British Museum blog

A spot of shopping

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Sieves made locally being useed during excavation

With departure for Sudan only weeks away, we’re putting together the final preparations for our fourth season of fieldwork at Amara West. Flights are booked, visas obtained, inoculations accumulated – and we have defined the key priorities for excavations in the town.

However, more mundane matters are currently being attended to.

As with most archaeology projects, the team needs a range of equipment, from specialist technical devices through to simple tools. Nearly all have one thing in common – none were designed specifically for archaeology!

Neal Spencer and Shadia Abdu Rabo using a Topcon total station to map the town site

From the builder’s toolbox we use trowels, measuring tapes, wheelbarrows, nails and hammers. While art shops provide us with the drafting film, tracing paper and of course pencils.

The surveyor’s total station – for accurately measuring distance and areas – is probably our most advanced piece of equipment. Less advanced but also important are the good quality plastic bags we need for all of the finds, samples and skeletal remains. With severe snow forecast for the UK, we’re hoping deliveries of equipment are not disrupted.

In our case, the lack of materials available near Amara West makes our task more difficult. Computers, cameras and specialist equipment comes from the UK (while we can buy a certain amount in Khartoum, it can be very expensive). Nonetheless, we make great use of local traders in Abri, the modern town across the Nile from Amara West, especially in the first few days of the season.

René Kertesz bringing the ancestor bust back to the excavation house, using a bucket from the local market

The carpenter provides us with trestle tables for working and dining, but also produces small botanical sieves (we bring the 5mm, 1mm and 0.5mm mesh out from the UK) and our drawing boards. At the blacksmith we can order metal tables, iron spikes for marking out trenches and even stands for our water filters.

At the carpenters shop, Abri

Lamps, wiring, bulbs, shovels, plastic buckets (for showering and washing pottery), sugar sacks (for carrying spoil) and many brushes (for cleaning excavated features) come from the local hardware store.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , , , ,

Cauldrons on the move

Jamie Hood, British Museum

Conservator Jamie Hood labelling one of the cauldrons for transportation

As I wasn’t at the excavation of the Chiseldon cauldrons it was difficult to imagine that the nine or so blocks of soil sitting in plastic crates and wrapped in plaster bandages really contained Iron Age cauldrons. But a few weeks ago when Alex and I visited the Museum’s off-site store, I knelt down and looked at the closest crate and spotted the edges of metal sheet and part of an iron handle sticking out of the soil.

Conservator Alexandra Baldwin at the British Museum store

It’s at moments like this that you start to think about the step by step process of conserving the object to bring it back to life (and also quickly calculate how many hours it might take… literally hundreds).

But before we could start work we had to move the cauldrons from storage to the Museum itself.

The Museum’s off-site store is vast with hundreds of crates and many rows of racking which all hold evidence of Britain’s past. While it was easy for us to jump on the tube to get to the store, transporting the cauldrons was a little bit trickier.

We picked two of them – discovered next to each other in the burial pit, and corroded together – and packed them safely in big boxes. It’s always nerve-racking transporting fragile objects, so to protect them we surrounded them with rolled-up tissue paper, foam and bubble wrap.

Conservator Jamie Hood transporting one of the cauldrons at the British Museum

Once safely at the Museum we moved the crates to the metals conservation lab and carefully unpacked the cauldrons.

The first step is to record the soil blocks and fragments of cauldrons by taking pictures, making detailed drawings and examining the surface through a microscope. In preparation for the next stage, when conservation really begins, you can then begin to start removing some of the soil with small hand tools and brushes.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , , , ,

A bit of afterlife admin?

John Taylor, British Museum

It’s now just over one month since the Book of the Dead exhibition opened to the public – the culmination of a number of years work. So it’s greatly satisfying to see it full of people at last.

We’ve always been aware that here at the British Museum we have one of the best collections of books of the dead in the world, but usually we can only display a small proportion of them. So we’ve always wanted to find an opportunity to display a larger selection of them and also explain what they are. If you look at the Egyptian galleries here you will see references to Books of the Dead, you’ll see parts of them, but we have never been able to focus so closely on them and really explain how they work.

