Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2015: investigating ancient suburban sprawl

 Map of an ancient suburb at Amara West
Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

As ever, this fieldwork season at Amara West will be a flurry of specialists undertaking excavations, object studies, analytical investigations, conservation of artefacts and anthropological research. A major focus of the season is the excavation of ancient housing within the town site.

Kite photograph showing sprawl of western suburb outside walled town

Kite photograph showing sprawl of western suburb outside walled town

Over the last six seasons at Amara West, we have greatly enhanced the understanding of lived experiences of ancient inhabitants in a pharaonic town in Upper Nubia. In particular, work in the northwestern corner of the walled town (our ‘area E13’) has revealed a neighbourhood created over the remains of a set of large (institutional?) storage magazines. By creating ‘biographies’ of each house, we can seek to understand how individuals or households sought to create an environment in which to live, rather than viewing the population of the town as a homogenous entity.
A sprawling western suburb was first identified through geophysical survey in 2008, and we excavated large villas in 2009 and 2013: up to 400 m² in extent, these dwarf the houses within the town walls. These houses are founded on the rubbish which must come from the earlier phases of the walled town.

What can yet more excavations tell us? These small ‘suburban houses’ – admittedly a word with too may modern connotations! – allow us to see how some inhabitants sought to create their ideal home, within the constraints of their resources. No earlier structures needed to be demolished, or repurposed, though houses were built over features that might have been small garden plots. What did people deem essential in a house? How were the houses laid out to provide convenient access (to street, walled town, fields and river) but also comfort (from wind, sun and heat)? What kind of open-air space did inhabitants seek (whether inside or outside the houses)? How did this suburb develop over time?

Preliminary plan of the western suburb at Amara West (based on a ma created by Paolo del Vesco)

Preliminary plan of the western suburb at Amara West (based on a map created by Paolo del Vesco)

Initial consideration of the incomplete map of this area suggests some houses were built into spaces left between the first buildings constructed here – was this neighbourhood also becoming more densely populated, and perhaps cramped?
Alongside all this, the excavation of these houses will provide a dataset of objects, ceramics and samples relating to plant and animal use, belief and ritual, technology (cooking, building, making objects) that will provide a nice counterpart to that from inside the walled town. Another set of questions surrounds how the town this part of the town was abandoned – were people living next to vacant or partly derelict houses?

Agnieszka and workmen commence excavation in 'front room' of house E11.1

Agnieszka and workmen commence excavation in ‘front room’ of house E11.1

Over the next 7 weeks, Mat Dalton will finish excavation of house D12.7; immediately to the north lies house D12.8/E11.1 (or is it two houses?), being explored by Matt Williams and Agnieszka Trambowicz. To the southeast, David Fallon has started work in D12.2, a medium sized house seemingly squeezed between villa D12.5 and the house to the west. Across the street, Manuela Lehmann and Sarah Hitchens are excavating a much larger house (D11.1), that seems unique at Amara West, being surrounded by a perimeter wall. Anna Stevens will join us soon to work in a small three-roomed house (D11.2), that seems much more like those in the walled town.

These excavations will further populate our understanding of the variety of ancient life in the Nile Valley just over 3000 years ago, helping to move us away from characterising whole towns as populated by individuals living identical lives – even when no texts survive.

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

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