The Tell Tinnis Archaeological Project began in 1998 with the aim of recording the standing remains on the island of Tinnis, some seven kilometres south-west of Port Said in Lake Manzala, one of the coastal lagoons that fringe the Nile delta. However, it was not until April 2004 that a complete survey was undertaken, generously supported by the Foundation. The aim of the work has been to record as efficiently as possible the largely featureless mounds of rubble that characterise the site, and to extract the maximum amount of information from the remains without undertaking the sort of large-scale excavations necessary to uncover a ground plan of the town. The survey results will allow the formulation of an informed site management strategy for future investigation.

Tinnis was, in its day, one of the richest manufacturing centres in the mediaeval Middle East. It is first mentioned by the classical writer John Cassian, who visited the site in the late fourth century and commented upon its desolate location. Despite this, the island was a prominent trading post. It was also a bishopric and important Christian centre, and the site of a battle during the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642. After this event, and apparently as a result of deliberate policy by the new regime, industrial activity in the town began to flourish, in particular the manufacture of textiles; a number of historical accounts of the town survive to supplement information gleaned from archaeological investigation. Weaving was regulated by the government, being organised into workshops and heavily taxed: cloth from Tinnis could sell for a great deal of money, some types being interwoven with gold threads. This prosperous situation, though, was undermined both by the decline of the textile industry (perhaps due to reduced demand and overtaxation) and by the increasing insecurity of the area. The town was attacked and damaged on several occasions in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, and finally evacuated by order of the Ayyubid sultan al-Malik al-Kamil in 1227, though the island nonetheless continued in use as a trading base until at least the fifteenth century.


Cisterns of early

Cisterns of early and later types, the former still with some of the roof intact.


The post-abandonment history of the town is very much responsible for the difficult character of the site. The enclosure walls and citadel were razed to prevent their being used by the Crusaders or other hostile forces. Subsequently, the site has been repeatedly dug over by locals looking for reusable building materials, since there is no source of stone in the Nile delta. A mid-nineteenth century visitor recorded that archaeological material from the island was dumped into one of the narrow mouths of the Nile to impede the passage of maritime raiders. In addition, the wet and salty conditions hasten the deterioration of standing structures, and still pose significant conservation problems for modern archaeologists. The area enclosed by the ruined town wall is today around 93 hectares, though sections run into the lake on the south and west edges of the island. Furthermore, the extra-mural mounds, clearly once extensive, are now mainly beneath the lake or flattened into sandy strands by constant washing of water; the edges of the island are fringed by thick reed beds.

The survey of the mound carried out in April 2004 was done by means of Leica 500 series differential GPS equipment with sub-centimetre accuracy. One of the advantages of this equipment is its ability to record precise spot height readings. The limits of surviving remains, the line of the enclosure walls, the location of previous excavations and regular contour heights were all recorded: in total more than 10,000 points were taken. The resulting map sheds light on the structure of the town, indicating that the enclosure wall had horseshoe towers at regular 35-metre intervals; in some areas traces of what might be gates are identifiable. At the north-west corner of the site are remains of a harbour channel fortified by a round tower, and other canals run into the town from the west and south. The site grid and several fixed points were added to the map; by these means future work on the island can be incorporated into the existing survey.


Lake Manzala

Lake Manzala and the reed beds of Tinnis island
(photograph by Sarah Parcak)


In order to glean the maximum information from the archaeology currently visible, the project included an architectural survey of the cisterns uncovered during excavations by the Egyptian Antiquities Service since 1978. Although these excavations were not scientifically controlled, they nonetheless provide access to buried features and provide a useful opportunity to undertake archaeological recording; the size and general state of the site is such that the destruction of stratigraphy in a limited area is not really a major concern. It is notable that almost all the revealed structures would have been below the original mediaeval ground level; the prospects for recovering evidence for the layout of the buildings and streets above are very poor. However, cisterns are extremely numerous, an unsurprising state of affairs given the peculiar situation of the town. Surrounded by salt water, the islanders relied on the annual Nile flood, during which the lake became potable; water was collected and stored on the island for use throughout the rest of the year. An examination of the channels and tanks in the main Egyptian excavations revealed two phases of construction. Examples of the earlier type of cistern date to around the ninth century and are at a lower datum than later types, many having their roofs intact. They are characterised by multiple cross- or barrel-vaults, the interior surfaces being coated with a distinctive pink lime mortar. The later period constructions are identifiable by the use of a grey lime mortar with a high percentage of fly ash used in both the masonry and a first plaster layer internally - a layer of pink plaster was subsequently applied over this as the final finish. The identification of these phases of building have allowed a study of the diachronic development of the town's water system: there is some evidence that, while the early foundations were endowed by the authorities as public facilities, in later times the control of access to water rested increasingly in private hands.


One of the highest mounds on the island

One of the highest mounds on the island, perhaps the location of the citadel.


Tinnis is a largely featureless site and, in the absence of visible surface archaeology, clearly it must be a high priority to find some means other than excavation of assessing the buried remains. To this end, we were keen to make trials of geo-physical techniques, and an area of 5.5 hectares was surveyed using a Geoscan Research FM256 fluxgate gradiometer. The ground conditions on Tinnis are unfortunately not ideal for geophysical survey, being generally very uneven and covered in a dense scatter of fired brick and slag debris, and the results were variable in quality. Across about half of the area, little in the way of structures or other features was discernable. However, on the west bank of the south canal, a complex more than 50 metres across shows up as a clear anomaly, as do the quays of the waterfront and what may be a bridge across the canal. In a sector on the north side of the site, gradiometry revealed that the enclosure wall is a great double structure, with smaller interconnecting walls running between the outer lines and buildings set up against the interior face.


a tiny gold disc

Surface find: a tiny gold disc bearing the shehada and the name of the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim
(photograph by Gillian Pyke)


The creation of a ceramic typology, including material both from the surface and from exposed sections, was initiated in 1998, and continued in 2004. Two small sondages designed to investigate the town's fortifications produced a quantity of sherds and small finds, which were analysed and drawn. Part of a slate palette and a broken flint knife blade may be predynastic in date. The remaining material was late Roman and Islamic in date, with in particular glazed wares and imported porcelain-type vessels surviving in the damp conditions. This pottery catalogue will shed light on the town's extensive trading links, in addition to contributing to our currently rather limited knowledge of Islamic ceramics in Egypt.

Overall, the survey has completed the basic mapping necessary on any archaeological site, in addition to investigating various ways in which work on the island might proceed. Following our season, a team from the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale in Cairo is planning to undertake excavations on the island in 2005. We can thus hope to see further information coming from Tinnis in the near future.

Alison Gascoigne
British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
University of Cambridg