British Museum blog

Glimpses of diet through plant remains

Philippa Ryan, British Museum

Philippa sampling a 3,100 year old hearth in a large villa (E12.10) at Amara West

I’m in Sudan looking at ancient plant remains from Amara West to investigate past diet and the potential impact of climate change on how plants were used.

This type of evidence can also provide insight into social behaviour, such as differences in diet between richer and poorer households. Additionally, identifying certain types of plant remains, such as cereal processing detritus, can help to investigate the functions of certain rooms or outdoor areas in the town.

Tools of the trade: sieves for botanical samples

The excavators take sediment samples from archaeological contexts such as hearths, ovens, floors and storage bins for botanical analysis. Back at the dig-house, I process the bags of sediment they have collected to extract the charred and desiccated plant remains – using dry-sieving and flotation.

Philippa sorting through a sample after sieving, back in the work room

At the end of the dig season, these samples will then be taken back to the British Museum, with the permission of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, where I will identify the seeds and fruits in conjunction with Caroline Cartwright, who is also analysing the wood charcoal. Modern analytical equipment such as a Scanning Electron Microscopes can help with the identifications.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of tamarisk charcoal from Amara West (Caroline Cartwright)

In addition, I am taking further sediment samples back for processing in the laboratory to extract phytoliths (microscopic silicified plant cells) as another way of investigating the plant record.

On the Nile near Amara West, seeking modern plant material for reference collection

Whilst here, I have also been collecting plants to compare with the ancient plant materials. I have gathered grasses, reeds and branches of trees and shrubs from the riverbanks via boat (watching out for the large crocodiles!), a trip into the desert, and from the island of Ernetta where we are living.

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Stepping back in time… ancient footprint found in Amara West

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Foot impression in the clay surface of the Ramesside period (house E13.7)

The buildings, objects and even destruction episodes we come across every day during our excavations reflect a range of ancient human activities – but occasionally we happen on something more immediately touching.

As the workmen cleared rubble down towards the floor of the large room of a house we’re currently excavating, the shape of an adult foot appeared earlier this week.

This impression was made at least 3,100 years ago, when the clay surface was still wet.

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The tempo of the working day gathers pace…

Tom Lyons, archaeologist

Sunrise on the Nile at Ernetta, before boarding for the commute to Amara West

Being a new member of the British Museum’s excavation team at Amara West I’ve had to adapt to a different set of working conditions including a new set of colleagues, unfamiliar archaeology, wide-ranging temperatures and a spectacular dawn commute to work on a crowded boat down the Nile.

Having left behind my regular archaeological job in Britain where one typically investigates ditches, field systems and scant remains of housing I now find myself in one of the best preserved pharaonic towns (chiefly thanks to 3000 years of windblown sand).

Collapsed doorway from an earlier house, found beneath later architecture of house E13.3-N

As I’ve worked on other archaeological projects in the near east I have encountered buildings constructed in mud brick before. Many archaeological principles remain the same and now that the excavation is nearing a close I’m very familiar with the process of revealing buried architecture among collapsed buildings, and clay floor surfaces and recovering a variety of domestic objects such as large grinding stones, ovens and masses and masses of pottery.

My task is to supervise the excavation of a narrow house dating to about 1100 BC with local workmen removing the archaeological structures and deposits after I identify, draw and describe them. This task is complicated by the fact that several different phases of architecture still exist in the same space. Distinguishing them and reconstructing the original sequence of events is a crucial component of the work.

Beginning the excavation of house E13.3-N, four weeks ago

Now that the end of this season is approaching, the tempo of the working day gathers pace – while the number of as yet unanswered questions increases.

After excavating three rooms in the building almost completely, only the standing architecture and the very earliest floors (and deposits) remain, my attention now turns to the rest of the house next door, partly excavated in 2010 during last year’s season.

Tom Lyons cleaning a door blocking in front of the house

At present we think there are three architectural phases, although identifying each one and its true extent sometimes feels like informed speculation at best – or at worst a confusing set of circular relationships. A simple sketch plan of the archaeology as you interpret it can be much more constructive than unsatisfying discussions of the buildings under the glare of the midday Saharan sun.

