British Museum blog

New evidence of human cancer found at ancient Amara West

scan of human bone

Michaela Binder, Durham University and Neal Spencer, British Museum

Cancer is one of the world’s most common causes of death today, but there is little evidence from before industrialisation: almost nothing is known about the history of the disease in the past. We generally assume cancer is strongly related to modern lifestyle and environment. But the analysis of skeletal and mummified human remains recovered during archaeological excavations can provide insights into such diseases in the distant past.

Until now, only a small number of skeletons with evidence for cancer have been identified. While the oldest primary bone cancer is around 6,000 years old, the earliest example of bone metastases related to a soft tissue cancer dates to around 3000 BC. However, because only the skull is preserved, there are doubts about the accuracy of the diagnosis. Only nine more individuals with – often tentative – evidence of cancer predate the first millennium AD. The majority of these individuals come from Ancient Egypt. This is perhaps mainly because the long history of archaeological research has resulted in a very large amount of skeletal and mummified human remains becoming available for study. They are very well preserved and have received a great deal of attention from medical doctors and physical anthropologists since the 19th century.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

In February 2013, the skeleton of a man who died between the age of 20 and 35 years was excavated in a tomb at Amara West, in northern Sudan. Founded around 1300 BC in the reign of Seti I, the town was designed as a new centre of the Egyptian control of Upper Nubia (Kush). The British Museum has been working at the site since 2008. Excavations in the town allow us glimpses of ancient lives: how houses were refurbished, what people ate, religious and ritual practices, where rubbish was disposed – and how the town changed over two centuries of occupation. Bioarchaeological work in the cemeteries is providing further insights into the ancient inhabitants: their life expectancy, diet and health.

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man's hands.

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man’s hands.

This individual (skeleton 244-8) was buried in a large underground chamber tomb (G244), perhaps used for a family around 1200 BC. The body was placed in a painted wooden coffin, with an Egyptian-style scaraboid placed in the hands. The bones of the torso, upper arms and upper legs have a large number of holes, 5-25mm in diameter. Radiographic examination of the bones revealed the holes are even larger beneath the bone surface. These holes were caused by metastatic carcinoma spreading from a soft tissue cancer: the oldest complete skeleton of a metastatic cancer found, anywhere, to date. The study, jointly conducted by researchers at the British Museum and Durham University is being published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

What caused such a case of cancer? Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease which was and still is a major health problem in the Nile valley, can cause breast cancer in men. Smoke from woodfires within houses continues to be a problem in modern Sudan. At Amara West, most of the small houses were provided with cylindrical bread ovens, often three side-by-side in a small room. Careful excavation has revealed that many of these oven rooms were roofed: these would have quickly filled up with smoke, exposing people to potentially harmful substances.

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Understanding the evolution, history and factors that could have caused cancer prior to the onset of modern living conditions is important not only for archaeology but even more so for medical research. Skeletal human remains, set within a well-documented historical, archaeological and environmental context are a key element for any such attempts. This may in future be crucial to develop new research strategies and therapies in order to tackle what has become the world’s deadliest disease.

The identification of such cases, and other diseases, among the population of towns such as Amara West, provides a more direct sense of ancient experience than those provided by ancient texts, architectural remains or the objects people left behind.

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Amara West excavations 2013: the past from above

Aerial photograph of a house undergoing excavationNeal Spencer, British Museum

After a test flight over Ernetta and our dig house, Susie Green – working with us to create three-dimensional visualisations of the town’s architecture – flew her photographic kite over the Ramesside town, occupied between 1290 and around 1000 BC, at Amara West on Sunday. The brisk breeze – Beaufort scale 2-3 according to our trusted weather forecast – and crisp morning light made it a perfect day.

The kite above villa D12.5

The kite above villa D12.5

The camera rig sits well below the kite itself, and needs to stay in range of the remote control. Susie controlled the camera (rotating 360 degrees horizontally, or 90 degrees vertically) and triggered the shutter, as I did my best to walk the kite around the site in an attempt to provide a full coverage of the excavation areas… the results are spectacular.

