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Supporting transatlantic partnerships around research and higher education.


Roger Bagnall

An Interview with
Oasis Major Project Researchers

Professor Tallet and Professor Bagnall, you study the Kharga and Dakhla Oases in Egypt’s Western Desert. These islands of green in the midst of the desert plateau that were places of refuge and exile, but also of production and culture. How would you describe your project in a few words?

We focused initially on a few key areas: human interactions with a changing environment; connectivity between oases and between the oasis and the valley; and making a living in this challenging environment. The project also led us to look comparatively at religion, administration, and culture, as we tried to reconstruct the life of the oases.

Your work draws a global and comparative picture of the settlements of and El-Deir and Amheida, (within Kharga and Dakhla Oases, respectively) as a step towards understanding the connection between the sites and the role they played in the African caravan economy. How does this project further archaeological and historical research as well as global knowledge in a general sense?

We’ve had two major emphases: generating new knowledge and integrating what we had already discovered about the two oases. In the first case, perhaps the most dramatic advances have come in the area of pottery, where the team has built a remarkable database of materials and is able to draw a more precise picture of exchanges between the oases and both North Africa and the Mediterranean area; and the environment, where we are beginning to glimpse the potential for catastrophic change and related adaptive strategies from the societies being studied. The work of wind and water is very different in the two oases, however, and this has been a good example of where comparative work by the team has led to advances.

Do you find that there are unique benefits to a French-American research partnership when tackling the Oasis Major region? What do the French and American intellectual and academic backgrounds each bring to the table?

It may seem almost a cliché, but the French team has brought a tendency toward more abstract and theoretical perspectives, the American team (which in reality is international) a more pragmatic one. French academic structures also tend to favor teamwork and the notion of research units with collective goals, whereas American structures are highly individualistic. It’s rewarding to bring these together; our underlying characters do not change, but we are led to rethink some of our work from the perspective of the other.

 

Gaelle Tallet

 

How has PUF funding helped you achieve your research goals?

Propinquity is a powerful force; simply spending time together, made possible by the generous travel support in our PUF funding, has done a lot to further our work. Perhaps the biggest impact on our research goals is that they have become more complicated as a result of the opening up of new perspectives from sharing data and ideas. We keep discovering new areas of similarity but also contrast, as on the environmental side: what look like very similar landscapes actually turn out to have different drivers and different histories. Our entire notion of the history of the oases has become more localized and less essentialized.

Your partnership was born out of a desire to come together and tackle ambitious fieldwork as a team, while also creating educational opportunities for students. How has this partnership these learning opportunities—formal and informal—for students and researchers involved?

The students have benefited tremendously both academically (see items 2 above and 7 below on ceramics) and in building an international network. They have also been able to conduct research in the other country, and in one case a member of the US team had a member of the French team as co-director of her dissertation. For the more advanced researchers, the lasting benefit is the enriched network of people who share interests and have data complementary to our own.

To share the significant achievements resulting from your collaboration as Partner University Fund grantees, you recently presented a two-day conference, “Oasis Magna: Kharga and Dakhla Oases in Antiquity,” at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Could you tell us about the results of the project that make you most proud?

The single most rewarding outcome is perhaps none of the fascinating scholarly results but on the human dimension, the creation of an international (France, USA, Italy) team of young ceramicists guided by Pascale Ballet; they promise to give what has been an understaffed and under theorized field an exciting new impetus.

Your 22-member team has made discoveries in areas as diverse as landscape, administration, economy, literature, paintings, and society. What are your aspirations for the future of the Oasis Major project?

We expect that the personal scholarly links built by the project will continue to strengthen, for example in the involvement of faculty in one team in the doctoral dissertations of students from the other. We are also planning grant proposals to other agencies that will continue the research agenda in a collaborative fashion.

 


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