Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2014: inside, outside and beyond a town in Egyptian Kush

Early one morning at Amara West

Neal Spencer, Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

Deep one perfect morning (at Amara West)

Deep one perfect morning (at Amara West)

Forty-two days have passed since we left our expedition house on Ernetta Island, bringing with us sand (it’s still seeping out of hidden places in our suitcases and camera bags), exhausted bodies and minds – and undoubtedly a lot of new knowledge about many aspects of New Kingdom life in Nubia. That last phrase might sound a bit unconvincing. Truth be told, after 87 intense days of excavation, it is simply too early to distil, comprehend and summarise how our understanding has moved on. In some cases, further research and analyses need to begin – this can take days, months or even years. In other cases, it’s simply about converting all the data into a form where it is consistent and can be considered as a whole.

For now, back at the British Museum, on networked storage, hard drives sit staggering amounts of data: 2,489 archaeological record photos; 2,233 finds photographs; 24,391 photographs for 3D modelling; 4,156 kite photographs … and that is just the digital. Kilos of plans, notebooks, finds and ceramics drawings lie in drawers, spread across tables, in makeshift boxes … with 589 archaeological samples and 176 phytolith samples soon to arrive from Khartoum.

This preamble can be considered a cautionary warning against the following (lengthy) reflection on the season, as many of these conclusions may change as we work through the data.

How to characterise the season as a whole? ‘Inside, outside and beyond’ seems to capture much of what we did – if one allows ‘beyond’ to be thought of in spatial, temporal, spiritual and more abstract terms. Following last year’s conference at the British Museum, New Kingdom Nubia – Lived experience, pharaonic control and indigenous traditions (programme here, publication in preparation), it really became clear how little we know about the human landscape into which new Egyptian towns, like Amara West, were founded. Like many modern archaeological projects, we have a relatively good understanding of the natural landscape around us: in the case of Amara West, it was an ancient island, though a changing Nile eventually left it high and dry, an unpleasant place to live (and grow crops). But who was living here and how did the creation of a new town, Amara West, change that?

Delphine Driaux surveying in the desert north of Amara West

Delphine Driaux surveying in the desert north of Amara West

Far beyond the town, Anna Stevens led a small team who undertook test excavations at two sites in the desert north of Amara West: 2-R-65 and 2-R-18, overlooking an ancient Nile channel 2km from the main town. Previously recorded as ‘New Kingdom’ sites (by Andre Vila in 1972-73), the trenches revealed concentrations of early 18th dynasty pottery – Anna Garnett placed the material in the time of Tuthmosis III or earlier, and Julia Budka indicated it was similar to assemblages from early 18th dynasty Sai. We will return to the desert hinterland in future seasons, but it is already clear that the area was occupied early in the Egyptian New Kingdom control of Nubia. Of course, this prompts further questions: did these sites survive into the 19th dynasty, when Amara West was founded? If not, why? Did Amara West made them surplus to requirements? Or did climate change trigger their abandonment?

Remaining in the desert, Chiara Salvador completed a first epigraphic record of a Ramesside rock inscription in the desert. Sophie Hay returned with her geophysical box(es) of tricks – not a small challenge in itself. While magnetometry survey was deployed in the cemetery (see below), ground-penetrating radar (GPR) allowed us to visualise the profile of ancient river channels beside the town, and in the desert to the north. This work will complement the information gained from a series of sondages, and resulting dating information, undertaken by Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin in 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Kite photograph of the ancient town

Kite photograph of the ancient town

Moving back to the town, we had two main aims for the core excavation team: finish area E13, and explore the western suburb further. Both areas are providing distinctive insights into ancient urban experience. On the one hand, the cramped, narrow, increasingly dense housing in the northwestern corner of the town (E13). On the other hand, the seemingly more open, spacious suburb outside the town walls.

We did not finish E13, in common with most excavations that aim to ‘finish’ something: it is impossible to predict whether cubic metres of windblown sand await an excavator (easy and quick to remove) or more complicated stratigraphy that can take weeks to disentangle. Anna Stevens excavated beneath house E13.5, to reveal layers (and layers) of deposits, some bounded by distinctive curving walls. The fine, silty, nature of some deposits hinted at outside space – in short supply for much of this area’s history. Once again, we were reminded how the area had changed in character across nearly two centuries of occupation. At the northern end of house E13.5, again beneath it, Mike Lewis encountered a maze of small walls, and unusually large number of metal artefacts.

Curving walls underneath house E13.5

Curving walls underneath house E13.5

Between Mike’s area and the town wall lay house E13.16, partly excavated the season before. A complex stratigraphy of collapse brickwork, surfaces and even small (post?)-holes lay beneath, before Tom Lyons and Johannes Auenmüller encountered the substantial remains of a large building, within which lay a space (courtyard?) with large ovens or kilns. Again, more evidence that this area had only become dedicated to housing late in the history of the site. We need to return here, and see if this quasi-industrial activity is related to the kiln found in 2011, under house E13.8.

