Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2016: the cemetery… from the Mesolithic to pyramids

Michaela Binder, Austrian Archaeological Institute

Pyramid tombs G321 (left) and G320 (right) in Cemetery D of Amara West

Pyramid tombs G321 (left) and G320 (right) in Cemetery D of Amara West

After eight seasons of excavations in the cemeteries of Amara West, we were done. As is usual in archaeology, those weeks in January and February 2016 were full of surprises, some pleasant and some not so much.

But let’s start from the beginning. Sticking to our plan set out at the start of the season, Sofie, Michelle and Mohamed Saad returned to the elite cemetery D to finish the excavation of three large pyramid tombs (G320, G321 and G322), which we had already excavated (superstructures and shafts) in 2015. Expectations were very high, having already discovered shabtis of Paser, Deputy of Kush, in tomb G320.

A somewhat challenging work environment under the protective tables in the burial chambers

A somewhat challenging work environment under the protective tables in the burial chambers

Equipped with new safety installations to protect excavators in the funerary chambers carved into the friable schist bedrock, the aim for 2016 was to finally explore the content of those subterranean rooms. In G321, a tomb provided with a large 8x8m pyramid, the substructure proved to be heavily looted but nevertheless offered important insights into funerary culture at Amara West. Dating to the 20th Dynasty – based on the assemblage of vessels – its owners opted for an interesting mix of Egyptian (tomb architecture, Egyptian style pottery, scarabs) as well as local Nubian (funerary beds) elements in funerary ritual. This conforms well to observations already made in other parts of the cemetery, as well as in the town, and reveals that this trend was followed even amongst the most elite.

Unfortunately, no artefacts revealing the identity of the tomb owner were recovered. Nevertheless, based on the dimensions and location of the tomb it is safe to assume that the tomb’s owner would have been one of the most high-ranking officials at Amara West. The strong Nubian influence in the funerary equipment may further indicate that he was indeed local.

Despite its small, unassuming entrance, tomb G322 turned out to be the most rewarding of the three tombs. Even though it had also been looted in antiquity, four burials and the base of a wooden coffin decorated with painted plaster were recovered intact form the first of the three burial chambers. This chamber also held an assemblage of over 20 complete vessels, including some a Canaanite amphora imported from the Levant. All these vessels indicate that the tomb was constructed in the early 19th Dynasty, early in the history of the town Amara West. Most importantly however, the northern burial chamber held part of shabti with the name of Ibay. Who he was and what his function at Amara West was remains yet unclear but based on size, location and wealth of his tomb he would have certainly been high up in the provincial administration of Kush (Upper Nubia).

The tomb that had yielded shabtis of Paser, G320, unfortunately frustrated us. The ceiling of the substructure, located 7, below the surface, was fully collapsed. The large boulders in the entrance and cracks in the still intact rock above the chambers proved too large an obstacle and acted as a reminder of the dangers of the unstable schist bedrock. Consequently, excavation was impossible.

Burial mounds of G250 in Cemetery C with settlement of Amara West in the background

Burial mounds of G250 in Cemetery C with settlement of Amara West in the background

On the plus side, the early end of excavation in G320 gave us time to excavate two tombs, G250 and G251, in an unexplored area of Cemetery C. Located on the escarpment east of the cemetery were two isolated and small burial mounds, conforming in size and architecture to other examples in Cemeteries C and D. However, in contrast to the tombs in Cemetery C, both had rock-cut substructures. In the case of G250, it consisted of a sizable rectangular shaft similar to our post-New Kingdom niche burials, even though a niche itself was missing. Nevertheless, the location, size and rock-cut nature signify a special position of the person buried in tomb at some point during the 10th-9th centuries BC.

The second tomb – G251 – turned out to somewhat different. The pottery is fascinating – it includes “Khartoum Variant” (Mesolithic; 6000-4500 BC) sherds, but also forms that might be of C-Group, Pre-Kerma or Kerma (3000-1600 BC). Clearly a burial that long pre-dates the Ramesside occupation at Amara West, further research is needed to clarify at what date the tomb was constructed, and if some of the pottery (the Mesolithic) was recycled from nearby occupation sites.

