Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2015 (week 3): from phytoliths to papyrus

Neal Spencer (Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan) & Michaela Binder (bioarchaeologist)

Looking back at week 3, the change of pace – and a different kind of work pattern – is striking. The opening weeks of excavation at Amara West often lead to the relatively quick unveiling of whole buildings. Once this flurry of discovery comes to an end, a mass of recording and finer work is needed, before we consider whether to dig elsewhere, or excavate underneath buildings to reveal earlier phases.

Philippa sampling for phytoliths

Philippa sampling for phytoliths

This week saw intensive work in coaxing of a necklace out of the deposits in the room of one house, investigating invisible traces of ancient colour, and the sampling of phytolith deposits. Phytoliths are silica casts of plant matter that have decayed or burnt – they are often invisible but can appear as a powdery white material. Philippa Ryan is now dividing her time between studying modern practises and helping our with sampling of archaeobotanical remains – phytoliths are important as they can tell us about plant leaves and stems.

Tantalising fragments of papyri from house D12.8

Tantalising fragments of papyri from house D12.8

More difficult was the surprising discovery of … papyrus! No papyri have ever been found at Amara West, though its role as an important administrative centre make it likely some would have been present. In a small space that might have been a house entrance, Agnieszka Trambowicz encountered tiny fragments. For now, we have removed a bulk of the sandy matrix in which they were found, and we await our conservator to extract the pieces. We have not seen any ink on the the fragments yet.

Tomomi planning amidst an expanse of brick architecture

Tomomi planning amidst an expanse of brick architecture

New rooms, and houses, were revealed ths week. Tomomi Fushiya and Hilary Stewart have been planning additional house architecture visible on the surface.

House D11.1: the front extension

House D11.1: the front extension

This is but the first step: the plan of D11.1 seemed clear to us from the surface cleaning last year, but excavation has now revealed details of two rooms south of the ‘porch’, added out the front of the original building. The southerly one contains two ovens: why was such an important feature not part of the original house design? Ovens also appeared in a room against the north side of house D11.2, which Anna Stevens in investigating.

House D12.9, squeezed between existing, larger, houses

House D12.9, squeezed between existing, larger, houses

Matt Williams revealed a small three-room house (D12.9), which narrowly missed being obliterated by large pits to its west and north. The dwelling was set off an alley, backed onto a large villa (D12.5), and was one of the last built houses in this neighbourhood. Further south, David Fallon’s excavations are beginning to make sense of building D12.12. Realising a central wall is a later addition, we may be looking at a square central room of a house, with characteristic side/back room behind. The oven is tucked in a narrow courtyard, perhaps once an alley between two buildings.

Building D12.12: a house converted?

Building D12.12: a house converted?

Where next – move sideways and explore more houses, or dig deeper, under the excavated houses? We will probably not open any large new buildings, as it is unlikely we would finish excavating them within the season. Rather, some targeted excavations beneath the floors of some rooms may tell us about earlier phases of some houses, while what lies beneath will be important for understanding the early history of the area outside the walled town.

Michelle and veteran cemetery workman Nayel Mohamed cleaning the remnants of the chapel of G320

Michelle and veteran cemetery workman Nayel Mohamed cleaning the remnants of the chapel of G320

Up in the cemetery, both chapels were fully exposed, though team G320 (led by Michelle Gamble) had to take it a bit slower due to the complicated mixture of poorly preserved walls and (ancient?) looter cuts. Despite similarities in architectural components several differences are already evident. While in the better preserved tomb G321 the rim of shaft appears plain, in G320 it is lined with schist stones embedded in mud-mortar as well as white plaster, suggesting more care taken during construction. The floors in both chapels were prepared from alluvial silt with large amounts of water used to consolidate the surface. These floors may preserve traces of organic substances or plants used in funerary rituals, and will be analysed further by Mat Dalton (micromorphology) and Phillippa (archaeobotany) – as well as the footprints of ancient builders.

The pyramid tombs from above, with labels over the burial shafts, awaiting excavation.

