British Museum blog

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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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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Piecing together the Chiseldon cauldrons puzzle

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin working on one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

As is often the case, the painstaking process of excavating the cauldron I’m working on has been more complex and time consuming than we initially thought.

The majority of the cauldron was lifted from its findspot in a block of soil supported by plaster bandages. Hundreds of smaller fragments were also removed from around the object during excavation. The fragmentary state of this cauldron is partially due to the fact that it was buried upside down, and over time the weight and the pressure of the overlying soil crushed and distorted it.

I began by carefully cutting away thin strips of plaster to reveal the top of the block and clear soil from the metal. With heavy clay soil, which is more solid than the objects, this has to be done with great care using scalpels and leaf trowels to remove soil dampened with water and alcohol.

One of the Chiseldon cauldrons before being unwrapped

Working down in layers, the sheet metal is uncovered, and the true condition of the object revealed. It is highly fragmentary and even undisturbed areas are in pieces.

Fragments loose in the soil have to be rejoined back onto larger sections immediately otherwise their location will be lost. This is done using thin tabs of nylon gossamer, a thin random weave of synthetic fibres, adhered over the join.

Removing the plaster support and soil from around the object makes it very unstable and because of this you are unable to see the entire object at once; the metal is so thin and fragile that it is unable to support its own weight.

I have now laid out the fragments from the excavation on a large table and have been looking for joins between them, and also between the fragments and metal contained in the soil block. Although I have found a number of joins there have been disappointingly few.

Fragments of one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

Very quickly it became apparent that there was something strange about this cauldron – there seemed to be too much copper alloy – several folded layers in the block as well as large sheet fragments.

From knowledge of other cauldrons we can tell that they are made in sections riveted together; the iron rim supporting the handles, then below this, two sections of copper alloy bowl. As I began to reveal more it appeared that there were two bases on top of each other – was this two cauldrons one inside another? Or were we looking at areas of a separate cauldron either displaced during burial or placed into the pit in fragments?

As each layer is revealed the position of the fragments is carefully recorded. Stephen Crummy, one of the Museum’s illustrators, has been using 3D laser scanning and photogrametery to map the block.

The next stage will be to try and decipher and interpret the remains. Then, after supporting and stabilising them, we will remove sections of the metal, effectively disassembling the object from around the soil.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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A fourth Amara West field season over but work continues….

Neal Spencer, British Museum

A busy last week saw excavations wound up in Amara West, a concerted effort to survey, draw, photograph and record all the features exposed … and then the logistics of closing the dig house, travelling south to Khartoum, and finally flying home.

The season in the cemetery has prompted us to revise some of our previous assumptions (especially the discovery that it was used for New Kingdom burials) – more on that in the next post.

In the Ramesside housing block in the northwest of the town, we did not expose any new areas, but rather delved deeper into, and beneath, houses previously excavated. A key result of the season – in the buildings excavated by Tom Lyons – has been a clear understanding of how one early house was levelled in the mid-19th dynasty, to make way for a larger house. Within a short period, this house was then divided into two.

View over building D13.4, with the walls of an earlier building beneath

A short distance to the south, Mat Dalton and his workmen discovered a new house (E13.7), later covered by the standing architecture of house E13.4. This was rather different in character from the houses to the north – less axial in its layout (earlier houses seem to be arranged around a central room, with access to other rooms in various directions, later ones are arranged more in a progression from front to back) and with nicely plastered walls (whitewashed to a metre high, and framed with a black stripe, which also ran around the doorways).

Archaeologist Mat Dalton undertaking final recording in house E13.7

Study of the plaster fragments back at the dig house suggested they may derive from both a shrine set in the wall, and from the decor behind the mastaba (low bench) itself – Mat found yellow and black paint in situ on the last day on site.

In the southwest corner of the town, Charly Vallance and Shadia Abdu Rabo exposed the levelled remains of a series of rooms built against the enclosure wall – very different in character to the large paved courtyards of the structure built over them (D13.4). One room contained an in situ grinding stone and ashy deposits with many botanical remains.

Further work is needed to see if these early rooms are contemporary with the foundation of the town. Despite all of the later pottery – of the post-New Kingdom and early Napatan era – found in this trench, it seems any buildings of that period have completely disappeared.

Crates of archaeological samples in the Sudan National Museum, awaiting export

What next? We are currently awaiting our crates of archaeological samples and skeletal material to be shipped from Sudan, through the generosity of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums. This will allow us to continue analyses of pottery fabrics, dietary habits, the use of plant materials and to analyse the health of individuals buried in the cemeteries, in the laboratories of the British Museum and also at Durham University.

