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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: in the round at villa D12.5

Excavations in villa D12.5Rizwan Safir, archaeologist and Vera Michel, Egyptologist, University of Heidelberg

The waiting has ended and the inevitable has occurred: two ovens surfaced right at the back of our large building earlier this week. They emerged somewhat unintentionally – two familiar ceramic circles – as we began cleaning the external walls to allow Rizwan’s architectural plan to be completed.

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

We’re now into week four and following the removal of vast quantities of sand and rubble the opportunity to excavate some of the smaller rooms has come about, as well as revealing ancient occupation surfaces. Another hearth has emerged to the north of the building in a small suite of two rooms added to the large central courtyard – perhaps in response to the needs of a growing community? Oddly for an Egyptian villa, there is a large staircase located inside the main door, providing access to the roof (or upper storey) above these two rooms.

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

A space we dubbed the ‘silo’ room is currently being excavated and three, or possibly four, distinct round structures have emerged.

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the entrance to villa D12.5

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the
entrance to villa D12.5

The size of these silos suggests use for storing grain, perhaps for more than one household – a number of smaller houses are visible west of our villa. Such storage containers have not been noted elsewhere at Amara West, where rectangular storage bins are common.

Between the silo room and the ovens is a space we started excavating on Wednesday – somewhere we might expect to see grain-grinding emplacements.

The emergence of the floor within the large central courtyard was particularly satisfying considering the depth and quantity of sand removed within this space, although conditions have proven particularly challenging of late.

For example, having reached the floors of the smaller rooms to the north of the building, a day of strong and relentless wind on Monday served to refill these rooms almost back to their original state!

Nonetheless, we soldier on, rewarded by a gradually more coherent plan of the building, populated by hearths, silos and, of course, ovens.

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Amara West 2013: buried with pots

Loretta recording a pottery vessel from G244 in the work roomLoretta Kilroe, University of Oxford

Every vessel tells a story, and when we get a group of vessels or sherds in a relatively closed context – like a grave – the story becomes particularly interesting.

Loretta recording a pottery vessel from G244 in the work room

Loretta recording a pottery vessel from G244 in the
work room

While Alice Springuel is working on the settlement pottery with Anna Garnett, I’m studying pottery from cemetery C. There’s much less pottery than from the town, and everything comes back to the house, where my detective work starts.

Currently this season, two large tombs are proving very exciting. G243 is a two-chambered tomb being excavated by Barbara Chauvet, while G244 is the large tumulus with five subterranean chambers being worked on by Michaela Binder and Mohammed Said.

These have produced an array of ceramics which already, at this early stage, prompt questions about those interred in the graves, and the life they experienced at Amara West.

Four ‘beer jars’ and a red-rimmed plate have been found in the eastern chamber of G243 – both fairly typical grave goods across the period in which this cemetery was used (twelfth-eighth century BC).

Shallow bowl with sloppy red paint around rim (C9053), from G243

Shallow bowl with sloppy red paint around rim (C9053), from G243

The styles of these vessels however, particularly the poorly-cut beer jar bases and the messy red paint applied to the rim of the plate, suggest these pots accompanied a burial after the end of the New Kingdom – when pharaonic Egypt no longer ruled Upper Nubia.

‘Beer-jar’ (C9162) reconstructed by Loretta, from G244

‘Beer-jar’ (C9162) reconstructed by Loretta, from G244

Little evidence of this era has been found in the town, but the continued use of the cemetery suggests occupation continued at Amara West (or nearby). Those people retained the same pottery-making techniques as earlier inhabitants living here under Egyptian rule.

The multi-chambered tumulus (G244), of which only part of one chamber has been excavated, was heavily looted. Tomb-robbers are generally uninterested in ceramic vessels, so these remain, though often smashed to pieces.

I’ve been able to reconstruct several vessels: two ‘beer jars’, 11 plates, two funnel-necked jars and parts of two smaller jars. The styles of these vessels indicate a late New Kingdom date – but this interpretation might change as more of the tomb is excavated.

This dating came as a surprise, since tumuli are seen as a typically Nubian form of burial, expressing a Nubian rather than Egyptian cultural identity in death; something not frequent in this area until after the Egyptian withdrawal. In other New Kingdom graves at Amara West, post-New Kingdom and Napatan material is often found in chambers, but we don’t have any later material from G244 … yet.

I’m currently drawing the reconstructed vessels, to enable further research back in London and Oxford. All the vessels, apart from a few eroded sherds, are Egyptian in style, though probably made locally. Did those buried here, seemingly late in the period of Egyptian control, consciously choose a Nubian monument, but adhere to the practise of placing Egyptian-style pottery in the graves?

