Social Approaches to an Industrial Past: The Archaeology and Anthropology of Mining

By A. Bernard Knapp; Vincent C. Pigott et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 16

Gold-miners and mining at Bir Umm Fawakhir

Carol Meyer

ABSTRACT

Three seasons of archaeological survey at Bir Umm Fawakhir in the Eastern Desert of Egypt have identified the site as a fifth- to sixth-century Byzantine/Coptic gold-mining town (not a Roman caravan station), have mapped in detail 152 out of approximately 216 buildings, and have identified peripheral features such as wells, guard posts, ancient paths and roads, outlying clusters of ruins, cemeteries, quarries and mines. Gold was extracted from quartz veins in Precambrian granite, so mining, ore reduction and washing required a large labor force; the population of ancient Fawakhir is estimated at over 1,000. Contrary to the first century BC account of Diodorus, there is no compelling reason to believe the miners were criminals, war prisoners or slaves. The lack of town planning, formal defenses or town walls, the uniformity of finds within the site, and the houses’ individual grain silos do not suggest control of prisoners. The town, in a hyper-arid desert, must nonetheless have been supplied entirely from the Nile. Given the government’s critical need for gold at that time, the Fawakhir gold must have been monitored by imperial authorities in the Thebaid. The labor force was probably also supplied by the government, perhaps on the pattern of military recruitment.


INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

The Bir Umm Fawakhir Survey Project of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago completed its third field season in the central Eastern Desert of Egypt in January 1996. This chapter, however, is not about what was found in the past three seasons of archaeological survey so much as what the site can tell us about gold mines and mining in Coptic/Byzantine Egypt, and more specifically about the miners themselves. As this is a relatively new site, however, it is necessary first to present a brief overview of some of the empirical results and then to discuss mining, miners and their milieu.

Bir Umm Fawakhir, long called a Roman caravan station, can now be identified as a fifth- to sixth-century AD Coptic/Byzantine gold-mining town. It lies

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