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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: a kaleidoscope of life and death in Egyptian Kush

Aerial view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to rightNeal Spencer, British Museum

Fifty-six days after flying out to Khartoum, I landed this morning at a grey, icy, Heathrow. The temperature gradient – perhaps a difference of 35°C – is but one reminder that our sixth season of fieldwork at Amara West is now complete. Many of the team are still in the dig house today, completing documentation and closing up our house ahead of the next season. I spent yesterday finishing paperwork in Khartoum, while also working with curators Shadia Abdu Rabo and Ikhlas Abdel-Latif to accession our newly-discovered objects into the collection of the Sudan National Museum.

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Yet as with all archaeological projects, the end of the season really marks the beginning of the next, and most time-consuming, phase: digitisation, post-excavation work and, trying to make sense of it all. It’s a little overwhelming to consider the kaleidoscope of work undertaken by a team of 20 specialists from nine countries (from Australia to Sudan) over the last weeks. Many thanks to everyone, and also all those in Abri, Ernetta island and Khartoum who made the season possible – amidst sandstorms, plagues of biting flies, chilly mornings, electrical blackouts, dawn boat journeys on the Nile, crocodile sightings and fantastic breakfasts with the workmen….

The town

Within the walls of the ancient town, we continued work in neighbourhood E13. Sarah Doherty and Shadia Abdu Rabo revealed the full plan of E13.5, a medium-sized dwelling at the east end of the block. The inhabitants had fitted out each room with sandstone doorways, many built using re-used blocks from an earlier building, one naming an ‘overseer of the granaries, Horhotep’, presumably one of the high-ranking officials who lived at Amara West. Unlike other houses in the block, the bread ovens, charcoal pits and cereal grinding emplacements were housed in an annex outside the house itself, excavated by Shadia. Despite plans to investigate the phase beneath, we were instead tempted north of the house, where Sarah revealed parts of another house (?) and an area with large ovens or kilns – with tantalising evidence hinting at faience production.

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Mat Dalton completed the excavation of the communal area E13.13, which provided food processing, and charcoal making, facilities, for the inhabitants of houses E13.3-N and E13.3-S. Returning to the ‘white house’ E13.7, Mat revealed the striking schist and sandstone floor of one of the large storage rooms that characterised the area before it became a block of houses. Mat also spent time taking block samples of floor layers and occupation deposits from the excavated houses: these will be studied as thin sections under high-magnification, revealing ancient activities invisible to the naked eye.

Right in the heart of the neighbourhood – a room rather difficult to find! – Anna Stevens grappled with a small space that provides important evidence for many building phases, how the magazines with vaulted roofs were converted for use as houses. The ancient inhabitants were clearly unhappy with the idea of living in long corridor-like spaces, and went to considerable lengths to change the proportions created by the existing architecture.

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

We managed to empty all previously excavated rooms in the neighbourhood so that Susie Green could capture untold gigabytes of digital images. These will be used to create a 3D model using the concept of ‘Structure from Motion’ – all with the challenge of photographing everything before the sun’s rays created shadows. The stunning kite photographs will not only embellish this visualisation, but also provided us with a new perspective of the site and its landscape.

Outside of the town walls, Rizwan Safir and Vera Michel persevered through layers of wall collapse and roofing remains – further hampered by deep sandpits left behind when the ancient brick walls were mined out. As the season ended, we had gained further insights into the different type of house sought by those who moved beyond the town walls; there may have been more space, but the new households had to cope with more exposure to the elements.

A flying visit from Alexandra Winkels, conservation scientist, allowed her to collect wall plaster samples which will be compared to sites from across Egypt, including Tell el-Amarna.

Cemetery C

The highlight of our third season in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, was the discovery of the largest tomb yet found at Amara West: G244. Beneath a low mound (tumulus), the vertical shaft led to two burial chambers, one to the east, one to the west. What was not expected were the three other chambers.

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Patience was needed as the first chamber was meticulously excavated, with remains of painted coffins and a fine ceramic assemblage, being studied by Loretta Kilroe. More work is needed here, but the tomb seems to be late Ramesside in date.

Just to the north, Barbara Chauvet spent most of her season in the eastern chamber of a post-New Kingdom niche grave (G243), where another complicated array of superimposed bodies needed disentangling. Mohamed Saad, archaeologist at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, and participant in the Institute of Bioarchaeology Amara West Field School, excavated the smaller western chamber, as well as a number of niche burials in the southeast of the cemetery.

