Archaeological Discoveries in Extremely Dry Environments

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The stereotypical archaeologist image (other than hilarious distortions like Indiana Jones) is somebody who digs in the dirt, to find remnants of civilizations past. However, earth – dirt – is not the best preservation material for most of the artifacts that people of past civilizations used in their everyday life. Indeed, it is not the best preservation for many of the artifacts that people of the present use in their everyday life, bar the recent deluge of plastic packages. That is why some of the most important discoveries in archaeology have been performed in environments that would be considered too hostile for preservation in the popular imagination.

       We first consider sites that resemble quite a lot with the popular belief of archaeologist’s routine, in that it usually involves excavation (or random shallow find) on land. In this category we highlight the series of papyri that have been found in the extremely dry conditions of the Egyptian desert. Papyrus, a word designating a reed-like plant that filled the banks of the river Nile, nowadays means mainly the ancient (and one of the first) writing material. It was used continuously for thousands of years by all the inhabitants of the area around the Nile, from the ancient Egyptians to the Romans and later.

       The most well known papyri are maybe the ones discovered in Oxyrhynchus (modern el-Banhasa), at the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century. It was a serendipitous find of an ancient rubbish dump which included thousands of texts, mainly in Greek but also in Latin and a collection of other local languages, spanning more than four centuries of dates (from late Ptolemaic period to the Arab conquest of Egypt) [Turner, 1968].

       However, the extremely dry conditions of the Sahara, where most papyri are found (except for extraordinary, isolated finds in other places), preserves the paper-like material of the papyri also from other, far-away ages. Just in 2013, Pierre Taillet of Sorbonne discovered another papyrus, in cave near the Wadi al-Jafr, near the Red Sea, opposite the southeast coast of the Sinai peninsula. This one, which came to be called “The Diary of Merer”, is dated to the 26th century BCE. It was written by a middle functionary during the reign of Cheops, Merer, and is a business diary, where he notes movement of stone that was used in the construction of the great Cheops pyramid [Tallet, 2017].

       The big trove of papyri of Oxyrhynchus and the most recent find of the Cheops functionary’s diary (with all the hundreds of others found at other sites in all the intervening years) are seen as extremely important finds, in many areas. Many of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, for example, carried Greel literary texts that were completely unknown up to then, or were known with later-introduced variations. However, from an archaeologist’s pount of view, the most important aspect of these finds are the everyday notes, ‘shopping lists’, contracts, personal and formal letters, even student exercises (and of course, the ‘business diary’ of Merer), that shed light in the everyday lives, beliefs, fears and hopes of the people that lived in the Nile valley area.

       In other words, the text of the dry-preserved papyrus fragments, represents and replaces all the little or bigger artifacts that we miss from these periods. The missing pieces are of three kinds: First, the things made of materials that just perished with the passage of time. Second, the things important to laypersons, everymen, the poor, the masses that left no big burial chambers and pyramids with excellent jewelry. Finally, reading these texts, we have a direct window into the rituals, the way of thinking, the likes and fears and the simple language of the people who wrote them (they are mostly not formal texts, therefore not carefully and sometimes disingenuously edited). This extends the ‘usual’ and much more glamorous archaeology of the big buildings and lavish jewels, and makes the connection to faraway civilizations much more strong and personal.

The obvious disadvantages to papyri-hunters are the extreme conditions of the inhospitable desert, and the very complicated logistics that need to be organized in a desert dig. Recent political upheaval and religious strife in the areas where the next big find could be, are also not inducive to good organization of an archaeological expedition,

       The extreme opposite of the dry conditions of the Sahara sands that preserved the papyri for modern archaeologists are the ‘wet archaeologic sites’ or even the ‘undersea archaeologic sites’. Artifacts and objects, or even whole sites, have been preserved in water due to local and global tectonic forces, the change of the sea levels, accidents at sea and even deliberate dropping at sea and other water bodies [Purdy, 1988].

       One of the most famous shipwrecks in the world happened close to the small Greek island of Antikythera. When found, also around the start of the 20th century, a small but very complicated mechanism was included among the numerous art works and other artifacts taken up from the bottom of the sea. It later was proven to be a totally mechanical ‘computer’ that could calculate important dates and positions of celestial bodies [Lin & Yang, 2016]. It is so far the only evidence of advanced mechanic construction and astronomical knowledge around the time of the shipwreck, the 1st

century BCE.

However, a different shipwreck, presented here, was close to the one that essentially started the sub-discipline of marine archaeology [Pulak, 1998]. A random finding by a sponge diver in the south-west coast of Turkey in 1984, the Uluburun shipwreck, remains one of the best examples of Bronze-age sailing. Its cargo, mainly of metals in ingot form, gives information about the commercial relations of states of the Levant with those of the Aegean and even the Black Sea, via their similarities.

