MAP: University of Michigan Expedition Sites
The first University of Michigan expeditions were buying trips, as F.W. Kelsey scoured the markets of Europe and the Near East for artifacts that would further his interests in the ancient mediterranean and serve the University's research and teaching needs. University of Michigan excavations began in 1924 at Karanis, in Egypt and Antioch of Pisidia, in Turkey and, the next year, 1925, explorations began at Carthage, in Tunisia. Although exploration at all three sites ultimately brought early Byzantine material to light, the interest of the excavators was focused on the earlier periods of occupation. The extraordinary quantities of late Roman and early Byzantine material found in subsequent seasons at Karanis and Carthage led the excavators to expand their interests to include the later periods. This led, ultimately, to an important series of campaigns in North Africa, Egypt and Syria. In a short campaign of 1935, excavators discovered early Byzantine jewelry and coinage at the Roman site of Terenouthis, in Egypt.
By far the most important of these projects for Byzantine studies was the joint Princeton-University of Michigan expedition to the early Byzantine fortified monastery on Mount Sinai which was undertaken in the late 1950s to early 1960s. Current salvage operations nearby may offer an unexpected historical precedent for the construction of this fortress; the 1994 discovery of an earlier Roman fort near the Suez Canal suggests a longstanding interest in the security of this remote region of the Empire.
In the mid 1960s, monumental early Byzantine structures were found at the seaport site of Apollonia in Libya. In the early 1970s, a joint project with Dumbarton Oaks (the Harvard Center for Byzantine Studies) surveyed and excavated the late Roman-Byzantine-Islamic site at Dibsi-Faraj in Syria. The late 1970s saw a renewed interest in Carthage, resulting in the publication of several major late Roman and early Byzantine Carthaginian monuments, an international campaign to preserve the site, and continued exploration of the site. Current work at Lepti Minus in Tunisia continues to uncover early Byzantine monuments. University of Michigan personnel have installed some of these at a new archaeological museum in the modern town of Lepti. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a project combining excavation at the Upper Egyptian site of Coptos -- an important Hellenistic and Roman entrepot -- and survey of the roads leading from Coptos to the Red Sea found evidence of later Roman and Byzantine occupations. These artifacts, principally textiles, pottery and glass, are now stored with the Egyptian Antiquities Organization; their testimony to continued use of Red Sea trade networks merits further study.
The town of Karanis is one of the most significant and informative sites for the characterization of late Roman and early Byzantine Egypt. This is due, in large part, to the combination of different categories of evidence -- textual and artifactual -- recovered here. For this site, it is not necessary to interpret the archaeological record in isolation from any written record, nor to read texts in isolation from their physical context. Texts and artifacts offer fascinatingly detailed glimpses of economic systems, religious developments and social relations.
Karanis forms the foundation of the Kelsey Museum's collections. The 44,000 artifacts from Karanis (not counting the papyri in the Papyrology Room) comprise approximately fifty percent of the Museum's holdings.
Karanis first came to the attention of Prof. Kelsey due to the explorations of two of the first papyrologists, B.P Grenfell and A.S. Hunt at the end of the ninteenth century. Its unique combination of well-preserved papyri, artifacts and architectural remains compelled him to undertake over a decade of excavation. The Karanis expedition was recorded on films, in still photography, and with unusually full attention to stratigraphy. Preliminary publications of the site drew upon this wealth of information to select portions of the topography and of categories of objects (architecture, textiles, glass, papyri, etc.) Several generations later a renewed interest in the Kelsey Museum collections spawned additional publications and exhibitions. Current research on the site, conducted by scholars from numerous institutions in the United States, Europe and Egypt has prompted the organization of these projects under the aegis of the Kelsey Museum's Karanis Planning Study which seeks to identify areas of interest and potential contributing scholars for a more comprehensive series of publications.
Karanis: View across the ancient town to the arable land of modern Faiyum.
The town of Karanis endured over a period of about 800 years, flourishing in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Only a small portion, perhaps of tenth of the town's surface area, has been excavated. That portion is in a "downtown" area which contains two large pagan temples, numerous large granaries, a public bath, and several residential quarters.
The town of Karanis adjoins the rich, cultivable land of Egypt's Faiyum lake region. The business of agriculture was conducted at Karanis. Granaries appear to have stored, sold, and dispensed the produce of surrounding small farms, villages and estates of the Faiyum. The granaries and their contents, in conjunction with associated habitations and documentary papyri written in Greek (many are in the collection of the Papyrology Room) provide evidence of the extensive economic system of Faiyum.
