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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2014: geophysics survey

 Ground-penetrating radar at Amara West

Sophie Hay (The University of Southampton), with Stephen Kay and Matthew Berry (The British School at Rome)

I cannot help but return to Amara West with a happy and, let’s face it, smug grin. I first came to Amara West in 2008 to map the buried town and its environs using an archaeological geophysical technique called gradiometry (or ‘magnetometry’ as it is popularly known). The results were astounding and the plan of the town within its thick buttressed circuit wall and a hitherto unknown western suburb was revealed. The results from that season remain the clearest data I have ever collected using this technique; like someone has simply drawn the majority of the town’s walls with a thick black marker pen. Hence the smug grin.

This season of geophysical survey posed more of a challenge as our team from the British School at Rome and the University of Southampton were asked to conduct a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey. I had no idea that the biggest challenge would be getting the kit on a plane and safely retrieving it at Khartoum airport, but it was. For those of you who I lost at “ground-penetrating radar”, our equipment, often simply referred to as “georadar” is a machine that emits a radio wave into the ground from an antenna and measures the time it takes for that wave to bounce back to a receiver. If there is a buried feature such as a wall, the wave will bounce quickly and we will detect an anomaly. We can then visualise the data in plan form or as vertical sections through the earth to a depth of about 5m.

Matthew Stephen pushing the GPR across the sand-filled dried-up river channel north of Amara West town

Matthew Stephen pushing the GPR across the sand-filled dried-up river channel north of Amara West town

After the success of the gradiometry survey in the town an area was chosen within the town where the results has been a little less clear – to test whether it was possible to identify, with more clarity, any buried buildings. Using multiple geophysical techniques over the same area is intrinsically useful: each method measures different physical properties so more information as to the nature of the buried remains can be gleaned. The preliminary results from the southwestern area of the town are promising and show mudbrick structures surviving to a depth of just over a metre.

To complement the work carried out by the geologists Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin in the Nile palaeo-channel, we were also tasked with mapping the profile of the now dry, ancient course of the Nile to the north and east of the original island on which Amara west once stood – using a series of long GPR transects across its course. The results from this work were a huge success and, together with the information gathered from the detailed test pits, they will help understand how the Nile channel gradually shifted over time and then dried up entirely.

The third project was to investigate the possibility of there being more tombs on the desert escarpment, beyond the cemeteries the project has been excavating. For this, gradiometry was used – it is relatively quick and has given very clear results for detecting both rock cut tombs and mud brick superstructures.

Sophie walking the magnetometry survey in the cemetery

Sophie walking the magnetometry survey in the cemetery

I can promise you that there is always a moment of apprehension when downloading results and opening the image for the first time. Luckily Amara West rarely disappoints and this was no exception; fitting perfectly into a single survey grid, a large structure, undoubtedly a funerary monument of mudbrick, was identified. This is the largest such structure found to date at Amara West.

Preliminary processed data from magnetometry survey, showing large structure, probably a funerary monument.

Preliminary processed data from magnetometry survey, showing large structure, probably a funerary monument.

It was the perfect way to end a memorable and successful return to one of my favourite sites.

More information on geophysical survey work at Amara West in 2008 and 2010.

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 2014, archaeology, hinterland, New Kingdom, settlement, survey

Amara West 2014: Rich stratigraphy — and curving walls — below house E13.5

Curved walls at Amara West

Anna Stevens (Amara West Project Curator, British Museum)

Area E13 at Amara West, with house E13.5. Underlying image: Susie Green

Area E13 at Amara West, with house E13.5. Underlying image: Susie Green

For the past few weeks I’ve been digging in house E13.5 in the walled town at Amara West, not far from Johannes and Tom in E13.16. E13.5 itself was uncovered last year, and so this season we’re digging through its floors to expose the earlier deposits and architecture below. I’ve taken the front two rooms of the house (Rooms 1 and 2) and Michael Lewis is excavating two of the back rooms (Rooms 4 and 5): together we hope to reach the original island alluvium in the weeks ahead!

Space E13.20.1 (under scale), with curving wall built against earlier wall (left) and loose silty deposits.