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Amara West 2013: (ancient) snakes in the town

Scarab (F9499) with name of Tuthmosis III flanked by cobrasMarie Vandenbeusch, Geneva University

Amara West team members have encountered a number of snakes over recent years – in the house and in the ancient buildings we are excavating – but they must have been a part of life for the ancient inhabitants too.

Detail of a hieratic ostracon (F7168) with depiction of a cobra

Detail of a hieratic ostracon (F7168) with depiction of a cobra

Snakes are prominent in pharaonic Egypt: in texts and representations, as gods and protective entities, or as dangerous and malevolent creatures.

Scarab (F9499) with name of Tuthmosis III flanked by cobras

Scarab (F9499) with name of
Tuthmosis III flanked by cobras

The Egypt Exploration Society excavators discovered snake skeletons in a small building outside the eastern town wall in the 1940s, some buried in pots. A report on the snake remains concluded they may have been pythons.

Our project has yet to find snake remains, but cobras are the most frequently represented animals depicted on the objects we find. Usually, these are symbols of protection or power.

 

Faience figurine of Pataikos with snake held to mouth (F9467)

Faience figurine of Pataikos with snake
held to mouth (F9467)

On one scarab found in Grave 201, a pair of cobras flank the name of King Tuthmosis III.

A cobra also protects the king, shown as a sphinx, on a finely-carved scarab found in house E13.8 in the town.

Cobras are not only found on scarabs: a hieratic ostracon found this year bears a large depiction of a cobra, while a small faience figurine of the god Pataikos also features a snake.

This small figurine of a god is dense with imagery, wearing a scarab on his head and a knife in each hand, and with a snake across his mouth: protective and repulsive at the same time.

The amulet might have been worn by its owner as protection against evil spirits.

 


 

Most intriguing is a thin cobra in copper alloy found in the back room of house E13.8.

Copper alloy object representing a cobra (F5693)

Copper alloy object representing a cobra (F5693)

An unusual artefact: was it part of a vessel handle? Or a fitting for a statue? Answers might be found after the season, when we have time to research publications and collections for parallels.

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Amara West 2013: 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 … sherds

Mini-henge: stones marking each 100-count of sherdsAlice Springuel, Egyptologist

“Alice, we have 10 bags of pottery” This is the signal for Loretta Kilroe, a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, and I to leave the dig house behind, and join the archaeologists on the boat to site.

Alice counting pottery sherds on site yesterday, with head-net to keep nimiti-flies at bay

Alice counting pottery sherds on site yesterday,
with head-net to keep nimiti-flies at bay

Generally this happens once or twice a week, but with the greater depth of excavation in most areas, there is less windblown sand, and more pottery… a lot more.

Our mission is to count potsherds to gain an idea of the quantity, size and preservation of ceramics, while bearing in mind the archaeological context in which they are found: rubble, the fill of a pit, or lying on an ancient floor in a particular room.

Based on the system instigated at Amara West by Marie Millet, we separate diagnostic sherds (rim, base, shoulder, decorated fragments) and also count examples of marl (desert) clay fabrics or local Nubian vessel sherds – and even luxury imports from as far away as mainland Greece.

This is just the start of work which will help answer many questions.

What types of pots were used? What was their purpose? Which kind of techniques did the potters use? What date are the archaeological contexts? Can the pottery tell us what individual rooms were used for?

Something not in one of the sherd sacks: a complete vessel found in the town in 2011

Something not in one of the sherd sacks: a complete
vessel found in the town in 2011

Back at the site, we lay out sacks – sold in the market for transporting sugar or rice – to keep from losing sherds in the soft yellow sand. Most sacks contain between 700 and 2,000 sherds.

We use stones to help us mark off each 100 sherds, creating our own mini-Stonehenges as we progress. Inevitably, we find objects missed by the excavators but caught in the sieving of the archaeological deposits: counters, sherds with incised pot marks and a nice hieratic ostracon.

And then we continue counting…..

 

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Amara West 2013: E13.13, the story of a room

Digging deep: workmen in E13.13Mat Dalton, University of Cambridge

This week marked the completion of excavation in room E13.13 (better known to us as ‘the oven court’), a task three years in the making. But why has this relatively small 3.2 x four metre space occupied so much of our time on site?

A clue lies in the amount of paperwork generated: 135 archaeological features (contexts) at the final count! This includes 11 bread ovens, seven grain grinding emplacements and at least 20 main ‘firepits’ – more on these later – within a one metre thick occupation deposit. This density of features can be explained by the perpetually rising level of E13.13’s soft dirt floor, most likely as a result of sediment blowing into the (probably un-roofed) room from the town and desert. This must have required the levelling and replacement of features engulfed by mounting sediments, which has created a rich stratigraphic sequence of features.

