Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Developing bioarchaology in Sudan – workshop at the Sudan National Museum

”How

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

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Amara West 2013: a kaleidoscope of life and death in Egyptian Kush

Aerial view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to rightNeal Spencer, British Museum

Fifty-six days after flying out to Khartoum, I landed this morning at a grey, icy, Heathrow. The temperature gradient – perhaps a difference of 35°C – is but one reminder that our sixth season of fieldwork at Amara West is now complete. Many of the team are still in the dig house today, completing documentation and closing up our house ahead of the next season. I spent yesterday finishing paperwork in Khartoum, while also working with curators Shadia Abdu Rabo and Ikhlas Abdel-Latif to accession our newly-discovered objects into the collection of the Sudan National Museum.

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Yet as with all archaeological projects, the end of the season really marks the beginning of the next, and most time-consuming, phase: digitisation, post-excavation work and, trying to make sense of it all. It’s a little overwhelming to consider the kaleidoscope of work undertaken by a team of 20 specialists from nine countries (from Australia to Sudan) over the last weeks. Many thanks to everyone, and also all those in Abri, Ernetta island and Khartoum who made the season possible – amidst sandstorms, plagues of biting flies, chilly mornings, electrical blackouts, dawn boat journeys on the Nile, crocodile sightings and fantastic breakfasts with the workmen….

The town

Within the walls of the ancient town, we continued work in neighbourhood E13. Sarah Doherty and Shadia Abdu Rabo revealed the full plan of E13.5, a medium-sized dwelling at the east end of the block. The inhabitants had fitted out each room with sandstone doorways, many built using re-used blocks from an earlier building, one naming an ‘overseer of the granaries, Horhotep’, presumably one of the high-ranking officials who lived at Amara West. Unlike other houses in the block, the bread ovens, charcoal pits and cereal grinding emplacements were housed in an annex outside the house itself, excavated by Shadia. Despite plans to investigate the phase beneath, we were instead tempted north of the house, where Sarah revealed parts of another house (?) and an area with large ovens or kilns – with tantalising evidence hinting at faience production.

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Mat Dalton completed the excavation of the communal area E13.13, which provided food processing, and charcoal making, facilities, for the inhabitants of houses E13.3-N and E13.3-S. Returning to the ‘white house’ E13.7, Mat revealed the striking schist and sandstone floor of one of the large storage rooms that characterised the area before it became a block of houses. Mat also spent time taking block samples of floor layers and occupation deposits from the excavated houses: these will be studied as thin sections under high-magnification, revealing ancient activities invisible to the naked eye.

Right in the heart of the neighbourhood – a room rather difficult to find! – Anna Stevens grappled with a small space that provides important evidence for many building phases, how the magazines with vaulted roofs were converted for use as houses. The ancient inhabitants were clearly unhappy with the idea of living in long corridor-like spaces, and went to considerable lengths to change the proportions created by the existing architecture.

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

We managed to empty all previously excavated rooms in the neighbourhood so that Susie Green could capture untold gigabytes of digital images. These will be used to create a 3D model using the concept of ‘Structure from Motion’ – all with the challenge of photographing everything before the sun’s rays created shadows. The stunning kite photographs will not only embellish this visualisation, but also provided us with a new perspective of the site and its landscape.

Outside of the town walls, Rizwan Safir and Vera Michel persevered through layers of wall collapse and roofing remains – further hampered by deep sandpits left behind when the ancient brick walls were mined out. As the season ended, we had gained further insights into the different type of house sought by those who moved beyond the town walls; there may have been more space, but the new households had to cope with more exposure to the elements.

A flying visit from Alexandra Winkels, conservation scientist, allowed her to collect wall plaster samples which will be compared to sites from across Egypt, including Tell el-Amarna.

Cemetery C

The highlight of our third season in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, was the discovery of the largest tomb yet found at Amara West: G244. Beneath a low mound (tumulus), the vertical shaft led to two burial chambers, one to the east, one to the west. What was not expected were the three other chambers.

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Patience was needed as the first chamber was meticulously excavated, with remains of painted coffins and a fine ceramic assemblage, being studied by Loretta Kilroe. More work is needed here, but the tomb seems to be late Ramesside in date.

Just to the north, Barbara Chauvet spent most of her season in the eastern chamber of a post-New Kingdom niche grave (G243), where another complicated array of superimposed bodies needed disentangling. Mohamed Saad, archaeologist at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, and participant in the Institute of Bioarchaeology Amara West Field School, excavated the smaller western chamber, as well as a number of niche burials in the southeast of the cemetery.

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan National Museum SNM 34615).

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan
National Museum SNM 34615).

Back in the house …

Our expedition house was home to all the necessary tasks of excavation paperwork, processing archaeological samples and of course organising and storing the finds and masses of ceramics. Marie Vandenbeusch documented all the finds from town and tombs, from epigraphic recording of the inscribed blocks in E13.5, matching scarabs with ancient clay impressions, to wondering what to make of enigmatic pieces of worked clay. Alongside rediscovering wonderful wooden objects from our 2009 excavations, with Michaela, Marie also found time to continue work on the roofing fragments from houses – with Vera providing a particularly steady supply from villa D12.5.

