British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: Kerma pottery


Marie Millet

Earlier this season, we discovered a Kerma grave (G308) in cemetery D. Being accustomed to finding New Kingdom (or post New Kingdom) pottery in this cemetery, it was surprising to find four pottery vessels typical of the Kerma civilization, especially a bowl with incised decoration on the rim.

Fragment of a Kerma vessel (C8075), with incised rim decoration, from Grave 308

Example of a black-topped red ware vessel (C8077) from Grave 308.

Classic Kerma beaker, British Museum EA 55424, from Kerma. C. 1750-1650 BC

The pottery in the grave can be dated, by looking at parallels from other sites, to the middle of the third millenium BC or early second millenium BC, so many centuries before the Egyptian town was founded in the reign of Seti I (1290-1279 BC).

During the Kerma civilization, pottery is the most abundant artefact in graves. All hand-made from Nile clay mixed with fine straw, the pots were made by building up coils of clay. Despite being aware of the Egyptian technique of making vessels on a potter’s wheel, the coil technique was retained, and very fine vessels were produced.

Most Kerma culture pots are known as “black-topped redware”, as the interior and rim is black and the exterior surface is red. This type of pottery is common in Egypt during the Predynastic Period only, but continues in Nubia through later periods.

To achieve the black-topped appearance, the unfired vessels are placed in an open area, then covered with sand, and sometimes earth, sand and ash. Placed upside down, the parts exposed to the air are turned red through oxidisation, whereas the rims turn black through carbonisation. In addition to polishing, some are incised with decoration near the rim, as with one example from this grave.

The discovery of an early Kerma burial suggests a Nubian community lived nearby, long before the Egyptian town was built … In the town, we have so far found only one sherd from a Classic Kerma beaker (C4382), with a distinctive blue-grey band between the black and red.

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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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Amara West 2012: excavating excavations


Tom Lyons, archaeologist and Neal Spencer, British Museum

The EES team, with workmen, at Amara West in 1938-9. Seated left of centre is I.E.S. Edwards, then working as Assistant Keeper in the British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities.

The EES team, with workmen, at Amara West in 1938-9. Seated left of centre is I.E.S. Edwards, then working as Assistant Keeper in the British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities.

One house we have been excavating (E13.8) is not only located against the four metre-thick northern wall of the town but also at the limit of previous excavations undertaken by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES). The EES excavated the temple, parts of the town and the cemeteries in 1938-9 and 1947–50.

Tom cleaning a wall previous exposed by the EES. To the left is the edge of house E13.8

Tom cleaning a wall previous exposed by the EES.

Part of being an archaeologist in the twenty-first century includes rediscovering and reinterpreting the work of our predecessors in the field, when methods and aims were different from today. The excavators of the 1930s and 1940s focused on the temple, inscriptions and architectural plans. Occupation deposits received almost no attention, and of course many analytical methods now available were unheard of then.

We have just emptied 61 years of accumulated sand from one of the buildings excavated in 1949-50, immediately adjacent to our house E13.8. At the base of the excavation, we found a wall of a building they designated E.12.6.

In addition to confirming the accuracy of their plan, we can now explicitly link their architectural phases to ours, which means much of the town excavated in the 1930s and 40s can be fitted into the stages of urban development we have been able to reconstruct from the houses we are investigating.

The previous excavators never saw the eastern side of building E.12.6, and it is something we may find in the coming weeks…

Italian matchbox discarded by the EES excavators in the 1940s.

Italian matchbox discarded by the EES excavators in the 1940s.

Other aspects of the EES excavations have also come to light – including a fine matchbox found next to the residence of the Deputy of Kush, in a street partly excavated in the late 1940s. It has been registered as a find alongside the artefacts of the ancient inhabitants, as it all forms part of the site’s history.

Thanks are due to the Egypt Exloration Society, for permission to use the archive image.

