Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2015: into the desert – a new perspective on cultural interaction?


Anna Stevens (Amara West Project Curator, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum)

Whilst the town excavators may have left, it remained a busy dig house on Ernetta Island this week. The cemetery team has been back and forth to site finishing up some final recording, whilst the finds and ceramics specialists remain busy at the house. For myself, and archaeologists Tomomi Fushiya and David Fallon, the week has been spent out in the desert about a kilometre north of Amara West, where we have been continuing a project to investigate several small occupation sites first noted by French archaeologist André Villa in the 1970s.

Excavation gets underway in 2015. Note the trees in the background which mark the line of the ancient palaeochannel

Excavation gets underway in 2015. Note the trees in the background which mark the line of the ancient palaeochannel

The landscape out here is very peaceful: an occasional car drives by on the distant highway, but you are more likely to see a camel caravan passing by on the way to Egypt. Our work focuses upon a string of small rocky outcrops scattered with archaeological debris that fall either side of an ancient dried-up river channel, probably already largely dry during the occupation of Amara West, from 1300 BC onwards.

Last year we investigated two sites (2-R-18 and 2-R-65) on the southern side of the palaeochannel. Both showed very clear hallmarks of Egyptian settlements: wheelmade pottery, faience jewellery and hieroglyphic inscriptions. But there were also occasional items of Nubian material culture, the most obvious being pieces of handmade pottery. The two populations were clearly interacting here in some way. Ceramicist Anna Garnett helped pinpoint an occupation date of around the early to mid Eighteenth Dynasty, so several generations before Amara West was established, and at a time when the palaeochannel was probably still intermittently flowing. Quite what the Egyptians were doing out here is not yet clear, but we can guess that they were coming from the 18th Dynasty town at Sai. Might they have been patrolling the desert hinterland, or prospecting for minerals?

Anna Stevens planning at desert site 2-R-19

Anna Stevens planning at desert site 2-R-19

This year, with the aim of adding more data to the puzzle, we relocated to a prominent mound (site 2-R-19/19A) on the north side of the palaeochannel, where Villa had noted a concentration of local handmade pottery and the remains of stone and mud-brick buildings. The location seems ideal for something like a watchpost: the mound offers an excellent view of the surrounding landscape.

We opened three small trenches on and around the mound, and whilst little in the way of architecture was encountered we soon confirmed Villa’s idea that this was an indigenous site. Local handmade sherds—some quite fine, with burnished and incised decoration—dominate the ceramic assemblage.

Anna Garnett records potsherds from 2-R-19. Note the paler coloured sherds, which are examples of Egyptian marl vessels.

Anna Garnett records potsherds from 2-R-19. Note the paler coloured sherds, which are examples of Egyptian marl vessels.

But it was an interesting surprise to find very occasional pieces of Egyptian vessels in the mix – largely in fine hard marl fabrics. Were the local populations in contact with Egyptian communities or were these vessels obtained from abandoned Egyptian sites in the vicinity? As yet, it is not clear where in time site 2-R-19/19A falls in relation to the 18th Dynasty sites on the other side of the palaeochannel, nor to Amara West itself.

One of our workmen from Ernetta Island, Fareed Mohammed, contrasts an Egyptian wheelmade sherd with a local handmade example.

One of our workmen from Ernetta Island, Fareed Mohammed, contrasts an Egyptian wheelmade sherd with a local handmade example.

But further study of the ceramic assemblage, supplemented by radiocarbon dating of charcoal samples, should help to clarify this. In any case, we seem to have here a hint of the other side of cultural interaction – and look forward to teasing out what we can from this small assemblage of the story of local contact with Egyptian populations.

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, hinterland, New Kingdom, Nubian, Nubian traditions

Amara West 2014: geophysics survey

 Ground-penetrating radar at Amara West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie walking the magnetometry survey in the cemetery

Sophie walking the magnetometry survey in the cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, hinterland, New Kingdom, settlement, survey

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

Pottery from 2-S-37

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

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

Excavating a small trench at 2-S-37

Excavating a small trench at 2-S-37

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

Napatan.pottery from 2-S-37

Napatan.pottery from 2-S-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, hinterland, New Kingdom, Nubian, settlement, survey

Amara West 2014: finishing up at 2-R-65

Scarab found at 2-R-65

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

It’s been another productive week on the desert survey, spurred on by the news that the pottery we’re recovering seems to date to the early part of the 18th Dynasty – several generations before the walled town of Amara West was built. So what can we say about the archaeological context of this material?

