Amara West project blog


Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: expect the unexpected Spencer, British Museum

The archaeologist now has a range of methods which can ‘predict’ what will be found in excavation and which help inform the areas to investigate. Our magnetometry survey was the most informative, but surface topography, artefact scatter, parts of walls visible on the surface, and our (assumed) familiarity with the site and its buildings also help. This last aspect includes assumptions we make about the depth of architecture beneath the current surface, and what will be found in different parts of houses.

So, to house E13.5. We were pretty confident we had the complete plan of this, mid-sized five-roomed house, simply by brushing to reveal the tops of the walls. All went to plan in week one: nicely preserved floors, a mastaba-bench against one wall, a staircase, and the bonus of re-used inscribed stonework in three of the doorways.

A circular clay oven in villa E12.10 (excavated in 2009)

A circular clay oven in villa E12.10 (excavated in 2009)

The front room contained a perfectly preserved hearth, and a pot-stand set up in one corner, still standing where it had been placed around 1100 BC.

But something was missing: where were the ovens? Nearly every house we have excavated at Amara West features circular ovens, made of clay and between 30 and 60 cm in diameter. Often, we find several set up against the wall of a small room.

These ovens would have been ideal for cooking bread, much like a traditional tandoori bread oven. The thick ash deposits in and around the ovens provide rich potential for archaeobotanical research. Egyptologists also believe such ovens had multiple functions – for example to fire small faience objects.

The lack of ovens in E13.5 prompted us to extend our investigations east of the house, as a small eroded wall segment in the east wall of the front room of the house hinted at the location of a blocked doorway or possibly a step. Where did this lead?

Shadia Abdu Rabo set a small team of workmen to brush back the surface, and soon revealed a long rectangular room. The rather thin outer wall suggests this may have been a courtyard along the east side of the house. Further excavation revealed an oven, then another one, and yet another… we have now uncovered the remains of seven in this one room.

View north over room with bread ovens

View north over room with bread ovens

Someone was doing a lot of cooking here: but was it for one household? The organisation of food production in New Kingdom Egypt has been studied through textual sources, and especially the excavations at Tell el-Amarna. These houses at Amara West offer an opportunity to investigate how a neighbourhood within an Egyptian town in conquered Nubia organised food processing and supply.

View over house E13.5, with its ‘oven court’

View over house E13.5, with its ‘oven court’

Such research potential prompted another change of plan: we will delay our excavation beneath house E13.5 – where we hope to find earlier phase architecture – as the new oven courtyard may well have served more than house E13.5. The unexcavated building to the north, newly christened E13.16, also has a door onto the space with all the ovens.

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Sarah Doherty and workmen started clearing surface deposits from this building on Sunday morning….

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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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