British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: excavating in the cemeteries


Mohammed Saad, Inspector, National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, Sudan and Amara West Field School participant

I’m currently excavating a grave (317) in Cemetery D. It extends east-west and is around 2.5 metres in length, with a rather small shaft (only about 90cm long) leading to a small burial chamber around 1.2m wide. There are no remnants of a superstructure, and the roof of the chamber has been removed by surface erosion, where a scatter of schist stones suggests the grave was looted in ancient times.

Mohammed recording the location of the skeletons

Mohammed recording the location of the skeletons

We unearthed skeletal remains and some faience and shell beads scattered in windblown sand in the burial chamber, but below this we found another skeleton, undisturbed and intact. Among the most interesting things about this burial are the plant remains found associated with it, which when studied will tell us more about how the bodies were treated for burial. The individual is rested on the remains of matting made from plant material. Its colour ranges between light and dark grey, but it’s very soft and fragile. Wrappings of this kind have been found in other graves at Amara West, but rarely so well-preserved as in this case.

Lower burial with ceramic vessels placed by the head

Lower burial with ceramic vessels placed by the head

Directly underlying this skeleton, I found another one. This time, it was a completely intact adult male with a bad fracture to one of the bones of the left hand, and covered in the same kind of matting. There were also some objects buried alongside him: a shallow bowl and a small jar, which we think might date to the New Kingdom period, or shortly afterwards.

Find out more about the Amara West research project

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology,

Amara West 2012: paint it red, yellow, blue…


Hélène Virenque, Egyptologist

Since the start of excavations three weeks ago, room three – to the north of the room where Mary Shepperson found the decorated lintel – of house E13.6 has demanded most of my attention. Last week we revealed the walls of a phase beneath the house, which might be part of a long magazine, of the type already found in this area during an earlier season.

Rather different, here, is the construction of small walls one brick-width thick, delimiting two small spaces within the possible storage magazines.

Among the sand, mudbrick rubble and ceramics which filled this area, we came across pigments: lumps of yellow and red ochre (a natural resource), but also blue pigment, which must be made from transforming calcium carbonate and copper oxide. The blue pigment was found on ceramic sherds, on which it was prepared before use. We also found small blocks of pigment where one side has been flattened through rubbing, while the other has been impressed with the fingers of the ancient painter.

Completing the picture, a large granodiorite stone was found in the northern of the two small spaces; yellow pigment adhering to the depression in the working surface indicates this stone was used for pigment preparation.

Granodiorite stone with remains of yellow pigment

Granodiorite stone with remains of yellow pigment

Usually, raw pigments were mixed with a medium such as gum arabic or egg-white, before being applied. Perhaps these colours were being prepared to paint the walls of some rooms. Many were plastered with plain clay, but we have found evidence of red and white-painted walls. Fragments of painted plaster, possibly from a household shrine, found in 2011, display a similar colour palette, with reds, blues and yellows.

Thus far we can only be sure that these small – perhaps short-lived – spaces were used to prepare colour pigments. It does not mean the space was a dedicated workshop, as small-scale craft activities are known to have taken place within people’s houses.

Find out more about the Amara West research project

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Amara West 2012: meanwhile, back at the house….


Elisabeth Greifenstein, University of Wuerzburg and Marie Vandenbeusch, University of Geneva

Our team of archaeologists and osteologists excavating in the houses and graves of Amara West unearth a wide variety of finds – nearly all of which are brought back to the expedition house on the afternoon of discovery, even when very heavy

What then happens with all these objects?

The expedition house is very busy during the day. Marie Vandenbeusch registers the finds and is responsible for their storage in the magazine; Elisabeth draws pottery and objects, while Marie Millet is responsible for the ceramics, helped by Sallah who washes the masses of incoming sherds. Sallah, who lives nearby on the island of Ernetta, is also being trained to sieve botanical samples, which will provide insights into the food that the town’s inhabitants were eating.

Sandstone doorjamb (F990) with badly eroded hieroglyphs

Sandstone doorjamb (F990) with badly eroded hieroglyphs

All this work is providing us with a better understanding of the settlement of Amara West, and helps us date and interpret the buildings, features and objects we encounter.

For example, Elisabeth’s drawings have helped confirm the reading of the royal name at the end of the eroded inscription on a sandstone doorjamb (F990) found exposed on the surface east of the town wall. The signs written in the cartouche were not readable until seen in a variety of different lights, but also with a torch during the dark hours of the early morning. We are now confident it bears the name of Ramesses II. The jamb is likely to come from the town’s temple, or perhaps a smaller chapel, but could have been re-used in a house.

