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Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: in the round at villa D12.5

Excavations in villa D12.5Rizwan Safir, archaeologist and Vera Michel, Egyptologist, University of Heidelberg

The waiting has ended and the inevitable has occurred: two ovens surfaced right at the back of our large building earlier this week. They emerged somewhat unintentionally – two familiar ceramic circles – as we began cleaning the external walls to allow Rizwan’s architectural plan to be completed.

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

Excavations in villa D12.5. The Nile lies behind the trees on the horizon

We’re now into week four and following the removal of vast quantities of sand and rubble the opportunity to excavate some of the smaller rooms has come about, as well as revealing ancient occupation surfaces. Another hearth has emerged to the north of the building in a small suite of two rooms added to the large central courtyard – perhaps in response to the needs of a growing community? Oddly for an Egyptian villa, there is a large staircase located inside the main door, providing access to the roof (or upper storey) above these two rooms.

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

Rizwan and workman Abd el-Gadus cleaning circular silos

A space we dubbed the ‘silo’ room is currently being excavated and three, or possibly four, distinct round structures have emerged.

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the entrance to villa D12.5

The two-room suite, and staircase, inside the
entrance to villa D12.5

The size of these silos suggests use for storing grain, perhaps for more than one household – a number of smaller houses are visible west of our villa. Such storage containers have not been noted elsewhere at Amara West, where rectangular storage bins are common.

Between the silo room and the ovens is a space we started excavating on Wednesday – somewhere we might expect to see grain-grinding emplacements.

The emergence of the floor within the large central courtyard was particularly satisfying considering the depth and quantity of sand removed within this space, although conditions have proven particularly challenging of late.

For example, having reached the floors of the smaller rooms to the north of the building, a day of strong and relentless wind on Monday served to refill these rooms almost back to their original state!

Nonetheless, we soldier on, rewarded by a gradually more coherent plan of the building, populated by hearths, silos and, of course, ovens.

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Amara West 2013: the work continues in villa D12.5

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5Neal Spencer, British Museum

Excavating across three main areas at Amara West – the cemetery, inside the northwest part of the walled town, and in the western suburb beyond the walls – it is villa D12.5 that has been most reluctant to divulge its form and purpose, despite some intriguing finds. Vera Michel and Rizwan Safir have been supervising a team of workmen for three weeks now, but the damage to the southern end of the building has resulted in a large area that is much like a 20 metres-wide sandpit. Men, shovels and wheelbarrows can work for hours and then days, removing considerable amounts of windblown sand, yet a quick glance wrongly suggests not much has changed!

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

The last few days have seen us return to the front of the building, where more architecture and features appear daily. Vera revealed and then recorded a large expanse of collapsed brickwork, still preserving the coursing of the original wall. Excavation of the windblown sand under it led to another layer of rubble.

The rubble here was very different, with fragments bearing the impressions of plants and finely woven matts: the telltale signs of a collapsed roof. Our houses had roofs built with beams and poles, overlaid with matts and then covered in mud; all that survives after three millennia is the mud.

Brick rubble – from a collapsed wall

Brick rubble – from a collapsed wall

The ‘upside down’ stratigraphy: collapsed roof under collapsed walls, indicates something of how the building fell into ruin. The roof must have collapsed first, probably shortly after abandonment: maybe the valuable wooden beams and poles were taken for use elsewhere. After an interval in which sand accumulated over the roof rubble, the wall then collapsed over the top, probably undermined by wind erosion near its base. While buildings can slowly crumble and decay, there must have been quite sudden episodes: the energy in these collapses is evident from how the rubble often tumbles through doorways, spreading across the floor.

The front part of villa D12.5, at the end of yesterday’s excavations

The front part of villa D12.5, at the end of yesterday’s excavations

Rizwan has just started clearing two rooms inside the front door: one contains a shallow circular hearth, perhaps used for cooking and warmth. We are all awaiting, with a sense of inevitability, the appearance of ovens….

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Amara West 2014: inside, outside and beyond a town in Egyptian Kush

Early one morning at Amara West

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

Deep one perfect morning (at Amara West)

Deep one perfect morning (at Amara West)

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?

