Aubrey Young and Dr. David Whitchurch, Ancient Scripture
Ongoing archaeological evidence provides scholars new opportunities to glean information to better understand the history of Roman Egypt. In 1981, Brigham Young University began excavating a site in Egypt locally referred to as Fag el-Gamous (“Way of the Water Buffalo”) which, to date, has resulted in the exhumation of hundreds of mummies. Artifacts collected with these burials provide a unique opportunity to examine firsthand these artifacts within the cultural context of Roman Egypt.
The site at Fag el-Gamous has so many unique artifacts that if published, scholars and readers alike would benefit greatly from what the artifacts can suggest. Publishing this article with Dr. David M. Whitchurch presenting an analysis of the terracotta figurines found in relation to the burials has enhanced our understanding of the beliefs and culture of the ancient Egyptians during the period from 200 BCE to 600 CE.
Our article accomplished three things: successful descriptions of eight figurines, an academic assessment on Roman-Egypt burial practices as can be gleaned from the figurines, and a brief discussion on the significance of the project and potential body of knowledge that can be added by further study of the figurines. The figurines were described by their locale, field book description, source materials, and comparisons. They were analyzed using comparable finds from similar sites as published in museum catalogues, and in relation to stratigraphic and AMS Radiocarbon Dating (C14) assessments.
Limitations in the form of amount of previous publications available, lack of prior research in this field, and inconsistencies in the artifacts in field book descriptions complicated the research process. Caution was exercised when placing the figurines in their appropriate contexts: geographic, political, textual, historical, etc. Research and familiarization with current archaeological evidence was crucial in publishing this article that will add to the scholarly community.
In the article we also recognize that caution must be applied when drawing conclusions based on fragmentary evidence. This article was not intended to be definitive as to what can be interpreted concerning the meaning and symbolism of the figurines. However our honest findings and conclusions were discussed.
Out of eleven hundred burials we have only eight figurines, but from those eight we encounter five different styles. The eight figurines seem to represent a diverse range of cultic images that served uncertain functions.
We can only theorize about the nature of the people who once inhabited Fag el-Gamous and the population that produced so many variants; what effect did the introduction of Christianity or Judaism have on the population? How did the settlements of Greek and Roman citizens influence the native culture? I think it clear that the emergence of the Greek and Roman population within the Fayoum did not hinder personal worship and use of figurines, a common Egyptian practice. While most Roman sites boast no figurines as grave goods, out of eight figurines five unique categories are represented. Therefore the importance of these figurines is the suggestion that “. . . Egyptian concepts, compositions and stylistic features were superficially amalgamated with Greek iconographical types and stylistic features.”1 Perhaps not only did the features amalgamate, but there was a religious and cultural tolerance and borrowing as well.
We may also be able to conclude that the figurines show cultural accommodation in the sense that a variety of peoples were using the same burial ground. Such a shared burial site between religions and cultures suggests that there is something culturally significant happening in the Fayoum. It is important to keep in mind, however, these figurines may have simply been a favorite piece of the deceased and buried with them for sentimental reasons, or simply as an expression of popular art.2
While this article is not intended as a definitive interpretation concerning the meaning of the figurines, we suggested various possibilities that can be inferred. To conclude, we believe it to be apparent that the concerns of those buried at Fag el-Gamous were centered on the affairs of the family, birth and fertility. They had a firm belief in their power to petition the gods through cultic worship. Further analysis of publications from Fag el-Gamous and contemporary sights will add valuable information to further understanding the figurines individually and the site as a whole.
Our findings have been published by Brigham Young University as my honors thesis. It has yet to be published in the Journal of American Research Center in Egypt (JARCE). Findings concerning the figurines have also been presented at various conferences. Interest from other universities to access our findings’ reports has also been received.
This paper presents a brief look at Brigham Young University’s thirty year excavation at Fag el-Gamous, Egypt with a closer inspection of eight figurines discovered at the excavation as part of a larger effort to shed light on numerous yet-to-be published artifacts. Collectively, these publications will enhance our understanding of the religious and cultural beliefs associated with the people who once inhabited Graeco-Roman Egypt in the Fayoum.
- Török. Hellenistic and Roman Terracotta’s from Egypt, 23.
- Fjeldhagen. Catalogue Graeco-Roman Terracottas, 22-24.