A surface phase of E13.13 showing three ovens, two grinding emplacements with mud plaster basins, and two firepits.

A surface phase of E13.13 showing three ovens, two grinding emplacements with mud plaster basins, and two firepits.

For most of its use-life the oven court seems to have provided food preparation and cooking facilities for first one (E13.3) and then two adjacent houses, E13.3-N and E13.3-S. The room’s history is closely linked to these two houses.

At first neither house had any internal baking or grinding facilities and the court saw more intensive use, generally with at least three ovens and two grinding emplacements operational at any one time. Preparing flour and baking bread were probably daily activities at Amara West, and it is not hard to imagine this semi-public space as a hub of social interaction between the two houses’ residents. Later, each house installed separate internal ovens and grinding emplacements and the court was walled off, then reopened and used for a little longer, before finally being sealed for good and apparently becoming the neighbourhood rubbish dump.

Plan of neighbourhood E13, with oven court E13.13 to south of two small houses

Plan of neighbourhood E13, with oven court E13.13 to south of two small houses

Ovens and grinding emplacements are found in houses all over the site; a more novel feature of the oven court is the aforementioned firepits. These shallow depressions were cut into the room’s floor adjacent to walls, and were apparently used for burning wood to produce charcoal. This charcoal may have been destined for immediate use in adjacent bread ovens, but could have also been stockpiled or used elsewhere in the house. The firepits also seem to have served a second more expedient purpose: a convenient spot to dispose of ashy waste from the ovens.

The cyclical nature of wood burning and oven waste disposal has formed complex layers over time, leaving us with an archive of well-preserved carbonised plant remains. We have intensively sampled these deposits over the past three years of excavation to recover this material, and have also collected sediments from these and other contexts in the room to extract phytoliths, microscopic plant skeletons that can provide evidence for foodstuffs such as wheat and barley – long since rotted away. Study of these strands of evidence has already begun to tell us much about the kind of food people were eating and how they were preparing it, as well as what fuels they were burning. This data also gives us proxy evidence for the character of the natural environment around Amara West, and how its inhabitants utilised and affected it.

Digging deep: workmen in E13.13

Digging deep: workmen in E13.13

As we finished excavating the oven court over the past couple of days, an interesting surprise has emerged from beneath the room’s final occupation deposits. A very early structure, running parallel to the town’s enclosure wall, might be the corner of a large storage complex first exposed by the Egypt Exploration Society in 1947-48 (E.12.6). The shift in use from possible official storage to domestic usage in this area fits well into the larger-scale trend of Amara West’s evolution from planned administrative town to a form more organically modified to suit its inhabitants’ needs.

A small room like E13.13 that provides such a wide range of data on life in the ancient town doesn’t come along every day.

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Amara West 2013: the work continues in villa D12.5

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5Neal Spencer, British Museum

Excavating across three main areas at Amara West – the cemetery, inside the northwest part of the walled town, and in the western suburb beyond the walls – it is villa D12.5 that has been most reluctant to divulge its form and purpose, despite some intriguing finds. Vera Michel and Rizwan Safir have been supervising a team of workmen for three weeks now, but the damage to the southern end of the building has resulted in a large area that is much like a 20 metres-wide sandpit. Men, shovels and wheelbarrows can work for hours and then days, removing considerable amounts of windblown sand, yet a quick glance wrongly suggests not much has changed!

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

The last few days have seen us return to the front of the building, where more architecture and features appear daily. Vera revealed and then recorded a large expanse of collapsed brickwork, still preserving the coursing of the original wall. Excavation of the windblown sand under it led to another layer of rubble.

The rubble here was very different, with fragments bearing the impressions of plants and finely woven matts: the telltale signs of a collapsed roof. Our houses had roofs built with beams and poles, overlaid with matts and then covered in mud; all that survives after three millennia is the mud.

Brick rubble – from a collapsed wall

Brick rubble – from a collapsed wall

The ‘upside down’ stratigraphy: collapsed roof under collapsed walls, indicates something of how the building fell into ruin. The roof must have collapsed first, probably shortly after abandonment: maybe the valuable wooden beams and poles were taken for use elsewhere. After an interval in which sand accumulated over the roof rubble, the wall then collapsed over the top, probably undermined by wind erosion near its base. While buildings can slowly crumble and decay, there must have been quite sudden episodes: the energy in these collapses is evident from how the rubble often tumbles through doorways, spreading across the floor.

