Amara West project blog


Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West: a new book for children

Book cover

A book for children, Life in the Heart of Nubia, presents local heritage found within the communities, from traditional lifestyles to archaeology.

Tomomi Fushiya, Leiden University

I arrived at the Amara West dig house in Ernetta island towards the end of the 2017 season with a final draft of the children’s book,  Life in the Heart of Nubia. Designed as an introductory booklet for schoolchildren in the local communities around Amara West – Abri, Amara East and Ernetta – the book explores the lifestyles, culture, language, oral histories and archaeology of these communities.  It is shaped by members of these communities and their responses, and also questions we received from them during the interviews and outreach programmes over the last two years.

In November 2016, I had travelled to Abri to discuss and plan the book with those who were willing to volunteer in their spare time on this small project. We discussed the concept, topics, structure and the book title, and decided to focus on three key points throughout the book: exploration, continuity and locality.

Cover art

The cover features a painting by a young local art student, Mosaab Sorta


Exploration: Knowledge and stories about objects, buildings and skills which they considered part of the local Nubian heritage, practised and remembered over generations.  The book is intended to encourage schoolchildren to question, explore and find answers about the local heritage within the community, but also to remind other community members that amongst them is much knowledge about that heritage.

Continuity: The book starts with scenes of today’s life in and around Abri. Selected aspects of everyday life are introduced through change and continuity with the past, to emphasise the relevance of older lifestyles to the present.

Locality: Resources for heritage education can be found within the local communities, although local teachers rarely use them. Topics and images in the book are selected from those found in the local area, where possible, to help schoolchildren to feel familiar with the book, and help teachers find resources in their neighbourhood.

Abri Qoin

A story of this unique building in Abri Qoin features in the book

As schools finished their final exams in March, I returned to Abri with the freshly printed books, to plan and deliver a pilot heritage program at the local school. Despite swarms of nimiti-flies, thirty schoolchildren and 3 school staff showed up for the program. Hassan Sorta, one of the bookmaking team and the headmaster of Amara East primary school, explained about the book and how to use it. I gave a short presentation with objects and rubbish from the ancient site (sherds!) to convey how they can help understand history of place. I used images of the Meroitic temple, which once stood here but was destroyed in the late 19th century AD, to show how history can easily disappear from memory.  A program that utilises the book will then be discussed with Hassan and other local teachers for when the books are distributed to each school.

Amara East primary school

Teacher Hassan introduces the book to students of Amara East primary school.

650 books will be handed out at local schools at the beginning of the school year in July. Some copies of the books will also be used in a teachers’ training course at a newly built centre in Abri. Other members of the book team will be invited into classrooms to talk about local heritage in the coming school year. The most encouraging part of the project, for me, is how teachers and others felt this will help raise awareness of the local heritage among younger generations.

Download the book here: Arabic or English.

The Amara West Project is generously funded by the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, with this book made possible through the Research Grant Program of the Toyota Foundation, Japan.

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

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


Filed under: Amara West 2017, community engagement, Uncategorized

Amara West 2017: Greetings from Osiris!

Elisabeth Sawerthal (King’s College, London)

Working on objects in a study season involves the close cooperation of different specialists on the same objects. This became especially apparent in the last days …


Elisabeth pondering coffin fragments for illustrating

As an illustrator for the study season at Amara West, I get to work on a great variety of types of objects collected over eight seasons of excavation at the site. These objects need to be drawn for final publication and further study. In their own way, all objects provide fascinating insights into the lives of the ancient town’s inhabitants. They range from very beautiful miniature amulets, including a wadjet-eye, and ivory beads, to the very practical diagnostic potsherds analysed by our ceramicist Valentina Gasperini, which can be visually reconstructed through a simple drawing. Other, less well preserved materials initially seem rather unimpressive in terms of aesthetics, but nonetheless, they help us deepen our understanding of life and death in the New Kingdom town of Amara West. Such is the case with the wooden coffin fragments from tomb G322 in Cemetery D, excavated in 2016, and tomb G244 (Cemetery C, excavated in earlier seasons) which I am currently drawing.

