Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2016: a villa and its surroundings

Manuela Lehmann (Project Curator, British Museum)

Panorama looking up towards the ancient town

Panorama looking up towards the ancient town

The focus of work this season lies in the cemetery area: the town is almost entirely deserted. Well, not entirely: one small group of daring archaeologists withstands the bitter cold and strong winds to investigate … a series of small walls.

Today we were six people in the town area, the highest number so far this season. Alongside Tomomi Fushiya and Ariadna Balbastre drawing plans of a suburban house (D11.4), three of our workmen – Ahmed Medani, Hassan Nouri and Fouad Ali Gindi – are helping me seek further insights into details of life in this late New Kingdom town.

This small team is focusing on several areas. To the south of the large house D11.1, already excavated last season, we are now focusing on cleaning a large area – courtyard? – in front of the house, as the site slopes down towards the Nile. This has proved difficult, as very strong winds have been blowing sand back into the excavated areas.

The wind howls across the lower part of Amara West town

The wind howls across the lower part of Amara West town

In the northern part of the courtyard more garden plots have emerged. Many of these rectangular structures, made of mud ridges and likely to designed to contain vegetables or other plants, have been found. This year, for the first time, we discovered small pits within them and one of them contained the stalk of a smaller tree or bush. Botanical analysis should be able to tell us what sort of plant was growing here.

Apart from the garden plots, the remains of seven ovens and ash pits around the courtyard have been excavated one by one: all displaying varying shades of white to grey to black and red. The remains of a bread mould – and the typical cylindrical ceramic construction – indicate the function of at least some as bread ovens, though some of the ash pits may have been simple hearths, or pits associated with producing charcoal.

Ovens in the courtyard in front of house D11.4

Ovens in the courtyard in front of house D11.4

Slightly to the southeast of villa, D11.1 two small mud brick walls were cleared. Parts of them were covered by our own spoil heaps from last year (luck of the archaeologist) and windblown sand, so the workmen had to dig through a metre of pure sand and sieved excavation deposits. These walls are distinctive, as they run at an acute angle towards each other and have little bastions projecting into the space between them. By cleaning the bricks we found a complete rim and handle of an imported pilgrim flask, sending our pottery specialists into rapture!

Fighting the spoilheap: removing sand to seek the ends of brick walls

Fighting the spoilheap: removing sand to seek the ends of brick walls

The two walls are only half a brick wide in size but were at least three rows high, probably once higher as mortar for the next course is preserved on top. So far, no further structures are associated with these walls which makes it difficult to determine their function. It is quite likely that they were used to define space that was used as further garden areas or for keeping lifestock. These are important possibilities as we consider how parts of the ancient island was used beyond the houses, temple and official buildings.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. For more images, visit instagram.com/nealspencer_bm

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, ceramics, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2016: smiles and excitement – a visit from Amara East primary school

Tomomi Fushiya (Leiden University)

At the end of the visit: group photo in front of the visitors centre

At the end of the visit: group photo of grades 5 and 6 from Amara East primary school, in front of the visitors centre at Amara West

On a cold windy morning, two boatloads of children arrived at the riverbank and ran up the sand dunes to meet archaeologists and local workers at Amara West. This is the first organised trip from local schools to visit the excavation site: 33 students (grades 5 and 6) with 4 teachers from Amara East primary school.

A local worker, Rami, explaining the tools of the excavator

A local worker, Rami, explaining the excavation tools

After they met our team members working on site, the visit began in the ancient town – entering through the remains of the West Gate. Walking by the houses with the group of students and teachers, Mohamed Saad, our inspector and bioarchaeologist from NCAM, talked about how we study ancient life within the ruined houses, studying pottery sherds, bones and so on. Two of our long-term local workers, Hassan Nuri Allah al-Deen and Rami Mohamed Abdel Khalil, both from Ernetta Island, showed and explained how we use the tools – trowels, brushes, scales, and finds bags – that archaeologists and workers use to excavate and document the ancient remains.

Students and teachers from Amara East primary school walking up towards the cemetery

Students and teachers from Amara East primary school walking up towards the cemetery

Across the dried up ancient Nile channel which the ancient residents of Amara West once crossed to bury the dead, the students learned from Michaela Binder (Austrian Archaeological Institute) about the different types of tombs in the cemetery, and how people were buried.