Space E13.20.1 (under scale), with curving wall built against earlier wall (left) and loose silty deposits.

One of the important questions here is whether there was a second row of the thick-walled magazines that characterize the western part of E13. It’s slow going, though — and no sign of magazines yet. But we are also encountering some unusual architecture. Just under the floors of house E13.5, in both Rooms 1 and 2, emerged two curving walls, the function of which is not yet clear. At first we thought they might be circular granaries (well known in ancient Egyptian settlements), but this was quickly ruled out for onewhen it joined an earlier wall and so cannot have defined a circle. Perhaps it was a perimeter wall for an outside space – something that seems to have been quite rare within the walled town, at least in the areas so far excavated.

Space E13.20.2, with remnants of fires inside (later) curved wall. Architecture of later house E13.5 above.

Space E13.20.2, with remnants of fires inside (later) curved wall. Architecture of later house E13.5 above.

This part of the site seems otherwise to be characterized by dense deposits of silt, ash, sherd-rich layers, a little rubble, and charcoal deposits created by expedient fireplaces. Every ten or twenty centimeters, a new deposit emerges and it is time to stop digging, to plan, photograph and take elevations.

Anna, Hashem Shawgi and Mohamed Tawfik removing deposits from E13.20

Anna, Hashem Shawgi and Mohamed Tawfik removing deposits from E13.20

But these deposits (not only the architecture!) are crucial to how we understand Amara West. Part of our job is to reconstruct the activities that these represent: periods in which these spaces were used as rubbish dumps, or left unattended so that fine dust accumulated. Hopefully by placing the curving walls within the context of the deposits that accumulated within and around them, we can come closer to understanding them in the weeks ahead.

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 2014, archaeology, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2014: burial chambers in G244

Excavating Amara West burial chambers

Sofie Schiodt, University of Copenhagen

Sophie and conservator Maickel van Bellegem in G244

Sophie and conservator Maickel van Bellegem in G244

My very first time in Sudan has taught me that things here are always miya miya (“100, 100” meaning “GREAT!”), that you can fit any number of people onto a small boat crowded by excavation gear, and that Nutella can cause a lot of excitement among archaeologists – all valuable life lessons.

I finished my first season at Amara West a few weeks ago, and looking back, I completed excavation of two chambers in tomb G244 of Cemetery C: the far western chamber and the northwestern one. The far western chamber yielded little other than a few disturbed bones.

The northwestern chamber of G244 before excavation

The northwestern chamber of G244 before excavation

However, the northwestern chamber – though also disturbed – revealed many interesting finds, including a copper alloy object, which is quite a puzzle to us! It has a hollow shaft with an upper part shaped like two curved horns – we have speculated that it may have been a scepter of some. We are open to suggestions!

Sofie revealing Copper alloy object F9391

Sofie revealing Copper alloy object F9391

As in the far western chamber, nearly all the bones were lying disarticulated and co-mingled, having been disturbed by ancient looters. Despite the disturbance, the southeastern part of the chamber revealed the top of an anthropoid coffin, with the surviving wood and painted plaster clearly showing the curved outline of the coffin head.

Copper alloy object from G244 (F9391)

Copper alloy object from G244 (F9391)

Between the excitement of excavating in the mornings and processing finds during the afternoon, we fitted in visits to Soleb, Sedeinga, Sai, and explored the island of Ernetta (I learned the island has a thriving goat population). Thursdays were the time for shisha-pipes and cold drinks in Abri. Quite an experience for a first visit to Sudan and 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 2014, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom, objects

Amara West 2014: D12.6 – revealing a house room-by-room

Left behind in an ancient house...

David Fallon, archaeologist

My first three weeks at Amara West have come to a close and with them a very eventful two weeks in house D12.6.

Houses emerge from the sand after brushing the surface

Houses emerge from the sand after brushing the surface

It all began with the definition of the walls of an entire neighbourhood lost to the desert for millennia, stretching west from the villas excavated in 2009 and 2013. Though conforming, on the whole, to the detailed picture provided by an earlier magnetometry survey undertaken by Sophie Hay and a team from the British School at Rome/University of Southampton, the clearance allowed detailed planning and a better understanding of the buildings. One suite of rooms could be interpreted as a self-contained house, with a room leading off from the main entrance, beyond which lay a central room from which all other rooms could be accessed.

