At the age of 49, Francis Abdelmalik has happily launched himself on a task he says will take 80 years - the excavation of an ancient Egyptian burial ground in the Nile Delta, an area long neglected by archeologists entranced by the splendors of Thebes and Memphis.
"All this, all this we should dig up," he said, spreading his arms over a hill of grayish sand in the midst of the delta's rich farmland. "Who knows what we shall find?.
In a month of digging, Abdelmalik and his team have unearthed a tantalizing collection of amulets, jewels, jars, coins and bird bones from effigies of the falcon god Horus; - relics spanning about two millennians from the 12th Pharaonic dynasty to the days of the Roman emperor Hadrian.
The jars are mostly undecorated clay, the amulets mostly faience and teh mastabas , or tombs, mostly mud brick, all lacking the richness of the limestone treasure troves of the upper Nile Valley with their caches of gold and alabaster and labis lazult.
That probably means, Abdelmalik said, that those buried here were not kings or nobels, but ordinary citizens who also were preparing for the journey into the afterworld.
Abdelmalik is a small, voluble man, who roams his happy hunting ground near here in red and black basketball shoes and a red warmup suit bearing the Arabic inscription, "University of Mansoura," where he is a professor. His specialty is Ptolemaic texts and Egyptian religious practices of the late period, when the invasion of Alexander the Great added a Greek overlay to the declining Egyptian culture.
The digging site here, in a field about 100 miles north of Cairo, was, Abdelmalik said, a characteristic place of worship of Horus and of Amon, the chief god in the Egyptian pantheon. It was formerly an island in a branch of the Nile that silted over centuried ago. The archeologist pointed out part of the site, indistinguishable to the untrained eye from the rest ot if, as the "harbor" for the boats that bore the deceased on a symbolic journey to the beyond.
Its name was "Island of the God Amon," which Abdelmalik writes out in English, Hieroglyphics, Coptic, Greek and Arabic - though his own language of scholarship is German. He earned his doctorate at the University of Tuebingen.
The sady hill of some 160 acres has been known for many years as a possibly fertile site for excavation, but only recently was the rector of Mansoura University, Abdel Moneim Badrway, able to come up with the money to finance the project.
That is an embarrassing reminder to Abdelmalik and his colleagues that the great works of archeology in Egypt have been carried out by Europeans - whose primary interest was often plunder rather scholarship - not by Egyptians tracing their own cultural heritage.
Until recently the Nile Delta, Egypt's agricultural heartla, has been neglected by archeologists. Because the delta is damp and often rainy, any relics found are likely to have been eroded by centuries of water damage, unlike the great tombs and temples near Cairo and Luxor, which are in the desert.
Some experts believe, however, that the fertile delta must have had the same place in Egyptian life four milennums ago as it does today, and they are beginning to probe it.Another excavation headed by scholars from the Brooklyn Museum is under way not far here and has already yielded statues, monoliths and a sarcopnagus.
Abdelmalik acknowledges that his excavation here has not yet come up with anything to match that, to say nothing of another Tutanknamon's tomb. Aside from a scrab bearing the name of an unidentified 12th dynasty personality, he has found "nothing under any name. And the jars are mostly empty."
But the work has only begun.Little more than half an acre has been touched. Promising blocks of granite are beginning to peek out of the ground. And at least one little statue of Horus, Abdelmalik said is "a masterpiece."