Polish-Moroccan mission breaks ground near UNESCO-listed Roman city

The environs of the late ancient Roman city of Volubilis located near Meknes, northwestern Morocco, reveal potential new structures to a Polish-Moroccan mission comprising archaeologists from the University of Warsaw (UW) and the National Institute of Archeology and Heritage (INSAP).

Conference on Polish archaeology’s founding father at UNESCO

Institut Polonais de Paris is the organiser of today’s “Kazimierz Michałowski: Contribution to archaeology and contemporary museology” conference...

see more

It is noon of October 26, the empty Moroccan sky hurling down sweltering heat upon some seven archaeologists breaking their backs in gruelling physical labour. But a good dozen litters after, the rusty-red soil gives in revealing vestiges of a bygone reality.

"Seems we have a collapsed wall here," says UW archaeologist Maciej Czapski, wiping off sweat from his forehead, propping himself up on a shovel.

The long-lived good repute

The lead-up to the works on the not yet excavated area of Morocco's UNESCO-listed late ancient Roman city of Volubilis goes back to July 7, when a memorandum of cooperation was signed between the UW and INSAP at the Embassy of Poland in Rabat. It is on the basis of a won tender and this document that INSAP, the Kingdom's top heritage authority, gave the green light to Polish archaeologists to commence excavations in one of the most precious sites of Morocco.

INSAP's choice is both a testimony of great trust in the Polish school of archaeology and proof of its lasting and far-reaching reputation. The roots of fame tap as deep as to 1936 when the father of the said school Kazimierz Michałowski launched Poland's first autonomous excavation site in Egypt's town of Edfu, whereto he would return after WWII abated. It was also in 1959 that professor Michałowski established the Cairo Archeological Station of the UW's Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology. Ever since Poles have been present on Egypt's archaeological forefront, co-organising the 1961–1964 rescue excavations in Faras. Headed by Professor Michałowski, the exploration was part of a larger project, named the Nubian Campaign, managed under the auspices of UNESCO, whose objective was to salvage historical artefacts from flooding by the Nile in connection to the Aswan High Dam development. Poles are also recognised for their excavation and preservation works at the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, to name just another mission from a long list.

Ensuring the Empire's safety

On Friday, the ruins of Volubilis are rather lively for the pandemic times. Apart from modest groups of French and American tourists, a group comprising Polish and Moroccan archaeologists as well as a delegation from Poland's Embassy in Rabat takes a stroll through the ruins of once an olive oil and wheat exportation powerhouse poised on the western limes, i.e. frontiers, of the Roman Empire. Guided by the conservator of the site, INSAP's professor Aomar Akerraz, the group discovers intricacies of the city, the story of King Juba II, his wife Cleopatra Selene II (daughter of Queen Cleopatra VII of Ptolemaic Egypt) and the civilisational apex of the settlement under the Roman rule of 40-285 AC. Being a borderlands city, consecutive governors of Volubilis paid great attention to security, hence its 2.5 km-long walls and many watchtowers.

It is precisely this kind of defensive infrastructure that the Polish-Moroccan mission under the UW’s prof. Radosław Karasiewicz-Szczypiorski sought to discover on top of a prominent hill called Bled El Melali, just some four kilometres south of Volubilis.

“We find ourselves south of Volubilis where in between the city and our current position a fort could be found in Roman times,” Mr Karasiewicz-Szczypiorski tells PolandIN. "The fortlet enjoyed a particularly favourable location of proximity to a source of water and a road, which bestowed upon other tasks than just protecting the forefield," the archaeologist added.

Prof. Karasiewicz-Szczypiorski also went on to explain that the city decided to apply a well-known strategy of building a fortlet, just like the one that the mission might have stumbled on, to make the defensive system of the imperial borderlands less porous. The structure might have also worked as a watchtower.

But the Polish archaeologists' activities are not limited to excavations alone. On Thursday, at the invitation of the Polish Embassy in Rabat and INSAP, the UW's Prof. Adam Łukaszewicz gave a lecture on the rule of Ptolemies in northwestern Africa. The lecture was warmly welcomed by Moroccan counterparts, just like the opening of the UW Faculty of Archeology's exhibition on the Polish archaeologists' excavation sites of the eastern (sic!) Roman borderlands.

Summing up the series of archaeological events, the INSAP management headed by Prof. Abdeluahed Benncer expressed its conviction that the Polish-Moroccan cooperation has begun making strident steps on the path of archaeology.