Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

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 …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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

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

An introduction to Amara West: podcasts (Arabic)


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

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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: conservation challenges

Maickel van Bellegem, conservator, British Museum

In a subterranean chamber beneath tomb G322, Maickel consolidating a section of coffin

In a subterranean chamber beneath tomb G322, Maickel consolidating a section of coffin remains.

Having left London on 23 January – with a brief stop at Kawa to assess future conservation requirements – I am now in the full swing of the work here at Amara West. Last week we successfully lifted a section of coffin remains from one of the underground burial chambers beneath pyramid tomb G322.

The largest we have found at Amara West so far, measuring about 45 by 90cm, it probably formed part of the side or base of the wooden coffin. The wood and painted plaster was unfortunately in a poor state of preservation: all we could see was brown and white powder stains.

We decided to consolidate in situ using a diluted adhesive in case any remains of painted decoration had survived. If lifted in a block we can try to turn it over and expose the underside. The consolidant will in the first instance also stick to sand and whatever else is underneath together. So a good deal more work will follow to remove that: there is no guarantee for a painted surface, it may all have deteriorated into powder already… yet this is the only way to find out. Some smaller sections from the area extending towards the head had already shown that the coffin was decorated.

Painted plaster surface from coffin remains recovered from tomb G322

Painted plaster surface from coffin remains recovered from tomb G322.

In the meantime other fragile finds have been gathering on my desk at the workroom: worked wood, worked ivory/bone, bitumen and textile remains, a metal pin…

A number of fragile finds are awaiting assessment and treatment.

A number of fragile finds are awaiting assessment and treatment.

Last but not least a copper alloy mirror with remnants of textiles adhering to it was discovered by Mohamed Saad earlier this week. This, and other objects, will each get their dose of attention in the next few weeks.

Copper alloy mirror from G322, with textile adhering to it (F8768)

Copper alloy mirror from G322, with textile adhering to it (F8768)

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, conservation, funerary, New Kingdom

Amara West 2015: in the dig house ‘lab’


Maickel von Bellegem (Department of Conservation & Scientific Research, British Museum)

Two weeks have passed since my arrival in Sudan. Various materials were awaiting conservation assessment, after excavation: remains of papyrus and a piece of worked bone with traces of paint. The bone had been consolidated in situ and block lifted by Manuela Lehmann. This is how fragile materials are usually dealt with to allow more detailed and time consuming work to be done in a studio set up. A similar approach was taken to the excavation of a bead necklace found embedded in the clay floor of house D11.1 – the second one found in this house (the first was painstakingly excavated bead-by-bead by Manuela).

Conservation workroom with Maickel assessing a dish of Egyptian blue found in the cemetery, using a microscope for which the local blacksmith fabricated a stand (from a steel bedframe!).

Conservation workroom with Maickel assessing a dish of Egyptian blue found in the cemetery, using a microscope for which the local blacksmith fabricated a stand (from a steel bedframe!).

The block of mud floor as lifted during excavation of the central room of house D11.1

The block of mud floor as lifted during excavation of the central room of house D11.1

A chunk of the floor was lifted from site and back in the conservation workroom at the house I used solvents to soften the clay and scrape it away using a scalpel. This allowed the row of beads to be exposed so we know the sequence in which they were originally strung. The blue beads in particular were very fragmentary and would not withstand restringing so we decided to leave them all in the soil block.

Bead necklace F16006 exposed and consolidated in the soil it was found in, following conservation.

Bead necklace F16006 exposed and consolidated in the soil it was found in, following conservation.

The red beads – probably carnelian – are accompanied by white faience and blue. The blue might be faience, frit or glass. The sections of the soil block have been secured onto a plastic sheet (a re-used plastic food container – sustainable conservation!) so can be handled without risking damage to the beads. Other materials that so far have received conservation treatment are a number of copper alloy objects, bone and ivory, wood remains and also faience shabti-figures.

Detail of beads on necklace F16006

Detail of beads on necklace F16006

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, conservation, objects, settlement

Amara West 2015 (week 4): a Deputy of Kush, monumental architecture and industry


Neal Spencer (Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan), Michaela Binder (bioarchaeologist)

Burnt date seeds from the corridor outside house D11.1

Burnt date seeds from the corridor outside house D11.1

Careful excavations continue across the houses in the extramural area west of the town. Our understanding of individual houses can take some time to crystallise. House D12.12, being excavated by David Fallon, is finally beginning to look like a house, as we can now see a broad room with mastaba and a hearth, later divided in two.

