Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: update from E13.16 – a strange and intriguing room…

Sarah Doherty working in room E13.16.2Sarah Doherty, Egyptologist and archaeologist, Cardiff University

A brief update on a rather strange room, which has yielded interesting finds, and into which I’ve been delving deeper this week.

Sarah Doherty and workman Miki Ali Hassan working in room E13.16.2

Sarah Doherty and workman Miki Ali Hassan working in room E13.16.2

A more solid clay floor has been revealed, together with a rectangular brick structure, probably used to support quern-stones for grinding.

Ovens, grinding emplacements and a mystery wall

Ovens, grinding emplacements and a mystery wall

Three ovens along the back wall, and a shallow pit full of ash and charcoal complete the picture: perhaps cereal processing, charcoal production and cooking all took place here?

In the last few days, a low brick wall has revealed itself – in the shape of a “?”. I thought initially that it was a low plastered basin attached to the grinding emplacement, but it seems to continue as far as the ovens.

What is going on?

Answers on the back of a postcard, or digital equivalent, please…

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Amara West 2013: in the round at villa D12.5

Excavations in villa D12.5Rizwan Safir, archaeologist and Vera Michel, Egyptologist, University of Heidelberg

The waiting has ended and the inevitable has occurred: two ovens surfaced right at the back of our large building earlier this week. They emerged somewhat unintentionally – two familiar ceramic circles – as we began cleaning the external walls to allow Rizwan’s architectural plan to be completed.

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

We’re now into week four and following the removal of vast quantities of sand and rubble the opportunity to excavate some of the smaller rooms has come about, as well as revealing ancient occupation surfaces. Another hearth has emerged to the north of the building in a small suite of two rooms added to the large central courtyard – perhaps in response to the needs of a growing community? Oddly for an Egyptian villa, there is a large staircase located inside the main door, providing access to the roof (or upper storey) above these two rooms.

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

A space we dubbed the ‘silo’ room is currently being excavated and three, or possibly four, distinct round structures have emerged.

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the entrance to villa D12.5

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the
entrance to villa D12.5

The size of these silos suggests use for storing grain, perhaps for more than one household – a number of smaller houses are visible west of our villa. Such storage containers have not been noted elsewhere at Amara West, where rectangular storage bins are common.

Between the silo room and the ovens is a space we started excavating on Wednesday – somewhere we might expect to see grain-grinding emplacements.

The emergence of the floor within the large central courtyard was particularly satisfying considering the depth and quantity of sand removed within this space, although conditions have proven particularly challenging of late.

For example, having reached the floors of the smaller rooms to the north of the building, a day of strong and relentless wind on Monday served to refill these rooms almost back to their original state!

Nonetheless, we soldier on, rewarded by a gradually more coherent plan of the building, populated by hearths, silos and, of course, ovens.

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Amara West 2013: interesting discoveries as new ‘house’ is explored

Necklace as it emerged from the deposits in E13.16Sarah Doherty, Egyptologist and archaeologist, Cardiff University

North of the room busy with ovens being excavated by Shadia Abdu Rabo, this last week has seen me work in a puzzling new area – also with lots of ovens! – behind house E13.5. Why this move to a new building? Shadia’s area of ovens featured an additional room with an entrance to the north, into the new building, which we christened E13.16.

View over excavations in building E13.16

View over excavations in building E13.16

After a day of shovelling out windblown sand, the nicely preserved clay floor of the first room was revealed, with a circular hearth (60 cm diameter) still containing ash and charcoal. I was thrilled to find a nice piece of Marl D amphora handle within the hearth, consistent with a late Ramesside date for these buildings.

Workman Hafif Mohamed revealing an ancient hearth

Workman Hafif Mohamed revealing an ancient hearth

The workmen moved next door, where a more uneven floor was uncovered, scattered with sand, ash, pottery sherds, charcoal and animal bone. At the east end of the room, perhaps inevitably, three large bread ovens emerged from the rubble. However, these are located right next to a blocked doorway, so they might not have been an original feature of the room. This is an important reminder that the layout of such buildings could change relatively quickly.

