Amara West project blog


Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West: a new book for children

Book cover

A book for children, Life in the Heart of Nubia, presents local heritage found within the communities, from traditional lifestyles to archaeology.

Tomomi Fushiya, Leiden University

I arrived at the Amara West dig house in Ernetta island towards the end of the 2017 season with a final draft of the children’s book,  Life in the Heart of Nubia. Designed as an introductory booklet for schoolchildren in the local communities around Amara West – Abri, Amara East and Ernetta – the book explores the lifestyles, culture, language, oral histories and archaeology of these communities.  It is shaped by members of these communities and their responses, and also questions we received from them during the interviews and outreach programmes over the last two years.

In November 2016, I had travelled to Abri to discuss and plan the book with those who were willing to volunteer in their spare time on this small project. We discussed the concept, topics, structure and the book title, and decided to focus on three key points throughout the book: exploration, continuity and locality.

Cover art

The cover features a painting by a young local art student, Mosaab Sorta


Exploration: Knowledge and stories about objects, buildings and skills which they considered part of the local Nubian heritage, practised and remembered over generations.  The book is intended to encourage schoolchildren to question, explore and find answers about the local heritage within the community, but also to remind other community members that amongst them is much knowledge about that heritage.

Continuity: The book starts with scenes of today’s life in and around Abri. Selected aspects of everyday life are introduced through change and continuity with the past, to emphasise the relevance of older lifestyles to the present.

Locality: Resources for heritage education can be found within the local communities, although local teachers rarely use them. Topics and images in the book are selected from those found in the local area, where possible, to help schoolchildren to feel familiar with the book, and help teachers find resources in their neighbourhood.

Abri Qoin

A story of this unique building in Abri Qoin features in the book

As schools finished their final exams in March, I returned to Abri with the freshly printed books, to plan and deliver a pilot heritage program at the local school. Despite swarms of nimiti-flies, thirty schoolchildren and 3 school staff showed up for the program. Hassan Sorta, one of the bookmaking team and the headmaster of Amara East primary school, explained about the book and how to use it. I gave a short presentation with objects and rubbish from the ancient site (sherds!) to convey how they can help understand history of place. I used images of the Meroitic temple, which once stood here but was destroyed in the late 19th century AD, to show how history can easily disappear from memory.  A program that utilises the book will then be discussed with Hassan and other local teachers for when the books are distributed to each school.

Amara East primary school

Teacher Hassan introduces the book to students of Amara East primary school.

650 books will be handed out at local schools at the beginning of the school year in July. Some copies of the books will also be used in a teachers’ training course at a newly built centre in Abri. Other members of the book team will be invited into classrooms to talk about local heritage in the coming school year. The most encouraging part of the project, for me, is how teachers and others felt this will help raise awareness of the local heritage among younger generations.

Download the book here: Arabic or English.

The Amara West Project is generously funded by the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, with this book made possible through the Research Grant Program of the Toyota Foundation, Japan.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the project on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

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

Filed under: Amara West 2017, community engagement, Uncategorized

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.

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, 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

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

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

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