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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  People  /  Emeritus  /  Roger Flower  /  Research  /  Qarun

Environmental history of Lake Qarun

Introduction

This proposal aims to elucidate the environmental history of Lake Qarun and to identify human impacts using a combined approach of time-space analysis. This important site potentially holds one of the world's longest environmental change records resulting from the impacts of both ancient/modern civilizations and climate. It is funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Research Project F/07 134X) and is active between Feb 2003 and Jan 2006. Click here for more details.

The work is being co-ordinated by researchers at the Environmental Change Research Centre and Institute of Archaeology at University College London and involves scientists in UK and Egypt. Click here for more details.

Background

Natural archives of past environments, such as lake sediments, offer a valuable resource for examining the nature of the interactions between Man and the environment, especially in regions where ancient civilizations developed.

The ancient Egyptian civilization is perhaps best known but in this generally dry region sites with long sedimentary records are few. An exception is Lake Qarun in the Faiyum Depression (Middle Egypt). Sustained by the River Nile, the fertile Faiyum has supported human culture for ~8,000 years and the region has a rich archaeological heritage. [see map]

History of the Faiyum

When Herodotus visited the Faiyum in about 450 BC he encountered a large lake, the Lake Moeris of antiquity. He described it as being 50 fathoms deep and maintained by a seasonal supply of Nile water.

Click here for more on the history of the Faiyum Depression.

Project Aims

This proposal aims to elucidate the environmental history of Lake Qarun and to identify human impacts using a combined approach of time-space analysis. This important site potentially holds one of the world's longest environmental change records resulting from the impacts of both ancient/modern civilizations and climate.

Until about 4 KY BP, we believe the Faiyum region was mainly under climatic control from Nile floods and local climate. Then the impact of civilization through land and water management became increasingly important. Recently (20th century), technological changes have dominated the lake but the extent, pace and nature of ecosystem change in the Faiyum during the Holocene is largely unknown. Click here to see a diagram of inferred lake level changes.

Lake Qarun's sedimentary archive will potentially reveal environmental change records on several time scales, ranging from slow geological processes, through agricultural development, to abrupt climate change. Nevertheless, disentangling sediment records of cultural and climate changes represents a major challenge.

Identifying human impacts is central to this project and will be tackled by using:

(i) results from multi-proxy sediment core analysis

(ii) a re-survey and re-evaluation of the extensive array of archaeological records for the Faiyum

(iii) independent palaeoclimate records from East Africa and the eastern Mediterranean where human activity has been low.

Making time-space comparisons using this combined approach should enable accurate and attributable environmental change reconstructions for the Lake Qarun region.

Lake Qarun occupies a key location on the PAST GLOBAL CHANGES (PAGES) IGBP Pole Equator Pole (PEP III) Transect - an initiative which aims to produce a coherent quantitative record of the earth's environmental history. Results of this project will contribute to the global time-space environmental change data bank currently being assembled internationally by PEP III working groups. The environmental history of Lake Qarun is also relevant to current African palaeoclimate projects (ACACIA and IDEAL).

History of Lake Qarun

Geoarchaeological evidence indicates that the lake was impacted by a remarkable combination of climatic and human factors during the Holocene epoch and includes former beach deposits and now terrestrial freshwater diatomites (dated to 7000-5000 years BP). Civilization in the Faiyum was primarily based on the water and land resources around the freshwater lake fed by the Nile. The oasis has been extensively occupied since Prehistoric times and was the arena of major achievements by a succession of Pharaohs.

Historical evidence indicates that after 4.2 KY BP, an episode of dramatically low Nile floods caused the collapse of centralized government and 140 years of chaos and political disorder (The First Intermediate Period) ensued. A major water project was undertaken to restore Nile water to the Faiyum and the region recovered. This was one of the earliest massive national hydrological projects in the world. The 12th Dynasty kings responsible were Amenemhat I-III and they acquired the title of 'engineering kings'.

The rise to fame of the Faiyum at that time was celebrated by Middle Kingdom Pharaohs who chose the area for constructing impressive pyramids at Hawara and Lahun. Excavations by Petrie (UCL's and Britain's first Professor of Archaeology) revealed the grandeur of Egyptian civilization in this period. Political and societal changes in the Faiyum continued and during the Ptolemaic period (beginning ~2.3 KY BP) the lake level was artificially lowered to reclaim land for agriculture. This activity persists to the present.

