Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2017: local/non-local flint tools

Nora Shalaby, Freie Universität Berlin

Nora photographing flint assemblages

Nora photographing flint assemblages

Among the thousands of finds being studied at Amara West this season, I have been looking at hundreds of flint implements that were excavated from the site. Unsurprisingly, the majority of pieces come from within the settlement, with only three implements having been found in the cemetery.

The preliminary documentation and study of the almost 350 pieces has already uncovered some aspects about the lithic industry at Amara West. There appears to be the use of both local and non-local material for the manufacture of tools.

The local material consists of small pebbles that would have been easily accessible and readily available in the vicinity. They vary in color, are marked by dull cortexes and are usually of poorer quality material. The tools produced from these local pebbles would have been relatively small in size, the pebbles themselves having little flexibility to produce a wide range of tools.

Flint tools made from local material

The non-local material is characterized by nodules that would have been much larger in size, producing flakes and blades of much larger dimensions. They are mostly beige to greyish-beige in color, sometimes still retaining their chalky white cortex, which suggests that they were quarried rather than simply picked up. There are others which are a dark chocolate brown, but are fewer in number. The presence of large unworked flakes and blades from this material within the assemblage is a good indication that the tools were being worked on site, although there is as of yet little evidence of production waste, or a possible workshop where they were being produced – perhaps in areas yet to be excavated?

Flint tools made from non-local material

An interesting question to ask is whether the settlement was being supplied from outside with these quarried nodules, or perhaps prepared blanks, for tool production, or whether the residents/knappers were quarrying the flint themselves? It still remains to be seen whether there are any flint raw material sources close to the site.

In terms of the types of tools that were being produced, the majority are segmented blades/sickle blades, made with both the local and non-local material. In many cases, the characteristic sheen – that develops along the edge of the blade when cutting through plant fibres – is present. The technology of production is the same on all pieces – truncated short ends, and retouch along the lateral edges, but with little standardisation in shape. Those made on local pebbles are of course much smaller in size. Apart from sickle blades, there are a number of ad hoc and informal tool types such as notches and a few end-scrapers, but they are much fewer in number. It is clear that the real use of flint at the settlement was for the production of sickle blades needed in agriculture. Use-wear analysis on the edges of the blades with sheen can help clarify the different types of material they were being used on and so confirm their exact function.

Further on, it will be interesting to examine the spatial distribution of the tools and debitage within the settlement and determine whether specific patterns arise, integrating flint artefacts found in Egypt Exploration Society excavations at the site in the 1930s and 1940s. Did some areas have access to the non-local material, while others depended on local pebbles for production, or was there an equal distribution?

Hopefully some of these questions can be answered by the end of the season!

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 2017, archaeology, objects, settlement, tools

Amara West 2017: sleeping beauties

Manuela Lehmann, Project Curator, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Wood to sift through...

Wood to sift through…

I started with wooden objects this season. Though organic material is generally poorly preserved at Amara West, we have an astonishing amount of wooden remains collected over the years. Almost all of this comes from tombs excavated in the two cemeteries: very little survives from the town.

Much of the material had to be conserved in situ while the excavation was ongoing, as the wood is very damaged due to termites, and being crushed by the collapse of the burial chamber roofs. The tiny wood remains were collected in bags, and we can now spread it out and sift through for distinctive carved decoration or diagnostic shapes that tell us about the original objects

Joining components from an ancient angareeb bed

Joining components from an ancient angareeb bed

The most interesting objects are the remains of the funerary beds. They seemed to have been very similar to the wooden angareeb beds that are still in use in Sudan today. The frame of the bed consisted of beams around which the stringing of the bed was tightly wrapped: many such pieces have survived and seem to be quite consistent in width and thickness. A few fragments of the actual fibres of the middle part of the bed are preserved as well.

The bed legs comprised three parts: the base itself, at least one middle part and an upper part into which the beams of the frame were inserted into recesses. So far fragments of a smaller and a larger size of terminals have been identified. There also seem to have been sets with cuboid components in combination with cylindrical elements

All of these are decorated in very similar patterns, mostly with horizontal incised lines that run parallel to each other around the components. A few objects show more elaborate patterns such as elongated vertical rectangular fields or zig-zag-lines in the style of the Egyptian hieroglyphic waterline.

In addition, there are a few preserved remains that may be parts of the footboards of such beds, similar to those known from tombs in Kerma. But the famous inlays that were found there have not been found in the Amara West examples.

Manuela working with the wood fragments, seeking joins

Manuela working with the wood fragments, seeking joins

The study of the material has so far lead to the joining together of many more fragments enabling us in the end to determine a minimum number of beds used in the tombs.

Due to the carving elements of the legs the thinnest diameter among the elements is often only 2cm per leg which would likely not have been strong enough to carry an adult person. It therefore seems like some of the beds might have been produced only for the burial itself. One circular element of a wooden bed leg was found in the town as well, suggesting the use of the same designs for the beds of the living.

