Ancient Egypt Research Associates

Posted by Nesreen Maher Mohamed, MRFS student, SCA

The AERA 2011 Mit Rahina Field School has allowed me the opportunity to study many disciplines, including drawing, the study of animal bones, human bones and pottery. But I am actually fascinated by archaeobotany – the study of ancient plants!

This is taught by Dr. Mary Anne Murray and the study is important because it shows us the social and economic situation of these populations thousands of years ago. We also learn about differences in the rich and poor communities in terms of the relative quality of the plants consumed by these ancient generations.

The process of flotation. Photo by Yasser Mahmoud.

These plants are preserved by charring, being burnt and therefore preserved. Some plants in ancient Egypt are also preserved by desiccation (or drying due to the arid climate), but also as plant impressions preserved in pottery, mud brick and plaster, as well as the gut contents from well preserved bodies which are important as direct evidence of their last meal – though we have no remains like this at Mit Rahina – only charred plants!

Recovering the sludge which has charred plant remains. Photo by Yasser Mahmoud.

The plants are recovered from soil samples excavated from the settlement by using flotation (with a machine or bucket) since charred plants float in water. The samples are then dried and examined under microscope.

Students using the microscope. Photo By Yasser Mahmoud.

At Kom el-Fahkry, we have found plant evidence of food and fuel. Food plants include emmer wheat and barley, lentils, grapes and dates. The fuel used includes wood and perhaps wood charcoal, as well as the residues from cereal processing composed of cereal straw, chaff and the wild species growing in the cereal fields which were harvested with the emmer wheat and barley. These residues were an important source of fuel in ancient Egypt.

There is also some evidence of plants used for their oil and/or fibers, such as linseed/flax. The fiberous water loving plants found may have been brought to the settlement matting or roofing material.

I registered for the Master’s degree with the University of Cairo in October 2010 – ‘Plant motifs on the Islamic groves of the nineteenth century and public water foundations’. I was very happy to learn that the study of ancient botany would be taught at the Mit Rahina Field School. I hope to continue my studies and also to work in the important field of archaeobotany!