Digging to save Roman gem

November 17, 1995

An inscribed tablet found by Southampton and Exeter University archaeologists has been described as the most significant Roman inscription ever discovered in the eastern desert of Egypt.

The tablet, found at Mons Porphyrites - site of the Roman Imperial porphyry quarries at Gebel Dokhan - is believed to be unique because it records the name of the Roman "field geologist" who discovered the quarries and, importantly, when - July 23 18ad.

It is the first time such a record has been discovered documenting the beginning of quarry operations for the purple gem-like rock, imperial porphyry, which was highly prized by Roman leaders because its colour was a symbol of nobility.

Mons Porphyrites is a major quarry complex lying deep in the heart of the Red Sea mountain area of Egypt's eastern desert, famous as being the only source of imperial porphyry. Its remote location has ensured the preservation of what may be the most perfectly preserved Roman landscape to be seen anywhere in the world.

But despite the site's remoteness, the growth of tourism on the Red Sea coast has raised fears that the remains may be disturbed or damaged.

The archaeology expedition, led by David Peacock, professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton, and Valerie Maxfield, reader in Roman archaeology at Exeter University, was launched in an attempt to save as many relics as possible before such damage could be done. It has been sponsored by the Egypt Exploration Society in collaboration with Southampton and Exeter and the Vrije Universiteit van Brussel, with support from the British Academy's humanities research council, the British Museum, the Society of Antiquaries and the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

Professor Peacock said the inscription was discovered in one of several hut remains after members of the expedition traced a slipway running up a hillside.

"We think probably these huts have been seen by no one since Roman times. Everything in them seems to be quite undisturbed, which makes this an exciting find," he said.

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