In 1907, the Egyptian government granted The Metropolitan Museum of Art permission to survey and excavate in the northern district of the Kharga Oasis. Campaigns, which continued through the early 1930s, focused largely on the Temple of Amun-Re, known as the Temple of Hibis, constructed mainly under Darius I (after 500 B.C.); Ain et-Turba, part of the ancient city of Hibis, whose structures have been dated by coin finds to the third and fourth centuries A.D.; and the Bagawat Necropolis, the cemetery of Hibis, in use perhaps as early as the second century through the sixth or seventh century A.D.
Kharga Oasis (approximately 400 miles southwest of Cairo and 150 miles west of the Nile Valley at Thebes) and the neighboring Dakhla Oasis form the Great Oasis of Egypt's Western (Libyan) Desert. Archaeological work in the oases has yielded evidence of human habitation in the area at least as early as the Middle Paleolithic period (300,000 to 30,000 years ago); the densest concentration of well-preserved material dates to the Roman and Byzantine periods (ca. 30 B.C.–A.D. 642). Oasite communities sustained close contacts with the Nile Valley as far back as the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2150 B.C.) and continued to do so during the Roman and Byzantine periods while maintaining distinct identities. Their towns were vital to Egypt's trading network. The Great Oasis hosted important frontier posts and was home to some of the earliest documented Christian communities in Egypt.
Located on the numerous caravan routes that traversed the region, Kharga was an access point for Saharan and sub-Saharan trade, as well as for interaction with the Nile Valley. Kharga's deep wells and fertile land made its communities agriculturally self-sufficient. Numerous crops including grains, sesame, olives, and grapes were cultivated, and wine from Kharga was exported to the Nile Valley. A thriving manufacturing economy produced ceramics and a range of glassware (examples of both are on view). Alum was mined in the region.
This selection of late Roman and Byzantine period objects from the Metropolitan Museum's excavations at the Kharga Oasis includes textiles, ceramics, and grave goods from an intact tomb. Also on view are facsimiles of the painted interiors of several of the Bagawat Necropolis tomb chapels and excavation photography.
In Egypt, procedures for embalming and interring the dead, commemorating them through art, and promoting their well-being in the afterlife evolved over the centuries. During the Roman period (late first century B.C.–early fourth century A.D.), burial remained the preferred method of disposal. Mummification was practiced, but the thoroughness of the process varied. The quantity of skeletonized remains in cemeteries suggests that many people were buried with minimal, if any, evisceration and desiccation. Burial in small graves, pits, or reused tombs was more common than the construction of personal tombs. Mummies placed in coffins or adorned with masks and other decorations constitute a small percentage of those found. The preparation of the body was determined by the wealth of the deceased and by local practice.
With the spread of Christianity in Egypt, Christian beliefs about death and the appropriate care of the dead were integrated with existing traditions. Burials in the Great Oasis illustrate a variety of funerary preparations. Cemeteries in the towns of Kellis (modern Ismant al-Kharab) in Dakhla Oasis and Kysis (modern Dush) in Kharga Oasis preserve single- and multichambered subterranean structures, pit graves, and mud-brick mausolea. Examinations of the remains have revealed seven treatments, ranging from full mummification to natural desiccation. In several instances, mummies were covered with cartonnage (plastered layers of fiber or papyrus). Most burials contained traditional grave goods such as biers, ba (human-headed) birds, statues of deities, and items of personal adornment. Christian burials at Kellis and Bagawat include pit graves, mud-brick mausolea, and church interments (the latter only attested at Kellis). In general, bodies were not mummified but wrapped in linen shrouds secured with woven ties wound in a crisscross or lateral pattern. They were placed in the pit in a supine position, hands to the sides or over the pelvic region, head pointed westward. The inclusion of grave goods was minimal. A small number of bodies show some attempt at mummification and were accompanied by greater numbers of grave goods.
Bagawat is the predominately Christian necropolis of the ancient town of Hibis, in use perhaps as early as the second century through the sixth or seventh century A.D. As one of the earliest and best preserved Christian cemeteries, it provides considerable information about early Christian burial practices in Egypt and the relative wealth of the town of Hibis during the late Roman and Byzantine periods, or the late third through the mid-seventh century A.D.
