By Susan Biddle (Different Perspectives volunteer)
We all know about the trenches dug in Flanders … but trenches were also dug in Egypt during 1915 for a rather different purpose. In 1915 the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF, now the Egypt Exploration Society - EES) was granted a special concession to procure objects for a small group of American Museums who provided funding in exchange for a share in any finds. A team, led by an American, Professor Thomas Whittemore, and Gerald Wainwright, one of Petrie’s pups, excavated at Balabish on the East bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt, about 20 miles from Abydos.
Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, Thomas Whittemore divided his time during the war years between Egyptology and war work, first for the British Red Cross on ambulance duty in France, and subsequently with refugees in Russia. Wainwright had been interested in Egypt from a schoolboy when his mother told him about a slide lecture given by Amelia Edwards, one of the founders of the EEF. At evening classes in Egyptian and Coptic at University College, Bristol, Wainwright met Ernest Mackay, one of Petrie’s assistants.
Wainwright was so thrilled by Mackay’s descriptions of fieldwork with Petrie that when he finally met Petrie at a lecture in 1907, he asked to join his dig team. Petrie told him there were no posts available but he could come as a volunteer, so aged 28 Wainwright took a cargo boat to Egypt, equipped with just £25. He worked with Petrie until 1912, after which he worked in the Sudan, Abydos and Sawama, as well as with Leonard Woolley and TE Lawrence at Carchemish.
When war broke out, he volunteered but twice failed his medical so was available to lead the EEF team. As usual, most of the excavation was done by local men and children, many of whom would have had considerable archaeological experience.
The team led by Whittemore and Wainwright excavated at Balabish between March and May 1915, discovering two distinct cemeteries: one of Pan-grave people (so called by Petrie because of the shape of their burials) and a later one from the New Kingdom.
The Pan-grave people were contemporaries of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (broadly 2000 – 1500 BC), and were famed as archers and nomadic cattle breeders. My first job as a volunteer at the EES was to scan the Balabish tomb cards and negatives so these could be made available on the EES website so it was great to be able to use this resource in my later research for the Petrie Museum’s World War I project.
The pan-grave burials included horns and horn objects, reflecting the importance to them of cattle, and archer’s equipment. For example, burial 201 included a body covered in leather and buried with a horn knife and bracelet, an archer’s leather wrist guard and a bundle of yellow sinews which Wainwright suggested were bow strings as they seemed too thick to have been used as thread.
Many of the Pan-grave and New Kingdom burials included sandals, giving an opportunity to compare footwear fashion: Pan-grave sandals were one thickness of leather, with square or rounded toes, and might have a few beads stitched into the leather (on right); New Kingdom sandals were several thicknesses of leather, had pointed toes, and might be dyed red (on left).
In both periods the straps seem to have ended in a large knot under the toes, which must have made walking excruciating. This may not have mattered, if sandals were ceremonial items to be carried as a status symbol (as on the Narmer palette), rather than being worn.
Wainwright gave a preliminary report on the work at Balabish in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (JEA) in 1915 (with the final report delayed by the war until 1920) and also gave a public lecture at the Royal Society in Burlington House in Piccadilly, London. The JEA reported that despite wartime constraints, his lecture was well-attended and the EES Committee had “every intention of proceeding with our programme of lectures as usual during the winter”.
Other fieldwork also continued. The absence of officials and general demoralisation caused by the war led to a revival of tomb-robbing. In 1916 Howard Carter was asked to intervene in trouble between two rival bands of robbers skirmishing over a recently discovered tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Carter arrived at the scene at midnight, to find the end of the robbers’ rope dangling over a cliff edge. He could hear the robbers below, so cut their rope and lowered himself down the cliff on his own rope. In his own words, “shinning down a rope at midnight, into a nestful of industrious tomb robbers, is a pastime which at least does not lack excitement”.
After what he described laconically as “an awkward moment or two”, the robbers accepted their only option was to leave via Carter’s rope, leaving Carter to spend the next few months clearing the tomb (that of Hatshepsut as consort and so unused). Readers of Elizabeth Peters’ (the pen name of Egyptologist Barbara Mertz) historical mystery novels about the fictional archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson may recognise similarities with Emerson’s exploits in The Hippopotamus Pool (1996).
In 1916 Alan Gardiner commissioned Carter to draw the Opet festival reliefs and inscriptions at Luxor temple but sadly his drawings remain unpublished at the Griffith Institute in Oxford. Norman de Garis Davies continued to record the decoration in tombs on the West Bank at Luxor on behalf of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), until he left for the East to work with the French Red Cross.
The Met also excavated Middle and New Kingdom pyramids at Lisht, south of Cairo, and Amenhotep III’s New Kingdom palace at Malkata outside Thebes. Eckley Coxe, the Honorary Secretary of the US branch of the EES, conducted private excavations at Memphis, discovering the palace of Merenptah, and this work was continued by Clarence Fisher for the University of Pennsylvania after Coxe’s death.
Fisher was another who combined archaeology and war work – whilst in Egypt he also worked on behalf of the Near East Relief, an American aid program set up in 1915 to provide aid to Armenians after the genocide. This was later merged with the Syrian-Palestine Relief Fund and the Persian War Relief, and eventually provided aid to all those suffering from the crisis, regardless of ethnicity or religion … tragically, the need for such assistance is still with us 100 years later.
Further reading/key sources:
Bierbrier, M. 2012. Who was who in Egyptology (4th edition, revised). London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Drower, M. 1985. Flinders Petrie: A life in Archaeology. London: Gollancz.
Egypt Exploration Society Library and Archive
James, T G H. 2001. Howard Carter: The path to Tutankhamun. London: I. B. Tauris.
Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Volumes 2-6 (Balabish) and 50 (obituary of Wainwright)
Reeves, N and Taylor, J H. 1992. Howard Carter before Tutankhamun. London: British Museum.
Wainwright, G A. Balabish. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Petrie Museum exhibition “Different Perspectives” 16 May – 31 October 2017 (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/petrie-museum )
Winstone, H V. 2006. Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Barzan Publishing.