Amheida, on the western edge of Dakhla Oasis, is a vast archaeological site, reached via the loop road running from Mut to el-Qasr. A team of researchers from New York’s Columbia University headed by Roger Bagnall, began the Amheida Project in 2001 with an intensive investigation and survey of the site.
The area which extends for 5km to the west of the road, is thought to be the site of the ancient Roman town of Trimethis, according to literary sources, although the surrounding landscape indicates substantial occupation pre-dating the Roman Period. As with many sites in the oasis there is a scattering of prehistoric material as well as an Old Kingdom settlement and evidence of Pharaonic and Ptolemaic remains. But it is for its Roman ruins that Amheida is best known at present, in an area of 100 hectares occupied from the 1st to the 4th centuries AD and constituting one of the largest Roman settlements at Dakhla. The archaeological site is divided into four areas. Area 1 is mostly a domestic and industrial site, Area 2 has elaborately painted vaulted and domed structures and Area 3 has an impressive ‘pyramidal’ structure, thought to date to the Roman period, that is surrounded by vaulted tombs. A further Area 4 has most recently investgated.
Much of the site was buried by sand, with only the tops of walls of ruined buildings dotting the landscape. On a rise in the northern part of the town known as Temple HIll, a large structure dominates the scene, where limestone chips and a sandstone block cut with a relief of Amun have been found, suggesting its use as a temple. This has now been identified as the remains of a Temple of Thoth built in the 1st century AD. One of the most spectacular discoveries, near the centre of the town in Area 2, was a large building has now been excavated. The two-storey structure contained 15 rooms, one of which was painted with classical wall scenes of the late 3rd to early 4th centuries. The paintings show a high degree of artistry which is very different from the Egyptian tradition, perhaps executed by travelling artists. On the northern wall, to the left of the doorway, a mythological scene depicts the legend of Perseus rescuing the beautiful Andromeda who is about to be devoured by a sea-monster, while to the right of the door is the Homeric scene of the ‘Return of Odysseus to Ithaca’, from his long voyage which brought him to Egyptian shores. The eastern wall of the chamber contains other smaller portrayals of classical mythological figures in two registers, including Aphrodite, Ares, Helios, Apollo, Dionysus and Poseidon.
Several cemeteries are associated with Amheida. The largest of these on the southern side of the site contains between two and three thousand burials, mostly pit-graves but also some decorated tombs. A few of the more elaborate structures have above-ground chapels with vaulted ceilings. Two such tombs (Tombs 6 and 33) date from the Ptolemaic or early Roman Period and contain white plastered walls with painted reliefs depicting traditional Egyptian funerary scenes. Here the familiar deities Isis and Nephthys, Osiris and Anubis are portrayed with little classical influence and probably date from the earliest settlement period at Amheida.
The site at Amheida will take many years to investigate properly and will be part of a long-term scheme for the Dakhla Oasis Project. The team of scientists from Columbia University is currently bringing digital archaeology to the Egyptian desert by studying the ancient ruins with the use of a robot equipped with a remote-sensing device to create 3-D subterranean images that will help pinpoint where to conduct excavations.
For more information, maps and excavation reports see New York University’s Amheida website.