Fencing in the Fayum: Donors React Fast to Protect a Site
By Willeke Wendrich
Above: Professor Wendrich and members of the Cotsen Institute director’s council visiting the site of Kom W in 2003.
Our primary goal in archaeology is to collect information, but academic archaeology has moved beyond just survey, excavation and analysis to include the protection of cultural heritage in its broadest sense. Working in the Fayum, an Egyptian desert oasis south of Cairo, poses many struggles for the preservation of sites due to both wanton destruction by treasure hunters and plowing activity by local farmers. When the threat is imminent we go into rescue mode and quickly record as much as we can. But sometimes giving up the site equals allowing material remains with world heritage value to be destroyed. In these cases, immediate action is the only option, like building a protective fence. This is a costly decision that never comes at the right moment, and is never foreseen in the budget.
Last December, two weeks before we were scheduled to wrap up our work in the Fayum and leave Egypt, we discovered that agricultural development had encroached upon Kom W, one of the most famous Neolithic sites in Egypt. In 2003 and 2006, members of the Director’s Council of the Friends of Archaeology, the highest-level support group at the Cotsen Institute, had visited the site and knew of its importance. An e-mail with the subject header “HELP” was sent out to this group and within 24 hours we received the comforting message: “go build your fence, we'll take care of it.” The Cotsen Institute has a donor base, which lives archaeology, understands fieldwork stress and panic mode, and is there when most needed. Within two weeks the fence was in place, and because it looks very much like the fences surrounding mine fields throughout the desert, we have good hopes that it will be utterly effective in protecting Kom W and its fragile remains. Thank you Charlie Steinmetz, Debbie Arnold, Patti and Roger Civalleri, Harris Bass, Jeanne Bailey and Tracy Johnson, for fencing in the Fayum.
Willeke Wendrich is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.