Amara West project blog

Icon

Investigating life in an Egyptian town

Amara West 2013: E13.13, the story of a room

Digging deep: workmen in E13.13Mat 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.

A surface phase of E13.13 showing three ovens, two grinding emplacements with mud plaster basins, and two firepits.

A surface phase of E13.13 showing three ovens, two grinding emplacements with mud plaster basins, and two firepits.

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.

Plan of neighbourhood E13, with oven court E13.13 to south of two small houses

Plan of neighbourhood E13, with oven court E13.13 to south of two small houses

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.

Digging deep: workmen in E13.13

Digging deep: workmen in E13.13

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.

Leave a comment or tweet using #amarawest

Follow @NealSpencer_BM on Twitter for updates

Find out more about the Amara West research project
Read posts from previous excavation seasons at Amara West

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , ,

Amara West 2013: expect the unexpected

http://britishmuseumamarawestblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/aw_2013_10_brushing_304x176.jpgNeal Spencer, British Museum

The archaeologist now has a range of methods which can ‘predict’ what will be found in excavation and which help inform the areas to investigate. Our magnetometry survey was the most informative, but surface topography, artefact scatter, parts of walls visible on the surface, and our (assumed) familiarity with the site and its buildings also help. This last aspect includes assumptions we make about the depth of architecture beneath the current surface, and what will be found in different parts of houses.

So, to house E13.5. We were pretty confident we had the complete plan of this, mid-sized five-roomed house, simply by brushing to reveal the tops of the walls. All went to plan in week one: nicely preserved floors, a mastaba-bench against one wall, a staircase, and the bonus of re-used inscribed stonework in three of the doorways.

A circular clay oven in villa E12.10 (excavated in 2009)

A circular clay oven in villa E12.10 (excavated in 2009)

The front room contained a perfectly preserved hearth, and a pot-stand set up in one corner, still standing where it had been placed around 1100 BC.

But something was missing: where were the ovens? Nearly every house we have excavated at Amara West features circular ovens, made of clay and between 30 and 60 cm in diameter. Often, we find several set up against the wall of a small room.

These ovens would have been ideal for cooking bread, much like a traditional tandoori bread oven. The thick ash deposits in and around the ovens provide rich potential for archaeobotanical research. Egyptologists also believe such ovens had multiple functions – for example to fire small faience objects.

The lack of ovens in E13.5 prompted us to extend our investigations east of the house, as a small eroded wall segment in the east wall of the front room of the house hinted at the location of a blocked doorway or possibly a step. Where did this lead?

Shadia Abdu Rabo set a small team of workmen to brush back the surface, and soon revealed a long rectangular room. The rather thin outer wall suggests this may have been a courtyard along the east side of the house. Further excavation revealed an oven, then another one, and yet another… we have now uncovered the remains of seven in this one room.

View north over room with bread ovens

View north over room with bread ovens

Someone was doing a lot of cooking here: but was it for one household? The organisation of food production in New Kingdom Egypt has been studied through textual sources, and especially the excavations at Tell el-Amarna. These houses at Amara West offer an opportunity to investigate how a neighbourhood within an Egyptian town in conquered Nubia organised food processing and supply.

View over house E13.5, with its ‘oven court’

View over house E13.5, with its ‘oven court’

Such research potential prompted another change of plan: we will delay our excavation beneath house E13.5 – where we hope to find earlier phase architecture – as the new oven courtyard may well have served more than house E13.5. The unexcavated building to the north, newly christened E13.16, also has a door onto the space with all the ovens.

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Sarah Doherty and workmen started clearing surface deposits from this building on Sunday morning….

Leave a comment or tweet using #amarawest

Follow @NealSpencer_BM on Twitter for updates

Find out more about the Amara West research project
Read posts from previous excavation seasons at Amara West

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , , ,

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

@NealSpencer_BM

@britishmuseum

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 112 other followers