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Area 3: The White Monastery Project

Area 3 is located to the south and southwest of the White Monastery church. Since the renewal of Dayr al-Anba Shenouda in the 1980s, the archaeology of this area has been under intensified threat due to several human-related factors: regular vehicle traffic (including cars, buses, farm equipment, bicycles, etc.), the construction of new monastic buildings (including a modern toilet facility for visitors), and patterns of visitation by thousands of pilgrims each year (including the pitching of tents during the saint’s feast day). Accordingly, our work in this area has been negatively affected by modern intrusion on the ancient remains.

Units E and F
In the first season of work (2005), two test trenches were dug at the far southeast end of the site (units E and F). Area supervisor, Louise Blanke, encountered problems in both units. In the case of unit E, the excavation was halted when the monks of the monastery identified the location as part of a modern burial ground. In the case of Unit F, the mixed yield of late Roman pottery and modern artifacts revealed the location of an ancient pottery dump that had been bulldozed in modern times. As a result, these test trenches could not be used as a basis for subsequent work.

Units M and P
In subsequent seasons, however, our team received permission to work in locations previously excavated by the SCA. In the 1980s and 1990s, the SCA had conducted excavations in two different area 3 locations. These locations were labeled units M and P. Unit P is located immediately to the south of the main church (adjacent to the southwest corner), and it contains architectural elements that probably belonged to an industrial area. Unit M is located further to the southwest, between the church and the modern guest facilities of the monastery.

From December 2006 to January 2007, our team took on the task of documenting, photographing, and surveying the exposed mud-brick architecture in unit M. Seven different buildings (A–G) were identified and analyzed archaeologically. Each of the structures had undergone two or three phases of renovation or reconstruction, often with multiple strata or sub-phases in evidence. For example, building A (at the southeasternmost corner of the unit) was modified in three phases, with nine separate strata identified. The final phase included the digging of a monk’s grave to the east of the building (Figure 1).

The history of building G is equally complex, featuring four building phases with eight separate strata. Located at the northwestern corner of unit M, it is in fact one of several architectural structures built against a major wall running north-south at the western end of the unit (Figure 2).

Figure 1 and 2

Figure 1 (left): Monk’s grave discovered in the final phase of building A. Figure 2: Architectural remains of building G, with the remains of the boundary wall in the background.

This wall may have been a western boundary wall for the monastery, as no archaeological features have yet been identified further west of it. Parts of the wall were damaged by an episode of burning, and it was subsequently repaired on its eastern side with mud bricks and three buttresses. The construction of this boundary wall and the episode of burning together represented the first phase related to the history of the building and its environs. The second phase involved the building’s construction and use as an area for the production of limestone chips. Such chips were typically laid down as a foundation layer in the construction of buildings at the monastery. The third phase consisted of four separate strata, including the repair of the boundary wall, the construction of a basement, the resurfacing of the floor, and the insertion of a large storage jar into the basement. This third phase was followed by an episode of burning. Phase four involved the use of the older burned bricks to resurface the floor again and to reconstruct the building’s superstructure.

The ceramic finds in building G and throughout unit M again primarily date to the late Roman and early Islamic periods (5–8th centuries). However, some later Islamic sherds (10–16th centuries) were also documented. Their presence either indicates continuous use over an extended period or a later stage of modification and reuse.

The documentation of area 3 units previously excavated by the SCA is an ongoing responsibility of the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project. Accordingly, in October and November of 2008, part of our work also entailed the surveying of unit P, immediately to the south of the church (Figure 3). This unit includes large circular stone basins to the east and a series of at least six rectangular tanks to the south (Figure 4).

Figure 3 and 4

Figure 3 (left): Plan of unit P. Figure 4: Photo of rectangular tanks in unit P.