Delphine Driaux surveying in the desert north of Amara West

Delphine Driaux surveying in the desert north of Amara West

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.

Kite photograph of the ancient town

Kite photograph of the ancient town

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.

Curving walls underneath house E13.5

Curving walls underneath house E13.5

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.

Neal considering phasing problems (a 3-D jigsaw)

Neal considering phasing problems (a 3-D jigsaw)

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.

Documentation of house D12.6

Documentation of house D12.6

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.

Philippa Ryan and David Fallon xcavating garden plots under house D12.6

Philippa Ryan and David Fallon excavating garden plots under house D12.6

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.

Destruction and chaos: the moonscape south of villa D12.5

Destruction and chaos: the moonscape south of villa D12.5

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.

Chiara Salvador registering finds (and avoiding nimiti-flies)

Chiara Salvador registering finds (and avoiding nimiti-flies)

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.

Faience vessel from Grave 244

Faience vessel from Grave 244

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.

Hashem Shawgi and Abd el-Qadus guiding the photographic kite over the ancient town

Hashem Shawgi and Abd el-Qadus guiding the photographic kite over the ancient town

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

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Amara West 2014: A typical suburban house (or not?)

House D12.7 at Amara West
Mat Dalton, University of Cambridge

A team of workmen from Ernetta Island and I have started excavation of a large and previously unexplored house (D12.7), located in the suburb just outside of the town’s thick perimeter wall and West Gate, not far from the large villa (D12.5) excavated by Rizwan Ahmed and Vera Michel in 2013. The house is directly adjacent to house D12.6, currently under excavation by David Fallon.

Mat standing in house D12.7, after clearance of surface sand

Mat standing in house D12.7, after clearance of surface sand

Within the walled town of Amara West, the form of many houses has been shaped or in some cases even dictated by both the limited amount of available space and the complex layers of older buildings located beneath and beside them. In the settlement’s western suburbs, many buildings (including D12.7) appear to have instead been built on open ground, which may give us the opportunity to see how some of the town’s inhabitants decided to lay out and configure their houses in an area where restricted space and pre-existing architecture were not such a pressing issue.

Kite photograph with House D12.7 under excavation. North to right.

Kite photograph with House D12.7 under excavation. North to right.

As is so often the case at the site, a quick brushing away of surface sand has already revealed the preserved tops of D12.7’s walls, giving us a convenient overview of the house’s layout before we even start to excavate. From this vantage point, we can already see that the house has at least eight rooms. In the front of the house, there is a single entrance from the street into a porch and entrance chamber, divided by a thin semi-circular wall, possibly built to keep sand from entering the house. From here, there is a doorway into the middle section of the house, which contains a long (and possibly subdivided) transverse hall.

A doorway at the end of this hall leads into the rear part of the house, which contains a large square space with a mud brick mastaba -seating platform, flanked by two almost identically-sized long and narrow rooms. These three main suites of rooms would appear to fit well with the tripartite model of access and privacy proposed for New Kingdom houses, based particularly upon the many domestic buildings uncovered at the late 18th Dynasty city of Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt. Less easily explained by this model, however, is a pair of rooms that contain at least three bread ovens, built against the western wall of the house at some later stage in its history. Why did these installations, which were apparently not regarded as an integral part of the house’s original foundation, eventually become a necessity for its residents?

One of the back rooms (southeastern) after removal of windblown sand and rubble

One of the back rooms (southeastern) after removal of windblown sand and rubble

Over the next few weeks we will be exploring this and other questions by excavating and recording the deposits, surfaces and features inside the house, as well as the artefacts contained within and upon them. Walls and rooms form only one part of how a house is lived in, and experienced by, its inhabitants. Equally important are the way in which residents structure and organize domestic space through the placement of furniture and personal possessions, the adornment and decoration of walls and floors, and of course the uses that they put specific rooms to.

As well as supervising excavations in D12.7, I will also be taking samples of mud plaster floors and walls from within the building for sediment thin section micromorphological analysis, in order to learn more about the way in which residents modified and used specific areas of the house, as well as how these uses may have changed over time. This micro-scale evidence, when considered in relation to the architecture and artefactual assemblage of the building, should help us to explain how a house, that may have been laid out on open ground to reflect a particular way of living or ideal, has been inhabited and perhaps adapted and changed over time, to suit its residents’ changing needs.

