Amara West project blog


Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West: a (modern) Nubian perspective

Site tour

School group visiting Amara West, with Mohamed Saad from the National Corporation of Antiquities & Museums.

Tomomi Fushiya (Leiden University) and Neal Spencer (British Museum)

A key question underpinning much of the research undertaken at Amara West over the last decade has been: can we explore the pharaonic empire from a Nubian perspective? All of the surviving texts come from the pharaonic side, and so historians and Egyptologists have told a rather biased picture, foregrounding ideas of military and cultural dominance, and phenomena such as “Egyptianisation”. Archaeology has allowed us to explore the site from other perspectives, through looking at indigenous technological practices, alongside ritual and funerary evidence.

This aspect has been of particular interest to the people who live in the surrounding area. The best feedback about the books we have produced are around questions of Nubian identity, diet and health, not the history of great pharaohs and conquests. Yet it has never been far from our mind that we were engaging with the local communities through an imported, other, language: Arabic.

Nubian – specifically  (Sikoot) Nubiin – is the language most commonly spoken in the area today, though nearly everyone speaks and understands Arabic. Arabic words are liberally sprinkled through conversations in Nubian. However, Nubian is now almost entirely an oral language, so not appropriate for books or information panels. Arabic script is occasionally used in the local area to write Nubian, and there are groups of people who promote a revival of a Nubian writing system, using the Old Nubian script, itself based on Greek and Meroetic.

Digital provided us with the opportunity to engage local audiences in their own language, and present the archaeological site in a different format and language. Over 70% of the people in the villages have smartphones to access the internet, so we opted for a podcast. The distribution can reach beyond the local area, including to people who have permanently or temporarily migrated to other cities and countries.

The Amara West Nubian podcast presented here is a first in another way. It is a story, narrated by Fekri Hassan Taha, based on conversations with the archaeological team and his reading of the book we published. Fekri foregrounds what archaeology, the local history and Amara West mean for local Nubian people.

Fekri Hassan Taha

Fekri Hassan Taha, in Abri. Photograph: Tomomi Fushiya.

His story not only explores some of the major outcomes of the archaeological research at Amara West but also answers some questions and misunderstanding about ancient life that local people often have. For example, he emphasises the variety of food available for ancient residents, as it is often thought ancient people were poor without much food. He encourages local visits to the site, to learn more about their history and support archaeological investigations;

“This archaeological work is more important than oil discoveries and extraction, or the mining of gold. Because oil and gold will finish, but our history will not. We, the Nubians, have to visit the birbe (Amara West) to learn about ancient life. A visit can help us learn about the history of our country and the Nubian land, and how we contributed to human history. We will continue our contribution to the world of the future.”

Integrating a Nubian perspective with archaeological information is crucial for successful community-based archaeology in the region and we hope to encourage and support more engagement and learning about the past, in both Arabic and Nubian.

We would like to thank Abdel Nasser Sir Alkhatim for the translation and Ali Jelal for the assistance during editing. Maghzoub Hassan at the Nubian Guest House in Abri kindly provided a room for the recording. Background sounds were captured in and around Abri. Finally, thank you to Fekri, owner of a café in Abri market. Fekri did not want to be filmed for the podcast. The podcast was edited by Tomomi Fushiya. 

Filed under: anthropology, archaeology, community engagement, Egypt Exploration Society, Modern Amara, Nubian, Nubian traditions

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

Places and stories: Ernetta Island

Tomomi Fushiya, University of Leiden

Ali Mohamed Jalall  discussing the history of Ernetta with Mohamed Salah

Ali Mohamed Jalall discussing the history of Ernetta with Mohamed Salah

During last year’s interviews with the local excavation workers, who mostly live on the island of Ernetta where our expedition house is located, fragmented histories of their island emerged. There is no written record of the history of Ernetta, but oral histories are very informative.

One of the aims of this season’s community work is to collect these oral histories relating to the island, and to establish whether these shared histories can be associated with specific places on Ernetta, and/or ancient remains known to archaeologists. The work involved both formal interviews with a prepared questionnaire, and walking around to talk to villagers more informally.

Ernetta island, with Amara West to the east (downstream). Image: Google Earth.

Ernetta island, with Amara West to the east (downstream). Image: Google Earth.

The island of Ernetta is located near the modern town of Abri, about 4km in length and 1km in width. The name of the island, Ernetta, derives from two Nubian words meaning ‘rapid’ or ‘strong water’ (er) and ‘island’ (arti), according to the residents of the island.