In most cases the answers usually reveal themselves with further digging…

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Excavating a chamber tomb

Carina Summerfield-Hill, physical anthropologist

Rami Mohamed Abdu and Abou Ad Abu Taher excavating through the roof of the western chamber

I’m one of three physical anthropologists working in Cemetery C at Amara West, and in recent days I’ve been working on a chamber tomb (Grave 234) – the largest and most exciting of grave types here.
Rami Mohamed Abdu lifting the beer jar from the shaft of grave 234

The tomb consists of a central shaft with an underground eastern and western chamber. We started excavating down into the central shaft to expose the doorway to each chamber. The sand in the shaft contained a complete Egyptian-style beer jar.

Since then, we have focused on excavating the western chamber.

The safest way to excavate it was to dig down from above, through the chamber’s roof, otherwise the fragile but heavy layers of alluvium could collapse on us. Once the chamber was exposed, we removed windblown sand which had accumulated inside.

It contains three articulated burials and a concentration of disarticulated bone that included four complete skulls.

Carina Summerfield-Hill excavating the Nubian style crouched burial

So far I have excavated one of the articulated burials towards the centre of the chamber, the feet of which poked out into the shaft.

The entire burial was within the remains of a wooden casing, and was of an adult female, fully articulated in a crouch position – this was a really pleasing discovery as it is a local Nubian tradition of burial, as opposed to the Egyptian tradition of laying the body out in an extended burial position. This is the first Nubian burial type to be found in Cemetery C!

Western chamber of Grave 234 with three articulated burials and concentration of disarticulated human remains (under cover to the right)

The western chamber also contains two further articulated burials that are extended – It is fascinating to see two different traditions in the same grave.

Over the coming days I shall be excavating these two extended burials along with the concentration of disarticulated bones, so there is a lot of work still to do.

And next we have the eastern chamber, where we have just begun removing the surface to get access.

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In the back rooms

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Large vessel (C4029) found buried in the floor of the back room

Halfway through our third season of excavations in the northwest part of the walled town, our understanding of the nature of the area, and how it changed – whether on a room-by-room or building-by-building basis – is continuing to evolve.

No two house plans are the same, undoubtedly dictated by a range of factors. Here, some of the houses needed to be built into and over existing architecture, including large vaulted storerooms. But the circumstances of individual household units could also prompt houses to be joined, divided or internally re-arranged.

Papyri contemporary with Amara West describe complex fluctuations in houses at Thebes, with numbers oscillating between six and 15 people in a short time frame, due to deaths, marriages and even divorce.

The four 20th dynasty houses excavated so far in the northwestern town have between three and four rooms each, and the back room in three of the houses has a rather different character.

View along house E13.3-N with back room far from the front door

These are small spaces – only five metres² – and as we have no evidence for windows in any of the rooms, they are likely to have been very dark. None of the three back rooms has an outside wall, thus would have stayed cool during hot days and retained warmth during the very cold nights.

How were these rooms used? It is tempting to assume some were bedrooms, but none have bed alcoves familiar from larger pharaonic houses, including villa E12.10 at Amara West.

In fact, the inhabitants may have slept in the central room, warmed by the hearth. The back of one house clearly functioned as a space for ritual activity – an ancestor bust was found there.

A notable concentration of finer pottery vessels is found in these rooms – but also objects of more glamorous materials.

Plan of house E13.3-N, with room 27 to top right

In the last weeks, we have completed excavation of the back room in house E13.3-N. The pattern continues in the earliest layers in the room – fragments of a fine calcite (Egyptian alabaster) bowl were recovered alongside faience beads, a bone earring, and a faience Taweret amulet.

Fragments of a calcite bowl (F4743) found in back room of house E13.3-N

The purpose of the niche in the back wall remains unknown. But as with one other back room, we also found a large pottery vessel buried in the floor. We have taken samples from the pot, found with its lid still in place: perhaps chemical or botanical analyses can hint at the original contents?

