Berenike 1994-1999

In 1994 the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Egyptian military authorities kindly granted permission for the University of Delaware-Leiden University expedition to work at the archaeological site of Berenike and in the area between Berenike and the Nile valley. That first year, the site was mapped from the remains visible on the surface and two test trenches were excavated.

From 1995 to 1999 attention was mainly directed towards the large buildings on the east side of the town, near the sea. The plan of a building at the north-east corner of the site suggested a temple lay-out, but in two building phases no clear indications of such a function were found (trenches 4, 7 and 17 excavated from 1995-1998). The earliest remains at this part of the site appeared to be a pier or a quay.

This and other evidence made clear that the town gradually moved towards the east following the receding coast line. In the lower layers of trench 2 (excavated in 1994 and 1995), for example, a large wall was found which probably acted as protection against the sea. In the fourth century this wall was built over as the town followed the retreating sea. This is consistent with the earliest remains found in trenches on the west side of the site. Trench 11 (excavated in 1996) was sunk in an early Ptolemaic dump, presumably refuse of brick firing. Trench 13 (excavated in 1997), also on the west side, revealed an extensive first century rubbish dump on top of sand fill, which in turn was over an early Ptolemaic habitation area, built in sand brick.

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Three trenches (8, 12 and 22) were excavated in a second large building on the sea side of the town. While trench 8 revealed neat rows of benches (see picture above), trench 12 was in an area where extensive food preparation activities took place. Several jars with fish remains, found on a large number of patched and re-patched floors, were located near the walls of a presumably quite smelly courtyard. The two rooms were tentatively identified as a restaurant. The front of the building seems to have been oriented away from the sea, with the main entrance in the west wall. Excavations in the eastern (back) part of the building are currently in progress (see next page).

At the south-east corner of the site a deep trench (identified as number 5), excavated over three seasons, showed that this part of the site was used over a long period as a storage magazine (see picture below). It was here that clear indications of trade with India were found, such as large quantities of peppercorns and Indian ceramics.

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In a prominent enigmatic mound, somewhat inland from the eastern edge of the site, trench 9 was opened. This trench contained extensive foundations of what was probably a multi-storey building. Perhaps this was a lighthouse, but this interpretation is only possible if this building is shown to have been built relatively early. In the fourth century it would not have been visible from the sea, ringed as it was by buildings closer to the harbour. However, nothing earlier than fourth century material was recovered here, apart from some residual material. Unfortunately, the earlier phases could not be excavated due to the depth of the trench and the subsequent danger of collapse.

Trench 10 was started in 1996 as a 10 x 10 m (30 x 30 ft) trench at the centre of the site, between the main, Serapis temple and trench 1 (excavated in 1994 and 1995). The purpose of trench 10 is to get a full stratigraphic overview of  the site. Each year the trench is stepped in 1 m (3 ft) to keep it safe and prevent contamination from already excavated layers. The trench has produced interesting architecture of coral heads and re-used teak wood, probably from ships, with gypsum rock corner stones. Some of this had to be removed to expose earlier layers. Finds include some of the nicest glass fragments found anywhere in the Roman Empire outside Italy (see picture below). This trench also yielded a storage vessel with the largest amount of pepper found in an archaeological context anywhere in the ancient world (see picture on 'Contents' page). During its later phases this area must have had an industrial function, even though it was right next to the main temple of the town. In earlier phases remains of wooden bowls were found, with sand, charcoal and probably incense inside, suggesting the same kind of  ‘ready made offerings’ excavated in large quantities in trenches 6/16 (see text below) and 23/32 .

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West of the Serapis temple two trenches, identified as 6 and 16, showed an interesting sequence of occupation and religious use. In 1995 offering tables, a statue of a stylized lion and fragments of a near life-size bronze statue of a female figure were found in this area. In 1996 an inscription in Greek was found. It stated that a Palmyrene archer in the Roman army made a dedication to emperor Caracalla and his mother Julia Domna in 215 AD. This inscription was from an earlier phase and probably unrelated to the standing building. The neighbouring area to the west was excavated in 1997 after a second, bi-lingual inscription was found (see picture on 'Publications' page). This text, written in Greek with a ‘summary’ in Palmyrene, recorded the Roman governor to Berenike and several Roman military officials. The inscription mentions the Palmyrene deity Hierobol and the name of the Palmyrene sculptor who carved a statue or altar, probably placed somewhere in the same building. Trench 16 showed that a western extension had been added built of fossil coral heads. In this area traces of dozens of wooden offering bowls with charcoal inside were found. One of these was found on a small horned stone altar. The floor level pre-dating the walls had a mud threshold with a sphinx carved from gypsum rock (see picture below) on one side and next to that an offering table made of the upper part of an amphora. This area shows a large number of building phases of subsequent religious structures. The wooden offering bowls were also found in the earlier phases as well as in other trenches, indicating that certain religious practices continued over a long period of time.

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In 1997 and 1998 archives related to customs activities were found in an early Roman trash dump on the north side of  the town, in trenches 13, 19, 29 and 31. Most were written in Greek on potsherds and mainly consisted of ‘laissez passer'-like permits for persons and goods (see picture on 'Home' page). Some, however, were in Latin, Demotic or other languages which have yet to be identified. The archives gave a number of names and duties of some of the inhabitants of Berenike in the early Roman period, as well as a glimpse of the goods supplied to the ships. Studies of the materials excavated, by a large team of specialists, provide a fundamental understanding of the site, its inhabitants and its role in the large context of the Roman world and Egyptian civilization.

The earliest habitation found so far at the site is early Ptolemaic, but information is difficult to obtain since the Ptolemaic layers are covered in most places by extensive Roman deposits. The picture of the early Roman period (first and second centuries AD) now emerging is that of a partly Romanized population, with a diet in which chicken, pork and fish were important. From approximately the fifth century AD until the abandonment of the site, in the early sixth century AD, there seems to have been a more desert-oriented population, with a diet of mainly sheep and goat.

The first Venus of Berenike:

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