Amara West project blog

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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

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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