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