British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: the end of work on site


Neal Spencer, British Museum

Work on site finished yesterday, with final recording, photography and then the logistics of getting all our equipment back by boat to the expedition house after sunset.

A last sunset over the ancient town

A last sunset over the ancient town

Some of our workmen, experienced in building mudbrick architecture on Ernetta island, constructed new walls along the ancient walls of house E13.7, to preserve the painted plaster surface from wind erosion over the coming months.

Ghazafi Mohamed and Hassan Nouri constructing protective walls in house E13.7

Ghazafi Mohamed and Hassan Nouri constructing protective walls in house E13.7

In the next few days we’ll be closing the house, moving objects to the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum and starting our journeys home….

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Amara West 2012: a splash of colour….


Neal Spencer, British Museum

The houses at Amara West can look a little drab to the modern eye: brown mud walls, often with brown mud plaster and even brown clay floors. We are missing the wooden furniture and any textiles that might have broken this monotony, but it is also clear that some parts of houses were brightly painted.

British Museum conservator Philip Kevin has been studying and conserving fragments of painted plaster on mud from Mat Dalton’s excavations in house E13.7 last year. After removing a rather dull white plaster layer from one fragment (F5133d), we can now see that earlier decoration featured yellow, blue, red and black.

Painted decoration from house E13.7

Painted decoration from house E13.7

It seems to consist of a yellow area bordered with a black line, and a more complex decorative motif to the right, which might have framed a door, or the shrine we believe was located in this room.

The same fragment, before removal of the white layer

The same fragment, before removal of the white layer

Further fragments will hopefully reveal more of the room’s original decoration, and the discovery of areas where pigments might have been prepared provides potential for further avenues of research.

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Amara West 2012: coffin mask emerges from a pyramid tomb


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Painted plaster mask on a coffin lid, as revealed in G309.

Painted plaster mask on a coffin lid, as revealed in G309.

There is a general rule in archaeology, the most important finds always come at the very end of the season… and why should it be any different at Amara West?

In the western chamber of pyramid tomb G309, Åshild Vågene has started to reveal a Ramesside coffin made of wood and decorated with painted plaster.

So far, we have exposed most of the red-painted face of a coffin mask, shown with large yellow earrings and a black wig.

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Amara West 2012: through ancient doorways


Neal Spencer, British Museum

Five weeks ago, Mary Shepperson revealed the remains of a stone doorway, tumbled into room two of house E13.6. Over the last few days we have reconstructed the gateway in the courtyard of our house – albeit laid flat on the ground rather than vertical…

Reconstructed sandstone door to room three of house E13.6

Reconstructed sandstone door to room three
of house E13.6

The imposing appearance of the doorway is now more evident, standing 2.35m tall, with a passageway of 88cm wide by 1.75m tall. In terms of scale, many of our field team would have to stoop to walk through the door.

The lintel is made from an unusually fine sandstone – perhaps from Sai island – whereas the doorjambs are of the poor quality sandstone we more often encounter. This doorway would have been set into the mudbrick wall.

The jambs are not inscribed – any inscription would have been into a layer of white plaster, now largely disappeared. On the lintel, the red- and yellow-painted hieroglyphs invoke the god Amun-Ra and Horus Lord of Ta-sety, and also refer to king Tuthmosis III.

Doorway in house E13.9 (excavated 2009)

Doorway in house E13.9 (excavated 2009)

Interestingly, this door was not the main house door, but rather framed the entrance to the central reception room, with a low bench against its back wall. As such it may have marked the transition from more prosaic spaces at the front of the house, towards a more formal space which could be used for welcoming visitors.

Beyond lay two more rooms – presumably the most private areas of the house.

A doorway in an adjacent and contemporary house (E13.9), excavated in 2009, simply lined with mud plaster and with unworked schist slabs for a lintel and threshold, shows how simple internal house doors could be at Amara West.

 

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Amara West 2012: fertility figurines discovered


Hélène Virenque, Egyptologist

Mary Shepperson and I found three small clay figurines in house E13.6, some of the few anthropomorphic representations found at Amara West.

Clay female figurines from house E13.6 (left-right F6018, F5998, F5996)

Clay female figurines from house E13.6 (left-right F6018, F5998, F5996)

Although incomplete, the three figurines have the same rectangular shape and a fine polished surface. They each depict a naked woman, in a very schematic form, with only the breasts and a pubic triangle shown in detail. The breasts are usually added as separate pieces of clay, and thus easily break off, as with two of our examples. The pubic triangle was marked with a series of small holes. None feature legs or arms.

Wooden figurine of a woman with clay hair, from Thebes about 1750 BC. British Museum collection

Wooden figurine of a woman with clay hair, from Thebes about 1750 BC. British Museum collection

Such representations are well known in ancient Egypt, especially from the Middle Kingdom onwards. By emphasing the genitalia, they evoke the woman as a source of fertility and thus could be associated with the cult of the goddess Hathor.