This small island was previously referred to as Arnati by Frederic Cailliaud who travelled in the region in February 1820. A team directed by Andre Vila (CNRS, France) surveyed and identified five Christian Period sites in the 1970s: probably those remembered by a local resident who recalled foreigners collecting pottery sherds in hundreds of shawals (textile sacks).

Tomb of Khalil Ayyub with palm leaves. The white structure in the background is the minbar

Tomb of Khalil Ayyub with palm leaves. The white structure in the background is the minbar

Most people on the island do not know of any of the sites noted by Vila, except perhaps for one suggested by an Ernetta resident. However, they do speak of old cemeteries on top of which modern buildings and houses are built today, another ‘old structure’ where the moulid (the birthday celebration of the Prophet Mohamed) took place in the past but was destroyed some years ago, a building called Khalil Diffi, and a tomb of Khalil Ayyub.

The story of Ernetta’s history starts with the family of Khalil Ayyub who moved to the island from Syria many years ago, said to be the ‘first’ family of the island. The tomb of Khalil Ayyub, now a low mound with traces of a rectangular-shaped mudbrick structure visible on the surface, is surrounded by date palm trees. Today, a few branches of date palms are placed on top of the mound, a practice we also see at modern cemeteries in the region.

A place for the Salat al Eid, kore sala is located by the tomb of Khalil Ayyub.

A place for the Salat al Eid, kore sala is located by the tomb of Khalil Ayyub.

Around 20m from the tomb a white-stepped structure stands: a minbar on which Imam gives sermons during prayers. In front of this structure is a place where all villagers on the island come together to pray in the mornings of the Eid (Islamic festival) – Salat al Eid – twice a year. This place is called kore sala in the local language.

Why did they choose this place for the kore sala? One villager explains that it could be because there is enough space for all villagers to pray – but there are several other much larger spaces in the island. Is it because their ancestor’s tomb is located there? No one has a clear answer to these questions, but old men do know that the tomb of Khalil Ayyub, whose family is remembered as the first on the island, is located there.

These reflections on the history of Ernetta Island are only possible with the enthusiasm, diligent work and tireless support of Ali Mohamed Jalall – a long-time resident of Ernetta who also helps with ceramic processing at Amara West.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. More images on Instagram:

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

Filed under: Amara West 2016, anthropology, community engagement, Modern Amara, Nubian, Uncategorized

An introduction to Amara West: podcasts (Arabic)

تمومي فوشيا (جامعة ليدن) ونيل سبنسر (مدير قسم مصر القديمة والسودان, المتحف البريطاني


الصورة: بعض مدرسين أحدى المدارس المحلية بجزيرة ارنتي يقرأون المعلومات المسجلة على اللوحات في منطقة الإستقبال الخاصة بمدينة عمارة غرب

أصبح موقع المدينة القديمة عمارة غرب حاليا عبارة عن مساحة عظيمة مغطاة بأطنان متراكمة من الرمال التي تمتد على طوال الضفة المهجورة من نهر النيل. تم الكشف عن انماط الحياة التي كانت سائدة من قبل داخل تلك المدينة خلال السنوات القليلة الماضية: كيف كانت تبدو منازلهم, ماذا كانوا يأكلون, ما نوع الأمراض المستوطنة التي عانى قاطنو المدينة منها, الطقوس الدينية المنتشرة حينذاك, حتى الألوان المستعملة في طلاء المنازل وكيفية تحضيرها. ولكن يبقى التساؤل محل نقاش: كيف يمكن نقل تلك المعلومات الجديدة للمجتمعات الحالية التي تقطن المنطقة؟

بجانب عدة محاضرات تم القائها , وتوزيع الكتاب المترجم الي العربية مجانا والذي يلخص الأبحاث والنتائج التي تمت في موقع حفريات المدينة: قمنا ايضا بإنشاء عدة ملصقات كبيرة مزودة بعدة صور توضيحية لزائري المدينة القديمة.

نحن نعرف ان سكان عبري وجزيرة ارنتي عادة ما يزورون الموقع, بشكل خاص خلال مواسم الأعياد على سبيل المثال. ولذلك تم إنشاء منطقة مظللة للحماية من الشمس والرياحعند منطقة إستقبال الزائرين, والتي يمكن فيها للزائرين ان ينالوا قسطا من الراحة وينعموا بقراءة – سواء باللغة العربية او الأنجليزية – نتائج الحفريات وتاريخ إكتشاف المدينة الاثارية. كما نخطط ايضا لإستضافة زيارات مدرسية في هذا المكان خلال مواسم الحفريات القادمة.

