Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2017: ivory and bone objects

Manuela Lehmann, Project Curator, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

After the funerary beds, I moved onto objects made of ivory and bone. These can be roughly divided into two groups: those that had been used as tools and those that can be considered items for personal and cosmetic use: combs, hair and cloth pins, beads, knobs, and vessels. Many of them would also have been used as inlays in wooden furniture, the wood itself lost to decay, leaving behind the harder inlays of bone and ivory. These pieces are often relatively small and are therefore difficult to understand without seeing the furniture.

Bone tools

Bone tools

The bone tools are mainly of pointed shape, probably used as awls. Sometimes part of the unworked bone end was used as a handle, in other cases the points had a small shaft attached to a handle that is no longer preserved, presumably in a different material. A cluster of five pointed tools was found within one room in the rearmost part of house E13.3-S. As no other unworked bone material was found here, we might think that the work for which the points were used took place in this room rather than the production of the tools themselves. Or had the tools been dumped here? This room was also notable for the number of objects we recovered.

In addition, a lot of smaller pieces of pre-cut blocks of bone and ivory were most likely intended to be shaped further into different objects. Usually these raw pieces show cut marks on several sides of them: often the sawing started from two opposite sides until the thin remaining middle part was then broken off.

Another interesting accumulation of bone and ivory finds can be attested for three adjacent rooms in the storage complex E13.14, including unworked bone material. This suggests that there existed some sort of production area of bone objects in these rooms, or at least nearby. In a later phase, when this building was overbuilt with house E13.6, a similar range of material survives. Many of the objects show traces of burning suggesting that they might have been hardened in fire, before being processed further into objects. They are often polished to a shiny surface.

As for the personal items of daily life, these are found in both town and cemetery, providing interesting insights into the related spheres of life and death.

Convex disc-shaped bone and ivory fittings

Convex disc-shaped bone and ivory fittings

A very high number of flat, almost disc-shaped, objects with a convex upper side remain puzzling! There is much variation in the size of these objects, which range from about 4cm to under 1cm. Some are more convex, while others are flatter and are with or without one or two indentations or perforations. We have them in various stages of working: from raw cut, to finished, to extremely finely polished. A number of these objects were probably knobs for boxes or beads while others might have been fittings or inlays of furniture.

Bone and ivory gaming pieces and inlays

Bone and ivory gaming pieces and inlays

Easier to interpret are pieces of gaming boards and gaming figures. The gaming board parts, also inlays, consist of flat plaques of bone cut into square or rectangular pieces that were then smoothed and often polished. Some of them are slightly convex on the surface due to the natural shape of the bone. While two such inlays were found in the tombs, four of them were found in different houses in the town.

Bone and ivory fragments with worked and drilled surfaces

Bone and ivory fragments with worked and drilled surfaces

The inlays are again not easy to understand as we are missing the actual objects. In general most of these objects are very flat and sometimes have incised patterns: horizontal parallel lines, flower or petal motifs. Here the study of furniture like wooden boxes, chests or other wooden objects might lead to further insights into the material of Amara West used by the inhabitants, along with examples from better preserved tombs in Nubia and Egypt.

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2017, funerary, Nubian, Nubian traditions, objects, tools

Amara West 2017: sleeping beauties

Manuela Lehmann, Project Curator, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Wood to sift through...

Wood to sift through…

I started with wooden objects this season. Though organic material is generally poorly preserved at Amara West, we have an astonishing amount of wooden remains collected over the years. Almost all of this comes from tombs excavated in the two cemeteries: very little survives from the town.

Much of the material had to be conserved in situ while the excavation was ongoing, as the wood is very damaged due to termites, and being crushed by the collapse of the burial chamber roofs. The tiny wood remains were collected in bags, and we can now spread it out and sift through for distinctive carved decoration or diagnostic shapes that tell us about the original objects

Joining components from an ancient angareeb bed

Joining components from an ancient angareeb bed

The most interesting objects are the remains of the funerary beds. They seemed to have been very similar to the wooden angareeb beds that are still in use in Sudan today. The frame of the bed consisted of beams around which the stringing of the bed was tightly wrapped: many such pieces have survived and seem to be quite consistent in width and thickness. A few fragments of the actual fibres of the middle part of the bed are preserved as well.

