British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: questions and challenges in house E13.7


Mat Dalton, archaeologist

This season at Amara West, a team of workmen from Ernetta Island and myself will set out to answer some of the intriguing questions raised by last years’ excavations of the unusual house E13.7.

View of white-painted walls in house E13.7, with walls of later E13.4 above

View of white-painted walls in house E13.7, with walls of later E13.4 above

While most houses so far excavated at Amara are axial – that is, a series of rooms laid out in a row with only one or two entrances to each – E13.7 is radial. The house, a neighbour to the palatial Residence of the Deputy of Kush (the most important position in the Egyptian administration of Upper Nubia), has a large central room (E13.7.3) and no less than five separate doorways leading from it, not to mention a black and white painted wall decoration motif that is so far unique at the site.

View of the main room (E13.7.3) with column base at the centre

View of the main room (E13.7.3) with column base at the centre

Where do these doorways lead? How large was the complete house, and what kind of activities took place within it? Why was it so completely demolished and built over by much smaller houses?

Trying to answer these questions will be quite an undertaking; a lot of later overlying buildings and deposits will have to be examined first. In the south a new ‘street’ – the size of a narrow lane to those of us freshly arrived from London – was even built over the top of the house after it was demolished. An extra challenge (well known to my colleagues Shadia Abdu Rabo and Charlie Vallance from the 2011 excavation season) is caused by the pits dug in more recent times to extract material from the old walls to make new mudbricks.

Plan of house E13.7 at the end of the 2011 season

Plan of house E13.7 at the end of the 2011 season

Mudbrick walls are perfect trench supports, keeping sand out of our excavation areas. With these mined away in the south of our excavation area, we have had to engage in a running battle with the endless loose sand threatening to overwhelm the trench. Sandbag walls engineered yesterday by workman Gazafi Mohammed Ahmed are currently keeping the sand at bay.

Sandbag engineering at Amara West

Sandbag engineering at Amara West

Similar structures (though usually built of mudbrick or recycled stone) are also found in the doorways of ancient houses, where they would have stopped windblown sand and rising street dirt from creeping inside. A helpful reminder of how the problems faced by Amara West’s ancient inhabitants and its modern excavators are sometimes not so very different…

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

Amara West 2012: excavation in the cemeteries


Michaela Binder, Durham University

This year’s team – Ashild, Laurel, Milena, Mohammed Saad and myself – is finally complete and we’re ready to kick off the 2012 season of excavating in the cemeteries at Amara West. The strong winds of the last few days have made excavation a bit difficult, but on Friday conditions were perfect.

Dawn in the cemetery at Amara West

Dawn in the cemetery at Amara West

There’s no time to be wasted: despite exhausting travelling from Europe to Khartoum and then immediately onwards to Amara West, work started the day after everyone arrived and settled into the house.

Milena documenting the superstructure of G309

Milena documenting the superstructure of G309

The first day on site, everyone familiarised themselves with the cemetery and started documenting the surface features of individual graves. Except for Mohammed Saad, none of the other members of the cemetery team have worked in Sudan before.

Hassan Awad, cleaning the shaft of G310. Behind is what we thought was the opening to a burial chamber…

Hassan Awad, cleaning the shaft of G310. Behind is what we thought was the opening to a burial chamber…

Laurel is working on a small burial mound (G310), and was the first one to start ‘real’ excavation. Three workmen soon revealed a large, rectangular pit orientated east-west filled with windblown sand. After about one metre, the shaft starts cutting into the bedrock.

On the western side of the shaft, something that looked like the opening to a burial chamber soon appeared – very much to everyone’s excitement.

Unfortunately, however, the grave turned out to be empty – perhaps looted in ancient times like many of the graves at Amara West.

Well, there are plenty more to come.