My task is to produce an accurate image of each piece that complements the more “neutral” photograph, and draws attention to the object’s most important features. This involves a consideration of the relationship between individual coffin fragments, as to if and how they were attached to each other. For this, I draw each fragment separately and then combine them to recreate a bigger surface, somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle. Particularly interesting details are traces of paint on the surface – mostly fragmented lines and patches of black, white, red, yellow and Egyptian blue – which I highlight with my drawings in order to facilitate a reconstruction of the original decorative motif. Hardest to identify by far, as often particularly badly preserved, is Egyptian blue, a specific man-made blue pigment, later exported to other parts of the ancient world, including Greece and the Near East.

We are again using VIL photography. The adapted camera can detect minute quantities of Egyptian blue, using a method developed by Giovanni Verri (formerly British Museum scientist, and now at the Courtauld Institute). Egyptian blue luminesces in the infrared spectrum when it is excited by visible light, so if it can be photographed with an infrared-sensitive camera while illuminated it will glow very brightly – even if nothing is visible to the naked eye!

One evening, having identified three possible lines and a few small patches of Egyptian blue on an otherwise completely unimpressive coffin fragment from tomb G322 in Cemetery D, we undetook VIL photography of the piece. Our aim was to gain some clarification on the outlines of the remains of paint for my drawing. In expectation of further little blobs and bits of blue, we were totally surprised by what appeared on the camera display: “glowing areas” that made up a band of readable hieroglyphs.


Photograph (left) and VIL-image (right) of a painted coffin fragment, showing a column of inscription (F8767h/j/k/l/m)

This column of inscription must have been positioned centrally on top of the lid of the coffin, and reads “words spoken by Osiris”. After this unexpected success we continued to take VIL photographs of other coffin fragments from the same tomb and discovered further traces of Egyptian blue hieroglyphs and an image of a bird with outstretched wings.


Photograph (left) and VIL-image (right) of a painted coffin fragment, showing wings of a bird (F8767a/b/d/e)

Elina Rodriguez Millan (Spectrum Heritage, Edinburgh)

The pieces of this coffin had been consolidated on site directly during the excavation by Maickel van Bellegem in 2016 as the remaining fragments are incredible thin and otherwise would not have been able to be lifted. As with most conservation treatments in the field, Maickel aimed to stabilise the finds so they could be removed to safe storage at the dig house, where they would await further study.

In contrast, during a study season, we are poring over the objects in more detail, and sometimes require further cleaning or consolidation of objects. In this case, the consolidated fragments of the coffin had a thin layer of sand, and some small stone fragments, on top of them due to the difficult conditions in the tomb: wind, dust, swirling sand. If they were plain fragments, they probably wouldn’t need to be treated further, but in this case, removing the sand layer is key to unveil further parts of the inscription they hold. That is why, as soon as the inscription was discovered by Manuela and Elisabeth, I was asked to work on this exciting fragments and, soon, the biggest coffin fragment was brought to the conservation lab.


Elina cleaning part of the front of a painted coffin

Given that most part of the inscriptions and decoration are only visible with UV light in the evenings, cleaning the coffin fragments during the day has proven to be quite tricky! That’s why I constantly use the VIL photographs as a reference, to see which areas are more likely to hold hieroglyphs that will help decipher the inscription. These photographs cover the conservation room wall, and are changed whenever we take new photographs, to see the progress of the treatment.



Filed under: Amara West 2017, archaeology, conservation, New Kingdom, objects, Uncategorized

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:

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:

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

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

An introduction to Amara West: podcasts

Tomomi Fushiya (University of Leiden) and Neal Spencer (Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum)

Book_ladies reading (1)

Ladies on Ernetta island reading the Arabic Amara West book


The ancient town of Amara West is now a windswept place hidden behind dunes along the left bank of the Nile. The last years have seen aspects of the ancient town brought to life through work on the ancient houses, what people ate, what diseases they suffered from, their religious beliefs and even how paint was prepared. But how is this new information conveyed to the local communities?

