GAZAMAP - Maritime archaeological survey and assessment at Tell Ruqeish and Tell es-Sakan (Gaza Strip) - 2022

Georgia Andreou and Yasmeen ElKhoudary

Despite the wealth of maritime archaeological information in the eastern Mediterranean, our knowledge largely derives from geographical regions that have access to expertise and financial resources to produce comprehensive and interdisciplinary studies on maritime archaeology. An area with an urgent need for capacity building, detailed site documentation, and heritage monitoring and preservation strategies, is the Gaza Strip, a coastal strip of 365 km2 with a width ranging between 6km and 12km  (Figures 1-2). 

Though some sites in the Gaza Strip (e.g. Anthedon Harbour, Maiumas, Rafah, Tell el Ajjul) are regularly referenced in scholarship, archaeological research in the area has been limited in the past 20 years, with the most recent attempts focusing on the conservation of standing structures. As a result, our knowledge base for the Gaza Strip, a place often referred to as a historical landmark between Egypt and different empires in the Near East, is outdated.

A remote assessment conducted by the Maritime Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (MarEA) project  demonstrated the widespread impact of coastal erosion, building development and conflict on Gaza’s archaeological sites (Figures 3-4). This problem is exacerbated by widely documented lack of funds, restricted access to sites, systematic damage and destruction, limited capacity and expertise, and limited public awareness. All these factors are impeding the documentation, monitoring and management of Gaza’s maritime cultural heritage (MCH). 

In-situ visits by a MarEA consultant (Mrs Yasmeen ElKhoudary) on a selection of sites in December 2021-January 2022, confirmed the detrimental impact of these factors on the maritime archaeological sites. Through this reconnaissance survey, Mrs ElKhoudary conducted preliminary discussions with the Department of Antiquities (Ministry of Tourism) that indicated archaeological sites that are in urgent need of detailed documentation and protection. The Ministry of Tourism has also expressed their support for future maritime archaeological projects, creating important opportunities to establish partnerships, build capacity and develop longer-term maritime archaeological projects.

The aim of this project was to respond to the urgent need for the documentation and assessment of the two archaeological sites that the Ministry has indicated as exceptionally vulnerable and at imminent risk of coastal erosion, illicit digging (sand mining), looting and building development. The two sites are Tell es-Sakan (Figure 5) located North of Wadi Gaza and Tell Ruqeish (Figure 6) located South of the Wadi. The first site, Tell Ruqeish, is an Iron Age emporion with extensive and actively deteriorating coastal and submerged features. The second, Tell es-Sakan, is the largest site in the Gaza Strip and the oldest and largest Egyptian colony in the Southern Levant.

 

The project was carried out in conjunction with the Islamic University of Gaza (Dr Ayman Hassouna) and took two key approaches:

1.Detailed topographical survey of the tells (aerial and terrestrial survey of the tell, the scarp and the beach; snorkel survey in front of the sites).
2. Training of archaeologists from the Department of Antiquities and students from the Islamic University of Gaza on the methods and theories of maritime archaeology.

The first parameter responds to the urgent need for the documentation of the actively eroding, partly built on and vulnerable to looting, maritime archaeological sites. The second parameter, the creation of a maritime archaeological field school, sets important groundwork for capacity building in the Gaza Strip with respect to maritime archaeology. It will for the first time, provide skills that will enable archaeologists based in Gaza to monitor other maritime archaeological sites in the region and most importantly highlight education opportunities (MA and PhD scholarships) supported by the Foundation. Enhancing existing skillsets and creating networks of stakeholders with different interests in the maritime landscape (archaeologists, coastal engineers, geologists) will allow for formal and more targeted training programmes on coastal monitoring and heritage management within the wider framework of Integrated Coastal Zone Management process, that can in the future attract funding from multiple resources.

Results from 2022

During 2022, GAZAMAP was carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Islamic University of Gaza aiming to deliver training to students and heritage professionals and conduct detailed survey of the tells and adjacent beach. Capacity building involved remote teaching followed by in situ training on drone and topographical surveys by local companies. Aerial photographs were collected and then processed to produce site plans and 3D models, which informed the location of the survey grids. The surveys were conducted by 10 students guided by Dr Ayman Hassouna (Islamic University of Gaza). Simultaneously, a local diver produced underwater footage off Tell Ruqeish.

To collect field data, we used KoBotoolbox an open-source software using GPS from the users’ smartphones to save the location of field observations. The students took scaled photographs enhanced with field notes, all of which comprise the full record of each surveyed site. About 20000 observations were collected from the sites, each accompanied by 1-3 photographs and notes on the condition of the features. Observations include pottery sherds, flint, ground stone tools, shells and architectural remains, the location of which was then visualised on GIS to produce site plans.

The surveys produced updated site plans that enhance ongoing efforts by the Ministry to protect Tell Ruqeish and Tell es-Sakan. Most importantly GAZAMAP highlighted education opportunities by the HFF, through which students can leverage the newly acquired skills and data to produce updated narratives of Gaza’s rich maritime heritage.

Enhancing existing skillsets and creating for the first time networks of stakeholders interested in Gaza’s maritime landscape (archaeologists, coastal engineers, geologists) GAZAMAP and HFF have formed a steppingstone for formal and more targeted training programmes on coastal monitoring and heritage management in an area inaccessible to archaeological research for almost 20 years.

The project has provided a summary of all available information on the site of Tell Ruqeish, originally excavated by an Israeli team and currently unavailable to heritage professionals in the Gaza Strip. These include a reconstruction of the known extent of the site, a more detailed mapping of its submerged features and a preliminary classification of finds, which include substantial numbers of imported pottery.

At Tell es-Sakan, the project provided an up-to-date map of all exposed archaeological features and engaged with more recent scholarship on the topic of Egyptian colonisation in the Southern Levant. This offers valuable data to the Ministry to pursue further protection of the site under ongoing and imminent threats of building development.

Search #GAZAMAP2022 on Facebook to see updates from the project fieldwork