Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: washing, sorting, documenting and studying… pottery

Washed pottery laid out to dryAnna Garnett, Egyptologist and trainee curator, British Museum/Manchester Museum

The life of a field ceramicist is certainly never dull, though perhaps sometimes repetitive…

Washed pottery laid out to dry

Washed pottery laid out to dry

Currently I am documenting and studying all of the pottery from the settlement, which is an important job for several reasons: to try to establish the dates of buildings in the town, to understand more about both local and foreign ceramic production, and ultimately to really understand how pottery featured in the daily lives of the inhabitants of the town.

Occasional find of a complete pot in the town! Archaeologist Sarah Doherty,with excavators Miki Ali Hassan and Adli Mohamed.

Occasional find of a complete pot in the town! Archaeologist Sarah Doherty, with excavators Miki Ali Hassan and Adli Mohamed.

This pottery ranges from everyday throwaway items such as beer jars and plates which were used much like modern polystyrene cups, and more unusual vessels such as storage amphorae, decorated pots and large basins.

Sorting washed sherds to identify forms of original vessels

Sorting washed sherds to identify forms of
original vessels

After the diagnostic pottery has been sorted and collected on site by Alice Springuel, Loretta Kilroe and I, it is brought back to the excavation house. Here it is washed and dried in the sun by Amru Mohamed, our pot-washer extraordinare, who not only cleans the sherds but also identifies joining pieces and glues them back together.

The many hundreds of sherds are then placed into bags according to archaeological context and brought to my workspace for processing which is when the “fun” really begins…

I empty each bag and every sherd is sorted according to its form, which I match up to the different forms in the established Amara West pottery typology developed by the previous ceramicist, Marie Millet.

These forms are recorded and then all the sherds are placed back in the labelled bags for storage at the house. However, sherds of special interest are kept aside and given C-numbers, for example those which are decorated or that add to the site typology of forms and fabrics. These sherds are then drawn by Alice and inked back in the UK for further study and, eventually, publication.

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Amara West 2013: 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 … sherds

Mini-henge: stones marking each 100-count of sherdsAlice Springuel, Egyptologist

“Alice, we have 10 bags of pottery” This is the signal for Loretta Kilroe, a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, and I to leave the dig house behind, and join the archaeologists on the boat to site.

Alice counting pottery sherds on site yesterday, with head-net to keep nimiti-flies at bay

Alice counting pottery sherds on site yesterday,
with head-net to keep nimiti-flies at bay

Generally this happens once or twice a week, but with the greater depth of excavation in most areas, there is less windblown sand, and more pottery… a lot more.

Our mission is to count potsherds to gain an idea of the quantity, size and preservation of ceramics, while bearing in mind the archaeological context in which they are found: rubble, the fill of a pit, or lying on an ancient floor in a particular room.

Based on the system instigated at Amara West by Marie Millet, we separate diagnostic sherds (rim, base, shoulder, decorated fragments) and also count examples of marl (desert) clay fabrics or local Nubian vessel sherds – and even luxury imports from as far away as mainland Greece.

This is just the start of work which will help answer many questions.

What types of pots were used? What was their purpose? Which kind of techniques did the potters use? What date are the archaeological contexts? Can the pottery tell us what individual rooms were used for?

Something not in one of the sherd sacks: a complete vessel found in the town in 2011

Something not in one of the sherd sacks: a complete
vessel found in the town in 2011

Back at the site, we lay out sacks – sold in the market for transporting sugar or rice – to keep from losing sherds in the soft yellow sand. Most sacks contain between 700 and 2,000 sherds.

We use stones to help us mark off each 100 sherds, creating our own mini-Stonehenges as we progress. Inevitably, we find objects missed by the excavators but caught in the sieving of the archaeological deposits: counters, sherds with incised pot marks and a nice hieratic ostracon.

And then we continue counting…..

 

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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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