British Museum blog

A new look at ancient Egyptian textiles

textile fragmentAmandine Mérat (Curator) and Emily Taylor (Museum Assistant), British Museum

We have recently taken the opportunity to audit, document and re-house the textiles dating to the 1st millenium AD – around 1,800 in number – that are looked after by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (AES). The main aims of this project are the re-organisation and distribution of the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic textiles into a coherent and accessible storage system, along with the improvement of their documentation by adding photographs, technical analysis, iconographic and cultural information.

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870).  Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870). Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

As in many museums today, the British Museum’s Egyptian textiles collection is mostly composed of fragmentary pieces, acquired through excavation and purchase in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, decorative elements considered as spectacular or aesthetically pleasing were often cut out from large pieces when discovered, as only the most vibrant and colourful pieces were wanted by European collectors. However, this meant that they were also cut off from their archaeological contexts. It was for this reason that, with the exception of two great sets of textiles from excavations at Qasr Ibrim and Wadi Sarga, we decided to reorder the Museum’s collection not by provenance or date – as these are rarely known – but by technique. Indeed, a close visual examination of technique, and drawing on knowledge of their cultural background, allows us to determine the possible original function of many of the textiles, essentially fragments of garments and home furnishing originating from burial contexts.

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

We began our audit by classifying the textiles by their primary weaving technique – tapestry, brocade, embroidery etc. This process helped us to work out how much storage space was required for each group, taking into account the fragility of the textiles, but also the need for easy access and the possibility of new items joining the collection at a later date. Each primary group was then sub-divided, on the basis of shape or iconography of the textiles.

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Drawer by drawer, the technical and iconographic analyses for each textile were completed by Amandine Merat, the curator responsible for the project. Some pieces had already been studied by Hero Granger-Taylor in the 1990s; in those cases, her detailed notes were checked and annotated where necessary. However, a great majority of the textiles had never been analysed before. For these, the fibres were identified, measurements were taken, techniques carefully analysed and a complete description of the piece and its iconography was made. Original function of the textiles and dating were re-attributed where necessary.

Once the technical information was recorded, the textiles were photographed by Emily Taylor. A general shot of front and back was taken, an arrow included to indicate the direction of the warp of the fabric. Detailed macro shots were then taken to record any small details or highlight interesting elements of design, use or technique. The textiles were then re-housed in acid free tissue, and melinex sleeves where possible, and then placed on Correx boards within their storage drawers to enable ease of handling.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

All relevant information was recorded in a spreadsheet by our volunteer Ruiha Smalley, before being standardised and uploaded into the British Museum’s collection database, through which it will soon be available to the public via the collection online.

The post was updated on 24 June to correct a date in the first sentence. The textiles date to the 1st millennium AD, not BC.


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Reading an ancient Egyptian poem

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collectionRichard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

Reading an ancient poem is often a difficult experience, and academic traditions do not always help.

The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, was written in Egypt around 1850 BC and is a darkly passionate work, concerning a peasant’s quest for justice after his goods are stolen. But its elaborate style has made many academics regard it as simply a source of ancient words/vocabulary and grammar and not as a poetic work of art.

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

So once, when teaching a class in Germany, I was struck that when I asked ‘what does this verse of poetry mean?’ a student replied ‘it is a perfective verb-form’. Which is an important fact, of course, but it is not the total meaning of the poetry (and not at all the answer I was looking for!).

Last year I published a new commentary on The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant to try and encourage a deeper engagement with the poetry. As well as notes on its construction and language, I included, among other things, pictures.

In the poem, the peasant hero is beaten with a stick of iser, ‘tamarisk’. It is a minor detail, unless you visualise the shrub as you read, and remember both that it is very whippy and that it grows everywhere on river banks. The poet uses this particular plant to characterise the action as not only highly sadistic but also opportunistic: the villain grabs whatever is to hand to attack the hero. Everywhere in the poem, a concrete visualisation of the imagery allows the reader to realise the vivid interconnectedness of the poet’s thought.

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

The new commentary also placed text, translation and all the notes on a single page to help the process of reading as a single integrated experience: the reader does not have to flick between different sections for comments on the grammar, historical allusions, or possible meanings. Everything the reader needs appears together in one glance, and I look forward to seeing if this has worked for students when I take up a new job teaching Egyptology in Oxford.