D12 fisheye (11)

It was this building – D12.6 – which I began to investigate at the beginning of my second week at Amara West. The familiarity provided by the wall plan of D12.6 was soon to dissolve like the morning haze over the Nile. Removal of the thin layer of rubble and windblown sand that covered the site revealed the tops of two rectangular clay built storage bins set at an angle to the walls, and at unusual locations in the corners of the their respective rooms. Whilst intriguing this discovery was only a taste of what was to come in the following days.

D12 work (3)

Having numbered the rooms one to five I decided to start at the back (room 1) and progress towards the centre of the building and thence into the side rooms. Already on my first day of full excavation, an intact ‘beer jar’ was found. In 27 years of excavation – from a sewage farm in Kent to Turkmenistan, Qatar, Afghanistan and St. Lucia – I had never encountered a complete pot! Even at Amara West, only three whole vessels were found in the town last season.

Room 2 – collapsed roofing and brick rubble

Room 2 – collapsed roofing and brick rubble

Room 1 was quickly completed with a build-up of debris providing an activity horizon and proving that this rearmost room had not been cleared out before abandonment. The central room (2) was next. With the workmen, I again removed the latest deposits of collapsed wall and the ubiquitous sand: three further near complete vessels were found, this time shallow bowls typical of the late Ramesside period. As mystifying as the pottery is exciting was the lack of a mastaba-bench, typically located in such houses opposite the doorway into the room. Impressions of matting in some of the fragments of collapsed mud indicate that the main room had been roofed.

Storage bin and object assemblage as revealed in room 5

Storage bin and object assemblage as revealed in room 5

Unlike the other four rooms, room 5 did not have any collapsed clay or mud bricks visible on the surface. On my fifth day of excavating an Egyptian-style house, the sand started to reveal a fascinating assemblage. First, a fragment of pottery protruded from the sand, which proved to be a large intact Nubian cooking pot. This sat next to quern stones, two hammer-stones, and a large Ramesside storage jar. Another storage jar emerged the next day.

Pottery and objects found next to the storage bin in room 5

Pottery and objects found next to the storage bin in room 5

What would the next week bring? I moved into room 4, at the southeastern corner of the house. Again roofed, possibly with a vault (distinctive vaulting bricks were encountered), the big surprise was a mud architectural fragment bearing remains of stamp impressions. These took the form of large cartouche-shapes … the Egyptologists on our team remain perplexed by the signs!

Four 3200-year old rooms, ten days, five complete pots sitting on ancient floors and an as-yet untranslated “cartouche”. Many years ago, as a child, I was looking at picture books of Egypt; I have now been privileged enough to bring to light part of an ancient house from that very culture.

I have now turned towards the main entrance room – hints of a grinding emplacement are visible, and a the lower flight of a staircase is clear. Superb impressions of finely woven matting, again from roofing, have started to emerge. No ovens, though!

Many questions have been asked in my first two weeks digging at Amara West, and my excavations are prompting more questions. Only one way to seek answers to those questions …

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 2014, archaeology, New Kingdom, Nubian, objects, pottery, tools

Amara West 2014: house E13.16 and beneath

Excavating house E13.16 at Amara West

Johannes Auenmüller (Freie Universität, Berlin) and Thomas Lyons (archaeologist)

Glimpses of day-to-day life in late Ramesside Nubia might be best accessed within a small house in a close-knit and busy quarter of Amara West. After a wonderful first day in Khartoum and a 720km minibus ride to Abri we have been working on site – apart from Fridays (!) – for more than two weeks now. Archaeology is providing us with access to (some of) the small secrets of domestic and industrial household space – on a daily basis!

Orthographic photograph of area E13, with house E13.16 highlighted. Underlying image: Susie Green.

Orthographic photograph of area E13, with house E13.16 highlighted. Underlying image: Susie Green.