Alongside a series of lectures, and the distribution of a free Arabic book summarising research on Amara West, we have also installed illustrated panels in a visitor orientation area built beside the ancient town.

We know that people from Abri and Ernetta island occasionally visit the site, for example during the Eid festivals. The visitor orientation area offers a place sheltered from sun (and wind!), where visitors can rest and read – in Arabic or English – about some of the discoveries, and the history of exploration. It is also a space where we plan to host school visits in future seasons.



School teacher from Ernetta reading information panels in Amara West visitor centre

One of our Sudanese colleagues suggested we make audio versions of the panels. Smartphones are increasingly common, and are used for sharing videos, What’s App messages or music. A few men keep images of saqiya (waterwheel) and old style Nubian houses on their phones. They exchange images of traditional objects and architecture in a ‘Nubian heritage’ group through an app.  We’ve now created podcast versions of the panels – in English or Arabic – which can be used by anyone visiting the site, or indeed anyone else interested in ancient Amara West!

These short films (between 2 and 3 minutes each) can be watched in high resolution (for desktop or tablets) or in a mobile version.

1) A pharaonic town in Nubia
Arabic (high qualitymobile) English (high qualitymobile)

2) A planned town
Arabic (high qualitymobile) English (high qualitymobile)

3) Life in the ancient town
Arabic (high qualitymobile) English (high qualitymobile)

4) Nubian culture in Amara West
Arabic (high qualitymobile) English (high qualitymobile)

5) Eating and health
Arabic (high qualitymobile) English (high qualitymobile)

6) Preparing for the afterlife
Arabic (high qualitymobile) English (high qualitymobile)

7) From ancient town to archaeological site
Arabic (high qualitymobile) English (high qualitymobile)

There’s more to do. The local language in Ernetta and Abri is Nubian, though nearly everyone speaks Arabic. Nubian is mainly a spoken language today. As few people write and read it, neither in Arabic characters nor Old Nubian characters, we hope to create a Nubian-language podcast soon, in collaboration with the owner of a ‘heritage café’ in Abri, Fekry Hassan Taha.

The podcasts were made possible through the support of the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project.

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Developing bioarchaology in Sudan – workshop at the Sudan National Museum


Michaela Binder, Austrian Archaeological Institute

Skeletal human remains are one of the most important sources of information about life in past human populations. While their detailed study is done by specialists, a general knowledge about their potential and how to record and recover them appropriately in the field in order to allow for consecutive analysis is also vital for archaeologists. Because this kind of training is not available within Sudan, in 2011 the Amara West Project of the British Museum – with the support of the Institute for Bioarchaeology – started a field school program for selected staff of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan (NCAM). A first workshop covered the basics of analysing and excavating human skeletal remains in the Sudan National Museum.

Mohamed Saad at work in the NCAM bioarchaeology lab

Mohamed Saad at work in the NCAM bioarchaeology lab

Since then, one of the participants of this first workshop, Mohamed Saad, has received consecutive training both in the field at Amara West, and in the laboratory at the British Museum. He is now in charge of bioarchaeology at NCAM laboratory and conducting research projects on the skeletal collections excavated by NCAM teams – as well as supporting archaeologists during fieldwork projects.

How old was the person when he/she died? Workshop participants learning to estimate age-at-death from the pelvis.

How old was the person when he/she died? Workshop participants learning to estimate age-at-death from the pelvis.

In August 2015, I again travelled to Khartoum to lead, with Mohamed, a second bioarchaeology workshop at NCAM. During lectures and practical sessions, seven inspectors, three curators of the Sudan National Museum and two members of Bahri University explored what and how we can learn from human remains and how they are best dealt with in the field. In a small ad-hoc ‘cemetery’ dug in the garden of the museum, participants had the chance to improve their excavation skills and learn about techniques in how to record and recover single and multiple burials.