The pyramid tombs from above, with labels over the burial shafts, awaiting excavation.

On the final day of week 2, team G321 started removing the fill in the vertical entrance shaft. As these had never been deliberately backfilled by the people using the grave, they only contain sand blown in over the millennia after their abandonment. To our delight, there are also no traces of substantial looting, often evident through bones or sherds scattered in the fill, yet. What awaits us at the bottom will become clear next week!

Glazed scarab with depiction of the god Ptah, from area E13.17

Glazed scarab with depiction of the god Ptah, from area E13.17

As with the site work, the house team experience moments of excitement amongst methodical work and recording. Registering finds can mean a nice scarab, or faience jewellery, but more frequently enigmatic pieces of worked clay or grindstone fragments. The ‘ceramic counters’ – which could have been used for many tasks – are found in vast quantities, and are also (to be frank), a little tedious, whether in the hand of excavator or finds registrar. This bag label sums up the prevailing attitude:

Ubiquitous ‘counters’, and one team-member’s view expressed on a finds bag label

Ubiquitous ‘counters’, and one team-member’s view expressed on a finds bag label

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, conservation, funerary, New Kingdom, objects, settlement

Amara West 2015: necklace lost in the garden?


Manuela Lehmann, archaeologist (Freie Universität Berlin)

Excavating the necklace in house D11.1
Kate Fulcher and I combined efforts to reveal a necklace found nestled next to garden plots found beneath the side room of house D11.1. This work was best in the early morning hours, before the wind gets too strong. We cleaned the necklace and re-strung beads on new thread.

Necklace, Amara West, detail
The original thread – still in place – decays before us as we excavate. Nevertheless we managed to rescue some pieces as a sample for further analyses.

Necklace, Amara West
After removing the mudbrick rubble on top of the fragile beads, careful brushing revealed more and more stringed lines of necklace – each time we thought we were done, more would emerge. Unfortunately the wind became stronger, even blowing away beads, so we covered the area and will return next week.

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, conservation, New Kingdom, objects

Amara West 2015: views from the sky


Neal Spencer, Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

After two days of frustrating stillness and heat, a mighty wind arose today: our kite, laden with camera, could finally lift off.

Amara West town
Kite photography provides a different perspective on the excavations. This shot, part of a flight where the camera was set at an oblique angle, places the current excavations in context, against the backdrop of the Nile (flowing from right to left) and Jebel Abri. The walled town can be seen to the left, but the excavation teams cluster around the western suburb to the right. A prominent feature of the ancient site are the mounds of excavated spoil, some dating to the 1930s and 1940s, resulting from Egypt Exploration Society excavations, others from our work since 2008.

West suburb kite view
Most of today’s airtime was used for near vertical photography, here over the heart of the western suburb, with house D12.8 to centre, clear of windblown sand. The long shadows of men at top left indicate this was an early morning flight: we could not wait for the sun to be higher, as the wind can become too strong for the kite. Bottom left is house D11.2, peppered with white sugar sacks. These are in place to protect delicate surfaces from being scoured by the wind, ahead of detailed sampling and recording. These will be removed for final kite photography.

G31 pyramid tomb, Amara West
We finished with a flight over the cemetery on the desert escarpment. This view shows the pyramid monument of tomb G321 (with western edge destroyed) and the chapel that faces east towards the rising sun. Through kite photography, photography on the ground, 3D visualisations and drawings in plan and elevation, the monument is currently being fully documented. Then, and only then, will the shaft leading down to the burial chamber (here full of windblown sand, to bottom right) be excavated.

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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, Egypt Exploration Society, funerary, Kite Aerial Photography #KAP, New Kingdom, settlement, survey

Amara West 2015: blue – who knew?