Over on the western edge of the neighbourhood, where we brushed against buildings excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society, Barbara Chauvet methodically moved back in time through an ancient alley. Layers of fine windblown detritus and rubbish were scraped back, sampled and removed, eventually revealing the wall of a large storage building, part of one of the first structures built at Amara West. As elsewhere at the site, this building had been levelled, to allow for a reorganisation of the town. Meanwhile, I spent time revisiting every piece of architecture we had excavated in area E13: across six seasons of work, it was important to revisit earlier records and assumptions. As ever, this prompted as many new questions as answers to old ones.

Neal considering phasing problems (a 3-D jigsaw)

Neal considering phasing problems (a 3-D jigsaw)

Our other focus was the western suburb, west of the town wall. Having excavated villas in 2009 and 2013, which both indicated a late 19th or early 20th dynasty date for the creation of this new housing area, we now wished to get a better understanding of the suburb as a whole. We sought to do this in two ways: mapping the suburb, and excavating a strip of smaller houses west of the villa D12.5. After intensive brushing in the first few days of the season, Paolo del Vesco was faced with a maze of mudbrick walls to plan, using total station, GIS (and the time-honoured method of drawing board and pencil) – alongside the help of kite photography. This is perhaps the largest area of contemporary New Kingdom housing outside Tell el-Amarna, and the mixture of villas, large house, small houses set between them, open space and even (perhaps) garden plots will be an important addition to our understanding of how an urban society could create, and develop, a new neighbourhood over several decades.

Documentation of house D12.6

Documentation of house D12.6

To fully understand how these houses developed, and their interrelationships, we will need to excavate some, or all, of the buildings. We began with two adjacent houses, D12.6 and D12.7. Mat Dalton’s excavation of the latter provided tantalising hints at colour processing (Kate Fulcher’s research will tell us more about these activities), animal-stabling and the secreting of things in door passages – whilst warning against relying on architectural typologies to understand how such houses were used. Next door, David Fallon revealed house D12.6: partly built over a network of garden plots, the house had nice brick floors, a notable number of storage bins (for grain?) and grinding emplacements. Other familiar furnishings were missing: where were the ovens (a few in an outside alley may have been late additions), or the mastaba-bench (typically a focus within large houses)? Both houses provided a mass of mud fragments bearing impressions of grass, matting and wooden rooves, but also some intriguing impressions with large cartouches.

Philippa Ryan and David Fallon xcavating garden plots under house D12.6

Philippa Ryan and David Fallon excavating garden plots under house D12.6

Immediately west of these two houses lay an open area (D12.10) which Shadia Abdu Rabo started to excavate this season. It was here we could see hints of how the neighbourhood had developed: from garden plots becoming open areas, then partly built into with later houses, additions to houses and even walls defining (privatising?) spaces. South of villa D12.5, Ronan Mooney faced the unenviable task of trying to understand the moonscape of wall fragments, rubbish deposits and massive crater-like pits left by more recent “visitors” (19th or 20th century?) to the site, seeking to extract brick for use as fertiliser or building material. Despite the difficulty of digging such areas, they remain key for our understanding as to how the ancient town became today’s archaeological site.

Destruction and chaos: the moonscape south of villa D12.5

Destruction and chaos: the moonscape south of villa D12.5

The mass of objects from the town were registered by Marie Vandenbeusch and Chiara Salvador, and most will require further study. Alongside the decorated architecture and stamped cartouches, the largest number of seal-impressions found in any of our field seasons to date promise to tell us much about administrative practises at the site. Alice Salvador and Nanette Bülow completed hundreds of drawings of objects and pottery, most notably of the ‘shrine’ fragments found in house E13.7, and the range of large quern-stones, which were used for cereal, pigments and precious metal extraction. Shadia worked on our schist and steatite ‘net-sinkers’: summarily worked pieces of stone, incised with grooves to allow stringing, that are a reminder of how the inhabitants of this ancient island town must have relied on fish for much of their diet. Pottery, of course, remains our largest (i.e. overwhelming) dataset. And as such, the one that can take longest to reveal its secrets. Anna Garnett worked through countless sherds (with the help of Nanette and Alice), and moved all of our pottery into a new dedicated storeroom. Highlights, alongside the early 18th dynasty material from the desert survey, included the assemblage of Egyptian and Nubian pots and objects, found in house D12.6, but also a number of fragments of Mycenaean stirrup jars (similar to those found in 2011). At a microscopic level, Mat Dalton’s analyses of thin sections through layers of deposits and floors in individual houses will provide further insights into how space was (or was not) used.

