British Museum blog

Insights in clay: luxury products and trade at Amara West


Marie Millet, College de France, Paris

I’ve recently spent two weeks working at the British Museum, meeting colleagues working on the Amara West project, drawing pottery from last season’s excavations and also looking at archive material. Though the majority of our finds, including pottery, stay in Sudan, each season we have the opportunity to bring back samples for scientific analysis, and also to borrow vessels of particular interest for conservation and reconstruction. These will be returned to Sudan in due course.

Mycenaean stirrup jar found at Amara West

Mycenaean stirrup jar found at Amara West

I have previously written about the shapes and purposes of the vessels we find in excavations, but another important part of working on pottery is to study the fabrics, that is, the different preparations of clay – often mixed with materials such as chaff – used to make the vessels. As the composition of clay varies from region to region, the fabrics can indicate where a vessel may have been made, which has implications for the organisation of production, transport and trade networks. I completed an initial classification on site using a hand-lense that provides magnification of 20x.

A photograph showing the clay fabric of a pottery vessel

A photograph showing the clay fabric of a pottery vessel

Back in the British Museum laboratories, a range of scientific techniques can be applied to refine my classification, using much higher magnifications, but also analysis of the inclusions and chemical make-up of individual samples. This research is being led by Michela Spataro of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. Preliminary results suggest that much of the ‘Egyptian-style’ pottery which dominates the assemblage at Amara West is actually being produced in the local region, from clay very similar to that used for the Nubian handmade cooking vessels. Yet we have no evidence for the kilns in which this pottery was made.

Conservator Rachel Swift carefully reconstructed fragments of Mycenaean stirrup jars, found in a domestic context in the southwestern corner of the town. These distinctive vessels were used to store oil or perfume, and can provide insights into the inhabitants’ access and desire for imported luxury products. Rachel’s work produced fragments of four different vessels, and Andrew Shapland, curator in the Department of Greece and Rome, brought us to a storeroom where a large collection of similar vessels from other excavations are housed. This provided us with a better sense of the date of these vessels, but also illustrated how much the decoration and pottery fabric itself could vary. Such variations can hint at whether the vessels were produced in Greece, or were imitations produced in the Levant or Egypt. We now plan chemical analyses to confirm where each vessel was made.

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All prospective users of The British Museum Library had to apply in writing, stating their reasons for study there. At the time he applied for a reader's ticket, Arthur Conan Doyle was already well-known as the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, but he had not yet given up his work as a doctor, and in this letter of application he gives his occupation as 'physician'.
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