The participants of the workshop 2015 in front of the Sudan National Museum

The participants of the workshop 2015 in front of the Sudan National Museum

The course finished with a public lecture about the training program and research carried out by the NCAM bioarchaeology. Mohamed and I were joined by senior inspector Mahmoud Bashir who offered an archaeologist’s perspective how his research benefits from the close collaboration with bioarchaeologists. The lecture attracted great interest, particularly from young archaeology students. It is hoped that we will be able to continue to support local researchers in increasing the study of Sudan’s rich record of skeletal human remains within the country itself.

Mohamed Saad explaining field recording of commingled human remains to workshop participants.

Mohamed Saad explaining field recording of commingled human remains to workshop participants.

The next fieldwork season at Amara West begins in early January 2016, for updates follow Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

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

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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: investigating ancient suburban sprawl

 Map of an ancient suburb at Amara West
Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

As ever, this fieldwork season at Amara West will be a flurry of specialists undertaking excavations, object studies, analytical investigations, conservation of artefacts and anthropological research. A major focus of the season is the excavation of ancient housing within the town site.

Kite photograph showing sprawl of western suburb outside walled town

Kite photograph showing sprawl of western suburb outside walled town

Over the last six seasons at Amara West, we have greatly enhanced the understanding of lived experiences of ancient inhabitants in a pharaonic town in Upper Nubia. In particular, work in the northwestern corner of the walled town (our ‘area E13’) has revealed a neighbourhood created over the remains of a set of large (institutional?) storage magazines. By creating ‘biographies’ of each house, we can seek to understand how individuals or households sought to create an environment in which to live, rather than viewing the population of the town as a homogenous entity.
A sprawling western suburb was first identified through geophysical survey in 2008, and we excavated large villas in 2009 and 2013: up to 400 m² in extent, these dwarf the houses within the town walls. These houses are founded on the rubbish which must come from the earlier phases of the walled town.

What can yet more excavations tell us? These small ‘suburban houses’ – admittedly a word with too may modern connotations! – allow us to see how some inhabitants sought to create their ideal home, within the constraints of their resources. No earlier structures needed to be demolished, or repurposed, though houses were built over features that might have been small garden plots. What did people deem essential in a house? How were the houses laid out to provide convenient access (to street, walled town, fields and river) but also comfort (from wind, sun and heat)? What kind of open-air space did inhabitants seek (whether inside or outside the houses)? How did this suburb develop over time?

Preliminary plan of the western suburb at Amara West (based on a ma created by Paolo del Vesco)

Preliminary plan of the western suburb at Amara West (based on a map created by Paolo del Vesco)

Initial consideration of the incomplete map of this area suggests some houses were built into spaces left between the first buildings constructed here – was this neighbourhood also becoming more densely populated, and perhaps cramped?
Alongside all this, the excavation of these houses will provide a dataset of objects, ceramics and samples relating to plant and animal use, belief and ritual, technology (cooking, building, making objects) that will provide a nice counterpart to that from inside the walled town. Another set of questions surrounds how the town this part of the town was abandoned – were people living next to vacant or partly derelict houses?

Agnieszka and workmen commence excavation in 'front room' of house E11.1

Agnieszka and workmen commence excavation in ‘front room’ of house E11.1

Over the next 7 weeks, Mat Dalton will finish excavation of house D12.7; immediately to the north lies house D12.8/E11.1 (or is it two houses?), being explored by Matt Williams and Agnieszka Trambowicz. To the southeast, David Fallon has started work in D12.2, a medium sized house seemingly squeezed between villa D12.5 and the house to the west. Across the street, Manuela Lehmann and Sarah Hitchens are excavating a much larger house (D11.1), that seems unique at Amara West, being surrounded by a perimeter wall. Anna Stevens will join us soon to work in a small three-roomed house (D11.2), that seems much more like those in the walled town.

These excavations will further populate our understanding of the variety of ancient life in the Nile Valley just over 3000 years ago, helping to move us away from characterising whole towns as populated by individuals living identical lives – even when no texts survive.

