British Museum blog

Progress in the cemeteries

Michaela Binder, Durham University

After a somewhat disappointing first week in Cemetery C during which we only found heavily disturbed graves, our luck turned last week. We discovered two largely intact graves which provide us with important insights into the funerary customs of the people living at Amara West.

Excavations in Cemetery C

One of these intact graves is G216. As with most of the other graves excavated in Cemetery C it is of the niche grave type, in which the body of the deceased is placed in a narrow niche on the bottom of a rectangular shaft.

With a length of 2.2 metres and a width of 1.2 metres, G216 is the largest niche discovered so far. In contrast, other graves found this week are very small, with just enough space to accommodate a small child burial.

G217: Niche grave for a child burial

While some of these graves were used for only one burial, G216 was re-used no less than five times. As the niche is only large enough to hold one body, the older burials were simply thrown out of the shaft – we found the remains loosely scattered within it.

The coffin inside the burial niche of G216

Only the latest burial was discovered intact within the burial niche, placed in a wooden coffin decorated with a fine layer of white plaster, painted with parallel red and black stripes. This coffin was not exclusively used for this individual – parts of an earlier burial were found on the bottom of it.

Ivory Bes amulet (F9459)

One of the most exciting finds of this grave so far is a finely-carved ivory amulet found within the jumble of human bones on the side of the coffin. The figurine represents Bes, the Egyptian household god.

Though Bes amulets are not an unusual thing to find in graves, this is a special one. Its body features all the elements of a typical Egyptian style, but its head is carved in an entirely different, presumably local, manner, which is more reminiscent of an African mask than an Egyptian god. This little amulet therefore nicely shows how imported religious iconography was combined with local cultural elements.

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  1. Katy Meyers says:

    I am extremely intrigued by this excavation. As a mortuary archaeology graduate student, these types of cemeteries (where two distinct cultures are overlapping) are fascinating. I was wondering if there are any contemporaneous cemeteries in the Nubian region which were less affected by Egyptian control and through comparison may be revealing about how much agency the Nubian population was showing at Amara West while under Egyptian control? it would seem that the Bes carving is indicative of local ideology found regardless of Egyptian rule.

    Best of luck with the continuing excavation. I love keeping up to date with the work. Out of curiousity, do you ever bring graduate students with you?

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  2. Katy – thank you very much for your comment. Unfortunately, the number of known sites dating to the period of Egyptian occupation further to the south towards the boundaries of Egyptian empire is very small. Those that have been identified, however, all show a clear influence of Egyptian cultural elements.
    Cemetery C, the one we’re working on at the moment, dates to the period after the end of Egyptian control over the area. It shows that elements of Egyptian culture even continued to be in use, mixed with local Nubian elements.
    All the best and many greetings from Amara West, where things got even more exciting during the last days (post soon to follow!).
    Michaela Binder

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Objects on display illustrate the continuity of the Canaanite culture of the southern Levant throughout this period. They highlight the indigenous origins of both the Israelites and the Phoenicians.
The display compares this culture with that of the peoples of central inland Syria, the Amorites and the Aramaeans. To start the week, here's the next three gallery spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Rooms 57–59 are the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Galleries of the Ancient Levant. This pic is of Room 57. The Ancient Levant corresponds to the modern states of Syria (western part), Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Rooms 57–59 present the material culture of the region from the Neolithic farmers of the 8th millennium BC to the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, within the context of major historical events.
Objects on display illustrate the continuity of the Canaanite culture of the southern Levant throughout this period. They highlight the indigenous origins of both the Israelites and the Phoenicians.
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