Amara West project blog


Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2017: ivory and bone objects

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

After the funerary beds, I moved onto objects made of ivory and bone. These can be roughly divided into two groups: those that had been used as tools and those that can be considered items for personal and cosmetic use: combs, hair and cloth pins, beads, knobs, and vessels. Many of them would also have been used as inlays in wooden furniture, the wood itself lost to decay, leaving behind the harder inlays of bone and ivory. These pieces are often relatively small and are therefore difficult to understand without seeing the furniture.

Bone tools

Bone tools

The bone tools are mainly of pointed shape, probably used as awls. Sometimes part of the unworked bone end was used as a handle, in other cases the points had a small shaft attached to a handle that is no longer preserved, presumably in a different material. A cluster of five pointed tools was found within one room in the rearmost part of house E13.3-S. As no other unworked bone material was found here, we might think that the work for which the points were used took place in this room rather than the production of the tools themselves. Or had the tools been dumped here? This room was also notable for the number of objects we recovered.

In addition, a lot of smaller pieces of pre-cut blocks of bone and ivory were most likely intended to be shaped further into different objects. Usually these raw pieces show cut marks on several sides of them: often the sawing started from two opposite sides until the thin remaining middle part was then broken off.

Another interesting accumulation of bone and ivory finds can be attested for three adjacent rooms in the storage complex E13.14, including unworked bone material. This suggests that there existed some sort of production area of bone objects in these rooms, or at least nearby. In a later phase, when this building was overbuilt with house E13.6, a similar range of material survives. Many of the objects show traces of burning suggesting that they might have been hardened in fire, before being processed further into objects. They are often polished to a shiny surface.

As for the personal items of daily life, these are found in both town and cemetery, providing interesting insights into the related spheres of life and death.

Convex disc-shaped bone and ivory fittings

Convex disc-shaped bone and ivory fittings

A very high number of flat, almost disc-shaped, objects with a convex upper side remain puzzling! There is much variation in the size of these objects, which range from about 4cm to under 1cm. Some are more convex, while others are flatter and are with or without one or two indentations or perforations. We have them in various stages of working: from raw cut, to finished, to extremely finely polished. A number of these objects were probably knobs for boxes or beads while others might have been fittings or inlays of furniture.

Bone and ivory gaming pieces and inlays

Bone and ivory gaming pieces and inlays

Easier to interpret are pieces of gaming boards and gaming figures. The gaming board parts, also inlays, consist of flat plaques of bone cut into square or rectangular pieces that were then smoothed and often polished. Some of them are slightly convex on the surface due to the natural shape of the bone. While two such inlays were found in the tombs, four of them were found in different houses in the town.

Bone and ivory fragments with worked and drilled surfaces

Bone and ivory fragments with worked and drilled surfaces

The inlays are again not easy to understand as we are missing the actual objects. In general most of these objects are very flat and sometimes have incised patterns: horizontal parallel lines, flower or petal motifs. Here the study of furniture like wooden boxes, chests or other wooden objects might lead to further insights into the material of Amara West used by the inhabitants, along with examples from better preserved tombs in Nubia and Egypt.

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Filed under: Amara West 2017, funerary, Nubian, Nubian traditions, objects, tools

Amara West 2017: Greetings from Osiris!

Elisabeth Sawerthal (King’s College, London)

Working on objects in a study season involves the close cooperation of different specialists on the same objects. This became especially apparent in the last days …


Elisabeth pondering coffin fragments for illustrating

As an illustrator for the study season at Amara West, I get to work on a great variety of types of objects collected over eight seasons of excavation at the site. These objects need to be drawn for final publication and further study. In their own way, all objects provide fascinating insights into the lives of the ancient town’s inhabitants. They range from very beautiful miniature amulets, including a wadjet-eye, and ivory beads, to the very practical diagnostic potsherds analysed by our ceramicist Valentina Gasperini, which can be visually reconstructed through a simple drawing. Other, less well preserved materials initially seem rather unimpressive in terms of aesthetics, but nonetheless, they help us deepen our understanding of life and death in the New Kingdom town of Amara West. Such is the case with the wooden coffin fragments from tomb G322 in Cemetery D, excavated in 2016, and tomb G244 (Cemetery C, excavated in earlier seasons) which I am currently drawing.

