British Museum blog

Excavating a chamber tomb

Carina Summerfield-Hill, physical anthropologist

Rami Mohamed Abdu and Abou Ad Abu Taher excavating through the roof of the western chamber

I’m one of three physical anthropologists working in Cemetery C at Amara West, and in recent days I’ve been working on a chamber tomb (Grave 234) – the largest and most exciting of grave types here.
Rami Mohamed Abdu lifting the beer jar from the shaft of grave 234

The tomb consists of a central shaft with an underground eastern and western chamber. We started excavating down into the central shaft to expose the doorway to each chamber. The sand in the shaft contained a complete Egyptian-style beer jar.

Since then, we have focused on excavating the western chamber.

The safest way to excavate it was to dig down from above, through the chamber’s roof, otherwise the fragile but heavy layers of alluvium could collapse on us. Once the chamber was exposed, we removed windblown sand which had accumulated inside.

It contains three articulated burials and a concentration of disarticulated bone that included four complete skulls.

Carina Summerfield-Hill excavating the Nubian style crouched burial

So far I have excavated one of the articulated burials towards the centre of the chamber, the feet of which poked out into the shaft.

The entire burial was within the remains of a wooden casing, and was of an adult female, fully articulated in a crouch position – this was a really pleasing discovery as it is a local Nubian tradition of burial, as opposed to the Egyptian tradition of laying the body out in an extended burial position. This is the first Nubian burial type to be found in Cemetery C!

Western chamber of Grave 234 with three articulated burials and concentration of disarticulated human remains (under cover to the right)

The western chamber also contains two further articulated burials that are extended – It is fascinating to see two different traditions in the same grave.

Over the coming days I shall be excavating these two extended burials along with the concentration of disarticulated bones, so there is a lot of work still to do.

And next we have the eastern chamber, where we have just begun removing the surface to get access.

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

In the back rooms

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Large vessel (C4029) found buried in the floor of the back room

Halfway through our third season of excavations in the northwest part of the walled town, our understanding of the nature of the area, and how it changed – whether on a room-by-room or building-by-building basis – is continuing to evolve.

No two house plans are the same, undoubtedly dictated by a range of factors. Here, some of the houses needed to be built into and over existing architecture, including large vaulted storerooms. But the circumstances of individual household units could also prompt houses to be joined, divided or internally re-arranged.

Papyri contemporary with Amara West describe complex fluctuations in houses at Thebes, with numbers oscillating between six and 15 people in a short time frame, due to deaths, marriages and even divorce.

The four 20th dynasty houses excavated so far in the northwestern town have between three and four rooms each, and the back room in three of the houses has a rather different character.

View along house E13.3-N with back room far from the front door

These are small spaces – only five metres² – and as we have no evidence for windows in any of the rooms, they are likely to have been very dark. None of the three back rooms has an outside wall, thus would have stayed cool during hot days and retained warmth during the very cold nights.

How were these rooms used? It is tempting to assume some were bedrooms, but none have bed alcoves familiar from larger pharaonic houses, including villa E12.10 at Amara West.

In fact, the inhabitants may have slept in the central room, warmed by the hearth. The back of one house clearly functioned as a space for ritual activity – an ancestor bust was found there.

A notable concentration of finer pottery vessels is found in these rooms – but also objects of more glamorous materials.

Plan of house E13.3-N, with room 27 to top right

In the last weeks, we have completed excavation of the back room in house E13.3-N. The pattern continues in the earliest layers in the room – fragments of a fine calcite (Egyptian alabaster) bowl were recovered alongside faience beads, a bone earring, and a faience Taweret amulet.

Fragments of a calcite bowl (F4743) found in back room of house E13.3-N

The purpose of the niche in the back wall remains unknown. But as with one other back room, we also found a large pottery vessel buried in the floor. We have taken samples from the pot, found with its lid still in place: perhaps chemical or botanical analyses can hint at the original contents?

However, a more prosaic function for these rooms is also possible. Finding objects in a room does not mean the inhabitants used them in that space, or placed them there for safe-keeping.

Some back rooms may simply have become areas in which to place unwanted rubbish – tucked out of the way at the back of the house.

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

How did this Egyptian textile come to be in Norwich?

Faye Kalloniatis, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The shroud before conservation started. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The shroud before conservation started. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

    This is the second in a new series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The rather unprepossessing museum storage box with its crumpled heap of ancient linen, had sat in the Norwich Castle stores for nearly a century. I became aware of it in 1999 when the Castle Museum was being refurbished and John Taylor, from the British Museum, had come to help with the Egyptian material.

He, as an expert, was greatly taken by the shroud – even from the little he could see of it in its creased state. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when I started working on the Egyptian collection, that I remembered this small box and its contents.

The linen was clearly worth investigating – and the British Museum thought so too. So, happily, the project to conserve and study the shroud got underway.

As part of that I have had the fascinating task of piecing together the history relating to how the shroud came into the Norwich Castle collection. The story is an interesting and absorbing one.

