Mat Dalton, University of Cambridge
This week marked the completion of excavation in room E13.13 (better known to us as ‘the oven court’), a task three years in the making. But why has this relatively small 3.2 x four metre space occupied so much of our time on site?
A clue lies in the amount of paperwork generated: 135 archaeological features (contexts) at the final count! This includes 11 bread ovens, seven grain grinding emplacements and at least 20 main ‘firepits’ – more on these later – within a one metre thick occupation deposit. This density of features can be explained by the perpetually rising level of E13.13’s soft dirt floor, most likely as a result of sediment blowing into the (probably un-roofed) room from the town and desert. This must have required the levelling and replacement of features engulfed by mounting sediments, which has created a rich stratigraphic sequence of features.
For most of its use-life the oven court seems to have provided food preparation and cooking facilities for first one (E13.3) and then two adjacent houses, E13.3-N and E13.3-S. The room’s history is closely linked to these two houses.
At first neither house had any internal baking or grinding facilities and the court saw more intensive use, generally with at least three ovens and two grinding emplacements operational at any one time. Preparing flour and baking bread were probably daily activities at Amara West, and it is not hard to imagine this semi-public space as a hub of social interaction between the two houses’ residents. Later, each house installed separate internal ovens and grinding emplacements and the court was walled off, then reopened and used for a little longer, before finally being sealed for good and apparently becoming the neighbourhood rubbish dump.
Ovens and grinding emplacements are found in houses all over the site; a more novel feature of the oven court is the aforementioned firepits. These shallow depressions were cut into the room’s floor adjacent to walls, and were apparently used for burning wood to produce charcoal. This charcoal may have been destined for immediate use in adjacent bread ovens, but could have also been stockpiled or used elsewhere in the house. The firepits also seem to have served a second more expedient purpose: a convenient spot to dispose of ashy waste from the ovens.
The cyclical nature of wood burning and oven waste disposal has formed complex layers over time, leaving us with an archive of well-preserved carbonised plant remains. We have intensively sampled these deposits over the past three years of excavation to recover this material, and have also collected sediments from these and other contexts in the room to extract phytoliths, microscopic plant skeletons that can provide evidence for foodstuffs such as wheat and barley – long since rotted away. Study of these strands of evidence has already begun to tell us much about the kind of food people were eating and how they were preparing it, as well as what fuels they were burning. This data also gives us proxy evidence for the character of the natural environment around Amara West, and how its inhabitants utilised and affected it.
As we finished excavating the oven court over the past couple of days, an interesting surprise has emerged from beneath the room’s final occupation deposits. A very early structure, running parallel to the town’s enclosure wall, might be the corner of a large storage complex first exposed by the Egypt Exploration Society in 1947-48 (E.12.6). The shift in use from possible official storage to domestic usage in this area fits well into the larger-scale trend of Amara West’s evolution from planned administrative town to a form more organically modified to suit its inhabitants’ needs.
A small room like E13.13 that provides such a wide range of data on life in the ancient town doesn’t come along every day.
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