The town of Amara West

Aerial photograph showing the town of Amara West with the River Nile in the background

Amara West sits on the north bank of the Nile, where a line of tamarisk trees prompts the formation of sand dunes. Villa D12.5, still being excavated, lies in the centre of the photograph. Villa E12.10 is near the bottom, excavated in 2009, partly engulfed in windblown sand. The distinctive Jebel Abri (‘Abri mountain’) is on the horizon.

The cemetery

The low mounds of cemetery C mark graves, with the town in the background, before the Nile

The low mounds of cemetery C mark graves, with the town in the background, before the Nile. The low lying sandy area in between cemetery C and the town is an ancient river channel, now dry but probably flowing during some of the period the town was inhabited. The white and blue tarpaulin in the middle of the image is the location of tomb G243, now being excavated.

Excavating in the town

The two areas under excavation

The two areas under excavation. Outside the town wall, at the bottom of the image, villa D12.5 features a large courtyard, and rooms partly filled with sand during recent windy days. At the top, inside the wall, lie the houses of neighbourhood E13, under excavation since 2009. In the centre of the image, the white sandstone west gate of the town can be seen.

Unearthing a house

House E13.5, with Shadia Abdu Rabo standing in the front room, next to the hearth

House E13.5, with Shadia Abdu Rabo standing in the front room, next to the hearth. A low bench, or mastaba, can be seen to the right, and the six large ovens in the annex. Sandbags protect the front of the house from sand, while a photographic ladder lies on the ground, for use in taking more gravity-bound views of the excavation.

We’ve only a few days excavation left at Amara West, in which we hope to answer some questions about the early history of the villa, complete photography for three-dimensional visualisations, explore further an area perhaps used for faience production, finish work in the western part of the multi-chamber tomb, conserve delicate wooden objects from the cemetery… the list of things still to do is, in reality, much longer!

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Amara West excavations 2013: expecting the unexpected and a ‘Howard Carter moment’

The 'Howard Carter moment'. Physical anthropologist, Michaela Binder gets a first peak into the  chamber(s) of Grave 244Neal Spencer, British Museum

The latest excavation season at Amara West in Sudan began three weeks ago, with a wide range of excavations and associated research excavations taking place in this 3,000-year old ancient Egyptian town on the banks of the Nile.

Amidst the chilly 6.30am starts, logistical challenges, strong winds, plagues of biting nimiti-flies (and one crocodile sighting), we’ve been posting daily updates on our work – in the town, cemetery and research at the expedition house – on the project blog with more updates on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM.

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

A desirable residence?

The full plan of house E13.5 was revealed in a matter of days, but the real surprise was the presence of stone doorways throughout the house, three of which were built re-using inscribed architecture from an earlier phase, including one doorjamb naming an official, Horhotep.

A five-chambered tomb discovered

The 'Howard Carter moment'. Physical anthropologist, Michaela Binder gets a first peak into the  chamber(s) of Grave 244

The ‘Howard Carter moment’. Physical anthropologist,
Michaela Binder gets a first peak into the chamber(s)
of Grave 244

Earlier this week, Michaela Binder had one of those moments that, as she put it, reminded her “that this can be the best occupation in the world”.

Removing sand from the top of a grave shaft, discovering a small opening, then another and more digging until the flash of a torch reveals five chambers in the largest tomb yet to be found at Amara West.

Read more about the discovery of a five-chambered tomb, by Michaela Binder, physical anthropologist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Initial discoveries in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of a chamber burial

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of a chamber burial

Having discovered a new chamber tomb, Barbara Chauvet set about the task of excavating it to reveal, and record its contents. Read about initial discoveries in the eastern burial chamber of G243.

