British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: nice objects among archaeological puzzles


Tom Lyons, archaeologist, and Shadia Abdu Rabu, Sudan National Museum

Since the last update from house E13.8, excavation of further deposits and features within the rooms has revealed earlier architecture and some interesting finds.

In the central room in the house we have photographed, drawn and dug away a second mud plaster floor surface with a central hearth. This floor was covered in broken pottery and had a partially complete vessel set in it. It also contained a hearth in the same place as the later floor which lay above it. Such consistency of layout suggests the function of the room remained the same.

Bread ovens in the small room at the front of the house have also been excavated. These proved relatively straightforward to remove, but proved difficult to define as they consist of hard-fired ashy silt.

Cleaning ovens in room E13.8.4

Cleaning ovens in room E13.8.4

These are examples of some of the more typical archaeological features we encounter when excavating at Amara West, and indeed in any New Kingdom brick houses. Every house in the town has so far contained a central room for domestic activity and often a separate room for making bread and grinding cereals.

Faience scarab with a depiction of a king as a sphinx

Faience scarab with a depiction of a king as a sphinx

Less common are fine faience artefacts, an example of which turned up this week – we recovered a small but very finely carved scarab which depicts a representation of the king as a sphinx, a classic symbol of pharaonic power, with the name Menkheperra before it. This was one of the names of Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC), popular on amulets and scarabs long after his death.

Looking further ahead (or down!) we saw earlier layers emerging. My trowel made that familiar scraping noise when it strikes hard sandstone: a big stone which by the end of the day had begun to look like a door step, or threshold stone, complete with a little socket for a door post – the only issue being that there isn’t, as yet, a door to go with it, only a big wall. This leads us to believe that there’s either a hidden or blocked doorway, or the adjacent wall is a replacement of an earlier wall.

Such are the daily puzzles which confront us…

Find out more about the Amara West research project

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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: return to cemetery D


Michaela Binder, Durham University

In the cemeteries, our work will mainly focus on cemetery D this year, the cemetery area to the north-west of the town. Located on an escarpment, previous excavations in this cemetery by the Egypt Exploration Society (1938/39) and by us in 2010, revealed evidence suggesting that this area was used as a burial ground for the elite. As we’ve only excavated a small number of graves in this area so far, the additional graves excavated this season will allow us to confirm – or modify – this hypothesis.

Two of the burial mounds we’ll excavate this season

Two of the burial mounds we’ll excavate this season

We’ll start with graves in the immediate vicinity of the elite Ramesside tombs excavated in 2010. On the surface, the tombs are visible as low circular mounds of schist blocks and rubble. The rubble might indicate that the underlying substructures are carved into the bedrock and therefore could be rather substantial. I can’t wait until the team finally arrives to find out what is underneath.

Early morning, first day of excavating in cemetery D

Early morning, first day of excavating in cemetery D

Early on Tuesday, a beautiful but rather brisk morning, I and a small group of three workmen started removing the windblown sand from the shaft of grave G307, where excavation had begun in 2010. Presumably due to wind erosion of the surface, a large proportion of the grave’s original height has disappeared over the centuries. How much is left of the burial chamber on the west side of the rectangular shaft will be seen over the next few days.

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Season five approaches at Amara West


Neal Spencer, British Museum

For the Amara West team, Christmas and New Year is always coloured by the anticipation of a return to site. Ahead lies the unknown of new excavations, and undoubtedly some surprising logistical challenges….

House E13.8, between the town wall (left), and house E13.3, excavated last year.

House E13.8, between the town wall (left), and house E13.3, excavated last year.

Work on site will concentrate on two areas: Michaela Binder will be leading a team of specialists in cemetery D, our second full season in this burial ground where Egyptian-style tombs of the New Kingdom are found alongside later burials reflecting Nubian traditions. And this season, we’ll be joined by the first participants in the Amara West Field School, generously supported by the Institute of Bioarchaeology. Mohamed Saad, from the National Corporation of Antiquities, and Åshild Vågene, recently graduated from Durham University, will together learn the methods for excavating graves – often badly disturbed – to retrieve the maximum information on skeletal remains.

House E13.7 last month, now buried beneath sand (and with a later house built above it).

House E13.7 last month, now buried beneath sand (and with a later house built above it).

Down in the town, all our efforts will be concentrated on the dense block of housing in the northwest of the town. We’ll continue work in house E13.7, the early dwelling with white-painted walls, but also start work on two new houses, E13.6 and E13.8. We can already see the layout of the house, but cannot predict what awaits us in each room, or what earlier architecture might lie beneath!

Fragments of painted plaster, with chequerboard pattern, from a possible shrine in house E13.7

Fragments of painted plaster, with chequerboard pattern, from a possible shrine in house E13.7

Of course, the expedition house will also be a hive of activity, with work on pottery, finds and of course organisation of scientific samples continuing. This year we’ll also be joined by Philip Kevin, a conservator from the British Museum, who will work on revealing the colourful decoration on the painted plaster fragments from a possible house shrine.

