Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2014: enigmatic ivory “sticks”

Enigmatic ivories from Amara West

Marie Vandenbeusch (Project Curator, British Museum) and Chiara Salvador (University of Oxford)

This year the team of bioarchaeologists – Michaela Binder, Sofie Schioedt and Barbara Chauvet – resumed excavation of tomb G244 in cemetery C. Though they have departed (other than Barbara, now excavating in the town), we are only now registering the objects discovered in the tombs. After the fantastic finds discovered last year, such as the almost intact situla (F9717) now on display at the Sudan National Museum, we had very high expectations for this season. Luckily, we were not disappointed. One of the first finds recovered from the tomb was an ostrich egg (F9803), the first almost complete exemplar after finding many small fragments in previous seasons.

Ostrich egg from Grave 244 at Amara West (F9083)

Ostrich egg from Grave 244 at Amara West (F9083)

Alongside more common objects – pottery vessels, coffin fragments, beads and scarabs – the tomb revealed an intriguing group of objects: a set of twelve finely made ivory “sticks” (F9835), with roughly rounded sections, tapered ends. Each had a flat top, or one cut at a 45 degree angle.

Decorated ivory sticks from Grave 244 at Amara West (F9835)

Decorated ivory sticks from Grave 244 at Amara West (F9835)

It is possible to identify two lengths of stick: seven shorter (ca 11cm) and five taller ones (ca 14cm). A more careful look at the decoration in faint red paint close to the top of each piece reveals that some of the sticks share the same pattern: six sticks have a horizontal band and a vertical line, four have a zigzag motive, while two of them are too discoloured to assess how they were decorated. The function of these sticks is far from clear, although their similarities with other known objects generally considered as gaming pieces, such as the “hounds and jackals” game, suggest that they might belong to the same category.

Ivory  gaming pieces from hounds and jackals game. British Museum EA 13594

Ivory gaming pieces from hounds and jackals game. British Museum EA 13594

The objects unearthed from Amara West give us little glimpses into the lives of the inhabitants of the New Kingdom town. Sometimes our spirit of inquiry is thwarted by our lack of understanding of some objects – it is tempting to designate these objects as games, toys or ritual artefacts. This is the case with the ivory sticks, but also the small rounded pottery sherds we refer to as counters – we find hundreds of these in our town excavations. It is commonly assumed that they were used to count, but sometimes they are considered as gaming pieces. It is very likely such objects had multiple functions: we should always be careful in our interpretations.

Stone slab scratched with gaming grid, photographed with ceramic counters. British Museum EA 14315

Stone slab scratched with gaming grid, photographed with ceramic counters. British Museum EA 14315

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

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Filed under: Amara West 2014, archaeology, funerary, games, New Kingdom, objects

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