The large room at the heart of house D12.12, with mastaba overbuilt by later wall.

The large room at the heart of house D12.12, with mastaba overbuilt by later wall.

We hope that the next two weeks will reveal how this house related to D12.6 to the north, as they seem to be provided with complemtary sets of facilities. Were two houses created out of one? In contrast, some houses become more complex as we dig them. Anna Stevens is working on house D11.2 – seemingly a small 3-roomed house squeezed into a space left between two large buildings. The back room now seems to have been built over the remains of an earlier building, emphasising that no matter how late this suburb was built, different parts of the neighbourhood had distinct, sometimes complex, histories.

Basins and emplacements (?) inserted into the middle of the cross-hall in house D11.1

Basins and emplacements (?) inserted into the middle of the cross-hall in house D11.1

We’re still not able to see the main floor of the long cross-room in house D11.1, as Sarah Hitchens keeps finding architecture built over it – in odd places, at odd angles. We’re currently considering a series of basins and possible grinding emplacements, built right in the middle of the room – was the house partly abandoned or collapsed when these were built?

Back in the walled town, Tom Lyons has reached an area of dense indiustrial rubbish – ash, fragments of slag and much burnt material, but also small pieces of stone.

Tom Lyons positioning a scale in industrial area (E13.17) ahead of photography.

Tom Lyons positioning a scale in industrial area (E13.17) ahead of photography.

We’re not sure what was taking place here yet – metal or faience production, or something entirely different? Alongside crucibles, we’re also finding narrow cylindrical objects, burnt, but closed at one end, some with slag inside. The area sits alongside that where we excavated a small pottery kiln in an earlier season, so clearly had an extended history as a production area, perhaps not associated with a specific house.

Tom Lyons with fired object used in industrial production

Tom Lyons with fired object used in industrial production

Prompted by the success of Kate Fulcher’s modified camera in identifying Egyptian blue pigment, we have, over the last 10 days, cleared the West Gate of the walled town.

Detail of decoration on the West Gate: Merenptah, son of Ramses II (and future king) leading a Nubian captive.

Detail of decoration on the West Gate: Merenptah, son of Ramses II (and future king) leading a Nubian captive.

This sandstone gateway was discovered by the Egypt Exploration Society excavators in the 1938-9 season, revealing reliefs of Ramses II, including a scene of victory over Nubians. Initial tests with the camera indicate Egyptian blue is preserved in some of the depictions and hieroglyphs, while areas of red and yellow pigment also survive.

Looking over the West Gate and out to the western suburb (with workmen), founded on a higher level.

Looking over the West Gate and out to the western suburb (with workmen), founded on a higher level.

We intend to undertake a full architectural recording of the monument, including additional inscriptions, to better understood how it was built, modified and used. It needs to be reburied before the end of the season to protect it for future generations. Other than the imposing monumentality of the gateway – over 6m long, over 3m wide, and once standing over 4m tall – it is striking how the ground level of the house outside are set high above it, partly set on rubbish dumps.

Taking a break from excavating down the shaft of tomb G320: Zahr Zuheir (left), Ahmed Ehab and Nayel Mohamed (on ladder)

Taking a break from excavating down the shaft of tomb G320: Zahr Zuheir (left), Ahmed Ehab and Nayel Mohamed (on ladder)

Beyond the palaeochannel, the cemetery team continued to push further into the depths of the two pyramid tombs. In G320, the workmen have reached a depth of 4.7m below the present surface, with no end yet in sight. Even though the top of a doorway leading to one or more burial chambers on the western side is already visible, a large amount of sand and rocks still hides what lies beyond from our view. The depth also leaves removal of the shaft fill, consisting of sand blown in by the wind over the past 3000 years, increasingly difficult and slow.

In G321, week 3 brought about quite some excitement. Having discovered the top of an entrance at the start of the week, we now know that a central chamber off the western side provides access to two more chambers, one to the west and one to the north. Though not filled until the ceiling, the chambers’ content is nevertheless buried under at least 1m of windblown sand. Whether we will be able to go inside the chambers at all, will depend on the stability of the rock-cut chambers.

The fragments of two sandstone doorjambs in the shaft of G321, with sandbags used to keep the fill of the chamber from entering the shaft.

The fragments of two sandstone doorjambs in the shaft of G321, with sandbags used to keep the fill of the chamber from entering the shaft.

The shaft of G321, the better preserved pyramid itself already yielded some very important finds. Discarded in the shaft, 4m below the surface, were fragments of two large sandstone doorjambs. Both bear finely carved hieroglyphic inscriptions and may once have stood at the entrance to the funerary chapel.

Abou Ad untying the ropes used to recovered the heavy blocks from a depth of 4 metres below surface.

Abou Ad untying the ropes used to recovered the heavy blocks from a depth of 4 metres below surface.

However, both jambs belong to the right side of a door, thus it remains unclear which – or even if – one of them actually belongs to the tomb.

Detail of inscription from doorjamb found in G321: the prenomen of Ramses II

Detail of inscription from doorjamb found in G321: the prenomen of Ramses II

While one of the jambs gives two of the royal names of Ramses II, another refers to a “Deputy of Kush” – the name is very badly eroded.

Detail of inscription from doorjamb found in G321: the title ‘Deputy of Kush’, followed by a badly eroded name.

Detail of inscription from doorjamb found in G321: the title ‘Deputy of Kush’, followed by a badly eroded name.

Was one of the Deputies buried here, or in the other tomb (a shabti was found earlier in the season)? Or are these doorjambs dragged from elsewhere, maybe even the town?

Removing spoil from the West Gate, at dawn

Removing spoil from the West Gate, at dawn

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, archaeology, conservation, Egypt Exploration Society, funerary, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2015 (week 3): from phytoliths to papyrus

Neal Spencer (Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan) & Michaela Binder (bioarchaeologist)

Looking back at week 3, the change of pace – and a different kind of work pattern – is striking. The opening weeks of excavation at Amara West often lead to the relatively quick unveiling of whole buildings. Once this flurry of discovery comes to an end, a mass of recording and finer work is needed, before we consider whether to dig elsewhere, or excavate underneath buildings to reveal earlier phases.

Philippa sampling for phytoliths

Philippa sampling for phytoliths

This week saw intensive work in coaxing of a necklace out of the deposits in the room of one house, investigating invisible traces of ancient colour, and the sampling of phytolith deposits. Phytoliths are silica casts of plant matter that have decayed or burnt – they are often invisible but can appear as a powdery white material. Philippa Ryan is now dividing her time between studying modern practises and helping our with sampling of archaeobotanical remains – phytoliths are important as they can tell us about plant leaves and stems.

Tantalising fragments of papyri from house D12.8

Tantalising fragments of papyri from house D12.8

More difficult was the surprising discovery of … papyrus! No papyri have ever been found at Amara West, though its role as an important administrative centre make it likely some would have been present. In a small space that might have been a house entrance, Agnieszka Trambowicz encountered tiny fragments. For now, we have removed a bulk of the sandy matrix in which they were found, and we await our conservator to extract the pieces. We have not seen any ink on the the fragments yet.

Tomomi planning amidst an expanse of brick architecture

Tomomi planning amidst an expanse of brick architecture

New rooms, and houses, were revealed ths week. Tomomi Fushiya and Hilary Stewart have been planning additional house architecture visible on the surface.

House D11.1: the front extension

House D11.1: the front extension

This is but the first step: the plan of D11.1 seemed clear to us from the surface cleaning last year, but excavation has now revealed details of two rooms south of the ‘porch’, added out the front of the original building. The southerly one contains two ovens: why was such an important feature not part of the original house design? Ovens also appeared in a room against the north side of house D11.2, which Anna Stevens in investigating.

House D12.9, squeezed between existing, larger, houses

House D12.9, squeezed between existing, larger, houses

Matt Williams revealed a small three-room house (D12.9), which narrowly missed being obliterated by large pits to its west and north. The dwelling was set off an alley, backed onto a large villa (D12.5), and was one of the last built houses in this neighbourhood. Further south, David Fallon’s excavations are beginning to make sense of building D12.12. Realising a central wall is a later addition, we may be looking at a square central room of a house, with characteristic side/back room behind. The oven is tucked in a narrow courtyard, perhaps once an alley between two buildings.

Building D12.12: a house converted?

Building D12.12: a house converted?

Where next – move sideways and explore more houses, or dig deeper, under the excavated houses? We will probably not open any large new buildings, as it is unlikely we would finish excavating them within the season. Rather, some targeted excavations beneath the floors of some rooms may tell us about earlier phases of some houses, while what lies beneath will be important for understanding the early history of the area outside the walled town.

Michelle and veteran cemetery workman Nayel Mohamed cleaning the remnants of the chapel of G320

Michelle and veteran cemetery workman Nayel Mohamed cleaning the remnants of the chapel of G320

Up in the cemetery, both chapels were fully exposed, though team G320 (led by Michelle Gamble) had to take it a bit slower due to the complicated mixture of poorly preserved walls and (ancient?) looter cuts. Despite similarities in architectural components several differences are already evident. While in the better preserved tomb G321 the rim of shaft appears plain, in G320 it is lined with schist stones embedded in mud-mortar as well as white plaster, suggesting more care taken during construction. The floors in both chapels were prepared from alluvial silt with large amounts of water used to consolidate the surface. These floors may preserve traces of organic substances or plants used in funerary rituals, and will be analysed further by Mat Dalton (micromorphology) and Phillippa (archaeobotany) – as well as the footprints of ancient builders.

The pyramid tombs from above, with labels over the burial shafts, awaiting excavation.

The pyramid tombs from above, with labels over the burial shafts, awaiting excavation.

On the final day of week 2, team G321 started removing the fill in the vertical entrance shaft. As these had never been deliberately backfilled by the people using the grave, they only contain sand blown in over the millennia after their abandonment. To our delight, there are also no traces of substantial looting, often evident through bones or sherds scattered in the fill, yet. What awaits us at the bottom will become clear next week!

Glazed scarab with depiction of the god Ptah, from area E13.17

Glazed scarab with depiction of the god Ptah, from area E13.17

As with the site work, the house team experience moments of excitement amongst methodical work and recording. Registering finds can mean a nice scarab, or faience jewellery, but more frequently enigmatic pieces of worked clay or grindstone fragments. The ‘ceramic counters’ – which could have been used for many tasks – are found in vast quantities, and are also (to be frank), a little tedious, whether in the hand of excavator or finds registrar. This bag label sums up the prevailing attitude:

Ubiquitous ‘counters’, and one team-member’s view expressed on a finds bag label

Ubiquitous ‘counters’, and one team-member’s view expressed on a finds bag label

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, conservation, funerary, New Kingdom, objects, settlement

Amara West 2015: necklace lost in the garden?


Manuela Lehmann, archaeologist (Freie Universität Berlin)

Excavating the necklace in house D11.1
Kate Fulcher and I combined efforts to reveal a necklace found nestled next to garden plots found beneath the side room of house D11.1. This work was best in the early morning hours, before the wind gets too strong. We cleaned the necklace and re-strung beads on new thread.

Necklace, Amara West, detail
The original thread – still in place – decays before us as we excavate. Nevertheless we managed to rescue some pieces as a sample for further analyses.

Necklace, Amara West
After removing the mudbrick rubble on top of the fragile beads, careful brushing revealed more and more stringed lines of necklace – each time we thought we were done, more would emerge. Unfortunately the wind became stronger, even blowing away beads, so we covered the area and will return next week.

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, conservation, New Kingdom, objects

Amara West 2015: blue – who knew?


Kate Fulcher, UCL/British Museum Collaborative PhD student

I am back at Amara West for a second season, as part of my AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award on “Painting Amara West: The technology and experience of colour in New Kingdom Nubia.” This time I am armed with an adapted camera that can detect minute quantities of Egyptian blue, which Giovanni Verri at the Courtauld Institute in London taught me to use. 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. It is so bright that tiny pieces of remaining Egyptian blue that cannot be seen by eye can be captured in the photograph. To set up the camera the infrared filter is removed and a filter added to the lens that only allows infrared light to enter. Asthe photography is done in dim or dark light a strong flash is used with a filter on to remove infrared light, otherwise infrared from the flash or natural light would swamp the IR luminescence from the Egyptian blue.

Shrine fragment F5003
In 2011, the project excavated dozens of painted and moulded mud plaster fragments, recovered from the rubble in front of a mastaba in a large room in house E13.7, probably of late 19th dynasty date. The form of the fragments, with cavetto cornice and torus moulding, suggests a small niche, perhaps to hold a stela, was set above the mastaba: the image above shows a cavetto cornice, painted white.

Shrine fragment F5003, with Egyptian blue identified

Both the niche and the mastaba were repainted at least five times and traces of colours from these earlier phases are visible, including blue. This composite photograph overlays an image, where blue luminesces, above the standard image. The photographs of this fragment reveal a pattern of blue stripes across the curving cavetto cornice of the niche. I am currently working through all the fragments to help inform a better reconstruction of the original decoration.

