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Interview with Campbell Price

March 8, 2015

On 14 February I attended a Manchester University study day called From Amulets to Golden Flies: Understanding Egyptian Jewellery. This was the third Manchester University study day I attended and, as before, Campbell Price was one of the speakers.

Campbell Price is the Curator of Egypt and the Sudan and, among other things, runs the Egypt at the Manchester Museum blog. It would probably take an entire blog post to list everything he does; he is a very active person. One of the things on his resume that caught my attention is the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project. I asked if he would talk to me about it and he agreed.

Museum Meets at the Manchester Museum - 9 March 2013
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SJ: Why has the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project ended?
CP: The Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project started through the interest and enthusiasm of Ian Mathieson who was a retired civil engineer and who had worked with Egypt Exploration Society in the 70s and 80s. As the story goes, at the end of the 1980s he went to the Egyptian government and said ‘I’d like my own consession to work using geophysical equipment’ which he had pioneered for the use in Egypt and the antiquities service said ‘pick a site at Saqqara’ and he drew a big red line around the whole of the Saqqara plateau. He got his wish and for twenty years he worked using geophysical techniques. Ian Mathieson was really an exceptional person. He inspired me a lot personally. He basically was used to using techniques for geophysical prospection in industry and for commercial reasons. For prospecting for oil and looking for different things in the Middle East. He had always been interested in archaeology and when the chance came up to help an archaeological mission, he really took it. I think it was professor Harry Smith at UCL who really encouraged him and the rest is kind of history. He used all these techniques. He got a team of people that knew a lot of different geophysical techniques; a lot of about surveying. Because if you do geophysics and you do a survey of any type you need to know where in the world you are to position it correctly. So he had excellent surveyors, excellent Egyptologists, excellent geophysicists, particularly a gentleman called Jon Dittmer who from the mid 1990s was involved. My connection with Ian Mathieson dates back to when I was a schoolboy, when I was 17 years old. I went to a lecture and I heard this incredibly enthusiastic, he was in his mid 70s then, I think, speaker talking about what they had found at Saqqara. And they had done some selective excavations. I thought ‘wow, this guy is amazing’. And proof that someone with a Scottish accent, because he was Scottish, could do something in Egyptology. So, several years after I first spoke to him, I said ‘I’d love to be part of the team’. I had a little bit of experience doing geophysics at a site called Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, which is at the north west coast of Egypt, west of Alexandria, and I just wanted to be involved in the only Scottish mission in Egypt. It was really exciting. And so he said ‘Oh, come along’. In 2006 I went out for a season and again in 2007 and we didn’t go out in 2008, because Ian was taken unwell, but we went out in 2009. Sadly Ian Mathieson died in 2010, so he was 83, but people thought he was much younger. People were surprised when we said he was 83. It happened just before the Egyptian revolution. And to be quite frank we attracted attention when we were working before 2011, because we were mapping things out and people know you’re mapping. And so something we would see there was disturbed ground in the morning after we’d been doing some work. So there was a real ethical issue having completed pretty much completed the geophysical mapping of Saqqara, essentially completed. Should we go back to try and fill in little bits where there might not be anything and attract attention to those bits in times of unstable political situations, that might be a bad idea. And ultimately we were producing a treasure map. And I remember the first time I spoke at a conference about this. A Dutch Egyptologist said to me ‘You realise you’re producing a treasure map? And if people can find the map and can understand it, they will go and use it.’. So, for those reasons and for the fact that the people involved have other commitments we decided to stop the geophysical survey. So that is a very potted history.

SJ: Why Saqqara?
CP: Because I think it’s one of the richest, in terms of the spread of the cemetery, in terms of the times it was occupied, in terms of the status of the people buried there, it’s right next to Memphis, the principal city, the capital city for most of pharaonic times. It was very important. It was intensively used, but no one really had an idea of how all the different bits fitted together. It had been excavated from very early on in history by tourists, explorers and people not doing a good job. And then it had been scientific exploration by the Egypt Exploration Society, by Dutch, Polish, Czech mission, German missions, French missions. There needed to be an overall plan of the site, I think. So that was why Saqqara was chosen in 1990. That’s when the project started.

SJ: On the Project’s website four types of technology are mentioned [resistivity, conductivity, ground penetration radar and magnetic gradiometer], but looking at other publications there are two which are mentioned most [ground penetration radar and magnetic gradiometer]. Are all four technologies used equally or are these two predominantly used?
CP: I think those two, the gradiometry which is planning, so a plan – like a house plan, and radar were the predominant ones when I was involved. Before there were different people so different expertises who got involved and you play to your strengths, whatever is most appropriate for the people there, most appropriate for the time and the money as well. Because we were fortunate, we had equipment donated, certainly in that last season. We had new radar equipment donated, which is now being used, I should say, by other missions in Egypt. That was quite important, because people can use it and make use of this incredible technology which, in commercial terms, was old-fashioned, but in archaeology was cutting edge. So all four techniques, yes, you’re right, were used at some point, but latterly, in the last five years when I was involved, it was just the radar and gradiometry.

SJ: Staying on the subject on technology, you’re probably aware that now even satellite imagery is being used? How do you feel about that? What are you expecting for the next decade or two?
CP: If you could combine satellite technology and ground penetrating radar and gradiometry, that would be amazing! You could do a 3D map, you could map in three dimensions what’s under the ground. Give it twenty years and probably that will happen. I’m a little bit sceptical about the satellite imagery, because that doesn’t penetrate very far into the ground.

SJ: Using the technologies mentioned before, is it possible to determine if several things were built on top of each other?
CP: If you see a strong black line, that must be closer to the surface than the “ghost” structures. So, again, with fancy technology you could penetrate deeper using the radar or gradiometry and distinguish between the two. The penetration we used was five metres, so: really strong line: near the surface; really ghostly line: near the bottom and if you could develop some 3D technology you could see what’s above and what’s older and what’s younger.

SJ: Based on what’s been found by the Project have many excavations happened or do you expect more to happen in the future?
CP: We did ground testing, but to my knowledge no one has used the map to excavate. We were asked by some Egyptian colleagues about that, but nothing happened.

SJ: Because the two predominantly used technologies are non-invasive, is it much easier to get permission for this type of work than it is to get permission for an excavation?
CP: Yes, absolutely. It was much easier, diplomatically, to say ‘we’ll map the ground and help manage the site’ than to say ‘we’re going to come with our spades’ and dig it up. Technically when we were working there was a monitorium on new excavations in the Delta. So it was easy for Ian Mathieson to get repeated permissions, because you have to apply every year you’re there.

I would like to thank Campbell for an interesting and fun (as always!) lecture and afterwards taking the time to talk to me.

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