British Museum blog

A charred seed…

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Conservator, Jamie Hood working on one of the cauldrons

The two Chiseldon cauldrons we chose to work on first were found next to each other in the pit and had corroded together.

My colleague Jamie Hood has been given the first cauldron to be removed from the ground during excavation to work on.

Although it appeared to be in one piece in the ground, it was heavily corroded with large cracks hidden by the mud and soil. It was impossible to lift whole, so was removed in four large chunks surrounded by soil. The fact that it is in pieces actually makes it better for Jamie to work on as it is easier to move, handle, and support, and also fits under a microscope.

When he first started work within a few minutes I heard: ‘WOW, look at this, a charred seed!’ from the other side of the room.

My cauldron was probably the last one placed in the pit thousands of years ago. This meant that it was resting on top of the others and was therefore the one first discovered by the metal detectorist in 2004.

Of all the cauldrons, it is in the worst condition – a chunk lifted in plaster bandages and a lot of small pieces of corroded metal. But, it might also be the most interesting.

Some small fragments of the copper alloy already cleaned have decorative scalloped edges, or, apparently, as decorative as it gets for cauldrons in the late Iron Age.

As yet we don’t know much more about this cauldron and wont until I excavate it from its soil block. However, due to its highly fragmentary condition it will not be possible to physically reconstruct it.

Instead I will try and concentrate on a virtual, or at least an intellectual reconstruction, trying to gain as much information from the fragments as possible.

A piece of one of the cauldrons

The most important areas are the rim, handles and decorative patches, and if we can relocate these and examine how they were constructed then this will tell us a great deal about the cauldron.

To make things more complicated some of Jamie’s cauldron was corroded to and lifted with mine. Trying to decide which fragments of 0.5mm metal belong to which cauldron will be very difficult and the whole process will need very careful excavation and detailed recording.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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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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Back on site

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Surveying newly discovered graves in the post-New Kingdom cemetery

Following months of planning, preparation and travel it is always a relief to start work – but also rather unusual in that the initial days of excavation are very different from later in the season.

In the town, we must first remove deep layers of sand that have accumulated in the houses we partly excavated last year. There are no finds or pottery in these deposits so there is little recording and a fair bit of waiting before we reach real archaeology.

Clay floor revealed in the middle room of a small Ramesside house, about 1150BC

In two of the small houses, we are already down on earlier clean clay floors, with the remnants of a cooking hearth in the middle room of each house. It is likely that further occupation phases lie beneath.

A trench inside the southwestern corner of the wall is proving a little frustrating. Here, the buildings have been badly damaged by digging for clay, so there are deep pits filled with clean sand.

Looking for the southwestern town beneath thick layers of sand

Only a few fragments of walls have appeared so far, despite over 20 men and six wheelbarrows working seven hours a day to remove the sand! Sandbags are needed to keep up the trench sides.

In cemetery C, the team has revealed a number of small graves with niches for burials, but thus far all have been robbed, with only jumbled skeletal remains and fragments of pottery remaining. The robbers missed one nice object in Grave 220 – a faience scaraboid with a representation of Thoth as a baboon in place of the usual beetle form.

Faience scaraboid (F9312) with representation of Thoth, from Grave 221.

Another reason that the start of the season is unusual is that the daily rhythm has yet to crystalise – many of us are still setting up systems for later in the season (including a new electricity supply!), ordering and obtaining equipment from the town of Abri, while also trying to integrate new workmen into our digging system – we’ve hired 38 men this season.

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2011: time to get started

Neal Spencer, British Museum

I’ve just arrived in Khartoum – the 30°C temperature is described as ‘freezing’ by the locals – the rest of the team fly out later this week.

In an earlier post, Michaela outlined our aims for work in the post-New Kingdom cemetery. As I’m now in Sudan, it seems appropriate to summarise what we’re aiming to do in the town.

Brushing the floor of a 3,100-year old house

For the first time, the southern zone in the walled town will be investigated under the supervision of one of our archaeologists, Charly Vallance. The Egypt Exploration Society never excavated here in the 1940s and 1950s, so there’s a good possibility that we’ll find intact floors and occupation deposits inside the buildings.

We know from the magnetic data that the buildings are small in scale – perhaps lower class housing? But we’re especially intrigued by the possibility of finding occupation phases from after the collapse of Egyptian rule around 1070 BC. Our ceramicist, Marie Millet, conducted a survey in this area last year, and found distinctive later pottery, so we’re hopeful that some of the buildings date to this period.

This may help us answer questions about how life changed (or did not!) with political upheaval.

We’ll continue working in the northwestern group of houses, hoping to reveal the early phases of two houses – Mat Dalton and Tom Lyons will supervise this work. One of the main difficulties here is that with such well-preserved architecture, we often have to remove later phases to be able to access the earliest buildings. Such a decision is never taken lightly, and only happens after the building in question has been fully recorded with photography and technical drawings.

As ever, there’ll be a range of other work taking place. Jamie Woodward (University of Manchester) and Mark Macklin (University of Aberystwyth) will drop in for a flying visit, to take some samples of windblown sand in the dried-up river channel, to hopefully establish when the water stopped flowing there.

