Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: long-term Nile changes

studying deposits of windblown sand and Nile flood units in the palaeochannel adjacant to the townJamie Woodward, University of Manchester and Mark Macklin, University of Aberystwyth

Our part in the 2013 field season was eventful and highly successful. Building on survey and geomorphological work at Amara West in 2009 and 2011, we had two main objectives:

1. To establish the precise stratigraphic and chronological relationship between the cultural remains at Amara West – when the town was occupied – and the record of Nile sediments in the adjacent palaeochannel. These flood deposits date to when water flowed in that channel.

2. To investigate the evidence for Holocene river activity (since around 10,000 BC) in the wider area to the west, north, and east of Amara West.

Pit 4: Mark and Jamie studying deposits of windblown sand and Nile flood units in the palaeochannel adjacant to the town.

Pit 4: Mark and Jamie studying deposits of windblown sand and Nile flood units in the palaeochannel adjacant to the town.

A deep trench was dug – pit 4 – with significant mechanical assistance! – through the edge of the ancient island and the palaeochannel north of the site, in front of the now-buried temple. The trench section revealed a thick sequence of pottery-rich sediments, between fine-grained Nile flood units, and below that, thick deposits of fine-grained fluvial silts that were archaeologically sterile. Charcoal samples were collected for radiocarbon dating, and sand samples for Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating.

The results of these analyses will allow us to provide independent dating control for the period of human occupation at Amara West – complementing the pottery dating – and to test existing ideas about the nature of the river channel environment before, during and after that occupation (preliminary conclusions were published last year).

Tamarisk trees growing in the desert, along the course of the Holocene Nile channel.

Tamarisk trees growing in the desert, along the course of the Holocene Nile channel.

Looking at the wider landscape around Amara West, it is clear that the town site and its adjacent palaeochannel sit within a much larger network of Holocene palaeochannels and tributary wadis (dried-up river beds). We have begun to map this area using satellite imagery and ground-based survey, and this fluvial landscape also contains a rich archaeological record. Many of the channel margin sites were recorded by André Vila in the 1970s and a team led by Elena Garcea (University of Cassino) is now re-visiting these prehistoric sites.

Pit 5: hammering a sample tube for OSL dating, into windblown sand deposits between Holocene Nile deposits.

Pit 5: hammering a sample tube for OSL dating, into windblown sand deposits between Holocene Nile deposits.

A key priority for our fieldwork in January was to record stratigraphy in the older channel system and to collect samples for more OSL dating. Another deep trench (pit 5) was placed through the centre of the lowermost channel, revealing a spectacular stack of steeply-dipping flood units, interspersed with thick beds of windblown sand that had been reworked by the river. This evidence indicated the river channel was migrating south between episodes of not flowing: when the windblown sand was deposited.

In addition to OSL and C14 dates, measuring the strontium isotope ratios in these samples will establish the proportion of Blue Nile and White Nile sediments in their composition – helping us to test ideas about the changing provenance of Nile sediments in flood flows during the course of the Holocene. These samples can also help indicate the age of the flood units and the contribution from desert dust.

Google Earth image showing modern Nile, location of Amara West, palaeochannel to the north and earlier Holocene Nile.

Google Earth image showing modern Nile, location of Amara West, palaeochannel to the north and earlier Holocene Nile.

Now we await the dates … These will indicate when the Holocene channel 2km north of Amara West was flowing, when it finally dried out, and how it might relate to the operation of the Amara West channel. Was this larger channel flowing when Amara West was occupied? If this was the case, we would need to radically alter how we envision the ancient landscape – potentially very different from that visible today – which shaped the lives of the town’s inhabitants.

Our work upstream in the Northern Dongola Reach, near Kawa, has shown that the Nile river channel network has, in very general terms, contracted over the past 5,000 years with an overall decrease in the number of active channels, although some channels can be briefly reconnected to the main Nile during large floods. Both the Kawa and Amara West evidence will form an important reference for the understanding of the desert Nile.

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Amara West 2013: when things are unremarkable, or broken

Mat Dalton (University of Cambridge) pondering deposits in E13.13 on Thursday, a multiphase room he has been excavating and recording since 2010Neal Spencer, British Museum

Blogging from an excavation is often misleading, as are the eventual academic publications. Exciting discoveries are reported, the progress and results of excavating certain buildings or graves, and of course artefacts of particular interest.

