Jul 11, 2014
04:34 PM

Yale Professor Writing Book on Discovering Roman Settlement in Egypt

Yale Professor Writing Book on Discovering Roman Settlement in Egypt

About six years ago Colleen Manassa traveled to Egypt in search of the past.  

It was the winter of 2008-09 and the associate professor of Egyptology at Yale University had just started the Mo’Alla Survey Project, which is run by Yale’s Egyptological Institute in Egypt. Her goal was to add to humanity’s understanding of the ancient world—and she was destined to be successful.

Manassa (right) and her team had received permission from the Egyptian government to exclusively survey (they could study surface remains without excavating artifacts) at the Mo’alla site, which is located in the Egyptian desert on the east bank of the Nile, forty-five kilometers south of Luxor. The area is well-known in Egyptology circles as the location of a famous archeological find—the tomb of Ankhtyfy (located within the hill pictured below). Ankhtyfy was a provincial governor and his tomb is particularly important to researchers because it contains an autobiographical inscription that vividly details the famine and other hardships many Egyptians endured during the First Intermediate Period, which went from 2181–2055 B.C. and is known as a dark period" in the country’s history.

“It’s a known site, but basically other than that tomb nothing was really known about it,” explains Manassa. “So what I did was fill in all the historical gaps, or try to fill in all the historical gaps, surrounding this well-known tomb and said. ‘Okay what's happening in this place before this tomb, what’s happening in this place after this tomb?’”

To answer those questions she had to explore some largely uncharted historical territory.

“There was an old sketch map of the site from 1904 and a couple of photos but it had basically been forgotten for the last 100-plus years,” she says. “No one in the area even knew there was an archeological site there. So I actually started recording the buildings and doing extensive photo documentation and collecting ceramic remains.”

These ceramic remains were important  pieces of the historical puzzle.

“Pottery is really key for dating,” Manassa says, because “the style and the form of the clay” tells researchers how old a site is. During that first field season Manassa made significant progress. Her team documented the full extent of the Mo‘Alla cemetery and recorded its associated ceramic material, and they also discovered a Pan-Grave cemetery, but the biggest find at Mo’alla was still to come.

Each year after the initial field season, Manassa would return to Egypt at the same time, between December and January, during the break between Yale’s fall and winter semesters. On Christmas Day 2010 she made the most significant discovery of her career when she found the remains of a late Roman settlement from between 400 and 600 A.D. The settlement was large and consisted of more than 100 buildings and is one of only a dozen or so similar sites in the eastern desert of Egypt.

The find was a dream come true. “It felt very fulfilling to add to human knowledge,” says Manassa, who is currently writing a book about the find. 

Adding to humanity’s understanding of the past is something she has wanted to do since she was young.

“Ancient Egypt has been one of my main passions ever since I was a small child,” she says. “It just always fascinated me.”

A native of St. Louis, Manassa moved to Connecticut when she attended Yale as an undergraduate. In 2005 she received her Ph.D. from Yale’s Egyptology Department. Earlier this year Oxford University Press published her book Imagining the Past: Historical Fiction in New Kingdom Egypt. The work provides translations and commentary on Egypt’s early works of historical fiction, some of which predate the epic poems of Homer by as much as 500 years, and which tend, Manassa says, to be more realistic than Homer’s works.

During her successful career Manassa has earned the respect of her peers. Anthony Spalinger, a professor of Classics and Ancient history at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, knows Manasssa from Egyptology seminars at Yale and from her work in the field. A specialist in Ancient Egyptian warfare, Auckland is particularly impressed with her writings on that topic and says she’s been successful as an Egyptologist because of “her deep research and extensive publications.” He adds, “She combines a keen interest in the language and all phases of ancient Egyptian archaeology and history.”

In recent years Egypt has been rocked by political upheaval and revolution. But the turmoil has not affected Manassa’s research at Mo’Alla.

“Thus far the Ministry of State for Antiquities [which monitors archeological research in Egypt] has continued to function very well at least in the local area where I work,” she says.

Manassa says the influence of ancient Egypt is surprisingly widespread and can be found in particular in Connecticut, where there are several examples of Egyptian inspired architecture.

“There are [several] monuments in Connecticut that show Egyptian influence that date to the 1840s or right around that time,” Manassa says. “The Grove Street Cemetery getaway (in New Haven, above), Fort Trumbull, the First Baptist Church of Essex, the Farmington [Momento Mori] Cemetery gate, and the Nathan Hale Monument in Coventry.” (In April, Manassa gave a lecture at the New Haven Museum entitled “Egypt in Connecticut: Egyptianizing Architecture from New Haven to Coventry.")

Manassa adds the Egyptian Revival style of architecture became popular after the publication of the Napoleonic expedition in Egypt. “The expedition took place between 1798 and 1799 and the publication started coming out in 1809. That publication really influenced architectural styles.”

However, Connecticut is one of the few places where that once popular architectural style is easy to spot. “What’s interesting," Manassa says, "is that Egyptian Revival style is not terribly common anywhere, but Connecticut has some of the best examples of surviving Egyptian Revival architecture and one of only two surviving Egyptian Revival churches in the United States.” 

Editor's note: Yale's Egyptology program has dealt with some difficult issues in recent years. Stories from the Yale Daily News and Yale Alumni Magazine offer details.

Contact me by email eofgang@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and Google +

Yale Professor Writing Book on Discovering Roman Settlement in Egypt

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