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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Amara West 2014: inside, outside and beyond a town in Egyptian Kush

Early one morning at Amara West

Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

Deep one perfect morning (at Amara West)

Deep one perfect morning (at Amara West)

Forty-two days have passed since we left our expedition house on Ernetta Island, bringing with us sand (it’s still seeping out of hidden places in our suitcases and camera bags), exhausted bodies and minds – and undoubtedly a lot of new knowledge about many aspects of New Kingdom life in Nubia. That last phrase might sound a bit unconvincing. Truth be told, after 87 intense days of excavation, it is simply too early to distil, comprehend and summarise how our understanding has moved on. In some cases, further research and analyses need to begin – this can take days, months or even years. In other cases, it’s simply about converting all the data into a form where it is consistent and can be considered as a whole.

For now, back at the British Museum, on networked storage, hard drives sit staggering amounts of data: 2,489 archaeological record photos; 2,233 finds photographs; 24,391 photographs for 3D modelling; 4,156 kite photographs … and that is just the digital. Kilos of plans, notebooks, finds and ceramics drawings lie in drawers, spread across tables, in makeshift boxes … with 589 archaeological samples and 176 phytolith samples soon to arrive from Khartoum.

This preamble can be considered a cautionary warning against the following (lengthy) reflection on the season, as many of these conclusions may change as we work through the data.

How to characterise the season as a whole? ‘Inside, outside and beyond’ seems to capture much of what we did – if one allows ‘beyond’ to be thought of in spatial, temporal, spiritual and more abstract terms. Following last year’s conference at the British Museum, New Kingdom Nubia – Lived experience, pharaonic control and indigenous traditions (programme here, publication in preparation), it really became clear how little we know about the human landscape into which new Egyptian towns, like Amara West, were founded. Like many modern archaeological projects, we have a relatively good understanding of the natural landscape around us: in the case of Amara West, it was an ancient island, though a changing Nile eventually left it high and dry, an unpleasant place to live (and grow crops). But who was living here and how did the creation of a new town, Amara West, change that?

Delphine Driaux surveying in the desert north of Amara West

Delphine Driaux surveying in the desert north of Amara West

Far beyond the town, Anna Stevens led a small team who undertook test excavations at two sites in the desert north of Amara West: 2-R-65 and 2-R-18, overlooking an ancient Nile channel 2km from the main town. Previously recorded as ‘New Kingdom’ sites (by Andre Vila in 1972-73), the trenches revealed concentrations of early 18th dynasty pottery – Anna Garnett placed the material in the time of Tuthmosis III or earlier, and Julia Budka indicated it was similar to assemblages from early 18th dynasty Sai. We will return to the desert hinterland in future seasons, but it is already clear that the area was occupied early in the Egyptian New Kingdom control of Nubia. Of course, this prompts further questions: did these sites survive into the 19th dynasty, when Amara West was founded? If not, why? Did Amara West made them surplus to requirements? Or did climate change trigger their abandonment?

Remaining in the desert, Chiara Salvador completed a first epigraphic record of a Ramesside rock inscription in the desert. Sophie Hay returned with her geophysical box(es) of tricks – not a small challenge in itself. While magnetometry survey was deployed in the cemetery (see below), ground-penetrating radar (GPR) allowed us to visualise the profile of ancient river channels beside the town, and in the desert to the north. This work will complement the information gained from a series of sondages, and resulting dating information, undertaken by Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin in 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Kite photograph of the ancient town

Kite photograph of the ancient town

Moving back to the town, we had two main aims for the core excavation team: finish area E13, and explore the western suburb further. Both areas are providing distinctive insights into ancient urban experience. On the one hand, the cramped, narrow, increasingly dense housing in the northwestern corner of the town (E13). On the other hand, the seemingly more open, spacious suburb outside the town walls.