Chiara Salvador registering finds (and avoiding nimiti-flies)

Chiara Salvador registering finds (and avoiding nimiti-flies)

While fish, and fauna, were one source of sustenance, plants were used for food, fodder, building material and objects. Philippa Ryan returned to continue work on the botanical evidence from the site, and was joined by Katherine Homewood to start a new project that integrates evidence from Amara West (3000 years ago) and Ernetta island (today). How did island inhabitants respond to changing environmental conditions? Talking to local farmers revealed a picture of rapidly changing agricultural practises, some perhaps prompted by the changing Nile following the completion of the Merowe Dam in 2009.

Returning to the beyond, in this instance the afterlife, Michaela Binder led a sixth season of excavations in the cemetery. Despite initial plans to investigate the highest points of the desert escarpment in cemetery D – where magnetometry survey subsequently revealed the presence of the largest known funerary monument at Amara West! – the looting of two ancient tombs focused the cemetery team on recording the architecture and carefully sieving the looter’s spoil to recover evidence.

Faience vessel from Grave 244

Faience vessel from Grave 244

The remainder of the cemetery team finished excavations in Grave 244, which contained yet more surprises. This is the tomb dug into the alluvium in the 20th dynasty. Marked by a tumulus (low mound) on the surface – that most Nubian of grave markers – the chambers beneath bristled with Egyptian approaches to burying the dead: bodies placed in painted wooden coffins, provided with scarabs, faience vessels, Egyptian-style pottery – and this year strange ivory sticks that might be part of a gaming set, alongside an ostrich-egg vessel. We’re awaiting the arrival of the skeletons back at the British Museum for further study – thanks to the generosity of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan). Maickel van Bellegem, conservator at the British Museum, undertook essential conservation work on the coffin fragments – without him such evidence would have powdered to dust.

Hashem Shawgi and Abd el-Qadus guiding the photographic kite over the ancient town

Hashem Shawgi and Abd el-Qadus guiding the photographic kite over the ancient town

Of course, all this sounds rather archaeological and research-driven. But it took place in the beautiful environment of Abri and Ernetta, where the villagers of Ernetta (some of whom worked at Amara West in the 1940s) were as welcoming as ever. We were distracted by the camera gaze of a visiting visual artist Phil Bosch, and enjoyed quiet Fridays, particularly as the discovery of a basil plant on Ernetta transformed many a lunch into gastronomic Italianate delights. Back at the site, the planning and construction of protective fencing and a combined police post and visitor centre formed part of the research and site management project under the auspices of the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project.

Less positively, the season comprised howling winds, plagues of nimiti-flies and the frustrations of living in an evolving (slowly evolving, for that matter) building site. The last problem was our own doing, of course, as we expanded and refurbished the dig house to accommodate our enlarged team, and provide working space for excavators, illustrators, scientists, conservators in the years to come…

I’ll be presenting the results of our latest season at Amara West at the Sudan Archaeological Research Society colloquium at the British Museum on May 19, and in Bristol and Glasgow later this summer.

For more on Amara West, and other news on Egypt and Sudan from the British Museum follow: @NealSpencer_BM

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Presenting Amara West to the community and visitors

 The new police post at Amara West

Tomomi Fushiya (archaeologist) and Neal Spencer (British Museum)

The new orientation centre and police post at Amara West

One day before the last excavation day this season, on March 23, the construction of a new orientation centre and police post was completed. The modest building is designed to fulfill three aims. Firstly, to provide a post for policemen responsible for guarding the site. Secondly, to provide sheltered working space for the archaeological team during the seasons. Thirdly – and we hope this aspect will have the most impact – provide some space to present information about the site to visitors. This is part of our collaboration with the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museum of Sudan (NCAM), through the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, to improve site management and visitor information at Amara West.

Erected upon the archaeologically sterile base of an ancient river channel – in only 16 days – the completion of the building means the first and second aim are achieved, complemented by the site protection fences erected earlier in the season. Constructing a modern building at Amara West presented several challenges. At some sites, modern buildings can be erected in a style inspired by those on the ancient site, but that is not possible here. The strong northern wind would erode a mudbrick building rather quickly – the wind also prompted us to orientate the building south, with views of the town but also shelter! We also wished to keep maintenance requirements (e.g. painting, replastering, repairs) to a minimum, to ensure the sustainability of the building.

 

View from the ancient town with orientation centre in background

View from the ancient town with orientation centre in the old river channel behind

In collaboration with Shadia Abdu Rabo, archaeologists on our team but also NCAM inspector and Sudan National Museum curator, we consulted with local villagers and builders familiar with the local context and environment about the design. While Amara West was founded as an ancient Egyptian town, it is clear that Nubian culture was present – in the cemetery, but also through ceramics and architecture  found in the settlement. Rather than build an Egyptianising structure, we opted for a design that combined clean modern lines with echoes of present-day traditional Nubian architecture. This is achieved through including arched entrances to what is known locally as a verandah: a deep space which offers shade and shelter, but also encourages cooling breezes.

