Unexpected Treasures 30 Years of excavations in Um El Burigat ( Teptynis ) at Cairo Museum

For over fifty years no archaeologist came to work in the village’s ruins. Excavations only restated at Tebtynis in October 1988 when the Franco-Italian mission of the Institut francias d’archaeologie orientale and the University of Milan set up camp there. After the excavations, the plundering and the destruction of the first half of the 20th century, the site appeared to be cleared out. In reality, some areas were still untouched. After evaluating the state of the area, the mission re-opened the site, confident of exposing additional buildings, recovering a quantity of artifacts and filling in gaps in the history of Tebtynis. The results were so encouraging that the team has already worked thirty years at the site and plans to continue its investigations there.

The Ptolemaic districts of the village have been located, the Byzantine area has been identified and the outstanding buildings have been cleared: the chapel have dedicated to Thermouthis, the desert police post, a large 2nd century BC storehouse for grain, public baths of the 3rd century and those of the 2nd Century BC. At the same time, about 10,000 texts written on papyrus and shreds in Egyptian, Greek and Arabic have been collected and an even larger quantity of objects has been gathered: thus we can present a detailed picture of life in the village from the 3rd Century BC to the 9th Century AD. Clearly, the ruins of Tebtynis were not cleared out and we indeed look forward to other surprises in the years to come.

Panel showcases the foundations of the old city. Credits FayoumEgypt.com

The Exhibition

As part of the Egypt France Italy cooperation and the France Egypt 2019 Cultural Year, an exhibition was organized by the Ministry of Egyptian Antiquities, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) and the University of Milan, based on a selection of exceptional pieces discovered by the Franco-Italian archeological mission in Tebtynis (Fayoum). The exhibition is being held in hall 44 of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo from Monday, February 4 to April 4, 2019.


Before the Franco-Italian mission began excavating at tebtynis, wooden windows of the Greaco-Roman period were only known through representations within model houses in stone or terracotta and by discoveries at Karanis, where windows with a simple frame, subdivided by horizontal or vertical bars, had been discovered. The excavation of the mission uncovered three windows with rotating shutters and carved grills very similar to those shown in models of houses and for which no museum in the world has parallel examples.


Introduced into Egypt by the Greeks, terracotta oil lamps in use until the Middle Ages, their shapes and decoration varying over the centuries. In the excavations conducted at Tebtynis since 1988, hundreds of complete of fragmentary examples have been found. The selection displayed enables us to track the evolution of these objects over a thousand years and at the same time show different categories according to use: common lamps, large lamps to illuminate vast areas and lanterns into which miniature versions were placed.


Since their resumption, excavations at Tebtynis have exposed thousands of terracotta figurines, sometimes intact, more often in pieces. This assemblage has a particular importance with regard to the quantity and the quality of found items. Indeed, the items show a wide variety of iconographic themes, at the same time, they offer clear evidence for domestic devotion and personal piety in the Greaco-Roman period. In addition, they include examples gathered in well-dated archaeological contexts, which allows the chronology of innumerable items in museums, whose date has been determined essentially on stylistic criteria, to be reviewed.  


Coins are found daily in the excavation at Tebtynis. Normally they are found singly, but sometimes they are in groups, for one or other reason, like those that are displayed here. The eight coins of Cleopatra VII had been stashed into a niche or hole in a wall; the wall had then collapsed, but the coins stayed together in the rubble, from where they were recovered. The tetradrachms of Claudius and Nero were concealed, with a pendant and two rings, in a small pot hidden under the floor of a house to safeguard the family’s jewelry and money from thieves. The four coins of Nero and the two Hadrian, displayed were buried side by side in a house erected in the 2nd Century AD like a foundation deposit. 


The selected jewelry was most often lost in houses or dumps: only rarely were they discovered in a pyxis, bag or box, where they had been stashed. They included necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings, ranging in time from the 3rd Century BC to the Byzantine Era. When examining these objects, it is evident that items of gold are particularly rare, those of silver a little more numerous, but the majority are in bronze or of an even more modest material, such as shell or clay: in this is the obvious indication of the different economic conditions experienced by families living in Tebtynis. Some necklaces, rings and bracelets clearly show adherence to Egyptian traditions, while earrings have been manufactured according to criteria of Hellenistic and Roman metalwork. The cultural mixture characterizes life in the village is revealed in the jewelry of its inhabitants.

Personal Care items:   

At Teptynis items of personal care were found in the ruins of houses  as well as dumps, and occasionally in cemeteries, deposited close to the deceased. Most often these consist of small containers of alabaster, wood, terracotta and glass for perfume and perfumed oils. Receptacles which contained Khol, the black cosmetic used as eye make-up, are less common. On the other hand, wooden combs are numerous. Associated with them are pins of wood, bone and metal, which served to manage a hairstyle, and which occasionally were items of elegant craftsmanship.

Clothes and Shoes:

Contrary to what one would think, clothes and shoes exhibited here were not recovered from within houses. Partly they were found in tombs and, in much greater quantity, in dumps. The shawl covered the body of a young girl in the burial dated to the 8th-9th Centuries AD. The other items, however, came from the rubble. With the execption of the dress and the heardress, they all belong to the Greaco-Roman Period that is to say to a period for which we have little evidence. They therefore enhance our understanding of what techniques were used and contemporaneous types. At the same time, having been recovered from well-dated layers, they become important chronological markers for dozens of examples stored in museums which are poorly dated.


Concerning musical activities in the village during the Greaco-Roman period, some information comes to us from papyri. The excavations conducted on the site enhance our knowledge through evidence provided by statuettes of musicians, models of and actual musical instruments. There is a model of a trumpet in terracotta and a bronze bell, a wind instrument and clappers, in addition to a drum. This selection of objects is quite limited, but it is enough to show the interaction between the local tradition, represented by the three-sided harp and the tambourine in statuettes and the Graeco-Roman tradition, to which belongs the figurine of the zither-Player and the trumpet.

Written Material:  

The longstanding renown of Tentynis as one of the richest sites in Egypt for papyri is confirmed and even increased with the discoveries which have occurred since the resumption of excavations in 1988. Though the years about 10,000 texts which can be published have been recovered. Nearly half are written on papyrus, like those unearthed previously, but more than 2,000 are ostraca and, in early equal quantity, dipinti (also called amphora labels), of which hardly any previous examples were known. To these can be added dozens of bones with texts in dometic and Greek, not discovered at Tebtynis prior to 1988. The papyri are written mostly in Egyptian and Greek, but several of them, just like the ostraca, parchment and paper, bear texts in Coptic and Arabic, which previously were rarely attested in the written material deriving from the village.

  • Watch a short video of the exhibition in Cairo Museum.

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