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan National Museum SNM 34615).

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan
National Museum SNM 34615).

Back in the house …

Our expedition house was home to all the necessary tasks of excavation paperwork, processing archaeological samples and of course organising and storing the finds and masses of ceramics. Marie Vandenbeusch documented all the finds from town and tombs, from epigraphic recording of the inscribed blocks in E13.5, matching scarabs with ancient clay impressions, to wondering what to make of enigmatic pieces of worked clay. Alongside rediscovering wonderful wooden objects from our 2009 excavations, with Michaela, Marie also found time to continue work on the roofing fragments from houses – with Vera providing a particularly steady supply from villa D12.5.

The masses of sherds from the town were processed on site by Alice Springuel and Anna Garnett. After an early season handover from Marie Millet (now directing the Louvre excavations at el-Muweis), Anna is studying our town ceramics, particularly the dating and whether certain types of vessel are associated with particular rooms or spaces. Amidst many pottery drawings, Alice managed archaeological illustrations of key artefacts – from scarabs to fertility figurines.

The first weekend saw us host a small workshop on ceramics in New Kingdom Nubia, though discussions ranged well beyond pottery, with colleagues from Kerma, Sai, Sesebi and Tombos.

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Philip Kevin, British Museum conservator, joined us for the last three weeks, and proved invaluable in recovering remains of headrests and painted coffins from the cemetery, coaxing out hidden inscriptions in the town, and revealing the exquisite decoration on copper alloy cobras (perhaps statue fittings) found by Shadia in the 2012 season.

Last, but not least…

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin returned for a third season to investigate the river systems in and around Amara West. Easily outpacing all other team-members in terms of logistical demands, we nonetheless managed two deep trenches which provide fantastic slices through the history of the Nile river in this region. One trench ran across the edge of the ancient island and into the channel bed, north of the temple, the other in the ‘Neolithic Nile’ 2km into the desert. We have the C14 dates already, and await the OSL dates, but a very exciting story is emerging … watch this space.

Returning to the Museum

Unlike nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations conducted by many museums, excavations in Egypt and Sudan no longer lead to the acquisition of objects for collections in other countries. So why does the British Museum still undertake archaeological projects? New techniques – including those outlined above – mean we gain insights into the ancient past, and its people, that were not possible in previous excavations. None of the objects in the British Museum, or indeed any collection, can be fully interpreted without understanding the particular time, place, culture and indeed natural environment experienced and created by those who made the objects. Amara West provides an opportunity to better understand life in Nubia during the late second millennium BC, in a region where the climate was deteriorating. It was an area under the control of the mighty Ramesside state, ruled from the royal residence city of Per-Ramses, far away near the Mediterranean.

An important pharaonic town in a long-occupied land, the inhabitants of Amara West lived in an age of international diplomacy, cosmopolitan taste and competing superpowers. We are building up a picture of how people lived, and treated their dead, at this town, but also the nature of the Egyptian entanglement with local, Nubian, cultures, and the responses to considerable ecological changes. A story very relevant to the present.

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Amara West 2013: luxury from afar

fragment of a Canaanite amphoraAnna Garnett, Egyptologist and trainee curator, British Museum/Manchester Museum

When excavating settlement sites in Egypt and Nubia, the most common pottery vessels that a ceramicist will encounter are those made from Nile silt, the most easily accessible type of clay in both ancient and modern times, and marl (desert) clay. Sometimes we are also lucky enough to identify vessels and sherds made from clays which can be identified as imports, i.e. transported to Egypt and Nubia from outside the Nile Valley. These vessels are very distinctive and notably different in shape and fabric (the mixture used for the pot).

C4672, fragment of a Canaanite amphora from house E13.5

C4672, fragment of a Canaanite amphora from house E13.5

Perhaps the most common imports found in the ancient houses at Amara West are Canaanite vessels, which often take the form of large storage amphorae with round handles, carinated (angled) shoulders and a conical base. Sometimes, if we are very lucky, these amphorae are inscribed on the outside with details of the commodities they carried, which included oil, resin, honey and incense.

C4691, Mycenaean stirrup jar from house E13.7

C4691, Mycenaean stirrup jar from house E13.7

Mycenaean vessels known as stirrup jars have previously been found in the town, and this year is no exception. A beautiful sherd from a painted stirrup jar was excavated last week in the back room of house E13.7 (which also yielded a seal impression) which would have been used to store oil and perfume. Such luxury goods were imported into Egypt from the Mediterranean, and must have then made their way to Nubia and Amara West.

