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Monastic Residence B

Cell plan A drawingFor our second season of work in May — June 2007, the YMAP team selected an archaeological mound immediately west of the trash deposit we excavated in 2006. The mound measured roughly 700 m2 and exhibited visible surface signs of subsurface architectural remains. Our excavations began in the southwest corner of the mound and extended over an area of 340 m2. The building that we uncovered was a multi-room, monastic cell complex constructed from mud-brick (Residence B).

From our first season of excavation, we can already draw some important conclusions about the date and architecture of this residence. On the basis of ceramic and wall painting analysis, we are able to date its occupation between the ninth and eleventh centuries. As such, this structure may represent rare evidence for the survival of semi-hermetical social monastic organization during the medieval period. The architecture of Residence B differs in significant respects from the typology of buildings found elsewhere in Lower Egypt. Unlike at Kellia where the central residence is found in the northwest of the complex, Residence B at John the Little was constructed with the southwest quadrant as its core and then later was remodeled and extended to the north and the east. This information suggests that there may have been be regional differences in monastic architecture that we will continue to explore as we excavate more hermitages in the future.

Building photo

The architecture of the Residence B demonstrates that the complex was remodeled in three or four phases. The earliest phase of the building excavated consisted of four large rooms (rooms 1-4) on the southwest side of the mound with rooms that were plastered over at least twice. A first remodeling created a division that produced rooms 1 and 2 on the west side. Room 4 was redesigned to include two smaller rooms on the southwest corner and to be entered on the north side by an arched foyer. The addition of rooms 5 and 6 were cut directly into a central north-south wall. Room 9 later functioned as a kitchen equipped with an oven after the western rooms had fallen into disuse. The construction of smaller enclosures within originally larger rooms may indicate adaptations designed to provide more storage space for the inhabitants. Modifications included not only the addition of new walls, but also the blocking-up of windows and doorways, as well as the opening of air shafts to provide better ventilation.

At the present time, the evidence dates the earliest phase of occupation of the building to the ninth or tenth century and the latest use of the building (in the area containing an outdoor oven) Oven photodates to the tenth and eleventh centuries. These date ranges are based upon the ceramic data analyzed by Gillian Pyke. Inscriptional evidence from the hermitage will further assist us in reconstructing who lived there. In addition to numerous fragments, we have documented two Coptic inscriptions still intact on the walls of Room 3. It is expected that this way of marking residential space, similar to that seen at the communities at Esna and Kellia, will provide us with valuable information for producing a detailed history of the site.

The finds recovered from the excavation include fragments of glass windows with geometric patterns; glass cups; two Islamic coins; small animal bones (mostly of rodents); white wall, ceiling and floor plaster; painted plaster with geometric and figural motifs; and ceramics. The majority of evidence for painted decoration was found in room 3. While some of this painted plaster remains on the walls in situ, much of it survives in fragmentary form, having fallen off the walls at an earlier time. The painted decoration in situ is primarily found on the west wall and the west end of the south wall: it includes two red-painted inscriptions, as well as crosses in both red and black. Among the plaster fragments we have found evidence for wall paintings depicting human figures, possibly a visual program of monastic saints. One fragment shows two figures cheek-to-cheek. Of special interest is the differentiated stylistic representation of Roman, Coptic, and Asiatic (Syrian?) faces in these paintings, evidence perhaps for standardized artistic practices for depicting 'ethnicity' in the multi-cultural context of monasticism in the medieval Wadi al-Natrun.

Composite photo

Upper and lower left: Coptic inscriptions found in room 10. Middle: Cross located on the west wall of room 3. Upper right: Reconstruction of a plaster window frame with circular glass. Lower right: Fragment of a wall painting with two figures shown cheek-to-cheek.