Kate Fulcher, UCL/British Museum Collaborative PhD student

I am back at Amara West for a second season, as part of my AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award on “Painting Amara West: The technology and experience of colour in New Kingdom Nubia.” This time I am armed with an adapted camera that can detect minute quantities of Egyptian blue, which Giovanni Verri at the Courtauld Institute in London taught me to use. Egyptian blue luminesces in the infrared spectrum when it is excited by visible light, so if it can be photographed with an infrared-sensitive camera while illuminated it will glow very brightly. It is so bright that tiny pieces of remaining Egyptian blue that cannot be seen by eye can be captured in the photograph. To set up the camera the infrared filter is removed and a filter added to the lens that only allows infrared light to enter. Asthe photography is done in dim or dark light a strong flash is used with a filter on to remove infrared light, otherwise infrared from the flash or natural light would swamp the IR luminescence from the Egyptian blue.

Shrine fragment F5003
In 2011, the project excavated dozens of painted and moulded mud plaster fragments, recovered from the rubble in front of a mastaba in a large room in house E13.7, probably of late 19th dynasty date. The form of the fragments, with cavetto cornice and torus moulding, suggests a small niche, perhaps to hold a stela, was set above the mastaba: the image above shows a cavetto cornice, painted white.

Shrine fragment F5003, with Egyptian blue identified

Both the niche and the mastaba were repainted at least five times and traces of colours from these earlier phases are visible, including blue. This composite photograph overlays an image, where blue luminesces, above the standard image. The photographs of this fragment reveal a pattern of blue stripes across the curving cavetto cornice of the niche. I am currently working through all the fragments to help inform a better reconstruction of the original decoration.

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, conservation, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2015: footprint of a pyramid builder?


Michaela Binder, bioarchaeologist

AW15_2041
On the eighth day of excavation in Cemetery D at Amara West, inside the chapel of tomb G321, we came across the small imprints of toes (indicated by arrows in photograph), left in the wet mud, most likely during construction of the pyramid and its chapel. Tucked in a corner against the eastern side of the pyramid, such traces are an immediate link to the people who once built this funerary monument overlooking the ancient town, between 3300 and 3100 years ago.

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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom

Amara West 2015, week 2: pyramid(s), garden plots, old fish and farming


Neal Spencer (Keeper, Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum) and Michaela Binder (bioarchaeologist)

Each breakfast is accompanied by a threat that samak qadim (‘ancient fish’) will be amongst the dishes brought to site by our workers, from houses across Ernetta. Referring to tarkin, the local speciality of preserved fish worked into a paste and then mixed with the wheat pancakes (gurassa), it is a delicacy that is, at best, an acquired taste.

The corridor around house D11.1

The corridor around house D11.1

Amara West countered with its own samak qadim, during our second week of excavations, in the shape of an intact dried out spiny fish, sitting in an ancient deposit just outside house D11.2. While identification of species will await analyses by a specialist, Manuela Lehmann’s excavations in this space are interesting for many other reasons. This is the only house that is set within a walled compound, creating an L-shaped perimeter around the house proper. For what purpose? Privacy, increased protection from the sand, or simply a place to locate messy, dirty activities?

Fragile remnants of small garden plots

Fragile remnants of small garden plots

Excavations are ongoing, but patches of ash, a plastered basin, and some dividing walls suggest this might have been a busy space, probably not roofed. On the western side, very damaged remains of garden plots have started to appear – hinting at what lay beyond the town walls before the suburb was created. The southern part of the house continues to be excavated by Sarah Hitchens: we are now largely past the last structures inserted into the rooms, and revealing earlier floors.

The Big Pit, with architectural fragments at the base

The Big Pit, with architectural fragments at the base

Over in house D12.8, Matt Williams oversaw the emptying of the Big Pit. While not a favourite task for our workmen – who move between areas depending on the requirements of work each day – the pit has proved immensely instructive. While obliterating the southeastern room of the house, it clearly illustrated the sequence of house building in this corner of the suburb – D12.7, then D12.8, then D12.9 – as this neighbourhood became more densely occupied.

The room with column base at the front of house D12.8

The room with column base at the front of house D12.8

Out the front of house D12.8, Agnieszka Trambowicz revealed a large space with a stone column base at its centre. An unusually ostentatious entrance area for a house, as most dwellings here had simple open and/or unroofed spaces, often with food processing facilities.

