Mit Rahineh-Memphis and Egyptian fieldwork after the Free Officers' coup of 1952

William Carruthers

Figure 1
Figure 1. Ordered bodies at Mit Rahineh in 1955: excavating the small temple of Ptah for the University Museum (image courtesy of the Penn Museum, image #237278).
Click to enlarge.

How did archaeologists cope with the gradual end of colonialism and the foundation of independent nations in the countries where their work was located? The experiences of archaeological and Egyptological practitioners—the majority non-Egyptian—working in Egypt following the Free Officers' Coup of 1952 make for an interesting case study. Before 1952, research in Egypt had been largely driven by colonialism, its institutions and structures of power. With these links starting to be removed, how were non-Egyptian archaeologists to continue working in the country? Adaptation to the structures of the new state that was beginning to be constructed in Egypt would be essential for foreigners wishing to secure access to sites and material.

On 23 July 1955 the Egyptian daily newspaper al-Gumhuriyya (q.v.) ran an article listing the events that had occurred in Egypt over the three years since the Free Officers' Coup, by which point the coup had become retrospectively designated as a revolution, paving the way to Nasser's seizing of power in 1954. Among the many events mentioned was the discovery by the Egyptian archaeologist Kamal El-Mallakh (1918–1987) in May 1954 of two 'solar boats' buried by the great pyramid at Giza (al-Gumhuriyya 1955: 28). The article demonstrates that archaeological fieldwork was to be part of the construction of Egypt's revolutionary state.

In 1954, Rudolf Anthes (1896–1985), curator of the Egyptian section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, was sent to Egypt to negotiate future work with the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. He and his institution were welcomed to work in Egypt, especially since collaboration with Egyptian archaeologists was proposed, and he was given the option to excavate any number of possible sites. The choice fell on Mit Rahineh (ancient Memphis) near Cairo. Carried out in 1955 and 1956 and terminated in 1957, excavations here (Figure 1) took place in the area of the small temple of Ptah of Rameses II (Anthes 1959 & 1965).

However, other issues were also at play, and Anthes' diary makes it evident that political strategy in Egypt played a significant role in the choice of Mit Rahineh. In the context of initial land reform measures undertaken on 9 September 1952 (Roussillon 1998: 338), Anthes noted that the "site anyhow must be done since the area is claimed by the peasants" (UMA 1954a). In his later draft proposal for the work, Anthes enlarged on the theme: "the Egyptian government is immediately interested in its clearance; the question is how far this area should be reserved to the Antiquities Department and the rest be given free to the peasants, for cultivation" (UMA 1954b). A similar point was made in the first Mit Rahineh interim report (Anthes 1956: 7).

Thus both the archaeological agenda and wider state policies appear to have governed access to the field in post-1952 Egypt. To earn the good will of Egyptian officials, collaborative excavations were also promoted as a chance to train Egyptians in archaeological work. The language used in negotiation was not dissimilar to that of development programmes of the time in Egypt, such as those of the US Point Four programme of aid to developing countries created in 1950 (USAID since 1961). Initial approaches by the University of Pennsylvania Museum considered an "Egyptian-American archaeological research programme" (UMA 1953) at the same time as the Egyptian-American Rural Improvement Service was being implemented by Point Four.

Such programmes represented a somewhat contentious endeavour to shape Egyptians to an American ideal, to "economically invigorate peasant communities and lay the foundation for broad-based democracies throughout the formerly colonial world" (Alterman 2002: 28). Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian government launched its own alternatives. Programmes such as the resettlement project in Tahrir Province represented an Egyptian effort to implant "scientific socialist planning ... and [an] ... extremely structured environment" (El Shakry 2007: 212).

The work at Mit Rahineh, then, was part of this process of negotiation. This episode in Egyptology is derived from broader research that explores the way that archaeological investigation in post-colonial Egypt was tied to Cold War and Third World political aspirations. The Mit Rahineh excavations by Anthes coincided with the early years of Egypt's new regime, and give an insight into the regime's attitude towards foreign archaeologists and the motives underpinning the external researchers' compliance. It was possible to negotiate access to the field by working with Egyptian state institutions, but also necessary to work within their structures.


Thanks to Alex Pezzati and the staff of the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives for making archival materials accessible and for permission to publish them, and the AHRC and the H.M. Chadwick Fund of the University of Cambridge for funding.


  • al-Gumhuriyya. Li-I-Tarikh [For History]. 23 July 1955, pp. 25–30.
  • ALTERMAN, J.B. 2002. Egypt and American foreign assistance, 1952–1956. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave.
  • ANTHES, R. 1956. A first season of excavating in Memphis. University Museum Bulletin 20 (1): 3–25.
    – 1959. Mit Rahineh 1955. Philadelphia, PA: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.
    – 1965. Mit Rahineh 1956. Philadelphia, PA: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.
  • EL SHAKRY, O. 2007. The great social laboratory: subjects of knowledge in colonial and postcolonial Egypt. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • ROUSSILLON, A. 1998. Republican Egypt interpreted: revolution and beyond, in M.W. Daly (ed.) The Cambridge history of Egypt, volume 2: modern Egypt from 1517 to the end of the twentieth century: 334–93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • UMA. 1953. Archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; Box 38; Folder 3; Froelich Rainey to Shafik Ghorbal, 21 April 1953.
    – 1954a. Archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; Box 30; Folder 2; Anthes' diary of his 1954 trip to Egypt, entry for 11 April 1954.
    – 1954b. Archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; Box 38; Folder 3; draft proposal for the work at Mit Rahineh dated 6 May 1954.


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  • William Carruthers
    Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RH, UK (Email:, email: