Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: luxury from afar

fragment of a Canaanite amphoraAnna Garnett, Egyptologist and trainee curator, British Museum/Manchester Museum

When excavating settlement sites in Egypt and Nubia, the most common pottery vessels that a ceramicist will encounter are those made from Nile silt, the most easily accessible type of clay in both ancient and modern times, and marl (desert) clay. Sometimes we are also lucky enough to identify vessels and sherds made from clays which can be identified as imports, i.e. transported to Egypt and Nubia from outside the Nile Valley. These vessels are very distinctive and notably different in shape and fabric (the mixture used for the pot).

C4672, fragment of a Canaanite amphora from house E13.5

C4672, fragment of a Canaanite amphora from house E13.5

Perhaps the most common imports found in the ancient houses at Amara West are Canaanite vessels, which often take the form of large storage amphorae with round handles, carinated (angled) shoulders and a conical base. Sometimes, if we are very lucky, these amphorae are inscribed on the outside with details of the commodities they carried, which included oil, resin, honey and incense.

C4691, Mycenaean stirrup jar from house E13.7

C4691, Mycenaean stirrup jar from house E13.7

Mycenaean vessels known as stirrup jars have previously been found in the town, and this year is no exception. A beautiful sherd from a painted stirrup jar was excavated last week in the back room of house E13.7 (which also yielded a seal impression) which would have been used to store oil and perfume. Such luxury goods were imported into Egypt from the Mediterranean, and must have then made their way to Nubia and Amara West.

Caution is required though: very good imitations were made in Egypt, using local clays. This, and other sherds, will be subjected to microscopic, thin section and Neutron Activation Analysis, to compare the fabric with similar stirrup jars in the British Museum collection from Greece and Rome, and with other Mycenaean sherds from Amara West. These methods should provide indications of where the pottery vessels were made.

The study of these important vessels is essential when attempting to unravel the story of trade networks in the ancient Nile Valley, the Mediterranean and the Near East, and they illustrate that Amara West was certainly not an isolated settlement but was instead a vibrant centre for the trade of commodities and ideas between different peoples. Again, we need to be careful: some of these vessels may just have been re-used as containers, no longer holding the valuable commodities they were designed for.

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Amara West 2013: excavating house E13.5

View over house E13.5, with front room to leftSarah Doherty, Cardiff University and Shadia Abdu Rabo, National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums

House E13.5 is located just north of the official residence of the Deputy of Kush (E13.2), excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society in 1947-50. It is the eastern-most visible in a run of four small dwellings facing onto a narrow alley. The walls had been planned by Mary Shepperson in 2010, showing five rooms, but excavation of these rooms only began this Saturday, under our supervision.

View over house E13.5, with front room to left

View over house E13.5, with front room to left

At the front of the house Shadia excavated windblown sand mixed with mudbrick rubble, which contained many fragments of mud bearing the impressions of the wood, grass and matting used to construct a roof over the space. The excavation can seem futile, as our 6-10 workmen remove windblown sand only to see the north wind bring in yet more of it!

AW_2013_shadia_544

Shadia recording brick rubble around the front door of house E13.5

The front door to the house had partly collapsed, with remnants of brickwork and stone doorjambs scattered nearby. The last floor in use within the room, probably just over 3,000 years old, was very well preserved: a smooth clay surface, with a circular hearth in the centre, and a pottery stand set into the ground to one side.

Detail of inscribed jamb, re-used as a threshold stone, bearing the name Horhotep

Detail of inscribed jamb, re-used as a threshold stone,
bearing the name Horhotep

Meanwhile, Sarah started the business of clearing the middle and rear of the house, including a room fitted with a low brick bench (mastaba). Remnants of three stone doors were revealed in this part of the house, and all three employed stonework recycled from an earlier building, perhaps also a house.

These include an inscribed doorjamb giving the titles of a man named Horhotep, and an inscribed door lintel; both were re-used as threshold stones. The builders of house E13.5 were clearly not particularly interested in the old inscriptions – in one doorway, two old inscribed doorjambs had been erected upside down. Perhaps these had then been plastered and painted, but any such decoration has been eroded away.

There is certainly a lot happening in this intriguing part of inner Amara West. After clearing the staircase room, we’ll soon be busy documenting the house (plans, drawings, photographs) before we remove the floors to reveal an earlier phase of occupation.

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Counting down to season six at Amara West

The project house under moonlightNeal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

In a few days time, I’ll be in a taxi, probably stuck in traffic, inching towards the confluence of the two Niles, and the offices of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan). The signing of our excavation permit will mark the start of our sixth fieldwork season at the ancient Egyptian town of Amara West, after months of planning and preparation.

The project house under moonlight, soon to be bustling with archaeologists and filled with artefacts to document and research.

The project house under moonlight, soon to be bustling with archaeologists and filled with artefacts to document and research.

What awaits? We’ll again be concentrating on the ‘neighbourhood’ of houses in the northwest of the town. There’s one late Ramesside house left to investigate (E13.5), though as we found last year, the earlier remains beneath might throw up some surprises.

View of house E13.6 at end of last season, with E13.5 to right, awaiting excavation

View of house E13.6 at the end of last season, with E13.5 to right, awaiting excavation

Surface traces suggest the house features a staircase, for access to the roof or upper storey, and a central reception room with a brick mastaba (bench) against the back wall. Our work here is providing a detailed insight into how one area of the town developed over 200 years, with episodes of neighbourhood renovation amidst the more frequent changes evident in individual houses – sometimes little more than the ancient equivalent of ‘moving the furniture around’.

Magnetometry survey of Amara West town

Magnetometry survey of Amara West town, with villa D12.5 outlined in red. Survey data: British Museum/British School in Rome.

We’re also returning to the western suburb, to excavate a villa (D12.5), which our magnetometry survey indicates as being around 400 square metres in area. Why build outside the walled town? A desire for more space, light and air may have been a motive, as we know the old town had become increasingly cramped and claustrophobic.

As ever, our team will be documenting objects and ceramics and taking archaeological samples for analysis back in the laboratories of the British Museum and universities collaborating on the project, including high resolution sampling of occupation surfaces by Mat Dalton.

Further research will be undertaken on the landscape and river channels, and our team will be back in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, including the second season of our Amara West Bioarchaeology Field School for Sudanese archaeologists.

We’ll be posting regularly from the site, and follow me @NealSpencer_BM on Twitter for updates.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project
Read posts from previous excavation seasons at Amara West

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