Painted architecture from house D12.8 (F14039)

Painted architecture from house D12.8 (F14039)

A doorjamb from rubble further back in the house hints at the bursts of colour that once lifted the brown mud colour that predominates today. The arrival of Kate Fulcher is already prodcucing exciting results on colour – more on that soon! On the other side of the pit, Matt has been investigating a small 3 (or 4?) roomed house tucked off an alleyway, set against the western wall of villa D12.5. Dense layers of roof collapse in the middle room are still being investigated.

Earlier this week we posted images of Anna Stevens excavating the three-room house D11.2, built against the north wall of D11.1. A modest house, it is currently reminiscent of an archaeology textbook: roofing collapse in the first room, clean wind-blown sand in the second room (where ancient pots look like they were knocked off their stands just yesterday) and a surface of dirt and trampled sherds in the backroom. The coming weeks will hopefully hint at why the back room, in such a small house, was blocked up and plastered shut.

D12.12: a room with brick rubble - and stacked bricks

D12.12: a room with brick rubble – and stacked bricks

In the southeast part of the suburb, David Fallon is overseeing excavation of a building that continues to perplex us: a room without access from the others, another with bricks neatly stacked, and a dense concentration of dung-like material in one corner.

Mat Dalton, studying floors revealed by a pit (house D12.8)

Mat Dalton, studying floors revealed by a pit (house D12.8)

Amongst all these excavations, floors are revealed on an almost daily basis, in different rooms. Where there’s a floor, Mat Dalton is not far behind, recording in minute detail aspects of the surfaces before they are eroded or wind-scoured, and then taking samples for thin section laboratory analysis, which can reveal replastering episodes, different construction techniques and sometimes the presence of plants or waste matter.

Area E13.17 in the walled town: ash, more ash and kilns

Area E13.17 in the walled town: ash, more ash and kilns

Johannes Auenmüller and Tom Lyons continue peeling back layers of ancient activity in area E13. Referring to their area as the ‘city centre’ (distinct from our suburban archaeologists!) – the nature of the architecture, and especially the continual refurbishment of spaces with extremely hard mud floors, suggests these were structures other than houses. In the western part, Tom has worked through thick deposits of ash surrounding ovens, and is turning up slag suggestive of industrial activity. The most exciting find of the week was a small clay lump bearing a stamp seal-impression. Above a depiction of pharaoh subjugating a Nubian were the cartouches of Ramses III, consistent with our working hypotheses for the dating of this phase of architecture.

Base from a faience shabti, with name of a man ending '-ser' (F8465)

Base from a faience shabti, with name of a man ending ‘-ser’ (F8465)

The first week of cemetery excavations produced a flurry of excitement. Two substantial funerary structures were partly exposed, larger than any others found at Amara West so far. Michelle Gamble is working in tomb G320, a somewhat difficult undertaking, as the walls of the superstructure are heavily deflated, reduced to only traces of bricks. In addition, several robber cuts indicate heavy looting. Nevertheless, the dimensions of the structure, and its location, hint at the burial of someone of importance. The base of a faience shabti was recovered from the disturbed spoil around the destroyed tomb, bearing a name ending ‘-ser’. Given a Deputy of Kush named Pa-ser is known from inscriptions in the town, some Egyptological speculation as to who was buried here has been inevitable here in the dig house!

G321: pyramid and chapel in cemetery D

G321: pyramid and chapel in cemetery D

Immediately to the west, Michaela and Sofie Schiodt have already exposed the remarkably well preserved superstructure of G321, With a T-shaped funerary chapel and a large pyramid with a side length of 8m. It is the only one of its kind at Amara West, yet parallels similar structures at other New Kingdom Nubian sites such as Tombos, Soleb and Aniba. Over the next week we will start working on the interior of the chapel and excavate the shaft. A complete vessel deposited in the western corner suggests an intact chapel floor: offering potential for insights into the funerary rituals once performed here.