The bed legs comprised three parts: the base itself, at least one middle part and an upper part into which the beams of the frame were inserted into recesses. So far fragments of a smaller and a larger size of terminals have been identified. There also seem to have been sets with cuboid components in combination with cylindrical elements

All of these are decorated in very similar patterns, mostly with horizontal incised lines that run parallel to each other around the components. A few objects show more elaborate patterns such as elongated vertical rectangular fields or zig-zag-lines in the style of the Egyptian hieroglyphic waterline.

In addition, there are a few preserved remains that may be parts of the footboards of such beds, similar to those known from tombs in Kerma. But the famous inlays that were found there have not been found in the Amara West examples.

Manuela working with the wood fragments, seeking joins

Manuela working with the wood fragments, seeking joins

The study of the material has so far lead to the joining together of many more fragments enabling us in the end to determine a minimum number of beds used in the tombs.

Due to the carving elements of the legs the thinnest diameter among the elements is often only 2cm per leg which would likely not have been strong enough to carry an adult person. It therefore seems like some of the beds might have been produced only for the burial itself. One circular element of a wooden bed leg was found in the town as well, suggesting the use of the same designs for the beds of the living.

Modern angareeb bed leg

Modern angareeb bed leg

Interestingly, the modern angareeb beds still show many similarities with the ancient versions in terms of decoration, as today incised lines are also often used and the legs mostly end in cuboid parts above which cylindrical components of decoration can be found

Parallels from other ancient cemeteries suggests head-rests and the body of the deceased would have been placed on the beds. Some examples of head-rests can be found amongst the wood from the burials at Amara West: the examples studied so far consist of three parts that were assembled. The base is usually rectangular and quite long and flat with a smaller middle part that tapers into a raised oval shape with a recess. Here the middle part would have combined the base with the top part that had the rounded concave surface that supported the head. Often the bases are decorated like the beds with the pattern of incised parallel lines. In this way the bed and head-rest were built as sets, matching in style. Sometimes more elaborated versions can be found with finer line decoration.

A flat wooden element, perhaps from a coffin

A flat wooden element, perhaps from a coffin

The body of the deceased was quite often placed into coffins or wrapping that was then put onto the bed. Yet it is not easy to identify which of the surviving wooden fragments belonged to the coffin and which to the bed. The coffin fragments often do not have much of their original plaster and paint preserved, with only a few fragments still bearing traces of vivid colours like red, yellow, Egyptian blue or black. Often perforations for dowels and tenons give indications about the techniques used in the woodwork.

Substantial amounts of wooden branches were found that still have their bark on them and therefore were not worked, or at least very little. They are too long to have been used as a dowel and their diameter is too thick. Maybe some of the bodies were wrapped in some sort of matting that was produced with branches and twigs as is sometimes still used in the Sudan for burials of infants.

Even with their fragmentary and often badly preserved state, it is clear that there is a lot to be learned from the study of wooden remains. I am looking forward to more exciting discoveries as I sift through all the material and piece together more fragments!

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2017, archaeology, conservation, funerary, New Kingdom, Nubian, Nubian traditions, objects

Amara West 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

Places and stories: Ernetta Island

Tomomi Fushiya, University of Leiden

Ali Mohamed Jalall  discussing the history of Ernetta with Mohamed Salah

Ali Mohamed Jalall discussing the history of Ernetta with Mohamed Salah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amara West 2016: beneath pyramid G322

Mohamed Saad, National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan)

Mohamed excavating in the first burial chamber of G322

Mohamed excavating in the first burial chamber of G322

Our expectations before starting excavation in the pyramid tomb G322 in cemetery D were very high. It features a superstructure comprising an offering court, a funerary chapel above the shaft and a pyramid, all made from mud bricks. A gate made of sand sone once provided access to the interior of a chapel of 5.1×4.5m. The substructure is cut into schist bedrock, with a shaft covered by large schist stones, one of which still lay across the the east side. The entrance to the three burial chambers is located 3.3m below the surface, on the western side.

Burials as found in the first chamber

Burials as found in the first chamber

This year, we were finally able to enter the burial chambers, protected by metal shoring to protect us from stone fragments falling from the ceiling of the chamber. The first chamber was robbed but most of individuals were still in situ. The most recent burial, Sk322-7, was a child placed on a layer of sand directly behind the entrance. It was wrapped in a coffin made from doum-palm wood. Associated with the body we found traces of textile and some blue beads near the child’s right arm. Underneath Sk322-7, I exposed an adult individual next to the fully preserved bottom of an anthropoid wooden coffin covered with painted plaster. Maickel, our conservator, consolidated the whole piece and is now trying to expose the remaining decorating. Some ivory beads were also found around the skeleton.