 

Constructing the brick archways of the verandah

Constructing the brick archways of the verandah

This last space is where we will, next year, install information panels, to outline the historical context of the town, its main features, and the results of ongoing research. We know there is an appetite for this: the news of the ancient cancer case from Amara West was being discussed in Abri, after a radio report. There are questions we are still considering: should the panels be in English, Arabic and Nubian? Most of the nearby communities speak a mixture of Arabic and Nubian, while English would be the best language for the small number of international tourists who pass by each year.

 

View towards the ancient town from the orientation space

View towards the ancient town from the orientation space

This verandah area is designed with mastaba-benches along each wall – again, a feature of local houses – and enough space to accommodate school groups. A series of discussions with local communities – women on Ernetta island, the Abri tourist resthouse owner, and a Nubian heritage society in in an Abri café (posters on the walls proclaiming the grandeur of ancient Nubia) – will help inform the choice of subjects presented on the walls. The Nubian heritage group we spoke to in a café were particularly interested in discussing how to encourage people to visit the site: posters, leaflets or presentations in schools and cafés.

Interviewing local Nubian heritage society in Abri cafe

Interviewing members of the local Nubian heritage society in Abri cafe

We hope these modest steps will help both local and international visitors learn about living at ancient Amara West.

 

<em>Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter</em>: @NealSpencer_BM <em>and</em> #amarawest

 

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Amara West 2014: changing spaces (again) in E13.17

Tom Lyons (archaeologist) and Johannes Auenmueller (Freie Universitaet, Berlin)

Tom with nimiti-fly protection headgear, works around an ancient oven

Tom with nimiti-fly protection headgear, works around an ancient oven

Time has run out… As we approached the last days of digging, excavations beneath house E13.16 continued to be an investigation of spaces in transition, excavating the layers and features predating the building. Lower physically, and earlier in time than the later house, we were trying to link various floors, walls and accumulations which remain arbitrarily divided by the overlying later architecture. Thankfully we revealed some conspicuous archaeology to help our task – in the area we now call E13.17.

The mud-brick arrangement in – or to be more precise, under – room E13.16.2 described earlier represented the uppermost archaeological layer directly beneath the kitchen of the later house. These bricks tell a story: they seem to be the remains of an open brick yard, where dried mud bricks were stacked and prepared before construction. We recently saw similar brick storage areas in contemporary Nubian villages such as on Ernetta island.

Mud bricks lined up outside a house on Ernetta island

Mud bricks lined up outside a house on Ernetta island

After careful recording and removal of the the brick yard, we became embroiled in layers of ash, charcoal, pottery sherds and brick rubble – the refuse typical in such communities. But soon the wall of a hitherto unseen building appeared – over 10m long – with compact mud plaster floors on either side, peppered with small holes which might once have served as postholes for a wooden construction – perhaps a sunshade?

Early walls revealed alongside large ovens or kilns

Early walls revealed alongside large ovens or kilns

Beneath these floors we came across the remains of an entire wall which had fallen (or been pushed over?) in one go. Some of the bricks were irregularly spread out due to the collapse, but in places the original wall collapse could be seen. The wall collapse is a single event, that neatly separates what lies beneath from what came later – in the coming months back indoors, these bricks will be key in helping us stitch together archaeological layers which have become separated by later walls.

Sheet collapse – a tumbled mud brick wall

Sheet collapse – a tumbled mud brick wall

Close to the town’s northern boundary, it looks increasingly likely that we have uncovered a courtyard of several bread ovens as well as a possible kiln. General questions remain concerning this space: was it roofed? Where are the doorways? The relative size and number of ovens (large and numerous!) suggests that this might area have been used for a relatively long duration, before being built over by a residential house (E13.16).

In combination with artefacts and environmental samples, these deposits and architecture are beginning to tell a detailed story about how a space moved from being communal or public (?) to private or residential – modern terms that we have to be wary of when thinking of Amara West, 3200 years ago.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

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Amara West 2014: winding down in (or under) house E13.5

 Planning at Amara West

Anna Stevens, Amara West Project Curator, British Museum

Area E13, with house E13.5, and area excavated by Anna (in red), indicated

Area E13, with house E13.5, and area excavated by Anna (in red), indicated

After six weeks of busy excavations in the walled town, the work is now coming to an end in the front part of house E13.5. The aim here was to dig beneath the floors of E13.5, which was built late in the occupation of Amara West, around 1200BC, to see what could be recovered of earlier occupation in this part of the town. One specific goal was to check whether the large linear storage magazines that are such a prominent feature of areas excavated to the west of E13.5 continue here. The magazines date to ‘Phase IB’, early in the occupation of the walled town, later being converted into what seem to be domestic structures (broadly Phase II) and later again into houses that were contemporary with E13.5 (Phases III/IV).

