April 05, 2004
CONTACT: Mike Stepanovich, 661/664-2456 or mstepanovich@csub.edu

A California State University, Bakersfield professor and student will spend this summer helping unravel the mysteries of ancient Egypt at an archaeological site along the Nile River.

Robert Yohe, an anthropology professor, and Deanna Heikkinen, an art history and anthropology student, will be part of a team that is unearthing the ancient site at El-Hibeh (also known as El-Hiba), about 100 miles south of Cairo, halfway between Cairo and El Amarna. The dig is under the direction of archaeologist Carol Redmount of the University of California, Berkeley.

The excavation, located just north of the modern-day village of El-Hibeh, is of the ancient Egyptian town of Tuedjoi. Historians believe the town was founded at least as early as the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt, sometime between about 1500 B.C. to 1070 B.C., encompassing the 18th through 20th dynasties, which included some of Egypt’s most famous pharaohs.

According to several historical accounts, the town was an important frontier fortress on the northern boundary between Upper and Lower Egypt, during the late 20th Dynasty to the 22nd Dynasty (about 1100 B.C. to about 750 B.C.). Tuedjoi was in the 18th nome of Upper Egypt (Upper Egypt encompassed the southern part of the Nile, the upper river). Nomes were administrative units, the equivalent of modern-day counties or provinces. There were 22 nomes in Upper Egypt, and 20 in Lower Egypt.

The town was also a necropolis, with thousands of tombs and burial sites dating back as far as the 12th Dynasty (about 1990 B.C. to about 1780 B.C.).

During the reign of the pharaoh Shoshenq I (945 B.C. to 924 B.C.) a temple was built there, but the town’s importance as a military outpost diminished in the ensuing centuries. It regained its military significance during the Greco-Roman period (330 B.C. to about 400 A.D.) under the Greek name Ankyrononpolis, and was a thriving Roman outpost when Egypt was a Roman province (30 B.C. to about 400 A.D.). Yohe estimates that El-Hibeh’s population during Roman times was a few thousand.

Remarkably – perhaps because of the extent that archaeologists have been combing Egypt for centuries – the ruins at El-Hibeh are nearly virgin territory, although vandalism has been a problem for millennia. Few professional archaeologists have investigated the site.

“It’s one of the few remaining sites in this part of Egypt not extensively excavated by archaeologists,” Yohe said. “It has yielded significant artifacts, but most of that excavation was done in the latter 19th century and early 20th century, when techniques weren’t what they are today. Amazing papyrus documents have come from there. … The site is an important one in providing information and details of the Roman period and certainly earlier periods in Egypt.”

This summer will mark Yohe’s second summer at El-Hibeh. That he is part of the archaeological team at all is serendipitous, he said. A friend of his, Margaret Newman, a professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, told him that she was working with Redmount, a professor of near-eastern studies at UC Berkeley and curator of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Newman said that Redmount was in charge of a project to excavate ruins at El-Hibeh.

“Margaret said it was a fabulous project, and that I should be involved as it was a great opportunity to expand my horizons,” Yohe said. “I contacted Dr. Redmount, because I can identify animal remains and perform human skeletal analysis, and they didn’t have anyone with those qualifications. So I was brought on board. The project looks like it will be a long-term one, for the next several decades from the looks of it.

“The site is between Upper and Lower Egypt, so it had great political significance. It was a religious center, and also an administrative center. Also, during the Roman occupation it was an important community as well. My research this past summer was on Roman burials. The Romans in their homeland used cremation, but in Egypt they adopted Egyptian religion and mummification. They really got into it.”

Because the Roman remains were preserved, it provides a rare opportunity to learn details of daily Roman life, Yohe said. “I’m interested in what we can learn about the dietary habits of the ancient inhabitants of El-Hibeh.”

“The Romans came to Egypt in 30 B.C. after Octavian (later Augustus) defeated Marc Antony, and Cleopatra VII committed suicide. She was the last of the Ptolemies. After that, Egypt became the breadbasket of the Roman empire. The history of this land is so complex and changes so much through time, it’s fascinating to track for research.

“Part of my job on this project is to determine what people were eating. I analyze animal bones to see what animals they were consuming on a regular basis.

“At El-Hibeh, it’s a situation where the tombs were looted and the contents strewn about – human bones. I’ve found Roman tombs with remains of several people, from children up to 70-year-olds. I also found mummies intact. I plan to salvage these mummies for study and protection from vandalism.