However, a more prosaic function for these rooms is also possible. Finding objects in a room does not mean the inhabitants used them in that space, or placed them there for safe-keeping.

Some back rooms may simply have become areas in which to place unwanted rubbish – tucked out of the way at the back of the house.

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Finding the buildings beneath

Mat Dalton, archaeologist

The later houses, excavated in 2009, with the earlier walls beginning to appear (behind scale)

In 2010, a team of workmen from Ernetta Island and I excavated a suite of rooms from two houses located next to the Governor’s Residence at Amara West. These buildings contained multiple phases of renovation, including up to five overlying floor surfaces. The rooms were also very domestic in nature, with six bread ovens and four grain grinding emplacements preserved across the phases.

Mekawi Abdel Rahman removing rubble from the plaster walls

By the end of the season we had exposed the partially destroyed and levelled remains of an older, deeper building, upon whose walls much of the architecture of our two houses had been constructed.

This year we’re excavating this older building with the aim of finding out how it was used by its ancient inhabitants, why it was replaced, and how it may have varied in use and layout from its successor.

Over the past couple of days we’ve been gradually teasing the remains of this building out of the rubble. It can be hard physical work – thick concrete-like deposits of mudbrick wall collapse, and silt fills the rooms, which make formidable barriers, and a great contrast to the loose sand we often encounter above!

The early plaster wall of building E13.7, with black painted line

At this early stage, the parts of the building we have exposed paint a very different picture from the house above. The rooms are generally much larger, with fine white plaster walls and internal decoration – rather than the ubiquitous brown mud plaster walls of the later building. Two rooms even preserve an attractive band of white and black painted plaster decoration. Intriguingly, not a single grain grinding emplacement has been found. Perhaps these rooms did not fulfil a domestic function?

Perhaps most tantalising, however, is the appearance of a fragmentary series of blue, red and white painted cornice fragments, which appear to have collapsed from a single wall in the building’s largest room. This wall seems to have been a focal point of the room – could it have been a small household shrine?

Painted mud plaster moulding emerging from the rubble in building E13.7

Over the coming weeks we’ll be continuing our work in these rooms, including exposing their original floor surfaces. We hope this further work might answer some of our questions, but as always in archaeology, it will no doubt present us with new challenges…

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In search of ancient Nile channels

Mark Macklin, University of Aberystwyth and
Jamie Woodward, University of Manchester

Pit dug through the ancient Nile channel at Amara West

As part of a wider international project investigating the evolution of the Nile and its major tributaries over the last 30,000 years (funded by the Australian Research Council since 2008, and more recently by The Leverhulme Trust), we have been reconstructing past river environments, channel movements, and flooding in the desert Nile of Northern Sudan.

We are especially interested in the impact that environmental change has had on riverine societies over the last 7,000 years or so.

Our research has focussed on two sections of the Sudanese Nile and involves collaboration with two British Museum field projects. The first is centred on Dongola, between the fourth and third Nile cataracts, and the second at Amara West.

The primary aim of our work at Amara West is to establish the relationship between the settlement of the New Kingdom town (about 1290-1070 BC), which is located on a former island within the River Nile, and the river channels that surround it.

Map showing the original island position of Amara West

During a reconnaissance visit in 2009 we began to investigate the sedimentary record preserved in the now abandoned channel immediately to the north of the town.

Two key questions we are hoping to answer include:

    Was the channel flowing during the New Kingdom as suggested by the town layout?
    Did the drying up of the channel affect the viability of settlement at Amara West?

This year a four metre-deep pit, shored up with 82 sandbags, was dug into the sediments infilling the now dry channel, which revealed a detailed record of past Nile floods.

Mark Macklin and Jamie Woodward examining layers of sand and river silt

On the basis of preliminary dating of sediment samples collected in 2009, this sequence begins around 1100 BC, close to the end of Egyptian occupation of the area, and spans several centuries.