 

The anticipation builds as the excavators return to the house at around 2.30pm each day…

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Amara West 2012: excavating a burial


Milena Grzybowska, physical anthropologist

Once documentation of the chapel and pyramid of grave G309 was complete, we started excavation of the substructure. As expected, a shaft leads to two burial chambers carved into schist bedrock, all arranged on an east-west axis.

Milena excavating at the base of the shaft in G309

Milena excavating at the base of the shaft in G309

However, some details of construction were unusual for this cemetery: a schist slab was used as a door jamb for the western chamber, and the shaft was partly lined with mudbrick and then plastered.

Near the base of the 2.5 metre deep shaft, an intact burial was found. This skeleton of a 15-20 year-old female was found in a prone position (lying on her front), extended with her arms placed along her sides. This suggests the body was tightly wrapped in a shroud – or possibly mummified.

The woman was found on a mat, probably of reed, which will be confirmed by botanical analysis. Blue, red and white beads were found around her neck, while both of her hands were adorned with bracelets of faience beads.

A scarab, found in her left hand, is carved with a depiction of two baboons greeting the sun – symbolised by an obelisk.

Establishing the sex of an individual is often problematic in osteology, but the skeleton of a foetus, found still within the pelvic area of the mother, left no doubts. According to a preliminary skeletal analysis, the baby reached the 28th week of its intrauterine life and did not exhibit any skeletal abnormalities.

Burial of a woman at the base of the shaft in G309

Burial of a woman at the base of the shaft in G309

The reason of death for both individuals might never be established. The foetus was found in a position not suggestive of a child-birth death, and ff the mother succumbed to some other pregnancy-related complications it might not leave evidence on the skeleton. A thorough analysis of potential pathological conditions identifiable in the mother’s remains might, however, shed some light on this matter in the future. For example, on the basis of healed porosity of the cranium and orbits, we might suspect that the mother had suffered and recovered from anaemia during her life.

Find out more about the Amara West research project

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

The India Leadership Training Programme

Matthew Cock, Head of Web, British Museum

I was lucky enough to be part the British Museum’s team running the first module of the Leadership Training Programme, which has just finished in Delhi. The programme was initiated by the National Culture Fund (NCF) under the Indian Ministry of Culture, with 20 delegates drawn from museums across India – from Delhi to Kolkotta, Mumbai to Chennai – including directors, curators, conservators and administrators.

Programme delegates with Neil MacGregor and Shobita Punja and staff from the British Museum and NCF

Programme delegates with Neil MacGregor and Shobita Punja and staff from the British Museum and NCF

The course is spread over three modules, the first focused on strategic, leadership and management skills, the second in March at the British Museum, on the more practical specialisms of a modern museum such as interpretation, documentation, marketing and education. The final module will be in Mumbai in May. I have no doubt that the two-way exchange of knowledge between delegates and British Museum staff will continue between modules and hopefully beyond the end of the course.

The training sessions were held at the National Culture Fund, in their offices next to the National Gallery of Modern Art. The sessions were long and energetic, with lots of discussion, workshops and case studies from both within and outside the Museum sector, and plenty of passionate debate about ways of leading institutions in times of change. On the day I joined the course, delegates made short presentations following visits to the National Museum of Delhi and the Sanskriti Museums, where they identified opportunities and prioritised changes that could be made to improve the visitor experience.

Our NCF hosts looked after us really well – particularly at lunchtime, where each day brought a new selection of delicious hot food, with local breads freshly cooked on site.

It was a fascinating experience, and though I didn’t have much time to see a lot of the city in the four days I was there, I learnt a lot about Indian museums, and the amazing quality of their collections. I’m looking forward to working with the delegates again in March, and continuing the discussions we began on the use of digital in many aspects of museum work.

Find out more about the India Leadership Training Programme

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Amara West 2012: nice objects among archaeological puzzles


Tom Lyons, archaeologist, and Shadia Abdu Rabu, Sudan National Museum

Since the last update from house E13.8, excavation of further deposits and features within the rooms has revealed earlier architecture and some interesting finds.

In the central room in the house we have photographed, drawn and dug away a second mud plaster floor surface with a central hearth. This floor was covered in broken pottery and had a partially complete vessel set in it. It also contained a hearth in the same place as the later floor which lay above it. Such consistency of layout suggests the function of the room remained the same.