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

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Amara West 2014: another season begins in the ancient town

Revealing a new house

Neal Spencer, Keeper, Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum

As January turned to February, the excavations in cemetery C and our first investigations of hinterland sites around Amara West came to and end. The daily commute now needs two boats from our dig house on Ernetta island to the site, to accommodate all the archaeologists and workmen.

Orthographic image  (from kite photography) of area E13, at end of 2013 season. Photo: Susie Green

Orthographic image (from kite photography) of area E13, at end of 2013 season. Photo: Susie Green

Area E13, a small neighbourhood of houses built into and over storage magazines, seems very familiar. Mat Dalton, Anna Stevens, Tom Lyons and I have been working here for some years – giving us a detailed knowledge of rooms, doorways and ancient ovens. Some of the knowledge is more pertinent to archaeology than ancient life – for example which walls offer shortcuts across this complex of nearly forty rooms.

Yet we are constantly reminded of the limitations to our understanding. We have tried to build a biography of this neighbourhood – reconstructing the different phases of each house, from construction to occupation, modifications and eventual destruction or abandonment. But assigning houses, rooms and walls to phases is inevitably an exercise in simplifying a rather complex picture, as we reduce people’s homes, experiences and choices to a designation such as ‘phase IIB’. But these are the frameworks which provide us with some encouragement amidst each season’s avalanche of data. We then return the next season, to test and check our theories, and make sure they are consistent with new evidence that emerges.

Mat and Barbara Chauvet are revisiting spaces we have partly excavated before. In the street (or alley) along the west side of the neighbourhood (E13.11), Barbara is removing a sequence of fine silt deposits, with the aim of linking the stratigraphy of our excavations with those of the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1940s. We also hope to find further evidence of the levelled first phase of buildings at Amara West: it has become clear that the town plan was radically altered early in the history of the settlement. Mat has spent this week squeezed into a maze of walls, seeking to work out their chronological sequence: somewhat predictably, some assumptions – about what was built first, or which walls belong to the distinctive magazines – held for several years will have to be discarded.

Walls everywhere: a test of phasing

Walls everywhere: a test of phasing

Across on the eastern edge of the neighbourhood, Anna Stevens has begun removing the floors in house E13.5, as we seek to reveal the earlier phase architecture beneath – perhaps more magazines? Immediately to the North, Tom Lyons and Johannes Auenmüller are peeling back the floors of house E13.16, and will soon expose the phase below. Severe erosion at the northern edge of the town has revealed parts of a complex of kilns and/or ovens. Did this area continue further to the south? Was it an open area, or set within a building? We must remember other limitations. For example, we are only looking at the ground floor of these buildings. What happened above, at the top of the stairs that is present in almost every house?

Johannes recording floors in room 2 of building E13.16

Johannes recording floors in room 2 of building E13.16

Outside the town walls, Ronan Mooney is clearing sand from the back of villa D12.5, and thus far we are encountering badly pitted walls. Along the western edge of the villa, David Fallon has spent a few days brushing the surface, revealing an array of mudbrick walls. Paolo del Vesco has just arrived and started planning this newly revealed area of extramural settlement. This area promises to be fascinating, with houses both large and small: what choices did the inhabitants make when they moved outside the town wall, onto previously unoccupied ground?

House D12.6 emerging from the sand

House D12.6 emerging from the sand

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

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Amara West 2014: the season approaches

Sunrise at Amara West

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

Sunrise at Amara West

Sunrise at Amara West

In 10 days, we’ll be on the way back to Amara West, for our seventh season of fieldwork in this late second millennium BC town and its cemeteries. Amara West was founded in the reign of Seti I (c. 1300 BC) as a new administrative centre for the Egyptian control of Upper Nubia (Kush). The well-preserved architecture of the site (along with deposits and artefacts) are allowing us to gain new insights into how the town developed across over two centuries of occupation, the experience of living in houses, aspects of ancient health and diet, and the complex entanglement of Egyptian and Nubian cultures, all set within a changing environmental context.

