Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Finding the colour in ancient Egyptian homes

studying deposits of windblown sand and Nile flood units in the palaeochannel adjacant to the townAnna Stevens, project curator, Amara West

It’s easy to imagine that what we see of ancient archaeological remains today is not too different to how they would have looked originally. But this is not always the case. In recent years, British Museum excavations at Amara West have provided tantalising evidence for the use of painted decoration inside the private homes of ancient Egypt.

Excavations within the walled town in 2011 revealed a concentration of multi-coloured pieces of wall plaster (possibly dislodged from a household shrine), and the raw materials for painting have also been found scattered across the settlement — pieces of pigment, and the stone blocks on which these were ground down. One concentration of it was uncovered in 2012.

A new project soon to start at the British Museum, in conjunction with University College London, aims to study colour usage within New Kingdom domestic architecture. It will look not only at evidence from Amara West, but from the site of Amarna, the short-lived New Kingdom capital of Egypt built by King Akhenaten. The British Museum holds a number of fragments of painted plaster from Amarna, excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society in the early 20th century. Most famous are the beautiful wall paintings showing scenes from the natural world that decorated Akhenaten’s palaces and mud-brick shrines.

Fragment of painted plaster with a scene of hanging ducks from a royal building at Amarna

Fragment of painted plaster with a scene of hanging ducks from a royal building at Amarna, EA58832

But the use of coloured paint at Amarna was not restricted to royal contexts, and the museum holds another important — but little-known — group of painting fragments from the house of one of the city’s officials, the High Priest Panehesy.

Fragment of painted plaster from the house of the High Priest Panehesy at Amarna, EA38839.

Fragment of painted plaster from the house of the High Priest Panehesy at Amarna, EA38839.

Despite the long history of research into domestic architecture at Amarna, there has been relatively little attention given to the decoration of its houses. One of the reasons for this is that the suburbs of Amarna were excavated largely in the early days of Egyptian archaeology, when clearance was done on a grand scale and with little attention to the recording of finds. The painted plaster recovered from the house of Panehesy is likely to be only a small sample of that which survived, and is only given cursory mention in the excavation report.

Fragment of painted plaster from the house of the High Priest Panehesy at Amarna, EA38837

Fragment of painted plaster from the house of the High Priest Panehesy at Amarna, EA38837

This is why current settlement excavations are so important: because they aim to collect and record all material culture (aided greatly by the use of sieves during excavation). Recent fieldwork at Amarna in the house of a chariotry officer named Ranefer, and at smaller houses nearby, thereby offer an important snapshot of colour usage across New Kingdom society: elaborate painted scenes of Ranefer worshipping; painted fragments collapsed from the ceiling of a moderately sized house over which Ranefer’s villa had been built; and simple patches of red wall paint surviving in the small peripheral houses. Paint is used here in contexts with ritual significance, to display status, and probably simply to enhance domestic ambience.

Reconstruction of painted wall decoration in the house of the official Ranefer at Amarna. Courtesy of the Amarna Project

Reconstruction of painted wall decoration in the house of the official Ranefer at Amarna. Courtesy of the Amarna Project

The new project promises to offer much to our understanding of both the technology of pigment sourcing and application, and the broader social and ritual use of colour in ancient Egyptian homes.

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Amara West 2013: what a difference a day makes

Revealing an inscriptionPhilip Kevin, conservator, British Museum

On Tuesday of this week, after a number of days consolidating and uncovering painted plaster from several coffins within burial chamber G244 with various degrees of success, Michaela Binder revealed the top and part of the base of a wooden headrest. There has been poor wood preservation in this chamber due to hyperactive termites and wood rot, and possible flooding. The survival of the top and part of the base in what appeared to be a reasonable state of preservation was received with excitement, but the underside of the base was badly tunneled by termites. It was very weak and required slow step-by-step excavation and consolidation.

Philip revealing the faience situla in Grave 244

Philip revealing the faience situla in Grave 244

When removing the soil and wind-blown sand next to the base a white curved surface appeared and soon after the first black decorative lines were visible, including lotus leaf and palm branch motifs. The shape, colour and surface texture indicated this was a decorated situla, a round-bottomed vessel, lying horizontally in the soil and sand. It appeared complete but with a number of old (dark) cracks along its length.

Philip back in the ‘laboratory’ of our dig house, reconstructing the situla

Philip back in the ‘laboratory’ of our dig house,
reconstructing the situla

On lifting it, the cracks opened up and two fragments collapsed into the vessel. The whole object was unstable and any delay in reconstructing the vessel would risk further damage to the edges of the breaks. After consolidating the edges with a polymer in a solvent, to give the weak break edges and surrounding material additional strength, more consolidant was applied to the top of the cracks and allowed to run and settle along its length naturally.

The vessel was reconstructed “dry” (without adhesive) to find the correct location and order of reconstruction, then with the position determined the vessel was adhered. One triangular section 4×4 cm (widest points) remains missing – an old break, and it is still hoped that we will find this fragment near the chamber floor level.

The next day I was “out on the town” working within room E13.5.3 excavated by Sarah. There were a number of inscribed stone pieces – lintels and jambs – which had been plastered over and reused as door jambs.

Philip ‘on the town’, revealing the inscription re-used in house E13.5

Philip ‘on the town’, revealing the inscription
re-used in house E13.5

The inscription on one lintel was visible only at the bottom, with the first few hieroglyphs positioned upside down. The remainder of the inscription (“the interesting bit”….no pressure!) lay under a thick course of whitish plaster. Using a sharp pointed tool and working in from the edge of the plaster it was possible to cleave small pieces from the surface – direct pressure to shear between plaster and stone is likely to pull some surface of the stone away.

After a couple of hours the inscription could be read: ‘An offering that the king gives, to Amun-Ra, lord of the thrones of the two lands’.

Lets see what tomorrow brings.

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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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