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The emeralds of an empire

Steven Sidebotham's work in Egypt extends beyond the port city of Berenike, a key point on the Roman Empire's ancient maritime trade route, to include investigations of wide swaths of the Eastern Desert.

One of the more prominent locations the University of Delaware history professor and his archaeological team have studied lies about 75 miles northwest of the Red Sea port in the mountainous region known to ancient Egyptians as "the Red Land." There, the remains of the Roman town of Sikait, with its buildings and temples constructed of stone or carved into the mountainsides, are still visible.

"This is one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth," Sidebotham says, where summer temperatures routinely exceed 130° Fahrenheit and a mere eighth of an inch of rain falls in a typical year. "But the city had a population of more than 1,000 for over 500 years. That's because it was the only source of emeralds available within the entire Roman Empire."

Emeralds, known as "green fire," were prized by the Romans, who, Sidebotham says, extracted millions of them from the mines near Sikait. The miners, believed to be willing workers rather than forced or slave laborers, used basic tools such as metal picks to extract the emeralds over hundreds of years.

Today, traces of pick marks mar many of the deep, narrow mining shafts the ancient workers dug into the mountainsides. They left behind oil lamps that provided their only illumination and fragments of pottery jugs that once contained their water supplies. Sidebotham and his team even found a well-preserved basket that may have carried the miners' food or may have been used to haul rocks to the surface.

sidebotham in Egypt

Archaeology more than just a "handmaiden to history"

To Steven Sidebotham, archaeology is more than the "handmaiden to history" label that sometimes is used to describe the discipline. Rather, he says, it is one of the humanities that also includes some features common to research in the natural sciences.

"The discipline is more like a science in some ways," he says. "In a lot of historical research, you go to an archive with a particular objective in mind, you find a finite number of documents, and you use them.

"At an archaeological dig [like the Egyptian port city of Berenike, where he has been working for almost two decades], the research is extremely long term, time-consuming and expensive. It is also very collaborative — definitely not a one-person endeavor."

The Berenike project is jointly run by the University of Delaware and the University of Warsaw, with assistance from European undergraduate and graduate students and local Bedouin workers. Sidebotham and the international team also work with a number of specialists to examine everything from ancient botanical remains to bones, textiles, coins, glass, pottery and other artifacts unearthed at the site.

Sidebotham has been hooked on archaeology since he was a teenage "Army brat" living in Turkey. While in high school there, his ancient-history teacher inspired him to visit nearby archaeological sites. He first went to Egypt in 1965, studied at the American University in Cairo from 1969 to 1971, began his own excavation career in 1972 and first excavated in Egypt in 1980.

Archaeology is clearly one of the humanities, he says, "not a math-science type of exercise" with results that can be tested with precision. And, while it is not history, its goal is to obtain as complete a historical record of any dig site as possible.

But the biggest difference from a laboratory experiment, he says, is that work at an archaeological dig cannot be repeated: "You get only one shot at it, and if you get it wrong — if you don't dig and record it properly and carefully — there is no way of going back and doing it again. You've lost the information forever."