British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: street life in the ancient town


Mat Dalton, archaeologist

Two weeks into excavations in the street (E13.12) outside house E13.4 at Amara West have helped answer some questions raised during last year’s season, confirmed our thoughts about major building phases in this part of the town, and provided some tantalising new clues as to how life in this neighbourhood changed over time.

The six workmen in my team and I have so far removed around 60cm of deposits from the street, which we have exposed along a 14 metre stretch.

View west down street, with door into house E13.4, and pit through street deposits

View west down street, with door into house E13.4, and pit through street deposits

In some ways we are lucky to have a huge, late pit slicing through the street; this cut gives us a preview of the deposits we will remove, including their thickness and probable formation processes. This side-on view is particularly informative, showing us the street is composed of hundreds (if not thousands) of laminated wind-deposited lenses (very thin layers) of silt and sand.

These deposits built up over time as sand and silt eroded from houses over the street, people dumped sweepings from their houses outdoors, and sand blew in with the strong north-westerly winds from the Sahara desert.

 


 

The street deposits are packed with small potsherds, eroded by foot traffic and exposure to the elements. There are also the likely remnants of animal manure and waste from craft production, including small scattered spreads of red and white pigment around the door into house E13.4. The street functioned as something of an informal, small-scale rubbish dump.

Upright schist stone (right) protecting outside corner of house E13.4

Upright schist stone (right) protecting outside corner of house E13.4

On three wall corners within the street we have found evidence that large upstanding stones were put in place to stop street traffic from damaging the vulnerable mudbrick walls. On one corner in particular, the smooth and rounded damage seems to match up well with the shape and height of a donkey; it doesn’t take much to imagine the narrow streets of Amara West bustling with human and animal traffic.

Sandstone doorway from street into house E13.4 (walls of house E13.7 visible beneath)

Sandstone doorway from street into house E13.4 (walls of house E13.7 visible beneath)

Underneath the softer, silty street deposits we have encountered a thick flat layer of hard building rubble, apparently dumped into the street at the same time as house E13.7 was levelled and filled with a very similar material to allow construction of later house E13.4. This new house required several new doorways from the resurfaced street. As this major re-arrangement of the neighbourhood occurred not only in one house, but also in adjacent public spaces (like the street), we must wonder what could have prompted such a major rebuilding exercise that would have clearly affected many people’s everyday lives.

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Amara West 2012: a first Kerma period burial discovered


Åshild Vågene, physical anthropologist, Institute of Bioarchaeology Amara West Field School

Excavation of tumulus G308 in cemetery D at Amara West revealed a grave roughly three metres in diameter, with an interior structure of a type typical of the Kerma period. The interior of the grave is circular, consisting of two steps leading down towards a smaller circular grave pit in the southwest corner.

Tumulus G308 prior to excavation

Tumulus G308 prior to excavation

These features set the grave apart from the other tumuli dug here – yet another grave type found in cemeteries C and D.

The remains of a single individual were found within the grave, heavily disturbed, but with enough skeletal elements to suggest that the individual was buried in a flexed position: another difference with most burials at Amara West.

The interior structure of G308

The interior structure of G308

The presence of a few beads and sherds indicates there were originally grave goods placed with the deceased. However, the disarticulated state in which the skeleton was found, coupled with the sparse number of finds, suggests that this grave had been looted.

Planning of G308 during excavation, with Åshild and fellow Field School participant Mohamed Saad

Planning of G308 during excavation, with Åshild and fellow Field School participant Mohamed Saad

Despite this, some notable pottery was found close to the surface on the outer edges of the interior grave. Two complete ceramic vessels were uncovered and their position far from the body itself might indicate they are the remains of funerary offerings, not grave goods.

Kerma pottery, awaiting transport back to the expedition house....

Kerma pottery, awaiting transport back to the expedition house....

Being typical examples of Kerma pottery, with trademark red exterior and black rim, they suggest the burial is of the Kerma period (2500-1500 BC). This would be much earlier than the other burials – and indeed the occupation of the town.

Study of the ceramics – drawing, analysing the fabric, and comparing to published examples from other sites – should allow the date range to be narrowed down.

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Amara West 2012: inscribed lintel discovered under rubble


Mary Shepperson, archaeologist

House E13.6 at Amara West is a linear domestic house in the centre of the town. In its late phase, the house was entered from a narrow lane through two small rooms, leading to a large central room.

View from the central room through the doorway into room two

View from the central room through the doorway into room two

Excavation in the second of these small rooms revealed a cluster of large white sandstone blocks, lying under mudbrick rubble from a vaulted ceiling. They lay in a jumble in front of the doorway into the central room.

The largest stone slab lay on top of the smaller blocks and was cracked across its width near the centre. The profile of this slab showed that the underside was smooth with a raised edge down one long side; this was clearly a carefully worked stone face, suitable for carrying decoration or an inscription.

After the position of the stone blocks was carefully recorded, preparations were made to lift the top slab. Fortunately, the central crack made this operation much easier and safer, as the block could be moved in two lighter parts. Even so, six stout workmen were needed to lift each half above the height of the walls.

