THaWS – Theban Harbours and Waterscapes Survey

Egyptians have had a most intimate relationship with the river Nile and its annual cycle for millennia. A relationship that in ancient times influenced their religion and cosmogony, ordered their annual agricultural cycle, their modes of transport through the Nile Valley and Delta, influenced where they built their houses and temples, and ultimately shaped the landscapes in which they lived and worked.

The Theban Harbours and Waterscapes Survey (THaWS) is supported by a Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and Uppsala University grant through the project director, Angus Graham (Wallenberg Academy Fellow, 2014-19). The project is focussed on the area of modern-day Luxor (ancient Waset or Thebes) in Egypt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It seeks to reconstruct and understand human interaction with past alluvial landscapes and waterscapes in this major political, religious and population centre from the third millennium B.C.E. to the Roman Period. The research brings together over thirty temple complexes and urban centres and necropoleis and places them within a large-scale connected landscape and waterscape context covering over 60 km2.

Contemporary pictorial and written evidence from Thebes suggests that canals and basins were associated with temples in the region. Vast extant spoil mounds also attest to a huge ceremonial lake/harbour basin. Such an infrastructure of canals and basins would have connected temples and palaces and the river for festival processions.

Canal networks would have also enabled the transportation to temples of construction stone and monoliths weighing hundreds of tonnes. Local social structures may have been affected by the existence of canals which would have aided, hindered and ordered the movement of the Theban population between settlements, across the cultivable floodplain, and to and from cult and ancestral centres.

Aim of the Project

The project has a number of goals:

The project has a number of goals:

  • to elucidate the extent of the technical ability of the Egyptians to manipulate the floodplain to produce an interconnected land- and waterscapes  for the primeval creator god / sun god Amun(-Re);
  • to further understanding of fluvial processes in the Nile valley and hydroclimatic variability and how they contribute to wider Nile Basin dynamics;
  • to understand the religious and environmental factors that contributed to the decisions to locate temples and settlements within and off the floodplain;
  • to consider how socio-economic, political and religious components shaped and were shaped by constructing the landscapes and waterscapes of Thebes.


This interdisciplinary project consists of archaeologists, Egyptologists and earth scientists (physical geographers and geologists). Geoarchaeological survey (hand augering and percussion coring) is combined with geophysical survey (principally Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) complemented with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and magnetometry). This is used to build up a picture of the sedimentological history and architecture of the floodplain through a series of survey transects as well as geoarchaeological and geophysical mapping in and around temples. Global Positioning System equipment is used to 3D-locate all survey work. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are used to combine the derived datasets with plans, mapping and remotely sensed data to enable a fuller analysis of past landscapes and waterscapes.

Findings and Wider Impact

The project has to date identified a minor secondary channel of the Nile lying close to and contemporary with the temples of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II. It has also found evidence of drought in the Theban region during the New Kingdom.

It is hoped that the research will enhance discussions about the role of religious belief and practice and politically charged festivals in manipulating landscapes on a large scale in ancient Egypt. It will result in a greater understanding of the extent of the fluvial processes and anthropogenic input that constructed these landscapes and waterscapes. It is anticipated that the results of this study will contribute to the research of colleagues on physical and conceptual landscapes throughout Egypt. Interpretation of past land- and waterscapes will enable a more refined understanding of the way in which religious and economic life meshed together within particular timeframes. The project aims to contribute to a better understanding of hydroclimatic variability with the Nile basin and how this may relate to socioeconomic and political change and resilience in ancient Egypt.


The Theban Harbours and Waterscapes Survey is supported by a Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and Uppsala University grant through the project director, Angus Graham (Wallenberg Academy Fellow, 2014-19). The fieldwork is conducted through the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Society, London and their sustained support is highly appreciated. The project is hugely appreciative of the continued support of the Ministry of Antiquities (Egypt) - from both the permanent committee (Cairo) and colleagues in Luxor. The collaboration with several other research projects in Luxor is invaluable to THaWS. 

Key Project Members

Dominic Barker, Dept. of Archaeology, University of Southampton, UK

Virginia Emery, Western Heritage Program, Carthage College, Wisconsin, USA

Carolin Johansson, Dept. of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University

Daniel Löwenborg, Dept. of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University

Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, Dept. of Greece and Rome, British Museum, UK

Jan Peeters, Dept. of Physical Geography, Utrecht University, NL

Benjamin Pennington, Geography and Environment, University of Southampton, UK

Kristian Strutt, Dept. of Archaeology, University of Southampton, UK

Willem Toonen, Dept. of Geography and Earth Science, Aberystwyth University, UK