Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, hinterland, New Kingdom, Nubian, Nubian traditions

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