Karanis may have remained a polytheist (pagan) town even during the early Byzantine centuries. There is a great deal of evidence for continued non-Christian religious activity, much of it combining the various aspects of the town's culturally mixed population. One example of this multifaceted syncretism (mixture of religious traditions) is the identification of the Egyptian goddess Isis with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. There is a mixture of architectural and artistic traditions as well.
No monumental Christian remains have been found as yet although continued exploration of the site may alter this conclusion. The edges of town, the traditional location for necropoleis (cities for the dead), will be of particular interest to historians of early Christian remains for this is where much of the evidence for earliest Christianity is found. Further explorations may yield evidence for how the population might have shifted from Karanis' center to its fringes over the long life-span of the town.
Architectural remains at Karanis still stand several meters in height, preserving nearly complete shells of buildings and, in several extraordinary instance, their contents.
Pottery at Karanis preserves evidence of importation, from North African centers and local centers of pottery production.
Agricultural implements, and tools for the production of textiles were found in great numbers at Karanis. These are plain, sturdy implements. Unlike most museum collections of Byzantine Egyptian textiles , which were purchased for their decorations, these are without much ornament. They are, in fact, garbage, the detritus of a culture that recycled everything. They were found in rubbish heaps. The purposes of some of the re-used bits of fabric are unknown.
Whereas donated collections of coins contain fine individual specimens (usually without provenance), the bulk of the coins from Karanis were found in hoards which span the dates of the occupation of the site. The latest coins dating to the fourth century, provide one of our most telling testimonies to the breadth of international trade and the strength of Karanis as an agricultural center during the late Roman and early Byzantine periods.
The phenomenon of the holy place, or locus sanctus, is evidence of the radical perceptual shift that transformed the Roman empire into the Byzantine empire. The religious terrain of the Roman empire was an inclusive patchwork of many different religious cultures. As seen through polytheistic Roman eyes, the landscape contained places associated with myths of pagan gods -- whether those gods were Greco-Egyptian, Syrian, Italic, etc. This Roman terrain included monotheistic views: Jews saw the landscape through the lens of their own history and sacred texts; as the empire took on a Christian identity, so too did its landscape, adopting the sacred template given in the Old and New Testaments.
In a search of a new, wholly Christian way of life, men and women sought out loca sancta where they could devote themselves to the attainment of heaven on earth, where they could attend to the holy sites and partake of the remaining spiritual "charge" lingering at the site.
Soon, pilgrims began to visit these loca sancta to see a tangible record of the history recorded in the scriptures and to visit the holy men and women at the sites. The earliest extensive record of a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai, the diary of the nun Egeria, which dates to the end of the fourth century AD, is also the first documentary evidence that travelling to and settling in the Sinai remained a dangerous proposition. Justinian had the fortified monastery and the church constructed at this most sparsely inhabited desert region to offer protection against bandits and other marauders who threatened the pilgrims and the settled monks.
Justinian's structure was part of a larger empire-wide building program meant to strengthen the Empire's borders and to christianize its terrain by covering it with churches. Justinian's church enclosed the site of the burning bush. Justinian's fortress monastery at Sinai is an indication that the conversion of the topography of the Roman and Byzantine empires was more deeply imprinted upon the terrain than the abandonment of some towns and the founding of other settlements: for example, whereas the settlements at Karanis and Sinai overlap chronologically, the processes of their Christianization are dramatically different, as are their interrelationships with the wider world. In contrast to the role of Karanis as a distribution center in a varied agricultural economy, the monastic settlement at Sinai functioned successfully without economic ties to the surrounding region, and precisely because it lacked the secular framework of life in the cities and towns.
Between 1956 and 1965, the University of Michigan, along with Princeton University and the University of Alexandria, undertook a joint expedition to the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. The joint Michigan-Princeton expedition to Sinai continues to have profound ramifications for Byzantine studies thanks to its publications of the architecture, icons, and inscriptions of the monastery. Prof. George Forsyth, then the director of the Kelsey Museum, surveyed and interpreted the architecture of the church and monastery. Prof. Ihor Sevcenko, then of Columbia University recorded and interpreted the inscriptions. Prof. Kurt Weitzmann of Princeton University studied the icons. Fred Anderegg of the Kelsey Museum managed to present a complete and technically accomplished dossier despite occasionally dangerous scaffolding and a lack of running water.