Bread ovens in the small room at the front of the house have also been excavated. These proved relatively straightforward to remove, but proved difficult to define as they consist of hard-fired ashy silt.

Cleaning ovens in room E13.8.4

Cleaning ovens in room E13.8.4

These are examples of some of the more typical archaeological features we encounter when excavating at Amara West, and indeed in any New Kingdom brick houses. Every house in the town has so far contained a central room for domestic activity and often a separate room for making bread and grinding cereals.

Faience scarab with a depiction of a king as a sphinx

Faience scarab with a depiction of a king as a sphinx

Less common are fine faience artefacts, an example of which turned up this week – we recovered a small but very finely carved scarab which depicts a representation of the king as a sphinx, a classic symbol of pharaonic power, with the name Menkheperra before it. This was one of the names of Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC), popular on amulets and scarabs long after his death.

Looking further ahead (or down!) we saw earlier layers emerging. My trowel made that familiar scraping noise when it strikes hard sandstone: a big stone which by the end of the day had begun to look like a door step, or threshold stone, complete with a little socket for a door post – the only issue being that there isn’t, as yet, a door to go with it, only a big wall. This leads us to believe that there’s either a hidden or blocked doorway, or the adjacent wall is a replacement of an earlier wall.

Such are the daily puzzles which confront us…

Find out more about the Amara West research project

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Amara West 2012: an osteoarchaeologist’s dream…


Laurel Engbring, physical anthropologist

Archaeology can be a bit of a gamble: you can dig for weeks and find nothing.

I began this season at Amara West excavating two shafts. They had little preserved inside them; though we did find the disarticulated remains of a neonate (a newborn child).

Laurel planning a layer of stones above the shaft in G314

Laurel planning a layer of stones above the shaft in G314

The tumulus I am currently excavating (G314) started out as a simple raised mound in Cemetery D, and initially proved somewhat frustrating. Beneath the sandy surface of the shaft lurked a series of schist slabs and large stones, covering a smaller east to west oriented shaft, lined in places with mudbrick. After photographing, leveling, planning and sectioning the stones, I excitedly removed the layer of huge stones, anticipating what lay beneath.

This turned out to be another layer of stones. After documenting this layer, and removing it, a third layer was revealed. In some ways this was frustrating. In other ways, the effort enhanced the anticipation.

Removing the schist slabs from G314

Removing the schist slabs from G314

When a fourth layer of schist slabs was removed, we finally discovered chambers extending to the east and west, nearly two metres in each direction.

My initial peek into the western chamber revealed disarticulated human bones and a few large ceramic vessels: an osteoarchaeologist’s dream!

The excavation and recording of the bones has just begun, making the 5.30am starts much easier.

Find out more about the Amara West research project

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Amara West 2012: street life in the ancient town


Mat Dalton, archaeologist

Two weeks into excavations in the street (E13.12) outside house E13.4 at Amara West have helped answer some questions raised during last year’s season, confirmed our thoughts about major building phases in this part of the town, and provided some tantalising new clues as to how life in this neighbourhood changed over time.

The six workmen in my team and I have so far removed around 60cm of deposits from the street, which we have exposed along a 14 metre stretch.

View west down street, with door into house E13.4, and pit through street deposits

View west down street, with door into house E13.4, and pit through street deposits

In some ways we are lucky to have a huge, late pit slicing through the street; this cut gives us a preview of the deposits we will remove, including their thickness and probable formation processes. This side-on view is particularly informative, showing us the street is composed of hundreds (if not thousands) of laminated wind-deposited lenses (very thin layers) of silt and sand.

These deposits built up over time as sand and silt eroded from houses over the street, people dumped sweepings from their houses outdoors, and sand blew in with the strong north-westerly winds from the Sahara desert.

 


 

The street deposits are packed with small potsherds, eroded by foot traffic and exposure to the elements. There are also the likely remnants of animal manure and waste from craft production, including small scattered spreads of red and white pigment around the door into house E13.4. The street functioned as something of an informal, small-scale rubbish dump.

Upright schist stone (right) protecting outside corner of house E13.4

Upright schist stone (right) protecting outside corner of house E13.4

On three wall corners within the street we have found evidence that large upstanding stones were put in place to stop street traffic from damaging the vulnerable mudbrick walls. On one corner in particular, the smooth and rounded damage seems to match up well with the shape and height of a donkey; it doesn’t take much to imagine the narrow streets of Amara West bustling with human and animal traffic.

