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: structure from motion in a pharaonic town

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5Susie Green, UCL

This Sunday I photographed the last of the rooms in neighbourhood E13, in the dawn light before the sun rose. In fact we cheated a little that morning: Sarah Doherty and eight of our site workers held a large sheet of tarpaulin, against the strong wind, to keep the sun off the walls for an extra 15 minutes.

Susie photographing a room with some help in removing sunlight

Susie photographing a room with some help in removing sunlight

I have been at Amara West for just over two weeks. My task here is to create a pointcloud and ultimately a 3D model of the houses in E13 using a process called ‘Structure from Motion’. This technique uses a computer programme to find matching points in multiple images of the same subject. These can be triangulated to find the position of the camera and the points in 3D space and from this create an accurate representation of the subject built up from millions of points. The results are similar to those obtained by laser scanning, but without the need for expensive and unwieldy equipment.

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

I have been working my way through the town room by room. In order to get the best results, each room must be photographed in diffuse light as the harsh shadows of the sun obscure the details in the mud brick. This usually means I have to work very fast in the half hour before the sun rises. On the day of the big sandstorm, I could work all morning, as the airborne sand softened the sun’s rays. Saturday granted us an hour of cloudy sky: the first cloud I have seen in two weeks.

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

Most of my processing will be done back in London, but I have carried out some tests here to make sure everything is working properly. One of these is to bring together the two halves of the low bench (mastaba) in house E13.7 and virtually remove the later wall that cuts it in half. This allows us to see the mastaba and gain a sense of its size and proportions – it is unusually long for a mastaba in a pharaonic house.

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5, with reconstruction of kite camera positions (Produced in Meshlab)

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5, with reconstruction of kite camera positions (Produced in Meshlab)

The ‘Structure from Motion’ process also allows aerial photographs to be used for detailed models of the ground elevation: a large number of photographs can be linked together as a mosaic to create a very high resolution map of the ground, such as with villa D12.5 being excavated outside the walls.

For this reason I have also brought my kite and camera rig to Amara West and I have taken thousands of aerial pictures of the town and surrounding area. I hope to be able to contribute to the understanding of the area and how it related to the Nile when Amara West was inhabited.

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Amara West 2013: what a difference a day makes

Revealing an inscriptionPhilip Kevin, conservator, British Museum

On Tuesday of this week, after a number of days consolidating and uncovering painted plaster from several coffins within burial chamber G244 with various degrees of success, Michaela Binder revealed the top and part of the base of a wooden headrest. There has been poor wood preservation in this chamber due to hyperactive termites and wood rot, and possible flooding. The survival of the top and part of the base in what appeared to be a reasonable state of preservation was received with excitement, but the underside of the base was badly tunneled by termites. It was very weak and required slow step-by-step excavation and consolidation.

Philip revealing the faience situla in Grave 244

Philip revealing the faience situla in Grave 244

When removing the soil and wind-blown sand next to the base a white curved surface appeared and soon after the first black decorative lines were visible, including lotus leaf and palm branch motifs. The shape, colour and surface texture indicated this was a decorated situla, a round-bottomed vessel, lying horizontally in the soil and sand. It appeared complete but with a number of old (dark) cracks along its length.

Philip back in the ‘laboratory’ of our dig house, reconstructing the situla

Philip back in the ‘laboratory’ of our dig house,
reconstructing the situla

On lifting it, the cracks opened up and two fragments collapsed into the vessel. The whole object was unstable and any delay in reconstructing the vessel would risk further damage to the edges of the breaks. After consolidating the edges with a polymer in a solvent, to give the weak break edges and surrounding material additional strength, more consolidant was applied to the top of the cracks and allowed to run and settle along its length naturally.

The vessel was reconstructed “dry” (without adhesive) to find the correct location and order of reconstruction, then with the position determined the vessel was adhered. One triangular section 4×4 cm (widest points) remains missing – an old break, and it is still hoped that we will find this fragment near the chamber floor level.

The next day I was “out on the town” working within room E13.5.3 excavated by Sarah. There were a number of inscribed stone pieces – lintels and jambs – which had been plastered over and reused as door jambs.

Philip ‘on the town’, revealing the inscription re-used in house E13.5

Philip ‘on the town’, revealing the inscription
re-used in house E13.5

The inscription on one lintel was visible only at the bottom, with the first few hieroglyphs positioned upside down. The remainder of the inscription (“the interesting bit”….no pressure!) lay under a thick course of whitish plaster. Using a sharp pointed tool and working in from the edge of the plaster it was possible to cleave small pieces from the surface – direct pressure to shear between plaster and stone is likely to pull some surface of the stone away.