 

 

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Amara West 2012: this season’s houses


Neal Spencer, British Museum

The expedition house is suddenly very busy, with 10 more team members arriving over the last 24 hours – archaeologists, an illustrator, finds registrar and physical anthropologists. We were on site today at 7.00am, and full-scale excavation in the town was soon underway.

Mat Dalton overseeing excavation of south street E13.12

Mat Dalton overseeing excavation of south street E13.12

Shadia Abdu Rabo was joined by Tom Lyons, and the latest floor has been reached in the middle room of house E13.8, built against the inside of the northern town wall. The focal point of the room is a small round hearth – which would have provided heat but also a cooking place – and there is also a low bench (mastaba) against the back wall. Amidst the rubble on the floor, fragments of mud with impressions of reeds, grasses and wooden poles hint at the roof that once covered the room.

Room two in house E13.8, with partly excavated rubble above hearth and floor

Room two in house E13.8, with partly excavated rubble above hearth and floor

To the south, house E13.6 is being excavated for the first time. Set in the middle of the block, with an entrance onto the southern street, parts of three rooms were excavated today. Mary Shepperson started removing wall and roof collapse from the front room, while Hélène Virenque cleared parts of the room in the northeast of the house. No floor has appeared yet….

Key plan of housing block in E13.3

Key plan of housing block in E13.3

Finally, in the southwestern corner of the block, Mat Dalton has returned to house E13.7 (itself beneath house E13.4), the early dwelling arranged around two large rooms, with walls painted in white. We’re trying to reveal more of this house without removing later (but still 3,000 year old) architecture above. With this in mind, Mat has started removing material from the southern street. Unfortunately a deep pit through the street and the wall of the Deputy’s Residence makes it difficult to excavate without loose sand flowing in.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

A conservator says goodbye to China


Valentina Marabini, British Museum

After a year in China studying with the conservators at the Shanghai Museum, I arrived back in London in mid-December to start putting into practice at the British Museum the many new skills and techniques I learned.

Examining a painting in the studio

In the last few months of my placement, I undertook a number of projects and had the opportunity to speak about my work at some international events.

One such event was the Forum for Curators of Chinese Art at the Seattle Art Museum in the USA, 27-29 July organised by the JS Lee Foundation. Curators, scientists, archeologists and conservators from both western and eastern museums came together to present, discuss and share their work and I was invited to speak about my time studying the conservation of Chinese heritage paintings in the conservation studio at Shanghai Museum.

In October I gave an introduction to the techniques I used in two conservation cases at the Fine Art Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This gave me the chance to visit the Hong Kong Museum of Art, where I was able to meet fellow conservators and discuss examples from their collections and conservation challenges and methods with them.

The Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

I then went on to the National Palace Museum of Taipei, where I was given the honour of seeing some of their great masterpieces. The Head of Conservation, Mr Hung Sun Xin, allowed me to spend some time at their conservation facility and talked with me about materials and methods they use.

Finally, a visit to the Palace Museum in Beijing concluded my time in China. I have great interest in the northern style of conservation practice and the short exchange with my counterparts in Beijing left a warm impression contrasting with the cold temperature in the city.

The Palace Museum in Beijing, China

Now, back in London, I am beginning to reflect on the opportunity I’ve just had and my gratitude to the JS Lee Foundation for making this year of study – and the extensive knowledge it has brought me – possible.

I’d also like to express my appreciation to Master Zhu Pin Fang, whose time, knowledge and assistance provided me with the chance to develop my technical skills in a unique environment.

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Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai

Amara West 2012: return to cemetery D


Michaela Binder, Durham University

In the cemeteries, our work will mainly focus on cemetery D this year, the cemetery area to the north-west of the town. Located on an escarpment, previous excavations in this cemetery by the Egypt Exploration Society (1938/39) and by us in 2010, revealed evidence suggesting that this area was used as a burial ground for the elite. As we’ve only excavated a small number of graves in this area so far, the additional graves excavated this season will allow us to confirm – or modify – this hypothesis.

