British Museum blog

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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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