Necklace F6925 as it emerged from the deposits in E13.16

Necklace F6925 as it emerged from the deposits in E13.16

Above these ovens, several interesting finds were discovered: a polished greywacke dish, a copper alloy chisel and an ostracon with three lines of hieratic text, which awaits translation. The most aesthetically pleasing object was a necklace made of faience beads, still lying as originally strung (though the string had not survived).

Detail of necklace F6925, with gold and carnelian beads in the centre

Detail of necklace F6925, with gold and carnelian beads in the centre

The centre piece of the necklace was two small red carnelian beads flanking a beaten gold bead. After Neal Spencer photographed the necklace in situ, I used the remainder of the day to brush, remove and restring the beads, to preserve the arrangement of the necklace.

Metal blade F6919 found in E13.16

Metal blade F6919 found in E13.16

As this new building is one of the northernmost in the town, it has suffered badly from wind erosion: we can see multiple phases in the slope near the town wall. My task over this week is to try to untangle, and then document, the various layers.

There seems to be a vast number of ovens in this area beneath the floors of building E13.16, with lots of ash deposits, and charcoal pits. Do we have a bakery or brewery underneath building E13.16?

Watch this (rather ashy) space!

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Amara West 2013: expect the unexpected

https://britishmuseumamarawestblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/aw_2013_10_brushing_304x176.jpgNeal Spencer, British Museum

The archaeologist now has a range of methods which can ‘predict’ what will be found in excavation and which help inform the areas to investigate. Our magnetometry survey was the most informative, but surface topography, artefact scatter, parts of walls visible on the surface, and our (assumed) familiarity with the site and its buildings also help. This last aspect includes assumptions we make about the depth of architecture beneath the current surface, and what will be found in different parts of houses.

So, to house E13.5. We were pretty confident we had the complete plan of this, mid-sized five-roomed house, simply by brushing to reveal the tops of the walls. All went to plan in week one: nicely preserved floors, a mastaba-bench against one wall, a staircase, and the bonus of re-used inscribed stonework in three of the doorways.

A circular clay oven in villa E12.10 (excavated in 2009)

A circular clay oven in villa E12.10 (excavated in 2009)

The front room contained a perfectly preserved hearth, and a pot-stand set up in one corner, still standing where it had been placed around 1100 BC.

But something was missing: where were the ovens? Nearly every house we have excavated at Amara West features circular ovens, made of clay and between 30 and 60 cm in diameter. Often, we find several set up against the wall of a small room.

These ovens would have been ideal for cooking bread, much like a traditional tandoori bread oven. The thick ash deposits in and around the ovens provide rich potential for archaeobotanical research. Egyptologists also believe such ovens had multiple functions – for example to fire small faience objects.

The lack of ovens in E13.5 prompted us to extend our investigations east of the house, as a small eroded wall segment in the east wall of the front room of the house hinted at the location of a blocked doorway or possibly a step. Where did this lead?

Shadia Abdu Rabo set a small team of workmen to brush back the surface, and soon revealed a long rectangular room. The rather thin outer wall suggests this may have been a courtyard along the east side of the house. Further excavation revealed an oven, then another one, and yet another… we have now uncovered the remains of seven in this one room.

View north over room with bread ovens

View north over room with bread ovens

Someone was doing a lot of cooking here: but was it for one household? The organisation of food production in New Kingdom Egypt has been studied through textual sources, and especially the excavations at Tell el-Amarna. These houses at Amara West offer an opportunity to investigate how a neighbourhood within an Egyptian town in conquered Nubia organised food processing and supply.

View over house E13.5, with its ‘oven court’

View over house E13.5, with its ‘oven court’

Such research potential prompted another change of plan: we will delay our excavation beneath house E13.5 – where we hope to find earlier phase architecture – as the new oven courtyard may well have served more than house E13.5. The unexcavated building to the north, newly christened E13.16, also has a door onto the space with all the ovens.

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Sarah Doherty and workmen started clearing surface deposits from this building on Sunday morning….

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