Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: a kaleidoscope of life and death in Egyptian Kush

Aerial view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to rightNeal Spencer, British Museum

Fifty-six days after flying out to Khartoum, I landed this morning at a grey, icy, Heathrow. The temperature gradient – perhaps a difference of 35°C – is but one reminder that our sixth season of fieldwork at Amara West is now complete. Many of the team are still in the dig house today, completing documentation and closing up our house ahead of the next season. I spent yesterday finishing paperwork in Khartoum, while also working with curators Shadia Abdu Rabo and Ikhlas Abdel-Latif to accession our newly-discovered objects into the collection of the Sudan National Museum.

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Yet as with all archaeological projects, the end of the season really marks the beginning of the next, and most time-consuming, phase: digitisation, post-excavation work and, trying to make sense of it all. It’s a little overwhelming to consider the kaleidoscope of work undertaken by a team of 20 specialists from nine countries (from Australia to Sudan) over the last weeks. Many thanks to everyone, and also all those in Abri, Ernetta island and Khartoum who made the season possible – amidst sandstorms, plagues of biting flies, chilly mornings, electrical blackouts, dawn boat journeys on the Nile, crocodile sightings and fantastic breakfasts with the workmen….

The town

Within the walls of the ancient town, we continued work in neighbourhood E13. Sarah Doherty and Shadia Abdu Rabo revealed the full plan of E13.5, a medium-sized dwelling at the east end of the block. The inhabitants had fitted out each room with sandstone doorways, many built using re-used blocks from an earlier building, one naming an ‘overseer of the granaries, Horhotep’, presumably one of the high-ranking officials who lived at Amara West. Unlike other houses in the block, the bread ovens, charcoal pits and cereal grinding emplacements were housed in an annex outside the house itself, excavated by Shadia. Despite plans to investigate the phase beneath, we were instead tempted north of the house, where Sarah revealed parts of another house (?) and an area with large ovens or kilns – with tantalising evidence hinting at faience production.

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Mat Dalton completed the excavation of the communal area E13.13, which provided food processing, and charcoal making, facilities, for the inhabitants of houses E13.3-N and E13.3-S. Returning to the ‘white house’ E13.7, Mat revealed the striking schist and sandstone floor of one of the large storage rooms that characterised the area before it became a block of houses. Mat also spent time taking block samples of floor layers and occupation deposits from the excavated houses: these will be studied as thin sections under high-magnification, revealing ancient activities invisible to the naked eye.

Right in the heart of the neighbourhood – a room rather difficult to find! – Anna Stevens grappled with a small space that provides important evidence for many building phases, how the magazines with vaulted roofs were converted for use as houses. The ancient inhabitants were clearly unhappy with the idea of living in long corridor-like spaces, and went to considerable lengths to change the proportions created by the existing architecture.

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

We managed to empty all previously excavated rooms in the neighbourhood so that Susie Green could capture untold gigabytes of digital images. These will be used to create a 3D model using the concept of ‘Structure from Motion’ – all with the challenge of photographing everything before the sun’s rays created shadows. The stunning kite photographs will not only embellish this visualisation, but also provided us with a new perspective of the site and its landscape.

Outside of the town walls, Rizwan Safir and Vera Michel persevered through layers of wall collapse and roofing remains – further hampered by deep sandpits left behind when the ancient brick walls were mined out. As the season ended, we had gained further insights into the different type of house sought by those who moved beyond the town walls; there may have been more space, but the new households had to cope with more exposure to the elements.

A flying visit from Alexandra Winkels, conservation scientist, allowed her to collect wall plaster samples which will be compared to sites from across Egypt, including Tell el-Amarna.

Cemetery C

The highlight of our third season in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, was the discovery of the largest tomb yet found at Amara West: G244. Beneath a low mound (tumulus), the vertical shaft led to two burial chambers, one to the east, one to the west. What was not expected were the three other chambers.

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Patience was needed as the first chamber was meticulously excavated, with remains of painted coffins and a fine ceramic assemblage, being studied by Loretta Kilroe. More work is needed here, but the tomb seems to be late Ramesside in date.