The ability of the poem to still speak to audiences is nowhere better sensed than in the mesmeric prize-winning film of Shadi Abd el-Salam (1970), recently restored by the World Cinema Foundation, and they have generously allowed us to include an image of the actor Ahmed Marei as the frontispiece.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

This is a gesture towards the humanity of the original — a reminder that the poem was written by an individual for his contemporaries (and not for Egyptologists). This may even be the first time that an Egyptological commentary on a literary text has included a photograph of a living person. And this living and subtle work of art gained new resonance with the Egyptian revolution of 2011. As author Ahdaf Soueif noted then, it represents an Egyptian tradition of non-violent protest against any abuse of authority, and it is, in the words of Shadi Abd el-Salam, ‘a cry for justice, a cry that persists throughout the ages’.’

Find out more about the Reading Ancient Egyptian poems research project

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Tomb figures from Ancient Egypt

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of HorendjitefAnders Bettum, University of Oslo and postdoctoral fellow, British Museum

For the past three months, I have had the pleasure of working on the British Museum’s collection of a particular kind of funerary statues, known to Egyptologists as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures. The Museum has 117 of these figures, originating from various periods and many sites in Egypt. The assessment, documentation and registration of the collection have been possible due to the new postdoctoral fellowships which were granted by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan for the first time this year (next year’s fellowships are now advertised).

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht

Anders in the Enlightenment Gallery, where the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht (EA9749) is on display.

From the 19th Dynasty (ca. 1295-1186 BC) to the Greco-Roman era, Egyptian elite burials were often equipped with a statue of a deity in the form of a mummy (mummiform). The god in question is identified as Osiris in the earlier sources, and later as the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. The name ‘Osiris’ may be familiar to many readers from the myth in which he defeats death and becomes the king of the dead in the Netherworld. Through the funerary ritual, the dead were assimilated with Osiris, hoping they too could live on happily in the Netherworld among gods and ancestors. The statue may therefore have been regarded not only as an image of the god, but also of the deceased. Ptah is one of the principal creator gods from Ancient Egypt, and the merging of this god with Osiris resulted in a powerful promise that death would be followed by new life. Sokar, the third member of the triad, was also a popular Netherworld deity. Like Ptah, he originates from the ancient capital of Memphis, and the two were often associated with one another. All three deities were depicted mummiform in the iconography, Ptah and Osiris as mummified men, Sokar as a mummified falcon.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy

The magnificent Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy (EA9737)

What I was soon to learn on arrival at the Museum is how complex these statues are. The figure itself, ranging in height from 30 to 60 cm, is carved from one piece of wood, plastered, painted in vivid colours and inscribed on the front and back with hieroglyphic texts. For the richest burials, the face and other details of the figure were gilded. The polychrome decoration is sometimes coated with a black, resinous varnish. Pegged to the head is a composite crown consisting of two elements: a vertical pair of model ostrich feathers emerging from a sun-disc and a horizontal pair of ram horns. The false beard on the chin is sometimes carved as a separate piece. A peg was left also under the feet of the figure, to fit into the mortise in a rectangular base. The base was colourfully painted, in some cases with depictions of water basins, lotus flowers and other symbols of resurrection, power and life. It was also inscribed with hieroglyphic texts. Occasionally, a model sarcophagus was carved as a separate piece and mounted to the front of the base. On top of the sarcophagus, a small mummiform falcon is perched, facing the mummiform figure. A single statue therefore consists of about seven separately carved pieces.

But that is not all. What makes the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures different from all other funerary statues is the peculiar fact that they are not only images of the deceased assimilated to certain gods, but also containers of a certain object. A Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure always has a cavity carved into it, either in the base or in the figure itself. In the 19th to the 22nd Dynasties, the contained object was usually a papyrus inscribed with funerary texts to aid the transformation of the deceased in the afterlife. The famous funerary papyri of Hunefer and Anhai were found inside such statues. In later times, the papyrus was replaced with a part of the mummy of the deceased or alternatively a substitute thereof, a so-called ‘corn-mummy’.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef

Mummy-shaped cavity in the base of the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef (EA9736). The content, which appears to be a mummified lump of grass, is still intact.

Throughout the more than one thousand years in which these statues were in use, a great variety of mechanisms for closing the cavity are attested. Most impressive are perhaps the figures that were carved like anthropoid coffins, with a case and lid that were closed and sealed before being inserted into the mortise of the base. Another common type is the model sarcophagus that worked as a sliding lid, and can still be ‘clicked’ into place with a simple push to close the cavity.