Philippa in the fields on the south side of Ernetta island

Philippa in the fields on the south side of Ernetta island

Alongside Tomomi’s work with the local community, Katherine Homewood and Philippa Ryan commenced work this week, to explore plant subsistence strategies in Ernetta and the surrounding area. The last few days have been taken up with meeting farmers, studying plants being grown on different types of land, such as that inundated by the river or the areas of higher, artificially irrigated, ground. Another stream of research is around the crops grown for market or for domestic consumption.

Back at the house, Hilary Stewart has completed registration of the 2014 finds, and is deeply ensconced in grindstones, quartz lumps (and the odd fertility figurine) from this season’s excavations. Alice Salvador is drawing pottery from tomb G244 and illustrating new finds, while Shadia Abdu Rabo is working on the small fired clay objects we think are associated with fishing. Meanwhile, Anna Garnett and Siobhann Shinn are usually to be found amongst sacks of pottery …

It became hot this week, with little wind. The swarms of nimiti-flies have not really arrived, but reports from our colleagues on other excavation projects upstream in Sai and Sedienga suggest trouble is imminent…

Ghazafi Mohamed, one of our veteran excavators, approves of progress in building D12.12

Ghazafi Mohamed, one of our veteran excavators, approves of progress in building D12.12

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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, anthropology, archaeology, funerary, Modern Amara, New Kingdom, Nubian, objects, pottery, settlement

Amara West 2015: Stories, memories and archaeology


Tomomi Fushiya, archaeologist

For our excavations and research in Amara West, local community members’ support is essential. While we chat with workers throughout the working day, often share breakfast and commute by boat between the site and Ernetta island where most workmen are from and the mission house is located, we don’t often hear what they think about their work, the site: What stories they have heard about Amara West? Do they come to visit the site apart from their excavation work? What do they know about our work or archaeology? Are archaeological sites considered a part of Nubian heritage – even a pharaonic town, like Amara West?

This season we began interviews with our workmen, and other local community members in Ernetta island and Abri, to listen to and record their stories, memories and views on the history, archaeology and heritage of Nubia. Here, I would like to share some of their narratives of Amara West – locally called Abkenissa or Birbe – to see the place from their perspectives.

Mohamed Ali Gindi
‘The trip name was rihera ila abkanissa (a trip to Abkenissa)’, Mohamed Ali Gindi, one of our workmen from Ernetta island, recalls. He visited Amara West for the first time in 1967, as a part of a history class in primary school. ‘The teacher took all students and made a trip to Amara West from our school in Amara East. ‘We used an old boat and visited the site… when we reached the site the teacher described the site and told them Christian was there… A king or head of Christian was in this place.’ He smiled and said ‘that is why it’s called Abkenissa’ – kenissa means church. The site was thought to be Christian, its pharaonic history unknown. The education curriculum has changed since and no school trips come to Amara West or other local sites.

We thought local people rarely visit the site, other than to work nearby farms or tend sheep and goats. But workmen, especially the younger ones, say that people from Ernetta come to Abkenissa for festivities such as weddings, the Eid (Islamic festivals) and national holidays, often bringing a sheep or goat to sacrifice, or a simple picnic with tea and biscuits.

Mubashr
Mubashr Salah Mohamed, who likes to listen to old men talking about heritage, told me that Abkenissa was believed to have a healing power. ‘In the past, people came here and they covered themselves … in a warm sand … Some diseases are treated by this … putting on their arms, sometimes their bodies. Dig a hole in sand … to be better from rheumatism or for some other diseases…’

We are not sure where exactly they practised this on the site, but we know now from time to time local people have made a visit to Amara West. More stories will emerge as we continue conversations in Amara West and Ernetta.


*Mohamed and Mubashr agreed to have their thoughts published.

