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Amara West 2012: an osteoarchaeologist’s dream…


Laurel Engbring, physical anthropologist

Archaeology can be a bit of a gamble: you can dig for weeks and find nothing.

I began this season at Amara West excavating two shafts. They had little preserved inside them; though we did find the disarticulated remains of a neonate (a newborn child).

Laurel planning a layer of stones above the shaft in G314

Laurel planning a layer of stones above the shaft in G314

The tumulus I am currently excavating (G314) started out as a simple raised mound in Cemetery D, and initially proved somewhat frustrating. Beneath the sandy surface of the shaft lurked a series of schist slabs and large stones, covering a smaller east to west oriented shaft, lined in places with mudbrick. After photographing, leveling, planning and sectioning the stones, I excitedly removed the layer of huge stones, anticipating what lay beneath.

This turned out to be another layer of stones. After documenting this layer, and removing it, a third layer was revealed. In some ways this was frustrating. In other ways, the effort enhanced the anticipation.

Removing the schist slabs from G314

Removing the schist slabs from G314

When a fourth layer of schist slabs was removed, we finally discovered chambers extending to the east and west, nearly two metres in each direction.

My initial peek into the western chamber revealed disarticulated human bones and a few large ceramic vessels: an osteoarchaeologist’s dream!

The excavation and recording of the bones has just begun, making the 5.30am starts much easier.

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: a new pyramid chapel


Milena Grzybowska

As my area of expertise is osteology (the scientific study of bones), I’m working in Cemetery D under Michaela Binder’s supervision. This is my first season on the Amara West project and the second day onsite has already brought the excitement I was hoping for.

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

I completed the pre-excavation documentation of feature G309 on Friday, and yesterday started excavating its central portion, with four local workmen, Nail, Mohammed, Ashmi and Akasze. The south-west interior corner of a building appeared very quickly. Brushes and trowels in hands, we were eager to define the extent of this structure.

Milena cleaning the remains of the chapel

Milena cleaning the remains of the chapel

The surviving remains, although presently not very high – 40 centimetres at the southern edge – still suggest a structure of impressive scale. Eight metres long and four metres wide, it is larger than the examples exposed previously. Constructed on an east-west axis, the grave originally consisted of a chapel, at the western edge of which stood a small brick pyramid.

Cleaning back sand from around the small pyramid base (right)

Cleaning back sand from around the small pyramid base (right)

What next? We will excavate the burial shaft, which might be over two metres in depth. Judging from the extent of the buildings and the adjacent mound of debris, whose height should reflect the depth of the grave, this phase of excavation might take some time. Let’s hope our patience will be rewarded with intact human remains and associated burial assemblages.

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Amara West 2012: excavation in the cemeteries


Michaela Binder, Durham University

This year’s team – Ashild, Laurel, Milena, Mohammed Saad and myself – is finally complete and we’re ready to kick off the 2012 season of excavating in the cemeteries at Amara West. The strong winds of the last few days have made excavation a bit difficult, but on Friday conditions were perfect.

Dawn in the cemetery at Amara West

Dawn in the cemetery at Amara West

There’s no time to be wasted: despite exhausting travelling from Europe to Khartoum and then immediately onwards to Amara West, work started the day after everyone arrived and settled into the house.

Milena documenting the superstructure of G309

Milena documenting the superstructure of G309

The first day on site, everyone familiarised themselves with the cemetery and started documenting the surface features of individual graves. Except for Mohammed Saad, none of the other members of the cemetery team have worked in Sudan before.

Hassan Awad, cleaning the shaft of G310. Behind is what we thought was the opening to a burial chamber…

Hassan Awad, cleaning the shaft of G310. Behind is what we thought was the opening to a burial chamber…

Laurel is working on a small burial mound (G310), and was the first one to start ‘real’ excavation. Three workmen soon revealed a large, rectangular pit orientated east-west filled with windblown sand. After about one metre, the shaft starts cutting into the bedrock.

On the western side of the shaft, something that looked like the opening to a burial chamber soon appeared – very much to everyone’s excitement.

Unfortunately, however, the grave turned out to be empty – perhaps looted in ancient times like many of the graves at Amara West.

Well, there are plenty more to come.

 

 

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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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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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