A magical place: one of the many great sunrises over the Nile at Amara West

A magical place: one of the many great sunrises over the Nile at Amara West

Here ends our excavation project in the cemeteries of Amara West: analysis, interpretation and publication lies ahead. It is very sad for me to say good bye to this magical place for now, but they say “who once drank from the Nile will always come back”.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. More images on Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/nealspencer_bm

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

Filed under: Amara West 2016, anthropology, archaeology, funerary, Kite Aerial Photography #KAP, New Kingdom, Nubian, Nubian traditions, objects, Uncategorized

Amara West 2015 (week 6): a familiar character appears

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

Aerial view of tomb G321, with pyramid, chapel and forecourt

Aerial view of tomb G321, with pyramid, chapel and forecourt

The wind howled this week, yet important and exciting new evidence continued to emerge from town and cemetery. Up on the desert escarpment, Mohamed Saad discovered our first intact burial of the season, just beside pyramid chapel G322. In a shallow pit, adjacent to the north wall of the pyramid, a child of only 1-2 years was buried. Directly underneath, a second infant was placed on a layer of large schist stones. Based on the size of the long bones and development of tooth crowns, the earlier child was likely born prematurely. Whether these burials are contemporary with the New Kingdom pyramid tomb is unknown, as neither was accompanied by grave goods. However, subsidiary burials around – or within – Egyptian funerary monuments, are found elsewhere, for example at Tombos.

Mohamed Saad documenting our first intact burial.

Mohamed Saad documenting our first intact burial.

We have just commenced excavation of the shaft of G322, but perhaps more exciting is a spread of pottery in the courtyard of the chapel. What will this tell us about funerary rituals at this tomb?

A short distance to the east, Michelle and her team are now over 6m deep in the shaft. More sandstone blocks continue to be revealed, some decorated. Most exciting, however, was the discovery of fragments from faience shabtis, found discarded in the shaft, left behind by (ancient?) looters.

Faience shabtis for the Deputy Paser

Faience shabtis for the Deputy Paser

A surface find in the first days had given us the name of an individual whose name ended in –ser. Four of the new shabtis complete the picture: it is ‘the Deputy, Paser’. A fifth shabti may have belonged to his wife. We cannot be sure this is where Paser was buried, but it now seems very likely. The most prominent Egyptian official in Upper Nubia under Ramses III, he is likely to have sought a grandiose tomb overlooking the town in which he held office. The pyramid would likely have been visible from the town, and to those approaching from the desert. A doorjamb, which seems to bear his name, was found dumped in the tomb to the east (G321). More evidence is needed to confirm whether this was his tomb.

Red pigment preserved on the legs of a horse pulling the chariot of Ramses II. West Gate, Amara West.

Red pigment preserved on the legs of a horse pulling the chariot of Ramses II. West Gate, Amara West.

Moving down into the town, we finished the data-capture for 3D modelling of the West Gate, a formal monument that proclaimed Egypt’s power over Nubia – which individuals like Paser were charged with administering. Alongside the discovery of four new inscriptions not recorded by the Egypt Exploration Society, we have been documenting remnants of colour that will help reconstruct the original appearance of this entrance into the town – the red flesh of the horses, the yellow fittings for the chariot, or the black skin of the vanquished Nubian prisoners.

Abdel-Razeq digging ancient rubbish pits beneath house D12.9

Abdel-Razeq digging ancient rubbish pits beneath house D12.9

Out in the western suburb, the completion of recording in several houses has provided us with a chance to go deeper. In three places, we are now digging under floor layers, into the thick rubbish deposits on which the suburb was built. Not all are happy about this: it means a mass of ceramics will have to be processed and studied.

Seal-impression with name of Ramses II, designated ‘beloved of Thoth’

Seal-impression with name of Ramses II, designated ‘beloved of Thoth’

In two of the sondages, dozens of seal impressions came to light – with royal names, depictions of gods and other texts, which will need careful study. The rubbish – its charcoal, phytoliths, animal bone and objects – will tell us much about life at ancient Amara West. These are the remnants of what people used, made and consumed, and then purposefully discarded.

Stone tools found in house D11.2

Stone tools found in house D11.2

In the final days of excavating house D11.2, Anna uncovered a cache of stone tools, tucked behind a specially modelled door buttress. Why were these tools being tucked out of sight? It is rare that the archaeologist encounters such a deliberate placing of objects by those who used an ancient house.

House D12.12 from our photography kite

House D12.12 from our photography kite

House D12.12, under excavation by David Fallon, has thrown up a feature so far unique at Amara West. This house featured a large main room with mastaba -bench (later divided in two), small ‘back rooms’ leading off it, and an entrance corridor with at least two ovens. The northeastern room was fitted with a staircase.

Staircase room in house D12.12, with platform

Staircase room in house D12.12, with platform

The intriguing feature is a small brick structure erected in front of the staircase. Carefully plastered, is this a form of low platform, perhaps similar to the lit clos known from contemporary Deir el-Medina? We can only speculate, as no painted decoration or cult objects have been found.

The E13.17 area team pause/pose for a photograph

The E13.17 area team pause/pose for a photograph

Archaeological fieldwork is characterised by massive accumulations of data, in both hard copy and digital form. Over recent years, we’ve seen our workers become increasingly part of the same global phenomenon. What’s App messages are exchanged between those in different parts of the other site, while selfies and group pictures are a regular occurrence during breaks in the excavating.

