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: excavation underway in Cemetery C

A new season dawns in Cemetery CMichaela Binder, Durham University

The remaining archaeologists arrived at Amara West on Friday, and we started excavation on a clear, breezy Saturday morning.

A new season dawns in Cemetery C

A new season dawns in Cemetery C

Mohamed Saad, inspector in the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, and a participant in the first Amara West Bioarchaeology Field School is going to explore another one of the burial mounds on the eastern side of Cemetery C.

Before he could start excavating the tomb shaft, he spent most of the day carefully documenting the superstructure: a circle of black schist stones set on a low mound (tumulus).

Mohamed Saad documenting the superstructure of G241

Mohamed Saad documenting the superstructure of G241

Our new team member, French physical anthropologist Barbara Chauvet has been assigned to Grave 243. Superficially rather small and unspectacular, our magnetometry survey suggests it might be the entrance to a chamber tomb.

Barbara starting excavation of the shaft of G243 together with workmen Nael and Salim

Barbara starting excavation of the shaft of G243 together with workmen Nael and Salim

Less than an hour of removing windblown sand from the shaft revealed the first disarticulated human remains of three different individuals. Though indicating disturbance, they have fuelled our anticipation over what may come up inside the tomb over the next couple of days – or, if we’re lucky, weeks.

As for me, I’m dealing with a niche burial, with a larger shaft than those excavated in recent seasons. So far, we’re one metre below the surface, with only windblown sand visible…

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Amara West 2013: plans for excavation in the cemetery

Bioarchaeologists Dyan Semple and Carina Summerfield-Hill excavating the chamber tomb G201 in 2011Michaela Binder, Durham University

For this, our latest excavation season at Amara West in Sudan, the team excavating in the cemeteries will return to the northeastern necropolis, Cemetery C. I’ll be joined by French and Sudanese bioarchaeologists, including participants in the second season of the Amara West Bioarchaeology Field School, which aims to train Sudanese archaeologists in bioarchaeological field and laboratory methods.

View over Cemetery C in the early morning with the town in the background

View over Cemetery C in the early morning with the town in the background

This season will be my last opportunity to gather new data in support of the part of the project I’m working on, exploring health and diet in ancient Nubia through climate and political change – and the last newly-excavated data that can be included in my PhD.

Many questions remain to be answered.

Previous work in Cemetery C was carried out in 2009 and 2011, with 32 graves excavated to date. This cemetery is of particular importance because it provides insights into the ‘Dark Ages’ of Nubian history: the period between the end of the New Kingdom and the beginning of the Napatan (tenth – ninth century BC). Until very recently, most of Nubia had been thought to be abandoned during this period.

Tomb G237, radiocarbon-dated to the 10th/9th century BC, a niche burial typical of the last centuries of use of Cemetery C

Tomb G237, radiocarbon-dated to the 10th/9th century BC, a niche burial typical of the last centuries of use of Cemetery C

In Cemetery C at Amara West, however, the majority of tombs date to this time, as confirmed through direct C14 dating of human remains. Thus, the results from this cemetery are now changing our perception of Nubian history and cultural trends during the early first millennium BC – but there’s still much to be investigated.

Bioarchaeologists Dyan Semple and Carina Summerfield-Hill excavating the chamber tomb G201 in 2011

Bioarchaeologists Dyan Semple and Carina
Summerfield-Hill excavating the chamber
tomb G201 in 2011

Initially, we will focus on excavating another chamber tomb, perhaps similar to G201 and G234, excavated in 2011. These graves were used for the burial of several generations and appear to be in use both during the New Kingdom period and afterwards. Thus, excavating another one will assist in getting a better understanding of cultural trends and developments taking place. Moreover, they will also provide a significant number of skeletons to be used in trying to understand living conditions at Amara West.

In addition, we hope to investigate more tombs in an area with unusually large niche burials, provided with tumulus superstructures. Three of those were already excavated in 2011.

These tombs are particularly intriguing as they may represent high status burials – how they relate to the remainder of the niche tombs (in terms of grave goods and funerary features) will be interesting, but also if differences can be observed in the human remains.

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