch Peterson:

We have seen the letters these people wrote to one another, the accounts they kept in business transactions, the kinds of food they ate, the grain they planted in their irrigated plots of land, the cloth they wove to make their garments, the wooden boxes in which they stored their treasures, the glass that must have been highly cherished, the pottery that served as common household ware, the toys that delighted the hearts of their children, the lamps that gave such feeble light and so much smoke, staining black the niches in their housewalls, and the paintings, all of some religious significance, with which they sometimes adorned their houses. We have seen the very temples in which they worshipped, now in ruins, mute reminders of a cult that even then was in decay. The people who wrote and read the papyri, which have become so valuable as source material for the history of this period, are revealed to us as a living people in a living town.

In addition to providing archaeologists with a documentary history of the people who occupied this Egyptian city between Ptolemaic and Christian times, Karanis also offered a wealth of material for the economist, historian, sociologist, art historian, and linguist. A review of the research resulting from the Karanis excavation does, in fact, provide an excellent overview of what a major excavation offers scholars in many fields.

According to the Topographical and Architectural Report of Excavations during the Season 1924–28 by A. E. R. Boak and E. E. Peterson, the crew and staff uncovered enough in the first season to show three strata of houses, differing in construction and separated somewhat by layers of sand and rubbish. The upper, middle, and lower layers were not, however, always clear-cut. But by the end of the second season occupation levels were shown to cover foundations of houses belonging to the Ptolemaic period; houses from the mid-1st through the close of the 3rd (Roman) century; and, at the top level, buildings representing the 4th and 5th Christian centuries. The staff developed a nomenclature for different levels of occupation and for the buildings, streets, and sectors of each level. Areas and levels were dated by such evidence as papyri, ostraca, coins, and pottery. The distribution of written evidence, when combined with the study of household architecture, helped the archaeologists understand how the town had changed through periods of prosperity and depression, and how patterns of daily life mirrored these larger economic fluctuations.

Research on the many thousands of objects recovered at Karanis revealed how these ancient people cultivated their crafts, carried on their business, and conducted their domestic life. Three examples will suffice. In Ancient Textiles from Egypt in the University of Michigan Collection (1933) by Lilian M. Wilson, we learned what looms and techniques these ancient weavers used, what quality of textiles they produced, and where the cloth was woven and used. Wilson studied more than 3,000 fabric samples found at Karanis and, after determining the typical weaves, patterns, and workmanship, was able to establish which pieces were of local and which of foreign manufacture. The local fabrics lacked experimentation and fine work. They were produced not as a domestic activity but by an elementary factory system and were used both locally and in trade. Similarly, in Roman Glass from Karanis by Donlad B. Harden, we learn that glass from Roman Egypt was a luxury and likely to be handed down for generations. Even when a vessel was broken, it was sometimes refashioned and reused. (This, of course, makes dating the glass difficult.) The rich finds at Karanis offered a wide range of information on the history of glass and provided a sequence of shapes, types, and fabrics. The specimens prove, for example, that although Egyptians were still producing some hand-molded bowls at the start of the 2nd century, fine, colorless, blown glass flasks were prevalent. This dates the change from the modeling-molding-pressing to the blowing process in the 1st century. During the 3rd century, new types of fabric were used, and the mass production of cheap glass began. Thereafter, a steady coarsening of decoration and technique continued until Karanis evidence comes to an end in the 5th century. In an even more specific way do the 27,000 coins documented in Coins from Karanis by R. A. Haatvedt and E. E. Peterson bear witness to the general economic plight of residents of Karanis. Like the glass, the coins attest that Karanis had attained its greatest growth by the middle or end of the 2nd century, when it also had its greatest prosperity. The coins also reflect the great economic insecurity people felt before the Diocletian currency reform, as proven by the great numbers of coins hoarded away. Before this reform, all money in circulation in Egypt was minted in Alexandria, and money from other provinces was not considered legal tender. Among the coin hoards found, for example, was a treasure of Roman aurei in mint condition. “Perhaps,” speculate the authors, “the hoard was the treasure of a Roman officer who brought it with him when he left Italy for his station in Egypt. He may have concealed it awaiting the day of his return to his homeland, since it could not be spent locally.”

In addition to illuminating the daily lives of these ancient people, the research on objects from Karanis provides scholars with systematic indices and appraisals of material from the site. Coins from Karanis, for example, presents a complete catalogue of every coin found, arranged by period and containing all known information about a given coin as well as a precise description of its obverse and reverse surfaces. For anyone doing research on the Roman Empire during the Karanis period, the volume provides a ready index.

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Books and Articles

Gazda, Elaine K. Guardians of the Nile: Sculptures from Karanis in the Fayoum (c. 250 BC–AD 450). Ann Arbor: The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 1978.

———, ed. Karanis, an Egyptian Town in Roman Times: Discoveries of the University of Michigan Expedition to Egypt (1924–1935). 2nd ed. Kelsey Museum Publications 1. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 2004.

Wilfong, Terry G., and Andrew W. S. Ferrara. Karanis Revealed: Discovering the Past and Present of a Michigan Excavation in Egypt. Kelsey Museum Publications 7. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 2014.

Online Exhibition

The Fabric of Everyday Life: Historic Textiles from Karanis, Egypt. An exhibition at the Kelsey Museum, 2001.