Caution is required though: very good imitations were made in Egypt, using local clays. This, and other sherds, will be subjected to microscopic, thin section and Neutron Activation Analysis, to compare the fabric with similar stirrup jars in the British Museum collection from Greece and Rome, and with other Mycenaean sherds from Amara West. These methods should provide indications of where the pottery vessels were made.

The study of these important vessels is essential when attempting to unravel the story of trade networks in the ancient Nile Valley, the Mediterranean and the Near East, and they illustrate that Amara West was certainly not an isolated settlement but was instead a vibrant centre for the trade of commodities and ideas between different peoples. Again, we need to be careful: some of these vessels may just have been re-used as containers, no longer holding the valuable commodities they were designed for.

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Amara West 2013: structure from motion in a pharaonic town

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5Susie Green, UCL

This Sunday I photographed the last of the rooms in neighbourhood E13, in the dawn light before the sun rose. In fact we cheated a little that morning: Sarah Doherty and eight of our site workers held a large sheet of tarpaulin, against the strong wind, to keep the sun off the walls for an extra 15 minutes.

Susie photographing a room with some help in removing sunlight

Susie photographing a room with some help in removing sunlight

I have been at Amara West for just over two weeks. My task here is to create a pointcloud and ultimately a 3D model of the houses in E13 using a process called ‘Structure from Motion’. This technique uses a computer programme to find matching points in multiple images of the same subject. These can be triangulated to find the position of the camera and the points in 3D space and from this create an accurate representation of the subject built up from millions of points. The results are similar to those obtained by laser scanning, but without the need for expensive and unwieldy equipment.

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

I have been working my way through the town room by room. In order to get the best results, each room must be photographed in diffuse light as the harsh shadows of the sun obscure the details in the mud brick. This usually means I have to work very fast in the half hour before the sun rises. On the day of the big sandstorm, I could work all morning, as the airborne sand softened the sun’s rays. Saturday granted us an hour of cloudy sky: the first cloud I have seen in two weeks.

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

Most of my processing will be done back in London, but I have carried out some tests here to make sure everything is working properly. One of these is to bring together the two halves of the low bench (mastaba) in house E13.7 and virtually remove the later wall that cuts it in half. This allows us to see the mastaba and gain a sense of its size and proportions – it is unusually long for a mastaba in a pharaonic house.

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5, with reconstruction of kite camera positions (Produced in Meshlab)

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5, with reconstruction of kite camera positions (Produced in Meshlab)

The ‘Structure from Motion’ process also allows aerial photographs to be used for detailed models of the ground elevation: a large number of photographs can be linked together as a mosaic to create a very high resolution map of the ground, such as with villa D12.5 being excavated outside the walls.

For this reason I have also brought my kite and camera rig to Amara West and I have taken thousands of aerial pictures of the town and surrounding area. I hope to be able to contribute to the understanding of the area and how it related to the Nile when Amara West was inhabited.

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Amara West 2013: scarabs – for life and death

Steatite scarab F9167 placed over seal impression F7250Marie Vandenbeusch, Egyptologist, Geneva University

Archaeology does not often produce immediate results, with the understanding of how different buildings, deposits and objects relate to each other being a gradual, often very slow, process. It can be quite exciting when connections are made.

Jars and other large ceramic vessels were often closed with clay stoppers, then stamped with impressions to identify their owner, or the contents. Doorways could also be sealed. In the town at Amara West, we often come across seal-impressions: small nodules of hard clay, bearing the impression of a stamp – or more frequently a difficult-to-read fragment of an impression. The stamps are oval in shape, most frequently the result of a scarab or similar object being pressed into the clay when still wet. And of course, we also come across scarabs in our excavations…

On Friday, as part of processing finds, I was looking at a small seal-impression, which Anna Stevens had discovered in the back room of house E13.7, which we first started working in during the 2011 season, a few days before. I had a strange sense of déjà vu as I looked at the design. Running to the storeroom, I found what I was looking for: F9167, a scarab found in grave 234 within cemetery C.