Fertility figurines and ancient architecture re-used

Clay fertility figurine (F2284) found in villa D12.5

Clay fertility figurine (F2284) found in villa D12.5

Among the hundreds of objects revealed in excavation (and thousands and thousands of pottery sherds), a fragment of a female figurine offers a glimpse into the beliefs and concerns of the town’s inhabitants. Modelled in clay, and sometimes referred to as “concubines of the dead”, fertility figures are thought to relate to conception, rebirth or sexuality, as explained by Marie Vandenbeusch, our finds registrar.

The discovery of a door lintel inscribed for Ramses II, re-used as a shelf in a modern Nubian house, was one of the more unusual ways an object comes to light.

Ash, ovens … and faience?

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

While villa D12.5 is slow to reveal its secrets, outside house E13.5 we have discovered a room provided with six large bread ovens and grinding emplacements, now being excavated by Shadia Abdu Rabo from the Sudan National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums.

Further north, in an area we did not plan to excavate, Sarah Doherty is excavating a building (E13.16) that might be a house or a bakery, along with interesting finds, from hieratic ostraca to a well-preserved necklace. The last few days have seen an earlier phase emerge, with large ceramic ovens surrounded by waste that might relate to faience production.

Looking forward

It already feels like the end of the season is approaching too fast. With so much more work to be done, our days will become longer and longer: we’re re-organising our object storeroom, hoping to reveal the full plan of villa D12.5, wondering if the five-chamber tomb can be fully excavated this season, and about to commence detailed micromorphological sampling of floor layers.

Two new programmes of research will also start: Susie Green (UCL) will be joining us to capture 3D visualisations of the housing neighbourhood (E13.3), while Alexandra Winkels (University of Fribourg) will be investigating the technology of ancient wall-plastering in the houses.

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The Beau Street Hoard: the end of the excavation

Beau Street Hoard excavationJulia Tubman, conservator, British Museum

My last blog post recounted the excavation of bags 5 and 6 of the Beau Street hoard, which were the two smallest bags on the edge of the large hoard. In the months since, the deconstruction of the hoard has advanced considerably: as the excavation progressed I naturally became faster and more confident in removing the coins, and am pleased to announce the end of this stage of the project. The hoard was well organised, with the coins carefully sorted into bags according to denomination and level of debasement; specialists here at the British Museum now have a fascinating mystery to interpret.

The hoard towards the end of the excavation

The hoard towards the end of the excavation

In total eight bags were found in the hoard, which is two more than originally identified in the x-ray. Squeezed between the larger ‘bag 2’ and the centre of the hoard were two tiny bags, the coins of which are very similar to those contained within bag 2 – small radiate coins minted by Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus and Tetricus I.

Luckily, at the end of the excavation I was able to lift the large, central moneybag (known as bag ‘4’), whole, as I had removed all of the bags of coins surrounding it. The excellent preservation of this moneybag, which weighs nearly 11 kilograms, presents us with a very exciting opportunity. Already a laser scan of the bag has been undertaken to produce a rotating three-dimensional image, and a second scan will be taken before the end of the year which will be used to produce a facsimile to go on display in Bath. These scans provide us with a lasting document of the moneybag, which will now be de-constructed and the coins cleaned.

Moneybag 4

Moneybag 4

The block was x-rayed before the excavation of the moneybags, and so the base holding the coins had to be x-rayed after the removal of the last bag, to check that there were no ‘surprise’ bags beneath those already excavated. The x-ray showed only a few coins on the periphery of the base, and so we can move towards giving a final count for the number of coins in the hoard as a whole: at the moment it looks to be around half of the original estimate of 30,000.

Now the excavation is complete, I will be fully focused on getting all of the coins cleaned so that they can be identified by numismatists, who will begin to compile an ‘Emperor count’.

We knew at the beginning of the project that this would be a short excavation, and the perfect opportunity to experiment with time-lapse photography. Before I began the excavation, a camera was positioned on a workbench above the hoard, and programmed to take a photograph of the stationary block every 10 minutes. This short video neatly captures the deconstruction of the hoard, and makes for a fantastic record of the excavation.