This season’s work in area E13 is centred on two small adjacent houses, E13.5 and E13.16. We have been assigned E13.16, close to the large perimeter wall and relatively late in the current understanding of architectural phases. The building has suffered badly from erosion and incoming windblown sand, and is not as well preserved as other parts of area E13. Today it retains its interior deposits and artefacts, but only 2-3 courses of brickwork remain from the original architecture. Our current work aims to determine precisely which features and deposits we are excavating belong to the life of house E13.16, and which ones underlie it, forming part of an as yet undefined part of ancient Amara West.

Johannes considering the task ahead; house E13.5 lies behind

Johannes considering the task ahead; house E13.5 lies behind

Thus far we have excavated floor surfaces, hearths, ovens and grinding emplacements – all features regularly encountered in houses at Amara West – and are beginning to uncover traces of earlier activity, predating construction of the house. One of our main questions for this season is whether this area at the margins of the walled town was always residential, or had it been a shared or open space away from the principal living areas? What activities occurred here, around a series of large ovens or kilns, or in connection with the nearby storage magazines?

Tom recording the brick pavement in front room of house E13.16

Tom recording the brick pavement in the front room of house E13.16

Three rooms are preserved in house E13.16, though it may have extended further north. The floor of the first and biggest room was once covered with multiple layers of thick mud plaster. Underneath the floor, we revealed a carefully built mudbrick pavement – not a common feature in houses of this size at Amara West. After complete recording of this feature, a continuous sandy rubble layer appeared below, which seems to represent the layer on which our house unit was built.

Room 2 of house E13.16, with ovens, grinding emplacement and basin

Room 2 of house E13.16, with ovens, grinding emplacement and basin

A narrow doorway in the southwest of the entrance room, later blocked off when the house was modified, leads to room 2, our “kitchen”. Its layout can be considered typical for this kind of room: three ovens against the back wall, surrounded by substantial ash and refuse layers. In front of one oven, the inhabitants dug a pit, either to dump the refuse created by the oven, or to make charcoal for use in those ovens.

In the same room, a low bench nearby formed a platform to hold a grindstone, presumably used to grind cereal, with the resulting flour collected in the smooth plaster basin adjacent to it. Dozens of grindstones, mostly of quartzite, have been found in this area of Amara West.

We have now excavated through the floor of room 2, into layers that predate the construction and lifespan of our house. This level is characterised by areas of regularly laid out mud bricks, and others of rubble. Roofing beam impressions and burnt patches might suggest some of this rubble represents roof collapse.

Rubble and brickwork revealed underneath house E13.16

Rubble and brickwork revealed underneath house E13.16

Our work runs in parallel to that of our colleagues Anna Stevens and Mike Lewis, excavating house E13.5 next door. Their work mirrors ours in that they are too excavating beneath houses – these excavations will contribute towards understanding the changing uses of space and the different lifestyles of the occupants 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

Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, settlement

Amara West 2014: A Nubian perspective on excavating Amara West

Mohamed Sayed on Ernetta island

Shadia Abdu Rabo (curator, Sudan National Museum) and Neal Spencer (Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan).

The same place, a different time. Now excavating in the ancient town, we had the opportunity to excavate more recent memories at Amara West, looking back over the last 60 years. Earlier this week, we sat down with Mohamed Sayed, who has lived in Ernetta – the island that hosts us each seaosn – all his life. Mohamed was born in 1939, one of only three surviving men on the island to have worked during the Egypt Exploration Society excavations at Amara West in the late 1940s.

Mohamed recounting memories of excavating Amara West in the 1940s

Mohamed recounting memories of excavating Amara West in the 1940s

As with many excavations, recorded memories are dominated by the excavators, usually through ensuing publications read only by interested scholars. In the case of Amara West, that lends a rather British view of the previous work. But Mohamed, through his memories, offers a different view of those excavations. At the age of 10, Mohamed joined the
Egypt Exploration Society excavations in the ancient town. Mohamed described to us how the family needed the wages offered. Under the direction of H.W. Fairman (1947-48) and then Peter Shinnie (1948-49, 1949-50), foremen (rayyis) were brought from Egypt, with workmen brought from towns and villages across Nubia, as far north as Wadi Halfa (170km from Amara West).

