Permit problems circa 1928

3 minute read

While reading the history of paleontological excavations in the Fayum, I found many articles dealing with the area’s classical archaeology. One article, by Gertrude Caton-Thompson (1928) gave an interesting account of conflicts between field excavations and permit-seeking from government officials. Since this has been a recurrent problem over the years, I thought it would be worth giving a couple of quotes:

Tranquil in the tradition which forbids appropriation of another person's work without inquiry as to their intentions to continue it, I found to my dismay, when applying in the spring of 1927 for renewal of concession, that, owing to alleged sensational discoveries (a great prehistoric cemetery; shelter with breccia, ranging from Acheulean to Campigny; rows of dolmens; pile-dwellings, etc.) by Count de Prorok, working unauthorised in our vacated area from the University of Michigan Expedition's base, an American expedition had secretly applied for, and been virtually accorded the N. Fayum concession. Prolonged negotiations with the Dept. of Antiquities, so devoid of prehistorians as to be unable to verify the authenticity of the Fayum discoveries, resulted in acknowledgment of our moral right to continue the work in which we had led the way, but left undefined the area to be assigned to us. The positions of the sites coveted by the Oriental Institute of Chicago were widespread: no attempt was made from that quarter to alleviate our position; and on arrival in Egypt in November we found ourselves re-allotted a restricted concession within the area we had already exhausted both prehistorically and geologically, sandwiched in between Chicago's western concession near Qasr - el - Sagha, containing the "Paleolithic cave," and their eastern one near Kom Ashim, containing the "prehistoric cemetery " and " dolmens." The black-line square on our map (Fig. 1) shows the area held the first two seasons; the intermittent line halving it the one allotted to us last season. In view of the grave inadequacy of this concession, I applied at once for a second one, covering the very difficult ground at the west-end of the lake: this was granted in. January.

Caton-Thompson had quite a storied career; after these archaeological surveys of the Fayum, she excavated Great Zimbabwe and mentored Mary Leakey. As for her permit troubles, the end result of being forced to visit the same site for several seasons in a row was a set of discoveries that an archaeologist today would be pretty thrilled to find:

In the meanwhile we settled down on our old northern ground to wring such her drops of evidence from it as ironic gods might help us to obtain. They sent torrential rains. The discovery of the Ptolemaic irrigation system resulted, due to growth of vegetation upon the buried, sand-filled channels (P1. G., Fig. 1). Much as the growth of weeds helped us to trace their course, anything approaching a complete map of the system was possible only by prolonged investigations, making calls upon the detailed knowledge of levels collected in previous seasons.
The other unexpected find of the season was that of extensive Old Kingdom gypsum works in the northern hills bounding our concession. A splendid outcrop of pure gypsum in massive formation, nearly a mile long, a quarter broad, and about 15 feet thick, had been extensively used in the IIIrd and possibly early IVth Dynasties (2900 B.C. circa), mainly, it would seem, to obtain material for the plaster and mortar required in the construction of the earlier Pyramids and Pyramid cemeteries, less than 30 miles distant by desert route....Over 3,000 defective vases, discarded before completion, were counted in, or on, the workshop mounds, hinting at the great numbers which were exported.

So working the same field site for several seasons seems like a rational thing for the government to have wanted!

Although in this case it was probably unanticipated returns. In any event, the kinds of discoveries that would drive a long career today were small potatoes for 1920’s archaeology. On to bigger and better things!


Caton-Thompson G. 1928. Recent excavations in the Fayum. Man 28:109-113.