The front part of villa D12.5, at the end of yesterday’s excavations

The front part of villa D12.5, at the end of yesterday’s excavations

Rizwan has just started clearing two rooms inside the front door: one contains a shallow circular hearth, perhaps used for cooking and warmth. We are all awaiting, with a sense of inevitability, the appearance of ovens….

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Amara West 2013: a five-chambered tomb discovered

The “Howard Carter moment”: First peak into the chamber(s) of Grave 244Michaela Binder, physical anthropologist, Durham University

Many people have asked me whether what we do can “really be fun?” Digging in the dirt, being outside all day in temperatures from freezing to boiling (and sometimes in a sandstorm), living for months at a time without mains electricity or water.

The “Howard Carter moment”: First peak into the chamber(s) of Grave 244

The “Howard Carter moment”: First peak into the
chamber(s) of Grave 244

When it’s close to 40°C and biting nimiti-flies are swarming around me, I ask the same question.

But when you start removing sand from the top of a grave shaft and a small opening appears on one side …a second on the other side …and after another 50 cms the hole is wide enough to stick your head and a torch in …you see a large chamber …your eyes adjust and see the door to another chamber beyond …and a door to a third chamber…

Then I’m reminded that this can be the best occupation in the world with its unpredictable moments of immense excitement.

The discovery of our latest (and by far the largest) tomb happened three days ago at Amara West.

We’re now digging deeper into the shaft, and after two metres of sand, there’s no end in sight. In the meantime, the picture has become clearer.

As the shaft gets deeper, excavation gets more difficult and any soil has to be lifted out in buckets

As the shaft gets deeper, excavation gets more difficult
and any soil has to be lifted out in buckets

The tomb features not just two chambers – one on either side – as with all previous chamber tombs we’ve found at Amara West – but five! The western suite consists of a central room with chambers to the west and northern side; the eastern suite is smaller with just one additional chamber.

We’ve now hit a thick deposit of debris from both chambers – evidence of heavy looting. The finds coming up from this deposit hint at the wealth of funerary artefacts once placed here. Besides large pottery vessels we found beads, fragments of faience, large pieces of white plaster (some painted) once part of decorated coffins, and large wooden elements of funerary furniture, among them the base of a headrest.

Though almost exclusively Egyptian in terms of the range of grave goods and architecture – so far – the large burial mound (tumulus) marking the surface is one of the hallmarks of Nubian funerary culture, before during and after Egyptian control of the region.

Inside the western central chamber with entrances to two more chambers. The windblown sand was blown in later, after looting.

Inside the western central chamber with entrances to two more chambers. The windblown sand was blown in later, after looting.

Even more surprising, the pottery found thus far appears to date the tomb to the late New Kingdom, towards the end of pharaonic control of Nubia.

Superstructure of tomb G244

Superstructure of tomb G244

There’s a long way to go: we have not even begun excavating the five chambers yet.

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Amara West 2013: luxury in stone

Schist bowl found in building E13.16Marie Vandenbeusch, Egyptologist

Excavating Amara West, as with all ancient Egyptian cities, produces a great amount of pottery. The shapes of the pots tells us how they were used, whether to store food, transport goods or for use at the table. Vessels made from other materials are rare, particularly at Amara West: we are overwhelmed by thousands and thousands of ceramic sherds, but only a few stone vessels.

Schist bowl found in building E13.16 (F6917)

Schist bowl found in building E13.16 (F6917)

The shapes and materials again vary. Fragments of a large plate were found two years ago, and some pieces of miniature stone vessels including one of granodiorite. However, most fragments belonged to small-medium sized containers: bowls, plates and cups. Just last week, a nice shallow bowl carved in schist (F6917) was found in building E13.16. Only a small part of the base is missing, but we can still see the very fine and thin vessel walls (five mm thick near the base), all beautifully polished – the work of an accomplished stoneworker.

Fragment of a footed cup (F4743)

Fragment of a footed cup (F4743)

Calcite, commonly known as Egyptian alabaster, is the most common type of stone used for vessels at the site. With no quarries known in Nubia, the stone, and probably the finished vessels, must have been imported from Egypt. Fragments found at Amara West are finely-worked, some even decorated. The pattern can be very simple, with lines in black ink around the edge, or decorative motifs including triangular patterns.

Finely polished calcite vessel lid (F3164)

Finely polished calcite vessel lid (F3164)

Vessel lids, important to preserve contents in the hot and dusty conditions, were usually made of clay or pottery, but some finely carved stone lids were made for the stone vessels. We have found examples in quartzite and calcite.