On Friday 30 November, Stephen Clews from the Roman Baths, British Museum curators Richard Abdy and Eleanor Ghey, and I will be discussing the story of the Beau Street Hoard so far in a lecture at the British Museum.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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Archaeological findings at Shakespearean playhouses

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Snacking Through Shakespeare: A Theatre Goer’s Fork looks at what it would have been like inside Southwark’s playhouses.

Fruit seeds and nutshells from the Rose Theatre © Museum of London


Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology

Excavations have been carried out at the sites of quite a range of Shakespearean playhouses, including from the site of the Theatre built by James Burbage in 1576, the Rose built in1587. We’ve also found a small area of the Globe built in 1599 and another small area of the Hope built in 1614.

The excavation at the Rose playhouse in 1988-90 was certainly the largest excavation and has produced the greatest amount of evidence about the construction of these types of buildings. It was the first time we’d seen one of these playhouses for 400 years. Being able to understand the layout of these buildings and the position of the stage and the galleries have been very important discoveries.

But we’ve also recovered many artefacts that enable us to look at the average Elizabethan theatre-goer in terms of foodstuffs, clothing and personal items.

There are a number of contemporary accounts saying that you could buy food and drink within these theatres. Amongst the groundlings standing in front of the stage, people would have sold their wares, rather like the old cinema usherettes with a tray on a strap around their neck. The theatres didn’t have any room for a bar or foyer in a modern sense so things like nuts, apples, fruit, beer, or wine, or water could all be bought inside.

We know that people were eating shellfish; oysters, muscles, periwinkles, whelks, we even found a cuttlefish. The groundlings would have just dropped the shells on the ground, although they would have been swept up at the end of the day – most of the shells we’ve found are in the dumps at the back of the building.

In contrast, the richer members of the audience sitting up in the galleries would have probably brought their own food, drink, glasses and cutlery. Everybody had their own set of cutlery, although that usually meant a spoon and a knife because forks were very rare at this time.

A plan of the excavation at the Rose playhouse. The fork featured in today's programme was found in the top left corner of the stage. Click on image to enlarge. © Museum of London

The fork that features in today’s programme was found in a layer underneath the stage area of the Rose. We know it was buried there in 1592 because, like many buildings, the Rose underwent a series of alterations and enhancements and a new second stage was built at that date. Amongst the debris, in between the two stages, was this fork.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Snacking Through Shakespeare:
A Theatre Goer’s Fork

Find out more:
Museum of London Archaeology
Excavations at the Rose

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Amara West 2012: a pottery kiln?


Shadia Abdu Rabo, National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, Sudan and Neal Spencer, British Museum

Towards the end of the season, working in layers beneath house E13.8, we found a circular kiln – our first at Amara West.

The kiln had been made by cutting a deep pit into the natural surface of the island, and building a circular brick structure above it, with internal cross walls. The red-orange colour of the bricks, especially on the inside, were the first indication that this might have been a kiln for firing pottery vessels, with an upper chamber for placing the pots to be fired, and the lower space – cut into the alluvium – housing the burning fuel (wood, charcoal?). A shallow pit, sloping down to the entrance of the kiln, would have allowed the fuel to be inserted into the lower chamber.

The kiln with the later wall of house E13.8 built over the top

The kiln with the later wall of house E13.8 built over the top

We only excavated part of the lower chamber, as a wall of the later house ran over it. Inside, we found debris which post-dates the abandonment of the kiln, but right at the base were the compact ashy deposits we would expect in such a structure. Beneath that lay the burnt natural surface. There was clear evidence for the kiln being refurbished, with extra layers of plaster added to line the inside.

Many questions remain: what types of objects or vessels were fired in this kiln? What temperature could it have reached? We have taken samples from the walls, and the deposits inside, which might shed light on how this structure was used.

