Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: furniture in the dust

Fragments of furnitureMarie Vandenbeusch, Geneva University and Michaela Binder, Durham University

Fragment of wood with wooden dowel still in place

Fragment of wood with wooden dowel still in place

As an excavator or a finds registrar, the fragments of wood found in a grave – termite eaten, small, broken and often powdery – are rather challenging to comprehend in terms of the original objects.

The 2009 excavations within post-New Kingdom chamber tombs (about 1000-800 BC) in cemetery C yielded an unexpected mass of wood fragments – which filled a series of large plastic bags we have only just managed to turn our attention to. The burial chambers were heavily disturbed and the wooden fragments were not found in their original position, so only a small amount of them had been singled out as diagnostic finds at the end of the 2009 season.

Time and patience were needed, and this last week we both embarked on many afternoons of sifting through the dusty fragments. Fragments from each archaeological context were laid out on a large metal tray. It was still not possible to identify meaningful shapes with many fragments, but some elements were distinctive – and we encountered some nice surprises.

Fragments of furniture from grave G201: funerary beds and a headrest

Fragments of furniture from grave G201: funerary beds
and a headrest

Many fragments belonged to coffins: simple wooden planks, some with remnants of painted decoration. Also distinctive are the fragments of Nubian funerary beds, identifiable on the basis of better examples found in other graves (G214, for example).

The terminals of the bed legs can be square or curved, sometimes carved with decorative lines. Finely-worked fragments of headrests – occasionally decorated with lines in a wavy pattern – were also encountered. Fragments of crossbeams, maybe also from beds, and pieces of delicate baskets or dowels were also found, some still embedded in other pieces of wood.

Emerging from the storeroom: Marie and Michaela after an afternoon sorting dusty old wood

Emerging from the storeroom: Marie and Michaela after an afternoon sorting dusty old wood

Despite a daily covering in fine, ancient, wood dust, we are learning more and more about the fine wooden funerary objects being placed with the burials of the inhabitants of Amara West.

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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.

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

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