School teachers who have read the Amara West book before the visit also joined the guided tour, linking what the pupils learnt at school with what they were seeing at the site. During the visit, a new leaflet for school children about the site and archaeology was distributed. These had been designed in consultation with local school teachers last year.

Drawings made by Amara East primary school pupils after the visit

Drawings made by Amara East primary school pupils after the visit

The visit ended after a drawing session in our visitors’ orientation area, in which the students illustrated what they had seen and learnt during the visit.
We hope to continue to work with the local schools to raise awareness of their local history, the history of Sudan and archaeology – and maybe even encourage more local children to study archaeology in the future!

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. For more images, visit instagram.com/nealspencer_bm

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2016, community engagement, Modern Amara

Amara West 2016: well protected, cemetery excavations now in full swing

Michaela Binder, bioarchaeologist (Austrian Archaeological Institute)

One of our new pulleys being used to lift material from the tomb shaft by the workmen

One of our new pulleys being used to lift material from the tomb shaft by the workmen

Three weeks of excavation in Cemetery D and a lot has happened. The first ten days were busy with removing backfill and installing protective structures inside the tombs to ensure the safety of the excavators. These comprise special construction-grade netting lining the sides of the tomb shafts to prevent rocks from breaking off the sides, and solid steel tables inside the chambers to protect us should any stones become detached from the ceiling.

Sofie drawing a skeleton under one of the steel protection tables installed in the chambers

Sofie drawing a skeleton under one of the steel protection tables installed in the chambers

This set-up has allow Sofie, Michelle, Mohamed and myself to move further into the first burial chambers of the pyramid tombs G321 and G322 over the past two weeks. The latter, excavated by Mohamed, has provided the most interesting results so far. The first intact burial of a child (4-5 years old at death) already appeared a short distance behind the entrance, high above the chamber floor on a thick layer of sand. This indicates that it was placed into the chamber long after the main phase of use during the New Kingdom. Underneath the sand, Mohamed has already uncovered two more burials. The upper parts of both had already been disturbed in Antiquity, perhaps to take whatever jewellery once adorned the body. However, a small scarab, placed in the hand as often found in ancient Egyptian funerary ritual, escaped looting.

A small scarab depicting a hippopotamous

A small scarab depicting a hippopotamous

Another interesting feature in this chamber is an assemblage of three dishes in front of the entrance of the western back-chamber. These would have once held food offerings for the deceased. Consistent with the pottery found on the surface around the tomb last year, they appear to date to the 19th Dynasty.

Three plates, perhaps once holding food offerings, outside the door to the western burial chamber of tomb G322

Three plates, perhaps once holding food offerings, outside the door to the western burial chamber of tomb G322

The central chamber in G321 has posed few more difficulties so far. In the centre of the chamber several large chunks of ceiling had collapsed from the ceiling at some point over the last 3000 years. Thus, everything recovered by Sofie and Michelle has been heavily fragmented. Their discoveries so far include one intact body and a large jar which – once reconstructed – may give us a better idea about the dating of the tomb. A ceramic sherd bears parts of a hieratic inscription: with some luck, more fragments will turn up in the tomb over the next weeks.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. For more images, visit instagram.com/nealspencer_bm

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, ceramics, funerary

Amara West 2016: Commodity and trade – imported pottery at Amara West

Anna Garnett (Project Curator, British Museum) and Valentina Gasperini (Honorary Research Fellow, University of Liverpool)

When sorting through the many thousands of sherds from Amara West, it is relatively common to find flashes of light – imported pottery – amongst the generally homogenous mix of brown Nile clay sherds. While found in much smaller numbers than their Nile counterparts, such imported sherds are identifiably from regions including the Levant, Cyprus, the Greek mainland and the Egyptian oases.

View over Dakhleh Oasis. Creative Commons License © Argenberg. www.argenberg.com/album

View over Dakhleh Oasis. Creative Commons License © Argenberg. http://www.argenberg.com/album

Judging from the archaeological remains from the walled town and the extramural suburb, the residents of Amara West had access to a range of ‘foreign’ storage vessels, including large amphorae, pilgrim flasks and Mycenaean stirrup vessels. These vessels are likely to have contained precious imported commodities such as perfumed oils and balsams for cosmetic use, but as inherently beautiful objects it is entirely possible that their owners also reused the vessels in different ways after the contents had been consumed long ago, perhaps even before the pots arrived at Amara West.

Amphora toe C4764, made in the Dakhleh Oasis, found in industrial area E13.17.