Peter Shinnie at Amara West in 1948-49. Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

Peter Shinnie at Amara West in 1948-49. Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

These men were accommodated in tents and wood-and-reed shelters near the ancient town. But those living locally, like Mohamed, stayed at home, and took a sailboat at 6am every morning, from the eastern (downstream) end of Ernetta. Mohamed recounted how high winds could delay the crossing – the British archaeologists traveled by rowboat over from Amara East. On some days, high winds stopped work altogether, but the men were still paid. Mohamed remembers details of the work – from carrying baskets of spoil, the narrow-gauge railway used to move spoil, and baksheesh payments for the discovery of objects. One of his fellow workers, pleased to have received payment for a scarab one day, found himself dismissed when he brought an object from elsewhere and claimed it had just been found. Mohamed recalls seeing inscribed stones, beads and amulets come out of the ground, and pottery not selected for study being discarded into the sand dunes and tamarisk trees by the Nile. Today, we worry about the nimiti-flies, but Mohamed claims they were much worse in 1940s. He emphasised to us that the salary represented a considerable income for his family.

The remainder of the year saw Mohamed help his family tends to fields on Ernetta. Marriage to Fatma in 1972 prompted Mohamed to reduce the number of excavation projects he worked on. Moving into a new house near his father’s, Mohamed has since focused on farm work. He still lives in that house today, with two of his daughters and a son; three other daughters and four sons have left Ernetta to live elsewhere in Sudan and in Saudi Arabia. Fatma passed away recently, but Mohamed’s second wife Aisha still lives nearby. There is still a family connection to Amara West – son Amjad worked in cemetery C in 2009, and one of the site policemen, Rami, is Mohamed’s nephew.

Mohamed in his fields, with house in the background

Mohamed in his fields, with house in the background

We frequently see Mohamed as we walk around the island, tending to fields of fuul-beans, barley, wheat, fenugreek and chick peas. Our conversations with him offer a brief glimpse of a different memory of excavating a New Kingdom town in Upper Nubia.

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 2014, archaeology, Egypt Exploration Society, Nubian

Amara West 2014: enigmatic ivory “sticks”

Enigmatic ivories from Amara West

Marie Vandenbeusch (Project Curator, British Museum) and Chiara Salvador (University of Oxford)

This year the team of bioarchaeologists – Michaela Binder, Sofie Schioedt and Barbara Chauvet – resumed excavation of tomb G244 in cemetery C. Though they have departed (other than Barbara, now excavating in the town), we are only now registering the objects discovered in the tombs. After the fantastic finds discovered last year, such as the almost intact situla (F9717) now on display at the Sudan National Museum, we had very high expectations for this season. Luckily, we were not disappointed. One of the first finds recovered from the tomb was an ostrich egg (F9803), the first almost complete exemplar after finding many small fragments in previous seasons.

Ostrich egg from Grave 244 at Amara West (F9083)

Ostrich egg from Grave 244 at Amara West (F9083)

Alongside more common objects – pottery vessels, coffin fragments, beads and scarabs – the tomb revealed an intriguing group of objects: a set of twelve finely made ivory “sticks” (F9835), with roughly rounded sections, tapered ends. Each had a flat top, or one cut at a 45 degree angle.

Decorated ivory sticks from Grave 244 at Amara West (F9835)

Decorated ivory sticks from Grave 244 at Amara West (F9835)

It is possible to identify two lengths of stick: seven shorter (ca 11cm) and five taller ones (ca 14cm). A more careful look at the decoration in faint red paint close to the top of each piece reveals that some of the sticks share the same pattern: six sticks have a horizontal band and a vertical line, four have a zigzag motive, while two of them are too discoloured to assess how they were decorated. The function of these sticks is far from clear, although their similarities with other known objects generally considered as gaming pieces, such as the “hounds and jackals” game, suggest that they might belong to the same category.

Ivory  gaming pieces from hounds and jackals game. British Museum EA 13594

Ivory gaming pieces from hounds and jackals game. British Museum EA 13594

The objects unearthed from Amara West give us little glimpses into the lives of the inhabitants of the New Kingdom town. Sometimes our spirit of inquiry is thwarted by our lack of understanding of some objects – it is tempting to designate these objects as games, toys or ritual artefacts. This is the case with the ivory sticks, but also the small rounded pottery sherds we refer to as counters – we find hundreds of these in our town excavations. It is commonly assumed that they were used to count, but sometimes they are considered as gaming pieces. It is very likely such objects had multiple functions: we should always be careful in our interpretations.

