Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2014: ancient and modern plant use

Smoke on the wheat fields

Philippa Ryan (Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, the British Museum) and Katherine Homewood (Anthropology, UCL)

Wheat fields on Ernetta; with smoke from dung fuel fires (and other paraphernalia) to deter birds and the host of biting namiti flies

Wheat fields on Ernetta; with smoke from dung fuel fires (and other paraphernalia) to deter birds and the biting namiti-flies

We are interviewing Nubian farmers in villages in northern Sudan to investigate the characteristics of customary Nubian agriculture and in what ways these have been impacted by new farming methods, population movements, dam and road building – as well as changing patterns of imports and trade.

Collecting crop weeds for animal fodder, Ernetta

Collecting crop weeds for animal fodder, Ernetta

The interviews are mainly focused on the car and electricity-free island of Ernetta, where the Amara West expedition house is located. We have been trying to find out about the main crops grown today and in the past, when there have been periods of crop changes and examples of continuities. To get as long a temporal view as possible our interview plan includes speaking to older farmers – some of whom are over 86 years old. We have been finding out about customary harvesting, threshing, storage and food preparation practices as well as about land-use and irrigation. We are also discussing what animals people keep, how this has changed and about foddering/grazing practices.

Removing crop weeds from wheat, Ernetta

Removing crop weeds from wheat, Ernetta

To see if there are any contrasts between the island of Ernetta and Nile bank farms we have also visited farmers in the local Nile bank town Abri. On our journey here from Khartoum we stopped to visit farmers in the Seliem basin (Dongola) and we also headed north Dal village, in the midst of the Nile cataract, to visit our cook Ali’s family, some of whom are farmers.

Irrigation canals, Ernetta

Irrigation canals, Ernetta

This research is part of a broader Arts & Humanities Research Council Early Career Research Grant Sustainability and subsistence systems in a changing Sudan which also incorporates archaeobotanical analysis from Amara West. The project seeks a better understanding of the relationship between people and the Nile Valley environment in northern Sudan, and how present-day and ancient peoples (in the late second millennium BC) have found solutions for coping with a risky environment. The information from contemporary farmers and Amara West will be placed within a long temporal overview of what is known about crop choices within the region, including from archaeobotanical, ethnographic, and agricultural studies.

Traditional grinding installation in a house on Ernetta

Traditional grinding installation in a house on Ernetta

It is possible that some aspects of the ethnographic study will help inform our understanding of the archaeological record; for instance about the potential uses and means of processing certain plants and about some elements of crop husbandry and storage. Today on Ernetta, crops are harvested by hand and a threshing machine was only introduced within the last 10 years, so we have good accounts of previous threshing methods for various cereals and other crops.

Storage bin in abandoned house, Ernetta

Storage bin in abandoned house, Ernetta

Some categories of plants are grown in particular soils. There is a central mill on the island for cereals but some people still use more traditional grinding implements for other seeds (including certain pulses). Whilst using sacks is now common for food storage, occasional households still have traditional storage facilities.

Change is evident here – even as recently as after the Merowe dam was completed, changing the Nile regime and soil deposition patterns. How did people in the past cope with significant environmental change, as we know occurred at Amara West in the late second millennium BC?

Tethered animals in fields after fuul-bean harvest

Tethered animals in fields after fuul-bean harvest

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

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