Amara West project blog

Icon

Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Finding the colour in ancient Egyptian homes

studying deposits of windblown sand and Nile flood units in the palaeochannel adjacant to the townAnna Stevens, project curator, Amara West

It’s easy to imagine that what we see of ancient archaeological remains today is not too different to how they would have looked originally. But this is not always the case. In recent years, British Museum excavations at Amara West have provided tantalising evidence for the use of painted decoration inside the private homes of ancient Egypt.

Excavations within the walled town in 2011 revealed a concentration of multi-coloured pieces of wall plaster (possibly dislodged from a household shrine), and the raw materials for painting have also been found scattered across the settlement — pieces of pigment, and the stone blocks on which these were ground down. One concentration of it was uncovered in 2012.

A new project soon to start at the British Museum, in conjunction with University College London, aims to study colour usage within New Kingdom domestic architecture. It will look not only at evidence from Amara West, but from the site of Amarna, the short-lived New Kingdom capital of Egypt built by King Akhenaten. The British Museum holds a number of fragments of painted plaster from Amarna, excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society in the early 20th century. Most famous are the beautiful wall paintings showing scenes from the natural world that decorated Akhenaten’s palaces and mud-brick shrines.

Fragment of painted plaster with a scene of hanging ducks from a royal building at Amarna

Fragment of painted plaster with a scene of hanging ducks from a royal building at Amarna, EA58832

But the use of coloured paint at Amarna was not restricted to royal contexts, and the museum holds another important — but little-known — group of painting fragments from the house of one of the city’s officials, the High Priest Panehesy.

Fragment of painted plaster from the house of the High Priest Panehesy at Amarna, EA38839.

Fragment of painted plaster from the house of the High Priest Panehesy at Amarna, EA38839.

Despite the long history of research into domestic architecture at Amarna, there has been relatively little attention given to the decoration of its houses. One of the reasons for this is that the suburbs of Amarna were excavated largely in the early days of Egyptian archaeology, when clearance was done on a grand scale and with little attention to the recording of finds. The painted plaster recovered from the house of Panehesy is likely to be only a small sample of that which survived, and is only given cursory mention in the excavation report.

Fragment of painted plaster from the house of the High Priest Panehesy at Amarna, EA38837

Fragment of painted plaster from the house of the High Priest Panehesy at Amarna, EA38837

This is why current settlement excavations are so important: because they aim to collect and record all material culture (aided greatly by the use of sieves during excavation). Recent fieldwork at Amarna in the house of a chariotry officer named Ranefer, and at smaller houses nearby, thereby offer an important snapshot of colour usage across New Kingdom society: elaborate painted scenes of Ranefer worshipping; painted fragments collapsed from the ceiling of a moderately sized house over which Ranefer’s villa had been built; and simple patches of red wall paint surviving in the small peripheral houses. Paint is used here in contexts with ritual significance, to display status, and probably simply to enhance domestic ambience.

Reconstruction of painted wall decoration in the house of the official Ranefer at Amarna. Courtesy of the Amarna Project

Reconstruction of painted wall decoration in the house of the official Ranefer at Amarna. Courtesy of the Amarna Project

The new project promises to offer much to our understanding of both the technology of pigment sourcing and application, and the broader social and ritual use of colour in ancient Egyptian homes.

Leave a comment or tweet using #amarawest

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

Advertisements

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , ,

Amara West 2013: expect the unexpected

https://britishmuseumamarawestblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/aw_2013_10_brushing_304x176.jpgNeal Spencer, British Museum

The archaeologist now has a range of methods which can ‘predict’ what will be found in excavation and which help inform the areas to investigate. Our magnetometry survey was the most informative, but surface topography, artefact scatter, parts of walls visible on the surface, and our (assumed) familiarity with the site and its buildings also help. This last aspect includes assumptions we make about the depth of architecture beneath the current surface, and what will be found in different parts of houses.

So, to house E13.5. We were pretty confident we had the complete plan of this, mid-sized five-roomed house, simply by brushing to reveal the tops of the walls. All went to plan in week one: nicely preserved floors, a mastaba-bench against one wall, a staircase, and the bonus of re-used inscribed stonework in three of the doorways.

A circular clay oven in villa E12.10 (excavated in 2009)

A circular clay oven in villa E12.10 (excavated in 2009)

The front room contained a perfectly preserved hearth, and a pot-stand set up in one corner, still standing where it had been placed around 1100 BC.

But something was missing: where were the ovens? Nearly every house we have excavated at Amara West features circular ovens, made of clay and between 30 and 60 cm in diameter. Often, we find several set up against the wall of a small room.

These ovens would have been ideal for cooking bread, much like a traditional tandoori bread oven. The thick ash deposits in and around the ovens provide rich potential for archaeobotanical research. Egyptologists also believe such ovens had multiple functions – for example to fire small faience objects.

The lack of ovens in E13.5 prompted us to extend our investigations east of the house, as a small eroded wall segment in the east wall of the front room of the house hinted at the location of a blocked doorway or possibly a step. Where did this lead?

Shadia Abdu Rabo set a small team of workmen to brush back the surface, and soon revealed a long rectangular room. The rather thin outer wall suggests this may have been a courtyard along the east side of the house. Further excavation revealed an oven, then another one, and yet another… we have now uncovered the remains of seven in this one room.

View north over room with bread ovens

View north over room with bread ovens

Someone was doing a lot of cooking here: but was it for one household? The organisation of food production in New Kingdom Egypt has been studied through textual sources, and especially the excavations at Tell el-Amarna. These houses at Amara West offer an opportunity to investigate how a neighbourhood within an Egyptian town in conquered Nubia organised food processing and supply.

View over house E13.5, with its ‘oven court’

View over house E13.5, with its ‘oven court’

Such research potential prompted another change of plan: we will delay our excavation beneath house E13.5 – where we hope to find earlier phase architecture – as the new oven courtyard may well have served more than house E13.5. The unexcavated building to the north, newly christened E13.16, also has a door onto the space with all the ovens.

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Sarah Doherty and workmen started clearing surface deposits from this building on Sunday morning….

Leave a comment or tweet using #amarawest

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

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , , ,

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

@NealSpencer_BM

@britishmuseum