In the practice of what they call desert-road archaeology, the Darnells, husband and wife team from Yale, have found pottery and ruins where soldiers, merchants and other travelers camped in the time of the pharaohs. On a limestone cliff at a crossroads, they came upon a tableau of scenes and symbols, some of the earliest documentation of Egyptian history. Elsewhere, they discovered inscriptions considered to be one of the first examples of alphabetic writing.
The explorations of the Theban Desert Road Survey, a Yale University project co-directed by the Darnells, called attention to the previously under-appreciated significance of caravan routes and oasis settlements in Egyptian antiquity. And two weeks ago, the Egyptian government announced what may be the survey’s most spectacular find.
Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said the archaeologists had uncovered extensive remains of a settlement — apparently an administrative, economic and military center — that flourished more than 3,500 years ago in the western desert 110 miles west of Luxor and 300 miles south of Cairo. No such urban center so early in history had ever been found in the forbidding desert.
Dr. John Darnell, a professor of Egyptology at Yale, said in an interview last week that the discovery could rewrite the history of a little-known period in Egypt’s past and the role played by desert oases, those islands of springs and palms and fertility, in the civilization’s revival from a dark crisis.
The 218-acre site is at Kharga Oasis, a string of well-watered areas in a 60-mile-long north-south depression in the limestone plateau that spreads across the desert. The oasis is at the terminus of the ancient Girga Road from Thebes and its intersection with other roads from the north and the south.
A decade ago, the Darnells spotted hints of an outpost from the time of Persian rule in the sixth century B.C. at the oasis in the vicinity of a temple. “A temple wouldn’t be where it was if this area hadn’t been of some strategic importance,” Ms. Darnell, also trained in Egyptology, said in an interview.
Then she began picking up pieces of pottery predating the temple. Some ceramics were imports from the Nile Valley or as far away as Nubia, south of Egypt, but many were local products. Evidence of “really large-scale ceramic production,” Ms. Darnell noted, “is something you wouldn’t find unless there was a settlement here with a permanent population, not just seasonal and temporary.”
It was in 2005 that the Darnells and their team began collecting the evidence that they were on to an important discovery: remains of mud-brick walls, grindstones, baking ovens and heaps of fire ash and broken bread molds.
Describing the half-ton of bakery artifacts that has been collected, as well as signs of a military garrison, Dr. Darnell said the settlement was “baking enough bread to feed an army, literally.” This inspired the name for the site, Umm Mawagir. The Arabic phrase means “mother of bread molds.”
In addition, Dr. Darnell said, the team found traces of what is probably an administrative building, grain silos, storerooms and artisan workshops and the foundations of many unidentified structures. The inhabitants, probably a few thousand people, presumably grew their own grain, and the variety of pottery attested to trade relations over a wide region. Umm Mawagir’s heyday apparently extended from 1650 B.C. to 1550 B.C., nearly a thousand years after the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza and another thousand before any previously known major occupation at Kharga Oasis.
“Now we know there’s something big at Kharga, and it’s really exciting,” Dr. Darnell said. “The desert was not a no man’s land, not the wild west. It was wild, but it wasn’t disorganized. If you wanted to engage in trade in the western desert, you had to deal with the people at Kharga Oasis.”
Finding an apparently robust community as a hub of major caravan routes, Dr. Darnell said, should “help us reconstruct a more elaborate and detailed picture of Egypt during an intermediate period” after the so-called Middle Kingdom and just before the rise of the New Kingdom.
At this time, Egypt was in turmoil. The Hyksos invaders from southwest Asia held the Nile Delta and much of the north, and a wealthy Nubian kingdom at Kerma, on the Upper Nile, encroached from the south. Caught in the middle, the rulers at Thebes struggled to hold on and eventually prevail. They were succeeded by some of Egypt’s most celebrated pharaohs, such notables as Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III and Ramses II.
The new research, Dr. Darnell said, “completely explains the rise and importance of Thebes.” From there rulers commanded the shortest route from the Nile west to desert oases and also the shortest eastern road to the Red Sea. Inscriptions from about 2000 B.C. show that a Theban ruler, most likely Mentuhotep II, annexed both the western oasis region and northern Nubia.
With further investigations at Umm Mawagir, Dr. Darnell said, scholars may recognize the desert as a kind of fourth power, in addition to the Hyksos, Nubians and Thebans, in the political equation in those uncertain times. It was perhaps their control of desert roads and alliance with vibrant oasis communities that gave the Thebans an edge in the struggle to control Egypt’s future.