Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2016: well protected, cemetery excavations now in full swing

Michaela Binder, bioarchaeologist (Austrian Archaeological Institute)

One of our new pulleys being used to lift material from the tomb shaft by the workmen

One of our new pulleys being used to lift material from the tomb shaft by the workmen

Three weeks of excavation in Cemetery D and a lot has happened. The first ten days were busy with removing backfill and installing protective structures inside the tombs to ensure the safety of the excavators. These comprise special construction-grade netting lining the sides of the tomb shafts to prevent rocks from breaking off the sides, and solid steel tables inside the chambers to protect us should any stones become detached from the ceiling.

Sofie drawing a skeleton under one of the steel protection tables installed in the chambers

Sofie drawing a skeleton under one of the steel protection tables installed in the chambers

This set-up has allow Sofie, Michelle, Mohamed and myself to move further into the first burial chambers of the pyramid tombs G321 and G322 over the past two weeks. The latter, excavated by Mohamed, has provided the most interesting results so far. The first intact burial of a child (4-5 years old at death) already appeared a short distance behind the entrance, high above the chamber floor on a thick layer of sand. This indicates that it was placed into the chamber long after the main phase of use during the New Kingdom. Underneath the sand, Mohamed has already uncovered two more burials. The upper parts of both had already been disturbed in Antiquity, perhaps to take whatever jewellery once adorned the body. However, a small scarab, placed in the hand as often found in ancient Egyptian funerary ritual, escaped looting.

A small scarab depicting a hippopotamous

A small scarab depicting a hippopotamous

Another interesting feature in this chamber is an assemblage of three dishes in front of the entrance of the western back-chamber. These would have once held food offerings for the deceased. Consistent with the pottery found on the surface around the tomb last year, they appear to date to the 19th Dynasty.

Three plates, perhaps once holding food offerings, outside the door to the western burial chamber of tomb G322

Three plates, perhaps once holding food offerings, outside the door to the western burial chamber of tomb G322

The central chamber in G321 has posed few more difficulties so far. In the centre of the chamber several large chunks of ceiling had collapsed from the ceiling at some point over the last 3000 years. Thus, everything recovered by Sofie and Michelle has been heavily fragmented. Their discoveries so far include one intact body and a large jar which – once reconstructed – may give us a better idea about the dating of the tomb. A ceramic sherd bears parts of a hieratic inscription: with some luck, more fragments will turn up in the tomb over the next weeks.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. For more images, visit instagram.com/nealspencer_bm

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, ceramics, funerary

Amara West 2016: Commodity and trade – imported pottery at Amara West

Anna Garnett (Project Curator, British Museum) and Valentina Gasperini (Honorary Research Fellow, University of Liverpool)

When sorting through the many thousands of sherds from Amara West, it is relatively common to find flashes of light – imported pottery – amongst the generally homogenous mix of brown Nile clay sherds. While found in much smaller numbers than their Nile counterparts, such imported sherds are identifiably from regions including the Levant, Cyprus, the Greek mainland and the Egyptian oases.

View over Dakhleh Oasis. Creative Commons License © Argenberg. www.argenberg.com/album

View over Dakhleh Oasis. Creative Commons License © Argenberg. http://www.argenberg.com/album

Judging from the archaeological remains from the walled town and the extramural suburb, the residents of Amara West had access to a range of ‘foreign’ storage vessels, including large amphorae, pilgrim flasks and Mycenaean stirrup vessels. These vessels are likely to have contained precious imported commodities such as perfumed oils and balsams for cosmetic use, but as inherently beautiful objects it is entirely possible that their owners also reused the vessels in different ways after the contents had been consumed long ago, perhaps even before the pots arrived at Amara West.

Amphora toe C4764, made in the Dakhleh Oasis, found in industrial area E13.17.

Amphora toe C4764, made in the Dakhleh Oasis, found in industrial area E13.17.

Among the imported materials, an amphora base, most probably manufactured in Dakhleh Oasis and traded though Egypt to Amara West, has been identified from the walled town (C4764). During the New Kingdom, especially in the 18th Dynasty, the Western Desert oases gained prominence as part of the developing Egyptian economy. In particular, a flourishing production of local oasis wine, said to be of very high quality, led to the export of wine amphorae to major New Kingdom Egyptian sites including Qantir, Gurob, Amarna and Thebes.

Characterised by slightly oblique walls, a bottom-modelled base and a distinctive pre-firing pot mark at the attachment between the wall and base, this example finds good parallels among New Kingdom amphorae produced in Dakhleh oasis, not only in terms of shape but also of fabric. This amphora base could therefore be an intriguing hint at the import and consumption of wine from Dakhleh Oasis at Amara West in the late second millennium BC.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. For more images, visit instagram.com/nealspencer_bm

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

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, ceramics

Amara West 2016: Into the tombs at last!

