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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Amara West 2013: burial of a lady

Illustration of the upper part of a painted wooden coffinMarie Vandenbeusch, Egyptologist, Geneva University

Regular readers of the blog will be familiar with the range of graves we encounter, with varying architecture, burial assemblages and even the number of individuals buried in each chamber. The gender and wealth of the individual must have been important factors in how an individual was buried, but perhaps also whether they saw themselves as Egyptian or Nubian. The study of objects associated with individual burials goes on long after the season ends, and often into the next season.

Plan of tomb G309, with position of coffin in western chamber

Plan of tomb G309, with position of coffin in western chamber

Grave 309, excavated at the end of last season, featured two chambers set off a shaft. In the western chamber, amongst other skeletons and objects, a funerary assemblage directly linked to one specific individual came to light.

Copper alloy mirror (F8448) and carnelian rings (F8443-8448) found with the burial in G309

Copper alloy mirror (F8448) and
carnelian rings (F8443-8448) found
with the burial in G309

The skeleton belongs to a young lady, probably between 20 and 30 years old, according to the physical anthropologist Michaela Binder, who also excavated the grave.

Her remains were found in a very poor condition, as the ceiling of the chamber had collapsed on the burial. It is thus very difficult to gain an understanding about her health and the reasons for her death – as none of her bones was completely preserved. But the objects placed around her, for her use in the afterlife, lay close to the body.

A copper alloy mirror was found by her feet – discovered on the last day of excavation. She was probably wearing a pair of earrings or hair-rings, as two finely carved carnelian rings were found on each side of her head. These seemingly feminine grave goods accompanied the finely-decorated coffin.

Painstaking consolidation of the coffin by British Museum conservator Philip Kevin allowed its removal, and an illustration by Claire Thorne.

Pottery beer jars were also found in the chamber, though we cannot be sure they accompanied her burial. A large amount of faience beads suggest a necklace was placed with one of the burials.

Upper part of painted wooden coffin F8110. Drawing: Claire Thorne.

Upper part of painted wooden coffin F8110. Drawing: Claire Thorne.

Unfortunately, we do not know her name, or details of her life. But the objects suggest a person of some wealth, and presumably an inhabitant of one of the larger houses at Amara West. Was she Egyptian, as the grave goods suggest? Or someone of Nubian origin, who co-opted elements of an Egyptian style in death?

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Amara West 2013: spoiling for sand

Barrow limitations: schist pathway to allow wheelbarrows laden with sand to be movedNeal Spencer, British Museum

The archaeology of Amara West town is spectacular: few other sites in the Nile Valley preserve houses of the late New Kingdom (1300-1100 BC), standing to nearly two metres in height.

Room (E13.14.3) at the end of 2012 season, before it filled up with sand: architecture upon architecture

Room (E13.14.3) at the end of 2012 season, before it
filled up with sand: architecture upon architecture

One can walk along ancient alleys, up staircases, through doorways (the wooden doors have long ago been feasted upon by termites) and into rooms used for preparing food.

The area (E13) we’ve been digging since 2009 is particularly fascinating, as it changed from an area with buildings dedicated to large-scale storage, to a neighbourhood of up to seven contemporary houses. Within each house, we can track the small changes made within each household – blocking off doorways, laying new floors, changing the arrangement of installations in a room, and even changing the function of a space.

All very fascinating, but now creating a considerable logistical headache. We do not dismantle the last architectural phase, unless safety concerns demand it, preferring to dig within the space inside rooms into earlier layers beneath. This has left some excavations in the centre of the neighbourhood rather deep, and a long way from any spoil heap – the mounds of debris, sieved of artefacts, that archaeologists create when digging.

Barrow limitations: schist pathway to allow wheelbarrows laden with sand to be moved

Barrow limitations: schist pathway to allow wheelbarrows laden with sand to be moved

Our desire to gain an in-depth understanding of the neighbourhood prompts us to empty all the houses and rooms of windblown sand every year. The windblown sand is both friend and foe. It is our ally as it backfills many rooms after we leave, saving us the hassle (and expense). Equally helpful is the scouring of surfaces and walls as its fills up: new walls, architectural relationships and even objects have come to light when we return each January.

