The tattered scarecrow guards more than just a field of onions on a farm in Egypt's verdant Nile Delta. Remnants of a 3,000-year-old statue lie among the crops.
"It is forbidden to move the stones," farmer Abdel Ghani Abdel Salam says while hoeing a row of onions planted around parts of the statue.
A gray stone arm stretches about six feet and is bent at the elbow. A pair of giant feet rest nearby. Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities has marked each of the three pieces with large black numerals.
Far to the south, in the region known as Upper Egypt, attention is lavished on antiquities like the majestic pillars of the Karnak temple and the treasure-trove tomb of King Tutankhamun.
The situation is far different in Egypt's northern delta, which is known mainly for its fertile farmland even though it also is rich in archaeological sites.
Researchers at an international meeting of Egyptologists earlier this year urged their colleagues to focus their studies on the delta before the monuments are lost to urban expansion and water damage.
"The delta sites are in dire danger," says Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. "The loss of any part of a mound in the delta is not only a loss for Egyptology but a loss for the history of mankind."
As cities expand and farmers extend their fields, officials say ancient monuments and artifacts are threatened. The region's high water table also causes damage, especially since many of the ancient structures were built with mud bricks, not stone, and have not withstood time as solidly as the monuments of southern Egypt.
"It requires different training to work in the delta," says Gaballa. He says a delta archaeologist must be able to recognize the stratified layers of the region, finding evidence of cities, temples and tombs beneath the farmland.
Teams digging in the delta also need the technology and patience to excavate despite flooding and must be prepared to work in mud, he says.
"Under an existing village there could be another village, a cemetery," Gaballa says. "Once you start looking, you find amazing things."
German archaeologists working in the fields around Qantir, about 60 miles northeast of Cairo, have found some of those amazing things, but not by digging into the rich soil. Instead, Edgar Pusch's team used magnetic imaging equipment to map out a 12-square-mile royal city buried beneath the farmland where the three statue pieces lie.
Pusch and other archaeologists advocate using this method throughout the delta, where random digging would disrupt lives of poor farmers and hurt the economy.
Not all of the delta sites are buried in the mud, but even the toppled statues, pillars and monuments above ground, like those at Sa el-Hagar, highlight the sun and water damage common to finds in the region.
This ancient capital of Ramses II once probably mirrored the splendor of Luxor and Karnak in southern Egypt, but the wet delta weather has left Sa el-Hagar in ruin. Once mammoth statues of the pharaoh lie sun-baked and water-scarred in the dirt.
Zahi Hawass, a leading Egyptian archaeologist, wants archaeologists to stop working in Upper Egypt and other sites for 10 years and instead concentrate all their efforts on the delta.
"There is interest among the scholars, but all they know is Upper Egypt," Hawass says. "The only way to start delta excavation is to stop Upper Egypt excavation."
His proposal was rejected by leading archaeologists in a debate at the Egyptology conference. The Egyptian government has refused to take such a strong measure.
Gaballa, the antiquities chief, is encouraging more study in the delta, but he says work already in progress in Upper Egypt and other sites cannot be stopped. Some new work will still be approved in those areas, especially if it involves preservation and restoration, he adds.
"We are not blind; we are not foolish," Gaballa says. "But there are priorities. There are places where we needed to start work yesterday."
In an effort to increase research in the delta, the Egyptian government is prepared to finance delta expeditions if teams cannot come up with the money to excavate on their own, Gaballa says.
Manfred Bietak, chairman of the Austrian Institute of Egyptology, has been excavating in the delta since 1966. "I have been pushing for more delta excavation for 10 years," he says.
Though he doesn't favor compelling others to drop current projects, he says teachers in the field should prepare the new generation of archaeologists for this type of work.
"There are different demands in the delta," Bietak says. "The next generation needs a combination of high-tech skills and deep interest in delta work."
Bietak's team at Tel el Dab'a has unearthed Minoan-style mosaics and lamps from Cyprus and Turkey, showing Mediterranean influence dating back 3,500 years.
Gaballa says this is a further reason to push delta digs.
"The delta was Egypt's doorway to the world, and the world's doorway to Africa," he says. "The history of the civilization of the world is buried here." – (AFP)
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