Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: when things are unremarkable, or broken

Mat Dalton (University of Cambridge) pondering deposits in E13.13 on Thursday, a multiphase room he has been excavating and recording since 2010Neal Spencer, British Museum

Blogging from an excavation is often misleading, as are the eventual academic publications. Exciting discoveries are reported, the progress and results of excavating certain buildings or graves, and of course artefacts of particular interest.

What such posts do not reflect are the metronomic rhythm of the seasons – the 06.30am boat, urging the workmen to retain focus and keep a certain pace, the need to record (photograph, draw, describe, take elevation data) unremarkable deposits within ancient rooms. The significance of these features may become apparent after years of post-excavation research – when it is possible to track important phenomena happening across the site, for example the intentional rebuilding of a whole area at a particular time, or the noticeable increase in Nubian pottery vessels after the first century of occupation. Much of this information will appear as brief notes in excavation publications.

Mat Dalton (University of Cambridge) pondering deposits in E13.13 on Thursday, a multiphase room he has been excavating and recording since 2010.

Mat Dalton (University of Cambridge) pondering deposits in E13.13 on Thursday, a multiphase room he has been excavating and recording since 2010.

Life in the excavation house is similarly repetitive, with meals around the same table, a relatively unvaried diet, cleaning our drinking water filters and keeping up with documentation. But things do go wrong, can’t be found, or break. The start of the season saw a shortage of cooking gas in Abri, meaning our cook Ali did not use the oven: we ate even more vegetable stews that week. It’s been two years since packaged feta disappeared from the local shops, meaning a staple food was suddenly gone. But electricity presents the most considerable challenge.

The construction of the Merowe Dam led to intensive survey of a previously poorly-researched region. But the hydroelectric power also brought, for the first time, mains electricity to many parts of Sudan. The electricity has not yet reached Abri (though the pylons are in place).

Diesel pump carrying water from the Nile up to the fields.

Diesel pump carrying water from the Nile up to the fields.

Our dig house, like every other house on Ernetta island, relies on generators to produce electricity. We run ours for a few hours in the morning, and after sunset – to allow us to see, read and charge equipment, cameras and laptops.

The generator is actually a large diesel water pump (known as a babur), made in Rajkot, India: the shaduf (ancient water-lifting machine) of today’s Sudanese Nile. These are used to pump water up from the Nile, allowing year-round cultivation of land across the island. At night, these are connected to dynamos to power lights, televisions and fridges across the island. Ours never does service in the fields (and we don’t have a television or fridge!), but is nonetheless temperamental.

The first two weeks of the season have been beset by generator breakdowns, uneven power supply and electricity short circuits (and the odd light bulb bursting into flame). Day after day, men reputed to be experts advised and undertook repairs, each suggesting a different problem and associated solution. The work of Salah, the last repair man, has led to three days of good electricity. Let’s see how long it lasts.

Blackout: the courtyard of our house lit by the moon and stars

Blackout: the courtyard of our house lit by the moon and stars

The starry sky is spectacular here; a view best appreciated with no artificial lights – one of the upsides to not having any electricity.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project
Read posts from previous excavation seasons at Amara West

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