Steatite scarab F9167 with design impressed upon seal impression F7250

Steatite scarab F9167 with design impressed upon seal impression F7250

Neal Spencer and I spent some time inspecting both scarab and impression, examining small details to confirm they match: a crowned falcon, a winged rearing cobra, and other elements within an area only 1.5 cm long. Other signs are of slightly different dimensions, so we might never be 100% sure. Stamping into wet mud does not always leave a perfect mirror image of the original.

Steatite scarab F9167 placed over seal impression F7250

Steatite scarab F9167 placed over seal impression F7250

Nonetheless, the discovery strongly suggests a close link between the house and the grave, and shows the scarab was not only made for the burial. The impression was found beneath a sealed floor layer in house E13.7, which might allow us to more closely date the burial within Grave 234. It was presumably discarded from nearby, having been used to mark something – a vessel or other container? – as sealed. We can even wonder if the individual buried with the scarab may have lived in the house we now call E13.7… but that’s probably pushing the evidence too far!

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Amara West 2013: getting to grips with this year’s villa

Rizwan recording the schist-paved siloNeal Spencer, British Museum

In 2009, we excavated a relatively well-preserved large villa (E12.10) outside the western town wall. The magnetometry survey data (thanks to the British School in Rome team) had allowed us to identify the structure as a villa and see the layout of its room, and excavation progressed with few surprises.

Rooms appeared much as we expected: food preparation areas (ovens, grinding emplacements), a staircase, room with a central hearth, and more private areas at the back that included a paved room with a mastaba (low bench) and a small room with bed alcove. A sondage (small test excavation) through the floor revealed rubbish layers indicating the villa was of late New Kingdom date, probably built over a century after the walled town was first founded.

Plan of villa E12.10, excavated in 2009

Plan of villa E12.10, excavated in 2009

Villa D12.5 has, in contrast, been far from straightforward. Excavated under the supervision of Vera Michel and Rizwan Safir, the first weeks were filled with recording seemingly endless layers of roof and wall collapse. At the back, southern end, of the villa, deep pitting had destroyed much of the architecture, leaving us with the feeling of being condemned to an eternal sandpit (regularly topped-up courtesy of the north wind).

Rizwan recording the schist-paved silo

Rizwan recording the schist-paved silo

As the progress of excavation slowed, and more time was spent clarifying details and recording the architecture, a clearer picture started to emerge – sometimes through small areas of flooring or wall that survived the massive pitting. In discussion today, just before the workmen left, Rizwan, Vera and I sketched out a ‘story’ for the villa. The ‘story’ is likely to change, or be refined, but it’s an important starting point.

Villa D12.5. Orthogonal photograph by Susie Green produced from kite photography, with later phase additions greyed out.

Villa D12.5. Orthogonal photograph by Susie Green
produced from kite photography, with later phase
additions greyed out.

It is now clear that villa D12.5 has many of the same features as that we excavated previously. A long rectangular plan, dominated by a large courtyard. A suite of rooms dedicated to food processing and storage, though here the storage is in the form of circular silos not rectangular bins. A broad room in the centre of the house – perhaps once provided with a hearth. The back part of the villa is too damaged to reconstruct, but the other villa suggests we should expect a central reception room, perhaps with one or two rooms off it, including a master bedroom.

Two parts of the villa – greyed-out in the picture – are later additions – new walls which subdivided the large courtyard.

There are important differences between the two villas:

 

  1. The front door faces east. If it had faced north, the winds and sand would soon have become unbearable for those living inside (the other villa faces south, so does not have this problem).
  2. The food processing area is at the back, not near the front of the villa. Again, placing it in the south-eastern corner means any smoke, ash and rubbish from these rooms would not have blown into the villa itself.

Many questions remain unanswered. Is the staircase inside the front door – an unusual position – original? Were the additional rooms needed when the villa became home to several households or families? What are the buildings built against the west wall of the new villa?

In the coming days, we’ll look at the masses of pottery from a rubbish layer under the villa, which will provide a first hint at the date of this structure.

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Amara West 2013: what a difference a day makes

Revealing an inscriptionPhilip Kevin, conservator, British Museum

On Tuesday of this week, after a number of days consolidating and uncovering painted plaster from several coffins within burial chamber G244 with various degrees of success, Michaela Binder revealed the top and part of the base of a wooden headrest. There has been poor wood preservation in this chamber due to hyperactive termites and wood rot, and possible flooding. The survival of the top and part of the base in what appeared to be a reasonable state of preservation was received with excitement, but the underside of the base was badly tunneled by termites. It was very weak and required slow step-by-step excavation and consolidation.