The masses of sherds from the town were processed on site by Alice Springuel and Anna Garnett. After an early season handover from Marie Millet (now directing the Louvre excavations at el-Muweis), Anna is studying our town ceramics, particularly the dating and whether certain types of vessel are associated with particular rooms or spaces. Amidst many pottery drawings, Alice managed archaeological illustrations of key artefacts – from scarabs to fertility figurines.

The first weekend saw us host a small workshop on ceramics in New Kingdom Nubia, though discussions ranged well beyond pottery, with colleagues from Kerma, Sai, Sesebi and Tombos.

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Philip Kevin, British Museum conservator, joined us for the last three weeks, and proved invaluable in recovering remains of headrests and painted coffins from the cemetery, coaxing out hidden inscriptions in the town, and revealing the exquisite decoration on copper alloy cobras (perhaps statue fittings) found by Shadia in the 2012 season.

Last, but not least…

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin returned for a third season to investigate the river systems in and around Amara West. Easily outpacing all other team-members in terms of logistical demands, we nonetheless managed two deep trenches which provide fantastic slices through the history of the Nile river in this region. One trench ran across the edge of the ancient island and into the channel bed, north of the temple, the other in the ‘Neolithic Nile’ 2km into the desert. We have the C14 dates already, and await the OSL dates, but a very exciting story is emerging … watch this space.

Returning to the Museum

Unlike nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations conducted by many museums, excavations in Egypt and Sudan no longer lead to the acquisition of objects for collections in other countries. So why does the British Museum still undertake archaeological projects? New techniques – including those outlined above – mean we gain insights into the ancient past, and its people, that were not possible in previous excavations. None of the objects in the British Museum, or indeed any collection, can be fully interpreted without understanding the particular time, place, culture and indeed natural environment experienced and created by those who made the objects. Amara West provides an opportunity to better understand life in Nubia during the late second millennium BC, in a region where the climate was deteriorating. It was an area under the control of the mighty Ramesside state, ruled from the royal residence city of Per-Ramses, far away near the Mediterranean.

An important pharaonic town in a long-occupied land, the inhabitants of Amara West lived in an age of international diplomacy, cosmopolitan taste and competing superpowers. We are building up a picture of how people lived, and treated their dead, at this town, but also the nature of the Egyptian entanglement with local, Nubian, cultures, and the responses to considerable ecological changes. A story very relevant to the present.

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Follow @NealSpencer_BM on Twitter for updates

Find out more about the Amara West research project
Read posts from previous excavation seasons at Amara West

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Counting down to season six at Amara West

The project house under moonlightNeal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

In a few days time, I’ll be in a taxi, probably stuck in traffic, inching towards the confluence of the two Niles, and the offices of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan). The signing of our excavation permit will mark the start of our sixth fieldwork season at the ancient Egyptian town of Amara West, after months of planning and preparation.

The project house under moonlight, soon to be bustling with archaeologists and filled with artefacts to document and research.

The project house under moonlight, soon to be bustling with archaeologists and filled with artefacts to document and research.

What awaits? We’ll again be concentrating on the ‘neighbourhood’ of houses in the northwest of the town. There’s one late Ramesside house left to investigate (E13.5), though as we found last year, the earlier remains beneath might throw up some surprises.

View of house E13.6 at end of last season, with E13.5 to right, awaiting excavation

View of house E13.6 at the end of last season, with E13.5 to right, awaiting excavation

Surface traces suggest the house features a staircase, for access to the roof or upper storey, and a central reception room with a brick mastaba (bench) against the back wall. Our work here is providing a detailed insight into how one area of the town developed over 200 years, with episodes of neighbourhood renovation amidst the more frequent changes evident in individual houses – sometimes little more than the ancient equivalent of ‘moving the furniture around’.

Magnetometry survey of Amara West town

Magnetometry survey of Amara West town, with villa D12.5 outlined in red. Survey data: British Museum/British School in Rome.

We’re also returning to the western suburb, to excavate a villa (D12.5), which our magnetometry survey indicates as being around 400 square metres in area. Why build outside the walled town? A desire for more space, light and air may have been a motive, as we know the old town had become increasingly cramped and claustrophobic.

As ever, our team will be documenting objects and ceramics and taking archaeological samples for analysis back in the laboratories of the British Museum and universities collaborating on the project, including high resolution sampling of occupation surfaces by Mat Dalton.

Further research will be undertaken on the landscape and river channels, and our team will be back in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, including the second season of our Amara West Bioarchaeology Field School for Sudanese archaeologists.

We’ll be posting regularly from the site, and follow me @NealSpencer_BM on Twitter for updates.

Leave a comment or tweet using #amarawest

Find out more about the Amara West research project
Read posts from previous excavation seasons at Amara West

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