قام أحد زملائنا السودانين بإقتراح ان نقوم بعمل نماذج صوتية مسجلة لما هو مكتوب على اللوحات, حيث ان الهواتف الذكية اصبحت شائعة الأن , ويمكن إستعمالها بسهولة لتبادل المعلومات والأفلام المصورة والموسيقى.فقد أخبرنا ان هناك مجموعة من المثقفين النوبيين يقومون بتصوير النماذج القديمة من البيوت النوبية القديمة والسواقي بإستخدام الهاتف الجوال وعادة ما يقوموا بتبادل مثل تلك الصور التي تسجل مثل تلك النماذج الأصيلة من التراث المعماري والفني الخاص بالنوبة القديمة عن طريق تطبيقات حديثة تتيحها لهم الهواتف الذكية. ولذلك قمنا بعمل عدة نماذج صوتية للوحات – باللغة الأنجليزية والعربية – والتي يمكن إستعمالها من قبل أي شخص يقوم بزيارة الموقع الأثاري او حتى اي شخص مهتم بتاريخ مدينة عمارة غرب.

يمكن تنزيل هذه الأفلام القصيرة والتي تبلغ مدتها حوالي دقيقتين او ثلاثة لكل لوحة بسهولة وبدرجة جودة مرتفعة (للحواسب او التابلت) او بجودة منحفضة والتي تناسب اكثر المناطق التي لا يتوفر فيها الأنترنت السريع.

1) المدينة الفرعونية بالنوبة
جودة عاليةمنخفضة

2) تخطيط المدينة
جودة عاليةمنخفضة

3) الحياة في المدينة القديمة
جودة عاليةمنخفضة

4) الثقافة النوبية في مدينة عمارة غرب
جودة عاليةمنخفضة

5) الصحة والمأكل
جودة عاليةمنخفضة

6) التجهيزات الخاصة بعالم ما بعد الوفاة
جودة عاليةمنخفضة

7) من مدينة قديمة الى موقع أثاري
جودة عاليةمنخفضة

ازال هناك الكثير امامنا لنقوم به. تعتبر اللغة النوبية هي اللغة التي يتحدث بها سكان ارنتي وعبري , غير انهم يتحدثون العربية بطلاقة أيضا, حيث تعتبر اللغة النوبية لغة التعامل الشفاهي, وقليل من السكان من يستطيع ان يكتبها ويقرأها, سواء بحروف عربية او بحروف نوبية قديمة, ولذك نحن نأمل قريبا ان نقوم بعمل تسجيل صوتي باللغة النوبية بالتعاون مع صاحب “المقهى الثقافي” في مدينة عبري , الأستاذ فكري حسن طه.

تم عمل هذه التسجيلات الصوتية من خلال الدعم المادي المتاح من المشروع القطري السوداني الأثاري.

Filed under: anthropology, archaeology, ceramics, community engagement, conservation, Egypt Exploration Society, Modern Amara, New Kingdom, Nubian, objects, pottery, settlement

Amara West 2016: smiles and excitement – a visit from Amara East primary school

Tomomi Fushiya (Leiden University)

At the end of the visit: group photo in front of the visitors centre

At the end of the visit: group photo of grades 5 and 6 from Amara East primary school, in front of the visitors centre at Amara West

On a cold windy morning, two boatloads of children arrived at the riverbank and ran up the sand dunes to meet archaeologists and local workers at Amara West. This is the first organised trip from local schools to visit the excavation site: 33 students (grades 5 and 6) with 4 teachers from Amara East primary school.

A local worker, Rami, explaining the tools of the excavator

A local worker, Rami, explaining the excavation tools

After they met our team members working on site, the visit began in the ancient town – entering through the remains of the West Gate. Walking by the houses with the group of students and teachers, Mohamed Saad, our inspector and bioarchaeologist from NCAM, talked about how we study ancient life within the ruined houses, studying pottery sherds, bones and so on. Two of our long-term local workers, Hassan Nuri Allah al-Deen and Rami Mohamed Abdel Khalil, both from Ernetta Island, showed and explained how we use the tools – trowels, brushes, scales, and finds bags – that archaeologists and workers use to excavate and document the ancient remains.

Students and teachers from Amara East primary school walking up towards the cemetery

Students and teachers from Amara East primary school walking up towards the cemetery

Across the dried up ancient Nile channel which the ancient residents of Amara West once crossed to bury the dead, the students learned from Michaela Binder (Austrian Archaeological Institute) about the different types of tombs in the cemetery, and how people were buried.

