Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2015: why work with our archaeological project?

Tomomi Fushiya, archaeologist

Excavators - local workmen and archaeologists from 8 countries, near the end of the 2015 season

Excavators – local workmen and archaeologists from 8 countries, near the end of the 2015 season

Our season has now ended … but why do our workmen decide to join the archaeological project, working for weeks on end with very early morning starts?

Obviously, this seasonal work is an important source of income, particularly as much of the season takes place before the fuul-bean harvest, just now getting under way. Many of the men – and our workers on site are all men – move from one casual job to the next throughout the year, for example in shops, the local petrol station, mending generators and other equipment, or ferrying people between Ernetta island and the Nile. Others are university students between terms (including an archaeology student this season!), or have responsibilities that do not take up the full working day – we can count policemen and nurses amongst those who dig with us.

But earning cash is not the only reason they come to work with us. Many workmen express a connection between Ernetta island and the archaeological site, for the site is in vicinity of the island and they know many people who have worked at the site over the last century.

Ernetta Island has been providing workmen for the excavations at Amara West since the early 20th century. Some workmen have grandfathers, father or relatives who worked with earlier archaeological missions such as the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) or the Sudanese Antiquities Service, and Andre Vila in the early 1970s. In interviews with our workmen, some explained they had heard about work at the archaeological site through former workmen, and that these stories were a part of the motivation to work with our project.

Salah Ibrahim Saleh at Amara West, February 2015

Salah Ibrahim Saleh at Amara West, February 2015

Others have an interest in archaeology and the history of Nubia. Salah Ibrahim took holidays from his usual job to work with our archaelogical mission. ‘I was very intrested to know about digging and the pictures (hieroglyphics) from the childhood.’ He is from Salim, a village distant from Amara West which also provided workmen for the EES excavations. His father and uncle told him about excavations, and he visited Amara West last year. ‘It was just an open space and the site was not clear to me because (then) I knew nothing about the history (of 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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, anthropology, archaeology, community engagement, Modern Amara, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2015: end of excavations in the pyramid tombs

Michaela Binder, bioarchaeologist

Six weeks of work disappearing under sand again. Nayel Mohamed (foreground), Rami Mohamed and Abu el-Mali backfilling tomb G322.

Six weeks of work disappearing under sand again. Nayel Mohamed (foreground), Rami Mohamed and Abu el-Mali backfilling tomb G322.

Excavations in the pyramid tombs G320 and G321 have come to an end: though the shafts revealed many surprises – a door lintel of Viceroy Hekanakht, strange frontal depictions of mummiform figures on relief blocks, and shabtis of the Deputy of Kush Paser – the rock-cut chambers off them had been looted, and suffered from the collapse of the schist bedrock. So our last week of work is not the usual hectic rush to record skeletons and architecture, but rather the final recording and backfilling of the tomb monuments. Even though it always feels somewhat awkward seeing the work of 6 weeks disappearing under vast amounts of sand within just a few days, backfilling and covering of the tombs will protect the mudbrick superstructures from the heavy northern winds – which have been blowing strong all week! It would be a shame to see those monuments disappear after they survived for more than 3000 years.

Town team gone and the excavators' office was quickly turned into an impromptu bone lab. Sofie and Michelle sorting the large amount of disarticulated human remains from tomb G320.

Town team gone and the excavators’ office was quickly turned into an impromptu bone lab. Sofie and Michelle sorting the large amount of disarticulated human remains from tomb G320.

With no work left to do on site, Michelle and Sofie focused on establishing a preliminary inventory of the human remains recovered from the spoil left behind by looters on the surface around G320. Up until now, the minimum number of individuals of which at least some elements were removed from the grave is 17 adults and 21 sub-adults. However, whether all of them come from within the burial chambers – or rather represent later burials placed in the shaft or elsewhere – will never be known. The high number of young infants could have also been buried in small pits in and around the chapel, similar to those excavated by Mohamed Saad in pyramid tomb G322.

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, New Kingdom

Amara West 2015: new impressions

Marie Vandenbeusch (Project Curator, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum)

Approximately 240 seal impressions were found during the 2015 season – an unexpected haul, that exceeds the total of what has been discovered since the beginning of this project in 2008. The study of these new seal impressions has just begun. Each has been registered, allowing preliminary considerations, especially on the spread of the distribution and frequency of the individual seals. Some were very commonly used, others are attested only once.

