Past Events

Gurob Harem Palace Project Conference 2011

The 2011 Gurob Harem Palace Conference took place on Saturday 5 November 2011 at the University College London Institute for Archaeology and the Petrie Museum

It was preceded on 4 Nov by a free lecture ‘Palaces and posh houses in ancient Egypt’ and a Gurob birthday party celebrating a number of significant birthdays

This conference was a great success! Many participants attended the great variety of lectures and practical demonstrations this weekend.


  1. The latest news from our 2011 fieldwork – Ian Shaw (University of Liverpool)
  2. Ethnoarchaeology in the Fayum – surviving craft traditions and what they teach us – Sarah Doherty (Cardiff University)
  3. Using a replica Egyptian potter’s wheel (demonstration) – Sarah Doherty (Cardiff University)
  4. Bite-size feedback: updates on research topics:
    1. Mapping Gurob - Liz Jones (UCL)
    2. A shapely Harem - Hannah Pethen (University of Liverpool)
    3. The Industries of the Harem - Anna Hodgkinson (University of Liverpool)
    4. Boring mud - Beads make people? - Judith Bunbury (University of Cambridge)
    5. More on figurines - Jan Picton (Petrie Museum UCL)
  5. Objects in focus in the Petrie Museum

Conference Report by Birgit Schoer

The 2011 Gurob Harem Palace Project got off to an early start on the evening before the main event with Project Director Ian Shaw giving the monthly Friends of the Petrie Lecture entitled “Palaces and Posh Houses in Ancient Egypt”, where he explored the similarities and differences between the type of large elite houses found in Amarna and Egyptian palaces, as well as the difficulties associated with identifying and interpreting palaces. As Gurob had been the site of a New Kingdom “harem” palace these discussions were very relevant. After these deliberations friends of the Petrie Museum and the Gurob Project had a chance to socialise with team members over wine and delicious food, made possible by Deputy Project Director Jan Picton’s brilliant idea of selflessly turning her birthday party into a Gurob fundraiser. As a happy participant of the event, I can confirm that a good time was had by all.

The serious programme resumed at the Institute of Archaeology on the morning of Saturday November 5th with the 2011 Fieldwork Report delivered by Ian Shaw. Those of us who had been following events in Egypt at this difficult time it was with great relief that, following a brief site visit in April to check on the condition of the site, a field season became possible after all in September this year. However, although the site of Gurob had appeared secure and intact in April, evidence of widespread illicit excavations was found in September. In view of the situation the SCA asked the Project Team not to carry out any excavations this autumn, but to map the extent of the illicit activities and to see what could be salvaged at the sites of clandestine excavations.

The south-western corner of the central city and palace enclosure had been affected, but most of the looting seems to have taken place in the northern part of the site, where Ramesside tomb shafts are located. Ironically the illicit activity revealed a previously unknown corner of the outer mud brick enclosure wall. The team recorded the stratigraphy in this area and mapped the new feature. The larger tomb shafts looted were also investigated, together with their associated spoil heaps, and backfilled to protect them. Fragments of a painted clay slipper coffin of Ramesside date, similar to one piece in the Petrie Museum Collection, and complete and fragmentary wooden shabtis were found.

But not all attention was focused on the recent intrusions: there was time for pottery and small finds surface collections and a topographic survey of the site was started. The GPR survey identified potential areas for future excavation, and may have located the remains of a workmen’s village. Drill coring continued to identify details of the Late Bronze Age land- and water-scape, and Judith Bunbury speculated about the location of the elusive Gurob harbour.

We were left with the impression that some progress had been made against all odds, and that the team managed a worthwhile damage-limitation exercise this autumn when given a chance to resume fieldwork, and hopefully helped to secure the site for the future.


Ian Shaw speaking about
'Palaces and posh houses in ancient Egypt’


Sarah Doherty demonstrating
the production of ancient Egyptian miniature vessels


Sarah Doherty speaking
about the production of ancient Egyptian miniature vessels

The Fieldwork Report was followed by Sarah Doherty’s fascinating, insightful and well-illustrated presentation Ethnoarchaeology in the Fayoum – Surviving Craft Traditions, where she introduced us to traditional pottery technology practised today at the El Nazla Pottery in the Fayoum, not too far from the Gurob site. The audience was taken through the entire process of making a vessel from the preparation of the raw materials to the throwing on the wheel with detailed explanations of each stage. The mechanics and working of the simple kick-wheel were discussed, and contemporary working practices were compared with known representations of potters at work from Ancient Egyptian art, such as small Old Kingdom statuettes and tomb paintings from Abusir and Beni Hasan. The information on technique that can be gleaned from such images was related to improvements in technique discernible in the pottery record. But without a doubt the practical pottery demonstration given by Sarah after her lecture in front of a spellbound audience using a replica of an ancient wheel constructed on the basis of her research of surviving technical information was the highlight of her contribution to this conference. When accompanied by informed commentary, experimental archaeology reaches parts that abstract verbal explanations do not.