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, Egypt Exploration Society, Kite Aerial Photography #KAP, New Kingdom, objects, pottery, settlement

Amara West 2015 (week 5): the practical, the unusual and the desert beyond

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

Now the time seems to be slipping through our fingers like the loose windblown sand that shrouds the ancient buildings at Amara West, but with less than two weeks to go (in the town). We are now working across a range of very different spaces – some built for living, others for making things (and thus producing a lot of rubbish) and of course the monumentswhere the dead were commemorated and buried. And this week we moved beyond, into the desert….

Sequence of attempts to keep the sand out of house D12.8

Sequence of attempts to keep the sand out of house D12.8

Agnieszka Trambowicz has now provided some clarity as to what was happening in house D12.8. It looks increasingly like the house had a northern front door – thus far a uniquely bad idea in this windswept neighbourhood. The inhabitants soon started to try and lessen the impact of the sand, with a series of blocking walls erected outside the front door, before the door was finally sealed up and a new western entrance to the house created. Yet beneath all these phases lies a nice mudbrick pavement – we have yet to understand whether this is another outside court, or even paving in a public space between houses.

Ovens along the corridor around house D11.1

Ovens along the corridor around house D11.1

We try not to mention ovens too often, despite their ubiquity on site. Yet the end of the week saw several familiar circles of ash and ceramic emerge from the dusty brown deposits that choke the corridor surrounding house D11.1, in a row along one wall. This house is unique in having a precinct wall surrounding the house, and it now looks as is this was a place for food processing and cooking. It may seem sensible to put such activities outside the house, given the smoke and rubbish created. If unroofed, it could have been a space that filled with dust and sand very quickly – is that why most houses placed ovens inside?

Copper alloy bracelet emerging from the dirt in house D11.1

Copper alloy bracelet emerging from the dirt in house D11.1

Over in one of the side rooms, a nice copper alloy bracelet was revealed. Like a number of other objects – especially dozens of crumbly seal impressions – this will need the attention of our conservator, Maickel van Bellegem, who has just arrived from the British Museum. It also serves as a reminder of how these brick buildings, and their inhabitants, would have lived amongst brightly coloured objects but also materials (wood, textiles) which rarely survive here.

Kite photograph over northern part of walled town

Kite photograph over northern part of walled town

Over in the walled town, Johannes Auenmüller has excavated a trench that embodies the concept of Groundhog Day. Each day sees us photograph a new floor, made of hard Nile silt, running up to a narrow doorway. Frankly, they all look almost identical. We’re at 7 floors and counting now – what kind of building needed this careful and repeated refurbishment? Yet on the other side of the wall, Tom is digging through layers of industrial waste that may be related to metal production. These two spaces are very distinct, and perhaps had more defined purposes than the houses we have excavated, where many of the rooms probably acted as places for eating, sleeping, making things, housing animals …

Michelle Gamble faces recording the stonework recovered from the shaft of pyramid tomb G320

Michelle Gamble faces recording the stonework recovered from the shaft of pyramid tomb G320

Up in cemetery D, progress continued in the shafts of both pyramid tombs (we are not at the bottom after 5.6m in G320!), with stone architecture remaining the surprising focus of discovery. After the door jambs and lintel from the shaft of G321, the second tomb G320 started yielding an even higher amount of sandstone blocks. In contrast to G321, the majority of these blocks, again deriving from door frames, are undecorated. Yet two lintels bear traces of carved decoration, one showing a kneeling woman in the characteristic pose of a mourner.

Sandstone lintel from the shaft of pyramid tomb G320, with frontal depiction of a figure with wig and beard.

Sandstone lintel from the shaft of pyramid tomb G320, with frontal depiction of a figure with wig and beard.

The second lintel, which can be reconstructed from a series of fragments, bears a frontal representation, rare in pharaonic art. Depicting a face with wig and beard, with no accompanying inscriptions, the figure dominates the lintel. What does this represent, and where was it set up? In the shaft or as part of the above-ground cult chapel? Or has this lintel been brought from somewhere else?

After a few hours of surface excavation, the pyramid base of tomb G322 is already visible

After a few hours of surface excavation, the pyramid base of tomb G322 is already visible

In G321, Sofie started removing the upper layers of sandy fill from the entrance area of the central burial chamber: so far, there is only windblown sand. From next week, we are joined by NCAM inspector and bioarchaeologist Mohamed Saad, supported by the Institute for Bioarchaeology. Mohamed will excavate tomb G322, and initial surface cleaning has already revealed another T-shaped chapel combined with a pyramid base of almost similar width (4.50m). For the first time here, the tomb further features a small walled forecourt: as ever at Amara West, no two graves are alike.

This week saw the Amara West project extend out into the desert, to look at sites in the hinterland of the town and cemetery. Last year’s brief survey revealed the presence of two early 18th dynasty sites along a Nile channel some 2km north of the townsite. Anna Stevens will, next week, oversee another short season, concentrating on another site along this river channel.