Seeing the objects in place is really exciting. You think you can get a sense of what it will look like but when you see the installation in the space for the first time it can be a real revelation, especially as plans change so much over the course of the development.

One of the problems we faced was that there are so many stories you can tell about the books of the dead, but you can’t explain them all. Originally I had a plan that there would be two main threads to the exhibition: a narrative that would follow an Egyptian on his way from death to afterlife, and then another thread all about the history of the Book of the Dead – how it evolved over time, how it was made, and the scribes who wrote the manuscripts.

In the end we focussed on the narrative of the journey to the afterlife because we thought that would be the most accessible way of presenting the Book of the Dead. This way visitors can identify with one Egyptian and find out which spells he needed on the way as different situations arose.

One of the things we’d love to know more about is how the ancient Egyptians imagined the Book of the Dead would be used. Did they think the dead would unroll this document and read it? Or was it more just the fact of having it there in the tomb that magically conveyed the spells to you?

It’s probably more likely to be the second option because some of the spells couldn’t be read as they’re so full of nonsense! (either the scribe couldn’t read them or he was copying from a defective original).

Perhaps there was a box-ticking mentality going on here: you should have one of these in your tomb so you get it and it doesn’t really matter if it’s completely accurate or not. You’ve got it, it’s there, it’s in the tomb, and it has got the right spells on it. It’s a part of the burial kit you must have.

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

Showing treasures

St John Simpson, exhibition curator

Although the exhibition doesn’t open until March 2011, we had a briefing for members of the press last week that gave us an opportunity to introduce the incredible objects that will eventually go on show.

Exhibition curator, St John Simpson, discusses the objects at a press conference

In the exhibition title we describe Afghanistan as the crossroads of the ancient world and I think that the 200 objects spanning 3,000 years will show exactly why that’s an appropriate description.

Its geographical position, on the edge of central Asia with India and China beyond to the east and Iran, the Middle East and the numerous cultures of the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe to the west, it was criss-crossed by ancient trade routes. In many ways then as now it was a hub and meeting place for diverse cultures and neighbours, both near and distant, over thousands of years.

In the modern world it’s all too easy to think of Afghanistan solely as a place of conflict – and indeed the objects that will feature in the exhibition tell that story as well – but taking the long view we can see in the rich materials and ornate craftsmanship of these objects a far broader story.

Gold crown from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Gold crown from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Afghanistan has always been a part of a complex network of cultures that doesn’t really take account of contemporary political boundaries. Long-distance travel and globalisation may seem like relatively new inventions, but the ancient world was much more connected than many of us may think. I hope we can help bring this inter-connectedness out in the exhibition.

One of the pieces on loan from the National Museum in Kabul illustrates this point particularly well: a pendant from the Tillya Tepe hoard found in the north-west of the country. It features inlays of gold and turquoise. Two dragon-like beasts in the design suggest to some the influence of Chinese art but to others represent the heavenly horses of the Ferghana valley of neighbouring Central Asia.

Inlaid gold pendant from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Inlaid gold pendant from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

It also includes lapis lazuli, a type of blue stone only found in Afghanistan but coveted in the wider world for thousands of years. It crops up in the jewellery of ancient Egypt, the art of the ancient near east and as far afield as the art of the Italian Renaissance.

The fact we nearly lost many of these stunning objects and signposts to the past to the events of Afghanistan’s recent history underlines how precious they are as well as the fragility of cultural heritage.

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Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions, , , ,

Communicating with the dead?

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Sandstone bust (front)

Excavating ancient houses in the Nile Valley typically yields masses of pottery, simple stone tools and other modest objects.

Though unspectacular, these provide an important insight into the technologies, dietary customs and even religious beliefs of the ancient inhabitants, and sometimes help tell us how different spaces were used.