But it is also our enemy: on days when it is too windy to keep features clean, or even to work at all. And this last 10 days, as we seek to empty every one of the deep rooms in the middle of our neighbourhood, I have been seeking to learn what works best.

Approach 1: shovel from room to room, towards waiting barrows. New excavations to the right hamper access.

Approach 1: shovel from room to room, towards waiting barrows. New excavations to the right hamper access.

A chain-of-bucket-throwing-men? A constant flow of bucket-carrying men? Or simply shovelling sand from one room, over the walls into the next, and so on until they reach waiting wheelbarrows?

Approach 2: chain of full buckets from E13.14.3 along left line of men yesterday, returning empty along the right line

Approach 2: chain of full buckets from E13.14.3 along left line of men yesterday, returning empty along the right line

The task is dispiriting for us and the workmen – we counted a high of 26 buckets of spoil removed every two minutes at one point; I dare say the average is considerably less.

Our next task is to clean the floors and walls in these rooms, and hopefully allow Susie Green from UCL to start photographing for our three-dimensional modelling of the ancient buildings…

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Amara West 2013: an ancient monument discovered in a modern house

Sandstone lintel found in the house on Ernetta islandMarie Vandenbeusch, Egyptologist

Most objects recorded during an excavation are found on site. When they come to light, they are patiently recorded in order to help provide as much information about the building or area from which they were recovered.

Sometimes, however, ancient objects show up in rather different circumstances. At the end of last season, after most of the team had left for home, Marie Millet and Shadia Abdu Rabo stayed to continue studying pottery. One day, they were told that a large inscribed stone had been discovered.

Sandstone lintel (F987) found in the house on Ernetta island.

Sandstone lintel (F987) found in the house on Ernetta island.

While demolishing the corner of an old house on Ernetta island, location of our dig house, the family came across a large sandstone lintel. Only half-preserved, it was carved with a column of hieroglyphs, originally located in the centre of the piece. Part of the names of Ramesses II can be read including “Ramses, beloved by Amun”. The lintel was originally brightly coloured: remains of yellow pigment are still visible on the surface, particularly within the hieroglyphs. This yellow would have contrasted with the white plaster that covered the lintel, still visible in places.

Mudbrick walls in a house on Ernetta island

Mudbrick walls in the house: the lintel was revealed during demolition of the old walls

Above stone and plaster, evidence of the modern use of the lintel is visible: a layer of mud. According to the owners of the house, the lintel acted as a shelf, built into the mudbrick wall. Covered by mud, they may not have noticed its existence until the demolition: its presence forgotten family knowledge.

Though we cannot be sure that it is from Amara West, it is very likely, and most probably from a doorway in the town, whether of a temple or a house.

According to the owners of the house, and through recording of the family tree (by Marie Millet and Shadia Abdu Rabo), it seems that the lintel was put in place around 1910-1920, which is before the Egypt Exploration Society started work at Amara West, in 1938. We tend to forget that ancient sites are often experienced and explored long before the arrival of archaeologists.

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Amara West 2013: looking beneath the surface

Workmen brushing to reveal preserved tops of ancient wallsNeal Spencer, British Museum

Our first day at the ancient town site, and with a very small number of workmen available, Shadia Abdu Rabo, our colleague and inspector from the Sudan National Museum, and I supervised the brushing of the walls in villa D12.5.

Workmen brushing to reveal preserved tops of ancient walls

Workmen brushing to reveal preserved tops of ancient walls

In some ways the archaeology at Amara West is wonderfully convenient. Many of the walls are visible on the surface, and with the help of magnetometry, we can find the others with a cursory brush of the mixture of windblown sand, pebbles and sherds that cover the site. While convenient, this approach is also the only one possible. The thick deposits of windblown sand preclude the creation of arbitrary modern trenches – for example a 5×5 metre square – as the trench side would soon collapse. So we dig room by room, building by building. This becomes complex when we get to the buildings beneath those nearest the surface.

The front part of the structure is well preserved, but many of the walls near the back are badly pitted. Seeing the building plan emerge, I am now even wondering if we should call it a ‘villa’!

Elsewhere, we just had time to brush back the walls of house E13.5, and started removing sand from the front room that leads from the street. Michaela Binder spent the day in Cemetery C completing pre-excavation photography and finalising the excavation strategy for the coming weeks.

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