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: 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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