Michaela Binder, bioarchaeologist, Austrian Archaeological Institute

Pyramid tomb G321 with the town of Amara West in the background

Pyramid tomb G321 with the town of Amara West in the background

After an excruciating wait of ten months we are back in the cemetery at Amara West, where we will finally be able to enter the burial chambers of the pyramid tombs we discovered last year.

The three large pyramid tombs are located in the New Kingdom elite cemetery of Amara West, on the desert escarpment overlooking the ancient town and (now dry) river channel. Over the course of eight weeks, the team consisting of bioarchaeologists Michelle Gamble, Sofie Schiodt, Mohamed Saad and myself documented the remains of each pyramid and chapel, and excavated the shafts carved into the schist bedrock up to 7m in deep. However the chambers – at least partly looted in ancient times – themselves were considered to be not stable enough to ensure secure work within the burial chambers. Therefore, we are returning this year supported by structural engineer Daniel Chulia who will construct pulleys and structural shoring to allow us to enter the burial chambers.

Success! Daniel with the first pulley in place

Success! Daniel with the first pulley in place

Based on the finds made in the shafts last year, expectations are high. The size and location of the tombs already indicate that their owners were important people. In tomb G320, inscribed faience shabtis name Paser, the Deputy of Kush known to have been resident at Amara West in the reign of Ramses III. The Deputy of Kush was the most senior pharaonic official in Upper Nubia during the New Kingdom.

This tomb is therefore likely to be his place of burial. A number of large inscribed sandstone blocks with enigmatic reliefs of Osiride figures, depicted frontally, were found in the shaft. Their function is yet unclear but perhaps with more elements to come from inside the tomb, this riddle can be solved as well.

For the other two tombs, the names of the owners are not yet known. However, as both feature pyramids of considerable size that exceeds all those known at Amara West so far we can assume that they were of no lesser status than the Deputy Paser.

What lies inside? Unexcavated burial chambers in G322

What lies inside? Unexcavated burial chambers in G322

Over the upcoming 8 weeks, the same team will continue the work we started in 2015. With pulleys and steel shoring, we will slowly excavate the chambers and hopefully reveal more about the identity of the tomb owners and the way they chose to be buried. This is also set to be the last of the cemetery seasons: have we saved the best for last?

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. For more images, visit instagram.com/nealspencer_bm

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

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom

Amara West 2016: season 9 begins

Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

Arrival at Amara West – walking up to the ancient town – for the first time since early March 2015

Arrival at Amara West – walking up to the ancient town – for the first time since early March 2015

After a first season of mapping and survey in early 2008, the fieldwork at Amara West has followed a certain rhythm: methodical excavation of houses and investigation of two cemeteries, alongside the painstaking study of ceramics and objects, and sampling for scientific dating or analyses. This season, our ninth, will be very different. Our sprawling dig house feels very different with 8 rather than 31 team members!

Excavations will focus on three major pyramid tombs in the cemetery. The superstructures were excavated and recorded last year, as were the deep shafts cut through the bedrock. After 10 anxious, long, months, we are back and ready to excavate the burial chambers, led by Michaela Binder. More on that soon.

Fouad Ali Gindi – a veteran excavator of houses at Amara West – commences cleaning of surfaces in house D11.1 in the western suburb

Fouad Ali Gindi – one of our veteran excavators of houses at Amara West – commences cleaning of surfaces in house D11.1 in the western suburb

The ancient town – typically a bustle of activity, with dozens of excavators and workmen, creating rising clouds of dust as the excavated material is sieved for bone, pottery and other objects – is very quiet. Manuela Lehmann will finish excavation of the front of house D11.1, focusing initially on a suite of rooms added to the front of the building, while I will be recording the architecture of additional houses in this extramural sprawl.

This reduction in excavation activity comes as good news to those back at the dig house. Anna Garnett – assisted by Valentina Gasperini – hopes to make inroads into the vast amounts of ceramics collected over the last seven seasons, to shed light on what the buildings and rooms were used for, aspects of ancient technology and also the presence (or absence) of Nubian and imported pottery in different parts of the site. That this can be done without daily arrivals of more ceramics is much appreciated!

There will be more schools and community outreach, coordinated by Tomomi Fushiya, and in February Johannes Auenmüller will join us to study metal objects from area E13.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. More images from the season can be found on Instagram: nealspencer_bm

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom, settlement, survey