Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

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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Find out more about the Amara West research project
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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.

Leave a comment or tweet using #amarawest

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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Amara West 2013: excavation underway in Cemetery C

A new season dawns in Cemetery CMichaela Binder, Durham University

The remaining archaeologists arrived at Amara West on Friday, and we started excavation on a clear, breezy Saturday morning.

A new season dawns in Cemetery C

A new season dawns in Cemetery C

Mohamed Saad, inspector in the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, and a participant in the first Amara West Bioarchaeology Field School is going to explore another one of the burial mounds on the eastern side of Cemetery C.

Before he could start excavating the tomb shaft, he spent most of the day carefully documenting the superstructure: a circle of black schist stones set on a low mound (tumulus).

Mohamed Saad documenting the superstructure of G241

Mohamed Saad documenting the superstructure of G241

Our new team member, French physical anthropologist Barbara Chauvet has been assigned to Grave 243. Superficially rather small and unspectacular, our magnetometry survey suggests it might be the entrance to a chamber tomb.

Barbara starting excavation of the shaft of G243 together with workmen Nael and Salim

Barbara starting excavation of the shaft of G243 together with workmen Nael and Salim

Less than an hour of removing windblown sand from the shaft revealed the first disarticulated human remains of three different individuals. Though indicating disturbance, they have fuelled our anticipation over what may come up inside the tomb over the next couple of days – or, if we’re lucky, weeks.

As for me, I’m dealing with a niche burial, with a larger shaft than those excavated in recent seasons. So far, we’re one metre below the surface, with only windblown sand visible…

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