Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: the latest from Cemetery C

Philip Kevin lifting a particularly well preserved coffin fragmentMichaela Binder, Durham University

Time is flying and the end of the season approaches fast.

Philip Kevin lifting a particularly well preserved coffin fragment in G244

Philip Kevin lifting a particularly well preserved coffin fragment in G244

While British Museum conservator Philip Kevin and I are busy in the first chamber of G244, entangled among remnants of painted coffins, Mohamed has joined Barbara in G243 to open the second burial chamber on the western side.

Mohamed crouching in the narrow western burial chamber of G244

Mohamed crouching in the narrow
western burial chamber of G244

Compared to Barbara’s eastern chamber, this one turned out to be tiny, with just enough space for one person to work.

In contrast to the busy eastern chamber, only four burials were placed here. A young female was buried within a funerary container of palm tree wood, now in very bad condition. This individual was associated with jewellery: a bracelet of small blue faience beads placed around her left arm.

The remains of the other three bodies, among them a child, were disarticulated, piled against the back wall.

At the same time, the number of bodies Barbara has found in the eastern chamber continues to rise: 13 individuals at the latest count.

Partly exposed child burial Sk243-14 in the centre of the eastern chamber of G243

Partly exposed child burial Sk243-14 in the centre of the eastern chamber of G243

Skeleton 243-14, placed in the centre of the chamber, is of a child who died between seven and nine years of age – according to the developmental stage of the teeth.

Miniature flask with the stopper originally sealing the vessel still intact

Miniature flask with the stopper originally
sealing the vessel still intact

Children of that age are generally not that common in ancient cemeteries. At Amara West however, we find a significant number of older children – could this reflect the presence of certain infectious diseases?

Associated with the burial was a small, red-burnished miniature flask. This finding ties in with earlier suspicions that children may have been buried accompanied with miniature versions of vessels associated with adult burials.

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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: into the first chamber of tomb G244

Removing spoil from G244, showing circular mound (tumulus)Michaela Binder, Durham University

After two weeks of excavating in the multi-chamber tomb G244 we’re deeply entangled in the first room of the western suite of burial chambers.

Removing spoil from G244, showing circular mound (tumulus)

Removing spoil from G244, showing circular mound (tumulus)

The suspicion of thorough looting was unfortunately confirmed as we started excavating: the first half of the chamber was filled with a thick deposit of debris, consisting of disarticulated human bones, wooden coffin parts, pot sherds but also a few small objects, including a faience scarab and a decorated faience plaque.

Faience scarab F9290

Faience scarab F9290

The back of the chamber has, fortunately, been less affected by the disturbance. So far we’ve documented five adults, two in wooden coffins which were decorated with plaster both on the inside and outside.

Traces of paint hint at the original decoration, particularly a fragment with striped decoration: part of a coffin wig? We’re now awaiting the arrival of British Museum conservator Philip Kevin who will consolidate some fragments before we remove them, as with last year’s coffin mask.

While the general preservation is somewhat disappointing, the amount of pottery we’ve already recovered represents a significant assemblage. In the shaft and parts of this first chamber, we have around 25 complete vessels so far, mostly plates. Four more large, well preserved pots, amongst them a lovely marl clay jar, were recovered today from the back of the chamber. The growing number of vessels continues to support the initial notion that the tomb dates to the late New Kingdom period, with evidence of later occupation so far absent from inside the tomb.

Loretta Kilroe lifting the first jar from the back of the first western chamber

Loretta Kilroe lifting the first jar from the back of the first western chamber

Elsewhere in the cemetery, Barbara Chauvet is still busy in the eastern burial chamber of G243. This grave is of particular importance because it contains the largest assemblage of intact, well preserved individuals, found in a grave at Amara West.

Two of the intact skeletons in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Two of the intact skeletons in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Back in the lab, these will provide an important addition to the dataset for studying health and living conditions at Amara West.

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Amara West 2013: initial discoveries in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of the chamberBarbara Chauvet, physical anthropologist

Once the workers had removed the fragments of the collapsed ceiling, we could finally start excavation of the eastern burial chamber in grave G243.

After removing the first few centimetres of windblown sand, the skulls of two more individuals appeared (in addition to the seven we found originally) – so there are at least nine people buried here.

Barbara excavating in the eastern burial chamber

Barbara excavating in the eastern burial chamber

Having brushed away some of the sand in the grave, the positions of each body became clear. At this stage of the excavation, there are four articulated skeletons, all overlying each other. All are adults, one particularly gracile (slender): two are oriented west-east, one north-south and at least one southwest-northeast.

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of the chamber

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of the chamber

Four complete pottery vessels were found lying in the northwest corner of the chamber, with traces of palm wood used for coffins around the bodies.

Barbara with the first object from the tomb, a complete beer jar, removed from the entrance to avoid damage when we removed the ceiling

Barbara with the first object to be excavated from the tomb, a complete beer jar, removed from the entrance to avoid damage when we removed the ceiling

All the objects and skeletons have to be carefully recorded before removal – photographed and drawn accurately. This is particularly important to allow us to age and sex individuals, and track pathological changes, as the bones might disintegrate during excavation.

Detail of skull of individual 243-4 with very gracile features (arrows indicating mastoid process and zygomatic bone) indicating that this was likely a female

Detail of skull of individual 243-4 with very gracile features (arrows indicating mastoid process and zygomatic bone) indicating that this was likely a female

As these skeletons are very dry and fragmentary the excavation is exhausting: crouched in the narrow entrance to the chamber, clogged with the remains of burials and associated objects. I often feel like a tightrope walker as I take measurements – we have to be flexible and adaptable, finding new poses to dig, draw and photograph.

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Amara West 2013: a chamber tomb discovered

Discovery of the top of the first chamber entranceMichaela Binder, Durham University

The first week of digging in the cemeteries is over with some interesting discoveries to report. Most importantly, our hopes for G243 have been fulfilled.

The excitement is rising after discovery of the top of the first chamber entrance

The excitement is rising after discovery of the top of
the first chamber entrance

After a day of removing windblown sand from the narrow (50 cm wide) shaft, the workmen revealed two doorways, providing access to an eastern and a western burial chamber.

These chambers were never filled after burial of the people inside; the doors were only blocked with large stones and mud plaster.

Unfortunately, we found both doors partly broken open by grave robbers – something that occurred in almost all the graves at Amara West. The opening allowed windblown sand to enter the chambers, piling up behind the entrance but not filling up the entire chambers.

Nevertheless, when first peeking into the eastern chamber of the tomb, at least seven skulls stared at us in the light of the torch.

We could also see a large amount of wooden remains, possibly remnants of coffins or burial beds, and two intact vessels.

First impressions of the eastern chamber’s content: human bones and wooden remains in near darkness

First impressions of the eastern chamber’s content: human bones and wooden remains in near darkness

Despite the temptation to enter, we had to exercise a bit of patience at the start because the roofs of the chambers had to be taken down first to guarantee our safety while working inside under a thick layer of very ancient Nile silt. This was very hard, and it took three workmen another day to remove the roof with pickaxes and local mattocks (turrias).

Hard work: removing the ceiling of the eastern burial chamber

Hard work: removing the ceiling of the eastern burial chamber

Now that the ‘lid’ of the eastern chamber has been removed, it’s safe to start working inside. After removal of the first centimetres of sand behind the entrance, Barbara Chauvet revealed three more vessels and two more skulls.

So far, the skeletons we can see appear to be articulated. Depending how many are inside, excavation of the chamber could take Barbara, supervising this tomb, a few weeks… watch this space.

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