Uncovering brick rubble of an earlier phase than the stone walls

Excavations at 2-R-65, with stone walls visible to right

This week we’ve been focussing on a second site (2-R-65) located along a large dried up Nile channel in the desert to the north of the walled town. It sits on a low rocky outcrop not far from the first of our excavation sites (2-R-18), and already on the surface it is possible to make out occasional lines of dark grey schist that are presumably the remains of walls.

Tomomi excavates through the fill at 2-R-65. Note the stone walls in the right of the trench

Uncovering brick rubble beneath the stone building phase

André Vila undertook test excavations in the corner of one of the buildings here in the 1970s, and noted that it contained open fireplaces and a plaster floor. We set out a small trench over another of the stone walls and found similar deposits. In our trench, however, it was clear that the walls were actually built over the layer containing the fireplaces. The ashy debris from the fires in turn sealed a layer of rubbish containing sherds and animal bone, below which was a trampled surface with a few scattered pieces of brick.

A scarab of Menkheperra (King Tuthmosis III) from 2-R-65

A scarab of Menkheperra (King Tuthmosis III) from 2-R-65

We didn’t find any definite trace of structures that predate the stone walls, but the stratigraphy is itself important for showing that there were at least three ‘activity horizons’ here: a surface with associated mud brick structures; the subsequent accumulation of rubbish over the surface; and the later construction of the stone walls. A far more complicated site history than the surface remains suggested! It’s tempting now to see sites 2-R-18 and 2-R-65 as part of one much bigger early 18th dynasty settlement – but far too early to speculate much further on this.

Planning the stratigraphy at the end of the excavation.

Planning the stratigraphy at the end of the excavation.

So, what’s next for the survey? Well, we know that there is another large scatter of potsherds, which Vila thought were also of New Kingdom date, along the riverbank to the east of the walled town of Amara West, and in the days ahead we will be turning our attention to opening another small trench here. This site is a good few kilometres away from 2-R-18 and 2-R-65, so can we expect it to be of a different date?

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, hinterland, New Kingdom, objects, pottery, settlement, survey

Amara West 2014: 18th dynasty activity

Sieving pottery
Anna Garnett, Liverpool University

We’re in our final week of investigating the enigmatic scatter of sites lying outside the Ramesside enclosure wall of the main town at Amara West. Over the last weeks I’ve been studying the pottery coming out of two sites in the desert north of Amara West – and trying to make sense of why the sites existed, what they were used for, and importantly when they were occupied in relation to the town itself: are they earlier, contemporary or post-Ramesside?

Sieving deposits for pottery

Sieving deposits for pottery

Thankfully the amount and fine quality of the pottery coming out of the first two sites has assisted this analysis greatly. The sites excavated so far (2-R-18 and 2-R-65) featured on Andre Vila’s 1970s survey of the area, and he described them both as being New Kingdom occupation sites with evidence of Egyptian wheel-made pottery on the surface.

The forms of the ceramics from both sites, including cooking pots, tableware and storage vessels, are suggestive of the domestic nature of the occupation. Nile silt, marl and imported fabrics are all represented, as are local Nubian-made vessels in a relatively high quantity (around 10% for some of the excavated contexts): both finewares, and coarsewares used for cooking pots. This also raises interesting questions about the nature of the interactions between the Egyptians and the local Nubian population at these sites.

Anna in the workroom sorting pottery

Anna in the workroom sorting pottery

But when were the sites occupied? From the pottery excavated and studied so far, it is clear that Egyptians of the early 18th Dynasty were present at these sites, likely before the reign of Tuthmosis III (around 1479-1425 BC). This is an important discovery since it now seems likely that the Egyptians were active here prior to the foundation of Amara West, indeed nearly 200 years before the town wall was built in the reign of Seti I. The quality of this early 18th Dynasty assemblage is remarkable and includes a large number of diagnostic and beautifully painted sherds including blue-painted and polychrome examples. We have one more week of excavations at hinterland sites, which I hope will continue to yield more of the same!