Liz Jones presented the 2011 Surveying Update, but also took great pains in explaining the difficulties associated with surveying after long time gaps to the uninitiated, as well as the uses of survey techniques to accurately map finds and interesting features on the site. This year the survey team had the use of hand-held mobile mapping devices which, although slightly less accurate than a total station, can record a location to within one metre – a very useful tool for mapping on the hoof, recording borehole locations and tracking lines rather than surveying points. However, the data collected so enthusiastically in the field must be processed carefully to become meaningful. Liz painstakingly explained the effort required to bring all the disparate data into one unified co-ordinate system – quite an achievement on a site where three or four grids seem to be in use.

Hannah Pethen briefed the audience on the topographic survey at Gurob. The aim is to accurately record the physical terrain to facilitate the creation of a digital terrain model (DTM), and to determine what archaeological features can be recognised in the local topography today. The borehole data will be incorporated in this model. The 2011 survey area mainly comprised the main palace compounds and the North City, the “Fort” and the site of the kilns.

Anna Hodgkinson reported on the Excavations within the Industrial Area at Gurob. The industrial area in question lies to the north-east of the palace near the “Fort”, identified by Engelbach and Brunton in 1927 in one paragraph mentioning “glass factories” and possible lime kilns as having been built over a small square enclosure. However, no detailed description of the area was provided, and it is not clear whether it was ever excavated, or whether it was characterised on the basis of surface finds only. However, glass and glassy faience has been found at this part of the site by all excavators, and evidence of the use of high-temperature processes still litters the surface. A multi-purpose workshop using high temperatures for several industrial processes appears to be the most likely scenario. In 2009 the potential kiln features had been located using magnetometry, mapped and cleaned. In 2010 the southern half of this circular feature was excavated. It has a diameter of almost 3 m and consists of seven layers of mud brick wall with much vitrification on the interior, which continues to the base. Only the substructure of this feature has survived, sunk into the substrate. Pottery fragments, beads, amulets and some tools dating to the 18th and 19th dynasties were retrieved from the poorly compacted infill. The purpose of the kiln, and what might have been fired in it, remains unknown. The magnetometry survey data shows a second similar feature nearby. This part of the site may yet reveal interesting new finds for the archaeology of high-temperature technology in the New Kingdom.


Liz Jones speaking about
'Mapping Gurob’


Hannah Pethen speaking about
the topographic survey and
3D modelling of Gurob


Anna Hodgkinson speaking
about the results of the excavations
within the Industrial Area in 2010

Judith Bunbury discussed the possible harbour sites at Gurob on the basis of her drillcore data. There are two possible harbour sites, located at the northern and southern ends of the site respectively. The local geology makes the northern option unlikely. However, evidence of stagnant water during the New Kingdom was found around the southern proposed harbour site. It may have been a landing stage along the Bahr Yusuf rather than a fully-fledged harbour, however. The Gurob area must have been very arid during the New Kingdom, but the Harem Palace and the North City may have been located near a viable water channel. Judith then went on to explain the geological evidence for fossil water channels running north past Dahshur, Abusir and Giza, and suggested that part of the Bahr Yusuf may have been diverted off into the Fayoum in the past. This is another fascinating example of the application of science to archaeology that promises to open our eyes to hitherto unknown aspects of the ancient Egyptian environment.

Jan Picton delivered the final formal lecture, More on Figurines. Having examined the fragmentary female figurines from Gurob in great detail and describing their salient features, she took issue with the obsession with the so-called “fertility” aspects of nude female figurines that traditionally dominates academic discourse and published literature in much the same way in which unexplained phenomena and finds tend to be automatically relegated to the sphere of ritual activity. Apparently such figurines have been found in large numbers at many sites, but tend to be ignored and forgotten in storage. Jan reported on the number of figurine fragments – unfortunately none of them have been found complete – found over the years in different parts of the site, and suggested that these figurines may have been deliberately broken as part of a ritual. Jan expressed the hope that the Gurob papyri may provide clues to the function of the figurines, and on how they might have worked, perhaps in conjunction with spells and incantations. Watch this space!


Judith Bunbury speaking about
'Boring Mud - Beads make people’


Jan Picton speaking about
clay figurines from Gurob


Liz Jones leading
a short workshop on maps
in the Petrie Museum

The day was rounded off by another inspired idea, a set of short sessions in the galleries of the Petrie Museum entitled Objects in Focus, where team members gave brief 10-minute talks on Gurob-related finds or topics, thereby relating the project site directly to the Petrie Collection and bring it to life with reference to individual objects. The audience was split into groups that made the rounds of all speakers. The enthusiasm of the audience was such that the Petrie Museum volunteers faced quite a challenge when they had to close the Museum at the end of the afternoon: nobody wanted to leave; everybody was hoping for more.


The team and friends enjoying a well-deserved curry after the conference!