Seal impression F14247 from rubbish deposits beneath house D12.9

Seal impression F14247 from rubbish deposits beneath house D12.9. Drawing by Marie Vandenbeusch

One specific seal has been used at least ten times. Its pattern is particularly easy to recognize as it consists of two rows of tiny animals: hippos, crocodiles, bulls and a sphinx are part of this ancient menagerie. With one exception, they were all found in a rubbish deposit beneath house D12.9 in the western suburb.

These impressions have been dumped after use to seal a box, papyrus or vessel. The study of the links between these impressions, their provenance – and the scarabs found in the town or the cemetery – will with no doubt throw new light on the control of ancient goods 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, New Kingdom, objects

Amara West 2015: into the desert – a new perspective on cultural interaction?


Anna Stevens (Amara West Project Curator, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum)

Whilst the town excavators may have left, it remained a busy dig house on Ernetta Island this week. The cemetery team has been back and forth to site finishing up some final recording, whilst the finds and ceramics specialists remain busy at the house. For myself, and archaeologists Tomomi Fushiya and David Fallon, the week has been spent out in the desert about a kilometre north of Amara West, where we have been continuing a project to investigate several small occupation sites first noted by French archaeologist André Villa in the 1970s.

Excavation gets underway in 2015. Note the trees in the background which mark the line of the ancient palaeochannel

Excavation gets underway in 2015. Note the trees in the background which mark the line of the ancient palaeochannel

The landscape out here is very peaceful: an occasional car drives by on the distant highway, but you are more likely to see a camel caravan passing by on the way to Egypt. Our work focuses upon a string of small rocky outcrops scattered with archaeological debris that fall either side of an ancient dried-up river channel, probably already largely dry during the occupation of Amara West, from 1300 BC onwards.

Last year we investigated two sites (2-R-18 and 2-R-65) on the southern side of the palaeochannel. Both showed very clear hallmarks of Egyptian settlements: wheelmade pottery, faience jewellery and hieroglyphic inscriptions. But there were also occasional items of Nubian material culture, the most obvious being pieces of handmade pottery. The two populations were clearly interacting here in some way. Ceramicist Anna Garnett helped pinpoint an occupation date of around the early to mid Eighteenth Dynasty, so several generations before Amara West was established, and at a time when the palaeochannel was probably still intermittently flowing. Quite what the Egyptians were doing out here is not yet clear, but we can guess that they were coming from the 18th Dynasty town at Sai. Might they have been patrolling the desert hinterland, or prospecting for minerals?

Anna Stevens planning at desert site 2-R-19

Anna Stevens planning at desert site 2-R-19

This year, with the aim of adding more data to the puzzle, we relocated to a prominent mound (site 2-R-19/19A) on the north side of the palaeochannel, where Villa had noted a concentration of local handmade pottery and the remains of stone and mud-brick buildings. The location seems ideal for something like a watchpost: the mound offers an excellent view of the surrounding landscape.

We opened three small trenches on and around the mound, and whilst little in the way of architecture was encountered we soon confirmed Villa’s idea that this was an indigenous site. Local handmade sherds—some quite fine, with burnished and incised decoration—dominate the ceramic assemblage.

Anna Garnett records potsherds from 2-R-19. Note the paler coloured sherds, which are examples of Egyptian marl vessels.

Anna Garnett records potsherds from 2-R-19. Note the paler coloured sherds, which are examples of Egyptian marl vessels.

But it was an interesting surprise to find very occasional pieces of Egyptian vessels in the mix – largely in fine hard marl fabrics. Were the local populations in contact with Egyptian communities or were these vessels obtained from abandoned Egyptian sites in the vicinity? As yet, it is not clear where in time site 2-R-19/19A falls in relation to the 18th Dynasty sites on the other side of the palaeochannel, nor to Amara West itself.

One of our workmen from Ernetta Island, Fareed Mohammed, contrasts an Egyptian wheelmade sherd with a local handmade example.

One of our workmen from Ernetta Island, Fareed Mohammed, contrasts an Egyptian wheelmade sherd with a local handmade example.

But further study of the ceramic assemblage, supplemented by radiocarbon dating of charcoal samples, should help to clarify this. In any case, we seem to have here a hint of the other side of cultural interaction – and look forward to teasing out what we can from this small assemblage of the story of local contact with Egyptian populations.

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, hinterland, New Kingdom, Nubian, Nubian traditions