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.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

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

Join 14,948 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,948 other followers

%d bloggers like this: