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

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