Recreating ancient channels and canals in Luxor

Did the artificial harbors and canals depicted in Egyptian tombs actually exist? Angus Graham is studying how the Egyptians shaped their surroundings. He is using geoarchaeological and geophysical methods to reconstruct ancient canal systems in Luxor, and understand their functions in the social and religious contexts of that time.

Angus Graham

Ph.D. Archaeology

Wallenberg Academy Fellow 2013

Uppsala University

Research field:
Mapping ancient waterscapes and their function in Luxor, Egypt.

Housed in Uppsala University’s old building can be found Museum Gustavianum and an exhibition entitled The Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of the Nile featuring Egyptian archaeological finds. It is the right place to take a photograph of Angus. He is researching the landscapes and waterscapes of ancient Egypt, more specifically, the canal systems and the natural dynamics of the river Nile in the area of ancient Thebes, now known as Luxor.

Angus recounts how there are scenes in Egyptian tombs near Luxor showing ceremonial boats taking part in religious processions. The scenes in the tombs also show there were harbors in front of temples and palaces, connecting them to the Nile via canals.

“But this has never previously been investigated, so we do not know whether they really existed, or whether they are merely ideal visions. That is what I am trying to find out.”

The religious significance of the canals

Angus developed a fascination with Egypt when he travelled around the country as a young man. He later studied archaeology at University College London and wrote his doctoral thesis on “Harbors and Quays in Pharaonic Egypt”. In 2002 he began studying the extensive Karnak temple complex, and in 2010 the project was expanded to include the area on the west bank of the Nile.

“There are over 20 temples in the area. Our aim is to understand the degree to which the Egyptians were able to change the waterscapes for their own purposes, and to produce an idea of what the landscape looked like in different eras. It is also a question of learning more about the significance of the canals in religious festivals.”

Luxor is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In ancient Egypt the area was a fertile, rich landscape created by the annual flooding of the Nile. The flooding stopped when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s.

Some 3,000 – 4,000 years ago Thebes (Luxor) was a very important political and religious center, and a number of temples were built to honor Amun, the god of fertility, reproduction, and sexual power.

“The canals probably made it possible to transport building materials. We know that the Egyptians could transport heavy blocks of limestone and sandstone, as well as gigantic statues and obelisks. We are now trying to understand the extent to which the Egyptians were able to manipulate the floodplain for their own purposes”. 

New collaboration

Following his appointment as a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Angus moved from London to Uppsala in autumn 2014.

“The funding provided by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation has enabled me to take what was a fairly small-scale project to the next level, and create a partnership based on the fantastic expertise available here at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History.”

“A fantastic opportunity. It is a very prestigious appointment. For someone working in the humanities and doing so much fieldwork to be given such long-term funding is invaluable.”

Angus also wishes to express his gratitude for the support his research in Luxor has received from the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities and to the Egypt Exploration Society. The project is being carried out by an interdisciplinary and international team. In addition to colleagues from Uppsala, the team includes researchers from several British and American universities, along with experts from the British Museum, the Louvre and other institutions.

Core samples provide information

The research team is using a number of geophysical and geoarchaeological techniques to map the temple site. Sediment core samples are unbroken sections of sediment taken from the ground. The researchers then study the structure of the sediment, its sand and clay content, to determine how and when it was deposited.

“We use the core samples to understand the nature of the environment and the location of the banks of the Nile at that time. We often also find pieces of broken pottery in the samples. These provide invaluable chronological information.”

Angus points out that there is a lot of data to collect. Mapping also involves using an instrument that sends small electrical signals into the soil and measures resistance.

“Very low resistance usually tells us that mud and silt from the Nile have been deposited. Higher resistance may be related to sand, and perhaps to the content of archaeological artefacts, such as fragments of pottery. In some places we have gone as far down as 32 meters.”

Satellite image give new clues

Old maps, aerial photographs and satellite images are also used in the project. Angus points to a satellite image on his computer, explaining that an unexpected find was made in spring 2014.

“While preparing to do some fieldwork, a member of the team had a look at some recently released Google Earth pictures and saw a faint difference in ground color close to one of the temples we are studying. We thought that it showed an ancient channel that has been filled in.”

The research team travelled to Egypt and tested their hypothesis. From sediment samples they produced a cross-section of the area, and by examining the sediment sequences they could see that they had discovered a natural channel.

“This is a really important find for us, since it means that canals may not have been needed for any of the temples. Hopefully, when we have studied all the pottery, we will be able to determine when the channel was in use.”

Text Susanne Rosén
Translation Maxwell Arding
Photo Magnus Bergström