Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2014: looking behind the colour

Colour analysis in the laboratory

Kate Fulcher, UCL & British Museum

I am currently in the first year of my PhD, studying the technology of colour in New Kingdom vernacular architiecture, with an emphasis on Tell el-Amarna and Amara West. Focusing on the pigments used to decorate people’s houses, I travel to Sudan for the first time later this month to work at Amara West. I have already seen some samples of pigments from the site, but it will be interesting to see with my own eyes where they came from and the context they were found in. While I’m at Amara West I’ll be looking for more pigments, and for evidence of pigment production.

Ceramic sherd with blue and yellow pigment, probably a painting palette, from the magazine area E13.14

Ceramic sherd with blue and yellow pigment, probably a painting palette, from the magazine area E13.14

Most pigments are simply ground up rocks, and grindstones have already been found that were clearly used for grinding pigment. But a blue pigment commonly used in Egypt, usually called Egyptian blue, was manufactured from silica (sand or quartz), lime, a flux (either plant ashes or natron), and a source of copper to give it the blue colour.

These ingredients had to be heated in the correct ratios to a high temperature (850-1000⁰C), and this process leaves behind evidence in the form of industrial waste. Often production of this pigment occurred where glass was also being made, and so I will be looking for crucibles and slag that are the remains of glass or pigment production.

Kate using the Raman Spectrometer at the British Museum to investigate the pigment on a piece of wall plaster from Amara West.

Kate using the Raman Spectrometer at the British Museum to investigate the pigment on a piece of wall plaster from Amara West.

I am taking a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to Sudan. This is a handheld device that can be used to tell us which elements are present in a sample, which is one way of working out which pigment is being used. I also may be able to use this instrument to look at the pigments on the coffin fragments excavated from the cemetery. It would be interesting to see if they are different from the ones used to paint walls – perhaps the people who lived here saved the more expensive imported pigments for their coffins, and used cheaper more locally available pigments on their house walls?

Pieces of plaster bearing red and black paint from Grave 201

Pieces of plaster bearing red and black paint from Grave 201

We hope to transport some samples back to the museum, with the permission of the National Corporation for Antiquities & Museums (Sudan) for further analyses, to find out more where the pigments came from and how they were made and used.

Kate’s PhD is a Collaborative Doctoral Award, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #AmaraWest

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Filed under: Amara West 2014, New Kingdom

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