After a couple of hours the inscription could be read: ‘An offering that the king gives, to Amun-Ra, lord of the thrones of the two lands’.

Lets see what tomorrow brings.

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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: 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: update from E13.16 – a strange and intriguing room…

Sarah Doherty working in room E13.16.2Sarah Doherty, Egyptologist and archaeologist, Cardiff University

A brief update on a rather strange room, which has yielded interesting finds, and into which I’ve been delving deeper this week.

Sarah Doherty and workman Miki Ali Hassan working in room E13.16.2

Sarah Doherty and workman Miki Ali Hassan working in room E13.16.2

A more solid clay floor has been revealed, together with a rectangular brick structure, probably used to support quern-stones for grinding.

Ovens, grinding emplacements and a mystery wall

Ovens, grinding emplacements and a mystery wall

Three ovens along the back wall, and a shallow pit full of ash and charcoal complete the picture: perhaps cereal processing, charcoal production and cooking all took place here?

In the last few days, a low brick wall has revealed itself – in the shape of a “?”. I thought initially that it was a low plastered basin attached to the grinding emplacement, but it seems to continue as far as the ovens.

What is going on?

Answers on the back of a postcard, or digital equivalent, please…

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Amara West 2013: spoiling for sand

Barrow limitations: schist pathway to allow wheelbarrows laden with sand to be movedNeal Spencer, British Museum

The archaeology of Amara West town is spectacular: few other sites in the Nile Valley preserve houses of the late New Kingdom (1300-1100 BC), standing to nearly two metres in height.

Room (E13.14.3) at the end of 2012 season, before it filled up with sand: architecture upon architecture

Room (E13.14.3) at the end of 2012 season, before it
filled up with sand: architecture upon architecture

One can walk along ancient alleys, up staircases, through doorways (the wooden doors have long ago been feasted upon by termites) and into rooms used for preparing food.

The area (E13) we’ve been digging since 2009 is particularly fascinating, as it changed from an area with buildings dedicated to large-scale storage, to a neighbourhood of up to seven contemporary houses. Within each house, we can track the small changes made within each household – blocking off doorways, laying new floors, changing the arrangement of installations in a room, and even changing the function of a space.

All very fascinating, but now creating a considerable logistical headache. We do not dismantle the last architectural phase, unless safety concerns demand it, preferring to dig within the space inside rooms into earlier layers beneath. This has left some excavations in the centre of the neighbourhood rather deep, and a long way from any spoil heap – the mounds of debris, sieved of artefacts, that archaeologists create when digging.

Barrow limitations: schist pathway to allow wheelbarrows laden with sand to be moved

Barrow limitations: schist pathway to allow wheelbarrows laden with sand to be moved

Our desire to gain an in-depth understanding of the neighbourhood prompts us to empty all the houses and rooms of windblown sand every year. The windblown sand is both friend and foe. It is our ally as it backfills many rooms after we leave, saving us the hassle (and expense). Equally helpful is the scouring of surfaces and walls as its fills up: new walls, architectural relationships and even objects have come to light when we return each January.

But it is also our enemy: on days when it is too windy to keep features clean, or even to work at all. And this last 10 days, as we seek to empty every one of the deep rooms in the middle of our neighbourhood, I have been seeking to learn what works best.

Approach 1: shovel from room to room, towards waiting barrows. New excavations to the right hamper access.

Approach 1: shovel from room to room, towards waiting barrows. New excavations to the right hamper access.

A chain-of-bucket-throwing-men? A constant flow of bucket-carrying men? Or simply shovelling sand from one room, over the walls into the next, and so on until they reach waiting wheelbarrows?

Approach 2: chain of full buckets from E13.14.3 along left line of men yesterday, returning empty along the right line

Approach 2: chain of full buckets from E13.14.3 along left line of men yesterday, returning empty along the right line

The task is dispiriting for us and the workmen – we counted a high of 26 buckets of spoil removed every two minutes at one point; I dare say the average is considerably less.

Our next task is to clean the floors and walls in these rooms, and hopefully allow Susie Green from UCL to start photographing for our three-dimensional modelling of the ancient buildings…

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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: in the round at villa D12.5

Excavations in villa D12.5Rizwan Safir, archaeologist and Vera Michel, Egyptologist, University of Heidelberg

The waiting has ended and the inevitable has occurred: two ovens surfaced right at the back of our large building earlier this week. They emerged somewhat unintentionally – two familiar ceramic circles – as we began cleaning the external walls to allow Rizwan’s architectural plan to be completed.