This season will be the largest (up to 31 specialists), longest (nearly three months) and, more importantly, the most diverse in terms of research. Throughout January, Michaela Binder will be leading a team of bioarchaeologists in the cemeteries associated with the town, including a return to cemetery D, but also completing excavation of multi-chambered tomb G244 in cemetery C. Meanwhile, Anna Stevens will undertake a survey, and some test excavations, at sites in the desert surrounding the site. This is a first step towards better understanding the relationship between Amara West and existing settlement patterns in the immediate vicinity. In the midst of this archaeology, we have some building work to undertake on the project house.

Aerial view of house E13.5

Aerial view of house E13.5

The start of February will see our attentions shift towards the ancient town, with two months of excavation planned. We aim to investigate what lies beneath house E13.5 (excavated in 2013), but also clarify the complex area to the north, where a number of kilns and ovens were found last season. Outside the town walls, there are questions still to answer in villa D12.5, and we will extend our excavations further west.

Alongside the routine (though unpredictable) finds, pottery and conservation work, Mat Dalton will continue micromorphological sampling in the houses. Kate Fulcher joins us for the first time to investigate colour technology and application within the houses, as part of an Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Collaborative PhD with University College London (UCL) and the British Museum. This season sees the start of a new strand of research, also funded by the AHRC: “Sustainability and subsistence systems in a changing Sudan”. Philippa Ryan (British Museum) and Katherine Homewood (UCL) will explore ancient and modern plant subsistence strategies in and around Amara West, using archaeobotanical and ethnoarchaeological methods.

Finally, we are also aiming to improve site protection, undertake a Ground Penetrating Radar survey and host a filmmaker who wishes to document different perceptions of the archaeological work.

Nubian breakfast at Amara West

Breakfast with the workmen

All this activity will be set against a backdrop of howling winds, chilly mornings, boat commuting, crocodile sightings, beautiful landscapes, delicious Nubian breakfasts and, we fear, biting nimiti-flies.

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, New Kingdom, settlement

Amara West 2013: a kaleidoscope of life and death in Egyptian Kush

Aerial view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to rightNeal Spencer, British Museum

Fifty-six days after flying out to Khartoum, I landed this morning at a grey, icy, Heathrow. The temperature gradient – perhaps a difference of 35°C – is but one reminder that our sixth season of fieldwork at Amara West is now complete. Many of the team are still in the dig house today, completing documentation and closing up our house ahead of the next season. I spent yesterday finishing paperwork in Khartoum, while also working with curators Shadia Abdu Rabo and Ikhlas Abdel-Latif to accession our newly-discovered objects into the collection of the Sudan National Museum.

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Yet as with all archaeological projects, the end of the season really marks the beginning of the next, and most time-consuming, phase: digitisation, post-excavation work and, trying to make sense of it all. It’s a little overwhelming to consider the kaleidoscope of work undertaken by a team of 20 specialists from nine countries (from Australia to Sudan) over the last weeks. Many thanks to everyone, and also all those in Abri, Ernetta island and Khartoum who made the season possible – amidst sandstorms, plagues of biting flies, chilly mornings, electrical blackouts, dawn boat journeys on the Nile, crocodile sightings and fantastic breakfasts with the workmen….

The town

Within the walls of the ancient town, we continued work in neighbourhood E13. Sarah Doherty and Shadia Abdu Rabo revealed the full plan of E13.5, a medium-sized dwelling at the east end of the block. The inhabitants had fitted out each room with sandstone doorways, many built using re-used blocks from an earlier building, one naming an ‘overseer of the granaries, Horhotep’, presumably one of the high-ranking officials who lived at Amara West. Unlike other houses in the block, the bread ovens, charcoal pits and cereal grinding emplacements were housed in an annex outside the house itself, excavated by Shadia. Despite plans to investigate the phase beneath, we were instead tempted north of the house, where Sarah revealed parts of another house (?) and an area with large ovens or kilns – with tantalising evidence hinting at faience production.

