Past environments, future challenges: Fossil insects and the preservation of environmental evidence from Egyptian archaeological sites

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences

Abstract

This project, taking advantage of the optimal preservation by desiccation in the Egyptian desert of organic materials, in particular insect remains, will produce new information on environmental and climate change through the study of insects by researching rural and urban environments from pharaonic and Roman Egypt and placing them in the context of existing environmental and archaeological research in the eastern Mediterranean. The sites selected for analysis are the ongoing excavation of Elephantine, in Aswan and material on permit in the UK from Qasr Ibrim. Environments and climate will be reconstructed, based on evidence from within and around settlement areas, in particular species from the natural insect fauna as well as those which live with man as uninvited guests and accidental travelers including insect pests, flies and ectoparasites. In addition, analytical techniques will be applied to material currently outside of Egypt either on permit or in museum collections. Both AMS dating and DNA of insect chitin will refine interpretation and produce new results.

Planned Impact

Egypt has a rich archaeological record which Egyptian people are both proud of and interested in. This project will contribute to training archaeology inspectors/ University researchers in Egypt, providing them with the basic skills on site to assess and understand environmental archaeology and archaeoentomology. It will also provide laboratory basic training in the UK for a candidate enabling them to identify material and its interpretational potential, using relevant keys and collections. It will be an important step forward, for inspectors and archaeologists in Egypt to understand the details of environmental research, the benefits of this research, and the need for more analytical techniques to be applied to Egyptian archaeological sites. The appreciation of problems related with erosion of sites in Egypt in terms of preservation of material and its communication to archaeologists is another of the project's intended impacts on the archaeological professional community. Collaborations between Egypt and the UK and a network which aims to build links between Museums and Universities could also lead to better communication of the research to the public and to students in schools and Higher Education. In addition, involvement of University students in Cairo in educational activities led by project researchers, will provide them with a broader understanding of archaeology. The equipment bought will be available to excavations and researchers through the the Elephantine Island Museum and the Antiquities Inspectorate for use in research excavations, projects and educational purposes. The website will provide information on the project, contributed by all participants, both in Arabic and English. This will be a networking platform for all project researchers and also an opportunity for the public to communicate with the researchers. As part of project educational activities, local schools in Cairo and Aswan, in collaboration with Cairo and Aswan Museum, will be engaged in activities by the Egyptian researchers. This will enhance school curricula and also provide pupils with new educational experiences, combining the use of scientific equipment (stereomicroscopes) and new information regarding cultural heritage. The project aims to create pathways for public outreach in Egypt and to inspire a new generation of Egyptians to value and protect all aspects of cultural heritage. Similarly in the UK, through the project website, talks to local groups, such as the friends of Petrie Museum, through archaeological magazines, society newsletters, etc., the project will promote public outreach and will make the public aware of its objectives and results. Output will be by way of publication in scientific journals, papers presented at conferences, and communications with the Press and other media.

