Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

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: 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: 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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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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