Additional samples have been collected in the last few days to provide more precise dating for the drying out of the channel. These will allow us to better understand the relationship between changing river environments and the archaeological record of Amara West.

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Fragments of ancient lives

Marie Vandenbeusch registering a grind-stone in the expedition house

Marie Vandenbeusch,
Université de Genève

Archaeology consists not only of walls and architectural structures, but also of objects, recovered throughout seasons of excavation. These objects are rarely masterpieces, but rather tools of all kinds: hammer- and grind-stones, small jewellery, scarabs, flint tools… and of course masses of pottery.

All these finds reflect the day-to-day lives of those living in the ancient town of Amara West.

Though fine amulets are found, the majority of the objects from the town are coarsely made and often badly damaged, with wood and leather generally only surviving in the cemetery. Materials such as papyrus have yet to be found at Amara West.

Serrated flint knife (F4568)

All the objects are brought back from site every day, and placed in a large metal trunk – our ‘inbox’. At this point my work as finds registrar starts.

Some of the artefacts need cleaning, but all have to be recorded on the project’s online database.

Set of ceramic counters (F4312)

After carefully studying the object, a description and measurements are added to the database – and occasionally a translation (or attempted reading!) of any hieroglyphs or hieratic.

These steps can be completed quickly with dozens of similar beads, or the very common discs or counters – circular objects cut from broken pottery vessels.

This work is all done in the dig house, and the objects are then transferred to the storeroom.

A computer and internet access are needed – with the short hours of electricity on the island, I need to take advantage of the battery life of several laptops, and plan my day carefully to maximise the number of finds registered.

Necklace as found in post-New Kingdom grave 216 (F9464)

Two weeks in, more than 250 objects have been registered. I am becoming very familiar with peculiar objects, rarely exhibited in museum collections. But it is these objects that provide a real insight into the activities, and occasionally beliefs, of the ancient population of the town – whether Egyptian or Nubian.

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Progress in the cemeteries

Michaela Binder, Durham University

After a somewhat disappointing first week in Cemetery C during which we only found heavily disturbed graves, our luck turned last week. We discovered two largely intact graves which provide us with important insights into the funerary customs of the people living at Amara West.

Excavations in Cemetery C

One of these intact graves is G216. As with most of the other graves excavated in Cemetery C it is of the niche grave type, in which the body of the deceased is placed in a narrow niche on the bottom of a rectangular shaft.

With a length of 2.2 metres and a width of 1.2 metres, G216 is the largest niche discovered so far. In contrast, other graves found this week are very small, with just enough space to accommodate a small child burial.

G217: Niche grave for a child burial

While some of these graves were used for only one burial, G216 was re-used no less than five times. As the niche is only large enough to hold one body, the older burials were simply thrown out of the shaft – we found the remains loosely scattered within it.

The coffin inside the burial niche of G216

Only the latest burial was discovered intact within the burial niche, placed in a wooden coffin decorated with a fine layer of white plaster, painted with parallel red and black stripes. This coffin was not exclusively used for this individual – parts of an earlier burial were found on the bottom of it.

Ivory Bes amulet (F9459)

One of the most exciting finds of this grave so far is a finely-carved ivory amulet found within the jumble of human bones on the side of the coffin. The figurine represents Bes, the Egyptian household god.

Though Bes amulets are not an unusual thing to find in graves, this is a special one. Its body features all the elements of a typical Egyptian style, but its head is carved in an entirely different, presumably local, manner, which is more reminiscent of an African mask than an Egyptian god. This little amulet therefore nicely shows how imported religious iconography was combined with local cultural elements.

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Top of the pots

Marie Millet, College de France, Paris

Marie Millet sorting pottery in the Ramesside town

Since the first season of excavation at Amara West in 2009, I have been studying the pottery vessels from both the town and its cemeteries. I’m now getting back into the rhythm of living and working in Amara West and the island of Ernetta where the expedition house is located.