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, anthropology, Modern Amara, Nubian traditions

Amara West 2015: the last days of house D11.2


Anna Stevens, Amara West Project Curator

Nubian and Egyptian pots in D11.2
When the occupants of house D11.2 in the western suburb abandoned Amara West they left a number of intact pottery vessels sitting on the floor of their small house. Most were Egyptian in style – including the very large bowl and unusual handled jar seen here – but note also the Nubian cooking pot with burnt surface in the lower part of the photo.

Trampled surface in back room
We often find that the back rooms of the houses at Amara West gradually collected dust, potsherds and other debris swept in from other parts of the house. House D11.2 provides a nice example of this: a rough dusty deposit into which potsherds have been trampled flat. At some stage, the entrance to this back room was blocked, leaving it unused as life went on in the front of the house.

Excavating pots in D11.2
After house D11.2 was abandoned, windblown sand collected over the floors and the walls and roof eventually crumbled and fell, sealing the pots below. Anna Garnett, our ceramicist, and I worked at revealing the pots, which will later be lifted and, where possible, repaired ahead of further study.

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, New Kingdom, Nubian, Nubian traditions, pottery, settlement, Uncategorized

Amara West 2015: a pyramid edge and its chapel emerges

Michaela Binder, bioarchaeologist

A pyramid and chapel emerges

A successful first day of excavation in G321! On the hottest day of the season so far, Sofie exposes the well-preserved southern wall of a mud-brick funerary chapel. Visible to her right, the first sections of the pyramid base provide a hint of the relative grandeur of this funerary monument – many times larger than all other pyramids known at Amara West.

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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom

Amara West 2015: let’s dig some pyramids


Michaela Binder, bioarchaeologist

With a delay of two weeks (due to my PhD graduation!), we have joined the rest of the team at Amara West, and the cemetery season has just begun. After a break of two years, we return to Cemetery D, the area located on a rocky desert escarpment north of the town, for two full months of fieldwork. During the 2010 and 2012 seasons, we were already able to establish the presence of a New Kingdom elite burial ground in the western part of the escarpment, together with graves dating to the Kerma period but also the centuries following the New Kingdom.

Pyramid tomb G309, excavated in 2012

Pyramid tomb G309, excavated in 2012

Nevertheless, the number of tombs, both elite and non-elite, dating to the New Kingdom period is overall relatively small given the size of the settlement and duration of its existence (over 200 years, from 1300 BC).

Geophysical survey showing location of G320 and G321 (in collaboration with the University of Southamption - British School in Rome)

Geophysical survey showing location of G320 and G321 (University of Southamption – British School in Rome)

The choice of area to be investigated by the team of four experienced bioarchaeologists – I’m joined by returnee Sofie Schiodt from the University of Copenhagen, freelancer Michelle Gamble, and Mohamed Saad from Sudan’s National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums – was prompted by the geomagnetic survey carried by out by a team from the University of Southampton/British School in Rome last year. The area, of 60×90 meters, seems to include three substantial tombs with similar superstructures to the tombs excavated during previous season. Most likely constructed from mudbrick, these structures comprise a rectangular chapel and a pyramid on their western side.

The somewhat unassuming heaps of rubble overlying G321, at dawn of the first day of excavation

The somewhat unassuming heaps of rubble overlying G321, at dawn of the first day of excavation

The survey gives us high hopes for what awaits us this season. G321, the eastern-most funerary monument in cemetery D, appears to be by far the largest tomb structure known at Amara West. Situated on the highest point of the cemetery with a good view over the town, this location would have been the most prominent and therefore desirable place for burial. Huge spoil heaps on the surface hint towards an equally large substructure. The next days will be busy with removing these mounds: we can´t wait to see what lies underneath.

Immediately to the west, Michelle has started to uncover another large tomb, G320. While it´s superstructure is less obvious in the survey than that of G321, large heaps of schist rubble again indicate another sizable structure. After a first half day of clearance, the workmen have already started hitting fragments of mudbrick. Whether we are dealing with another pyramid tomb will soon become clear.

And so the cemetery excavations begin…

And so the cemetery excavations begin…

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom, survey

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