Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

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: washing, sorting, documenting and studying… pottery

Washed pottery laid out to dryAnna Garnett, Egyptologist and trainee curator, British Museum/Manchester Museum

The life of a field ceramicist is certainly never dull, though perhaps sometimes repetitive…

Washed pottery laid out to dry

Washed pottery laid out to dry

Currently I am documenting and studying all of the pottery from the settlement, which is an important job for several reasons: to try to establish the dates of buildings in the town, to understand more about both local and foreign ceramic production, and ultimately to really understand how pottery featured in the daily lives of the inhabitants of the town.

Occasional find of a complete pot in the town! Archaeologist Sarah Doherty,with excavators Miki Ali Hassan and Adli Mohamed.

Occasional find of a complete pot in the town! Archaeologist Sarah Doherty, with excavators Miki Ali Hassan and Adli Mohamed.

This pottery ranges from everyday throwaway items such as beer jars and plates which were used much like modern polystyrene cups, and more unusual vessels such as storage amphorae, decorated pots and large basins.

Sorting washed sherds to identify forms of original vessels

Sorting washed sherds to identify forms of
original vessels

After the diagnostic pottery has been sorted and collected on site by Alice Springuel, Loretta Kilroe and I, it is brought back to the excavation house. Here it is washed and dried in the sun by Amru Mohamed, our pot-washer extraordinare, who not only cleans the sherds but also identifies joining pieces and glues them back together.

The many hundreds of sherds are then placed into bags according to archaeological context and brought to my workspace for processing which is when the “fun” really begins…

I empty each bag and every sherd is sorted according to its form, which I match up to the different forms in the established Amara West pottery typology developed by the previous ceramicist, Marie Millet.

These forms are recorded and then all the sherds are placed back in the labelled bags for storage at the house. However, sherds of special interest are kept aside and given C-numbers, for example those which are decorated or that add to the site typology of forms and fabrics. These sherds are then drawn by Alice and inked back in the UK for further study and, eventually, publication.

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Amara West 2013: into the first chamber of tomb G244

Removing spoil from G244, showing circular mound (tumulus)Michaela Binder, Durham University

After two weeks of excavating in the multi-chamber tomb G244 we’re deeply entangled in the first room of the western suite of burial chambers.

Removing spoil from G244, showing circular mound (tumulus)

Removing spoil from G244, showing circular mound (tumulus)

The suspicion of thorough looting was unfortunately confirmed as we started excavating: the first half of the chamber was filled with a thick deposit of debris, consisting of disarticulated human bones, wooden coffin parts, pot sherds but also a few small objects, including a faience scarab and a decorated faience plaque.

Faience scarab F9290

Faience scarab F9290

The back of the chamber has, fortunately, been less affected by the disturbance. So far we’ve documented five adults, two in wooden coffins which were decorated with plaster both on the inside and outside.

Traces of paint hint at the original decoration, particularly a fragment with striped decoration: part of a coffin wig? We’re now awaiting the arrival of British Museum conservator Philip Kevin who will consolidate some fragments before we remove them, as with last year’s coffin mask.

While the general preservation is somewhat disappointing, the amount of pottery we’ve already recovered represents a significant assemblage. In the shaft and parts of this first chamber, we have around 25 complete vessels so far, mostly plates. Four more large, well preserved pots, amongst them a lovely marl clay jar, were recovered today from the back of the chamber. The growing number of vessels continues to support the initial notion that the tomb dates to the late New Kingdom period, with evidence of later occupation so far absent from inside the tomb.

Loretta Kilroe lifting the first jar from the back of the first western chamber

Loretta Kilroe lifting the first jar from the back of the first western chamber

Elsewhere in the cemetery, Barbara Chauvet is still busy in the eastern burial chamber of G243. This grave is of particular importance because it contains the largest assemblage of intact, well preserved individuals, found in a grave at Amara West.

Two of the intact skeletons in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Two of the intact skeletons in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Back in the lab, these will provide an important addition to the dataset for studying health and living conditions at Amara West.

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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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Amara West 2013: 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 … sherds

Mini-henge: stones marking each 100-count of sherdsAlice Springuel, Egyptologist

“Alice, we have 10 bags of pottery” This is the signal for Loretta Kilroe, a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, and I to leave the dig house behind, and join the archaeologists on the boat to site.

Alice counting pottery sherds on site yesterday, with head-net to keep nimiti-flies at bay

Alice counting pottery sherds on site yesterday,
with head-net to keep nimiti-flies at bay

Generally this happens once or twice a week, but with the greater depth of excavation in most areas, there is less windblown sand, and more pottery… a lot more.

Our mission is to count potsherds to gain an idea of the quantity, size and preservation of ceramics, while bearing in mind the archaeological context in which they are found: rubble, the fill of a pit, or lying on an ancient floor in a particular room.

