Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: structure from motion in a pharaonic town

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5Susie Green, UCL

This Sunday I photographed the last of the rooms in neighbourhood E13, in the dawn light before the sun rose. In fact we cheated a little that morning: Sarah Doherty and eight of our site workers held a large sheet of tarpaulin, against the strong wind, to keep the sun off the walls for an extra 15 minutes.

Susie photographing a room with some help in removing sunlight

Susie photographing a room with some help in removing sunlight

I have been at Amara West for just over two weeks. My task here is to create a pointcloud and ultimately a 3D model of the houses in E13 using a process called ‘Structure from Motion’. This technique uses a computer programme to find matching points in multiple images of the same subject. These can be triangulated to find the position of the camera and the points in 3D space and from this create an accurate representation of the subject built up from millions of points. The results are similar to those obtained by laser scanning, but without the need for expensive and unwieldy equipment.

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

I have been working my way through the town room by room. In order to get the best results, each room must be photographed in diffuse light as the harsh shadows of the sun obscure the details in the mud brick. This usually means I have to work very fast in the half hour before the sun rises. On the day of the big sandstorm, I could work all morning, as the airborne sand softened the sun’s rays. Saturday granted us an hour of cloudy sky: the first cloud I have seen in two weeks.

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

Most of my processing will be done back in London, but I have carried out some tests here to make sure everything is working properly. One of these is to bring together the two halves of the low bench (mastaba) in house E13.7 and virtually remove the later wall that cuts it in half. This allows us to see the mastaba and gain a sense of its size and proportions – it is unusually long for a mastaba in a pharaonic house.

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5, with reconstruction of kite camera positions (Produced in Meshlab)

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5, with reconstruction of kite camera positions (Produced in Meshlab)

The ‘Structure from Motion’ process also allows aerial photographs to be used for detailed models of the ground elevation: a large number of photographs can be linked together as a mosaic to create a very high resolution map of the ground, such as with villa D12.5 being excavated outside the walls.

For this reason I have also brought my kite and camera rig to Amara West and I have taken thousands of aerial pictures of the town and surrounding area. I hope to be able to contribute to the understanding of the area and how it related to the Nile when Amara West was inhabited.

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Amara West 2013: the present (Ernetta) from above

Neal reeling in the kite as Susie triggers photosNeal Spencer, British Museum

Susie preparing the camera rig before flight

Susie preparing the camera rig before flight

Since Tuesday, Susie Green has been on site, taking many detailed photographs (yesterday: 3,400) of rooms in our neighbourhood E13. These will be used to create high-resolution point-clouds to make three-dimensional models of the complex architecture in this area of houses and storage magazines. More on the method, and the results, in a later post.

Susie has also brought a small kite, rigged up to hoist a camera skyward, with a remote controller allowing photos to be captured – even when the camera is 30 metres in the air.

These images will be used to acquire wide-angle views of the architecture, site and surrounding landscape, into which the detailed architectural renderings can be placed.

The expedition house, one of a block of four houses

The expedition house, one of a block of four houses

Yesterday we undertook a test flight on Ernetta island, taking advantage of the wind. It was the first time I’d held a kite reel in several decades … and I may have been responsible for a temporary crash landing in a tall palm tree.

Drawing an audience – Neal reeling in the kite as Susie triggers photos

Drawing an audience – Neal reeling in the kite as Susie triggers photos

The kite soared over our dig house and the surrounding fields, offering a very different perspective on our island and neighbourhood, as well as attracting children on the way home from school.

Two “zareeba” (enclosure for keeping goats) amongst the palm trees beside our house

Two “zareeba” (enclosure for keeping goats) amongst the palm trees beside our house

Viewing the images, we were all struck how model-like, almost unreal, the area looks in these images. Next week, we’ll fly the kite over ancient Amara West.

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Amara West 2013: a five-chambered tomb discovered

The “Howard Carter moment”: First peak into the chamber(s) of Grave 244Michaela Binder, physical anthropologist, Durham University

Many people have asked me whether what we do can “really be fun?” Digging in the dirt, being outside all day in temperatures from freezing to boiling (and sometimes in a sandstorm), living for months at a time without mains electricity or water.