Just to the north, Barbara Chauvet spent most of her season in the eastern chamber of a post-New Kingdom niche grave (G243), where another complicated array of superimposed bodies needed disentangling. Mohamed Saad, archaeologist at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, and participant in the Institute of Bioarchaeology Amara West Field School, excavated the smaller western chamber, as well as a number of niche burials in the southeast of the cemetery.

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan National Museum SNM 34615).

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan
National Museum SNM 34615).

Back in the house …

Our expedition house was home to all the necessary tasks of excavation paperwork, processing archaeological samples and of course organising and storing the finds and masses of ceramics. Marie Vandenbeusch documented all the finds from town and tombs, from epigraphic recording of the inscribed blocks in E13.5, matching scarabs with ancient clay impressions, to wondering what to make of enigmatic pieces of worked clay. Alongside rediscovering wonderful wooden objects from our 2009 excavations, with Michaela, Marie also found time to continue work on the roofing fragments from houses – with Vera providing a particularly steady supply from villa D12.5.

The masses of sherds from the town were processed on site by Alice Springuel and Anna Garnett. After an early season handover from Marie Millet (now directing the Louvre excavations at el-Muweis), Anna is studying our town ceramics, particularly the dating and whether certain types of vessel are associated with particular rooms or spaces. Amidst many pottery drawings, Alice managed archaeological illustrations of key artefacts – from scarabs to fertility figurines.

The first weekend saw us host a small workshop on ceramics in New Kingdom Nubia, though discussions ranged well beyond pottery, with colleagues from Kerma, Sai, Sesebi and Tombos.

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Philip Kevin, British Museum conservator, joined us for the last three weeks, and proved invaluable in recovering remains of headrests and painted coffins from the cemetery, coaxing out hidden inscriptions in the town, and revealing the exquisite decoration on copper alloy cobras (perhaps statue fittings) found by Shadia in the 2012 season.

Last, but not least…

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin returned for a third season to investigate the river systems in and around Amara West. Easily outpacing all other team-members in terms of logistical demands, we nonetheless managed two deep trenches which provide fantastic slices through the history of the Nile river in this region. One trench ran across the edge of the ancient island and into the channel bed, north of the temple, the other in the ‘Neolithic Nile’ 2km into the desert. We have the C14 dates already, and await the OSL dates, but a very exciting story is emerging … watch this space.

Returning to the Museum

Unlike nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations conducted by many museums, excavations in Egypt and Sudan no longer lead to the acquisition of objects for collections in other countries. So why does the British Museum still undertake archaeological projects? New techniques – including those outlined above – mean we gain insights into the ancient past, and its people, that were not possible in previous excavations. None of the objects in the British Museum, or indeed any collection, can be fully interpreted without understanding the particular time, place, culture and indeed natural environment experienced and created by those who made the objects. Amara West provides an opportunity to better understand life in Nubia during the late second millennium BC, in a region where the climate was deteriorating. It was an area under the control of the mighty Ramesside state, ruled from the royal residence city of Per-Ramses, far away near the Mediterranean.

An important pharaonic town in a long-occupied land, the inhabitants of Amara West lived in an age of international diplomacy, cosmopolitan taste and competing superpowers. We are building up a picture of how people lived, and treated their dead, at this town, but also the nature of the Egyptian entanglement with local, Nubian, cultures, and the responses to considerable ecological changes. A story very relevant to the present.

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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: looking beneath the surface

Workmen brushing to reveal preserved tops of ancient wallsNeal Spencer, British Museum

Our first day at the ancient town site, and with a very small number of workmen available, Shadia Abdu Rabo, our colleague and inspector from the Sudan National Museum, and I supervised the brushing of the walls in villa D12.5.

Workmen brushing to reveal preserved tops of ancient walls

Workmen brushing to reveal preserved tops of ancient walls

In some ways the archaeology at Amara West is wonderfully convenient. Many of the walls are visible on the surface, and with the help of magnetometry, we can find the others with a cursory brush of the mixture of windblown sand, pebbles and sherds that cover the site. While convenient, this approach is also the only one possible. The thick deposits of windblown sand preclude the creation of arbitrary modern trenches – for example a 5×5 metre square – as the trench side would soon collapse. So we dig room by room, building by building. This becomes complex when we get to the buildings beneath those nearest the surface.

The front part of the structure is well preserved, but many of the walls near the back are badly pitted. Seeing the building plan emerge, I am now even wondering if we should call it a ‘villa’!