It is intriguing to think about the time, effort end skill that went into the production of these objects, and how people living thousands of years ago assembled the statue, filled it with its mysterious contents before sealing the cavity and placing the it in the tomb. These activities were undoubtedly ritualized and carried out by mortuary priests as part of the larger funerary ritual.

Model coffin

This colorful statue (EA 9884) was made as a model coffin. The name of the owner has not yet been deciphered.

With their polychromy and glint of gold, the inscriptions, the complexity and mechanical aspect, the hidden ‘treasure’ inside and its connection to grand mythological and ritual narratives, the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure have always been popular collector’s items. The manageable size of the object must also have contributed to their rapid distribution to museums all over the world. Studying the collection of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures in the British Museum, I have come across no less than 290 related objects. In addition to the 117 figures, the collection consist of a number of loose bases, ram horns, ostrich feathers, model sarcophagi and mummiform falcons that parted with their figure decades, centuries or even millennia ago. Only about a dozen are relatively intact assemblages, but this number will hopefully increase as more parts are matched with one another.

Every piece has now been thoroughly documented for the benefit of researchers and curious visitors. The analysis of the materials contained within still remains to be done, and will undoubtedly cast new light on a funerary custom that is still poorly understood.

Find out more about the Ancient Egypt and Sudan postdoctoral fellowships for 2014

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Wine and monks in Christian Egypt

Wine and monks in Christian EgyptJennifer Cromwell, British Museum

For the better part of three months, I’ve been obsessed with wine and monks.

The monks in question were residents of an Egyptian (Coptic) monastery dedicated to Apa Thomas and located in Wadi Sarga, a valley in central Egypt, dating from the sixth to late eighth centuries AD (from the fourth century, Egypt was one of the most important centres of monasticism in the early Christian world). The site was excavated in a single season before the First World War and the British Museum was the principal recipient of objects found at that time: almost 2,800 objects made from pottery, glass, metals, wood, stone, bone, and textiles. The Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan also holds the original excavation notes and photographs of the excavator Reginald Campbell Thompson. Despite this wealth of material, the monastery is often overlooked in studies on Egyptian monasticism.

Archival photograph showing remains of the monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga (AES Ar 1260)

Archival photograph showing remains of the monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga (AES Ar 1260)

One of the reasons for this is that less than 15% of this material has been published. My three-month postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan has been part of the process to rectify this, as part of Wadi Sarga at the British Museum, a larger project under the direction of curator Elisabeth O’Connell. This project brings together specialists from across the UK and overseas, focussing on different aspects of the collection. My focus is on the written evidence from the site.

A selection of texts from Wadi Sarga (clockwise from top left): EA 56631 (fragment of a liturgy); EA 55778 (an order to pay wine to a nun called Irene); EA 69889 (a broken inscribed bowl, preserving ‘Jesus Christ, Brother …’); EA 55876 (a wine receipt, dated 8 September)

A selection of texts from Wadi Sarga (clockwise from top left): EA 56631 (fragment of a liturgy); EA 55778 (an order to pay wine to a nun called Irene); EA 69889 (a broken inscribed bowl, preserving ‘Jesus Christ, Brother …’); EA 55876 (a wine receipt, dated 8 September)

Some 385 texts written on pieces of pottery, or potsherds (the standard writing medium at the site, known as ostraca), limestone stelae, papyrus (now in the British Library), and wall graffiti were published in 1922. Over 1,000 additional items bear text of some type, from letters to lists to labels. My first task was to photograph all this material. A search for “Wadi Sarga ostracon” in the Museum’s collection online now returns 1,441 objects with images. This resource is available for everybody interested in this topic, and means that I can continue my own work on the monastery upon my return to Australia (Macquarie University, Sydney).

My main interest is how these monks lived and how the monastery functioned: how they spent their time, what they ate and drank, and who they communicated with in the outside world and why. In everything, wine looms large.

