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.
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.
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.
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.
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