What such posts do not reflect are the metronomic rhythm of the seasons – the 06.30am boat, urging the workmen to retain focus and keep a certain pace, the need to record (photograph, draw, describe, take elevation data) unremarkable deposits within ancient rooms. The significance of these features may become apparent after years of post-excavation research – when it is possible to track important phenomena happening across the site, for example the intentional rebuilding of a whole area at a particular time, or the noticeable increase in Nubian pottery vessels after the first century of occupation. Much of this information will appear as brief notes in excavation publications.

Mat Dalton (University of Cambridge) pondering deposits in E13.13 on Thursday, a multiphase room he has been excavating and recording since 2010.

Mat Dalton (University of Cambridge) pondering deposits in E13.13 on Thursday, a multiphase room he has been excavating and recording since 2010.

Life in the excavation house is similarly repetitive, with meals around the same table, a relatively unvaried diet, cleaning our drinking water filters and keeping up with documentation. But things do go wrong, can’t be found, or break. The start of the season saw a shortage of cooking gas in Abri, meaning our cook Ali did not use the oven: we ate even more vegetable stews that week. It’s been two years since packaged feta disappeared from the local shops, meaning a staple food was suddenly gone. But electricity presents the most considerable challenge.

The construction of the Merowe Dam led to intensive survey of a previously poorly-researched region. But the hydroelectric power also brought, for the first time, mains electricity to many parts of Sudan. The electricity has not yet reached Abri (though the pylons are in place).

Diesel pump carrying water from the Nile up to the fields.

Diesel pump carrying water from the Nile up to the fields.

Our dig house, like every other house on Ernetta island, relies on generators to produce electricity. We run ours for a few hours in the morning, and after sunset – to allow us to see, read and charge equipment, cameras and laptops.

The generator is actually a large diesel water pump (known as a babur), made in Rajkot, India: the shaduf (ancient water-lifting machine) of today’s Sudanese Nile. These are used to pump water up from the Nile, allowing year-round cultivation of land across the island. At night, these are connected to dynamos to power lights, televisions and fridges across the island. Ours never does service in the fields (and we don’t have a television or fridge!), but is nonetheless temperamental.

The first two weeks of the season have been beset by generator breakdowns, uneven power supply and electricity short circuits (and the odd light bulb bursting into flame). Day after day, men reputed to be experts advised and undertook repairs, each suggesting a different problem and associated solution. The work of Salah, the last repair man, has led to three days of good electricity. Let’s see how long it lasts.

Blackout: the courtyard of our house lit by the moon and stars

Blackout: the courtyard of our house lit by the moon and stars

The starry sky is spectacular here; a view best appreciated with no artificial lights – one of the upsides to not having any electricity.

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Read posts from previous excavation seasons at Amara West

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Amara West 2013: good to go

Our two site tents at Amara West, with guard SelimNeal Spencer, British Museum

After travelling 4,928 km by air, 721 km by road across desert and then through the rocky cataract region, and a final hundred metres in a motorboat, we arrived late Tuesday afternoon, almost oblivious to it being New Year’s Day – and Independence Day in Sudan.

Our two site tents at Amara West, with guard Selim.

Our two site tents at Amara West, with guard Selim.

Our first day here was spent setting everything up. The house had to be unpacked – it is amazing how much dust accumulates in houses with mudbrick walls, and one never knows quite how much damage termites will have wrought upon cardboard boxes, wooden beds or even wooden drawing boards.

Metal crates are used to house tools for each excavation area – here for house E13.5 and villa D12.5.

Metal crates are used to house tools for each excavation area – here for house E13.5 and villa D12.5.

Bedrooms are set up, the kitchen installed and the workrooms organised. With seven of us here – more team members arrrive Friday afternon – this all happened quite quickly. A small team of workmen was employed to erect our two site tents, and some of us visited the local market town of Abri, to acquire missing items and repair some excavation equipment. Pottery sorting and drawing – material from last season that could not be processed – was commenced by Marie Millet, Anna Garnett and Alice Springuel.

Clambering up the sandbank between Nile and archaeological site

Clambering up the sandbank between Nile and archaeological site

I was surprised by our progress, so much so that we had the opportunity to move all of the digging equipment – sieves, shovels, barrows, trowels, finds bags, brushes – to Amara West itself, as the sun set. The Nile is higher than last year, though the steep sandy incline from river to archaeological site is a significant challenge where heavy equipment is concerned.

The day was not without its surprises, though, ending with a scorpion sighting in the bathroom, and a small electrical fire caused by a generator surge.

The boat leaves for site at 6.00 am on Thursday, in darkness, and excavation will finally be underway.

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