Jennifer Cromwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, photographing ostraca from Wadi Sarga

Jennifer Cromwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, photographing ostraca from Wadi Sarga

The monastery owned vineyards throughout Egypt, as far north as the Fayum, almost 400 km away along the Nile. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of wine entered the monastery each year. A proportion of this wine was used to pay labour wages for camel herders, craftsmen, and goods suppliers and was sent out to other communities. But the monks also consumed a fair share themselves. Wine was the main drink in this period of Egyptian history and the monks were no exception; remains of glass goblets (currently being studied by my colleague Jane Faiers) attest to its consumption on site. In addition to standard wine, which didn’t have the same alcoholic content as that which we consume today, we find “new” wine, “old” wine (probably not “vintage” — there was no Château-Lafite Rothschild being supped over dinner), and “unmixed” (pure) wine. After consuming the wine, many amphorae, easily identifiable by their thick pitch internal coating, were broken and used to write other texts, often themselves mentioning wine.

The names of many monks are known, but it’s difficult to build biographies of most of them and to understand who they were. We know even less about what they looked like, but every now and again we are treated with a more personal glimpse. Two unpublished ostraca preserve broken visages. The first, EA 70766, has a doodle of a shaggy-haired monk with a thick mono-brow above two heavy eyelids. This (self?-) portrait was drawn in a moment of boredom from practicing writing exercises and is one of a couple of doodles on this school text. The second, EA 69879, is part of a bowl with the name Phib scratched into the surface. On the broken base of this bowl are the scratched-in eyes, nose, hair, and hands of Phib, his hands waving at us from over 1,300 years ago.

EA 70766 (left) and EA 69879 (right) showing broken images of monks from Wadi Sarga

EA 70766 (left) and EA 69879 (right) showing broken images of monks from Wadi Sarga

The texts, as part of a large body of material from Wadi Sarga, provide an excellent source for understanding life in these centuries, and are the next best thing to actually sitting down with Phib over a glass of wine and picking his brain.

A select number of items from Wadi Sarga is on display in Room 66: Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt.

Find out more about the Wadi Sarga at the British Museum research project

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Amara West 2013: a kaleidoscope of life and death in Egyptian Kush

Aerial view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to rightNeal Spencer, British Museum

Fifty-six days after flying out to Khartoum, I landed this morning at a grey, icy, Heathrow. The temperature gradient – perhaps a difference of 35°C – is but one reminder that our sixth season of fieldwork at Amara West is now complete. Many of the team are still in the dig house today, completing documentation and closing up our house ahead of the next season. I spent yesterday finishing paperwork in Khartoum, while also working with curators Shadia Abdu Rabo and Ikhlas Abdel-Latif to accession our newly-discovered objects into the collection of the Sudan National Museum.

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Kite view of neighbourhood E13, with town wall to right

Yet as with all archaeological projects, the end of the season really marks the beginning of the next, and most time-consuming, phase: digitisation, post-excavation work and, trying to make sense of it all. It’s a little overwhelming to consider the kaleidoscope of work undertaken by a team of 20 specialists from nine countries (from Australia to Sudan) over the last weeks. Many thanks to everyone, and also all those in Abri, Ernetta island and Khartoum who made the season possible – amidst sandstorms, plagues of biting flies, chilly mornings, electrical blackouts, dawn boat journeys on the Nile, crocodile sightings and fantastic breakfasts with the workmen….

The town

Within the walls of the ancient town, we continued work in neighbourhood E13. Sarah Doherty and Shadia Abdu Rabo revealed the full plan of E13.5, a medium-sized dwelling at the east end of the block. The inhabitants had fitted out each room with sandstone doorways, many built using re-used blocks from an earlier building, one naming an ‘overseer of the granaries, Horhotep’, presumably one of the high-ranking officials who lived at Amara West. Unlike other houses in the block, the bread ovens, charcoal pits and cereal grinding emplacements were housed in an annex outside the house itself, excavated by Shadia. Despite plans to investigate the phase beneath, we were instead tempted north of the house, where Sarah revealed parts of another house (?) and an area with large ovens or kilns – with tantalising evidence hinting at faience production.

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Shadia excavating ovens associated with house E13.5

Mat Dalton completed the excavation of the communal area E13.13, which provided food processing, and charcoal making, facilities, for the inhabitants of houses E13.3-N and E13.3-S. Returning to the ‘white house’ E13.7, Mat revealed the striking schist and sandstone floor of one of the large storage rooms that characterised the area before it became a block of houses. Mat also spent time taking block samples of floor layers and occupation deposits from the excavated houses: these will be studied as thin sections under high-magnification, revealing ancient activities invisible to the naked eye.

