Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2014: A Nubian perspective on excavating Amara West

Mohamed Sayed on Ernetta island

Shadia Abdu Rabo (curator, Sudan National Museum) and Neal Spencer (Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan).

The same place, a different time. Now excavating in the ancient town, we had the opportunity to excavate more recent memories at Amara West, looking back over the last 60 years. Earlier this week, we sat down with Mohamed Sayed, who has lived in Ernetta – the island that hosts us each seaosn – all his life. Mohamed was born in 1939, one of only three surviving men on the island to have worked during the Egypt Exploration Society excavations at Amara West in the late 1940s.

Mohamed recounting memories of excavating Amara West in the 1940s

Mohamed recounting memories of excavating Amara West in the 1940s

As with many excavations, recorded memories are dominated by the excavators, usually through ensuing publications read only by interested scholars. In the case of Amara West, that lends a rather British view of the previous work. But Mohamed, through his memories, offers a different view of those excavations. At the age of 10, Mohamed joined the
Egypt Exploration Society excavations in the ancient town. Mohamed described to us how the family needed the wages offered. Under the direction of H.W. Fairman (1947-48) and then Peter Shinnie (1948-49, 1949-50), foremen (rayyis) were brought from Egypt, with workmen brought from towns and villages across Nubia, as far north as Wadi Halfa (170km from Amara West).

Peter Shinnie at Amara West in 1948-49. Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

Peter Shinnie at Amara West in 1948-49. Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

These men were accommodated in tents and wood-and-reed shelters near the ancient town. But those living locally, like Mohamed, stayed at home, and took a sailboat at 6am every morning, from the eastern (downstream) end of Ernetta. Mohamed recounted how high winds could delay the crossing – the British archaeologists traveled by rowboat over from Amara East. On some days, high winds stopped work altogether, but the men were still paid. Mohamed remembers details of the work – from carrying baskets of spoil, the narrow-gauge railway used to move spoil, and baksheesh payments for the discovery of objects. One of his fellow workers, pleased to have received payment for a scarab one day, found himself dismissed when he brought an object from elsewhere and claimed it had just been found. Mohamed recalls seeing inscribed stones, beads and amulets come out of the ground, and pottery not selected for study being discarded into the sand dunes and tamarisk trees by the Nile. Today, we worry about the nimiti-flies, but Mohamed claims they were much worse in 1940s. He emphasised to us that the salary represented a considerable income for his family.

The remainder of the year saw Mohamed help his family tends to fields on Ernetta. Marriage to Fatma in 1972 prompted Mohamed to reduce the number of excavation projects he worked on. Moving into a new house near his father’s, Mohamed has since focused on farm work. He still lives in that house today, with two of his daughters and a son; three other daughters and four sons have left Ernetta to live elsewhere in Sudan and in Saudi Arabia. Fatma passed away recently, but Mohamed’s second wife Aisha still lives nearby. There is still a family connection to Amara West – son Amjad worked in cemetery C in 2009, and one of the site policemen, Rami, is Mohamed’s nephew.

Mohamed in his fields, with house in the background

Mohamed in his fields, with house in the background

We frequently see Mohamed as we walk around the island, tending to fields of fuul-beans, barley, wheat, fenugreek and chick peas. Our conversations with him offer a brief glimpse of a different memory of excavating a New Kingdom town in Upper Nubia.

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, Egypt Exploration Society, Nubian

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