Amphora toe C4764, made in the Dakhleh Oasis, found in industrial area E13.17.

Among the imported materials, an amphora base, most probably manufactured in Dakhleh Oasis and traded though Egypt to Amara West, has been identified from the walled town (C4764). During the New Kingdom, especially in the 18th Dynasty, the Western Desert oases gained prominence as part of the developing Egyptian economy. In particular, a flourishing production of local oasis wine, said to be of very high quality, led to the export of wine amphorae to major New Kingdom Egyptian sites including Qantir, Gurob, Amarna and Thebes.

Characterised by slightly oblique walls, a bottom-modelled base and a distinctive pre-firing pot mark at the attachment between the wall and base, this example finds good parallels among New Kingdom amphorae produced in Dakhleh oasis, not only in terms of shape but also of fabric. This amphora base could therefore be an intriguing hint at the import and consumption of wine from Dakhleh Oasis at Amara West in the late second millennium BC.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. For more images, visit instagram.com/nealspencer_bm

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, ceramics

Amara West 2016: Into the tombs at last!

Michaela Binder, bioarchaeologist, Austrian Archaeological Institute

Pyramid tomb G321 with the town of Amara West in the background

Pyramid tomb G321 with the town of Amara West in the background

After an excruciating wait of ten months we are back in the cemetery at Amara West, where we will finally be able to enter the burial chambers of the pyramid tombs we discovered last year.

The three large pyramid tombs are located in the New Kingdom elite cemetery of Amara West, on the desert escarpment overlooking the ancient town and (now dry) river channel. Over the course of eight weeks, the team consisting of bioarchaeologists Michelle Gamble, Sofie Schiodt, Mohamed Saad and myself documented the remains of each pyramid and chapel, and excavated the shafts carved into the schist bedrock up to 7m in deep. However the chambers – at least partly looted in ancient times – themselves were considered to be not stable enough to ensure secure work within the burial chambers. Therefore, we are returning this year supported by structural engineer Daniel Chulia who will construct pulleys and structural shoring to allow us to enter the burial chambers.

Success! Daniel with the first pulley in place

Success! Daniel with the first pulley in place

Based on the finds made in the shafts last year, expectations are high. The size and location of the tombs already indicate that their owners were important people. In tomb G320, inscribed faience shabtis name Paser, the Deputy of Kush known to have been resident at Amara West in the reign of Ramses III. The Deputy of Kush was the most senior pharaonic official in Upper Nubia during the New Kingdom.

This tomb is therefore likely to be his place of burial. A number of large inscribed sandstone blocks with enigmatic reliefs of Osiride figures, depicted frontally, were found in the shaft. Their function is yet unclear but perhaps with more elements to come from inside the tomb, this riddle can be solved as well.

For the other two tombs, the names of the owners are not yet known. However, as both feature pyramids of considerable size that exceeds all those known at Amara West so far we can assume that they were of no lesser status than the Deputy Paser.

What lies inside? Unexcavated burial chambers in G322

What lies inside? Unexcavated burial chambers in G322

Over the upcoming 8 weeks, the same team will continue the work we started in 2015. With pulleys and steel shoring, we will slowly excavate the chambers and hopefully reveal more about the identity of the tomb owners and the way they chose to be buried. This is also set to be the last of the cemetery seasons: have we saved the best for last?

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. For more images, visit instagram.com/nealspencer_bm

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom

Amara West 2016: season 9 begins

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

Arrival at Amara West – walking up to the ancient town – for the first time since early March 2015

Arrival at Amara West – walking up to the ancient town – for the first time since early March 2015

After a first season of mapping and survey in early 2008, the fieldwork at Amara West has followed a certain rhythm: methodical excavation of houses and investigation of two cemeteries, alongside the painstaking study of ceramics and objects, and sampling for scientific dating or analyses. This season, our ninth, will be very different. Our sprawling dig house feels very different with 8 rather than 31 team members!

Excavations will focus on three major pyramid tombs in the cemetery. The superstructures were excavated and recorded last year, as were the deep shafts cut through the bedrock. After 10 anxious, long, months, we are back and ready to excavate the burial chambers, led by Michaela Binder. More on that soon.