We’ll be sending updates on the various aspects of work over the next two months: excavation starts 2 January….

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Back in the lab: analysing skeletal remains from Amara West


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Since early July, I’ve been in London, finally getting to analyse the human remains we excavated last season at Amara West. The human skeleton acts as a unique database about a number of different aspects of past human life. It can reveal information about a person’s life such as sex, age at death, diet or health – even a few thousand years after the person died.

Tracing this information is part of my job as a physical anthropologist.

Working in the bioarchaeology laboratory in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

Working in the bioarchaeology laboratory in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

This does not necessarily require special technical equipment or analysis but can usually be deduced from visible inspection of the bones alone. For example, while certain shape traits in the skull and pelvis give information about whether the individual was male or female, attrition of the teeth and degenerative changes in specific parts of the hip bone can tell us how old a person was when he or she died.

Currently, I’m working on the human remains from the chamber of Grave 234. One of the more challenging tasks working on the burials from this grave is to find out how many people were actually buried there. Since the grave was re-used so many times, many of the burials had become jumbled together. Attributing all elements to an individual is unfortunately not always possible. Nevertheless, I can identify two more adult men and a juvenile, in addition to the four intact burials in the centre of the chamber.

Commingled burials in Grave 234 at Amara West

Commingled burials in Grave 234 at Amara West

One of the most interesting aspects of my work is when we find evidence of injuries or diseases. Even though we usually don’t find out how a person died, some injuries and diseases that occur during lifetime leave a well visible imprint on the bones. One particularly striking example from Grave 234 is a hip bone which was fractured in three different places.

The right pelvis of an adult male with fractures in three locations. Note the tiny holes – these were caused by termites.

The right pelvis of an adult male with fractures in three locations. Note the tiny holes – these were caused by termites.

Injuries of this type require high energy and are nowadays mainly associated with motor vehicle accidents or falls from great heights. Moreover they often lead to serious complications and death if the internal organs are affected as well. Although we will never know the causes of this individual’s injuries, we can speculate that it may have been a fall that occurred during building work or agricultural labour.

Such injuries are very painful but nevertheless, with two-three months rest and stabilisation, they usually heal well and do not lead to any significant walking problems. The same apparently happened in this person as the injuries are well healed, indicating that he lived on for at least several months – if not for years.

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130 objects, 3,000 years of history: pharaoh exhibition opens

Margaret Maitland, British Museum

In just under two weeks, over 3,000 years of history – in the shape of 130 objects – has been installed at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne for the British Museum UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt. The objects span almost the entire extent of ancient Egyptian history, from an exquisite ebony label belonging to one of the very first rulers of Egypt to a monument depicting the Roman Emperor Tiberius as an Egyptian pharaoh.

The exhibition focuses on the kings of Egypt, but there is an incredibly diverse selection of objects, which presented a wide range of challenges in the installation. Among the objects is a tiny pendant of King Senusret II that transforms the hieroglyphs which spell out his name into a decorative piece, delicately crafted from gold and colourful semi-precious stones. To display this beautiful piece of jewellery and other small items, the museum assistants handcraft special mounts for each object.

Pendant of King Senusret II, about 1897-1878 BC.

Pendant of King Senusret II, about 1897-1878 BC.

The monumental objects presented the biggest technical challenges, a task for museum assistants Emily Taylor, Simon Prentice, and Emma Lunn. One of the most fascinating objects to install was the massive wooden statue of Ramses I, which would have stood guard protecting an inner chamber in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Towering two metres high, this massive statue has been skilfully conserved but is still fragile, and it was a slow and cautious operation to remove him from his enormous crate, condition check him, and slowly and carefully manoeuvre him into his case.

Museum assistants from the British Museum move Ramses I into position.

Museum assistants from the British Museum move Ramses I into position.

Ramses’ new home in the exhibition space, designed and built by Tyne & Wear, evokes an Egyptian tomb and temple landscape to convey where many of the objects were found. The exhibition text, created in collaboration between British Museum curator Neal Spencer, Great North Museum manager Sarah Glynn, Tyne & Wear curator Gill Scott, and myself, uses these objects to tell both sides of the story of Egyptian kingship: the powerful image the kings wanted to show their subjects and the rest of the ancient world, and stories they might not have wanted you to hear, about civil wars, palace conspiracies, assassinations, foreign conquerors, and female kings.

On Saturday 16 July, the exhibition opens to the public. It has been an incredible experience working with such a great team and amazing ancient objects and I’m thrilled to think of how many more people will now have the chance to enjoy them.