Based on the system instigated at Amara West by Marie Millet, we separate diagnostic sherds (rim, base, shoulder, decorated fragments) and also count examples of marl (desert) clay fabrics or local Nubian vessel sherds – and even luxury imports from as far away as mainland Greece.

This is just the start of work which will help answer many questions.

What types of pots were used? What was their purpose? Which kind of techniques did the potters use? What date are the archaeological contexts? Can the pottery tell us what individual rooms were used for?

Something not in one of the sherd sacks: a complete vessel found in the town in 2011

Something not in one of the sherd sacks: a complete
vessel found in the town in 2011

Back at the site, we lay out sacks – sold in the market for transporting sugar or rice – to keep from losing sherds in the soft yellow sand. Most sacks contain between 700 and 2,000 sherds.

We use stones to help us mark off each 100 sherds, creating our own mini-Stonehenges as we progress. Inevitably, we find objects missed by the excavators but caught in the sieving of the archaeological deposits: counters, sherds with incised pot marks and a nice hieratic ostracon.

And then we continue counting…..

 

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Amara West 2013: a five-chambered tomb discovered

The “Howard Carter moment”: First peak into the chamber(s) of Grave 244Michaela Binder, physical anthropologist, Durham University

Many people have asked me whether what we do can “really be fun?” Digging in the dirt, being outside all day in temperatures from freezing to boiling (and sometimes in a sandstorm), living for months at a time without mains electricity or water.

The “Howard Carter moment”: First peak into the chamber(s) of Grave 244

The “Howard Carter moment”: First peak into the
chamber(s) of Grave 244

When it’s close to 40°C and biting nimiti-flies are swarming around me, I ask the same question.

But when you start removing sand from the top of a grave shaft and a small opening appears on one side …a second on the other side …and after another 50 cms the hole is wide enough to stick your head and a torch in …you see a large chamber …your eyes adjust and see the door to another chamber beyond …and a door to a third chamber…

Then I’m reminded that this can be the best occupation in the world with its unpredictable moments of immense excitement.

The discovery of our latest (and by far the largest) tomb happened three days ago at Amara West.

We’re now digging deeper into the shaft, and after two metres of sand, there’s no end in sight. In the meantime, the picture has become clearer.

As the shaft gets deeper, excavation gets more difficult and any soil has to be lifted out in buckets

As the shaft gets deeper, excavation gets more difficult
and any soil has to be lifted out in buckets

The tomb features not just two chambers – one on either side – as with all previous chamber tombs we’ve found at Amara West – but five! The western suite consists of a central room with chambers to the west and northern side; the eastern suite is smaller with just one additional chamber.

We’ve now hit a thick deposit of debris from both chambers – evidence of heavy looting. The finds coming up from this deposit hint at the wealth of funerary artefacts once placed here. Besides large pottery vessels we found beads, fragments of faience, large pieces of white plaster (some painted) once part of decorated coffins, and large wooden elements of funerary furniture, among them the base of a headrest.

Though almost exclusively Egyptian in terms of the range of grave goods and architecture – so far – the large burial mound (tumulus) marking the surface is one of the hallmarks of Nubian funerary culture, before during and after Egyptian control of the region.

Inside the western central chamber with entrances to two more chambers. The windblown sand was blown in later, after looting.

Inside the western central chamber with entrances to two more chambers. The windblown sand was blown in later, after looting.

Even more surprising, the pottery found thus far appears to date the tomb to the late New Kingdom, towards the end of pharaonic control of Nubia.

Superstructure of tomb G244

Superstructure of tomb G244

There’s a long way to go: we have not even begun excavating the five chambers yet.

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Amara West 2013: luxury in stone

Schist bowl found in building E13.16Marie Vandenbeusch, Egyptologist

Excavating Amara West, as with all ancient Egyptian cities, produces a great amount of pottery. The shapes of the pots tells us how they were used, whether to store food, transport goods or for use at the table. Vessels made from other materials are rare, particularly at Amara West: we are overwhelmed by thousands and thousands of ceramic sherds, but only a few stone vessels.

Schist bowl found in building E13.16 (F6917)

Schist bowl found in building E13.16 (F6917)

The shapes and materials again vary. Fragments of a large plate were found two years ago, and some pieces of miniature stone vessels including one of granodiorite. However, most fragments belonged to small-medium sized containers: bowls, plates and cups. Just last week, a nice shallow bowl carved in schist (F6917) was found in building E13.16. Only a small part of the base is missing, but we can still see the very fine and thin vessel walls (five mm thick near the base), all beautifully polished – the work of an accomplished stoneworker.

Fragment of a footed cup (F4743)

Fragment of a footed cup (F4743)

Calcite, commonly known as Egyptian alabaster, is the most common type of stone used for vessels at the site. With no quarries known in Nubia, the stone, and probably the finished vessels, must have been imported from Egypt. Fragments found at Amara West are finely-worked, some even decorated. The pattern can be very simple, with lines in black ink around the edge, or decorative motifs including triangular patterns.

Finely polished calcite vessel lid (F3164)

Finely polished calcite vessel lid (F3164)

Vessel lids, important to preserve contents in the hot and dusty conditions, were usually made of clay or pottery, but some finely carved stone lids were made for the stone vessels. We have found examples in quartzite and calcite.

Rarely discovered, we can assume these stone vessels were not part of the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants. Perhaps some of them come originally from the temple, or the residence of the Deputy of Kush, or maybe they belonged to the wealthier individuals who lived in the town.

Calcite containers may have been used for particular contents, such as cosmetic powders and oils.

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Amara West 2013: initial discoveries in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of the chamberBarbara Chauvet, physical anthropologist

Once the workers had removed the fragments of the collapsed ceiling, we could finally start excavation of the eastern burial chamber in grave G243.

After removing the first few centimetres of windblown sand, the skulls of two more individuals appeared (in addition to the seven we found originally) – so there are at least nine people buried here.

Barbara excavating in the eastern burial chamber

Barbara excavating in the eastern burial chamber

Having brushed away some of the sand in the grave, the positions of each body became clear. At this stage of the excavation, there are four articulated skeletons, all overlying each other. All are adults, one particularly gracile (slender): two are oriented west-east, one north-south and at least one southwest-northeast.

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of the chamber

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of the chamber

Four complete pottery vessels were found lying in the northwest corner of the chamber, with traces of palm wood used for coffins around the bodies.

Barbara with the first object from the tomb, a complete beer jar, removed from the entrance to avoid damage when we removed the ceiling

Barbara with the first object to be excavated from the tomb, a complete beer jar, removed from the entrance to avoid damage when we removed the ceiling

All the objects and skeletons have to be carefully recorded before removal – photographed and drawn accurately. This is particularly important to allow us to age and sex individuals, and track pathological changes, as the bones might disintegrate during excavation.

Detail of skull of individual 243-4 with very gracile features (arrows indicating mastoid process and zygomatic bone) indicating that this was likely a female

Detail of skull of individual 243-4 with very gracile features (arrows indicating mastoid process and zygomatic bone) indicating that this was likely a female

As these skeletons are very dry and fragmentary the excavation is exhausting: crouched in the narrow entrance to the chamber, clogged with the remains of burials and associated objects. I often feel like a tightrope walker as I take measurements – we have to be flexible and adaptable, finding new poses to dig, draw and photograph.

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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.

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Amara West 2013: a chamber tomb discovered

Discovery of the top of the first chamber entranceMichaela Binder, Durham University

The first week of digging in the cemeteries is over with some interesting discoveries to report. Most importantly, our hopes for G243 have been fulfilled.

The excitement is rising after discovery of the top of the first chamber entrance

The excitement is rising after discovery of the top of
the first chamber entrance

After a day of removing windblown sand from the narrow (50 cm wide) shaft, the workmen revealed two doorways, providing access to an eastern and a western burial chamber.

These chambers were never filled after burial of the people inside; the doors were only blocked with large stones and mud plaster.

Unfortunately, we found both doors partly broken open by grave robbers – something that occurred in almost all the graves at Amara West. The opening allowed windblown sand to enter the chambers, piling up behind the entrance but not filling up the entire chambers.

Nevertheless, when first peeking into the eastern chamber of the tomb, at least seven skulls stared at us in the light of the torch.

We could also see a large amount of wooden remains, possibly remnants of coffins or burial beds, and two intact vessels.

First impressions of the eastern chamber’s content: human bones and wooden remains in near darkness

First impressions of the eastern chamber’s content: human bones and wooden remains in near darkness

Despite the temptation to enter, we had to exercise a bit of patience at the start because the roofs of the chambers had to be taken down first to guarantee our safety while working inside under a thick layer of very ancient Nile silt. This was very hard, and it took three workmen another day to remove the roof with pickaxes and local mattocks (turrias).

Hard work: removing the ceiling of the eastern burial chamber

Hard work: removing the ceiling of the eastern burial chamber

Now that the ‘lid’ of the eastern chamber has been removed, it’s safe to start working inside. After removal of the first centimetres of sand behind the entrance, Barbara Chauvet revealed three more vessels and two more skulls.

So far, the skeletons we can see appear to be articulated. Depending how many are inside, excavation of the chamber could take Barbara, supervising this tomb, a few weeks… watch this space.

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