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Mat Dalton completed the excavation of the communal area E13.13, which provided food processing, and charcoal making, facilities, for the inhabitants of houses E13.3-N and E13.3-S. Returning to the ‘white house’ E13.7, Mat revealed the striking schist and sandstone floor of one of the large storage rooms that characterised the area before it became a block of houses. Mat also spent time taking block samples of floor layers and occupation deposits from the excavated houses: these will be studied as thin sections under high-magnification, revealing ancient activities invisible to the naked eye.

Right in the heart of the neighbourhood – a room rather difficult to find! – Anna Stevens grappled with a small space that provides important evidence for many building phases, how the magazines with vaulted roofs were converted for use as houses. The ancient inhabitants were clearly unhappy with the idea of living in long corridor-like spaces, and went to considerable lengths to change the proportions created by the existing architecture.

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

We managed to empty all previously excavated rooms in the neighbourhood so that Susie Green could capture untold gigabytes of digital images. These will be used to create a 3D model using the concept of ‘Structure from Motion’ – all with the challenge of photographing everything before the sun’s rays created shadows. The stunning kite photographs will not only embellish this visualisation, but also provided us with a new perspective of the site and its landscape.

Outside of the town walls, Rizwan Safir and Vera Michel persevered through layers of wall collapse and roofing remains – further hampered by deep sandpits left behind when the ancient brick walls were mined out. As the season ended, we had gained further insights into the different type of house sought by those who moved beyond the town walls; there may have been more space, but the new households had to cope with more exposure to the elements.

A flying visit from Alexandra Winkels, conservation scientist, allowed her to collect wall plaster samples which will be compared to sites from across Egypt, including Tell el-Amarna.

Cemetery C

The highlight of our third season in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, was the discovery of the largest tomb yet found at Amara West: G244. Beneath a low mound (tumulus), the vertical shaft led to two burial chambers, one to the east, one to the west. What was not expected were the three other chambers.

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Patience was needed as the first chamber was meticulously excavated, with remains of painted coffins and a fine ceramic assemblage, being studied by Loretta Kilroe. More work is needed here, but the tomb seems to be late Ramesside in date.

Just to the north, Barbara Chauvet spent most of her season in the eastern chamber of a post-New Kingdom niche grave (G243), where another complicated array of superimposed bodies needed disentangling. Mohamed Saad, archaeologist at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, and participant in the Institute of Bioarchaeology Amara West Field School, excavated the smaller western chamber, as well as a number of niche burials in the southeast of the cemetery.

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan National Museum SNM 34615).

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan
National Museum SNM 34615).

Back in the house …

Our expedition house was home to all the necessary tasks of excavation paperwork, processing archaeological samples and of course organising and storing the finds and masses of ceramics. Marie Vandenbeusch documented all the finds from town and tombs, from epigraphic recording of the inscribed blocks in E13.5, matching scarabs with ancient clay impressions, to wondering what to make of enigmatic pieces of worked clay. Alongside rediscovering wonderful wooden objects from our 2009 excavations, with Michaela, Marie also found time to continue work on the roofing fragments from houses – with Vera providing a particularly steady supply from villa D12.5.

The masses of sherds from the town were processed on site by Alice Springuel and Anna Garnett. After an early season handover from Marie Millet (now directing the Louvre excavations at el-Muweis), Anna is studying our town ceramics, particularly the dating and whether certain types of vessel are associated with particular rooms or spaces. Amidst many pottery drawings, Alice managed archaeological illustrations of key artefacts – from scarabs to fertility figurines.

The first weekend saw us host a small workshop on ceramics in New Kingdom Nubia, though discussions ranged well beyond pottery, with colleagues from Kerma, Sai, Sesebi and Tombos.

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Philip Kevin, British Museum conservator, joined us for the last three weeks, and proved invaluable in recovering remains of headrests and painted coffins from the cemetery, coaxing out hidden inscriptions in the town, and revealing the exquisite decoration on copper alloy cobras (perhaps statue fittings) found by Shadia in the 2012 season.