This wooden shipwreck, being at a relatively shallow site quite near the coast, where there is still quite a lot of oxygen dissolved in the water, does not present the best example of wood preservation in mud or water, as are, for example findings in peat bogs or mud at the bottom of inland lakes. Nevertheless, its cargo, including pottery containing remains of food, jewelry and probable religious figurines, gives information about the everyday lives of the people of the era, while the remaining parts of the wooden ship and its anchors open a window of information into the shipbuilding and sailing techniques of the era.

In the case of shipwrecks, the usefulness of the findings come mainly from the suddenness of the loss; Objects and ships that would normally be used and lost at land and rot after their usefulness has ceased, respectively, are preserved mid-trip for us to find. Again, the connection with the past is direct and unfiltered: The findings are not preserved in the way that its users wanted us to be found, curated and carefully poised. They are preserved for us in the way that gives much more information. Also, some very unique artifacts, connected to the relation of ancient people with the sea (and water bodies in general) are of course preserved only in ‘wet’ or ‘marine’ sites.

Obviously, the ‘excavation’ of a submerged site requires specialized training and specialized equipment on part of the participating archaeologists. Not only should they be able to stay long underwater and work there, they should adapt their techniques to the pressure, hydrodynamic drag and site-specific characteristics like water temperature, weather, currents and maybe dangerous or protected water fauna found around the site of interest. The artifacts have sometimes to be preserved inside the same kind of salty water they have been found in, in order not to be degraded when exposed to the oxygen and microorganisms of the air.

       The last case of ‘extreme’ archaeology is preservation in extremely cold conditions. In this case, usually applicable in the permafrost (frozen ground) of the tundra, and inside glaciers in more temperate climates, the extreme cold or a whole body of ice acts as a huge refrigerator that preserves tissues and objects, that would fast deteriorate otherwise. Again, first finds in a frozen context happened around the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and belong to the paleontology rather than the archaeology discipline (frozen big extinct mammals, like mammoths). The other extreme was the finding of the ship HMS Terror that participated in the ill-fated Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, which is a kind of ‘modern-era’ archaeology.  

       Nevertheless, probably the most famous ice-preserved body belongs to a human. In 1991, alpinists found the remains of a man that lived 5000 years ago, in a melting glacier almost exactly at the modern border between Austria and Italy, in the Alps. The body was found in excellent condition of preservation, and all his belongings were found on him or around him, very close to where he lied [Vanzetti et al, 2010]. The most impressive were the tattoos that were preserved on his skin, and, recently, the contents of his stomach, which have been analyzed to give information about his diet.

       It is not yet clear if the man died while walking around in the glacier, and what exactly were the causes of his death (exhaustion, cold and exposure, or a wound with the arrowhead still embedded in it close to his shoulder – or maybe a combination of all). However, his diet, his clothing and the artifacts he was carrying on him (weapons and tools) gave and continue to give invaluable information about life in the Neolithic Era in Europe.

       Findings in ice are essentially always serendipitous. In a way, one could suppose that the recent global warming has been a boon to archaeologists: with ice on the wane in all glaciers, and the permafrost easily excavated, since it has melted, more discoveries are just around the corner. However, this is actually the other way around: the de-frosted bodies quickly deteriorate once they are uncovered, and it is possible that many potential finds are ruined forever.

       It is obvious that the same problems of extreme conditions, the need for some specialized training and problematic logistics exist for the ice-bound archaeologic finds, as in other ‘extreme’ sites presented above. An extra problem is presented by the excavation methods, which must adapt to the totally different material (ice) that has to be searched. Finally, a ‘cold chain’ must be constructed for the safe transfer of any finding before it deteriorates when exposed, and holding areas must be also present for the later preservation of the findings. For example, a building equipped with special cold-storage had to be constructed in Innsbruck, Austria, for the preservation of the Iceman.


Lin, J.-L. & Yan, H.-S. (2016) Decoding the Mechanisms of Antikythera Astronomical Device. Springer, Berlin-Heidelberg

Pulak, C. (1998) The Uluburun shipwreck: an overview. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 27(3), 188-224

Purdy, B.A. (ed.) (1988) Wet Site Archaeology. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group Boca Raton, FL, USA

Tallet, P. (2017) Les papyrus de la mer Rouge : Volume 1, Le "journal de Merer" (papyrus Jarf A et B). Institut français d'archéologie orientale du Caire, Cairo

Turner, E. G. (1968) Greek Papyri: An Introduction. Princeton University Press Princeton, New Jersey

Vanzetti, A., Vidale, M., Gallinaro, M., Frayer, D. W., Bondioli, L. (2010) The iceman as a burial. Antiquity 84, 325

November 13, 2023


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