It is also interesting to consider how the kiln fitted into urban life. We found very little evidence for architecture in this area, so this might have been an open space between the house to the south (E13.3) and the imposing town wall – suitable for what must have been a smoky, dirty activity.

There’s a description of ‘the potter’ in a famous Egyptian literary text, the Satire of the Trades, which caricatures the profession as follows:

He is muddier with clay than swine
to burn under his earth.
His clothes are solid as a block
and his headcloth is rags,
until the air enters his nose
coming from his furnace direct.

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Recording old cauldrons with new techniques


Stephen Crummy, archaeological illustrator, British Museum

As illustrator in the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, I am always looking for the best way to help our curators interpret an object. My role is to produce artwork that shows the form, construction and nature of objects and any decoration on them so that they can be clearly understood. This will usually result in illustration for academic publications and exhibitions as a result of research work on the Museum collection, or excavations.

Traditionally I have produced pen and ink technical drawings but new opportunities are available through various computer-generated methods of recording, analysing and understanding information about objects and excavation. With the Chiseldon Cauldrons material, I am exploring some of the possibilities of these new technologies, and in this case using photogrammetry and laser scanning programs to produce 3D records of the archaeological remains of individual cauldron blocks as they are excavated by Alex and Jamie.

Three-dimensional scan results

Three-dimensional scan results

We are using a laser scanning system to produce 3D computer models of the individual pieces from each cauldron. This is achieved by plotting a thin red laser line as it is slowly moved across the surface of an object. Having recorded each piece we are hoping to use the photogrammetry programme to virtually re-construct the blocks as excavated.

The early results we achieved proved somewhat variable, especially with the laser scanning, but we are now starting to produce some very good quality scans in terms of both modelling and colour accuracy.

The plan is to produce virtual models of each cauldron as excavated which will enable us to understand much better what they would have originally looked like, and how they were made. It is also hoped that an overall plan of the pit and its contents can be reproduced. We’ll also be able to produce artwork for both printed and online publication, and to generate virtual re-constructions for publication and display. As we create interesting images, we’ll also post some of them here on the blog so you can see what we’re finding.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Amara West 2012: excavating one last tomb


Mohamed Saad, Inspector, National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, Sudan and Amara West Field School participant

I spent the end of the season excavating a chamber tomb, Grave 319. The tomb features a two metre-wide burial chamber on the western side of a shaft cut into the alluvial surface; no above ground architecture is preserved.

A moment of contemplation: Mohamed recording G319

A moment of contemplation: Mohamed recording G319

On the east side, we found the top of a doorway to another chamber, but this proved to be only 10 cm deep – for some reason plans to cut an eastern chamber were never completed. Some very large schist slabs found lying in the shaft must once have covered the grave.

Glazed steatite scarab (F8365)

Glazed steatite scarab (F8365)

As often at Amara West, these heavy stones did not protect this grave from looting in ancient times. Nevertheless, we recovered the skeletal remains of four individuals within the sandy deposit inside the western chamber.

Remnants of the funerary equipment buried with the deceased individuals indicated the range of original burial goods: pieces of wood and painted plaster (showing at least one individual was buried in a decorated coffin), ostrich egg shell, an Egyptian-style beer jar and a fragment of a wooden headrest.

Standing out among this material was the bright blue of a glazed scarab, bearing the inscription: ‘Ramesses, beloved of Amun-Ra and Ra-Horakhty, born of the gods, who founded the Two Lands’.

While this inscription mentions Ramesses II, the scarab might have been made after his long reign. Furthermore, we will never know which of the four individuals was buried with the scarab.

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Amara West 2012: preserving ancient basketry, textiles and wood


Philip Kevin, British Museum

Many objects discovered in the cemetery at Amara West require conservation to even allow them to be lifted, as they cannot support their own weight without consolidation.