Ceramic vessels found in the first chamber

Ceramic vessels found in the first chamber

A second intact adult individual was found at the western side of the chamber. A small scarab, made from ivory, was found by his arm. Moreover, the first chamber held a large number of beautiful, intact vessels, which would have once held food offerings. I recovered seven plates, a big jar, two beer jars and a very nice imported bottle. Some of them clearly date to the 19th dynasty, placing the tomb in the early phase of occupation of Amara West.

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, ceramics, funerary, New Kingdom, Nubian

An introduction to Amara West: podcasts (Arabic)


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

IMG_9994

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 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

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

Amara West 2015, week 2: pyramid(s), garden plots, old fish and farming


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

Each breakfast is accompanied by a threat that samak qadim (‘ancient fish’) will be amongst the dishes brought to site by our workers, from houses across Ernetta. Referring to tarkin, the local speciality of preserved fish worked into a paste and then mixed with the wheat pancakes (gurassa), it is a delicacy that is, at best, an acquired taste.

The corridor around house D11.1

The corridor around house D11.1

Amara West countered with its own samak qadim, during our second week of excavations, in the shape of an intact dried out spiny fish, sitting in an ancient deposit just outside house D11.2. While identification of species will await analyses by a specialist, Manuela Lehmann’s excavations in this space are interesting for many other reasons. This is the only house that is set within a walled compound, creating an L-shaped perimeter around the house proper. For what purpose? Privacy, increased protection from the sand, or simply a place to locate messy, dirty activities?

Fragile remnants of small garden plots

Fragile remnants of small garden plots

Excavations are ongoing, but patches of ash, a plastered basin, and some dividing walls suggest this might have been a busy space, probably not roofed. On the western side, very damaged remains of garden plots have started to appear – hinting at what lay beyond the town walls before the suburb was created. The southern part of the house continues to be excavated by Sarah Hitchens: we are now largely past the last structures inserted into the rooms, and revealing earlier floors.

The Big Pit, with architectural fragments at the base

The Big Pit, with architectural fragments at the base

Over in house D12.8, Matt Williams oversaw the emptying of the Big Pit. While not a favourite task for our workmen – who move between areas depending on the requirements of work each day – the pit has proved immensely instructive. While obliterating the southeastern room of the house, it clearly illustrated the sequence of house building in this corner of the suburb – D12.7, then D12.8, then D12.9 – as this neighbourhood became more densely occupied.

The room with column base at the front of house D12.8

The room with column base at the front of house D12.8

Out the front of house D12.8, Agnieszka Trambowicz revealed a large space with a stone column base at its centre. An unusually ostentatious entrance area for a house, as most dwellings here had simple open and/or unroofed spaces, often with food processing facilities.

Painted architecture from house D12.8 (F14039)

Painted architecture from house D12.8 (F14039)

A doorjamb from rubble further back in the house hints at the bursts of colour that once lifted the brown mud colour that predominates today. The arrival of Kate Fulcher is already prodcucing exciting results on colour – more on that soon! On the other side of the pit, Matt has been investigating a small 3 (or 4?) roomed house tucked off an alleyway, set against the western wall of villa D12.5. Dense layers of roof collapse in the middle room are still being investigated.

Earlier this week we posted images of Anna Stevens excavating the three-room house D11.2, built against the north wall of D11.1. A modest house, it is currently reminiscent of an archaeology textbook: roofing collapse in the first room, clean wind-blown sand in the second room (where ancient pots look like they were knocked off their stands just yesterday) and a surface of dirt and trampled sherds in the backroom. The coming weeks will hopefully hint at why the back room, in such a small house, was blocked up and plastered shut.

D12.12: a room with brick rubble - and stacked bricks

D12.12: a room with brick rubble – and stacked bricks

In the southeast part of the suburb, David Fallon is overseeing excavation of a building that continues to perplex us: a room without access from the others, another with bricks neatly stacked, and a dense concentration of dung-like material in one corner.

Mat Dalton, studying floors revealed by a pit (house D12.8)

Mat Dalton, studying floors revealed by a pit (house D12.8)

Amongst all these excavations, floors are revealed on an almost daily basis, in different rooms. Where there’s a floor, Mat Dalton is not far behind, recording in minute detail aspects of the surfaces before they are eroded or wind-scoured, and then taking samples for thin section laboratory analysis, which can reveal replastering episodes, different construction techniques and sometimes the presence of plants or waste matter.

