Skip to content

An Excavation Christmas!

December 20, 2017

As we settle in for the holiday season, we each have our traditions—cultural or religious or both—that we cling to as part of the season.  Maybe you gather around a cozy fire because it’s absolutely freezing outside, or maybe you bundle up and go caroling (even though it’s absolutely freezing outside).  Many times food, music, family, friends are all included in the equation—which sometimes necessitate drinks, too.  But I digress…


Christmas at the Pyramids (c1895) (No, I’m kidding)

What do you do when you’re thousands of miles away from most of your family, your friends are the people who you work and live with each day, and it isn’t exactly Northern winter out your door.  Field archaeologists know this feeling all too well.  Egyptologists routinely spent—and still spend—their winters in the desert because the summers in North Africa are too hot for doing much work outside.  As our final blog post of the year, we wanted to look at what Egyptologists did for Christmas.¹  (This is just a short list of a few well-known field archaeologists, so please do add more that you know about! More importantly, if you’re in the field on holidays, what do you do?  Let us know!)


By unbekannt – entweder der Verlag oder eine Zeitung – aus dem Buch von Amelia B Edwards “PHARAOHS, FELLAHS AND EXPLORERS”, Public Domain,

We have to start with Amelia Edwards, who was in the middle of her 1000 mile trip up the Nile on Christmas 1873.  She described it in some detail in A Thousand Miles Up the Nile.  She remarked that she could “hardly believe, however, that it is Christmas day—that there are fires blazing at home in every room; that the church field, perhaps, is white with snow; and that familiar bells are ringing merrily across the frosty air.  Here at midday it is already too hot on deck without the awning, and when we moor toward sunset near a riverside village in a grove of palms, the cooler air of evening is delicious. …Not, however, till the plum-pudding, blazing demoniacally, appeared upon the scene, did any of us succeed in believing that it was really Christmas day” (84). The crew had also received gifts and taken time to celebrate—they invited another dahabiyah crew on board for “unlimited coffee and tobacco,” as well as drumming, singing, dancing and a comedy show (84).

American James Henry Breasted celebrated a little differently on his first Christmas in Egypt.  He had always been a devoutly religious person.  His first Christmas in Egypt was in 1894, on his honeymoon with his wife Frances.  As for many Egyptologists, it was a working honeymoon, but they were in Luxor for Christmas Day.  He wrote to his father that they spent it on the West side of the river, in the tombs of “Schech [Sheikh] Abd el Gurnah.”  He continued:  “We rode home at twilight descending into the wide Theban plain, passing the huge and silent forms of the Colossi and seeing them fade into the dusk behind us. Then we rode across the dusky fields, watching the faint purple in the west…& saw gleaming across the broad river the bright outline of our dahabiyeh hung with gay lanterns for Christmas eve.”²  No doubt, this was a religious experience for him.

Much later, in 1926, after Chicago House had been built on the east side of the river, the house had a Christmas tree and there was a big meal, gifts, and general revelry (within reason).  The Oriental Institute has images of this in their online collections, but I cannot post them here without permission.  Click here.

Flinders Petrie was not the most generous when it came to giving his crew time off.  He was a pragmatic digger and expected the rest of the crew to be too.  It is not clear that there were many Christmas traditions for Petrie’s crew, except maybe attending a church service (but if you know of any, please share!). Hilda recorded a couple of bigger events.  In 1921, on January 6 (Coptic Christmas Day), she wrote in a letter home: “I meant to have gone off at 7pm, like I did last year at Kahun (from Lahun) and spent part of the evening in the Xtmas service 8-12 pm.  There was also a morning service 8-11, and a Copt brought over a donkey for me, but I was busy with workmen’s accounts and also had to be down for an hour, with my head bad, so I never went” (Letters from the Desert, 198).  In 1926, after the Petries had shifted their work to Gaza, they had a fancy dress party for Christmas dinner.  She wrote that they had “a grand stew and veg. and Dr Parker produced some mince pies!  I couldn’t get them to sing carols as we discussed haematite weights, and the maps I brought fr. Jerusalem, but Harding and the Bedawy guards made music in the desert by turns” (226).  So there was some levity on holidays, but she went back to work promptly after the guests left.

Other excavators allowed their crews some time off.  John Pendlebury, who dug at Amarna in the 1930s, was famous for his athletic competitions.  Thankfully, the Egypt Exploration Society has actual footage of this.  The whole video (actually, all of their videos) are fascinating, but here is Pendlebury encouraging all of his crew to join in the various races.  There was an obstacle race, a footrace, and a wheelbarrow race which incidentally included being hit with a stick?  All in the Christmas spirit!

The story was a bit different if you were a tourist. In the short time I’ve been researching this topic, I haven’t found much about what Cook’s tourists did, but I imagine some sort of dinner on the steamer or at a site.  The larger hotels usually had Christmas meals, balls, and celebrations.  Shepheard’s in Cairo was known for theirs—they were known for a lot of fancy parties—as was the Winter Palace hotel in Luxor in the early 20th century.  But these hotels were for tourists, and not Egyptologists on a budget, so those are for another day.

Happy Christmas, All! Enjoy your holidays. Challenge family and friends to a footrace, and don’t forget the stick!


¹ It is important to note that Christmas on the Coptic Christian calendar is January 6th, and that is the traditional Christmas day in Egypt.  Today, around 10-15% of the Egyptian population is Christian, and most of those are practicing Copts.  Many of the field workers that worked for European diggers were not Coptic, but some were.

² James H. Breasted Papers, Box 4, Oriental Institute, Chicago, 1895, January 2

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: