No excavations had been carried out on Elephantine until around the turn ofthe twentieth century German archaeologists chanced upon some Aramaic papyri in the possession of the farmers of Aswan Gharb (‘West Aswan’).
The discovery aroused great interest among scholars who were then looking for evidence that might shed light on a community of Jews who had settled on the island during and after the Persian period, from the sixth century B.c.
The farmers claimed that the papyri came from the southern tip of Elephantine; and soon excavations were in progress.
German archaeologists worked from 1906 to 1908 in the southwestern portion of the
temple of Khnum,
by then almost totally obliterated by debris.
French archaeologists excavated in its vast courtyard between 1907 and 1910.
Both teams found what they were looking for: hundreds of fragments and papyri along with scores of ostraca written in Aramaic that related to personal and civil matters.
They provided evidence that Jewish settlers had indeed been brought to Elephantine to guard the southern frontier for their Persian rulers and had built a temple to their god Yahweh.
After the departure of the German and French teams (who found numerous other objects during their excavations, including a cemetery of rams) only spasmodic archaeological activity
took place on Elephantine until 1935, when the forerunner of the Swiss Institute, the Borchardt Institute, became interested in carrying out a survey and study ofthe surviving architecture
on the island.
Their work was interrupted first by the Second World War and then by the Nubia salvage operations in the 1960s.
Only in’1969 did the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, in cooperation with the Swiss Institute, obtain a concession to restore and document all the monuments, a task which
has already transformed Elephantine into one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Egypt.