We did not finish E13, in common with most excavations that aim to ‘finish’ something: it is impossible to predict whether cubic metres of windblown sand await an excavator (easy and quick to remove) or more complicated stratigraphy that can take weeks to disentangle. Anna Stevens excavated beneath house E13.5, to reveal layers (and layers) of deposits, some bounded by distinctive curving walls. The fine, silty, nature of some deposits hinted at outside space – in short supply for much of this area’s history. Once again, we were reminded how the area had changed in character across nearly two centuries of occupation. At the northern end of house E13.5, again beneath it, Mike Lewis encountered a maze of small walls, and unusually large number of metal artefacts.

Curving walls underneath house E13.5

Curving walls underneath house E13.5

Between Mike’s area and the town wall lay house E13.16, partly excavated the season before. A complex stratigraphy of collapse brickwork, surfaces and even small (post?)-holes lay beneath, before Tom Lyons and Johannes Auenmüller encountered the substantial remains of a large building, within which lay a space (courtyard?) with large ovens or kilns. Again, more evidence that this area had only become dedicated to housing late in the history of the site. We need to return here, and see if this quasi-industrial activity is related to the kiln found in 2011, under house E13.8.

Over on the western edge of the neighbourhood, where we brushed against buildings excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society, Barbara Chauvet methodically moved back in time through an ancient alley. Layers of fine windblown detritus and rubbish were scraped back, sampled and removed, eventually revealing the wall of a large storage building, part of one of the first structures built at Amara West. As elsewhere at the site, this building had been levelled, to allow for a reorganisation of the town. Meanwhile, I spent time revisiting every piece of architecture we had excavated in area E13: across six seasons of work, it was important to revisit earlier records and assumptions. As ever, this prompted as many new questions as answers to old ones.

Neal considering phasing problems (a 3-D jigsaw)

Neal considering phasing problems (a 3-D jigsaw)

Our other focus was the western suburb, west of the town wall. Having excavated villas in 2009 and 2013, which both indicated a late 19th or early 20th dynasty date for the creation of this new housing area, we now wished to get a better understanding of the suburb as a whole. We sought to do this in two ways: mapping the suburb, and excavating a strip of smaller houses west of the villa D12.5. After intensive brushing in the first few days of the season, Paolo del Vesco was faced with a maze of mudbrick walls to plan, using total station, GIS (and the time-honoured method of drawing board and pencil) – alongside the help of kite photography. This is perhaps the largest area of contemporary New Kingdom housing outside Tell el-Amarna, and the mixture of villas, large house, small houses set between them, open space and even (perhaps) garden plots will be an important addition to our understanding of how an urban society could create, and develop, a new neighbourhood over several decades.

Documentation of house D12.6

Documentation of house D12.6

To fully understand how these houses developed, and their interrelationships, we will need to excavate some, or all, of the buildings. We began with two adjacent houses, D12.6 and D12.7. Mat Dalton’s excavation of the latter provided tantalising hints at colour processing (Kate Fulcher’s research will tell us more about these activities), animal-stabling and the secreting of things in door passages – whilst warning against relying on architectural typologies to understand how such houses were used. Next door, David Fallon revealed house D12.6: partly built over a network of garden plots, the house had nice brick floors, a notable number of storage bins (for grain?) and grinding emplacements. Other familiar furnishings were missing: where were the ovens (a few in an outside alley may have been late additions), or the mastaba-bench (typically a focus within large houses)? Both houses provided a mass of mud fragments bearing impressions of grass, matting and wooden rooves, but also some intriguing impressions with large cartouches.

Philippa Ryan and David Fallon xcavating garden plots under house D12.6

Philippa Ryan and David Fallon excavating garden plots under house D12.6

Immediately west of these two houses lay an open area (D12.10) which Shadia Abdu Rabo started to excavate this season. It was here we could see hints of how the neighbourhood had developed: from garden plots becoming open areas, then partly built into with later houses, additions to houses and even walls defining (privatising?) spaces. South of villa D12.5, Ronan Mooney faced the unenviable task of trying to understand the moonscape of wall fragments, rubbish deposits and massive crater-like pits left by more recent “visitors” (19th or 20th century?) to the site, seeking to extract brick for use as fertiliser or building material. Despite the difficulty of digging such areas, they remain key for our understanding as to how the ancient town became today’s archaeological site.