Sandstone doorway from street into house E13.4 (walls of house E13.7 visible beneath)

Sandstone doorway from street into house E13.4 (walls of house E13.7 visible beneath)

Underneath the softer, silty street deposits we have encountered a thick flat layer of hard building rubble, apparently dumped into the street at the same time as house E13.7 was levelled and filled with a very similar material to allow construction of later house E13.4. This new house required several new doorways from the resurfaced street. As this major re-arrangement of the neighbourhood occurred not only in one house, but also in adjacent public spaces (like the street), we must wonder what could have prompted such a major rebuilding exercise that would have clearly affected many people’s everyday lives.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

The journey begins


Qaisra Khan, exhibition project curator

The exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is now installed inside the Reading Room of the Great Court. It’s the result of many, many months of work by not only the curators of the exhibition but also the project managers, conservators, museum assistants, the display, mounting, lighting designers, digital media design teams, graphic designers, construction teams, and art transportation companies! With everybody making sure all objects arrive safely and unpacking and putting them safely into their respective cases, this was truly a team effort. To get all of the objects displayed inside the exhibition space took over a month…and it’s finally ready!

British Museum object handlers mount a tile from Isnik in Turkey. The tile is on loan from the V&A Museum's collection.

Although as curators we had carefully selected each of the objects that feature in the exhibition, some of the objects travelled from far flung places and we had never seen them in the flesh before. Being close to these objects while they were being installed was a wonderful experience – they all surpassed our expectations! The scope of the exhibition, with 40 lenders from 13 different locations from around the world, is vast – and it has been an amazing achievement to get such wonderful objects together to represent the story of Hajj.

The magnificent Hajj banner from the Harvard Art Museum.

I was completely amazed, for example, by the wonderful Hajj banner from the Harvard Art Museum made out of beautiful scarlet red silk, which measures 369.5cm x 190.5cm. Dated 1683, it tells the story of the movement of Hajj caravans. This banner was carried from North Africa, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, by members of the Qadiriyya Sufi order on Hajj. It is a striking object which would have been seen by pilgrims from a great distance, decorated with floral patterns typical of the Ottoman era. The inscriptions in the North African style of script, known as Maghribi, clearly confirm its use on Hajj. In the 17th century this must have been a splendid beacon to guide pilgrims who were traversing great distances to reach the place of their dreams.

The exhibition opens to the public next Thursday 26 January and runs until 15 April 2012. I hope you can come along.

Leave a comment or tweet using #hajjexhibition to let us know what you think about the exhibition

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Amara West 2012: a first Kerma period burial discovered


Åshild Vågene, physical anthropologist, Institute of Bioarchaeology Amara West Field School

Excavation of tumulus G308 in cemetery D at Amara West revealed a grave roughly three metres in diameter, with an interior structure of a type typical of the Kerma period. The interior of the grave is circular, consisting of two steps leading down towards a smaller circular grave pit in the southwest corner.

Tumulus G308 prior to excavation

Tumulus G308 prior to excavation

These features set the grave apart from the other tumuli dug here – yet another grave type found in cemeteries C and D.

The remains of a single individual were found within the grave, heavily disturbed, but with enough skeletal elements to suggest that the individual was buried in a flexed position: another difference with most burials at Amara West.

The interior structure of G308

The interior structure of G308

The presence of a few beads and sherds indicates there were originally grave goods placed with the deceased. However, the disarticulated state in which the skeleton was found, coupled with the sparse number of finds, suggests that this grave had been looted.

Planning of G308 during excavation, with Åshild and fellow Field School participant Mohamed Saad

Planning of G308 during excavation, with Åshild and fellow Field School participant Mohamed Saad

Despite this, some notable pottery was found close to the surface on the outer edges of the interior grave. Two complete ceramic vessels were uncovered and their position far from the body itself might indicate they are the remains of funerary offerings, not grave goods.

Kerma pottery, awaiting transport back to the expedition house....

Kerma pottery, awaiting transport back to the expedition house....

Being typical examples of Kerma pottery, with trademark red exterior and black rim, they suggest the burial is of the Kerma period (2500-1500 BC). This would be much earlier than the other burials – and indeed the occupation of the town.

Study of the ceramics – drawing, analysing the fabric, and comparing to published examples from other sites – should allow the date range to be narrowed down.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

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