When Herodotus visited the Faiyum in about 450 BC he encountered a large lake, the Lake Moeris of antiquity. He described it as being 50 fathoms deep and maintained by a seasonal supply of Nile water. In the late 19th and 20th century, archaeologists (Flinders Petrie, Canter-Thompson, and John Ball) showed that modern Lake Qarun is indeed the shrunken remnant of Lake Moeris.

Today, Lake Qarun is the only natural contemporary lake in Middle Egypt. It is currently 8 m deep and 44 m below sea level, is saline and receives drainage water from the Faiyum but has no surface outflow. The Faiyum is now an intensively agricultural region supported by abundant freshwater from the River Nile via the Bahr Yusef canal.

Lake Levels

Inferred changes in the level of Lake Qarun during the Holocene mainly according to geoarchaeological and geomorphological evidence.

lake_changes.gif

Reference: Hassan FA 1986. J. Arch. Sci., 13: 483-501

Work carried out during this project created visualisations of the Faiyum with different lake levels
z_fig_500px.jpg

See this paper for a full description of the work: Hassan, F., Tassie, G., Flower, R., Hughes, M. & Hamden, M. (2006) Modelling environmental and settlement change in the Fayum. Egyptian Archaeology 29: 37-40. www logo

 

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Contacts

Project Co-ordinators

Dr Roger J FLOWER, Principal Research Fellow,
Environmental Change Research Centre,
Dept. of Geography, University College London,
26 Bedford Way, London WC1H OAP.
Tel. 0207 679 5545
Fax. 0207 679 7565
Email: rflower@geog.ucl.ac.uk

Prof FA HASSAN, Research Professor,
Institute of Archaeology, University College London,
31-34 Gordon Square, London WCIH OPY.
Tel. 0207 679 7498
Fax. 0207 383 2572
Email: f.hassan@ucl.ac.uk

Dr J HOLMES, Research Director,
Environmental Change Research Centre,
Dept. of Geography, University College London,
26 Bedford Way, London WC1H OAP.
Tel. 0207 679 5553
Fax 0207 679 7565
Email: j.holmes@ucl.ac.uk

Prof HH BIRKS, Botanical Institute, University of Bergen,
Allegaten 41, N-5007 Bergen, Norway.
Tel. +47 55 583350/583345
Fax, +47 55 589667
Email: hilary.birks@no.uib.no

and Visiting Professor, Environmental Change Research Centre,
University College London, 26 Bedford Way London, WC1H OAP.
Tel. 0207 679 5501
Fax, 0207 679 7565
Email: j.birks@ucl.ac.uk

 

Financial Co-ordinator

Dr Simon Patrick, Managing Director ENSIS Ltd
ENSIS Ltd
University College London,
26 Bedford Way, London WC1H OAP.
Tel. 0207 679 5547
Fax. 0207 679 7565

UCL Research Staff

Dr Kevin Keating (ECRC) - ostracods and stable isotopes

Dr Geoffrey Tassie (Institute of Archaeology) - archaeological survey and evaluation

Mike Hughes (ECRC) - GIS, bathymetric survey and website

Affiliated Researchers - UK

Dr Melanie Leng - stable isotope analysis
British Geological Survey, Keyworth

Dr J. Boyle
Department Geography, University of Liverpool

Dr PG Appleby
Department Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics, University of Liverpool

Dr Ian Foster - sedimentary magnetic mineral analysis
School of Science and the Environment, Coventry University

Affiliated Researchers - Egypt

Dr A. Zalat, Department of Geology, Faculty of Science, University of Tanta
Dr T. Seif, National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries, PO Box 43, 11516, Cairo
Dr Ramadan H. Abu-Zied, Geology Department, Faculty of Science, Mansoura University, 35516, El-Mansoura

Links

Environmental Change Research Centre
The ECRC is one of UCL's many inter-disciplinary research centres. Its work is concerned primarily with aquatic ecosystem change and climate change on a range of time scales, past, present and future.

UCL Institute of Archaeology
The Institute was formally opened in 1937 as a centre for teaching and research in archaeology. Today, it is one of the hubs of archaeological activity in the world, offering a broad variety of undergraduate and graduate degree programmes and undertaking wide ranging research.

UCL Petrie Museum
The Petrie Museum today houses an estimated 80,000 objects, making it one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world.

Leverhulme Trust
The Trust, established at the wish of William Hesketh Lever, the first Viscount Leverhulme, makes awards for the support of research and education.

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