Some similar statuettes were found in Upper Egypt, placed in the temple of Deir el-Bahri during the New Kingdom. Other more elaborate types of fertility figurine, in painted wood, are known from late Middle Kingdom tombs.

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Amara West 2012: preserving ancient basketry, textiles and wood


Philip Kevin, British Museum

Many objects discovered in the cemetery at Amara West require conservation to even allow them to be lifted, as they cannot support their own weight without consolidation.

This is particularly true with organic material, which tends to be poorly preserved in the burial conditions here. In addition to natural degradation through desiccation and the effects of termites, disturbance by looters (ancient and modern) has left objects in a very fragile condition.

Tools of the trade: consolidating fragile organic remains

Tools of the trade: consolidating fragile organic remains

The roofs of the burial chambers were often collapsed as looters entered to gain access to grave contents. The resulting fall of sharp schist gravel ripped through and crushed much of what lay below, including the coffin found in grave G309. Careful excavations by Åshild Vågene revealed traces of wood and plaster.

Tight working conditions: preparing to lift the bed in G314

Tight working conditions: preparing to lift the bed in G314

These coffins are constructed from wood onto which a thin layer of plaster is applied to all surfaces; this is then painted, and in some cases varnished with a plant resin. Our two coffin fragments (of 20cm by 10cm) had only tiny traces of the internal plaster remaining, but pieces of crumbly wood were still in place. The outer plaster skin has survived in better condition, and is painted.

In order to impart some strength to allow the pieces to be lifted, I started by strengthening the wood and plaster with a mixture of solvent and a synthetic adhesive. It was impossible to remove the fine sand and soil without losing original wood and plaster; even using a small blower would cause some plaster to disappear in a cloud of white dust.

Having consolidated the wood and plaster, an additional support was attached to the back (inside of the coffin) and the fragments were then lifted and returned to the expedition house where they await further treatment.

In another grave being excavated by Laurel Engbring and Michaela Binder, fragments of a Nubian-style funerary bed and a basket were revealed, and I treated them in a similar manner before lifting. A fragment of textile (approximately 10cm2) was also conserved in this grave, offering a rare chance to study the weaving technique used.

This is my first time in Sudan, and it has been fantastic – except when I missed my step clambering out of the boat in the 6.30am darkness, and ended up in the Nile.

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Amara West 2012: changing funerary practises


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Up in Cemetery D at Amara West it’s getting increasingly busy as we look towards the last week of excavation. For the last few days I’ve been working with Laurel Engbring on G314 – which has turned out to be one of the most important discoveries this year, with two burial chambers underneath a tumulus superstructure.

Laurel recovering a large vessel from the western chamber in G314

Laurel recovering a large vessel from the western chamber in G314

The large amount of schist slabs covering and blocking the narrow shaft may have prevented the thorough looting (ancient and modern) we often encounter in Cemetery D. Therefore, both chambers provide us with a glimpse into burial customs and cultural expression in the time period after the Egyptian occupation of Amara West, from around 1000 BC onwards. Preservation of organic materials and human remains is also excellent in this grave.

3,000 years of bed-making – ancient fragment from G314 (left), modern example (right).

3,000 years of bed-making – ancient fragment
from G314 (left), modern example (right).

In the western chamber we have revealed one wooden burial bed, and there may be one beneath it. Seven individuals were buried in this small chamber (five metres-square), including adults and children – lying over each other in a rather confusing manner.

The burial positions changed over the period during which the grave was used: the uppermost were buried in a Nubian manner, tightly flexed, whereas the bodies underneath were buried in an extended position, typical of burials in Egypt. A third extended burial has just been found in the entrance area to the western chamber.

What the motivations were for laying out the bodies in this way is difficult to say.

The pottery assemblage from this tomb includes vessel types so far unknown at Amara West, suggesting the development of a local tradition in which Egyptian vessel forms were taken and modified to suit local tastes.

And of course there’s plenty of interesting details for the physical anthropologist. Just yesterday, Laurel recovered an individual with a healed fracture of the sacrum (a large bone at the base of the spine) and a lumbar vertebrae – indications of what must have been an incredibly painful fall on the individual’s backside…

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Amara West 2012: approaching the final week


Neal Spencer, British Museum

The weather continues to surprise, with strong and cold winds making the sky seem foggy. We’re hearing that fellow excavators near Khartoum, and as far north as Luxor in Egypt, are also reporting strange conditions.

Workmen and excavators keeping warm before work starts

At Amara, when we arrive before 7am, the workmen are usually huddling around a fire to keep warm. Far from electrical lights, we also become more aware of the cycles of the moon – we’ve just had a full moon, and work started today as the moon set over the town and cemetery.

The moon setting over Amara West at 06.58 on 9 February 2012

We start our last week of digging on Saturday – trying to answer some outstanding questions, but most importantly ensuring everything we’ve excavated has been properly documented so that research and post-excavation work can continue over the rest of the year.

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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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