Mat Dalton, University of Cambridge
Is it possible to find out more about the distant past by looking at the way people live in the present? If so, how do you do this without potentially instilling the evidence we excavate with modern meanings – unfamiliar to the people who have left material for us to find?
I have recently started my PhD research in the Charles McBurney Laboratory for Geoarchaeology at the University of Cambridge, where I am applying high resolution geoarchaeological analyses to both mud plaster and informal ‘trampled earth’ floor deposits at ancient Amara West, mainly from within household contexts. I am interested in how the many different types of floors that we encounter at the site may reflect the uses or activities that a room was intended to perform, how these may have changed or remained the same over time, and how floors may have been used to intentionally shape the meaning and ambiance of particular spaces.
As a part of my PhD research I have been conducting a small amount of ethno-archaeological research on the vibrant living Nubian traditions of building and plastering in mud – still a part of everyday life in many households in our area. This research should help us understand the interaction between these technologies and the ancient inhabitants of Amara West.
The economic, historical and cultural context of Nubian people living in northern Sudan today is of course very different from that of the ancient inhabitants of Amara West. Nevertheless, there are also similarities, especially in terms of local environment, access to almost identical raw materials (clay, plants etc.), and the use of apparently similar technologies to build, renovate and shape the houses in which they live.
Shadia Abdu Rabo and I have been visiting homes and conducting informal interviews with the inhabitants of Ernetta island (where we also live), and in other nearby towns and villages. It has been especially informative talking to women, who are usually responsible for the liasa (mud plaster) renovation of their house floors and walls, notably using a distinctive hand-applied application of fan-shaped patterning that is common in the Abri area. Our conversations have already given me much to think about, with interesting themes of temporality, changes in technology and perhaps even the expression of identity starting to emerge.
One example is concrete, a technological latecomer to the area and an increasingly popular choice for floor construction, particularly due to its longevity and the ease of keeping these surfaces clean.
Most women we interviewed stated that liasa needs replacing at least once a year – a very time and labour intensive activity. Many people we have talked to have opted to keep liasa in some areas of their house, generally the large central courtyard that is a feature of most Nubian houses. Some have mentioned money as the reason for continuing to use mud plaster – concrete is expensive – while others have cited the desire to keep a ‘traditional’ feel to their home.
Another recurrent theme is that of individual creativity and technological innovation. Yesterday Shadia and I spoke with a neighbour, Manal Abu Bakir, who had finished re-plastering her courtyard and kitchen with unusually deeply-grooved liasa the day before. These deep grooves, she said, help to keep the floor in good condition for longer.
Manal also shared her recipe with us, finessed through trial and error since she first started laying floor and wall plaster, often with her sister Saïda, at around the age of 14. Two jerrakana (buckets) of river clay are mixed with two of cow or donkey manure and eight of turab, the grey windblown sand found around the island. Other women we have spoken to use very different recipes; another Ernetta resident, Amani Ibrahim, uses a mixture of equal parts of all three ingredients.
These varying mixtures would be clearly visible through geoarchaeological analysis. Will a similarly wide range of plaster compositions be apparent in samples from different houses in Amara West, where we cannot interview the inhabitants? Will it perhaps be possible to recognise individual choices and preferences within ancient sequences of overlaying plaster, or was the mud plaster technology in use at our site far more uniform?
Over the coming seasons and back in the laboratory in Cambridge I intend to test and check the new ideas and possible interpretations raised by this research against the very well-preserved data from the ancient town. As my research progresses, it will also be very important to consider the rich textual record available for Pharaonic Egypt, which will help to ensure that relevant insights gained from this small study of the present can be accurately applied to the past.
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