The cemetery preserves 263 mud-brick tomb chapels. Most are single rooms with flat, domed, or barrel-vaulted roofs. A few have multiple rooms. The facades of most chapels are decorated with arches, niches, and engaged columns; others, with crosses or the crux ansata (ankh). There is evidence of plaster and some paint on the exterior of many tombs. Interiors were decorated with narrative scenes, symbols, and architectural ornament; almost all painted decoration is lost. The graves are either flat, oblong hollows cut into the ground, some with low superstructures of brick or quarrystone, or subterranean pits accessible by a vertical shaft, sometimes containing several chambers. Most contained multiple burials. The elaborate tomb chapels were used for rituals commemorating the dead.
Interspersed among the mausolea are hundreds of pit graves, aligned on an east-west axis. Each has a low superstructure—either rectangular in form with outer courses of mud brick and a filling of gravel or rubble, or an oval mound of loose stones covered with a coating of mud plaster—over the mouth of the grave. Graves were usually provided with sandstone head- and footstones. The headstone bore the name of the deceased, which was engraved into the stone itself or into mud plaster with which the stone had been covered.
During the 1930–31 excavation season, Charles K. Wilkinson and Walter Hauser discovered an untouched tomb with multiple burials. The subterranean burial chamber contained three reused wooden coffins. Unpainted and embellished with moldings, the inner coffin housed the body of a woman wrapped in linen sheets with a crisscross binding. She wore silver earrings and five strings of beads. A folded tunic with blue clavi (stripes) covered her body. Many of the grave goods found in her coffin are on view. Resting on the lid of the coffin were an elderly man and an infant.
The well-wrapped body of a young woman was placed in the second coffin, which was painted with funerary and religious scenes drawn from pharaonic art. A folded tunic with blue stripes rested on her body. The woman wore no jewelry, but her hair was elaborately braided. Beside her left shoulder was the body of her newborn, wrapped with nine necklaces. A basket placed at the woman's head contained an assortment of items, including an iron lock and a coin of Nero mounted as a pendant. A man lay on the lid of the coffin. The outermost coffin, which contained the body of a man, combined a bier painted with pharaonic imagery and a coffin lid. Additionally, a third woman was buried in the floor beneath the coffins.
The reuse of pharaonic-style coffins suggests that the deceased were not Christian. However, the placement of the bodies with the heads pointed westward, as well as the inclusion of infants, is typical of Christian burials. Furthermore, the grave goods do not include typical pharaonic items such as ba (human-headed) birds, and the reuse of pagan coffins by Christians is also attested at Saqqara, in Lower Egypt. If these burials are indeed Christian, they provide further evidence of the use of mummification by some Christians, a practice also attested at a handful of other burials in Egypt and in the archive of mortuary workers from Kysis (modern Dush) in Kharga Oasis.
During the late Roman and early Byzantine periods (late 3rd–early 5th century), potters of Egypt's Great Oasis were prolific, producing tableware, vessels, figurines, and lamps. Ceramics excavated by the Metropolitan Museum are representative of pottery found at sites across the Kharga and Dakhla oases. The delicate bowl with floral motifs is an example of Kharga Red Slip Ware, which first appeared in the late third century. Kharga Red Slip Ware combines the forms and techniques of African Red Slip Ware (a type of widely exported fine tableware manufactured in Roman North Africa from the first to the seventh century) with painted and, less frequently, incised decoration. The jug with cruces gammatae and with grapevines are typical of a local ceramic tradition that goes back to the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2150 B.C.). Bottles and jugs with yellow slip (a liquid suspension of clay and water), such as the jug with grapevines, are thought to have been produced in northern Kharga and were probably used to transport and store wine. Like the Metropolitan's example, many of the vessels have a thick, blackish residue on the interior, analysis of which has identified Pinacea (pine family) resin, a substance used to seal porous clay jars for the long-term storage of wine. The presence of resin and the decorative motif of grapevines suggest that the Metropolitan's jug served the same function.
The figurines and lamp on view are characteristic of those produced in the Great Oasis. Particularly interesting are the two fragments of female figurines, which are similar to examples found in burials throughout Kharga and Dakhla. Though clearly in the tradition of the female figurines produced across the Greco-Roman world, the character of the figurines (pierced and slashed decoration, pronounced facial features, and distinctive headdresses) suggests that they may have been associated with a local cult.