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, conservation, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2015 (week 1): painted bone, a house revealed and … ovens


Neal Spencer, Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

A long seven-day excavation week has just drawn to a close at Amara West, characterised by strong winds and very chilly temperatures. The first week of a field season is really about getting a feel for the work, even after 6 years at the same site: both the team of specialists and our local workmen feature a mixture of veterans (no matter their age) and new arrivals.

The pace of work differs across Amara West, depending on the archaeological remains, but also their position on the site, which effects how much wind and airborne sand we have to deal with – both during excavation, and when returning the day after a windy night to find rooms filled with sand.

Excavating in house D12.8

Excavating in house D12.8

Within a few days, we started to understand more about house D12.8, through the excavations of Matt Williams and Agnieszka Trambowicz. It is now clear that the rooms to the west, which I had designated part of another house, represent an extension to the original house. Matt has exposed much of the rear suite of rooms: a typical almost-square space with mastaba-bench on the rear wall, flanked by side rooms (one obliterated by a big pit), with a wide room before it. The square room yielded the jar with the animal depiction. Out front, Agnieszka has encountered a series of later walls and blockings within a large space (courtyard?), and is just starting to dig a room full of ash, containing at least two ovens.

An enigmatic feature in house D11.1. Note the well-preserved surface, but also the gap, not big enougt to walk through.

An enigmatic feature in house D11.1. Note the well-preserved surface, but also the gap, not big enougt to walk through.

To the southwest, the large house D11.1 seemed fairly typical in plan, from what was visible on the surface. What surprised us here was encountering installations, rather than rubble and wind-blown sand, so close to the surface in each rooms, without the usual layers of windblown sand. This is proving challenging as the wind scours any surface we expose. At the front (south) of the building, Sarah Hitchens has exposed ashy surfaces (more ovens on the way?!) with the room behind hosting a strange curving feature, with a nice surface inside and around it, against one wall.

Manuela lifting the painted bone object

Manuela lifting the painted bone object

Manuela Lehmann has been excavating the back of the house – again with a square room accompanied by two side rooms. There’s absolutely no sign of a mastaba here, but that absence was made up for by our most unusual object of the season so far. A piece of bone, presumed to be animal, decorated on the upper surface with a series of fine red lines. Thanks to some long-distance advice from British Museum conservator Philip Kevin, we managed to consolidate this incredibly fragile piece in situ, and lift the object whole. It now sits in the expedition house awaiting cleaning by another British Museum conservator, Maickel van Bellegem, who joins us in February. Only then can we start to document and study the object properly, and thereafter try and understand it.

A small oven set in the corner of an alley outside house D12.12

There’s much more going on in the western suburb. David Fallon is working through rubble layers in a building (D12.12) south of the house he excavated last year, while revealing a small oven set up in an alleyway between the two houses. Mat Dalton is back in house D12.7, where the small suite of two rooms with ovens has turned out to contain yet more, earlier, ovens. Again we are able to track small changes and refurbishments made in individual houses.

Fouad Ali Gindi, one of our veteran workers (and oven specialist) in house D12.7

Fouad Ali Gindi, one of our veteran workers (and oven specialist), in house D12.7

Back inside the walled town, we are seeking to finish excavations in neighbourhood E13. We’re not excavating houses here, but rather an area given over to ovens and/or kilns, perhaps a courtyard.

A sequence of kilns or ovens in a courtyard inside the walled town

A sequence of kilns or ovens in a courtyard inside the walled town

Tom Lyons has been busy excavating, recording and dismantling one sequence of ovens, while Johannes Auenmüller finished the week revealing a nice layer of architecture. In both areas we hope to reach the earliest occupation phase at Amara West, to better understand what was deemed necessary in the foundation of a new pharaonic administrative centre in Upper Nubia.

Early phase architecture within area E13

Early phase architecture within area E13

Back in the expedition house, we’re focusing on documenting objects from earlier seasons – there’s always a backlog – but new artefacts are beginning to come in. But perhaps the most thrilling part of the first week has been the enthusiasm for the Arabic edition of the Amara West book, which we are distributing to local communities, starting with our workmen and neighbours.

Early evening reading the Amara West book on the mastaba outside an Ernetta island house

Early evening reading the Amara West book on the mastaba outside an Ernetta island house

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, conservation, New Kingdom, objects, settlement

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