Philip revealing the faience situla in Grave 244

Philip revealing the faience situla in Grave 244

When removing the soil and wind-blown sand next to the base a white curved surface appeared and soon after the first black decorative lines were visible, including lotus leaf and palm branch motifs. The shape, colour and surface texture indicated this was a decorated situla, a round-bottomed vessel, lying horizontally in the soil and sand. It appeared complete but with a number of old (dark) cracks along its length.

Philip back in the ‘laboratory’ of our dig house, reconstructing the situla

Philip back in the ‘laboratory’ of our dig house,
reconstructing the situla

On lifting it, the cracks opened up and two fragments collapsed into the vessel. The whole object was unstable and any delay in reconstructing the vessel would risk further damage to the edges of the breaks. After consolidating the edges with a polymer in a solvent, to give the weak break edges and surrounding material additional strength, more consolidant was applied to the top of the cracks and allowed to run and settle along its length naturally.

The vessel was reconstructed “dry” (without adhesive) to find the correct location and order of reconstruction, then with the position determined the vessel was adhered. One triangular section 4×4 cm (widest points) remains missing – an old break, and it is still hoped that we will find this fragment near the chamber floor level.

The next day I was “out on the town” working within room E13.5.3 excavated by Sarah. There were a number of inscribed stone pieces – lintels and jambs – which had been plastered over and reused as door jambs.

Philip ‘on the town’, revealing the inscription re-used in house E13.5

Philip ‘on the town’, revealing the inscription
re-used in house E13.5

The inscription on one lintel was visible only at the bottom, with the first few hieroglyphs positioned upside down. The remainder of the inscription (“the interesting bit”….no pressure!) lay under a thick course of whitish plaster. Using a sharp pointed tool and working in from the edge of the plaster it was possible to cleave small pieces from the surface – direct pressure to shear between plaster and stone is likely to pull some surface of the stone away.

After a couple of hours the inscription could be read: ‘An offering that the king gives, to Amun-Ra, lord of the thrones of the two lands’.

Lets see what tomorrow brings.

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Amara West 2013: faience production in the town?

Area E13.17 with a large kiln or ovenSarah Doherty, Egyptologist and archaeologist, Cardiff University

After trying to untangle an area with a lot of ovens and charcoal pits, which we have designated E13.16, I moved further towards the thick northern wall of the town. Wind erosion has removed the northern part of E13.16, revealing an earlier phase of architecture.

Area E13.17 with large kiln or oven to left

Area E13.17 with large kiln or oven to left

This new building, christened E13.17, featured what we have called the ‘mother oven’: the largest seen yet at Amara West. A 105 cm ring of fired clay, surrounded by a line of mud bricks, two smaller ovens sit beside it, surrounded by pits filled with charcoal.

Fragments of pottery crucibles, with copper alloy deposits on interior

Fragments of pottery crucibles, with
copper alloy deposits on interior

As we removed windblown sand from inside the oven, the interior walls were blue-tinged. Close to the ovens, in a pit almost solidly packed with ash, pieces of melted copper alloy, crucibles encrusted with copper slag, and lots of fused and crushed faience beads started to appear.

In other nearby pits, I encountered pottery sherds thick with fly ash (a by-product of burning fuel in the kiln), some with lime frit adhering. Ceramic dishes with red-painted rims – a popular piece of tableware at Amara West – were found covered with a black glaze-like deposit on the inside.

Clay mould, perhaps for a faience inlay?

Clay mould, perhaps for a faience inlay?

And finally, two days ago, we found a clay mould, for a roughly triangular object (or depending which archaeologist you ask, a bird, white crown, or a cow’s head… take your pick!). In any case, this might be for making a small inlay to decorate a larger object.

Could this hint at a faience production site here at Amara West?

Faience, a popular luxury product in ancient Egypt, was used to make scarabs, amulets, inlays, vessels and shabtis, along with many other object types. It was made by mixing copper/ cobalt, soda, water, lime and silica; drying the mixtures and then finally firing it.

The glassy surface can be formed in various ways, including efflorescence. Faience comes in various colours, most typical are a light blue and a turqouise blue.

Faience? The case against:

  1. The oven, apart from its large size, looks remarkably similar to the other bread ovens.
  2. The oven has no “glassy mudbricks” as one might note on a kiln fired at high temperatures.
  3. So far only one mould for making faience inlays in has been found, and one would perhaps expect many more, as at Amarna site O.45.1.
  4. We find relatively little faience on site!