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

We’re now into week four and following the removal of vast quantities of sand and rubble the opportunity to excavate some of the smaller rooms has come about, as well as revealing ancient occupation surfaces. Another hearth has emerged to the north of the building in a small suite of two rooms added to the large central courtyard – perhaps in response to the needs of a growing community? Oddly for an Egyptian villa, there is a large staircase located inside the main door, providing access to the roof (or upper storey) above these two rooms.

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

A space we dubbed the ‘silo’ room is currently being excavated and three, or possibly four, distinct round structures have emerged.

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the entrance to villa D12.5

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the
entrance to villa D12.5

The size of these silos suggests use for storing grain, perhaps for more than one household – a number of smaller houses are visible west of our villa. Such storage containers have not been noted elsewhere at Amara West, where rectangular storage bins are common.

Between the silo room and the ovens is a space we started excavating on Wednesday – somewhere we might expect to see grain-grinding emplacements.

The emergence of the floor within the large central courtyard was particularly satisfying considering the depth and quantity of sand removed within this space, although conditions have proven particularly challenging of late.

For example, having reached the floors of the smaller rooms to the north of the building, a day of strong and relentless wind on Monday served to refill these rooms almost back to their original state!

Nonetheless, we soldier on, rewarded by a gradually more coherent plan of the building, populated by hearths, silos and, of course, ovens.

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Amara West 2013: buried with pots

Loretta recording a pottery vessel from G244 in the work roomLoretta Kilroe, University of Oxford

Every vessel tells a story, and when we get a group of vessels or sherds in a relatively closed context – like a grave – the story becomes particularly interesting.

Loretta recording a pottery vessel from G244 in the work room

Loretta recording a pottery vessel from G244 in the
work room

While Alice Springuel is working on the settlement pottery with Anna Garnett, I’m studying pottery from cemetery C. There’s much less pottery than from the town, and everything comes back to the house, where my detective work starts.

Currently this season, two large tombs are proving very exciting. G243 is a two-chambered tomb being excavated by Barbara Chauvet, while G244 is the large tumulus with five subterranean chambers being worked on by Michaela Binder and Mohammed Said.

These have produced an array of ceramics which already, at this early stage, prompt questions about those interred in the graves, and the life they experienced at Amara West.

Four ‘beer jars’ and a red-rimmed plate have been found in the eastern chamber of G243 – both fairly typical grave goods across the period in which this cemetery was used (twelfth-eighth century BC).

Shallow bowl with sloppy red paint around rim (C9053), from G243

Shallow bowl with sloppy red paint around rim (C9053), from G243

The styles of these vessels however, particularly the poorly-cut beer jar bases and the messy red paint applied to the rim of the plate, suggest these pots accompanied a burial after the end of the New Kingdom – when pharaonic Egypt no longer ruled Upper Nubia.

‘Beer-jar’ (C9162) reconstructed by Loretta, from G244

‘Beer-jar’ (C9162) reconstructed by Loretta, from G244

Little evidence of this era has been found in the town, but the continued use of the cemetery suggests occupation continued at Amara West (or nearby). Those people retained the same pottery-making techniques as earlier inhabitants living here under Egyptian rule.

The multi-chambered tumulus (G244), of which only part of one chamber has been excavated, was heavily looted. Tomb-robbers are generally uninterested in ceramic vessels, so these remain, though often smashed to pieces.

I’ve been able to reconstruct several vessels: two ‘beer jars’, 11 plates, two funnel-necked jars and parts of two smaller jars. The styles of these vessels indicate a late New Kingdom date – but this interpretation might change as more of the tomb is excavated.

This dating came as a surprise, since tumuli are seen as a typically Nubian form of burial, expressing a Nubian rather than Egyptian cultural identity in death; something not frequent in this area until after the Egyptian withdrawal. In other New Kingdom graves at Amara West, post-New Kingdom and Napatan material is often found in chambers, but we don’t have any later material from G244 … yet.

I’m currently drawing the reconstructed vessels, to enable further research back in London and Oxford. All the vessels, apart from a few eroded sherds, are Egyptian in style, though probably made locally. Did those buried here, seemingly late in the period of Egyptian control, consciously choose a Nubian monument, but adhere to the practise of placing Egyptian-style pottery in the graves?

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