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

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

Amara West 2017: local/non-local flint tools

Nora Shalaby, Freie Universität Berlin

Nora photographing flint assemblages

Nora photographing flint assemblages

Among the thousands of finds being studied at Amara West this season, I have been looking at hundreds of flint implements that were excavated from the site. Unsurprisingly, the majority of pieces come from within the settlement, with only three implements having been found in the cemetery.

The preliminary documentation and study of the almost 350 pieces has already uncovered some aspects about the lithic industry at Amara West. There appears to be the use of both local and non-local material for the manufacture of tools.

The local material consists of small pebbles that would have been easily accessible and readily available in the vicinity. They vary in color, are marked by dull cortexes and are usually of poorer quality material. The tools produced from these local pebbles would have been relatively small in size, the pebbles themselves having little flexibility to produce a wide range of tools.

Flint tools made from local material

The non-local material is characterized by nodules that would have been much larger in size, producing flakes and blades of much larger dimensions. They are mostly beige to greyish-beige in color, sometimes still retaining their chalky white cortex, which suggests that they were quarried rather than simply picked up. There are others which are a dark chocolate brown, but are fewer in number. The presence of large unworked flakes and blades from this material within the assemblage is a good indication that the tools were being worked on site, although there is as of yet little evidence of production waste, or a possible workshop where they were being produced – perhaps in areas yet to be excavated?

Flint tools made from non-local material

An interesting question to ask is whether the settlement was being supplied from outside with these quarried nodules, or perhaps prepared blanks, for tool production, or whether the residents/knappers were quarrying the flint themselves? It still remains to be seen whether there are any flint raw material sources close to the site.

In terms of the types of tools that were being produced, the majority are segmented blades/sickle blades, made with both the local and non-local material. In many cases, the characteristic sheen – that develops along the edge of the blade when cutting through plant fibres – is present. The technology of production is the same on all pieces – truncated short ends, and retouch along the lateral edges, but with little standardisation in shape. Those made on local pebbles are of course much smaller in size. Apart from sickle blades, there are a number of ad hoc and informal tool types such as notches and a few end-scrapers, but they are much fewer in number. It is clear that the real use of flint at the settlement was for the production of sickle blades needed in agriculture. Use-wear analysis on the edges of the blades with sheen can help clarify the different types of material they were being used on and so confirm their exact function.

Further on, it will be interesting to examine the spatial distribution of the tools and debitage within the settlement and determine whether specific patterns arise, integrating flint artefacts found in Egypt Exploration Society excavations at the site in the 1930s and 1940s. Did some areas have access to the non-local material, while others depended on local pebbles for production, or was there an equal distribution?

Hopefully some of these questions can be answered by the end of the season!

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2017, archaeology, objects, settlement, tools

A group of flints from Amara West

Nora Shalaby, Freie Universität Berlin

Recently I studied some of the flint implements from Amara West currently in the British Museum, part of an assemblage of objects recently acquired from the 1930s and 1940s excavations of the Egypt Exploration Society. Most are without context, but they can still be an important source of information about lithic production at Amara West and tell us a little bit about the knappers involved.

Nora studying the Amara West flints in the British Museum basement

Nora studying the Amara West flints in the British Museum basement

The first thing that struck me was the wonderful colours of some of the implements, which range from reddish to yellowish hues, quite uncommon in lithic assemblages from Egypt where most of the raw material is caramel, beige and brown in color (one wonders if some of them are in fact burnt?). The remains of a dull and polished cortex on some of the implements suggests that washed-down pebbles were being picked up from wadis or other surrounding areas, rather than nodules being quarried. A survey around the site to locate potential raw material sources could help identify where exactly the inhabitants of Amara West were obtaining their flint from: were they venturing into places that were further away, hinting at a more organised production process, or were they picking up what they found near the town itself?

Selection of flints from Amara West, illustrating the range of colours

Selection of flints from Amara West, illustrating the range of colours

Among the worked tools were a number of regular blades, which is again not a common feature in Egypt during the New Kingdom, when less regular blades were being produced. This could point to possible differences in the technologies between Egypt and Nubia during this time. The most frequent tool type in the assemblage however are sickle blades, the broad and short types that are characteristic of New Kingdom assemblages, differing from the specialised long and narrow sickle blades of previous periods. Nonetheless, the technology of the Amara West sickle blades seems to be quite standardised: most were truncated at both short ends, and had retouch along the lateral edges.

Surprisingly none have remains of sickle gloss, typically found along the edge of a blade that has been repeatedly used in harvesting or cutting of plants. Could this suggest that they were unused, maybe originating from a workshop that had yet to distribute them? Use-wear analysis might provide further insights.

Finally, a few beautiful arrowheads stand out. Although flint arrowheads are rare in Old and Middle Kingdom assemblages in Egypt, they reappear in the New Kingdom, as documented in the Ramesside capital of Qantir in the northeastern Delta – contemporary with Amara West. Missing from this excavated and group are the cores, waste and debitage that would have revealed much more about the lithic technology and production process in and around the ancient town.

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

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Filed under: Egypt Exploration Society, New Kingdom, objects, settlement, tools

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

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

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

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

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