Last, but not least…

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin returned for a third season to investigate the river systems in and around Amara West. Easily outpacing all other team-members in terms of logistical demands, we nonetheless managed two deep trenches which provide fantastic slices through the history of the Nile river in this region. One trench ran across the edge of the ancient island and into the channel bed, north of the temple, the other in the ‘Neolithic Nile’ 2km into the desert. We have the C14 dates already, and await the OSL dates, but a very exciting story is emerging … watch this space.

Returning to the Museum

Unlike nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations conducted by many museums, excavations in Egypt and Sudan no longer lead to the acquisition of objects for collections in other countries. So why does the British Museum still undertake archaeological projects? New techniques – including those outlined above – mean we gain insights into the ancient past, and its people, that were not possible in previous excavations. None of the objects in the British Museum, or indeed any collection, can be fully interpreted without understanding the particular time, place, culture and indeed natural environment experienced and created by those who made the objects. Amara West provides an opportunity to better understand life in Nubia during the late second millennium BC, in a region where the climate was deteriorating. It was an area under the control of the mighty Ramesside state, ruled from the royal residence city of Per-Ramses, far away near the Mediterranean.

An important pharaonic town in a long-occupied land, the inhabitants of Amara West lived in an age of international diplomacy, cosmopolitan taste and competing superpowers. We are building up a picture of how people lived, and treated their dead, at this town, but also the nature of the Egyptian entanglement with local, Nubian, cultures, and the responses to considerable ecological changes. A story very relevant to the present.

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Amara West 2013: structure from motion in a pharaonic town

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5Susie Green, UCL

This Sunday I photographed the last of the rooms in neighbourhood E13, in the dawn light before the sun rose. In fact we cheated a little that morning: Sarah Doherty and eight of our site workers held a large sheet of tarpaulin, against the strong wind, to keep the sun off the walls for an extra 15 minutes.

Susie photographing a room with some help in removing sunlight

Susie photographing a room with some help in removing sunlight

I have been at Amara West for just over two weeks. My task here is to create a pointcloud and ultimately a 3D model of the houses in E13 using a process called ‘Structure from Motion’. This technique uses a computer programme to find matching points in multiple images of the same subject. These can be triangulated to find the position of the camera and the points in 3D space and from this create an accurate representation of the subject built up from millions of points. The results are similar to those obtained by laser scanning, but without the need for expensive and unwieldy equipment.

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

I have been working my way through the town room by room. In order to get the best results, each room must be photographed in diffuse light as the harsh shadows of the sun obscure the details in the mud brick. This usually means I have to work very fast in the half hour before the sun rises. On the day of the big sandstorm, I could work all morning, as the airborne sand softened the sun’s rays. Saturday granted us an hour of cloudy sky: the first cloud I have seen in two weeks.

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

One end of the mastaba in house E13.7, built over by later architecture

Most of my processing will be done back in London, but I have carried out some tests here to make sure everything is working properly. One of these is to bring together the two halves of the low bench (mastaba) in house E13.7 and virtually remove the later wall that cuts it in half. This allows us to see the mastaba and gain a sense of its size and proportions – it is unusually long for a mastaba in a pharaonic house.

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5, with reconstruction of kite camera positions (Produced in Meshlab)

Digital elevation model of villa D12.5, with reconstruction of kite camera positions (Produced in Meshlab)

The ‘Structure from Motion’ process also allows aerial photographs to be used for detailed models of the ground elevation: a large number of photographs can be linked together as a mosaic to create a very high resolution map of the ground, such as with villa D12.5 being excavated outside the walls.

For this reason I have also brought my kite and camera rig to Amara West and I have taken thousands of aerial pictures of the town and surrounding area. I hope to be able to contribute to the understanding of the area and how it related to the Nile when Amara West was inhabited.

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Amara West 2013: getting to grips with this year’s villa

Rizwan recording the schist-paved siloNeal Spencer, British Museum

In 2009, we excavated a relatively well-preserved large villa (E12.10) outside the western town wall. The magnetometry survey data (thanks to the British School in Rome team) had allowed us to identify the structure as a villa and see the layout of its room, and excavation progressed with few surprises.