Destruction and chaos: the moonscape south of villa D12.5

Destruction and chaos: the moonscape south of villa D12.5

The mass of objects from the town were registered by Marie Vandenbeusch and Chiara Salvador, and most will require further study. Alongside the decorated architecture and stamped cartouches, the largest number of seal-impressions found in any of our field seasons to date promise to tell us much about administrative practises at the site. Alice Salvador and Nanette Bülow completed hundreds of drawings of objects and pottery, most notably of the ‘shrine’ fragments found in house E13.7, and the range of large quern-stones, which were used for cereal, pigments and precious metal extraction. Shadia worked on our schist and steatite ‘net-sinkers’: summarily worked pieces of stone, incised with grooves to allow stringing, that are a reminder of how the inhabitants of this ancient island town must have relied on fish for much of their diet. Pottery, of course, remains our largest (i.e. overwhelming) dataset. And as such, the one that can take longest to reveal its secrets. Anna Garnett worked through countless sherds (with the help of Nanette and Alice), and moved all of our pottery into a new dedicated storeroom. Highlights, alongside the early 18th dynasty material from the desert survey, included the assemblage of Egyptian and Nubian pots and objects, found in house D12.6, but also a number of fragments of Mycenaean stirrup jars (similar to those found in 2011). At a microscopic level, Mat Dalton’s analyses of thin sections through layers of deposits and floors in individual houses will provide further insights into how space was (or was not) used.

Chiara Salvador registering finds (and avoiding nimiti-flies)

Chiara Salvador registering finds (and avoiding nimiti-flies)

While fish, and fauna, were one source of sustenance, plants were used for food, fodder, building material and objects. Philippa Ryan returned to continue work on the botanical evidence from the site, and was joined by Katherine Homewood to start a new project that integrates evidence from Amara West (3000 years ago) and Ernetta island (today). How did island inhabitants respond to changing environmental conditions? Talking to local farmers revealed a picture of rapidly changing agricultural practises, some perhaps prompted by the changing Nile following the completion of the Merowe Dam in 2009.

Returning to the beyond, in this instance the afterlife, Michaela Binder led a sixth season of excavations in the cemetery. Despite initial plans to investigate the highest points of the desert escarpment in cemetery D – where magnetometry survey subsequently revealed the presence of the largest known funerary monument at Amara West! – the looting of two ancient tombs focused the cemetery team on recording the architecture and carefully sieving the looter’s spoil to recover evidence.

Faience vessel from Grave 244

Faience vessel from Grave 244

The remainder of the cemetery team finished excavations in Grave 244, which contained yet more surprises. This is the tomb dug into the alluvium in the 20th dynasty. Marked by a tumulus (low mound) on the surface – that most Nubian of grave markers – the chambers beneath bristled with Egyptian approaches to burying the dead: bodies placed in painted wooden coffins, provided with scarabs, faience vessels, Egyptian-style pottery – and this year strange ivory sticks that might be part of a gaming set, alongside an ostrich-egg vessel. We’re awaiting the arrival of the skeletons back at the British Museum for further study – thanks to the generosity of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan). Maickel van Bellegem, conservator at the British Museum, undertook essential conservation work on the coffin fragments – without him such evidence would have powdered to dust.

Hashem Shawgi and Abd el-Qadus guiding the photographic kite over the ancient town

Hashem Shawgi and Abd el-Qadus guiding the photographic kite over the ancient town

Of course, all this sounds rather archaeological and research-driven. But it took place in the beautiful environment of Abri and Ernetta, where the villagers of Ernetta (some of whom worked at Amara West in the 1940s) were as welcoming as ever. We were distracted by the camera gaze of a visiting visual artist Phil Bosch, and enjoyed quiet Fridays, particularly as the discovery of a basil plant on Ernetta transformed many a lunch into gastronomic Italianate delights. Back at the site, the planning and construction of protective fencing and a combined police post and visitor centre formed part of the research and site management project under the auspices of the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project.