The inscribed block reassembled on site

The inscribed block reassembled on site

The first part was turned over, accompanied by the appropriate ‘ooohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the assembled masses, to reveal crisp, clear bands of inscription. The second section was lifted, turned and joined to show the overall design: horizontal and vertical bands of hieroglyphs running across the middle of the slab and crossing at the centre.

The decorated surface appeared to have been coated in a fine white plaster and then painted. The bands of inscription were bordered with red pigment, and the bodies of the hieroglyphs retained traces of black and white.

Moving the block to the boat

Moving the block to the boat

The block was carried to the boat by teams of local workmen, and ferried safely to the storeroom on Ernetta island, where it is being much admired.

The remaining stone blocks, when reassembled, were found to be two tall door jambs. These would have held the large inscribed block over the doorway as a lintel. When the door jambs broke, they fell into the room, with the inscribed lintel falling on top of them and cracking in two.

The lintel will be studied in due course, with copies and translations made of the inscriptions.

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Amara West 2012: visiting an earlier Egyptian town in Kush


Elisabeth Greifenstein, University of Würzburg

At Amara West, our typical working week consists of six days, with Friday as the traditional day of prayer in Muslim countries. While some team members relax at the house, or catch up on recording, some of us take the opportunity to visit other archaeological sites in the area.

The temple of Soleb

The temple of Soleb

Last Friday we visited Soleb, reknowned for its temple of Amenhotep III, a late 18th Dynasty king who reigned half a century before the foundation of Amara West in the reign of Seti I. Such visits allow us to place Amara West in context – and compare the Ramesside town and cemetery we are digging to others in the Egyptian-controlled area of ancient Nubia.

After an hour-long trip by road and two boat journeys, we entered the temple through its front, east-facing, gate. Well preserved scenes and hieroglyphic inscriptions depict conquered foreign countries (including Kush or Upper Nubia itself) and cities. Egyptian temples, especially in conquered lands, typically presented scenes of domination over foreign lands. Other scenes showed pharaoh offerings to gods, and depictions of the royal jubilee festival (heb-sed). This temple, built on local sandstone of poor quality, would once have been brightly painted.

Column carved with a depiction of a bound Nubian prisoner

Column carved with a depiction of a bound Nubian prisoner

The town surrounding the temple is not well preserved, but remains of Egyptian tombs of the 18th Dynasty were excavated here in the mid-twentieth century, and Soleb may once have acted as the administrative centre of Upper Nubia, prior to Amara West being founded. One tomb was used for the burial of a Deputy of Kush – later incumbents to this position resided in the large building near the West Gate at Amara West.

The trip upstream reminded us how beautiful the country in which we are working is – from landscape to ancient temples and traditional houses.

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Amara West 2012: a stela from house E13.6


Marie Vandenbeusch, University of Geneva and Elisabeth Greifenstein, University of Würzburg

While excavating the front room of house E13.6 at Amara West, archaeologist Mary Shepperson came across a stone lying next to a grindstone. At first it appeared to be a similar object, but upon further inspection it proved to have carved decoration on one face.

Stela F5808 found in room E 13.6.1

Stela F5808 found in room E 13.6.1

This sandstone stela (F5808), 17.4 cm in height, depicts a woman on the right side making an offering of a flower to a seated figure wearing a crown on the left side. As with all finds, this was carefully labelled and brought to the dig house at the end of the day, where they are registered on our database by Marie, and later drawn by Elisabeth.

Even after some days have passed, we (as Egyptologists) are unsure if the figure on the left is wearing the red crown or the double crown, because in different kinds of light the carvings in the eroded areas can be very unclear.

Stela, British Museum EA 68675, from Amara West

Stela, British Museum EA 68675, from Amara West

But the person shown, who might be a king, is holding a long sceptre in his left hand. Comparing this stela with one previously found in Amara West and now in the British Museum (shown here), it might be possible that the names of a king and goddess were written above the head of the figures.

Further study, and especially the process of drawing the stela under different light, might reveal who is depicted. In any case, it is a stela of rather humble quality. Though found in a house, we cannot be sure it was originally set up here, as stelae can be recycled as lids for storage vessels, to construct staircases, or anything else that requires pieces of stone.

 


 

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(shown here)

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Amara West 2012: daybreak on site

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Workmen carrying buckets of spoil near house E13.8

Workmen carrying buckets of spoil near house E13.8

Work starts in the town of Amara West in near darkness at 07.00am every day….

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Amara West 2012: tumuli among the pyramid-tombs

Michaela Binder, Durham University

Here at Amara West, Milena Grzybowska and a team of workmen are still working to remove the windblown sand that fills the shaft at the centre of the brick chapel found earlier this week. They have now reached a depth of 1.8 metres below the surface and have further to go, though entrances to burial chambers on the east and west side of the shaft are already visible.

Removing sand from the chapel of G309

Removing sand from the chapel of G309

Elsewhere in the cemetery, Ashild and Mohammed continue excavating tumulus G308. Even though the grave was disturbed, the skull and parts of the legs were still in situ. These remnants indicate that the adult individual was buried in a contracted body position, a characteristic feature of Nubian burials – consistent with the tumulus superstructure.