Mohamed Abdelwahab walking grids of geophysical survey (fluxgate magnetometry) at site 2-R-65, in the desert north of Amara West

Mohamed Abdelwahab walking grids of geophysical survey (fluxgate magnetometry) at site 2-R-65, in the desert north of Amara West

To help us target our excavations, and to better understand the form and extent of these sites, a geophysical survey was completed this week, by Mohamed Abdelwahab Mohamed Ali, Musaab Hussein Eltoum Elkabbashi and Amar Adam Ali Ibrahim, colleagues from the Faculty of Earth Sciences and Mining of the University of Dongola (at Wadi Halfa). The survey and excavation in the desert will hopefully shed more light on what was happening in this area before the town of Amara West was created in the reign of Seti I.

Shadia lecturing at the Ernetta community club

Shadia lecturing at the Ernetta community club

The highlight of last week, however, was a lecture at the Ernetta Community Club. Over 200 people – on an island with only 180 occupied houses – turned up for a talk by Shadia Abdu Rabo and Neal Spencer, to talk about the exploration of Amara West, past and present. It’s amazing to think that despite Wallis Budge, James Henry Breasted and the Egypt Exploration Society working here between 1906 and 1950, this was probably the first time anyone in the area had seen old excavation photos, or learnt about what was found. Set beneath a warm starry sky, with a break prompted by the evening call to prayer (from the mosque next door), it was a memorable evening. Tomomi Fushiya finished off the evening by asking what the people of Ernetta wanted in terms of ongoing engagement – perhaps including talks and guided visits to the site.

Haris Mohamed, one of our workmen, has a first look at the information panels in the Amara West visitor orientation area

Haris Mohamed, one of our workmen, has a first look at the information panels in the Amara West visitor orientation area

Maickel brought more than conservation materials with him this week – he was also laden down with our Arabic-English information panels. We’ve just unpacked them, and hope to install them in the visitor orientation area next week.

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, Egypt Exploration Society, funerary, Kite Aerial Photography #KAP, Modern Amara, New Kingdom, objects, settlement

Amara West 2015: clarity (?) from above

Neal Spencer, Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Nearing the end of excavations in the western suburb – only two weeks to go, much of it involving recording rather than digging – the perfect weather today prompted a kite flight for more aerial photography. Mohamed Tawfiq is our designated pilot on these missions, aided by archaeologists sighting in where we want the camera to fly over.

M Tawfiq reels in kite

This image, showing the five houses being excavated for the first time this year (white labels), is fascinating in terms of seeong how a neighbourhood developed in the late New Kingdom, just over 3000 years ago:

Western suburb

We currently think D11.1 and D12.7 are the earliest houses here, with the others built later. Sometimes this means filling an empty space between two existing houses, or building up against a house, using its walls. House D12.8 is unusual – starting off as a small house, it was gradually extended outwards. The room or court with sandstone column base can be seen in the image. A number of excavators are visible in the photo as small coloured dots, and the shadow of the kite is visible at the left edge.

The recording – of architecture and deposits – will help us refine the chronology of this neighbourhood. And, in turn, make this apparently clear picture more complicated!

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, Kite Aerial Photography #KAP, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2015: views from the sky


Neal Spencer, Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

After two days of frustrating stillness and heat, a mighty wind arose today: our kite, laden with camera, could finally lift off.

Amara West town
Kite photography provides a different perspective on the excavations. This shot, part of a flight where the camera was set at an oblique angle, places the current excavations in context, against the backdrop of the Nile (flowing from right to left) and Jebel Abri. The walled town can be seen to the left, but the excavation teams cluster around the western suburb to the right. A prominent feature of the ancient site are the mounds of excavated spoil, some dating to the 1930s and 1940s, resulting from Egypt Exploration Society excavations, others from our work since 2008.

West suburb kite view
Most of today’s airtime was used for near vertical photography, here over the heart of the western suburb, with house D12.8 to centre, clear of windblown sand. The long shadows of men at top left indicate this was an early morning flight: we could not wait for the sun to be higher, as the wind can become too strong for the kite. Bottom left is house D11.2, peppered with white sugar sacks. These are in place to protect delicate surfaces from being scoured by the wind, ahead of detailed sampling and recording. These will be removed for final kite photography.

G31 pyramid tomb, Amara West
We finished with a flight over the cemetery on the desert escarpment. This view shows the pyramid monument of tomb G321 (with western edge destroyed) and the chapel that faces east towards the rising sun. Through kite photography, photography on the ground, 3D visualisations and drawings in plan and elevation, the monument is currently being fully documented. Then, and only then, will the shaft leading down to the burial chamber (here full of windblown sand, to bottom right) be excavated.

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, Egypt Exploration Society, funerary, Kite Aerial Photography #KAP, New Kingdom, settlement, survey

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