Project team member René Kertesz revealing the sandstone bust

Occasionally, however, a more spectacular find appears. Last season, digging the back room of a narrow three-roomed house dating to the time of Ramesses III or shortly after (around 1150 BC), the windblown sand parted to reveal a small sandstone bust of a male figure, still perched atop the pedestal constructed to support it.

Only 29.2cm high, the bust shows a male figure with a short wig. Remnants of blue and red paint on the chest and upper back suggest he was shown wearing a collar of beads and pendants.

Around 150 similar ancestor busts have been found – some are on display in the British Museum but this one is unusual in being found where the ancient inhabitants had placed it.

The back of the sandstone bust

Not all were placed in houses: some come from near temples, chapels and even tombs. Inscribed stelae show individuals offering to similar busts, and it has been suggested that these allowed the living to communicate and request the intervention of the deceased in earthly matters (disease, disputes and so on).

Narrow three-roomed house – the bust was found in the near room

Four examples are inscribed with the names of individuals, but the majority do not bear a name – like the Amara West example – and could perhaps have fulfilled different meanings for different people. Intriguingly, the rear room of the house was blocked up with the ancestor bust still inside, while people continued to live in the other two rooms.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , ,

Digging up – and preserving – the Iron Age

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin excavating the cauldrons

Five years ago I, and my colleague Simon Dove in the department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum, joined a team from Wessex Archaeology in a field in Wiltshire to excavate what we thought were three small bowls. Two weeks later, in baking sun and torrential rain, we had lifted 10 – or 12 – rather large cauldrons.

Brilliant! 10 Cauldrons! Being extremely rare, this was an exciting find.

One would have been fantastic. Three would have been amazing. But 10-12, on the other hand, was a huge challenge. First, we had to excavate them. Then we had to store them and finally conserve them so we can learn from them and perhaps even put them on display.

With such a huge find, and with the conservation project alone estimated to take two of us two years, Jody Joy, British Museum curator of Iron Age Britain, and I decided to apply for funding to study the cauldrons properly and conserve them so that we could understand their wider significance and give them the attention they deserve.

An illustration of how the cauldrons may have looked when first buried

Now we have the funding, work has started and over the next two years myself and a colleague, and Jody, along with scientists and other British Museum staff, will be unravelling the evidence of life in the Iron Age the cauldrons can provide us with.

In the coming months I’ll be writing regular posts – as will Jody, and my colleague in the conservation team Jamie Hood – documenting the journey through the project and describing what goes on behind the scenes at the British Museum, revealing discoveries as we find them… and not to mention the challenges we face.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , , , , ,

Unearthing the cemeteries at Amara West

Michaela Binder, Durham University

Michaela Binder excavating a burial chamber in tomb G305

In wintery, snow-covered Durham preparations for the coming season of work in the cemetery are underway, with only six weeks left until the new season starts. During January and February, we will return to Cemetery C, the post-New Kingdom necropolis first excavated in 2009.

The international team of three archaeologists – including myself and two new team members from the UK and Canada – all specialise in the excavation of graves and human remains.

This is crucial because we are likely to encounter complicated multiple burial situations, and only archaeologists with experience and understanding of human skeletons are able to recover all of the evidence. For example, the way in which individual bones lie when discovered can indicate whether the bodies were disturbed shortly after burial or later, after the soft tissue had disappeared.

A view over excavations at cemetery C in 2009.

During the six weeks in the field we will extend the area investigated in the previous season further to the east and to the north. A magnetometric survey is used as a guide towards promising areas, allowing us to pinpoint exactly the location of graves and tomb shafts.

Cemetery C is particularly important as it dates to a period in history about which relatively little is known, after the pharaonic occupation of the area ceased.

2.	Inspector Shadia Abdu Rabo with pottery from post-New Kingdom tomb

The finds and human remains will help us to find out more about how people lived, and what religious and cultural beliefs they were following.

We already know from the previous season in 2009 that the graves yield a large range of well preserved wooden furniture, pottery and other grave goods such as jewellery and scarabs.

An exciting new season starts in less than 40 days…


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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , ,

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