Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: in the round at villa D12.5

Excavations in villa D12.5Rizwan Safir, archaeologist and Vera Michel, Egyptologist, University of Heidelberg

The waiting has ended and the inevitable has occurred: two ovens surfaced right at the back of our large building earlier this week. They emerged somewhat unintentionally – two familiar ceramic circles – as we began cleaning the external walls to allow Rizwan’s architectural plan to be completed.

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

We’re now into week four and following the removal of vast quantities of sand and rubble the opportunity to excavate some of the smaller rooms has come about, as well as revealing ancient occupation surfaces. Another hearth has emerged to the north of the building in a small suite of two rooms added to the large central courtyard – perhaps in response to the needs of a growing community? Oddly for an Egyptian villa, there is a large staircase located inside the main door, providing access to the roof (or upper storey) above these two rooms.

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

A space we dubbed the ‘silo’ room is currently being excavated and three, or possibly four, distinct round structures have emerged.

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the entrance to villa D12.5

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the
entrance to villa D12.5

The size of these silos suggests use for storing grain, perhaps for more than one household – a number of smaller houses are visible west of our villa. Such storage containers have not been noted elsewhere at Amara West, where rectangular storage bins are common.

Between the silo room and the ovens is a space we started excavating on Wednesday – somewhere we might expect to see grain-grinding emplacements.

The emergence of the floor within the large central courtyard was particularly satisfying considering the depth and quantity of sand removed within this space, although conditions have proven particularly challenging of late.

For example, having reached the floors of the smaller rooms to the north of the building, a day of strong and relentless wind on Monday served to refill these rooms almost back to their original state!

Nonetheless, we soldier on, rewarded by a gradually more coherent plan of the building, populated by hearths, silos and, of course, ovens.

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Amara West 2013: the work continues in villa D12.5

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5Neal Spencer, British Museum

Excavating across three main areas at Amara West – the cemetery, inside the northwest part of the walled town, and in the western suburb beyond the walls – it is villa D12.5 that has been most reluctant to divulge its form and purpose, despite some intriguing finds. Vera Michel and Rizwan Safir have been supervising a team of workmen for three weeks now, but the damage to the southern end of the building has resulted in a large area that is much like a 20 metres-wide sandpit. Men, shovels and wheelbarrows can work for hours and then days, removing considerable amounts of windblown sand, yet a quick glance wrongly suggests not much has changed!

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

The last few days have seen us return to the front of the building, where more architecture and features appear daily. Vera revealed and then recorded a large expanse of collapsed brickwork, still preserving the coursing of the original wall. Excavation of the windblown sand under it led to another layer of rubble.

The rubble here was very different, with fragments bearing the impressions of plants and finely woven matts: the telltale signs of a collapsed roof. Our houses had roofs built with beams and poles, overlaid with matts and then covered in mud; all that survives after three millennia is the mud.

Brick rubble – from a collapsed wall

Brick rubble – from a collapsed wall

The ‘upside down’ stratigraphy: collapsed roof under collapsed walls, indicates something of how the building fell into ruin. The roof must have collapsed first, probably shortly after abandonment: maybe the valuable wooden beams and poles were taken for use elsewhere. After an interval in which sand accumulated over the roof rubble, the wall then collapsed over the top, probably undermined by wind erosion near its base. While buildings can slowly crumble and decay, there must have been quite sudden episodes: the energy in these collapses is evident from how the rubble often tumbles through doorways, spreading across the floor.

The front part of villa D12.5, at the end of yesterday’s excavations

The front part of villa D12.5, at the end of yesterday’s excavations

Rizwan has just started clearing two rooms inside the front door: one contains a shallow circular hearth, perhaps used for cooking and warmth. We are all awaiting, with a sense of inevitability, the appearance of ovens….

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Amara West 2013: beyond the town walls

Rizwan planning brickwork of building D12.5Rizwan Ahmed, archaeologist and Vera Michel,
University of Heidelberg

Today was our fifth day on site and as usual, we arrived for work illuminated solely by starlight, in what felt like close to freezing temperatures. We are supervising excavation of building D12.5 outside the western gate of the town, in a ‘suburb’-like area identified in a magnetometry survey undertaken by a team from the British School in Rome, in 2008.

Several structures to the north were excavated in 2009 and 2010: a large villa (E12.10), and a circular construction (E12.11) more typical of Nubian architectural traditions. The excavation of D12.5 should shed more light on the nature of buildings outside the town wall, their date and their possible function.

Rizwan planning brickwork of building D12.5

Rizwan planning brickwork of building D12.5

So far, most of our work has been focused on clearing windblown sand and defining rooms within the building. With up to 15 workmen, most of the upper layers of sand have now been removed and we are starting to find archaeological material: a floor has been exposed in one room, at a level much higher than anticipated.

View over building D12.5 at the end of Wednesday’s excavations

View over building D12.5 at the end of Wednesday’s excavations

In some rooms, large expanses of brick rubble retain the brick coursing, and allow us to reconstruct from which wall the rubble came. Our work though is complicated by pits cut through the walls in the southern part of the building.

While elements of the building are similar to the villa excavated in 2009, there are different features: a staircase inside the front door, and a room provided with three circular structures (silos?).

All of this takes considerable time to document, with Rizwan focusing on a masterplan of the wall architecture, and Vera supervising men and recording rubble layers, amidst the strong winds, early morning cold and constant sun.

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