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Amara West 2012: mid-season report from the cemetery


Michaela Binder, Durham University

We’re now halfway through the season in the cemeteries of Amara West and we have excavated 10 tombs (four still ongoing) and made a number of exciting new discoveries. One of the more surprising discoveries so far was the tumulus dating to the early-middle Kerma period excavated by Ashild Vagene and Mohammed Saad at the start of the season.

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

Another major part of this season’s works is the pyramid tomb G309, only the third known at Amara West. Though of distinctive Egyptian appearance on the outside, underneath the surface the grave provides a particular mixture of Egyptian and Nubian cultural elements – a characteristic encountered in so many aspects of life at Amara West.

Difficult working conditions for Philip Kevin consolidating the coffin in G309

Difficult working conditions for Philip Kevin consolidating the coffin in G309

In G309 this is exemplified through a pottery assemblage which features several examples of Egyptian vessel types produced with a technique more typical of local Nubian pottery. At present, Philip Kevin, conservator in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum, is working to preserve parts of a wooden coffin decorated with painted plaster.

No less interesting is G314, the grave Laurel Engbring has been working on for the past few weeks. Underneath a low burial mound, the grave features a shaft with two small burial chambers. While the western one still awaits investigation the eastern chamber is now almost fully exposed.

Mohammed Saad with workmen Rami Mohammed Abdu and Nayel Terab excavating Grave 319

Mohammed Saad with workmen Rami Mohammed Abdu and Nayel Terab excavating Grave 319

Inside we were able to document for the first time an almost complete wooden burial bed. Thanks to Philip, several large side elements could be consolidated and preserved. A female, placed on the bed in a flexed position – characteristic of Nubian funerary traditions – appears to have been covered in a coarse woven textile.

Elsewhere in the cemetery Mohammed Saad, after his exciting discoveries of an almost intact burial container in G317, has moved on to another, slightly different tomb with a nicely carved rock-cut burial chamber. A first glimpse into it leaves us with high expectations: three well-preserved skulls are visible, alongside pottery, all partly covered in sand…

 


 

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Amara West 2012: wind stops play


Neal Spencer, British Museum

‘Wednesday February 1st. Before breakfast, a mighty wind arose ….’

Ancient houses, and our sieves - all that remained on site after wind forced us to stop work

Ancient houses, and our sieves - all that remained on site after wind forced us to stop work

This excerpt from Mary Shepperson’s excavation diary only hints at the howling northerly wind that forced us to stop work on site at 11.00am yesterday. Besides reducing visibility, sand was pouring into rooms as we excavated them, and recording was impossible due to flapping tapes and the sail-like properties of drawing boards.

We stopped work, huddled by the river awaiting our boat, and during the ride home could not see the other bank of the Nile.

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Teddy time traveller


Faye Ellis, Digital Learning Programmes Manager, British Museum

I’ve liked Grayson Perry’s work for a long time, and was hugely excited when I heard that the British Museum would be staging an exhibition of his work. He’s a bit of a legend in my family – there are lots of Grayson Perry books lying around my parents’ house, and my Mum even dressed up as him once – complete with rosy cheeks and teddy bear. Knowing a bit about his work, I was also very aware that the content of the exhibition might be quite adult, and wasn’t too hopeful that we’d be able to do many Grayson-inspired family activities. However, much to my delight, it turned out that we’d be able to run an activity in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre. If you’ve not been yet, the Samsung Centre is a digital education space for young people in the British Museum. We run free activities for families and 13-18s every weekend, and the Grayson Perry session would make up part of that programme.

A lot of the Museum’s activities for young people based on the exhibition have centred around Alan Measles, Perry’s childhood teddy bear, who is, on the surface, the ‘child-friendly face’ of the exhibition (but look closer and you’ll discover he’s a witty, cynical old bear with a strong tendency to swear). We wanted to stick with the theme of teddy bears, but do something a little different. We decided to run a session called Teddy time traveller, inspired by the idea of taking a childhood toy with you on a journey (as Grayson Perry did when he travelled around Bavaria in 2010) and blogging – something which Alan Measles does himself from time to time.