Elsewhere, we just had time to brush back the walls of house E13.5, and started removing sand from the front room that leads from the street. Michaela Binder spent the day in Cemetery C completing pre-excavation photography and finalising the excavation strategy for the coming weeks.

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Amara West 2013: good to go

Our two site tents at Amara West, with guard SelimNeal Spencer, British Museum

After travelling 4,928 km by air, 721 km by road across desert and then through the rocky cataract region, and a final hundred metres in a motorboat, we arrived late Tuesday afternoon, almost oblivious to it being New Year’s Day – and Independence Day in Sudan.

Our two site tents at Amara West, with guard Selim.

Our two site tents at Amara West, with guard Selim.

Our first day here was spent setting everything up. The house had to be unpacked – it is amazing how much dust accumulates in houses with mudbrick walls, and one never knows quite how much damage termites will have wrought upon cardboard boxes, wooden beds or even wooden drawing boards.

Metal crates are used to house tools for each excavation area – here for house E13.5 and villa D12.5.

Metal crates are used to house tools for each excavation area – here for house E13.5 and villa D12.5.

Bedrooms are set up, the kitchen installed and the workrooms organised. With seven of us here – more team members arrrive Friday afternon – this all happened quite quickly. A small team of workmen was employed to erect our two site tents, and some of us visited the local market town of Abri, to acquire missing items and repair some excavation equipment. Pottery sorting and drawing – material from last season that could not be processed – was commenced by Marie Millet, Anna Garnett and Alice Springuel.

Clambering up the sandbank between Nile and archaeological site

Clambering up the sandbank between Nile and archaeological site

I was surprised by our progress, so much so that we had the opportunity to move all of the digging equipment – sieves, shovels, barrows, trowels, finds bags, brushes – to Amara West itself, as the sun set. The Nile is higher than last year, though the steep sandy incline from river to archaeological site is a significant challenge where heavy equipment is concerned.

The day was not without its surprises, though, ending with a scorpion sighting in the bathroom, and a small electrical fire caused by a generator surge.

The boat leaves for site at 6.00 am on Thursday, in darkness, and excavation will finally be underway.

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Counting down to season six at Amara West

The project house under moonlightNeal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

In a few days time, I’ll be in a taxi, probably stuck in traffic, inching towards the confluence of the two Niles, and the offices of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan). The signing of our excavation permit will mark the start of our sixth fieldwork season at the ancient Egyptian town of Amara West, after months of planning and preparation.

The project house under moonlight, soon to be bustling with archaeologists and filled with artefacts to document and research.

The project house under moonlight, soon to be bustling with archaeologists and filled with artefacts to document and research.

What awaits? We’ll again be concentrating on the ‘neighbourhood’ of houses in the northwest of the town. There’s one late Ramesside house left to investigate (E13.5), though as we found last year, the earlier remains beneath might throw up some surprises.

View of house E13.6 at end of last season, with E13.5 to right, awaiting excavation

View of house E13.6 at the end of last season, with E13.5 to right, awaiting excavation

Surface traces suggest the house features a staircase, for access to the roof or upper storey, and a central reception room with a brick mastaba (bench) against the back wall. Our work here is providing a detailed insight into how one area of the town developed over 200 years, with episodes of neighbourhood renovation amidst the more frequent changes evident in individual houses – sometimes little more than the ancient equivalent of ‘moving the furniture around’.

Magnetometry survey of Amara West town

Magnetometry survey of Amara West town, with villa D12.5 outlined in red. Survey data: British Museum/British School in Rome.

We’re also returning to the western suburb, to excavate a villa (D12.5), which our magnetometry survey indicates as being around 400 square metres in area. Why build outside the walled town? A desire for more space, light and air may have been a motive, as we know the old town had become increasingly cramped and claustrophobic.

As ever, our team will be documenting objects and ceramics and taking archaeological samples for analysis back in the laboratories of the British Museum and universities collaborating on the project, including high resolution sampling of occupation surfaces by Mat Dalton.

Further research will be undertaken on the landscape and river channels, and our team will be back in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, including the second season of our Amara West Bioarchaeology Field School for Sudanese archaeologists.

We’ll be posting regularly from the site, and follow me @NealSpencer_BM on Twitter for updates.

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