Modern angareeb bed leg

Modern angareeb bed leg

Interestingly, the modern angareeb beds still show many similarities with the ancient versions in terms of decoration, as today incised lines are also often used and the legs mostly end in cuboid parts above which cylindrical components of decoration can be found

Parallels from other ancient cemeteries suggests head-rests and the body of the deceased would have been placed on the beds. Some examples of head-rests can be found amongst the wood from the burials at Amara West: the examples studied so far consist of three parts that were assembled. The base is usually rectangular and quite long and flat with a smaller middle part that tapers into a raised oval shape with a recess. Here the middle part would have combined the base with the top part that had the rounded concave surface that supported the head. Often the bases are decorated like the beds with the pattern of incised parallel lines. In this way the bed and head-rest were built as sets, matching in style. Sometimes more elaborated versions can be found with finer line decoration.

A flat wooden element, perhaps from a coffin

A flat wooden element, perhaps from a coffin

The body of the deceased was quite often placed into coffins or wrapping that was then put onto the bed. Yet it is not easy to identify which of the surviving wooden fragments belonged to the coffin and which to the bed. The coffin fragments often do not have much of their original plaster and paint preserved, with only a few fragments still bearing traces of vivid colours like red, yellow, Egyptian blue or black. Often perforations for dowels and tenons give indications about the techniques used in the woodwork.

Substantial amounts of wooden branches were found that still have their bark on them and therefore were not worked, or at least very little. They are too long to have been used as a dowel and their diameter is too thick. Maybe some of the bodies were wrapped in some sort of matting that was produced with branches and twigs as is sometimes still used in the Sudan for burials of infants.

Even with their fragmentary and often badly preserved state, it is clear that there is a lot to be learned from the study of wooden remains. I am looking forward to more exciting discoveries as I sift through all the material and piece together more fragments!

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 2017, archaeology, conservation, funerary, New Kingdom, Nubian, Nubian traditions, objects

Amara West 2017: a different kind of season

Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

A silent, deserted, Amara West seen from the river-side dunes

A silent, deserted, Amara West seen from the river-side dunes

After 9 seasons of daily pre-dawn Nile commutes, the clatter of excavation tools scraping against pottery sherds and the climatic extremes of the site – chilly mornings, howling winds, plagues of nimiti-flies and hot, dry afternoons – this is going to be very different.

Our excavation house will be the setting for the whole team. Where once the house was brimming with up to 30 specialists, and deluged daily with pottery, finds, sample bags, skeletons – alongside drawings, digital images and other documentation – it is now a spacious oasis of calm, with only seven of us here to start this study season, alongside our cook Ali Dal.

The dig house on Ernetta island

The dig house on Ernetta island

With over 10,000 objects, and many many more pottery sherds, this is our opportunity to lay out similar types of objects, or arrange them in groups depending on which room, house or neighbourhood of the town they were found in. We then consider what needs drawing or photographing. Most crucially we have the time to think about the artefacts, pore over them, and try to understand how they were made, how they functioned, and how some were modified or re-used. Later will come library time, to research parallels, and eventually the writing up. But now is the time to compare objects, turn them over, hold them in a different light, try joining fragments.

The dusty mud fragments in these wooden trays are the only remnants of a colourful niche – probably a shrine – in house E13.7

The dusty mud fragments in these wooden trays are the only remnants of a colourful niche – probably a shrine – in house E13.7

I’ve been working on a series of painted and moulded mud fragments that I think came from a household shrine in house E13.7, while elsewhere in the same room Manuela Lehmann has been examining fragments of the funerary beds (angareeb) found in the cemetery, as Nora Shalaby studies the flint blades and tools.

In the adjacent courtyard, the salon – the old house’s reception room – is home to Valentina Gasperini analysing pottery, Elisabeth Sawerthal drawing a range of finds, and Shadia Abdu Rabo. Shadia is combing through the jewellery excavated since 2009. Meanwhile, Elina Rodriguez – familiar with another era of Amara West excavations – is deep in the cool and dark finds storeroom, resolving numbering problems and registering artefacts from last year.

Manuela sifting through a box of coffin fragments to select fragments to draw – those which offer clues to the original decoration

Manuela sifting through a box of coffin fragments to select pieces for drawing – those which offer clues to the original decoration

Even without excavations, there’ll still be discoveries and insights, and we’ll post some of our findings in the coming weeks. That is all subject to our internet connection, which is much worse now than in 2009, despite an array of dongles and smartphones that confidently proclaim “3G”.

Meanwhile, we’ll wonder if the traditional four meals a day – including an archaeologists “second breakfast” at 11am – really is a good idea for this studious yet sedentary season.

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 2017, archaeology, ceramics, funerary, New Kingdom, objects, pottery