The session has three stages – firstly, families have their photograph taken in front of a green screen with their teddy bear (or one of our six standby bears, if they don’t have one of their own). I even donated my own childhood bear, the unimaginatively named Brown Ted, to take part:

My very own Brown Ted

Next, they use Photoshop (the children are amazingly quick to pick it up!) to insert themselves into an illustrated scene. Finally, they upload the picture to a WordPress blog, and write a short entry about their travels. It was important to me that the children found a ‘voice’ for their bear, and so I put some of the less adult Alan Measles quotes on the walls to inspire them! Although most children wrote the blogs from their own perspective, we did have a few writing as their toys.

Here’s part of a blog entry I particularly liked – especially because of the enormous handful of toys Dan took to Egypt with him:

I went to Egypt and I had lots of fun and a nosebleed. That’s the thing with time travel: nosebleeds. I liked it at Egypt. It was hot. I did some digging and found lots of beads and necklaces and jewellery and a model of a Pharoah. Monkey enjoyed it lots and Margot and Foofah enjoyed it. It was too hot for Monkey…

I wanted the scenes to be visually exciting, and so I asked the illustrator Rob Flowers to create backgrounds of ancient China, Greece, Rome, Egypt and Mexico. His work is bright, bold and funny, just like Grayson’s. Rob used pictures of objects from the Museum when creating the illustrations, and was very interested in where they came from and what they were used for. He was recently interviewed by Topman.co.uk in which he mentions the project and the Museum. Here’s my favourite of the four backgrounds – ancient Mexico:

The Aztec backdrop created by illustrator Rob Flowers

Grayson often mentions technology when giving talks or writing blogs, whether it’s to discuss his dislike of the way we use mobile phones or to write about his appreciation of the potential of technology in craft and design. He’s used technology in his work, including to create some wonderful digital tapestries. It was therefore interesting to create a workshop that entirely used technology, but to create an illusion – children travelling back in time, teddy bears writing blogs…it’s all part of delving deep inside your imagination (something Grayson does in spades) whether it’s through the use of technology or not.

The thing that pleased me most of all about the activity was the fact that children did actually bring their own teddies along – it meant that a lot of our standby teddies sat unused most of the time, but it was hugely encouraging to us that the children felt their bears were so important. One even brought her ‘second-favourite’ teddy because of the fear of losing her favourite one!

We’ll be running six Teddy time traveller sessions altogether – the last one will be on Saturday 4 February. Bring your children, nieces, nephews and all their friends – and don’t forget your teddies!

See all the families’ blogs at http://teddytimetraveller.wordpress.com, and keep up to date with all our free digital activities for families by checking the family events calendar.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
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Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Amara West 2012: the town – halfway through the season


Neal Spencer, British Museum

With three weeks digging left, it’s a good time to reflect on the key discoveries of the season so far in the town of Amara West. Though these have included objects, from the spectacular to the mundane, the combination of stratigraphy and architecture unearthed has allowed us to interpret the purpose of buildings – and one of our key challenges has been to work out which walls belong to which structures, and in what order they were built.

House E13.8

A trapezoid-shaped house, E13.8 is tucked into a space between house E13.3 and the north town wall, and now seems to have been quite a late-comer to Amara West, as Shadia Abdu Rabu and Tom Lyons’ excavations have shown. Whereas the house next door went through over a century of internal changes (from around 1150 BC) but retained its location and basic layout, house E13.8 was built during the last phases of occupation of the town – or at least the last preserved phases.

House E13.8, with location of oven from an earlier building we have just discovered

House E13.8, with location of oven from an earlier building we have just discovered

The modest dwelling features a room directly off the alley, with a space to the left in which a number of ovens had been built into the town wall, which may have been partly eroded and destroyed at this point. The middle room of the house was set around a circular hearth, with a low brick bench on the back wall (mastaba). This room had been replastered at least once.

In the past week, earlier structures have begun to be revealed – and it seems the two back rooms sat above a larger space which contained at least one large oven. More brickwork is appearing beneath the front room, including one wall which might be part of a very early phase building excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society.