Fouad Ali Gindi – a veteran excavator of houses at Amara West – commences cleaning of surfaces in house D11.1 in the western suburb

Fouad Ali Gindi – one of our veteran excavators of houses at Amara West – commences cleaning of surfaces in house D11.1 in the western suburb

The ancient town – typically a bustle of activity, with dozens of excavators and workmen, creating rising clouds of dust as the excavated material is sieved for bone, pottery and other objects – is very quiet. Manuela Lehmann will finish excavation of the front of house D11.1, focusing initially on a suite of rooms added to the front of the building, while I will be recording the architecture of additional houses in this extramural sprawl.

This reduction in excavation activity comes as good news to those back at the dig house. Anna Garnett – assisted by Valentina Gasperini – hopes to make inroads into the vast amounts of ceramics collected over the last seven seasons, to shed light on what the buildings and rooms were used for, aspects of ancient technology and also the presence (or absence) of Nubian and imported pottery in different parts of the site. That this can be done without daily arrivals of more ceramics is much appreciated!

There will be more schools and community outreach, coordinated by Tomomi Fushiya, and in February Johannes Auenmüller will join us to study metal objects from area E13.

Alongside regular updates on the blog, follow the season on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest. More images from the season can be found on Instagram: nealspencer_bm

Filed under: Amara West 2016, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom, settlement, survey

Developing bioarchaology in Sudan – workshop at the Sudan National Museum

”How

Michaela Binder, Austrian Archaeological Institute

Skeletal human remains are one of the most important sources of information about life in past human populations. While their detailed study is done by specialists, a general knowledge about their potential and how to record and recover them appropriately in the field in order to allow for consecutive analysis is also vital for archaeologists. Because this kind of training is not available within Sudan, in 2011 the Amara West Project of the British Museum – with the support of the Institute for Bioarchaeology – started a field school program for selected staff of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan (NCAM). A first workshop covered the basics of analysing and excavating human skeletal remains in the Sudan National Museum.

Mohamed Saad at work in the NCAM bioarchaeology lab

Mohamed Saad at work in the NCAM bioarchaeology lab

Since then, one of the participants of this first workshop, Mohamed Saad, has received consecutive training both in the field at Amara West, and in the laboratory at the British Museum. He is now in charge of bioarchaeology at NCAM laboratory and conducting research projects on the skeletal collections excavated by NCAM teams – as well as supporting archaeologists during fieldwork projects.

How old was the person when he/she died? Workshop participants learning to estimate age-at-death from the pelvis.

How old was the person when he/she died? Workshop participants learning to estimate age-at-death from the pelvis.

In August 2015, I again travelled to Khartoum to lead, with Mohamed, a second bioarchaeology workshop at NCAM. During lectures and practical sessions, seven inspectors, three curators of the Sudan National Museum and two members of Bahri University explored what and how we can learn from human remains and how they are best dealt with in the field. In a small ad-hoc ‘cemetery’ dug in the garden of the museum, participants had the chance to improve their excavation skills and learn about techniques in how to record and recover single and multiple burials.

The participants of the workshop 2015 in front of the Sudan National Museum

The participants of the workshop 2015 in front of the Sudan National Museum

The course finished with a public lecture about the training program and research carried out by the NCAM bioarchaeology. Mohamed and I were joined by senior inspector Mahmoud Bashir who offered an archaeologist’s perspective how his research benefits from the close collaboration with bioarchaeologists. The lecture attracted great interest, particularly from young archaeology students. It is hoped that we will be able to continue to support local researchers in increasing the study of Sudan’s rich record of skeletal human remains within the country itself.

Mohamed Saad explaining field recording of commingled human remains to workshop participants.

Mohamed Saad explaining field recording of commingled human remains to workshop participants.

The next fieldwork season at Amara West begins in early January 2016, for updates follow Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM and #amarawest

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Amara West 2015: why work with our archaeological project?

Tomomi Fushiya, archaeologist

Excavators - local workmen and archaeologists from 8 countries, near the end of the 2015 season

Excavators – local workmen and archaeologists from 8 countries, near the end of the 2015 season

Our season has now ended … but why do our workmen decide to join the archaeological project, working for weeks on end with very early morning starts?

Obviously, this seasonal work is an important source of income, particularly as much of the season takes place before the fuul-bean harvest, just now getting under way. Many of the men – and our workers on site are all men – move from one casual job to the next throughout the year, for example in shops, the local petrol station, mending generators and other equipment, or ferrying people between Ernetta island and the Nile. Others are university students between terms (including an archaeology student this season!), or have responsibilities that do not take up the full working day – we can count policemen and nurses amongst those who dig with us.