I’d like to extend grateful thanks to Julia Budka who kindly offered to look at some of the survey pottery on our visit to Sai Island last week and confirmed my interpretation of an early 18th Dynasty date.

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, hinterland, New Kingdom, Nubian, pottery, survey

Amara West 2014: preserving coffin decoration

Lifting coffin fragments in G244

Maickel van Bellegem, conservator, British Museum

After a good week of being on site, although for the first time in Sudan, I have settled into the routine of the excavation: work, sleep, get up early, and work (with breaks to eat in between). As project conservator I’ve been working on the painted plaster from coffins from Cemetery C. These rarely look like coffins –  over time they have collapsed over bones and objects, often turned into a powdery mass in the loose sand that has been blown into the tombs over time. With two coffins being excavated from different burial chambers in G244, I have been kept busy.

Michaela and Maickel transferring a rather long section of coffin side from near skeletib 244-13

Michaela and Maickel transferring a long section of coffin side from near skeleton 244-1

By consolidating in situ we might have a chance to recover some of the fragments of colour and get clues to the decorative scheme of each coffin. One example is the scheme of darker lines on a white background of the coffin lid of a male burial (skeleton 244-13) in the first chamber off the eastern side. Once consolidated, it can still be a tricky process to actually lift the section and transfer onto a board so that it can be transported to the dig house. On a coffin from chamber 244.5, on the western side of tomb, the preserved decoration includes patterns in yellow, red, blue and white.

Decorated coffin fragments in chamber G244.5

Decorated coffin fragments in chamber G244.5

After the plaster remains are lifted, further work is needed back in the dig house. This includes removing of sand, more consolidating and documentation. My remaining three weeks will also give me time to practice winding a turban to protect myself against wind, sand and sun.

Preparing for work at Amara West

Further work needed on turban…

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, conservation, funerary, hinterland, New Kingdom, pottery, survey

Amara West 2014: week two of the desert survey

Excavations at 2-R-18

Anna Stevens (Amara West Project Curator, British Museum); Delphine Driaux (Associated Member, UMR 8167, Orient et Méditerranée); Tomomi Fushiya (archaeologist)

Over the past week or so on the desert survey, we’ve turned our attention to small-scale excavation at two sites that we visited last week to the north of the walled town. The first (2-R-18) is a low mound scattered with potsherds, and the second a nearby stony outcrop where the remains of ancient stone walls are just visible, emerging from the windblown sand.

Excavations underway on the low mound scattered with potsherds; the larger stony outcrop is visible in the background.

Excavations underway on the low mound scattered with potsherds; the larger stony outcrop is visible in the background.

At site 2-R-18 we laid out a small trench on the highest part of the mound, not knowing quite what to expect. Would there be much archaeological deposit below the sherd scatter? It was a welcome surprise to find about 40 cm of deposit: two layer of ashy debris, one of which contained a large number of potsherds (Nubian and Egyptian), along with some animal bone. This kind of material is suggestive of an ancient midden – and specifically, one in which the debris from fires was being regularly dumped.

Delphine and Tomomi excavate through the ashy midden.

Delphine and Tomomi excavate through the ashy midden.

It is the potsherds that are the most immediately helpful in dating the site, and our ceramicist Anna Garnett is proposing an 18th Dynasty date for this material. This is a really interesting result: the site offers a glimpse of Egyptian presence in the area before the foundation of the Ramesside town. But how will the date of this site compare to that on the outcrop? Were they occupied at the same time? Might they be part of one much larger site, now only preserved in small patches?

A pottery puzzle: Delphine with sherds from 2-R-65

A pottery puzzle: Delphine with sherds from 2-R-65

On the stone outcrop (2-R-65), excavations are only just underway. But already it is clear that we have a different kind of space. Rather than an outdoor area used as a rubbish dump, we seem to be digging inside a structure. A few objects have emerged that suggest a residential assemblage, and one that is at least partly influenced by Egyptian traditions: a fragment of a faience bowl, faience beads and part of a stone earring of well known Egyptian form. Potsherds are less abundant so far – but we are confident of getting a good collection as we excavate deeper into the stratigraphy.