The big question we hope to solve before the end of the season is: what function did this earlier building fulfill? It does not yet display the characteristics of an Amara West house.

House E13.6

Again, a surprise here. Unlike the house immediately west of here (E13.4), house E13.6 was only preserved to a few courses in depth, constructed over earlier remains. The house itself was in some ways unremarkable – with a central room featuring a mastaba – though no evidence of a staircase was preserved, unlike nearly every house at Amara West; access to the roof was important for light and air in such a cramped neighbourhood. Of course, the discovery of a painted, carved, door-lintel gave a glimpse at how splendid the interior of this house may once have looked.

The inscribed lintel found in house E13.6

The inscribed lintel found in house E13.6

Beneath, Mary Shepperson and Hélène Virenque have revealed a whole series of walls of earlier phases. Many seem to relate to the long store-rooms with vaulted roofs partly revealed in previous seasons – but others might not. Finding out whether some of these rooms join with the house behind (E13.7) is a key question for the next three weeks. If not, was it built before or after? Or was one building partly dismantled to make way for the next?

Street E13.12

Mat Dalton set out to reveal more of house E13.7, but most of his attention has been diverted to the street, where a fascinating history of refurbishing is being traced. We are now able to walk along an ancient street, past the fronts of houses, giving us a sense of the space, architectural scale, and the dense urban environment that is very rare in domestic archaeology.

Street E13.12 with doors to house E13.4 (left) and E13.9

Street E13.12 with doors to house E13.4 (left) and E13.9

In the last few days, Mat has returned to the scene of his 2010 excavations, in a square room where the presence of a number of ovens suggested it was used as a space for communal cooking. As ever at Amara West, find one oven and several more are likely to follow in quick succession. There are now at least three phases of oven use in the room, some of which are associated with grinding emplacements and their basins. This space would have allowed the neighbourhood’s inhabitants to prepare a significant amount of food.

After the excavations, results of scientific analyses on samples taken from the site should help tell us more about the inhabitants’ diet and how different spaces were used – evidence that can help our imagination make all these urban spaces bustle with people, heat, smoke and undoubtedly much conversation….

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From the fields of Wiltshire to the banks of the Rhine


Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Iron Age cauldrons are rare, so when an excavation in Basel, Switzerland uncovered two Iron Age cauldrons in 2010, collaborations between the British Museum and the Swiss team were inevitable. In the spring, archaeologist Sophie Hugelin and conservator Janet Hawley visited us in London to see our work on the Chiseldon cauldrons. In early December Jamie Hood and I made a return visit to Basel.

The excavation site in Basel, Switzerland

The excavation site in Basel, Switzerland

The Swiss cauldrons are of a similar date and construction to the Chiseldon cauldrons and in a ‘pit’ deposit with a number of other ceramic and metal vessels, possibly as a result of ritual activity. But here the similarity of the find ends. Basel Gasfabrik is a large urban excavation on the banks of the river Rhine at the site of an old gasworks currently undergoing redevelopment. Jamie and I visited the site and were amazed at the vast scale of the excavation compared to the rural setting and small rescue excavation of the Chiseldon cauldrons.

With complex archaeological deposits the ideal method of excavation is to carry out a large three or four metre block lift of the entire deposit enabling further excavation work to be carried out in a more controlled manner away from the site. The scale and equipment required made a large lift impossible at Chiseldon, but at Basel Gasfabrik such equipment was readily available on the building site.

British Museum and Swiss conservators examine the cauldrons found in Basel

British Museum and Swiss conservators examine the cauldrons found in Basel

Although we had seen photographs of the find, seeing the block and cauldrons in person was fascinating and made the similarities in cauldron type with ours more readily obvious and recognisable. It was really valuable to exchange ideas about the archaeology and the conservation of the cauldrons with Janet and Sophie and see the different methods and approaches used.

It is amazing to think that over 2,000 years ago Iron Age man had cultural links hundreds of miles away on the continent, and through the discovery of these two finds we are now establishing links of our own with colleagues in Switzerland.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

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