Less positively, the season comprised howling winds, plagues of nimiti-flies and the frustrations of living in an evolving (slowly evolving, for that matter) building site. The last problem was our own doing, of course, as we expanded and refurbished the dig house to accommodate our enlarged team, and provide working space for excavators, illustrators, scientists, conservators in the years to come…

I’ll be presenting the results of our latest season at Amara West at the Sudan Archaeological Research Society colloquium at the British Museum on May 19, and in Bristol and Glasgow later this summer.

For more on Amara West, and other news on Egypt and Sudan from the British Museum follow: @NealSpencer_BM

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Presenting Amara West to the community and visitors

 The new police post at Amara West

Tomomi Fushiya (archaeologist) and Neal Spencer (British Museum)

The new orientation centre and police post at Amara West

One day before the last excavation day this season, on March 23, the construction of a new orientation centre and police post was completed. The modest building is designed to fulfill three aims. Firstly, to provide a post for policemen responsible for guarding the site. Secondly, to provide sheltered working space for the archaeological team during the seasons. Thirdly – and we hope this aspect will have the most impact – provide some space to present information about the site to visitors. This is part of our collaboration with the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museum of Sudan (NCAM), through the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, to improve site management and visitor information at Amara West.

Erected upon the archaeologically sterile base of an ancient river channel – in only 16 days – the completion of the building means the first and second aim are achieved, complemented by the site protection fences erected earlier in the season. Constructing a modern building at Amara West presented several challenges. At some sites, modern buildings can be erected in a style inspired by those on the ancient site, but that is not possible here. The strong northern wind would erode a mudbrick building rather quickly – the wind also prompted us to orientate the building south, with views of the town but also shelter! We also wished to keep maintenance requirements (e.g. painting, replastering, repairs) to a minimum, to ensure the sustainability of the building.


View from the ancient town with orientation centre in background

View from the ancient town with orientation centre in the old river channel behind

In collaboration with Shadia Abdu Rabo, archaeologists on our team but also NCAM inspector and Sudan National Museum curator, we consulted with local villagers and builders familiar with the local context and environment about the design. While Amara West was founded as an ancient Egyptian town, it is clear that Nubian culture was present – in the cemetery, but also through ceramics and architecture  found in the settlement. Rather than build an Egyptianising structure, we opted for a design that combined clean modern lines with echoes of present-day traditional Nubian architecture. This is achieved through including arched entrances to what is known locally as a verandah: a deep space which offers shade and shelter, but also encourages cooling breezes.


Constructing the brick archways of the verandah

Constructing the brick archways of the verandah

This last space is where we will, next year, install information panels, to outline the historical context of the town, its main features, and the results of ongoing research. We know there is an appetite for this: the news of the ancient cancer case from Amara West was being discussed in Abri, after a radio report. There are questions we are still considering: should the panels be in English, Arabic and Nubian? Most of the nearby communities speak a mixture of Arabic and Nubian, while English would be the best language for the small number of international tourists who pass by each year.


View towards the ancient town from the orientation space

View towards the ancient town from the orientation space

This verandah area is designed with mastaba-benches along each wall – again, a feature of local houses – and enough space to accommodate school groups. A series of discussions with local communities – women on Ernetta island, the Abri tourist resthouse owner, and a Nubian heritage society in in an Abri café (posters on the walls proclaiming the grandeur of ancient Nubia) – will help inform the choice of subjects presented on the walls. The Nubian heritage group we spoke to in a café were particularly interested in discussing how to encourage people to visit the site: posters, leaflets or presentations in schools and cafés.

Interviewing local Nubian heritage society in Abri cafe

Interviewing members of the local Nubian heritage society in Abri cafe

We hope these modest steps will help both local and international visitors learn about living at ancient Amara West.


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


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