This is the first grave of this type excavated in Cemetery D, and the Nubian-style pottery suggests a dating late in the New Kingdom shortly afterwards. Interestingly, the grave is located just metres from the typically pharaonic pyramid tombs.

Tumulus G311

Tumulus G311

A different tumulus (G311) was excavated by Laurel Engbring. Its superstructure, about five metres in diameter, is made up of schist gravel. On the edge of the small burial pit, she discovered the remains of a neonate (a newborn child). The discovery of an infant is unusual, as very few infants and children have been found in the cemeteries at Amara West. This is typical of pharaonic burial grounds, as small children were often buried inside housing areas, or in separate cemeteries.

Yet again, we seem to be seeing both Egyptian and Nubian funerary traditions in this cemetery.

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Amara West 2012: impressions in time


Marie Vandenbeusch, University of Geneva

The way houses are built in this region is in some ways timeless, particularly the roofs. Modern ceilings can show how ancient roofs, which we have to reconstruct from small fragments, were built. While it is easy to look at modern houses in villages near the site, it is more complicated when it concerns the ancient houses.

Marie studying hundreds of roofing fragments recovered from house E13.8

Marie studying hundreds of roofing fragments recovered from house E13.8

No roof survives in place at Amara West: only the walls and floors remain. But not everything has disappeared. Impressions on mud, though perhaps unimpressive at first sight are very helpful as they record the different layers and materials used to build the roofs.

Mud roof fragment with impression of a grass (?) matt, about 1100 BC

Mud roof fragment with impression of a grass (?) matt, about 1100 BC

The wood and other plant material disappeared long ago, eaten by termites. But the shapes impressed in the mud roofs tell us that large beams and poles were used. The roof of our dig house is built in the same way, though metal beams (sometimes from the abandoned railway line) are now preferred.

Modern parallel: beams and matting in the Khalifa House Museum, Khartoum

Modern parallel: beams and matting in the Khalifa House Museum, Khartoum

Layers of grass, reeds and palm fronds, sometimes tied into bundles, were also widely used, along with two different types of matt, as can be seen in some of the mud impressions. The way in which the mats were woven is very similar to those still made and used today in this area.

Though distant in time and culture, the modern houses can act as a place for us to test our theories and reconstructions of the ancient roofs. Some techniques survived thousands of years of changing cultures in northern Sudan, most probably because they are those which fit best with the climate and materials available in the area.

 

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Amara West 2012: exploring house E13.8

Tom Lyons, archeologist

Last year we created a plan of house E13.8, but it was otherwise just an outline of bricks walls with sand filling the rooms. This year, with the help of Shadia Abdu Rabo, I have been excavating the house, room by room.

It is a modest structure, trapezoidal in shape, tucked between house E13.3-N and the imposing, three metre-thick, town wall.

Central room of the house E 13.8 with hearth and bench (left)

Central room of the house E 13.8 with hearth and bench (left)

The house has four rooms which are arranged in a layout typical at Amara West, with one room leading through to the next, although in this instance a small room is accessed off to the left of the front room. So far we have removed layers of windblown sand and collapsed rubble to reveal two rooms containing partially preserved mud-plaster floor surfaces; the largest of these two rooms is the central room in the house with a hearth and mastaba (or bench) against one of the walls.

General view of house E13.8 from the west with town wall on the left

General view of house E13.8 from the west with town wall on the left

The smallest room in the house is located just off the front room and contains three bread ovens and lots and lots of ash and burnt material. Experience tells us we will probably come across more of these ovens as we continue digging down.

Plan of house E13.8, with town wall at top

Plan of house E13.8, with town wall at top

We are only seeing the latest phase of this house at present – earlier floors might lie beneath, or even a completely different house.

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Amara West 2012: a new pyramid chapel


Milena Grzybowska

As my area of expertise is osteology (the scientific study of bones), I’m working in Cemetery D under Michaela Binder’s supervision. This is my first season on the Amara West project and the second day onsite has already brought the excitement I was hoping for.

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

I completed the pre-excavation documentation of feature G309 on Friday, and yesterday started excavating its central portion, with four local workmen, Nail, Mohammed, Ashmi and Akasze. The south-west interior corner of a building appeared very quickly. Brushes and trowels in hands, we were eager to define the extent of this structure.

Milena cleaning the remains of the chapel

Milena cleaning the remains of the chapel

The surviving remains, although presently not very high – 40 centimetres at the southern edge – still suggest a structure of impressive scale. Eight metres long and four metres wide, it is larger than the examples exposed previously. Constructed on an east-west axis, the grave originally consisted of a chapel, at the western edge of which stood a small brick pyramid.

Cleaning back sand from around the small pyramid base (right)

Cleaning back sand from around the small pyramid base (right)

What next? We will excavate the burial shaft, which might be over two metres in depth. Judging from the extent of the buildings and the adjacent mound of debris, whose height should reflect the depth of the grave, this phase of excavation might take some time. Let’s hope our patience will be rewarded with intact human remains and associated burial assemblages.

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