But earning cash is not the only reason they come to work with us. Many workmen express a connection between Ernetta island and the archaeological site, for the site is in vicinity of the island and they know many people who have worked at the site over the last century.

Ernetta Island has been providing workmen for the excavations at Amara West since the early 20th century. Some workmen have grandfathers, father or relatives who worked with earlier archaeological missions such as the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) or the Sudanese Antiquities Service, and Andre Vila in the early 1970s. In interviews with our workmen, some explained they had heard about work at the archaeological site through former workmen, and that these stories were a part of the motivation to work with our project.

Salah Ibrahim Saleh at Amara West, February 2015

Salah Ibrahim Saleh at Amara West, February 2015

Others have an interest in archaeology and the history of Nubia. Salah Ibrahim took holidays from his usual job to work with our archaelogical mission. ‘I was very intrested to know about digging and the pictures (hieroglyphics) from the childhood.’ He is from Salim, a village distant from Amara West which also provided workmen for the EES excavations. His father and uncle told him about excavations, and he visited Amara West last year. ‘It was just an open space and the site was not clear to me because (then) I knew nothing about the history (of Amara West)’.

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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, anthropology, archaeology, community engagement, Modern Amara, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2015: end of excavations in the pyramid tombs

Michaela Binder, bioarchaeologist

Six weeks of work disappearing under sand again. Nayel Mohamed (foreground), Rami Mohamed and Abu el-Mali backfilling tomb G322.

Six weeks of work disappearing under sand again. Nayel Mohamed (foreground), Rami Mohamed and Abu el-Mali backfilling tomb G322.

Excavations in the pyramid tombs G320 and G321 have come to an end: though the shafts revealed many surprises – a door lintel of Viceroy Hekanakht, strange frontal depictions of mummiform figures on relief blocks, and shabtis of the Deputy of Kush Paser – the rock-cut chambers off them had been looted, and suffered from the collapse of the schist bedrock. So our last week of work is not the usual hectic rush to record skeletons and architecture, but rather the final recording and backfilling of the tomb monuments. Even though it always feels somewhat awkward seeing the work of 6 weeks disappearing under vast amounts of sand within just a few days, backfilling and covering of the tombs will protect the mudbrick superstructures from the heavy northern winds – which have been blowing strong all week! It would be a shame to see those monuments disappear after they survived for more than 3000 years.

Town team gone and the excavators' office was quickly turned into an impromptu bone lab. Sofie and Michelle sorting the large amount of disarticulated human remains from tomb G320.

Town team gone and the excavators’ office was quickly turned into an impromptu bone lab. Sofie and Michelle sorting the large amount of disarticulated human remains from tomb G320.

With no work left to do on site, Michelle and Sofie focused on establishing a preliminary inventory of the human remains recovered from the spoil left behind by looters on the surface around G320. Up until now, the minimum number of individuals of which at least some elements were removed from the grave is 17 adults and 21 sub-adults. However, whether all of them come from within the burial chambers – or rather represent later burials placed in the shaft or elsewhere – will never be known. The high number of young infants could have also been buried in small pits in and around the chapel, similar to those excavated by Mohamed Saad in pyramid tomb G322.

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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, anthropology, archaeology, funerary, New Kingdom

Amara West 2015: new impressions

Marie Vandenbeusch (Project Curator, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum)

Approximately 240 seal impressions were found during the 2015 season – an unexpected haul, that exceeds the total of what has been discovered since the beginning of this project in 2008. The study of these new seal impressions has just begun. Each has been registered, allowing preliminary considerations, especially on the spread of the distribution and frequency of the individual seals. Some were very commonly used, others are attested only once.

Seal impression F14247 from rubbish deposits beneath house D12.9

Seal impression F14247 from rubbish deposits beneath house D12.9. Drawing by Marie Vandenbeusch

One specific seal has been used at least ten times. Its pattern is particularly easy to recognize as it consists of two rows of tiny animals: hippos, crocodiles, bulls and a sphinx are part of this ancient menagerie. With one exception, they were all found in a rubbish deposit beneath house D12.9 in the western suburb.

These impressions have been dumped after use to seal a box, papyrus or vessel. The study of the links between these impressions, their provenance – and the scarabs found in the town or the cemetery – will with no doubt throw new light on the control of ancient goods at Amara West.

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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West 2015, archaeology, New Kingdom, objects

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