Important clues? The deposits (seen here in section) accumulated over time can hint at changes in the use of space.

Important clues? The deposits (seen here in section) accumulated over time can hint at changes in the use of space.

The deposits under E13.5 continued to a depth of around 1.5 m: dense layers of brick rubble, finer windblown deposits, traces of fireplaces, and even possible tree pits, all interspersed with the remains of overlapping walls and surfaces. With the excavation finished, it is now time to plan the deposits and architecture as they appear in section in the sides of the trench, and to ponder the sequence of human activity here.

Glimpses of phase I architecture, at base of excavation

Glimpses of phase I architecture, at base of excavation

The story is not quite what we have come to expect from the walled town. For one, there is no sign of the thick magazine walls of Phase I. Instead, Phase I is represented by a fairly broad expanse of plaster floor and a couple of walls joining at right angles. We have too little of this Phase I building to reconstruct its plan, but we know that it had walls painted partly in yellow. Coloured wall decoration is quite well known from later houses, but we’ve not had any from Phase I before, and certainly not from the magazines.

Curving walls (10313, 10307) of phase II, beneath house E13.5. Wall 5389 to far right.

Curving walls (10313, 10307) of phase II, beneath house E13.5. Wall 5389 to far right.

After some time, this building was deliberately demolished, and the land subdivided to serve a group of smaller structures, only represented by a couple of fairly thin walls. Later still, he land was again repurposed and a substantial brick wall [5389] built through its southern part, perhaps relating to a building outside the excavation area to the south. This formed the southern boundary of ongoing Phase II occupation within the study area. After some time, a further building, most likely a house, was constructed against wall [5389], and quickly thereafter the householders seem to have added an external courtyard, containing it within the distinct curved wall [10307] exposed early in the excavations. Their neighbours to the north may have copied this idea some time later, building a similar curved boundary wall [10313] that could likewise have bordered an external courtyard. External space of this kind is very unusual within the walled town. In the areas excavated to the west, the houses were packed tightly together, lending the sense that outside areas may have been restricted to rooftops. The reason might rest in what lies below: to the west, the householders were more confined in their building activities by the thick walls of the earlier magazines, whereas under 13.5 the leveling of the Phase I building left the occupants with a clean slate upon which to build.

The excavations have thus offered up an important little case study in how the appearance of the walled town — and the domestic experiences of its inhabitants — may have varied at any single time, and how the footprint of earlier occupation (and its architecture and rubbish) continued to inform the experiences of later generations.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

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Amara West 2014: beyond the muddy brown

Egyptian blue crystals

Kate Fulcher (University College London / British Museum)

Scalpel, notebook, brush: Kate seeking colour in house E13.7

Scalpel, notebook, brush: Kate seeking colour in house E13.7

I have just finished three weeks investigating colours used in the ancient town and cemeteries of Amara West. The evidence is preserved as pigments on ceramic sherds, probably a rudimentary palette for mixing pigments with a binder, or with plaster, before application. There are also areas of mud plaster from the walls of the houses that have been painted, a few still in situ and some that were found in previous seasons collapsed inside the house.

Egyptian blue crystals seen under microscope, on sherd used as palette (F6147), bearing blue and yellow pigment (top left).

Egyptian blue crystals seen under microscope, on sherd used as palette (F6147), bearing blue and yellow pigment (top left).

One of my aims is to analyse the colours to try to determine which pigments were being used. My methods of analysis out here in the field consist of observation by eye and USB microscope, and X-ray fluorescence (XRF). I have a portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) spectrometer that detects the elements present in a sample, which helps to identify the pigment. For example, if a blue pigment contains copper, and is made up of small glassy crystals (under the microscope), then it is probably Egyptian blue. Some of the mud plaster fragments bear the remains of a colourful decorative scheme, and many of the walls were at least plastered in white; the ancient town would not have been all the mud-brick colour we see today.

A room in house E13.7 features a mastaba-bench that originally had a painted back, seat and “arms”. Some of the paint still survives, mostly white with occasional small areas of yellow pigment. In ancient times a later house was created by dividing room E13.7.6 down the middle with a wall, which also divided the mastaba in half. We suspected that behind this later wall the paint on the mastaba might be better preserved, having been protected by the wall for thousands of years. With this is mind, the dividing wall was cut back for the 30cm or so in front of the mastaba. It revealed a large area of well preserved white plaster, with some yellow, and possibly blue, pigment preserved here and there. It is possible that the colours were already degraded when the dividing wall was built, or are obscured by a very thin layer of white plaster, which is very difficult to remove without disturbing the underlying pigment. Samples were taken for further analysis in London.