Stone slab scratched with gaming grid, photographed with ceramic counters. British Museum EA 14315

Stone slab scratched with gaming grid, photographed with ceramic counters. British Museum EA 14315

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 2014, archaeology, funerary, games, New Kingdom, objects

Amara West 2014: another season begins in the ancient town

Revealing a new house

Neal Spencer, Keeper, Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum

As January turned to February, the excavations in cemetery C and our first investigations of hinterland sites around Amara West came to and end. The daily commute now needs two boats from our dig house on Ernetta island to the site, to accommodate all the archaeologists and workmen.

Orthographic image  (from kite photography) of area E13, at end of 2013 season. Photo: Susie Green

Orthographic image (from kite photography) of area E13, at end of 2013 season. Photo: Susie Green

Area E13, a small neighbourhood of houses built into and over storage magazines, seems very familiar. Mat Dalton, Anna Stevens, Tom Lyons and I have been working here for some years – giving us a detailed knowledge of rooms, doorways and ancient ovens. Some of the knowledge is more pertinent to archaeology than ancient life – for example which walls offer shortcuts across this complex of nearly forty rooms.

Yet we are constantly reminded of the limitations to our understanding. We have tried to build a biography of this neighbourhood – reconstructing the different phases of each house, from construction to occupation, modifications and eventual destruction or abandonment. But assigning houses, rooms and walls to phases is inevitably an exercise in simplifying a rather complex picture, as we reduce people’s homes, experiences and choices to a designation such as ‘phase IIB’. But these are the frameworks which provide us with some encouragement amidst each season’s avalanche of data. We then return the next season, to test and check our theories, and make sure they are consistent with new evidence that emerges.

Mat and Barbara Chauvet are revisiting spaces we have partly excavated before. In the street (or alley) along the west side of the neighbourhood (E13.11), Barbara is removing a sequence of fine silt deposits, with the aim of linking the stratigraphy of our excavations with those of the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1940s. We also hope to find further evidence of the levelled first phase of buildings at Amara West: it has become clear that the town plan was radically altered early in the history of the settlement. Mat has spent this week squeezed into a maze of walls, seeking to work out their chronological sequence: somewhat predictably, some assumptions – about what was built first, or which walls belong to the distinctive magazines – held for several years will have to be discarded.

Walls everywhere: a test of phasing

Walls everywhere: a test of phasing

Across on the eastern edge of the neighbourhood, Anna Stevens has begun removing the floors in house E13.5, as we seek to reveal the earlier phase architecture beneath – perhaps more magazines? Immediately to the North, Tom Lyons and Johannes Auenmüller are peeling back the floors of house E13.16, and will soon expose the phase below. Severe erosion at the northern edge of the town has revealed parts of a complex of kilns and/or ovens. Did this area continue further to the south? Was it an open area, or set within a building? We must remember other limitations. For example, we are only looking at the ground floor of these buildings. What happened above, at the top of the stairs that is present in almost every house?

Johannes recording floors in room 2 of building E13.16

Johannes recording floors in room 2 of building E13.16

Outside the town walls, Ronan Mooney is clearing sand from the back of villa D12.5, and thus far we are encountering badly pitted walls. Along the western edge of the villa, David Fallon has spent a few days brushing the surface, revealing an array of mudbrick walls. Paolo del Vesco has just arrived and started planning this newly revealed area of extramural settlement. This area promises to be fascinating, with houses both large and small: what choices did the inhabitants make when they moved outside the town wall, onto previously unoccupied ground?

House D12.6 emerging from the sand

House D12.6 emerging from the sand

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 2014, archaeology, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2014: the desert survey comes to an end….

Pottery from 2-S-37

Tomomi Fushiya (archaeologist), Anna Garnett (Liverpool University) and Anna Stevens (Amara West Project Curator, British Museum)

The survey excavation finished last week. We moved from the sites (2-R-18 and 2-R-65) near the palaeo-channel in the desert to a new site, 2-S-37, along the river Nile. It was a nice change of the landscape: from the rocky desert to sand dunes and a stretch of trees along the river.