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, hinterland, New Kingdom, pottery, survey

Amara West 2014: back to the sorting table

Pottery bags in the dig house

Anna Garnett, University of Liverpool

I’m back at Amara West for my second season as the site ceramicist, this time working on several different projects running concurrently. As well as trying to put a dent in the backlog of pottery to be studied from previous seasons, our first month of work is dedicated to the ongoing excavation of Cemetery C, directed by Michaela Binder, and the survey and excavation of a number of desert sites which lie beyond the enclosure wall, directed by Anna Stevens. From February onwards, the focus of the excavations will then turn to the town itself.

Linen bags filled with pottery in the dig house courtyard

Linen bags filled with pottery in the dig house courtyard

Any pottery which is excavated is brought back to the house where I then process and study it, with the help of our illustrator (and expert pot gluer) Alice Salvador and Ali Jellal, our pot-washer.

Ali Jellal washing pottery before study

Ali Jellal washing pottery before study

Since excavation in the cemetery involves working on the same context over several days, sometimes sherds from the same vessel are brought to the house on different days, which means that the puzzle of making joins slowly unravels through the week! Interestingly, joins are being made between sherds from different contexts in the cemetery, for example in Grave 244, which indicates disturbance of the tomb.

Alice Salvador reconstructing pottery

Alice Salvador reconstructing pottery

The pottery from the extra-mural survey is beginning to reveal a fascinating picture of life outside the walls of the town, and so far the mix of wheel-made pottery forms and handmade vessels, in particular cooking pots, indicate the presence of both Egyptians and Nubians at these sites like we see inside the town walls. The Egyptian pottery forms also suggest that this activity took place during the 18th Dynasty, i.e. before the Ramesside occupation of the town. As more pottery is revealed, this distinction will become more apparent so watch this space!

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, funerary, hinterland, New Kingdom, pottery, survey

Amara West 2014: beyond the town walls

Atop site 2-R-55 near Amara West

Anna Stevens (Amara West Project Curator, British Museum) and Delphine Driaux (Associated Member, UMR 8167, Orient et Méditerranée)

This season, the Amara West Project is branching out. During January, before excavations begin in the Ramesside town itself, we are undertaking a small survey in the desert around the site. It has long been known that the landscape here is rich in archaeological sites, dating from the prehistoric to far more recent times, but on the whole they remain little explored. They offer a wonderful opportunity to investigate the broader cultural and historical setting of the Ramesside town within a local framework.

Heading towards rocky outcrops overlooking an early Nile channel, around which several sites cluster

Heading towards rocky outcrops overlooking an early Nile channel, around which several sites cluster

Our starting point for the fieldwork is a monograph published by André Vila in 1975, La prospection archéologique de la vallée du Nil, au sud de la
cataracte de Dal (Nubia Soudanaise), volume 7, in which he describes and maps several sites in the vicinity of Amara West. Day one of the survey saw us trek out into the desert with a copy of Vila’s maps and a hand-held GPS to try and relocate these. One we got used to the landscape, the sites were fairly easy to find. Although few traces of architecture remain (the sites are far more denuded than the Ramesside town), surface scatters of potsherds are fairly clear.

By the end of the day, we had re-identified about a dozen of the sites recorded by Vila, which fall into two main groups. One clusters several hundred metres to the north of Amara West, close to the ancient water channel that was probably drying up around the time of the occupation of the Ramesside town. Another group of sites branches out along the present riverbank, to the east of the town.

One of the New Kingdom sites, recognizable by the concentration of sherds in the otherwise clean desert sand

One of the New Kingdom sites, recognizable by the concentration of sherds in the otherwise clean desert sand

In the coming weeks our aim is to undertake some mapping and small-scale excavation at a select number of these. This year, we will focus on those that show evidence of wheel-made pottery, which suggests an Egyptian presence (or an Egyptian influence on local ceramic traditions). Are these the remains of settlements that predated the Ramesside town? If so, what was their purpose, and why did the population later shift to the walled settlement? Or might they represent the later resettlement of the area? And what further do they tell us of interactions between local Nubian and resettled Egyptian populations?

We will keep you posted on the results!

A well-earned break (in what may be an ancient stone-built watch-post)

A well-earned break (in what may be an ancient stone-built watch-post)

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2014, hinterland, New Kingdom, Nubian, settlement, survey, Uncategorized