Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: faience production in the town?

Area E13.17 with a large kiln or ovenSarah Doherty, Egyptologist and archaeologist, Cardiff University

After trying to untangle an area with a lot of ovens and charcoal pits, which we have designated E13.16, I moved further towards the thick northern wall of the town. Wind erosion has removed the northern part of E13.16, revealing an earlier phase of architecture.

Area E13.17 with large kiln or oven to left

Area E13.17 with large kiln or oven to left

This new building, christened E13.17, featured what we have called the ‘mother oven’: the largest seen yet at Amara West. A 105 cm ring of fired clay, surrounded by a line of mud bricks, two smaller ovens sit beside it, surrounded by pits filled with charcoal.

Fragments of pottery crucibles, with copper alloy deposits on interior

Fragments of pottery crucibles, with
copper alloy deposits on interior

As we removed windblown sand from inside the oven, the interior walls were blue-tinged. Close to the ovens, in a pit almost solidly packed with ash, pieces of melted copper alloy, crucibles encrusted with copper slag, and lots of fused and crushed faience beads started to appear.

In other nearby pits, I encountered pottery sherds thick with fly ash (a by-product of burning fuel in the kiln), some with lime frit adhering. Ceramic dishes with red-painted rims – a popular piece of tableware at Amara West – were found covered with a black glaze-like deposit on the inside.

Clay mould, perhaps for a faience inlay?

Clay mould, perhaps for a faience inlay?

And finally, two days ago, we found a clay mould, for a roughly triangular object (or depending which archaeologist you ask, a bird, white crown, or a cow’s head… take your pick!). In any case, this might be for making a small inlay to decorate a larger object.

Could this hint at a faience production site here at Amara West?

Faience, a popular luxury product in ancient Egypt, was used to make scarabs, amulets, inlays, vessels and shabtis, along with many other object types. It was made by mixing copper/ cobalt, soda, water, lime and silica; drying the mixtures and then finally firing it.

The glassy surface can be formed in various ways, including efflorescence. Faience comes in various colours, most typical are a light blue and a turqouise blue.

Faience? The case against:

  1. The oven, apart from its large size, looks remarkably similar to the other bread ovens.
  2. The oven has no “glassy mudbricks” as one might note on a kiln fired at high temperatures.
  3. So far only one mould for making faience inlays in has been found, and one would perhaps expect many more, as at Amarna site O.45.1.
  4. We find relatively little faience on site!

Faience? The case for:

  1. The oven is much larger than any other in the area, and is arguably not domestic.
  2. Faience is normally fired at 750 °C, so unlike pottery kilns, does not need to reach very high temperatures – e.g. 900 °C for some types of ceramic.
  3. We have many pieces of copper and a glassy deposit sticking to pots, perhaps used to hold small objects placed in the kiln.

What do you think? Convinced?

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Amara West 2013: E13.13, the story of a room

Digging deep: workmen in E13.13Mat Dalton, University of Cambridge

This week marked the completion of excavation in room E13.13 (better known to us as ‘the oven court’), a task three years in the making. But why has this relatively small 3.2 x four metre space occupied so much of our time on site?

A clue lies in the amount of paperwork generated: 135 archaeological features (contexts) at the final count! This includes 11 bread ovens, seven grain grinding emplacements and at least 20 main ‘firepits’ – more on these later – within a one metre thick occupation deposit. This density of features can be explained by the perpetually rising level of E13.13’s soft dirt floor, most likely as a result of sediment blowing into the (probably un-roofed) room from the town and desert. This must have required the levelling and replacement of features engulfed by mounting sediments, which has created a rich stratigraphic sequence of features.

A surface phase of E13.13 showing three ovens, two grinding emplacements with mud plaster basins, and two firepits.

A surface phase of E13.13 showing three ovens, two grinding emplacements with mud plaster basins, and two firepits.

For most of its use-life the oven court seems to have provided food preparation and cooking facilities for first one (E13.3) and then two adjacent houses, E13.3-N and E13.3-S. The room’s history is closely linked to these two houses.

At first neither house had any internal baking or grinding facilities and the court saw more intensive use, generally with at least three ovens and two grinding emplacements operational at any one time. Preparing flour and baking bread were probably daily activities at Amara West, and it is not hard to imagine this semi-public space as a hub of social interaction between the two houses’ residents. Later, each house installed separate internal ovens and grinding emplacements and the court was walled off, then reopened and used for a little longer, before finally being sealed for good and apparently becoming the neighbourhood rubbish dump.

Plan of neighbourhood E13, with oven court E13.13 to south of two small houses

Plan of neighbourhood E13, with oven court E13.13 to south of two small houses

Ovens and grinding emplacements are found in houses all over the site; a more novel feature of the oven court is the aforementioned firepits. These shallow depressions were cut into the room’s floor adjacent to walls, and were apparently used for burning wood to produce charcoal. This charcoal may have been destined for immediate use in adjacent bread ovens, but could have also been stockpiled or used elsewhere in the house. The firepits also seem to have served a second more expedient purpose: a convenient spot to dispose of ashy waste from the ovens.

The cyclical nature of wood burning and oven waste disposal has formed complex layers over time, leaving us with an archive of well-preserved carbonised plant remains. We have intensively sampled these deposits over the past three years of excavation to recover this material, and have also collected sediments from these and other contexts in the room to extract phytoliths, microscopic plant skeletons that can provide evidence for foodstuffs such as wheat and barley – long since rotted away. Study of these strands of evidence has already begun to tell us much about the kind of food people were eating and how they were preparing it, as well as what fuels they were burning. This data also gives us proxy evidence for the character of the natural environment around Amara West, and how its inhabitants utilised and affected it.

Digging deep: workmen in E13.13

Digging deep: workmen in E13.13

As we finished excavating the oven court over the past couple of days, an interesting surprise has emerged from beneath the room’s final occupation deposits. A very early structure, running parallel to the town’s enclosure wall, might be the corner of a large storage complex first exposed by the Egypt Exploration Society in 1947-48 (E.12.6). The shift in use from possible official storage to domestic usage in this area fits well into the larger-scale trend of Amara West’s evolution from planned administrative town to a form more organically modified to suit its inhabitants’ needs.

A small room like E13.13 that provides such a wide range of data on life in the ancient town doesn’t come along every day.

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