British Museum Director, Neil McGregor spoke eloquently at the official opening of the importance of this exhibition and others like it in bringing the national collection to people around the UK. Although ancient Egyptian pharaohs preferred to safeguard their power by restricting access to their palaces, temples, and knowledge, this free exhibition will share their splendour through the British Museum collection with audiences all over the country.

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Papyrus and palaces – a new exhibition about the pharaohs of ancient Egypt

Margaret Maitland, British Museum

Almost everyone has some idea of ancient Egypt: the name instantly conjures up an image of a land ruled by all-powerful pharaohs who built grand temples and pyramids, and were buried with magnificent treasures.

Upper part of a red granite colossal statue of Ramses II, 1279-1213 BC

Upper part of a red granite colossal statue of Ramses II, 1279-1213 BC

Like many others, I was first drawn to Egyptology as a child by the allure of the pharaohs’ ancient splendour, but it was the compelling stories behind these kings and their relationship with their people that kept me captivated. In fact, the Egyptians themselves weren’t always as dazzled by their rulers as we are today; stories that survive on papyri from ancient times tell of regretful kings rueing their failures, and others who are comically lascivious or cruel.

The forthcoming new British Museum touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt explores both the myths and realities of kingship in ancient Egypt. With 130 objects, from a larger than life-size royal tomb guardian statue, exquisite jewellery, and palace decorations, to defaced royal monuments and accounts of assassination and civil war, Pharaoh: King of Egypt is the largest ever UK loan of Egyptian objects from the British Museum.

The exhibition has been developed in partnership with Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and will begin its tour at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 16 July – 25 September 2011, before travelling to Dorset County Museum, Leeds City Museum, Birmingham Museum, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, and Bristol Museum. The cooperative process that has produced this exhibition is part of the British Museum’s Partnership UK programme, which works with numerous museums around the country to share objects, expertise, and community programming. Pharaoh is just one of many exhibitions that broaden access to the collection by bringing it directly to people across the UK.

Gold plaque of Amenemhat IV offering to Atum, 1808-1799 BC

Gold plaque of Amenemhat IV offering to Atum, 1808-1799 BC

I’ve been lucky enough to get to work with the stunning objects that are part of this exhibition. Currently, I’m in the process of updating our collections online database to share the enthralling stories behind these objects, including new photographs of many of them. To get a taste of what the exhibition will offer, have a look at the list and come back to visit again as I continue to update them.

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Pharaoh: King of Egypt is on display at the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 16 July – 25 September 2011

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The future of the Norwich shroud

Faye Kalloniatis, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The Norwich Shroud before conservation and research. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The Norwich Shroud before conservation and research. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Well, this will be the final blog entry for the Norwich shroud and what a way we’ve come over the past few months

As the project got underway, one highlight followed another. The first was the initial unrolling, when we watched the small and crumpled scrap unfurl to become a good-sized fragment of shroud. Then we saw that it had not merely a few columns of text but, rather, was filled with it – an epigrapher’s dream.

John Taylor, British Museum curator, gives a lecture at the Norwich Shroud Study day. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

John Taylor, British Museum curator, gives a lecture at the Norwich Shroud Study day. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Then came the cartouche of Menkaure, which sent us all into paroxysms of delight. No sooner had we come to terms with this when we discovered the name of the shroud’s owner – a certain Ipu, daughter of Mutresti.

Yet there was more to come.

We found that other fragments of her shroud existed at Cairo Museum. This was a key moment as it significantly increased what we would be able to learn about the Norwich portion. For instance, from that stemmed the very distinct possibility that the shroud came from the Royal Cache of 1881.

Had we written the script for the Norwich shroud project we couldn’t have devised anything more – or even as – wondrous as that. But with the shroud’s rarity comes a responsibility – not only to ensure that it is preserved and made accessible for future generations but also that we continue to study it and set it within the wider context of the religious and funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians.

Some of this work has already begun. The shroud is now stabilized; having been mounted on a fabric-lined board and secured with a semi-transparent net stitched over it. This has meant that it can be stored and studied safely, and even be displayed and loaned.

Visitors to the Study day examine the shroud as Melina Plottu (far left), British Museum conservation intern, explains the techniques used to conserve the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Visitors to the Study day examine the shroud as Melina Plottu (far left), British Museum conservation intern, explains the techniques used to conserve the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

We’ve also worked to publicise the shroud as widely as possible – through this blog and through two study days reporting the findings of the project. The shroud has now returned to Norwich, and in the long-term, it’s hoped that it’ll be exhibited at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery as the focus of a temporary exhibition.

Still to come are a couple of articles in various publications, and these are currently being written by several of us in the project team. But this, we hope, is only a start.

The Egyptological community is beginning to hear about the shroud and curiosity is being roused. In particular, members of the Totenbuch Projekt, based at Bonn, are keen to see the shroud and to study it.