The “Howard Carter moment”: First peak into the chamber(s) of Grave 244

The “Howard Carter moment”: First peak into the
chamber(s) of Grave 244

When it’s close to 40°C and biting nimiti-flies are swarming around me, I ask the same question.

But when you start removing sand from the top of a grave shaft and a small opening appears on one side …a second on the other side …and after another 50 cms the hole is wide enough to stick your head and a torch in …you see a large chamber …your eyes adjust and see the door to another chamber beyond …and a door to a third chamber…

Then I’m reminded that this can be the best occupation in the world with its unpredictable moments of immense excitement.

The discovery of our latest (and by far the largest) tomb happened three days ago at Amara West.

We’re now digging deeper into the shaft, and after two metres of sand, there’s no end in sight. In the meantime, the picture has become clearer.

As the shaft gets deeper, excavation gets more difficult and any soil has to be lifted out in buckets

As the shaft gets deeper, excavation gets more difficult
and any soil has to be lifted out in buckets

The tomb features not just two chambers – one on either side – as with all previous chamber tombs we’ve found at Amara West – but five! The western suite consists of a central room with chambers to the west and northern side; the eastern suite is smaller with just one additional chamber.

We’ve now hit a thick deposit of debris from both chambers – evidence of heavy looting. The finds coming up from this deposit hint at the wealth of funerary artefacts once placed here. Besides large pottery vessels we found beads, fragments of faience, large pieces of white plaster (some painted) once part of decorated coffins, and large wooden elements of funerary furniture, among them the base of a headrest.

Though almost exclusively Egyptian in terms of the range of grave goods and architecture – so far – the large burial mound (tumulus) marking the surface is one of the hallmarks of Nubian funerary culture, before during and after Egyptian control of the region.

Inside the western central chamber with entrances to two more chambers. The windblown sand was blown in later, after looting.

Inside the western central chamber with entrances to two more chambers. The windblown sand was blown in later, after looting.

Even more surprising, the pottery found thus far appears to date the tomb to the late New Kingdom, towards the end of pharaonic control of Nubia.

Superstructure of tomb G244

Superstructure of tomb G244

There’s a long way to go: we have not even begun excavating the five chambers yet.

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Amara West 2013: beyond the town walls

Rizwan planning brickwork of building D12.5Rizwan Ahmed, archaeologist and Vera Michel,
University of Heidelberg

Today was our fifth day on site and as usual, we arrived for work illuminated solely by starlight, in what felt like close to freezing temperatures. We are supervising excavation of building D12.5 outside the western gate of the town, in a ‘suburb’-like area identified in a magnetometry survey undertaken by a team from the British School in Rome, in 2008.

Several structures to the north were excavated in 2009 and 2010: a large villa (E12.10), and a circular construction (E12.11) more typical of Nubian architectural traditions. The excavation of D12.5 should shed more light on the nature of buildings outside the town wall, their date and their possible function.

Rizwan planning brickwork of building D12.5

Rizwan planning brickwork of building D12.5

So far, most of our work has been focused on clearing windblown sand and defining rooms within the building. With up to 15 workmen, most of the upper layers of sand have now been removed and we are starting to find archaeological material: a floor has been exposed in one room, at a level much higher than anticipated.

View over building D12.5 at the end of Wednesday’s excavations

View over building D12.5 at the end of Wednesday’s excavations

In some rooms, large expanses of brick rubble retain the brick coursing, and allow us to reconstruct from which wall the rubble came. Our work though is complicated by pits cut through the walls in the southern part of the building.

While elements of the building are similar to the villa excavated in 2009, there are different features: a staircase inside the front door, and a room provided with three circular structures (silos?).

All of this takes considerable time to document, with Rizwan focusing on a masterplan of the wall architecture, and Vera supervising men and recording rubble layers, amidst the strong winds, early morning cold and constant sun.

Leave a comment or tweet using #amarawest

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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