Faience? The case for:

  1. The oven is much larger than any other in the area, and is arguably not domestic.
  2. Faience is normally fired at 750 °C, so unlike pottery kilns, does not need to reach very high temperatures – e.g. 900 °C for some types of ceramic.
  3. We have many pieces of copper and a glassy deposit sticking to pots, perhaps used to hold small objects placed in the kiln.

What do you think? Convinced?

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Amara West 2013: furniture in the dust

Fragments of furnitureMarie Vandenbeusch, Geneva University and Michaela Binder, Durham University

Fragment of wood with wooden dowel still in place

Fragment of wood with wooden dowel still in place

As an excavator or a finds registrar, the fragments of wood found in a grave – termite eaten, small, broken and often powdery – are rather challenging to comprehend in terms of the original objects.

The 2009 excavations within post-New Kingdom chamber tombs (about 1000-800 BC) in cemetery C yielded an unexpected mass of wood fragments – which filled a series of large plastic bags we have only just managed to turn our attention to. The burial chambers were heavily disturbed and the wooden fragments were not found in their original position, so only a small amount of them had been singled out as diagnostic finds at the end of the 2009 season.

Time and patience were needed, and this last week we both embarked on many afternoons of sifting through the dusty fragments. Fragments from each archaeological context were laid out on a large metal tray. It was still not possible to identify meaningful shapes with many fragments, but some elements were distinctive – and we encountered some nice surprises.

Fragments of furniture from grave G201: funerary beds and a headrest

Fragments of furniture from grave G201: funerary beds
and a headrest

Many fragments belonged to coffins: simple wooden planks, some with remnants of painted decoration. Also distinctive are the fragments of Nubian funerary beds, identifiable on the basis of better examples found in other graves (G214, for example).

The terminals of the bed legs can be square or curved, sometimes carved with decorative lines. Finely-worked fragments of headrests – occasionally decorated with lines in a wavy pattern – were also encountered. Fragments of crossbeams, maybe also from beds, and pieces of delicate baskets or dowels were also found, some still embedded in other pieces of wood.

Emerging from the storeroom: Marie and Michaela after an afternoon sorting dusty old wood

Emerging from the storeroom: Marie and Michaela after an afternoon sorting dusty old wood

Despite a daily covering in fine, ancient, wood dust, we are learning more and more about the fine wooden funerary objects being placed with the burials of the inhabitants of Amara West.

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Amara West 2013: the latest from Cemetery C

Philip Kevin lifting a particularly well preserved coffin fragmentMichaela Binder, Durham University

Time is flying and the end of the season approaches fast.

Philip Kevin lifting a particularly well preserved coffin fragment in G244

Philip Kevin lifting a particularly well preserved coffin fragment in G244

While British Museum conservator Philip Kevin and I are busy in the first chamber of G244, entangled among remnants of painted coffins, Mohamed has joined Barbara in G243 to open the second burial chamber on the western side.

Mohamed crouching in the narrow western burial chamber of G244

Mohamed crouching in the narrow
western burial chamber of G244

Compared to Barbara’s eastern chamber, this one turned out to be tiny, with just enough space for one person to work.

In contrast to the busy eastern chamber, only four burials were placed here. A young female was buried within a funerary container of palm tree wood, now in very bad condition. This individual was associated with jewellery: a bracelet of small blue faience beads placed around her left arm.

The remains of the other three bodies, among them a child, were disarticulated, piled against the back wall.

At the same time, the number of bodies Barbara has found in the eastern chamber continues to rise: 13 individuals at the latest count.

Partly exposed child burial Sk243-14 in the centre of the eastern chamber of G243

Partly exposed child burial Sk243-14 in the centre of the eastern chamber of G243

Skeleton 243-14, placed in the centre of the chamber, is of a child who died between seven and nine years of age – according to the developmental stage of the teeth.

Miniature flask with the stopper originally sealing the vessel still intact

Miniature flask with the stopper originally
sealing the vessel still intact

Children of that age are generally not that common in ancient cemeteries. At Amara West however, we find a significant number of older children – could this reflect the presence of certain infectious diseases?

Associated with the burial was a small, red-burnished miniature flask. This finding ties in with earlier suspicions that children may have been buried accompanied with miniature versions of vessels associated with adult burials.