Our archaeobotanist, Philippa Ryan, will be working at the house on botanical remains we collected, but also sampling for phytoliths on site itself – these tiny fragments of plant material can tell us a lot about food-processing, diet and other activities.

As always in archaeology such plans can change very quickly due to the discovery of a particularly complicated set of contexts, a difficult-to-excavate object or group of finds, but also sudden shifts in the weather – howling gales or very high temperatures quickly curtail how much we can do.

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A spot of shopping

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Sieves made locally being useed during excavation

With departure for Sudan only weeks away, we’re putting together the final preparations for our fourth season of fieldwork at Amara West. Flights are booked, visas obtained, inoculations accumulated – and we have defined the key priorities for excavations in the town.

However, more mundane matters are currently being attended to.

As with most archaeology projects, the team needs a range of equipment, from specialist technical devices through to simple tools. Nearly all have one thing in common – none were designed specifically for archaeology!

Neal Spencer and Shadia Abdu Rabo using a Topcon total station to map the town site

From the builder’s toolbox we use trowels, measuring tapes, wheelbarrows, nails and hammers. While art shops provide us with the drafting film, tracing paper and of course pencils.

The surveyor’s total station – for accurately measuring distance and areas – is probably our most advanced piece of equipment. Less advanced but also important are the good quality plastic bags we need for all of the finds, samples and skeletal remains. With severe snow forecast for the UK, we’re hoping deliveries of equipment are not disrupted.

In our case, the lack of materials available near Amara West makes our task more difficult. Computers, cameras and specialist equipment comes from the UK (while we can buy a certain amount in Khartoum, it can be very expensive). Nonetheless, we make great use of local traders in Abri, the modern town across the Nile from Amara West, especially in the first few days of the season.

René Kertesz bringing the ancestor bust back to the excavation house, using a bucket from the local market

The carpenter provides us with trestle tables for working and dining, but also produces small botanical sieves (we bring the 5mm, 1mm and 0.5mm mesh out from the UK) and our drawing boards. At the blacksmith we can order metal tables, iron spikes for marking out trenches and even stands for our water filters.

At the carpenters shop, Abri

Lamps, wiring, bulbs, shovels, plastic buckets (for showering and washing pottery), sugar sacks (for carrying spoil) and many brushes (for cleaning excavated features) come from the local hardware store.

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Cauldrons on the move

Jamie Hood, British Museum

Conservator Jamie Hood labelling one of the cauldrons for transportation

As I wasn’t at the excavation of the Chiseldon cauldrons it was difficult to imagine that the nine or so blocks of soil sitting in plastic crates and wrapped in plaster bandages really contained Iron Age cauldrons. But a few weeks ago when Alex and I visited the Museum’s off-site store, I knelt down and looked at the closest crate and spotted the edges of metal sheet and part of an iron handle sticking out of the soil.

Conservator Alexandra Baldwin at the British Museum store

It’s at moments like this that you start to think about the step by step process of conserving the object to bring it back to life (and also quickly calculate how many hours it might take… literally hundreds).

But before we could start work we had to move the cauldrons from storage to the Museum itself.

The Museum’s off-site store is vast with hundreds of crates and many rows of racking which all hold evidence of Britain’s past. While it was easy for us to jump on the tube to get to the store, transporting the cauldrons was a little bit trickier.

We picked two of them – discovered next to each other in the burial pit, and corroded together – and packed them safely in big boxes. It’s always nerve-racking transporting fragile objects, so to protect them we surrounded them with rolled-up tissue paper, foam and bubble wrap.

Conservator Jamie Hood transporting one of the cauldrons at the British Museum

Once safely at the Museum we moved the crates to the metals conservation lab and carefully unpacked the cauldrons.

The first step is to record the soil blocks and fragments of cauldrons by taking pictures, making detailed drawings and examining the surface through a microscope. In preparation for the next stage, when conservation really begins, you can then begin to start removing some of the soil with small hand tools and brushes.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Digging up – and preserving – the Iron Age

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin excavating the cauldrons

Five years ago I, and my colleague Simon Dove in the department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum, joined a team from Wessex Archaeology in a field in Wiltshire to excavate what we thought were three small bowls. Two weeks later, in baking sun and torrential rain, we had lifted 10 – or 12 – rather large cauldrons.

Brilliant! 10 Cauldrons! Being extremely rare, this was an exciting find.

One would have been fantastic. Three would have been amazing. But 10-12, on the other hand, was a huge challenge. First, we had to excavate them. Then we had to store them and finally conserve them so we can learn from them and perhaps even put them on display.

With such a huge find, and with the conservation project alone estimated to take two of us two years, Jody Joy, British Museum curator of Iron Age Britain, and I decided to apply for funding to study the cauldrons properly and conserve them so that we could understand their wider significance and give them the attention they deserve.

An illustration of how the cauldrons may have looked when first buried

Now we have the funding, work has started and over the next two years myself and a colleague, and Jody, along with scientists and other British Museum staff, will be unravelling the evidence of life in the Iron Age the cauldrons can provide us with.

In the coming months I’ll be writing regular posts – as will Jody, and my colleague in the conservation team Jamie Hood – documenting the journey through the project and describing what goes on behind the scenes at the British Museum, revealing discoveries as we find them… and not to mention the challenges we face.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , , , , ,

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