Right in the heart of the neighbourhood – a room rather difficult to find! – Anna Stevens grappled with a small space that provides important evidence for many building phases, how the magazines with vaulted roofs were converted for use as houses. The ancient inhabitants were clearly unhappy with the idea of living in long corridor-like spaces, and went to considerable lengths to change the proportions created by the existing architecture.

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

The town site beside the Nile, with our tents in foreground

We managed to empty all previously excavated rooms in the neighbourhood so that Susie Green could capture untold gigabytes of digital images. These will be used to create a 3D model using the concept of ‘Structure from Motion’ – all with the challenge of photographing everything before the sun’s rays created shadows. The stunning kite photographs will not only embellish this visualisation, but also provided us with a new perspective of the site and its landscape.

Outside of the town walls, Rizwan Safir and Vera Michel persevered through layers of wall collapse and roofing remains – further hampered by deep sandpits left behind when the ancient brick walls were mined out. As the season ended, we had gained further insights into the different type of house sought by those who moved beyond the town walls; there may have been more space, but the new households had to cope with more exposure to the elements.

A flying visit from Alexandra Winkels, conservation scientist, allowed her to collect wall plaster samples which will be compared to sites from across Egypt, including Tell el-Amarna.

Cemetery C

The highlight of our third season in cemetery C, led by Michaela Binder, was the discovery of the largest tomb yet found at Amara West: G244. Beneath a low mound (tumulus), the vertical shaft led to two burial chambers, one to the east, one to the west. What was not expected were the three other chambers.

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Philip and Michaela at work in Grave 244

Patience was needed as the first chamber was meticulously excavated, with remains of painted coffins and a fine ceramic assemblage, being studied by Loretta Kilroe. More work is needed here, but the tomb seems to be late Ramesside in date.

Just to the north, Barbara Chauvet spent most of her season in the eastern chamber of a post-New Kingdom niche grave (G243), where another complicated array of superimposed bodies needed disentangling. Mohamed Saad, archaeologist at the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, and participant in the Institute of Bioarchaeology Amara West Field School, excavated the smaller western chamber, as well as a number of niche burials in the southeast of the cemetery.

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan National Museum SNM 34615).

Faience situla found in Grave 244 (Sudan
National Museum SNM 34615).

Back in the house …

Our expedition house was home to all the necessary tasks of excavation paperwork, processing archaeological samples and of course organising and storing the finds and masses of ceramics. Marie Vandenbeusch documented all the finds from town and tombs, from epigraphic recording of the inscribed blocks in E13.5, matching scarabs with ancient clay impressions, to wondering what to make of enigmatic pieces of worked clay. Alongside rediscovering wonderful wooden objects from our 2009 excavations, with Michaela, Marie also found time to continue work on the roofing fragments from houses – with Vera providing a particularly steady supply from villa D12.5.

The masses of sherds from the town were processed on site by Alice Springuel and Anna Garnett. After an early season handover from Marie Millet (now directing the Louvre excavations at el-Muweis), Anna is studying our town ceramics, particularly the dating and whether certain types of vessel are associated with particular rooms or spaces. Amidst many pottery drawings, Alice managed archaeological illustrations of key artefacts – from scarabs to fertility figurines.

The first weekend saw us host a small workshop on ceramics in New Kingdom Nubia, though discussions ranged well beyond pottery, with colleagues from Kerma, Sai, Sesebi and Tombos.

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Copper alloy cobra fitting (F5693), after conservation

Philip Kevin, British Museum conservator, joined us for the last three weeks, and proved invaluable in recovering remains of headrests and painted coffins from the cemetery, coaxing out hidden inscriptions in the town, and revealing the exquisite decoration on copper alloy cobras (perhaps statue fittings) found by Shadia in the 2012 season.

Last, but not least…

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Mark and Jamie pondering ancient Nile histories, in a deep trench

Jamie Woodward and Mark Macklin returned for a third season to investigate the river systems in and around Amara West. Easily outpacing all other team-members in terms of logistical demands, we nonetheless managed two deep trenches which provide fantastic slices through the history of the Nile river in this region. One trench ran across the edge of the ancient island and into the channel bed, north of the temple, the other in the ‘Neolithic Nile’ 2km into the desert. We have the C14 dates already, and await the OSL dates, but a very exciting story is emerging … watch this space.