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Amara West 2013: looking at ancient houses through the present

A house in Ernetta with liasa mud plasteringMat Dalton, University of Cambridge

Is it possible to find out more about the distant past by looking at the way people live in the present? If so, how do you do this without potentially instilling the evidence we excavate with modern meanings – unfamiliar to the people who have left material for us to find?

I have recently started my PhD research in the Charles McBurney Laboratory for Geoarchaeology at the University of Cambridge, where I am applying high resolution geoarchaeological analyses to both mud plaster and informal ‘trampled earth’ floor deposits at ancient Amara West, mainly from within household contexts. I am interested in how the many different types of floors that we encounter at the site may reflect the uses or activities that a room was intended to perform, how these may have changed or remained the same over time, and how floors may have been used to intentionally shape the meaning and ambiance of particular spaces.

A house in Ernetta with liasa mud plastering.

A house in Ernetta with liasa mud plastering.

As a part of my PhD research I have been conducting a small amount of ethno-archaeological research on the vibrant living Nubian traditions of building and plastering in mud – still a part of everyday life in many households in our area. This research should help us understand the interaction between these technologies and the ancient inhabitants of Amara West.

More traditional and newer technologies often sit side by side in the houses we have visited, as in the case of this satellite television dish and now seldom used wheat-grinding emplacement.

More traditional and newer technologies often sit
side by side in the houses we have visited, as in the
case of this satellite television dish and
now seldom used wheat-grinding emplacement.

The economic, historical and cultural context of Nubian people living in northern Sudan today is of course very different from that of the ancient inhabitants of Amara West. Nevertheless, there are also similarities, especially in terms of local environment, access to almost identical raw materials (clay, plants etc.), and the use of apparently similar technologies to build, renovate and shape the houses in which they live.

Shadia Abdu Rabo and I have been visiting homes and conducting informal interviews with the inhabitants of Ernetta island (where we also live), and in other nearby towns and villages. It has been especially informative talking to women, who are usually responsible for the liasa (mud plaster) renovation of their house floors and walls, notably using a distinctive hand-applied application of fan-shaped patterning that is common in the Abri area. Our conversations have already given me much to think about, with interesting themes of temporality, changes in technology and perhaps even the expression of identity starting to emerge.

One example is concrete, a technological latecomer to the area and an increasingly popular choice for floor construction, particularly due to its longevity and the ease of keeping these surfaces clean.

Amani Ibrahim replaces the liasa on the bench-like mastaba outside her family’s house.

Amani Ibrahim replaces the liasa on the bench-like mastaba outside her family’s house.

Most women we interviewed stated that liasa needs replacing at least once a year – a very time and labour intensive activity. Many people we have talked to have opted to keep liasa in some areas of their house, generally the large central courtyard that is a feature of most Nubian houses. Some have mentioned money as the reason for continuing to use mud plaster – concrete is expensive – while others have cited the desire to keep a ‘traditional’ feel to their home.

A detail of the deeply grooved new liasa recently completed by Manal Abu Bakir

A detail of the deeply grooved new liasa recently
completed by Manal Abu Bakir

Another recurrent theme is that of individual creativity and technological innovation. Yesterday Shadia and I spoke with a neighbour, Manal Abu Bakir, who had finished re-plastering her courtyard and kitchen with unusually deeply-grooved liasa the day before. These deep grooves, she said, help to keep the floor in good condition for longer.

Manal also shared her recipe with us, finessed through trial and error since she first started laying floor and wall plaster, often with her sister Saïda, at around the age of 14. Two jerrakana (buckets) of river clay are mixed with two of cow or donkey manure and eight of turab, the grey windblown sand found around the island. Other women we have spoken to use very different recipes; another Ernetta resident, Amani Ibrahim, uses a mixture of equal parts of all three ingredients.

These varying mixtures would be clearly visible through geoarchaeological analysis. Will a similarly wide range of plaster compositions be apparent in samples from different houses in Amara West, where we cannot interview the inhabitants? Will it perhaps be possible to recognise individual choices and preferences within ancient sequences of overlaying plaster, or was the mud plaster technology in use at our site far more uniform?

Over the coming seasons and back in the laboratory in Cambridge I intend to test and check the new ideas and possible interpretations raised by this research against the very well-preserved data from the ancient town. As my research progresses, it will also be very important to consider the rich textual record available for Pharaonic Egypt, which will help to ensure that relevant insights gained from this small study of the present can be accurately applied to the past.

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