Area E13.17 in the walled town: ash, more ash and kilns

Area E13.17 in the walled town: ash, more ash and kilns

Johannes Auenmüller and Tom Lyons continue peeling back layers of ancient activity in area E13. Referring to their area as the ‘city centre’ (distinct from our suburban archaeologists!) – the nature of the architecture, and especially the continual refurbishment of spaces with extremely hard mud floors, suggests these were structures other than houses. In the western part, Tom has worked through thick deposits of ash surrounding ovens, and is turning up slag suggestive of industrial activity. The most exciting find of the week was a small clay lump bearing a stamp seal-impression. Above a depiction of pharaoh subjugating a Nubian were the cartouches of Ramses III, consistent with our working hypotheses for the dating of this phase of architecture.

Base from a faience shabti, with name of a man ending '-ser' (F8465)

Base from a faience shabti, with name of a man ending ‘-ser’ (F8465)

The first week of cemetery excavations produced a flurry of excitement. Two substantial funerary structures were partly exposed, larger than any others found at Amara West so far. Michelle Gamble is working in tomb G320, a somewhat difficult undertaking, as the walls of the superstructure are heavily deflated, reduced to only traces of bricks. In addition, several robber cuts indicate heavy looting. Nevertheless, the dimensions of the structure, and its location, hint at the burial of someone of importance. The base of a faience shabti was recovered from the disturbed spoil around the destroyed tomb, bearing a name ending ‘-ser’. Given a Deputy of Kush named Pa-ser is known from inscriptions in the town, some Egyptological speculation as to who was buried here has been inevitable here in the dig house!

G321: pyramid and chapel in cemetery D

G321: pyramid and chapel in cemetery D

Immediately to the west, Michaela and Sofie Schiodt have already exposed the remarkably well preserved superstructure of G321, With a T-shaped funerary chapel and a large pyramid with a side length of 8m. It is the only one of its kind at Amara West, yet parallels similar structures at other New Kingdom Nubian sites such as Tombos, Soleb and Aniba. Over the next week we will start working on the interior of the chapel and excavate the shaft. A complete vessel deposited in the western corner suggests an intact chapel floor: offering potential for insights into the funerary rituals once performed here.

Philippa in the fields on the south side of Ernetta island

Philippa in the fields on the south side of Ernetta island

Alongside Tomomi’s work with the local community, Katherine Homewood and Philippa Ryan commenced work this week, to explore plant subsistence strategies in Ernetta and the surrounding area. The last few days have been taken up with meeting farmers, studying plants being grown on different types of land, such as that inundated by the river or the areas of higher, artificially irrigated, ground. Another stream of research is around the crops grown for market or for domestic consumption.

Back at the house, Hilary Stewart has completed registration of the 2014 finds, and is deeply ensconced in grindstones, quartz lumps (and the odd fertility figurine) from this season’s excavations. Alice Salvador is drawing pottery from tomb G244 and illustrating new finds, while Shadia Abdu Rabo is working on the small fired clay objects we think are associated with fishing. Meanwhile, Anna Garnett and Siobhann Shinn are usually to be found amongst sacks of pottery …

It became hot this week, with little wind. The swarms of nimiti-flies have not really arrived, but reports from our colleagues on other excavation projects upstream in Sai and Sedienga suggest trouble is imminent…

Ghazafi Mohamed, one of our veteran excavators, approves of progress in building D12.12

Ghazafi Mohamed, one of our veteran excavators, approves of progress in building D12.12

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2015, anthropology, archaeology, funerary, Modern Amara, New Kingdom, Nubian, objects, pottery, settlement

Amara West 2015: the last days of house D11.2


Anna Stevens, Amara West Project Curator

Nubian and Egyptian pots in D11.2
When the occupants of house D11.2 in the western suburb abandoned Amara West they left a number of intact pottery vessels sitting on the floor of their small house. Most were Egyptian in style – including the very large bowl and unusual handled jar seen here – but note also the Nubian cooking pot with burnt surface in the lower part of the photo.

Trampled surface in back room
We often find that the back rooms of the houses at Amara West gradually collected dust, potsherds and other debris swept in from other parts of the house. House D11.2 provides a nice example of this: a rough dusty deposit into which potsherds have been trampled flat. At some stage, the entrance to this back room was blocked, leaving it unused as life went on in the front of the house.