Returning to the Museum

Unlike nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations conducted by many museums, excavations in Egypt and Sudan no longer lead to the acquisition of objects for collections in other countries. So why does the British Museum still undertake archaeological projects? New techniques – including those outlined above – mean we gain insights into the ancient past, and its people, that were not possible in previous excavations. None of the objects in the British Museum, or indeed any collection, can be fully interpreted without understanding the particular time, place, culture and indeed natural environment experienced and created by those who made the objects. Amara West provides an opportunity to better understand life in Nubia during the late second millennium BC, in a region where the climate was deteriorating. It was an area under the control of the mighty Ramesside state, ruled from the royal residence city of Per-Ramses, far away near the Mediterranean.

An important pharaonic town in a long-occupied land, the inhabitants of Amara West lived in an age of international diplomacy, cosmopolitan taste and competing superpowers. We are building up a picture of how people lived, and treated their dead, at this town, but also the nature of the Egyptian entanglement with local, Nubian, cultures, and the responses to considerable ecological changes. A story very relevant to the present.

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Amara West excavations 2013: the past from above

Aerial photograph of a house undergoing excavationNeal Spencer, British Museum

After a test flight over Ernetta and our dig house, Susie Green – working with us to create three-dimensional visualisations of the town’s architecture – flew her photographic kite over the Ramesside town, occupied between 1290 and around 1000 BC, at Amara West on Sunday. The brisk breeze – Beaufort scale 2-3 according to our trusted weather forecast – and crisp morning light made it a perfect day.

The kite above villa D12.5

The kite above villa D12.5

The camera rig sits well below the kite itself, and needs to stay in range of the remote control. Susie controlled the camera (rotating 360 degrees horizontally, or 90 degrees vertically) and triggered the shutter, as I did my best to walk the kite around the site in an attempt to provide a full coverage of the excavation areas… the results are spectacular.

The town of Amara West

Aerial photograph showing the town of Amara West with the River Nile in the background

Amara West sits on the north bank of the Nile, where a line of tamarisk trees prompts the formation of sand dunes. Villa D12.5, still being excavated, lies in the centre of the photograph. Villa E12.10 is near the bottom, excavated in 2009, partly engulfed in windblown sand. The distinctive Jebel Abri (‘Abri mountain’) is on the horizon.

The cemetery

The low mounds of cemetery C mark graves, with the town in the background, before the Nile

The low mounds of cemetery C mark graves, with the town in the background, before the Nile. The low lying sandy area in between cemetery C and the town is an ancient river channel, now dry but probably flowing during some of the period the town was inhabited. The white and blue tarpaulin in the middle of the image is the location of tomb G243, now being excavated.

Excavating in the town

The two areas under excavation

The two areas under excavation. Outside the town wall, at the bottom of the image, villa D12.5 features a large courtyard, and rooms partly filled with sand during recent windy days. At the top, inside the wall, lie the houses of neighbourhood E13, under excavation since 2009. In the centre of the image, the white sandstone west gate of the town can be seen.

Unearthing a house

House E13.5, with Shadia Abdu Rabo standing in the front room, next to the hearth

House E13.5, with Shadia Abdu Rabo standing in the front room, next to the hearth. A low bench, or mastaba, can be seen to the right, and the six large ovens in the annex. Sandbags protect the front of the house from sand, while a photographic ladder lies on the ground, for use in taking more gravity-bound views of the excavation.

We’ve only a few days excavation left at Amara West, in which we hope to answer some questions about the early history of the villa, complete photography for three-dimensional visualisations, explore further an area perhaps used for faience production, finish work in the western part of the multi-chamber tomb, conserve delicate wooden objects from the cemetery… the list of things still to do is, in reality, much longer!

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Amara West: season six is nearly upon us….

Looking down a 3,000 year-old alley at Amara West (2012)Neal Spencer, British Museum

In the next few days, our sixth excavation season begins.

Amara West was the pharaonic capital of conquered Upper Nubia in the late second millennium BC. Thus far, we have gained important insights into how houses were modified over time to suit individual needs, religious practises in the home, but also the impact of a changing landscape.

Looking down a 3,000 year-old alley at Amara West (2012)

Looking down a 3,000 year-old alley at Amara West (2012)

Analyses undertaken by a range of specialists, both inside the British Museum and at universities involved in the project, are casting light on plant exploitation practises, technologies for producing ceramics, the presence of luxurious imports from afar, and the complex array of funerary traditions evident in the cemeteries, including pyramid tombs and funerary masks, but also Nubian tumulus graves.

