The Monastery of John the Little

In late antiquity, the desert settlement called Scetis (Wādī al-Natrūn) was a haven for Egyptian monastic communities. One of the most prominent of these was the Monastery of John the Little.

The Monastery of John the Little was named after the fourth-century desert father, John Kolobos (“the Dwarf”), who lived as a hermit in the region and who was renowned for both his humility and his short physical stature, it remained one of the most active monasteries at Scetis through the period of Arab rule until its population dwindled and it became defunct in fourteenth century. Today, the buildings of this early medieval monastery still lie largely undisturbed beneath layers of desert sand, awaiting archaeological investigation.

Figure 1. Satellite map of the John the Little site.

Arch​aeology at the Monastery of John the Little

Prior to the start of YMAP’s work in 2006, the history of formal archaeological investigation at t. John the Little was restricted to three seasons conducted by the Scriptorium Center for Christian Antiquities and Calvin Theological Seminary in 1995, 1996, and 1999.1 Preliminary surveys and excavations, under the direction of Bastiaan Van Elderen, uncovered an enclosed main church as well as a hermitage (Residence A) similar to the type of dwellings found at ancient Kellia.2 Unfortunately, the work of the Scriptorium team was interrupted and their results were never fully published.

In light of the urgent need to document the site, YMAP’s primary goal during its first season (May-June 2006) was to conduct a series of surveys with the goal of producing the first comprehensive archaeological map of the site. Approximately 80 mounds have been plotted within the seven square kilometer area of the site using Total Station technology: these mounds indicate the location of unexcavated architectural remains. In coordination with these surface surveys, we also used magnetic prospection in selected areas to detect and map buildings beneath the surface (figures 1 and 2). Some of these structures were revealed to be as large as ninety meters in length.

During season one, the YMAP team also excavated a monastic trash deposit located between three larger cell complexes. This ninth-century deposit yielded a wide range of materials, including construction debris and painted plaster, pottery, glass (including glass slag from production, window panes, and fine stemware), a bread stamp, coins, and small animal remains. Such material will be incredibly valuable for constructing a material typology for studying the local monastic economy—from patterns of building construction and renovation, to food storage and dietary habits.

Figure 2. Photo of Residence B viewed from the west.

Since 2007, our work at the Monastery of John the Little has focused on the excavation of one of the monastic residences adjacent to the trash deposit. This structure (Residence B) was very well preserved, in some places up to 2.5 meters in height, to above the level of the door archways. Architectural finds include plaster window frames with glass panes still preserved and an extensive kitchen installation with multiple mud-brick ovens. 

The walls of Room 3 feature a program of Coptic dipinti (painted wall writings) and wall paintings, including crosses and figures of saints. Pottery analysis has indicated that occupation of the building ended in the late ninth century, but two surviving dated dipinti suggest that it became a site of visitation in the tenth.

Figure 3. Reconstructed wall painting fragments of an equestrian saint.

Bibliography

  1. Apophthegmata Patrum. Greek text in PG 65.71–440. English translation by Benedicta Ward, The Desert Christians: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Alphabetic Collection. New York: Macmillan, 1975.
  2. Brooks Hedstrom, Darlene, Stephen J. Davis, et al. “New Archaeology at Ancient Scetis: Surveys and Initial Excavations at the Monastery of St. John the Little in Wādī al-Naṭrūn (Yale Monastic Archaeology Project). Dumbarton Oaks Papers 64 (2011), 217–27.
  3. Davis, Stephen J. “Life and Death in Lower and Upper Egypt: A Brief Survey of Recent Monastic Archaeology at Yale.” In Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies 3 (2012), 9–26.
  4. Davis, Stephen J., Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, et al. “Yale Monastic Archaeology Project: John the Little, Season 1 (June 7–June 27, 2006).” Mishkah: The Egyptian Journal of Islamic Archeology 3 (2009), 47–52.
  5. Davis, Stephen J., Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, et al. Yale Monastic Archaeology Project: John the Little, Season 2 (May 14–June 17, 2007).” Mishkah: The Egyptian Journal of Islamic Archeology 3 (2009), 59–64.
  6. Evelyn-White, Hugh G. The Monasteries of the Wadi ’n Natrûn. 3 volumes. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1926–33.
  7. Pyke, Gillian, and Darlene Brooks Hedstrom. “The Afterlife of Sherds: Architectural Re-Use Strategies at the Monastery of John the Little, Wadi Natrun.” In Functional Aspects of Egyptiain Ceramics in Their Archaeological Context, ed. B. Bader and M. F. Ownby. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 217, 307–325. Leuven: Peeters, 2013.
  8. Samuel el-Souriani. “Bâtiments monastiques anciens au Wadi Natroun,” Le monde copte 21–22 (1993), 245–253.
  9. Samuil, Bishop, and Peter Grossmann, “Researches in the Laura of John Kolobos (Wādī al-Natrūn),” Ägypten und Nubien in spätantiker und christlicher Zeit: Akten des 6. Internationalen Koptologenkongresses, Münster 20.–26. Juli 1996 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1999), 360–4.
  10. Zacharias of Sakhā, Life of Saint John the Little. Coptic Bohairic text and Sahidic fragments edited by E. Amélineau, “Vie de Jean Kolobos,” Histoire des Monastères de la Basse-Égypte, Annales du Musée Guimet 25, 316–413, 414–25. Paris: Leroux, 1894. English translation by M. S. Mikhail and T. Vivian, in Coptic Church Review 18.1–2 (1997), 17–58, 59–64. Arabic text edited and translated by Stephen J. Davis, in Coptica 7 (2008).
Notes
  1. 1. In 1992, a general survey of the area assessed the potential value of the site for future excavation and was used as a preliminary report for the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt: Samuel el-Souriani, “Bâtiments monastiques anciens au Wadi Natroun,” Le monde copte 21–22 (1993), 245–253.
  2. 2. Bishop Samuil and Peter Grossmann, “Researches in the Laura of John Kolobos (Wâdî Natrûn),” in Ägypten und Nubien in spätantiker und christlicher Zeit: Akten des 6. Internationalen Koptologenkongresses, Münster 20.–26. Juli 1996 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1999), 360–4.