My task is to produce an accurate image of each piece that complements the more “neutral” photograph, and draws attention to the object’s most important features. This involves a consideration of the relationship between individual coffin fragments, as to if and how they were attached to each other. For this, I draw each fragment separately and then combine them to recreate a bigger surface, somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle. Particularly interesting details are traces of paint on the surface – mostly fragmented lines and patches of black, white, red, yellow and Egyptian blue – which I highlight with my drawings in order to facilitate a reconstruction of the original decorative motif. Hardest to identify by far, as often particularly badly preserved, is Egyptian blue, a specific man-made blue pigment, later exported to other parts of the ancient world, including Greece and the Near East.

We are again using VIL photography. The adapted camera can detect minute quantities of Egyptian blue, using a method developed by Giovanni Verri (formerly British Museum scientist, and now at the Courtauld Institute). Egyptian blue luminesces in the infrared spectrum when it is excited by visible light, so if it can be photographed with an infrared-sensitive camera while illuminated it will glow very brightly – even if nothing is visible to the naked eye!

One evening, having identified three possible lines and a few small patches of Egyptian blue on an otherwise completely unimpressive coffin fragment from tomb G322 in Cemetery D, we undetook VIL photography of the piece. Our aim was to gain some clarification on the outlines of the remains of paint for my drawing. In expectation of further little blobs and bits of blue, we were totally surprised by what appeared on the camera display: “glowing areas” that made up a band of readable hieroglyphs.


Photograph (left) and VIL-image (right) of a painted coffin fragment, showing a column of inscription (F8767h/j/k/l/m)

This column of inscription must have been positioned centrally on top of the lid of the coffin, and reads “words spoken by Osiris”. After this unexpected success we continued to take VIL photographs of other coffin fragments from the same tomb and discovered further traces of Egyptian blue hieroglyphs and an image of a bird with outstretched wings.


Photograph (left) and VIL-image (right) of a painted coffin fragment, showing wings of a bird (F8767a/b/d/e)

Elina Rodriguez Millan (Spectrum Heritage, Edinburgh)

The pieces of this coffin had been consolidated on site directly during the excavation by Maickel van Bellegem in 2016 as the remaining fragments are incredible thin and otherwise would not have been able to be lifted. As with most conservation treatments in the field, Maickel aimed to stabilise the finds so they could be removed to safe storage at the dig house, where they would await further study.

In contrast, during a study season, we are poring over the objects in more detail, and sometimes require further cleaning or consolidation of objects. In this case, the consolidated fragments of the coffin had a thin layer of sand, and some small stone fragments, on top of them due to the difficult conditions in the tomb: wind, dust, swirling sand. If they were plain fragments, they probably wouldn’t need to be treated further, but in this case, removing the sand layer is key to unveil further parts of the inscription they hold. That is why, as soon as the inscription was discovered by Manuela and Elisabeth, I was asked to work on this exciting fragments and, soon, the biggest coffin fragment was brought to the conservation lab.


Elina cleaning part of the front of a painted coffin

Given that most part of the inscriptions and decoration are only visible with UV light in the evenings, cleaning the coffin fragments during the day has proven to be quite tricky! That’s why I constantly use the VIL photographs as a reference, to see which areas are more likely to hold hieroglyphs that will help decipher the inscription. These photographs cover the conservation room wall, and are changed whenever we take new photographs, to see the progress of the treatment.



Filed under: Amara West 2017, archaeology, conservation, New Kingdom, objects, Uncategorized

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