Faience necklace (F6436) from a house at Amara West (2012)

Faience necklace (F6436) from a house at Amara West (2012)

Highlights from Amara West will continue to be featured on this blog, as in previous years, but for more regular updates as the season progresses – the discovery of buildings, objects, burials that shed light on life in a pharaonic town in occupied Nubia – follow our dedicated project blog: blog.amarawest.britishmuseum.org.

So far, you can read a preview of upcoming excavations in the ancient town, including excavation of a villa outside the town wall, and of the last house remaining in neighbourhood E13.3. And, across a now-dry Nile channel, Michaela Binder describes the excavations she will be leading in cemetery C, a burial ground providing fascinating insights into the mixture of Egyptian and Nubian funerary cultures in the early first millennium BC.

Follow @NealSpencer_BM on Twitter for further updates from the excavations.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , ,

Amara West 2012: the first glimpses of ancient living conditions and health

A burial at Amara West, SudanMichaela Binder, Durham University

After spending four months in the British Museum analysing skeletons from the ancient Egyptian town of Amara West this summer, our picture of health and living conditions there is becoming a little clearer.

I have now analysed 130 complete or almost complete individuals. My analyses indicate 35% of the individuals were sub-adults, which in itself is not surprising and not that high compared to other groups in antiquity. However, it is interesting to see only a very small number of children under the age of five, as very young children are generally more vulnerable to diseases. High percentages of infants in cemeteries are often an indicator of bad living conditions, and at Amara West, their absence is striking but could be explained by different burial rites – young children may have been buried elsewhere.

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

The high percentage of older children is notable, and indicates that people living at Amara West were exposed to unfavourable conditions such as a high degree of infectious diseases.

Diagnosis of infectious diseases in human remains is not easy. The changes in bones are often not specific and the same sign could be caused by a number of different conditions. Moreover, it also takes some time before bones become affected too. Therefore, only chronic diseases will leave an imprint.

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

The most common forms of infectious diseases found in the people from Amara West so far are signs of chronic sinusitis and also infections of the lung. They are visible as new bone formation on the inner side of the ribs and in the maxillary sinuses. The changes could be related to bad air quality, both in- and outdoors, such as smoke inside the houses, dust or sand, but also to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

More unfavourable living conditions are also indicated by the lengths of long bones in adult skeletons from the town. Even though height is generally determined by our genes, whether we fulfil our genetic potential depends on our state of health and nutrition during growth. At Amara West, females reached body heights of 154 cm on average, while men reached 166 cm.

In comparison, mean statures in the UK today are 175 cm for men, and 162 cm for women, according to a study published in 2002.

Another interesting finding in the human remains from Amara West so far is the high degree of fractures, particularly in the upper body. These injuries are usually associated with falls or crashes. But what happened to these people? The distribution of injuries is remarkably similar to what is observed with people involved in agricultural activities even today, especially those who regularly handle animals.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Egypt and Sudan, Research, ,

Murder and mayhem in Predynastic Egypt

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handleRenee Friedman and Daniel Antoine, curators,
British Museum

Using some of the latest imaging technology we now know that about 5500 years ago (about 3500 BC) the natural mummy known as Gebelein Man was stabbed in the back.

The ability to determine the cause of death in ancient remains is rare enough, but because his skin and muscle tissue are so well preserved, further detective work has allowed us to trace the trajectory (from above) and estimate the size (about two centimetres across, maximum) of the implement responsible.

Based on this information, the murder weapon was most probably a dagger.

While a projectile point is also a possibility, it is unlikely that it could have been removed without causing further tissue damage, and the cut on his skin is not lacerated. Only if it were a broad-edged transverse arrowhead, like those carried by the men on the Hunters’ Palette, might this be possible.

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters' Palette

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters’ Palette.

While this type of arrowhead was common in Predynastic Egypt, it was rarely made in a size matching the wound in Gebelein Man’s left shoulder.

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handle

Composite image of a Predynastic silver dagger
blade and ivory handle.

We can probably also rule out flint knives, although they were prevalent throughout the Predynastic period (3800-3100 BC), with various examples displayed in the British Museum’s Room 64: Early Egypt gallery.