School teachers who have read the Amara West book before the visit also joined the guided tour, linking what the pupils learnt at school with what they were seeing at the site. During the visit, a new leaflet for school children about the site and archaeology was distributed. These had been designed in consultation with local school teachers last year.

Drawings made by Amara East primary school pupils after the visit

Drawings made by Amara East primary school pupils after the visit

The visit ended after a drawing session in our visitors’ orientation area, in which the students illustrated what they had seen and learnt during the visit.
We hope to continue to work with the local schools to raise awareness of their local history, the history of Sudan and archaeology – and maybe even encourage more local children to study archaeology in the future!

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. For more images, visit

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

Filed under: Amara West 2016, community engagement, Modern Amara

Amara West 2015: why work with our archaeological project?

Tomomi Fushiya, archaeologist

Excavators - local workmen and archaeologists from 8 countries, near the end of the 2015 season

Excavators – local workmen and archaeologists from 8 countries, near the end of the 2015 season

Our season has now ended … but why do our workmen decide to join the archaeological project, working for weeks on end with very early morning starts?

Obviously, this seasonal work is an important source of income, particularly as much of the season takes place before the fuul-bean harvest, just now getting under way. Many of the men – and our workers on site are all men – move from one casual job to the next throughout the year, for example in shops, the local petrol station, mending generators and other equipment, or ferrying people between Ernetta island and the Nile. Others are university students between terms (including an archaeology student this season!), or have responsibilities that do not take up the full working day – we can count policemen and nurses amongst those who dig with us.

But earning cash is not the only reason they come to work with us. Many workmen express a connection between Ernetta island and the archaeological site, for the site is in vicinity of the island and they know many people who have worked at the site over the last century.

Ernetta Island has been providing workmen for the excavations at Amara West since the early 20th century. Some workmen have grandfathers, father or relatives who worked with earlier archaeological missions such as the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) or the Sudanese Antiquities Service, and Andre Vila in the early 1970s. In interviews with our workmen, some explained they had heard about work at the archaeological site through former workmen, and that these stories were a part of the motivation to work with our project.

Salah Ibrahim Saleh at Amara West, February 2015

Salah Ibrahim Saleh at Amara West, February 2015

Others have an interest in archaeology and the history of Nubia. Salah Ibrahim took holidays from his usual job to work with our archaelogical mission. ‘I was very intrested to know about digging and the pictures (hieroglyphics) from the childhood.’ He is from Salim, a village distant from Amara West which also provided workmen for the EES excavations. His father and uncle told him about excavations, and he visited Amara West last year. ‘It was just an open space and the site was not clear to me because (then) I knew nothing about the history (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 2015, anthropology, archaeology, community engagement, Modern Amara, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2015: books by boat, cart and car

Tomomi Fushiya, archaeologist

Amara West Arabic edition

Towards the end of last year, we published Amara West: Living in Egyptian Nubia, made possible through the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project. Published in English and Arabic editions, the Arabic one printed with the communities living in and around Amara West in mind.

Abd el-Razeq, veteran excavator at Amara West.

Abd el-Razeq, veteran excavator at Amara West.

Over the last weeks, we have been distributing the book amongst our workmen. Abdelraziq, who has worked with our mission from the first season in 2008, commented “the book is very useful and I benefit from it so much. If from the first or second season they publish(ed) a book and gave it to the workers and to the community here, all of the community would be informed and know about the (local) history… I worked here from 6 years ago but I knew nothing about why they collect bones and pottery… … I know (now) they put them together and test bones to understand diseases, their date ….’.

Tomomi delivering books to Abri secondary school

Tomomi delivering books to Abri secondary school

We also gave the books to villagers around our dig house, to the local school library and teachers in Ernetta and Abri. In the school curriculum, the major archaeological sites such as Kerma, Jebel Barkal and Meroe are studied. This foregrounds a national, rather than local, history, despite the presence of such famous sites (to archaeologists!) as Sai, Sedeinga and Amara West.

Reading the book en route from Amara West to Ernetta

Reading the book en route from Amara West to Ernetta

The book – distributed by hand, boat, donkey cart and pick-up truck – has been well received so far, and represents our small contribution to communicating archaeological knowledge to the local communities who do not have easy access to museums or libaries.

Women reading the book on the mastaba outside their house on Ernetta island

Women reading the book on the mastaba outside their house on Ernetta island

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 2015, community engagement, Modern Amara

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.