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: 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: 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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