From their shape it is clear that they were mainly for cutting and slashing, using their edge rather than their point to inflict wounds. Most are also too wide to fit the forensic evidence from Gebelein Man. Instead, it seems most likely that he was done in by a metal blade.

Tools and weapons of metal (mainly copper but also silver) are rare in Predynastic Egypt mainly because implements of such valuable materials would have been recycled rather than discarded by the living and were among the first things to be robbed from the dead. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that copper was widely used at this time. For example, the central ridge depicted on the lances carried on the Hunters Palette (slightly later in date than Gebelein Man) indicate they were made of metal.

Six dagger blades of copper and silver have been preserved. Some still have their ivory handles, while all have a triangular blade with a mid-rib down the centre, and are 15-16.5 cm long with a maximum width of four-five cm. These blades are so far the best fit for the weapon used against Gebelein Man, and the two cm cut at the rib level suggest such a blade was plunged into his back for most of its length. The composite example shown here gives an idea of the original appearance, and evidence from one Predynastic cemetery suggests they were worn interlaced through armlets on the left upper arm for easy and rapid access.

We will never find the perpetrator responsible for Gebelein Man’s death, or determine his motives (revenge?, a hunting accident?, an act on the battlefield?), but the iconography and artefacts of Predynastic Egypt suggest it was not always a peaceful place.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters' palette.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters’ Palette.

Already 200-300 years before Gebelein Man met his end, scenes on pottery show human prisoners threatened with stone maces. Mace-heads of hard stone are well-known throughout the period. While they were probably used mainly in hunting, that they were also used against humans is clear from excavations in a cemetery at Hierakonpolis, contemporary with Gebelein Man, where several individuals suffered massive and fatal skull fractures inflicted by such an instrument. Further defensive wounds suggest these injuries were attained in battle.

These may have been minor skirmishes, but shortly after Gebelein Man died, scenes depicting pitched battles begin to appear.

While Gebelein Man may simply have been the unfortunate victim of interpersonal violence, he lived in a time when several regional centres in Upper Egypt, Gebelein being one of them, were beginning to vie for power and territory, in a process that ultimately led to the so-called unification of Egypt and the establishment of the Dynastic Egyptian nation state at about 3100 BC. Diplomacy may have been influential in this process, but there is no doubt that violence also played a major role, as the scene on the Battlefield Palette (about 3200 BC) leaves little to the imagination.

Was Gebelein Man a victim of his times? Recent research, suggesting that he was buried in a large well-endowed grave and with a number of lethal weapons of his own, only adds to the mystery that now surrounds him.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
Tweet using #murder3500BC and @britishmuseum
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Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, ,

Virtual autopsy: discover how the ancient Egyptian Gebelein Man died

Scan of Gebelein Man shown on an autopsy tableDaniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology,
British Museum

In recent months the naturally-preserved mummy known as Gebelein Man (on display in Room 64, the Early Egypt gallery at the British Museum) has been revealing some of his long-held secrets.

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

He was buried in about 3500 BC (if not earlier) at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. Direct contact with the hot, dry sand naturally mummified his body, making him one of the best-preserved individuals from ancient Egypt. He has been in the British Museum collection for over 100 years and in 2012 he was taken out of the Museum for the first time to be CT scanned.

On the morning of 1 September this year, Gebelein Man was carefully packed and taken to the Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London. The detailed images and 3D models created from the high resolution X-rays taken there have allowed us to look inside his body and learn more about his life and his death in ways never before possible. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a well-preserved Predynastic mummy has ever been CT scanned.

Not only have we been able to discover that Gebelein Man was young when he died (18-21 years) but, unexpectedly, we have also learned that he died because he was stabbed in the back. The analysis of ancient human remains rarely reveals the cause of death but the cut on his back, as well as the damage to the underlying shoulder blade and rib, are characteristic of a single, fatal, penetrating wound.

With the help of the Interactive Institute, a virtual autopsy table (a new state-of-the-art interactive exhibit based on medical visualisation technology) is on show in Room 64 for a limited time (16 November to 16 December 2012) and will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves, using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture-based interface. Information points at relevant locations guide visitors to the more significant discoveries we have made.

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Come and explore Gebelein Man for yourself using the autopsy table and perhaps you will spot something we’ve missed.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
Tweet using #murder3500BC and @britishmuseum
If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , , ,

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