Rooms appeared much as we expected: food preparation areas (ovens, grinding emplacements), a staircase, room with a central hearth, and more private areas at the back that included a paved room with a mastaba (low bench) and a small room with bed alcove. A sondage (small test excavation) through the floor revealed rubbish layers indicating the villa was of late New Kingdom date, probably built over a century after the walled town was first founded.

Plan of villa E12.10, excavated in 2009

Plan of villa E12.10, excavated in 2009

Villa D12.5 has, in contrast, been far from straightforward. Excavated under the supervision of Vera Michel and Rizwan Safir, the first weeks were filled with recording seemingly endless layers of roof and wall collapse. At the back, southern end, of the villa, deep pitting had destroyed much of the architecture, leaving us with the feeling of being condemned to an eternal sandpit (regularly topped-up courtesy of the north wind).

Rizwan recording the schist-paved silo

Rizwan recording the schist-paved silo

As the progress of excavation slowed, and more time was spent clarifying details and recording the architecture, a clearer picture started to emerge – sometimes through small areas of flooring or wall that survived the massive pitting. In discussion today, just before the workmen left, Rizwan, Vera and I sketched out a ‘story’ for the villa. The ‘story’ is likely to change, or be refined, but it’s an important starting point.

Villa D12.5. Orthogonal photograph by Susie Green produced from kite photography, with later phase additions greyed out.

Villa D12.5. Orthogonal photograph by Susie Green
produced from kite photography, with later phase
additions greyed out.

It is now clear that villa D12.5 has many of the same features as that we excavated previously. A long rectangular plan, dominated by a large courtyard. A suite of rooms dedicated to food processing and storage, though here the storage is in the form of circular silos not rectangular bins. A broad room in the centre of the house – perhaps once provided with a hearth. The back part of the villa is too damaged to reconstruct, but the other villa suggests we should expect a central reception room, perhaps with one or two rooms off it, including a master bedroom.

Two parts of the villa – greyed-out in the picture – are later additions – new walls which subdivided the large courtyard.

There are important differences between the two villas:

 

  1. The front door faces east. If it had faced north, the winds and sand would soon have become unbearable for those living inside (the other villa faces south, so does not have this problem).
  2. The food processing area is at the back, not near the front of the villa. Again, placing it in the south-eastern corner means any smoke, ash and rubbish from these rooms would not have blown into the villa itself.

Many questions remain unanswered. Is the staircase inside the front door – an unusual position – original? Were the additional rooms needed when the villa became home to several households or families? What are the buildings built against the west wall of the new villa?

In the coming days, we’ll look at the masses of pottery from a rubbish layer under the villa, which will provide a first hint at the date of this structure.

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Amara West 2013: fragment of a female figure found

Clay fecundity figurine (F2284) found in villa D12.5Marie Vandenbeusch, Egyptologist

Last season, three fragmentary fertility figures were found in house E13.6, with another four recovered from other houses within the town at Amara West.

These are all hand-modelled clay objects, mostly rectangular in shape, without a distinct human, or even female, shape, other than an occasional hint of shoulders, pubic triangle or breasts. Similar objects have been found in various ancient settlements in Egypt and Nubia.

A few days ago, Rizwan Safir and Vera Michel discovered a new fragment in villa D12.5 (F2284). This figurine is rather different. Very fragmentary, it is preserved only from the navel to the upper part of the legs, but preserving rather realistically modelled buttocks. The genitalia are represented by a series of dots gathered inside a triangle. A further detail is the large dot indicating a navel, surrounded by smaller dots that might represent a tattoo.

Clay fecundity figurine (F2284) found in villa D12.5

Clay fecundity figurine (F2284) found in villa D12.5

The generous, curvaceous form of the figurine contrasts with the schematic, almost geometric, shapes of the other Amara West figures. Here the nature and purpose of the figure is more immediately apparent.

Such figurines of naked women can be modelled in clay, but examples in faience, wood and stone are known, found in settlements, tombs and temples. Sometimes referred to as “concubines of the dead”, “fertility figures” or “female figurines”, most scholars believe they are related to conception, rebirth or sexuality.

In short, they could clearly be used in life as well as death, sometimes in association with divinities. Their purpose was most likely benevolent, and hints at the needs and fears of those living at Amara West.

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