Publications

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Description Research undertaken by the PI in Edinburgh has revealed the importance of the biogeography of introduced synanthropic species, which was the main focus of this research project. In particular, the distribution of pests of stored products, synanthropic flies, e.g. Musca domestica L., with possible origins in Egypt, and ectoparasites have revealed patterns which are important both in terms of changes in human environments and also in relation to the palaeoeconomy and early spread of diseases. Research on the material from the excavation at Qasr Ibrim, available on permit in the UK, is currently underway with samples producing more M. domestica and other species, including dung beetles and pests of stored products. Relevant specimens will be submitted for AMS dating. DNA project research by Dr Eva Fernandez and A. Simpson at the University of Durham has successfully tested a protocol for the extraction of DNA from desiccated fossil insect remains. DNA of fossil house flies, M. domestica, from Qasr Ibrim has been successfully extracted and compared to modern sequences. This shows that they were genetically most similar to modern specimens of house flies from Saudi Arabia, and shared a haplotype with modern Indian and Near Eastern populations. As the houseflies which are now cosmopolitan were transported by human populations alongside their domestic animals and crops and may have been vectors in the spread of disease, these findings indicate the importance of this line of evidence to information on mobility and trade. Further research from post Roman sites involves the analysis of material from the monastic site at Kom el Nana in middle Egypt, dated from coin evidence to the 4th to 6th century or perhaps a little later, and this is currently being prepared for publication. The fossil insect faunas from the site indicate not only stored products, probably flour and bread rather than grain, but also a much damper, irrigated environment. The dung fauna from the site is both diverse and extensive, with the larger scarabaeids suggesting cattle rather than smaller domesticates. The rest of the fauna, including click beetles, elaterids, in large numbers suggest proximity of grazing land, probably within the enclosure, although these may have been brought in with fodder from fields closer to the Nile. The insect material emphasises the range of introductions during the Roman period, with species of pests such as Callosobruchus maculatus F., perhaps of Asian origin, recovered. It also indicates extensive human impact. The differences between Kom el Nana and modern environments in the area and their insect faunas are significant as further intensification has led to a fauna impoverished of dung beetles.The fossil insect research clearly shows the scale of human impact and the extent of environmental change over time. It demonstrates the association of the changes with different management practices, providing relevant information for conservation of the environments along the Nile. Sampling at Elephantine from Middle Kingdom deposits is in progress. Initial investigations of the material has recorded presence of the mealworm beetle, Alphitobius diaperinus, in heavy residues and also the presence of various maggots of true flies, Diptera, feeding on protein from midden deposits. Of particular interest were the faunas associated with a stork (Ciconia sp.) wing found from floor deposits of the house excavated. The associated insect taxa recovered, were species found from deposits sealed underneath the floors, e.g. Attagenus sp. and the house fly Musca domestica, as opposed to a fauna which would process decaying material, indicating that this was already dried out when thrown onto this particular area. In addition to work on material from Elephantine and Qasr Ibrim, collaborative research has been initiated with Professor Rosalie Davies and her team and the Manchester Mummy Museum project. Insect samples, which were obtained during the unwrapping of Mummy 1770 in 1975, were obtained and they will be identified as part of project research. In addition insect samples obtained from different bandages, will be sent for AMS dating, together with specimens from Qasr Ibrim, to investigate whether dating of the insects could obtain further detail on the hypotheses that there were subsequent wrappings of the mummy after the initial one. The project website is now live and will be populated with results as they are published.
Exploitation Route The project's findings are relevant for biogeographers, archaeologists and entomologists and conservation scientists. The results indicate the extent of human impact on the environments along the Nile, during different periods of time, in particular during the Roman and post Roman period. The DNA research on fossil insects will have implications for the field for future research in biogeography, palaeoentomology and climate change research.
Sectors Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://pastenvironsegypt.com/
 
Description There were plans to educate school children in Egypt working with Museums in Cairo and Aswan and employees of the Ministry of Antiquities, but these will not take place as, after long and continuous delays regarding the Egyptian budget, the Egyptian side of the project has been cancelled by STDF. A workshop in Cairo and an open meeting for the public were organised and held in April 2018 in Cairo. The results of the project are communicated through the project website and the research from Mummy 1770 will be communicated in collaboration with the Manchester Museum. Results have also been communicated to numerous academic conferences and to the group of researchers in the Elephantine excavation in virtual and in person meetings.
Sector Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Presentation entitled: Pests and ectoparasites-Introductions, itineraries and importance. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 21-22 April 2018 University of Birmingham AEA Spring Conference 2018: "Pests of Society"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://envarch.net/events/51/aea-spring-2018/
 
Description Presentation entitled: A Quaternary perspective on synanthropic insect introductions. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact September 2018. Neobiota. Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, Ireland. September 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://na.eventscloud.com/ehome/166837/383086/
 
Description Presentation entitled: Eating the dead - Insect faunas from Egyptian mummies. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact August 2020. European Association of Archaeologists. Virtual meeting.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.e-a-a.org/EAA2020/Programme.aspx?WebsiteKey=4245c0d1-9c0e-4a58-bfa2-906885ad5f28&hkey=e2...
 
Description Presentation entitled: Accidental travellers, uninvited guests - Fossil insects, farming and ecological imperialism. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact November 2017. Association for Environmental Archaeology. Edinburgh, UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.ed.ac.uk/history-classics-archaeology/news-events/events/events-archive/events-2017/gran...
 
Description Presentation entitled: Fossil insects and past environments in Egypt. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact April 2018 German Archaeological Institute (DAI) Cairo.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Presentation entitled: Fossil insects, farming and indicators of change. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact September 2019. European Association of Archaeologists. Bern, Switzerland.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.e-a-a.org/eaa2019
 
Description Presentation entitled: Insects, ecological footprints and synanthropic records. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact September 2018. European Association of Archaeologists. Barcelona, Spain.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.e-a-a.org/eaa2018
 
Description Presentation entitled: Uninvited and unclean- Pests, dispersal, exchange networks and disease. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact September 2017. European Association of Archaeologists. Maastricht, Netherlands.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.eaa2017maastricht.nl/
 
Description Workshop entitled: Past environment Future Challenges 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop entitled "Past environments, future challenges" in DAI, Cairo, Egypt with participants the project team and from Museums and Universities to discuss collaborations.
Museum (GEM) and Laboratory visits followed this workshop.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018