British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: an everyday mystery

Neal Spencer, British Museum

The reality of excavating an ancient urban site quickly dispels visions of unearthing gilded funerary masks, finely carved stone statues or papyri bearing literary texts. Nonetheless, studying the wide range of tools, items of adornment, ritual objects and of course pottery found amidst our houses and streets can provide much information about the inhabitants and their activities.

Pottery discs recovered from one deposit excavated this season

But many finds perplex us. And none more so than two types of artefact that turn up in nearly every deposit we excavate.

A sandstone sphere

Firstly: pottery discs. These small objects, generally 2-4cm in diameter are made from broken fragments of pottery vessels, recut into round (or nearly round) shapes. What were these for? As they are rarely found in their original context, it is impossible to say. In all likelihood, they had multiple uses: as counters, gaming pieces, weights, used as smoothers, or even to act as stoppers in narrow jars. When there is a hole cut in the centre, they may have had a different purpose, perhaps used in weaving textiles.

Secondly: sandstone spheres. We find a similar quantity of these, roughly worked, ‘marbles’. Again, they probably had many uses, including some of the same purposes as the pottery discs. We also find similar artefacts made of unfired clay.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. evalmedi says:

    Stone marbles = Ammunition for slingshots? … Just guessing…. Rob


  2. ounogi niri says:

    may be the pottery discs could also serve to dry wet clay objects before or during firing.
    in any case it’s a nice enigma!


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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

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