Typically, I work at the site twice a week – for an initial sorting of the masses of pottery which comes from the town – then the remainder of my time is spent in the study rooms and pottery store.

Cooking jar from 20th dynasty house, about 1130 BC (C4000)

Most of the pottery is broken into small pieces (sherds), but diagnostic fragments (rims, bases, decorated pieces, handles …) can allow us to identify the original shape of the vessels. Of course, we do also find complete vessels.

Firstly, all the pottery needs to be washed, for which we employ a local workman named Salah Mohamed Ali. Special recording sheets are then used to record the characteristics of ceramics from each individual archaeological context (pit, wall, oven, occupation layers).

The proportion of different types of vessel can provide information on the function of a room or space. For example, the middle room in a Ramesside house yielded a cooking jar but also trays for baking bread (dokka). In the middle of this room there was a fireplace and a grinding-emplacement, suggesting the space was used for food preparation.

An ancient kitchen? A plan of the room where the cooking jar was found

In contrast, the room next door, at the back of the house, yielded a small jug (C4019), of a type used for perfume or ointment, so this room may have been more private – perhaps a bedroom?

Ointment or perfume jug (C4019)

Despite much of the ceramic looking rather unimpressive, it can clarify important aspects about ancient life, including food preparation, trade patterns and also the chronology of different occupation levels.

It is crucial that the ceramic evidence is recorded accurately – both drawn and photographed. An archaeological illustrator, Elisabeth, helps out with some of the drawings. Eventually, these will be published, allowing the finds from Amara West to be compared with those from sites across Egypt and Sudan.

All of the pottery stays in our storeroom, so it is always a race against time to finish studying it. In fact, we are always playing catch-up: this week I am working on pottery from last year, while material floods in from ongoing excavations.

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This is Room 69, Greek and Roman life. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
Room 69 takes a cross-cultural look at the public and private lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The objects on display have been chosen to illustrate themes such as women, children, household furniture, religion, trade and transport, athletics, war, farming and more. Around the walls, supplementary displays illustrate individual crafts on one side of the room, and Greek mythology on the opposite side. This picture is taken from the mezzanine level, looking down into the gallery. The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 68, the Citi Money Gallery. The history of money can be traced back over 4,000 years. During this time, currency has taken many different forms, from coins to banknotes, shells to mobile phones.
The Citi Money Gallery displays the history of money around the world. From the earliest evidence, to the latest developments in digital technology, money has been an important part of human societies. Looking at the history of money gives us a way to understand the history of the world – from the earliest coins to Bitcoin, and from Chinese paper money to coins from every nation in the world. You can find out more about what's on display at britishmuseum.org/money The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 67: Korea. The Korea Foundation Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen on 16 December 2014. You can find out more about the refurb at koreabritishmuseum.tumblr.com  The unique culture of Korea combines a strong sense of national identity with influences from other parts of the Far East. Korean religion, language, geography and everyday life were directly affected by the country’s geographic position, resulting in a rich mix of art and artefacts.
Objects on display in Room 67 date from prehistory to the present day and include ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, painting, screen-printed books and illuminated manuscripts.
A reconstruction of a traditional sarangbang, or scholar’s study, is also on display and was built by contemporary Korean craftsmen. This is Room 66, Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
By the 4th century AD, Christianity was flourishing in both Egypt and Ethiopia. Christian Egyptians became known as the Copts (from the Greek name for Egyptians) and the church maintained strong links with its Ethiopian counterparts. Since antiquity, Ethiopia had been a major trade route, linking Egypt and the Mediterranean with India and the Far East.
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These cultures traded extensively with Egypt and for two brief periods Nubian kingdoms dominated their northern neighbour.
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Objects on display in Room 64 illustrate the cultural, technological and political development of early civilisation in Egypt throughout this period. In this picture you can see Gebelein Man, a mummy who was naturally preserved in the desert sands, and who used to have the unofficial nickname of Ginger (although the Museum doesn't use this name). In the background you can see an interactive virtual autopsy of the mummy which was installed in the newly refurbished gallery last year.
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