Two of the burial mounds we’ll excavate this season

Two of the burial mounds we’ll excavate this season

We’ll start with graves in the immediate vicinity of the elite Ramesside tombs excavated in 2010. On the surface, the tombs are visible as low circular mounds of schist blocks and rubble. The rubble might indicate that the underlying substructures are carved into the bedrock and therefore could be rather substantial. I can’t wait until the team finally arrives to find out what is underneath.

Early morning, first day of excavating in cemetery D

Early morning, first day of excavating in cemetery D

Early on Tuesday, a beautiful but rather brisk morning, I and a small group of three workmen started removing the windblown sand from the shaft of grave G307, where excavation had begun in 2010. Presumably due to wind erosion of the surface, a large proportion of the grave’s original height has disappeared over the centuries. How much is left of the burial chamber on the west side of the rectangular shaft will be seen over the next few days.

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Amara West 2012: the first day back on site


Neal Spencer, British Museum

After a few days preparing the house and all our equipment for the coming weeks of excavation, three of us took the boat journey to site on 2 January for the first time this season.

Site tent and wheelbarrows at Amara West

Site tent and wheelbarrows at Amara West

Michaela Binder walked the ground in cemetery D, where excavation will begin this week, but I spent most of my time supervising the erection of our site tents. One houses the policemen who guard the site, while the other is for our equipment. The tents also offer a welcome respite from the howling winds (like today) or biting flies, depending on the climate.

Once the tents were up, we started excavating in one of the houses (E13.8) under the supervision of Shadia Abdu Rabo. The upper deposit of mudbrick rubble has already yielded fragments with impressions of wooden poles, matting and foliage, indicating the space was once covered with a substantial roof.

Starting excavation in the back room of house E13.8

Starting excavation in the back room of house E13.8

Alongside pottery, fragments of ostrich eggshell, stone tools, carnelian and jasper jewellery have already come to light – perhaps this space will prove as intriguing as the other back rooms in this block of houses?

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

Season five approaches at Amara West


Neal Spencer, British Museum

For the Amara West team, Christmas and New Year is always coloured by the anticipation of a return to site. Ahead lies the unknown of new excavations, and undoubtedly some surprising logistical challenges….

House E13.8, between the town wall (left), and house E13.3, excavated last year.

House E13.8, between the town wall (left), and house E13.3, excavated last year.

Work on site will concentrate on two areas: Michaela Binder will be leading a team of specialists in cemetery D, our second full season in this burial ground where Egyptian-style tombs of the New Kingdom are found alongside later burials reflecting Nubian traditions. And this season, we’ll be joined by the first participants in the Amara West Field School, generously supported by the Institute of Bioarchaeology. Mohamed Saad, from the National Corporation of Antiquities, and Åshild Vågene, recently graduated from Durham University, will together learn the methods for excavating graves – often badly disturbed – to retrieve the maximum information on skeletal remains.

House E13.7 last month, now buried beneath sand (and with a later house built above it).

House E13.7 last month, now buried beneath sand (and with a later house built above it).

Down in the town, all our efforts will be concentrated on the dense block of housing in the northwest of the town. We’ll continue work in house E13.7, the early dwelling with white-painted walls, but also start work on two new houses, E13.6 and E13.8. We can already see the layout of the house, but cannot predict what awaits us in each room, or what earlier architecture might lie beneath!

Fragments of painted plaster, with chequerboard pattern, from a possible shrine in house E13.7

Fragments of painted plaster, with chequerboard pattern, from a possible shrine in house E13.7

Of course, the expedition house will also be a hive of activity, with work on pottery, finds and of course organisation of scientific samples continuing. This year we’ll also be joined by Philip Kevin, a conservator from the British Museum, who will work on revealing the colourful decoration on the painted plaster fragments from a possible house shrine.

We’ll be sending updates on the various aspects of work over the next two months: excavation starts 2 January….

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
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