I have also been examining coffin fragments from the cemetery, painted in yellow, red, black, white and blue, grindstones and hammerstones used to grind rocks into powder to use as pigment, and pieces of raw pigment still in rock form, such as yellow and red ochre.

Now back to England, and the lab….

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

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Amara West 2014: house D12.6

Excavating house D12.6

David Fallon, archaeologist

House D12.6 under excavation, with room numbers. North at top.

House D12.6 under excavation, with room numbers. North at top.

Two weeks on, all the rooms that originally comprised house D12.6 are empty of sand and rubble, the walls have been planned. None of the other rooms yielded assemblages like that in room 5, but the mysteries have continued. Below the rubble within Room 2, that at the heart of the house, was a large central hearth and an undulating clay floor with patches of baked clay and scorching. Room 4 has the remains of a clay brick floor that may have been repaired with a clay surface similar to that in Room 2. While there is further evidence of heat (scorched walls) and grinding stones found on some floors, suggesting cereal preparation, we can’t find any ovens!

Grinding emplacement in room 3

Grinding emplacement in room 3

Room 3, at the front of the house, was a busier place, in architectural terms. After removing substantial deposits of collapsed roofing and windblown sand, two sets of grinding emplacements were revealed, alongside a large grinding stone and a staircase. This had nicely preserved schist stones as steps. The grinding emplacements comprise a concave trough, or set of troughs, to hold a large grinding stone – there is space for the person grinding to stand, and a plaster basin to catch the ground material, probably cereal. Both emplacements were right next to the doorway into Room 2, with the basins getting in the way of the route through the door.

Moving on up: 3200 year old staircase in room 3

Moving on up: 3200 year old staircase in room 3

And still no bread ovens, common to nearly all houses. Had they been on an upper floor? With all the rooms of D12.6 excavated, there seemed nowhere else to look.

Modified front door to house D12.6

Modified front door to house D12.6

An idea had been growing in my mind during my work at D12.6, that the use of the building had been significantly modified. I switched my attention to the last piece of unexcavated archaeology of D12.6, the entrance. Saved for last, as potentially the most complex (enjoyable) to excavate. The entrance had been modified, with walls added, entrance narrowed and eventually blocked – a defence against windblown sand and to stop rubbish from the street coming into the house?

Moving down the corridor outside the entrance of the house itself, we found the elusive bread oven. Finally. Had D12.6 expanded into the building to the south, incorporating an external passageway as an internal work-space? Had this expansion altered the way that D12.6 itself was used?

Excavations underway in house D12.6 (near) and D12.7 (beyond)

Excavations underway in house D12.6 (near) and D12.7 (beyond)

The last few weeks in D12.6 are revealing hints of the activities that took place within houses. Yes, we’ve produced more unanswered questions, but perhaps the past is a little less obscure now than it when we began, a little less forgotten. In this last week, I will be undertaking a small number of target excavations to clarify details – especially whether there were several phases of floor modification. And then I have plans, sections and context sheets to complete.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

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Amara West 2014: sustainable plant use (ancient and modern)

Smoke on the wheat fields

Philippa Ryan (Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, the British Museum) and Katherine Homewood (Anthropology, UCL)

Wheat fields on Ernetta; with smoke from dung fuel fires (and other paraphernalia) to deter birds and the host of biting namiti flies

Wheat fields on Ernetta; with smoke from dung fuel fires (and other paraphernalia) to deter birds and the biting namiti-flies

We are interviewing Nubian farmers in villages in northern Sudan to investigate the characteristics of customary Nubian agriculture and in what ways these have been impacted by new farming methods, population movements, dam and road building – as well as changing patterns of imports and trade.

Collecting crop weeds for animal fodder, Ernetta

Collecting crop weeds for animal fodder, Ernetta

The interviews are mainly focused on the car and electricity-free island of Ernetta, where the Amara West expedition house is located. We have been trying to find out about the main crops grown today and in the past, when there have been periods of crop changes and examples of continuities. To get as long a temporal view as possible our interview plan includes speaking to older farmers – some of whom are over 86 years old. We have been finding out about customary harvesting, threshing, storage and food preparation practices as well as about land-use and irrigation. We are also discussing what animals people keep, how this has changed and about foddering/grazing practices.

Removing crop weeds from wheat, Ernetta

Removing crop weeds from wheat, Ernetta

To see if there are any contrasts between the island of Ernetta and Nile bank farms we have also visited farmers in the local Nile bank town Abri. On our journey here from Khartoum we stopped to visit farmers in the Seliem basin (Dongola) and we also headed north Dal village, in the midst of the Nile cataract, to visit our cook Ali’s family, some of whom are farmers.