Rarely discovered, we can assume these stone vessels were not part of the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants. Perhaps some of them come originally from the temple, or the residence of the Deputy of Kush, or maybe they belonged to the wealthier individuals who lived in the town.

Calcite containers may have been used for particular contents, such as cosmetic powders and oils.

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Amara West 2013: interesting discoveries as new ‘house’ is explored

Necklace as it emerged from the deposits in E13.16Sarah Doherty, Egyptologist and archaeologist, Cardiff University

North of the room busy with ovens being excavated by Shadia Abdu Rabo, this last week has seen me work in a puzzling new area – also with lots of ovens! – behind house E13.5. Why this move to a new building? Shadia’s area of ovens featured an additional room with an entrance to the north, into the new building, which we christened E13.16.

View over excavations in building E13.16

View over excavations in building E13.16

After a day of shovelling out windblown sand, the nicely preserved clay floor of the first room was revealed, with a circular hearth (60 cm diameter) still containing ash and charcoal. I was thrilled to find a nice piece of Marl D amphora handle within the hearth, consistent with a late Ramesside date for these buildings.

Workman Hafif Mohamed revealing an ancient hearth

Workman Hafif Mohamed revealing an ancient hearth

The workmen moved next door, where a more uneven floor was uncovered, scattered with sand, ash, pottery sherds, charcoal and animal bone. At the east end of the room, perhaps inevitably, three large bread ovens emerged from the rubble. However, these are located right next to a blocked doorway, so they might not have been an original feature of the room. This is an important reminder that the layout of such buildings could change relatively quickly.

Necklace F6925 as it emerged from the deposits in E13.16

Necklace F6925 as it emerged from the deposits in E13.16

Above these ovens, several interesting finds were discovered: a polished greywacke dish, a copper alloy chisel and an ostracon with three lines of hieratic text, which awaits translation. The most aesthetically pleasing object was a necklace made of faience beads, still lying as originally strung (though the string had not survived).

Detail of necklace F6925, with gold and carnelian beads in the centre

Detail of necklace F6925, with gold and carnelian beads in the centre

The centre piece of the necklace was two small red carnelian beads flanking a beaten gold bead. After Neal Spencer photographed the necklace in situ, I used the remainder of the day to brush, remove and restring the beads, to preserve the arrangement of the necklace.

Metal blade F6919 found in E13.16

Metal blade F6919 found in E13.16

As this new building is one of the northernmost in the town, it has suffered badly from wind erosion: we can see multiple phases in the slope near the town wall. My task over this week is to try to untangle, and then document, the various layers.

There seems to be a vast number of ovens in this area beneath the floors of building E13.16, with lots of ash deposits, and charcoal pits. Do we have a bakery or brewery underneath building E13.16?

Watch this (rather ashy) space!

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Amara West 2013: initial discoveries in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of the chamberBarbara Chauvet, physical anthropologist

Once the workers had removed the fragments of the collapsed ceiling, we could finally start excavation of the eastern burial chamber in grave G243.

After removing the first few centimetres of windblown sand, the skulls of two more individuals appeared (in addition to the seven we found originally) – so there are at least nine people buried here.

Barbara excavating in the eastern burial chamber

Barbara excavating in the eastern burial chamber

Having brushed away some of the sand in the grave, the positions of each body became clear. At this stage of the excavation, there are four articulated skeletons, all overlying each other. All are adults, one particularly gracile (slender): two are oriented west-east, one north-south and at least one southwest-northeast.

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of the chamber

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of the chamber

Four complete pottery vessels were found lying in the northwest corner of the chamber, with traces of palm wood used for coffins around the bodies.

Barbara with the first object from the tomb, a complete beer jar, removed from the entrance to avoid damage when we removed the ceiling

Barbara with the first object to be excavated from the tomb, a complete beer jar, removed from the entrance to avoid damage when we removed the ceiling

All the objects and skeletons have to be carefully recorded before removal – photographed and drawn accurately. This is particularly important to allow us to age and sex individuals, and track pathological changes, as the bones might disintegrate during excavation.

Detail of skull of individual 243-4 with very gracile features (arrows indicating mastoid process and zygomatic bone) indicating that this was likely a female

Detail of skull of individual 243-4 with very gracile features (arrows indicating mastoid process and zygomatic bone) indicating that this was likely a female

As these skeletons are very dry and fragmentary the excavation is exhausting: crouched in the narrow entrance to the chamber, clogged with the remains of burials and associated objects. I often feel like a tightrope walker as I take measurements – we have to be flexible and adaptable, finding new poses to dig, draw and photograph.

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