Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2017: a different kind of season

Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

A silent, deserted, Amara West seen from the river-side dunes

A silent, deserted, Amara West seen from the river-side dunes

After 9 seasons of daily pre-dawn Nile commutes, the clatter of excavation tools scraping against pottery sherds and the climatic extremes of the site – chilly mornings, howling winds, plagues of nimiti-flies and hot, dry afternoons – this is going to be very different.

Our excavation house will be the setting for the whole team. Where once the house was brimming with up to 30 specialists, and deluged daily with pottery, finds, sample bags, skeletons – alongside drawings, digital images and other documentation – it is now a spacious oasis of calm, with only seven of us here to start this study season, alongside our cook Ali Dal.

The dig house on Ernetta island

The dig house on Ernetta island

With over 10,000 objects, and many many more pottery sherds, this is our opportunity to lay out similar types of objects, or arrange them in groups depending on which room, house or neighbourhood of the town they were found in. We then consider what needs drawing or photographing. Most crucially we have the time to think about the artefacts, pore over them, and try to understand how they were made, how they functioned, and how some were modified or re-used. Later will come library time, to research parallels, and eventually the writing up. But now is the time to compare objects, turn them over, hold them in a different light, try joining fragments.

The dusty mud fragments in these wooden trays are the only remnants of a colourful niche – probably a shrine – in house E13.7

The dusty mud fragments in these wooden trays are the only remnants of a colourful niche – probably a shrine – in house E13.7

I’ve been working on a series of painted and moulded mud fragments that I think came from a household shrine in house E13.7, while elsewhere in the same room Manuela Lehmann has been examining fragments of the funerary beds (angareeb) found in the cemetery, as Nora Shalaby studies the flint blades and tools.

In the adjacent courtyard, the salon – the old house’s reception room – is home to Valentina Gasperini analysing pottery, Elisabeth Sawerthal drawing a range of finds, and Shadia Abdu Rabo. Shadia is combing through the jewellery excavated since 2009. Meanwhile, Elina Rodriguez – familiar with another era of Amara West excavations – is deep in the cool and dark finds storeroom, resolving numbering problems and registering artefacts from last year.

Manuela sifting through a box of coffin fragments to select fragments to draw – those which offer clues to the original decoration

Manuela sifting through a box of coffin fragments to select pieces for drawing – those which offer clues to the original decoration

Even without excavations, there’ll still be discoveries and insights, and we’ll post some of our findings in the coming weeks. That is all subject to our internet connection, which is much worse now than in 2009, despite an array of dongles and smartphones that confidently proclaim “3G”.

Meanwhile, we’ll wonder if the traditional four meals a day – including an archaeologists “second breakfast” at 11am – really is a good idea for this studious yet sedentary season.

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 2017, archaeology, ceramics, funerary, New Kingdom, objects, pottery

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 (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: recycling in the New Kingdom town

Anna Garnett, Assistant Project Curator (Amara West), British Museum

Piles of sherds, awaiting sorting

Every day on site, thousands of pottery sherds are excavated from within the ancient houses at Amara West. These sherds are sorted into piles of diagnostic and non-diagnostic shapes and fabrics, but the eyes of the pottery sorting team are also finely tuned to identify ‘pottery finds’ within these huge piles – those pieces of broken vessels which were subsequently recycled for different functions. By studying such objects, we contribute to understanding the past histories of the different spaces at Amara West.

Sherd re-used as shovel

We also find ancient hand shovels or scrapers: sherds which fit nicely into the hand with one or more eroded edges. This season, several ‘shovels’ (for example that above) have been identified on the surface around the pyramids in Cemetery D – perhaps evidence of an ancient attempt at tomb robbery?

Pot-mark: rear part of a crocodile

Painted text on sherds (ostraca) and carved pictorial markings (pot marks) are always a welcome surprise for the sorting team: this season we have already discovered a small menagerie of pot marks including a gazelle-type animal and the rear end of a crocodile (above) … of which we hope to find the front end in the coming weeks!.

Sherds with pigment

Pottery sherds, when broken, also provided a durable and easily accessible material which could be used in industrial practices. Small flashes of colour within the generally homogenous brownish pile of pottery catch the eye, including red, yellow, white, black and blue, which prove that they were reused as colour palettes – used for painting rooms, objects or even pottery. This season, many pottery ‘palettes’ from house D12.8 preserve powdery pigments, helping us to paint a picture of how colourful the town must have appeared to the ancient occupants of Amara West.

And, of course, there are the counters

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, New Kingdom, objects, pottery, settlement, tools

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, New Kingdom, Nubian, Nubian traditions, pottery, settlement, Uncategorized

Amara West 2015: ceramics and an enigmatic beast


Anna Garnett, Assistant Project Curator, British Museum

Blue box inbox
One of our blue crates is put to use as an inbox for excavators to drop bags off after a day digging – I discuss with them the nature of the deposit, any finds that are associated with the ceramics, and how one particular context links with others in the same room. All of this information helps me to establish how the pottery was used by the ancient inhabitants of Amara West.

Sorting pottery
The pottery from each context undergoes an initial sift in order to separate rims, bases, handles, and particular fabrics such as sherds from handmade Nubian vessels. Siobhan Shinn has joined me this season to assist with the sorting of the pottery – here using a toothbrush to clean a potentially interesting sherd.

Ali Jellal
The diagnostic sherds – thousands of them over a season – are all washed and dried by Ali Jellal who has worked with us for several years.

An unusual potmark
The majority of the pottery corresponds directly with our established typology of Ramesside pottery from Amara West, though sometimes we get a surprise. When cleaning part of an amphora (storage vessel) from house D12.8, a pot mark emerged, made after the vessel was fired. After much discussion at the dig house, the depiction of a cow or a bull is the favourite, but we welcome any further suggestions!

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, pottery

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

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

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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

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