This is very good news because they will bring their high level of expertise to the endeavour and will publish it further. Through such publication the shroud will find its place in the small corpus of such artefacts and will play its part in adding to our knowledge about the religious practices of the ancient Egyptians.

So, one phase is ending but another is beginning.

Much of what has been achieved has been thanks to Partnership UK – a scheme which made it possible for curators, conservators and scientists from the British Museum and the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service to share their skills and professional knowledge.

And thanks, of course, to all those who have followed the blog over these past few months.

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What can we do to preserve an ancient Egyptian shroud?

Nicole Rode, textile conservator, British Museum

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Now we’ve worked with curators and scientists to (safely) get as much information as we can, it’s time to ensure the next stage of the shroud’s life, as a studied and enjoyed museum artefact, doesn’t cause it to deteriorate.

The shroud fully opened up from its original bundle © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

The shroud fully opened up from its original bundle © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

So what are our options? After opening up the shroud, one option would be to leave it exactly like this and simply put it into good storage. As long as it was on a carrying board, stored flat in dark place, like a drawer unit, it would be fairly stable and allow for occasional study by individual scholars.

Leaving the textile in this state, however, completely prevents the many other roles the shroud might be asked to perform: it would really be too vulnerable for extensive study, and certainly wouldn’t be able to go on display, or be shipped to national and international venues for loan. In light of this we decided we needed to go further in stabilising it.

There is no one way to treat an archaeological textile – they are all made differently, come to the studio in different conditions, and have different end roles. Thus a treatment that suits one shroud will not necessarily suit another. With the NMAS conservators, we began by first looking at what techniques had been successfully used in the past – senior conservators at the British Museum including Monique Pullan, Pippa Cruickshank and Anna Harrison have treated numerous Egyptian textiles such as the shroud of Resti , and the shroud for a unknown person that was recently displayed in the exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian book of the dead.

This was too fragile to support its own weight, so it has been stitched onto a cotton fabric with fine monofilament silk.

This was too fragile to support its own weight, so it has been stitched onto a cotton fabric with fine monofilament silk.

Some fragile textiles can be supported underneath with woven fabrics secured with stitching, such as an Egyptian tunic on display in Room 66. Where the needle might cause damage, for example by making holes through a painted area of a shroud, we might choose to adhere it to a support fabric or fine paper with conservation-grade adhesives, such as the shroud of Amenhotep. But we don’t rush to use adhesives as they are harder to remove in the long-term.

In other cases we use a combination of techniques – for example the shroud with a bead net, on display in Room 63, uses both small adhesive patches and stitched support (the detailed conservation records of all these shrouds can be read on the Museum’s collection online).

This shroud was conserved for display by using a combination of small conservation-grade adhesive patches adhered to its reverse and an overall stitched support. It is on display in Room 63.

This shroud was conserved for display by using a combination of small conservation-grade adhesive patches adhered to its reverse and an overall stitched support. It is on display in Room 63.

The important principle that we abide by in any conservation treatment is that of ‘minimal intervention’ – we try to apply the least amount necessary to make an object safe. We also ensure that what we do does not unwittingly destroy information about the object that has yet to be revealed – or alter its appearance in any way that can’t be reversed.

Because the shroud was so fragmentary and vulnerable, we suggested that it was mounted on a rigid support board. This would prevent any damage caused by flexing the aged fibres, and at the same time would provide a good means of handling and displaying it. Luckily the shroud proved to be of a size that can be kept fully opened.

Because of the relative softness of the fibres, the numerous holes in the shroud, the looseness of the weave structure, and the fact that there were no brittle areas, we decided a stitched support would be the most suitable conservation option. Specifically, we would sandwich the shroud between two support fabrics – a solid cotton backing and a fine semi-transparent net. By stitching them together, they would hold all the damaged sections in place most securely, which was especially important if it were ever to go on vertical display or travel on loan.

One of the strongest advantages of this sandwich technique is that much less stitching is done through the actual historic textile. Another advantage is that it’s removable – the possibility of reversal is one of the central tenets of conservation. Also, if the net is dyed to the right colour, it will be virtually invisible – there are many textiles in the Museum’s Egyptian galleries that have net overlays that are very discreet – specifically on the shroud of a youth and the shroud with a bead net, both on display in Room 63.

Last but not least, providing appropriate environmental conditions is integral to the long-term preservation of this remarkable textile. This includes the conditions in which it is stored and displayed – for example ensuring the light levels on display are controlled to prevent fading, and the humidity is at an appropriate level to prevent mould growth or desiccation.

With the treatment strategy decided, we can now begin to look at the details.

In the next post we’ll show you the action – dyeing the right colour of net, the tiny eye surgery needles we use for stitching, our invisible silk threads and how we get the shroud onto its rigid board in less than two seconds!

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