Irrigation canals, Ernetta

Irrigation canals, Ernetta

This research is part of a broader Arts & Humanities Research Council Early Career Research Grant Sustainability and subsistence systems in a changing Sudan which also incorporates archaeobotanical analysis from Amara West. The project seeks a better understanding of the relationship between people and the Nile Valley environment in northern Sudan, and how present-day and ancient peoples (in the late second millennium BC) have found solutions for coping with a risky environment. The information from contemporary farmers and Amara West will be placed within a long temporal overview of what is known about crop choices within the region, including from archaeobotanical, ethnographic, and agricultural studies.

Traditional grinding installation in a house on Ernetta

Traditional grinding installation in a house on Ernetta

It is possible that some aspects of the ethnographic study will help inform our understanding of the archaeological record; for instance about the potential uses and means of processing certain plants and about some elements of crop husbandry and storage. Today on Ernetta, crops are harvested by hand and a threshing machine was only introduced within the last 10 years, so we have good accounts of previous threshing methods for various cereals and other crops.

Storage bin in abandoned house, Ernetta

Storage bin in abandoned house, Ernetta

Some categories of plants are grown in particular soils. There is a central mill on the island for cereals but some people still use more traditional grinding implements for other seeds (including certain pulses). Whilst using sacks is now common for food storage, occasional households still have traditional storage facilities.

Change is evident here – even as recently as after the Merowe dam was completed, changing the Nile regime and soil deposition patterns. How did people in the past cope with significant climate change, as we know occurred at Amara West in the late second millennium BC?

Tethered animals in fields after fuul-bean harvest

Tethered animals in fields after fuul-bean harvest

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Amara West 2014: the grind

Sunrise at Amara West

Nanette Bülow, University of Copenhagen

Christmas presents come early … grindstones awaiting Nanette’s attention

Christmas presents come early … grindstones awaiting Nanette’s attention

Throughout my stay here at Amara West, I have been working as an illustrator, mostly drawing finds, but also a few complete ceramic vessels have found their way to my desk – including the pots found by David Fallon in house D12.6. For the last few weeks, stones have occupied me. Big stones. A large selection of grindstones, more than 180, have been recovered from the ancient houses and around, and I am studying the whole group, to try and achieve a better understanding of their use at Amara West.

Grindstone built into revetment in alley E13.11

Grindstone built into revetment in alley E13.11

The grindstones vary considerably in size, shape and type of stone, which might imply variations in their usage and functions. At the same time one has to take into account the availability of natural resources in the immediate area, which might make pragmatic re-use of such artefacts very attractive, rather than sourcing more stone from afar. Good examples of the latter are, for instance, grindstones which have been reused as door-sockets, or as parts of a staircase. In the alley excavated by Barbara Chauvet, a very large intact grindstone was built into a stone revetment, presumably to protect the wall from erosion and damage.

Typical quartzite grindstone (F5379)

Typical quartzite grindstone (F5379)

Most grindstones are made from various types of quartzite, a very hard stone which varies from pink to beige-brown. A few are made of sandstone, a relatively soft stone: limestone is not available locally. Many of these are likely to have been used for grinding emmer wheat and barley – cereals we encounter in the archaeobotanical record.
The most distinctive group are those made from a bluish-green schist – these also have a particular shape, with shallow depressions worked out of both surfaces. Some even bear evidence of quartz processing, or the grinding of red, yellow and pink pigments.

Hard schist grindstone, perhaps for quartz processing (F5901)

Hard schist grindstone, perhaps for quartz processing (F5901)

After studying and drawing all these objects, we will consider how they are distributed within the houses. Some must have been set in the brick emplacememts often found near ovens, but others seem very portable. Some grindstones are found in rubbish deposits, or rubble that accumulated after houses were abandoned, so we may never know exactly where these were used. In any case, the people of Amara West were clearly busy grinding!

Grindstone with yellow pigment (F5962)

Grindstone with yellow pigment (F5962)

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Amara West 2014: defining and protecting the ancient site

Fence posts in the desert

Tomomi Fushiya, archaeologist

The fence posts running across the desert near Amara West, as seen from the kite.

The fence posts running across the desert near Amara West, as seen from the kite.

Apart from archaeological work in the ancient town, surrounding desert and cemetery, we are commencing work on site management at Amara West this season, in collaboration with the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan), as part of the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project. More specifically, site protection measures will be taken, and first thoughts around information and interpretation for the small number of visitors that come to site.

