Labib Sorial—A Forgotten Figure in Biblical Archaeology

Archives reveal contribution of little-known Egyptian archaeologist


Labib Sorial at his drafting table

Labib Sorial at his drafting table at Tell en-Nasbeh in 1932.
Courtesy of the Badè Museum of Pacific School of Religion.

When one thinks of the seminal figures in the archaeology of Mandate-era Palestine (c. 1918–1948), William F. Albright, Clarence S. Fisher, P.L.O. Guy, and James L. Starkey come readily to mind. Yet, there is a backstory to the achievements of these and other Western scholars of that period: the work of the local Middle Easterners whose contributions are often poorly documented in published excavation records and which can be recovered, if at all, only by the laborious sifting of institutional archives.

In recent decades, scholars in many disciplines have come to understand the importance of giving voice to the local Arabs who worked on so many excavations in the waning decades of the Western colonial empires.i This is a brief account of the archaeological career of Labib Sorial, a figure who is barely known, if at all, even to most archaeologists today, but who was once a valued member of many early 20th century excavations.ii

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Labib Sorial Abdel Malek was a Coptic Christian born in Daraw, Egypt (near Aswan) in 1897. At some point, his family made their home in Luxor. In 1917, he graduated from Assiut College, part of the Presbyterian mission in Egypt, and became a part of the effendi class (an Ottoman Turkish term for those who had land and were educated). Soon after graduation, he was hired by Clarence S. Fisher, who was working for the Penn Museum, to assist him in his work at Dendereh and Memphis/Mit Rahineh. Fisher had been seeking someone versed in both Arabic and English, and Sorial came highly recommended. Sorial was a diligent worker and likeable person and rose in Fisher’s favor. Eventually, Fisher began to train him in surveying and drafting, skills he would employ on many later excavations.

In 1921, Fisher moved to work in Palestine and Sorial joined him. Between then and 1935, Sorial worked at Beth Shean, Megiddo, Tell en-Nasbeh, Beth Shemesh, Jerash (in Transjordan), Tell Beit Mirsim, Beth Zur, Tell Abu Hawam, and Antioch (in Turkey). He also worked for a few years with Fisher at Dra‘ Abu el-Naga‘ in Egypt and for a season with a German team excavating at Hermopolis. In total, Sorial helped excavate a dozen sites over a period of 18 years.


Beth Shean staff photograph 1921. Clarence S. Fisher is seated on the left, while his assistant Ernest J.H. MacKay is on the right. Labib Sorial is seated cross-legged in front.
Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

If people know of Sorial today, it is usually as a surveyor who created site contour maps, laid out excavation grids, and drew architectural plans and sections. For example, he drew almost all such illustrations in the 1947 Tell en-Nabeh report published by Chester C. McCown and Joseph C. Wampler after William F. Badè’s death in 1936.iii But his work went far beyond that. He could draw pottery when needed and also mend it. He drew hieroglyphs on at least one occasion. At times, he supervised excavations while directors were away.

Directors deemed him honest and entrusted him with considerable amounts of money. Often, he was involved in paying the workers and kept the excavation accounts. Before the start of an excavation season, he located, vetted, and organized the reises (the Egyptian foremen, usually from Quft near Luxor, who supervised many excavations), pottery menders, and other Egyptian workers for the Palestinian excavations of which he was a part, weighing their abilities and advocating for those he favored. He negotiated the salaries of the Egyptians with the dig directors, carefully considering their experience, seniority, previous pay, and so on. He ensured that all their documents were in order and that dig directors had secured the necessary railway vouchers for himself and the other workers. He also procured and packed supplies, whether it be materials in Egypt or light railway equipment or bedding in Palestine.


A fine example of Labib Sorial’s meticulous work, a finished plan of the two-chamber gate from Tell en-Nasbeh.
Courtesy of the Badè Museum of Pacific School of Religion.


He dealt directly with the directors of Western institutions, such as when he negotiated on his own behalf with the Oriental Institute’s James H. Breasted. He also sometimes functioned as an intermediary between local residents and the excavation, both in Egypt and in Palestine. The authority he exercised over the other Egyptians on excavations was often seen as a valuable asset. During the riots in Egypt in 1919, he transported the Mit Rahineh excavation records to safety. He also took on construction tasks, such as fabricating shipping crates, a photography tripod, tables and shelves, and even a latrine. He assisted in the layout and construction of dig houses at Memphis and Hermopolis. He even helped Badè in the construction of his second home in Napa County, California. Clearly, he was a highly valued and hard-working individual and his salary was always the highest of any non-Westerner, half again as much as any other Egyptian.


Labib Sorial in overalls, leaning against a door at William Badè’s second home in Napa Valley, which he helped build in 1928. To the left is Badè and on the right is the home’s contractor, Mr. Adams, and his son. Courtesy of the Badè Museum of Pacific School of Religion.


Badè was apparently so impressed with Sorial that he brought him to Berkeley to take classes at Pacific School of Religion and the California School of Arts and Crafts for the second half of 1927 and all of 1928. Sorial returned to Palestine with Badè and his wife on a transpacific voyage in 1929.

Labib Sorial left archaeology in 1935 on the death of his father. He felt obliged to take up his father’s teaching position at the Luxor Mission School for Boys. He hoped to return to archaeology at some point, but a combination of factors such as the Great Depression and the advent of World War II seems to have scuttled this hope. He also ran afoul of the directors of the Beth Shean and Megiddo excavations when he left those projects to follow Fisher to other sites (first to Megiddo and then on to Tell en-Nasbeh where Fisher was an adviser). These individuals colluded to prevent Sorial from gaining employment on any of their projects, and Guy even attempted to have Sorial banned from Palestine.

The last known information about Labib Sorial places him in Cairo in 1948, with an unnamed wife and two small daughters. But for the vagaries of the times in which he lived—and the animosity of certain foreign archaeologists—Sorial’s archaeological career might have continued many more years.

About the Author:

Jeffrey R. Zorn is Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. He has worked extensively at Tel Dor on the coast of Israel and is currently working on the final publication of the Area G excavations. He has also published numerous studies on the site of Tell en-Nasbeh, probably biblical Mizpah of Benjamin.


i See especially the online exhibit Unsilencing the Archives at the Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology.

ii A fuller account of Labib Sorial’s life will appear in the forthcoming volume Unsilencing the Archives, published by the American Society of Overseas Research.

iii Jeffrey R. Zorn, “A Legacy of Publication: William Frederic Badè and Tell en-Nasbeh,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1997.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

ACOR’s Photo Archive

Unsilencing the Archives

Archaeological Laborers in the Middle East

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Backward Glance: A Legacy of Publication

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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