British Museum blog

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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Amara West 2012: the town – halfway through the season


Neal Spencer, British Museum

With three weeks digging left, it’s a good time to reflect on the key discoveries of the season so far in the town of Amara West. Though these have included objects, from the spectacular to the mundane, the combination of stratigraphy and architecture unearthed has allowed us to interpret the purpose of buildings – and one of our key challenges has been to work out which walls belong to which structures, and in what order they were built.

House E13.8

A trapezoid-shaped house, E13.8 is tucked into a space between house E13.3 and the north town wall, and now seems to have been quite a late-comer to Amara West, as Shadia Abdu Rabu and Tom Lyons’ excavations have shown. Whereas the house next door went through over a century of internal changes (from around 1150 BC) but retained its location and basic layout, house E13.8 was built during the last phases of occupation of the town – or at least the last preserved phases.

House E13.8, with location of oven from an earlier building we have just discovered

House E13.8, with location of oven from an earlier building we have just discovered

The modest dwelling features a room directly off the alley, with a space to the left in which a number of ovens had been built into the town wall, which may have been partly eroded and destroyed at this point. The middle room of the house was set around a circular hearth, with a low brick bench on the back wall (mastaba). This room had been replastered at least once.

In the past week, earlier structures have begun to be revealed – and it seems the two back rooms sat above a larger space which contained at least one large oven. More brickwork is appearing beneath the front room, including one wall which might be part of a very early phase building excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society.

The big question we hope to solve before the end of the season is: what function did this earlier building fulfill? It does not yet display the characteristics of an Amara West house.

House E13.6

Again, a surprise here. Unlike the house immediately west of here (E13.4), house E13.6 was only preserved to a few courses in depth, constructed over earlier remains. The house itself was in some ways unremarkable – with a central room featuring a mastaba – though no evidence of a staircase was preserved, unlike nearly every house at Amara West; access to the roof was important for light and air in such a cramped neighbourhood. Of course, the discovery of a painted, carved, door-lintel gave a glimpse at how splendid the interior of this house may once have looked.

The inscribed lintel found in house E13.6

The inscribed lintel found in house E13.6

Beneath, Mary Shepperson and Hélène Virenque have revealed a whole series of walls of earlier phases. Many seem to relate to the long store-rooms with vaulted roofs partly revealed in previous seasons – but others might not. Finding out whether some of these rooms join with the house behind (E13.7) is a key question for the next three weeks. If not, was it built before or after? Or was one building partly dismantled to make way for the next?

Street E13.12

Mat Dalton set out to reveal more of house E13.7, but most of his attention has been diverted to the street, where a fascinating history of refurbishing is being traced. We are now able to walk along an ancient street, past the fronts of houses, giving us a sense of the space, architectural scale, and the dense urban environment that is very rare in domestic archaeology.

Street E13.12 with doors to house E13.4 (left) and E13.9

Street E13.12 with doors to house E13.4 (left) and E13.9

In the last few days, Mat has returned to the scene of his 2010 excavations, in a square room where the presence of a number of ovens suggested it was used as a space for communal cooking. As ever at Amara West, find one oven and several more are likely to follow in quick succession. There are now at least three phases of oven use in the room, some of which are associated with grinding emplacements and their basins. This space would have allowed the neighbourhood’s inhabitants to prepare a significant amount of food.

After the excavations, results of scientific analyses on samples taken from the site should help tell us more about the inhabitants’ diet and how different spaces were used – evidence that can help our imagination make all these urban spaces bustle with people, heat, smoke and undoubtedly much conversation….

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Amara West 2012: 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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