From what are we protecting the site? It is mostly safe from modern human activities and major development. Amara West is located in an uninhabited desert area, distant from modern villages. It is however accessible by boat, or vehicles driving along the west bank. The main west bank north-south road, completed recently, runs 7km north of the site. However, looting does occur, as we found earlier this season at the Cemetery C, and there is a threat of archaeological remains being damaged through irrigation projects. One exists south of Cemetery C, while a new project is irrigating the dried up Nile channel northwest of the ancient town.

The most common threat is from vehicles driving over the fragile archaeological site – including groups of people seeking areas to mine for gold. They will be disappointed at Amara West – the site produces sherds and mudbricks by the thousands, but no precious metals – but the vehicles can cause damage in the process.

Hassan Awad installing barbed wire fence

Hassan Awad installing barbed wire fence

In consultation with our inspector, Shadia Abdu Rabo, the local survey office and police, we decided to surround the town site, cemeteries C and D with a fence, to protect the significant archaeological remains from these human-made threats. The fence, finished today, will help dissuade vehicles from accidentally driving across the site, and define the archaeological area more clearly. We did not want to drastically alter the landscape – so have opted for a simple metal fence. This is not very visible from a distance (unlike any large concrete wall), while also being resistant to the wind and scouring sand that would undermine any mudbrick or redbrick wall erected here.

The next step is the construction of a police post, which will include an area with information on the site, its history and ongoing research.

The fence team after completion of work: Hassan, Moaz, Safwat, Ashraf, Mohamed and Sayed.

The fence team after completion of work: Hassan, Moaz, Safwat, Ashraf, Mohamed and Sayed.

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Amara West 2014: royal names in the house?

Impressed cartouche from house D12.7

Chiara Salvador, University of Oxford

Alongside registering objects back at the expedition house, as finds registrar I visit the site at least once a week. This is to allow documentation of very large objects which are left on site, typically large grindstones and undecorated architectural elements. These days allow me to see the progress of excavations and better understand the contexts from which the objects come. The enthusiasm of each excavator for the area they are digging always makes for interesting tours!

Impression of matting, probably from a roof, found in house E12.6

Impression of matting, probably from a roof, found in house E12.6

I also spend part of my mornings on site looking at the mud fragments bearing impressions of roofing material, which Marie Vandenbeusch has been studying for some years. These (hundreds of) pieces of mud bear impressions of vegetation, wooden poles and woven mats that were used to construct the ceilings – and perhaps even the floors of second storeys – in many buildings and rooms at Amara West. This year, houses D12.6 (excavated by David Fallon) and D12.7 (Mat Dalton) are providing new patterns of matting, as well as evidence of substantial roofing.

To our great surprise, amongst these many roofing fragments, three very special pieces of mud have recently been uncovered from these two adjacent houses. All feature a flat surface with at least one (and in one case up to three) impressions of large oval stamps, each measuring approximately 10cm long by 4cm wide – much larger than the seal impressions often found at pharaonic sites, typically 1.5-3cm in length (the size of a small scarab).

Impression of cartouche on mud from house D12.7

Impression of cartouche on mud from house D12.7

Unfortunately, these impressions are quite eroded and often fragmentary, making them very difficult to read. The clearest example is of a feather-topped cartouche, framing the goddess of the cosmic order Maat (top half preserved), identifiable by the feather on her head. In front of her are traces of a sun disk, now eroded, underneath which is another sign that is unfortunately barely visible. This may be an ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, held in the goddess’ hands, or could also perhaps be a very eroded ‘User’ sceptre. These signs might have formed part of Hatshepsut’s royal name, Maat-[ka]-ra, or they might have been part of the name of Amenhotep III ([Neb]-maat-ra), of Seti I ([Men]-maat-ra) or perhaps of one of the Ramesside kings, whose names begin with [User]-Maat-Ra. Seti I seems a god candidate, given the town was founded in his reign.

Back of mud fragment bearing a cartouche impression, showing two flat surfaces. From house D12.7

Back of mud fragment bearing a cartouche impression, showing two flat surfaces. From house D12.7

These are not just texts, however, but objects or fittings from ancient houses. The backs have two sides; one flat and regular, the other is irregular and hand-modelled. This peculiar shape suggests that they were pressed against the corner of something – a large container or an architectural element such as a door jamb? The function of these objects remains unclear. They might have been large-scale seal impressions, used to seal the object or feature they were attached to, although we cannot exclude the possibility that they may have functioned as decorative architectural elements. Unfortunately, their original use context is not known, as they were all uncovered in layers of rubble, much of it likely to be from the house itself. A great number of smaller seal impressions was recovered from house D12.7, so the bureaucratic apparatus of the pharaonic state was definitely present here!

House D12.7, indicating back rooms which were partially filled with roofing rubble

House D12.7, indicating back rooms which were partially filled with roofing rubble

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