Saturday, 28 June 2014

Review of B.M. Sampsell ‘A Traveler’s Guide to the Geology of Egypt’ | Peter Robinson -

I have just been sent a copy of the new edition of Bonnie Sampsell's book and I must say it is VERY readable. I know almost nothing about geology and I am having problems putting it down. If you want to get a copy go here

If you want a more scholarly review of the first edition Peter Robinson graciously gave me permission to publish his review from Ancient Egypt magazine.

(427) Review of B.M. Sampsell ‘A Traveler’s Guide to the Geology of Egypt’ | Peter Robinson - Travelers Guide to the Geology of Egypt by Bonnie M. Sampsell. American University in Cairo Press, 2003. ISBN 977 424 785 X. Price £16.95

If, like me, you are a keen follower of archaeological television programmes like Time Team and Meet the Ancestors, you will know how important it is for the archaeologists to know how the site they are investigating sits in its setting. Villages are built close to spring lines, Roman villas stand at the heads of river valleys, and burial sites are places upon the crests of ridges and watersheds. This branch of archaeology, known to the diggers as landscape history , is often a good way to begin to interpret a site and what its layers might hold.

For many years now, however, I have wondered why such interpretation is rarely done for sites in Egypt. One reason, of course, is historical there is just too much to be excavated, which means that Egyptologists rarely get the time to look at sites in their settings. But another reason for the lack of landscape research may well be the scarcity of source material about the landscape and its origins. This is also true of the books accessible to a more general reader. Books on translating hieroglyphs, or the gods of Ancient Egypt, or the latest theories on the pyramid builders are relatively common, but there are so few up-to-date books readily available to the tourist, scholar or interested reader on the landscape. Which is the reason why this new book on the geology of Egypt is to be welcomed.

The book states from the beginning that it avoids technical jargon. Instead, it has a glossary of key words and a useful bibliography in case the reader wishes to find out more about topics covered. That said, the book has to contain some technical concepts perhaps unfamiliar to the non-geologist reader. So we read about plate-tectonics and seafloor spreading, of geological time periods and types of rock, but these are all necessary to the plot, so to speak. The geological history of the River Nile is explained in a number of places, along with details of current thinking behind the origins of the desert oases (their possible origins identified from sand rivers first spotted from spaceships).

The book is arranged in a logical sequence, starting from the south at Abu Simbel and working northwards. In some parts there are reasonably detailed geological maps, such as around Aswan, but I suspect that, as in Britain, these are based on maps produced of geologically interesting places. In Aswan, for instance, the map might owe more to the survey carried out during the planning of the High Dam than to actual recent fieldwork by the author. In the chapter on Luxor, however, there is a wealth of detail on the effects of the various rocks upon the tombs and temples of ancient Thebes, making it quite clear as to why the Valley of the Kings is under so much threat from tourism.

Further north, there is a chapter on the pyramid fields of Lower Egypt, and it is obvious reading through the text that the debate over concrete pyramids can quickly be quashed, as they were clearly built out of nummulitic limestones quarried locally. As well as covering the traditional tourist traps of the Nile Valley, Sampsell investigates the Alexandrian coast and Delta in the north, looks at the Sinai Peninsula and also the geological history of the Red Sea. The handy pocket-sized book finishes with a series of colour photographs showing satellite images of the Nile Valley, of various sites the tourist might visit and of close-up detail of geological features and effects to be seen in the stone of the landscape and used for building the monuments.

Even though I confess a small amount of geological knowledge myself, I found the book interesting and useful. It doesn't take down to the reader, but gently guides them through the geological features of Egypt, yet is also of the right technical level to be useful to people with basic or even intermediate geological knowledge. I, for one, will be packing my copy in my luggage the next time I go to Egypt.

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