“What’s fascinating is Egypt’s amazing dynastic history – everybody is invading and leaving a little bit of their culture. The Greeks left Ptolemaic culture. The Ptolemies were a Macedonian family whose members formed the ruling dynasty of Egypt from about 305 B.C. to 30 B.C. Ptolemy I was a general of Alexander the Great’s. He became Egypt’s king in 305 B.C. Egypt became a Roman province after Octavian (Augustus) defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies. When the Romans arrived, they had a profound influence on Egyptian society. If you were a Roman, you were at the top of the social strata. If you were a Greek, you were OK. Jewish, you were even accepted. Indigenous Egyptians were the lowest strata of society.”

Yohe said he hopes the archaeological evidence will give a truer picture of the way life was in Roman Egypt. He said most archaeological work and study has focused on Egypt’s dynastic periods, and that little attention has been paid to Egypt’s Roman period, as evidenced by the fact that El-Hibeh is virtually untouched from a scientific standpoint.

The rich trove of human remains provides an unfiltered view of life in a Roman province. “If you look at the human skeletal remains, you may be able to identify the different social strata by the health status of the remains,” Yohe said. “One of the important things about Roman Egypt is the presence of good census data. Every 14 years the Romans conducted a census. Because of that information on households we have a sense of what was going on there in terms of general demographics. Interestingly enough the information from the Roman censuses in Egypt is better than anywhere else in the Mediterranean because the climate preserved the papyrus census records.”

Life was apparently hard at El-Hibeh. “It appears that most folks died in their 30s and 40s,” Yohe said. “The mean age of death was the mid-20s. It was not unusual for people to die in their mid-30s and mid-40s, especially those in the lower social strata.

“The Romans were there 670 years. Things were going downhill from the latter part of the third century A.D. They were there a long time and left a pretty hefty archaeological signature. But the Roman period doesn’t get quite the attention of the dynastic period.”

Yohe said the archaeological site is secured by various agencies of the Egyptian government. “When we’re at the dig site, we’re accompanied by Egyptian secret police, tourist police and the national guard,” he said. “They’ve taken a hard line on terrorism since 1997,” when a tourist bus was attacked and many tourists were killed.

Yohe is still amazed at the turn his life has taken. He joined the CSUB faculty in 1999, and, he said, laughing, “until recently, my specialty was North American archaeology, focusing on ancient Native American stone tools and on human and animal remains.” He earned his doctorate at UC Riverside, and worked at the Cultural Resource Center at CSUB 1990-92. After he was awarded his doctorate, the San Bernardino-Riverside area native landed a job as State Archaeologist in Idaho where he stayed for 6-1/2 years. But he eventually decided that he wanted to teach, so applied for an opening CSUB.

He became aware that Heikkinen, one of his students, was interested in Egypt. After his stint in Egypt last summer, “when I knew I would return, I told Deanna that this would be a fabulous opportunity for her. She’ll go and help me with mummy duties. It’s an opportunity to work with UC Berkeley doctoral students and Carol (Redmount).”

And if Yohe is amazed, Heikkinen is doubly so. “I am so excited,” she said. “It’s definitely a dream come true. Hopefully, I’ll be there the next three summer’s doing my master’s thesis.”

Originally for the Stockton area, Heikkinen worked as a newspaper photographer in San Diego for a while, and lived in different states before returning to California. “I’m a returning student putting myself through school,” she said. “I came here to go to CSUB.”

She was living in Wyoming with her mother, and was looking for a place to go to school. She learned about CSUB and liked that it was a smaller campus. “I found out that here I can afford to live and go to school. I will graduate this spring with a double major in anthropology and art history. Then I’ll do a double master’s in history and archaeology. I’m interested in the classic area of history to compliment archaeology. I am planning on focusing on the Roman Egyptian period for both majors.”

“When I went back to school, I was studying photojournalism. After working in that field, I knew I needed a change. I decided on art history because I have always loved art, especially from the Classical world and Egypt.”

Yohe’s research is “why I am staying here for my master’s. I had gone to Egypt on vacation and knew that it was going to be my emphasis for graduate school. I loved Egypt, loved the people. When Dr. Yohe went to Egypt (last summer), I told him to tell them, if they need help that there is a student and this is what she wants to do.”

Egypt has long held a fascination for Heikkinen. “In Victory Park in Stockton, there’s a museum with an Egyptian Sarcophagus. I remember looking at it and being in awe. I’m fascinated by history.”

What is she anticipating? “The heat. It’s hot there. My head is going to spin the whole summer. I’ll be working with Dr. Yohe on mummies, while focusing on the mortuary practices of the non-elites dating from the Roman Egyptian to Coptic periods for my thesis.”