Excavating pots in D11.2
After house D11.2 was abandoned, windblown sand collected over the floors and the walls and roof eventually crumbled and fell, sealing the pots below. Anna Garnett, our ceramicist, and I worked at revealing the pots, which will later be lifted and, where possible, repaired ahead of further study.

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, New Kingdom, Nubian, Nubian traditions, pottery, settlement, Uncategorized

Amara West 2014: D12.6 – revealing a house room-by-room

Left behind in an ancient house...

David Fallon, archaeologist

My first three weeks at Amara West have come to a close and with them a very eventful two weeks in house D12.6.

Houses emerge from the sand after brushing the surface

Houses emerge from the sand after brushing the surface

It all began with the definition of the walls of an entire neighbourhood lost to the desert for millennia, stretching west from the villas excavated in 2009 and 2013. Though conforming, on the whole, to the detailed picture provided by an earlier magnetometry survey undertaken by Sophie Hay and a team from the British School at Rome/University of Southampton, the clearance allowed detailed planning and a better understanding of the buildings. One suite of rooms could be interpreted as a self-contained house, with a room leading off from the main entrance, beyond which lay a central room from which all other rooms could be accessed.

D12 fisheye (11)

It was this building – D12.6 – which I began to investigate at the beginning of my second week at Amara West. The familiarity provided by the wall plan of D12.6 was soon to dissolve like the morning haze over the Nile. Removal of the thin layer of rubble and windblown sand that covered the site revealed the tops of two rectangular clay built storage bins set at an angle to the walls, and at unusual locations in the corners of the their respective rooms. Whilst intriguing this discovery was only a taste of what was to come in the following days.

D12 work (3)

Having numbered the rooms one to five I decided to start at the back (room 1) and progress towards the centre of the building and thence into the side rooms. Already on my first day of full excavation, an intact ‘beer jar’ was found. In 27 years of excavation – from a sewage farm in Kent to Turkmenistan, Qatar, Afghanistan and St. Lucia – I had never encountered a complete pot! Even at Amara West, only three whole vessels were found in the town last season.

Room 2 – collapsed roofing and brick rubble

Room 2 – collapsed roofing and brick rubble

Room 1 was quickly completed with a build-up of debris providing an activity horizon and proving that this rearmost room had not been cleared out before abandonment. The central room (2) was next. With the workmen, I again removed the latest deposits of collapsed wall and the ubiquitous sand: three further near complete vessels were found, this time shallow bowls typical of the late Ramesside period. As mystifying as the pottery is exciting was the lack of a mastaba-bench, typically located in such houses opposite the doorway into the room. Impressions of matting in some of the fragments of collapsed mud indicate that the main room had been roofed.

Storage bin and object assemblage as revealed in room 5

Storage bin and object assemblage as revealed in room 5

Unlike the other four rooms, room 5 did not have any collapsed clay or mud bricks visible on the surface. On my fifth day of excavating an Egyptian-style house, the sand started to reveal a fascinating assemblage. First, a fragment of pottery protruded from the sand, which proved to be a large intact Nubian cooking pot. This sat next to quern stones, two hammer-stones, and a large Ramesside storage jar. Another storage jar emerged the next day.

Pottery and objects found next to the storage bin in room 5

Pottery and objects found next to the storage bin in room 5

What would the next week bring? I moved into room 4, at the southeastern corner of the house. Again roofed, possibly with a vault (distinctive vaulting bricks were encountered), the big surprise was a mud architectural fragment bearing remains of stamp impressions. These took the form of large cartouche-shapes … the Egyptologists on our team remain perplexed by the signs!

Four 3200-year old rooms, ten days, five complete pots sitting on ancient floors and an as-yet untranslated “cartouche”. Many years ago, as a child, I was looking at picture books of Egypt; I have now been privileged enough to bring to light part of an ancient house from that very culture.

I have now turned towards the main entrance room – hints of a grinding emplacement are visible, and a the lower flight of a staircase is clear. Superb impressions of finely woven matting, again from roofing, have started to emerge. No ovens, though!

Many questions have been asked in my first two weeks digging at Amara West, and my excavations are prompting more questions. Only one way to seek answers to those questions …

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, New Kingdom, Nubian, objects, pottery, tools