This is particularly true with organic material, which tends to be poorly preserved in the burial conditions here. In addition to natural degradation through desiccation and the effects of termites, disturbance by looters (ancient and modern) has left objects in a very fragile condition.

Tools of the trade: consolidating fragile organic remains

Tools of the trade: consolidating fragile organic remains

The roofs of the burial chambers were often collapsed as looters entered to gain access to grave contents. The resulting fall of sharp schist gravel ripped through and crushed much of what lay below, including the coffin found in grave G309. Careful excavations by Åshild Vågene revealed traces of wood and plaster.

Tight working conditions: preparing to lift the bed in G314

Tight working conditions: preparing to lift the bed in G314

These coffins are constructed from wood onto which a thin layer of plaster is applied to all surfaces; this is then painted, and in some cases varnished with a plant resin. Our two coffin fragments (of 20cm by 10cm) had only tiny traces of the internal plaster remaining, but pieces of crumbly wood were still in place. The outer plaster skin has survived in better condition, and is painted.

In order to impart some strength to allow the pieces to be lifted, I started by strengthening the wood and plaster with a mixture of solvent and a synthetic adhesive. It was impossible to remove the fine sand and soil without losing original wood and plaster; even using a small blower would cause some plaster to disappear in a cloud of white dust.

Having consolidated the wood and plaster, an additional support was attached to the back (inside of the coffin) and the fragments were then lifted and returned to the expedition house where they await further treatment.

In another grave being excavated by Laurel Engbring and Michaela Binder, fragments of a Nubian-style funerary bed and a basket were revealed, and I treated them in a similar manner before lifting. A fragment of textile (approximately 10cm2) was also conserved in this grave, offering a rare chance to study the weaving technique used.

This is my first time in Sudan, and it has been fantastic – except when I missed my step clambering out of the boat in the 6.30am darkness, and ended up in the Nile.

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Amara West 2012: excavating excavations


Tom Lyons, archaeologist and Neal Spencer, British Museum

The EES team, with workmen, at Amara West in 1938-9. Seated left of centre is I.E.S. Edwards, then working as Assistant Keeper in the British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities.

The EES team, with workmen, at Amara West in 1938-9. Seated left of centre is I.E.S. Edwards, then working as Assistant Keeper in the British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities.

One house we have been excavating (E13.8) is not only located against the four metre-thick northern wall of the town but also at the limit of previous excavations undertaken by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES). The EES excavated the temple, parts of the town and the cemeteries in 1938-9 and 1947–50.

Tom cleaning a wall previous exposed by the EES. To the left is the edge of house E13.8

Tom cleaning a wall previous exposed by the EES.

Part of being an archaeologist in the twenty-first century includes rediscovering and reinterpreting the work of our predecessors in the field, when methods and aims were different from today. The excavators of the 1930s and 1940s focused on the temple, inscriptions and architectural plans. Occupation deposits received almost no attention, and of course many analytical methods now available were unheard of then.

We have just emptied 61 years of accumulated sand from one of the buildings excavated in 1949-50, immediately adjacent to our house E13.8. At the base of the excavation, we found a wall of a building they designated E.12.6.

In addition to confirming the accuracy of their plan, we can now explicitly link their architectural phases to ours, which means much of the town excavated in the 1930s and 40s can be fitted into the stages of urban development we have been able to reconstruct from the houses we are investigating.

The previous excavators never saw the eastern side of building E.12.6, and it is something we may find in the coming weeks…

Italian matchbox discarded by the EES excavators in the 1940s.

Italian matchbox discarded by the EES excavators in the 1940s.

Other aspects of the EES excavations have also come to light – including a fine matchbox found next to the residence of the Deputy of Kush, in a street partly excavated in the late 1940s. It has been registered as a find alongside the artefacts of the ancient inhabitants, as it all forms part of the site’s history.

Thanks are due to the Egypt Exloration Society, for permission to use the archive image.

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