The collector

Jeremiah James Colman (1830 – 1898) © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Jeremiah James Colman (1830 – 1898) © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Sir Jeremiah Colman bought the shroud while visiting Egypt (end 1896 – early 1897).

Today, Colman is mainly remembered because of his association with mustard. Colman’s Mustards were manufactured in Norwich by several generations of his family and this was the source of their wealth.

Aside from his business concerns, Jeremiah held many public offices. For nearly 25 years, he was a Liberal MP for Norwich and, at various times, was Sheriff and Mayor for the city. Held in great esteem, thousands lined the streets to pay their last respects at his funeral.

Alan Colman, Jeremiah's son who wintered in Egypt because of poor health. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Alan Colman, Jeremiah's son who wintered in Egypt because of poor health. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Travelling in Egypt

Jeremiah travelled to Egypt for family reasons. His son, Alan, was consumptive and it was recommended that he spend the winter in Egypt. He set off in November of 1896, accompanied by two of his sisters as well as his very own medical attendant, a Mr Worthington.

Landing in Egypt, the party headed for Cairo and stayed at the Mena House Hotel, overlooked by the pyramids. Jeremiah joined them a few weeks later.

Early in January 1897 the entire party headed for Luxor. They set sail in a dabaheah – a luxury boat commonly hired by well-to-do travellers. It was named Hathor, and it came with a local crew of about 20.

Their travels along the Nile are captured by photographs taken by one of Colman’s daughters, Florence. Clearly a keen photographer, her images show a fascination with the people and sights of Egypt.

The Colmans on donkeys, led by dragomen and others, viewing the sights. Jeremiah is the figure with the beard, riding on a donkey; two of his daughters are also with him. © The Ludham Archive

The Colmans on donkeys, led by dragomen and others, viewing the sights. Jeremiah is the figure with the beard, riding on a donkey; two of his daughters are also with him. © The Ludham Archive

As the Colmans journeyed up the river, Alan’s health steadily deteriorated and he died in early February 1897 – within days of reaching Luxor.

The Colmans, now in mourning and with no wish to remain in Egypt, turned back and headed for Cairo. Jeremiah wrote home saying:

    ‘[w]e are making our way slowly down the river towards Cairo. . . Even apart from the sad associations of our trip, Egypt is not a place which fascinates me. The utter squalor, misery and dirt of the great part of the population is to me most depressing.’
The luxury boat, Hathor, hired by the Colmans to journey up the Nile to Luxor. © The Ludham Archive

The luxury boat, Hathor, hired by the Colmans to journey up the Nile to Luxor. © The Ludham Archive

But his daughters were more enchanted by the country. One wrote that ‘the wonders of that wonderful land . . . came like a rush . . . the brilliant colouring of the place and people alike . . . the bazaars with their priceless treasures of silks. . . and – still more fascinating – the study of the life of the people themselves, all take one captive.’

Buying antiquities

Colman, although not taken with Egypt, nevertheless ended up buying some of its antiquities. This was not uncommon for travellers with money. Jeremiah bought over 250 artefacts.

He had the foresight to have his collection catalogued. The leather-bound catalogue, embossed with Egyptian floral motifs, was the work of the Egyptologist, Quibell (keeper at the Cairo Museum and one of the discoverers of the famous Narmer Palette.)

The catalogue is an invaluable record. Apart from its information about the artefacts, it occasionally names the dealers, such as Mohammed Mohassib, a well-known and well-regarded Luxor dealer, and that at a time when the great demand for antiquities meant not all were so scrupulous.

Another dealer, named Abdul Medjid, is described by Quibell as ‘a thorough scamp’.

The shroud

One of Colman’s purchases was a shroud – the very one which is the subject of this project. Quibell’s catalogue entry is sketchy:

    ‘Linen Sheet. Covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions from the ‘Book of the Dead’. The mummy in the coffin was often covered with a linen sheet of this kind.’

Frustratingly, there is neither mention of the shroud’s provenance or date nor the dealer from whom it was bought.

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

As the shroud is unfolded, so we hope its story will unfold – its provenance, its date and, if we’re lucky, even its owner.

When Sir Jeremiah died (in 1898), he left his collection to two of his daughters, Helen and Ethel. They, too, were good custodians, making it available to anyone who wished to study it – such as the local Egyptian Society of East Anglia, who viewed it at Carrow House, home of the Colmans.

Carrow House, in Norwich. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Carrow House, in Norwich. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

In 1921, the sisters wrote to Norwich City Council offering them their Egyptian antiquities. Pleased to have such a donation, the City gladly accepted and the collection was soon housed in Norwich Castle where it still remains.

As a tribute to their brother, the sisters had a boat built and named it Hathor, after the dabaheah in which Alan had sailed along the Nile.

Hathor, the Norfolk wherry, beautifully decorated with Egyptian motifs, is now a pleasure boat. In the summer it can still be seen cruising along the Norfolk Broads, packed with tourists enjoying a day out.

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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

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