Excavating a small trench at 2-S-37

Excavating a small trench at 2-S-37

We laid out a small trench where pottery sherds are scattered and a few metres away from the traces of mud brick remains visible on the surface. As soon as we began removing the surface sand, large numbers of pottery sherds were recovered.

Napatan.pottery from 2-S-37

Napatan.pottery from 2-S-37

The preservation of the pottery excavated from the extra-mural survey, combined with the high percentage of diagnostic sherds collected (i.e. rims, bases, or interesting fabrics) has made the analysis a particularly rewarding experience. Together with the 18th Dynasty pottery from 2-R-18 and 2-R-65, this third site (2-S-37) has yielded hundreds of wheelmade pottery sherds dating to the Napatan Period, which means that the survey has revealed new sites of domestic activity which were used before and after the Ramesside occupation of the town itself, illustrating the importance of the area around Amara West over many hundreds of years.

It was a very productive three weeks of surveying the area around the walled town. A further study will help us understanding the history of use and development, beyond the Ramesside period, in the broader area of Amara West. A team of young men from the Ernetta island where we live over the excavation period helped our desert survey. In the midst of cold mornings, sandy wind and nimiti-attack, they kept working and entertaining us.

A team of the local young men helped the desert survey with Nubian music in the background: Moustafa, Hamada, Hashem and Nazil.

A team of the local young men helped the desert survey with Nubian music in the background: Moustafa, Hamada, Hashem and Nazil.

Many people from the island support our excavation and life in Amara West, both on and off site every year. Without them, our work in Amara West is not possible. (Thank you!) We continue working together on the town site excavation until the end of March.

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 2014, archaeology, hinterland, New Kingdom, Nubian, settlement, survey

Amara West 2014: looking behind the colour

Colour analysis in the laboratory

Kate Fulcher, UCL & British Museum

I am currently in the first year of my PhD, studying the technology of colour in New Kingdom vernacular architiecture, with an emphasis on Tell el-Amarna and Amara West. Focusing on the pigments used to decorate people’s houses, I travel to Sudan for the first time later this month to work at Amara West. I have already seen some samples of pigments from the site, but it will be interesting to see with my own eyes where they came from and the context they were found in. While I’m at Amara West I’ll be looking for more pigments, and for evidence of pigment production.

Ceramic sherd with blue and yellow pigment, probably a painting palette, from the magazine area E13.14

Ceramic sherd with blue and yellow pigment, probably a painting palette, from the magazine area E13.14

Most pigments are simply ground up rocks, and grindstones have already been found that were clearly used for grinding pigment. But a blue pigment commonly used in Egypt, usually called Egyptian blue, was manufactured from silica (sand or quartz), lime, a flux (either plant ashes or natron), and a source of copper to give it the blue colour.

These ingredients had to be heated in the correct ratios to a high temperature (850-1000⁰C), and this process leaves behind evidence in the form of industrial waste. Often production of this pigment occurred where glass was also being made, and so I will be looking for crucibles and slag that are the remains of glass or pigment production.

Kate using the Raman Spectrometer at the British Museum to investigate the pigment on a piece of wall plaster from Amara West.

Kate using the Raman Spectrometer at the British Museum to investigate the pigment on a piece of wall plaster from Amara West.

I am taking a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to Sudan. This is a handheld device that can be used to tell us which elements are present in a sample, which is one way of working out which pigment is being used. I also may be able to use this instrument to look at the pigments on the coffin fragments excavated from the cemetery. It would be interesting to see if they are different from the ones used to paint walls – perhaps the people who lived here saved the more expensive imported pigments for their coffins, and used cheaper more locally available pigments on their house walls?

Pieces of plaster bearing red and black paint from Grave 201

Pieces of plaster bearing red and black paint from Grave 201

We hope to transport some samples back to the museum, with the permission of the National Corporation for Antiquities & Museums (Sudan) for further analyses, to find out more where the pigments came from and how they were made and used.

Kate’s PhD is a Collaborative Doctoral Award, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

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