In the meantime, there’s a mass of paperwork and documentation to deal with: plans to be scanned and inked, context sheets to be digitised, and parallels from other contemporary towns and cemeteries to be sought…. and a 2012 season to be planned!

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New explorations on the south side at Amara West

Charly Vallance, archaeologist

Frustrating times – seeking the town wall in the first days

In my second season at Amara West – I spend the rest of the year as a field archaeologist in the UK – I have been excavating in the south-west portion of the town, an area never previously investigated, alongside Shadia Abdo Rabo, a curator at the Sudanese National Museum, also acting as our inspector from the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums.

The first stage of our work was to locate the south-west corner of the town’s enclosure wall. You might think a wall 3.5 metres wide and several metres high would be easy to find, especially with the help of magnetometry data.

The architecture of excavation – sandbags keeping sand out of the deep trench

But, after two days of hard digging, there was no sign of the wall corner; local workman Abdul Razig was becoming increasingly frustrated and threatened to move trenches!

On the fifth day, relief, as several areas of mudbrick were exposed and identified as belonging to the town walls. The walls have suffered badly from deep pits dug through them to extract clay for building material.

Inside the walls, two distinct rooms were discovered, each one of considerable size, filled with over a metre of disturbed sands and silts, making excavation rather heavy-going. Battles with inflowing sand from the surrounding desert have been a daily occurrence, and one which has made us all experts in sandbag logistics.

Paved court with stone doorways (D13.3.1) in course of excavation

The biggest discovery to date has been a mudbrick pavement in pristine condition laid across the surfaces of both rooms. This was a sign we were digging something pretty grand. The presence of two elaborate entrances flanked by large sandstone door jambs leading north from the paved areas emphasise that we are not in a modest domestic building.

The finer detail: cleaning a small pottery bowl found in the corner of room D13.3.2

The purpose of the rooms is currently unclear, though the pottery suggests it dates to the late New Kingdom.

Perhaps one space was an open courtyard, a communal area tucked away in the south-west corner of the town? Or was it a rather grand residence? Only with more digging will we find out more: from 7am tomorrow, armed with shovels, picks and trowels, we will be out there again, trying to seek evidence for these and other questions…

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Stepping back in time… ancient footprint found in Amara West

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Foot impression in the clay surface of the Ramesside period (house E13.7)

The buildings, objects and even destruction episodes we come across every day during our excavations reflect a range of ancient human activities – but occasionally we happen on something more immediately touching.

As the workmen cleared rubble down towards the floor of the large room of a house we’re currently excavating, the shape of an adult foot appeared earlier this week.

This impression was made at least 3,100 years ago, when the clay surface was still wet.

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Excavating a chamber tomb

Carina Summerfield-Hill, physical anthropologist

Rami Mohamed Abdu and Abou Ad Abu Taher excavating through the roof of the western chamber

I’m one of three physical anthropologists working in Cemetery C at Amara West, and in recent days I’ve been working on a chamber tomb (Grave 234) – the largest and most exciting of grave types here.
Rami Mohamed Abdu lifting the beer jar from the shaft of grave 234

The tomb consists of a central shaft with an underground eastern and western chamber. We started excavating down into the central shaft to expose the doorway to each chamber. The sand in the shaft contained a complete Egyptian-style beer jar.

Since then, we have focused on excavating the western chamber.

The safest way to excavate it was to dig down from above, through the chamber’s roof, otherwise the fragile but heavy layers of alluvium could collapse on us. Once the chamber was exposed, we removed windblown sand which had accumulated inside.

It contains three articulated burials and a concentration of disarticulated bone that included four complete skulls.

Carina Summerfield-Hill excavating the Nubian style crouched burial

So far I have excavated one of the articulated burials towards the centre of the chamber, the feet of which poked out into the shaft.

The entire burial was within the remains of a wooden casing, and was of an adult female, fully articulated in a crouch position – this was a really pleasing discovery as it is a local Nubian tradition of burial, as opposed to the Egyptian tradition of laying the body out in an extended burial position. This is the first Nubian burial type to be found in Cemetery C!

Western chamber of Grave 234 with three articulated burials and concentration of disarticulated human remains (under cover to the right)

The western chamber also contains two further articulated burials that are extended – It is fascinating to see two different traditions in the same grave.

Over the coming days I shall be excavating these two extended burials along with the concentration of disarticulated bones, so there is a lot of work still to do.

And next we have the eastern chamber, where we have just begun removing the surface to get access.

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Finding the buildings beneath

Mat Dalton, archaeologist

The later houses, excavated in 2009, with the earlier walls beginning to appear (behind scale)

In 2010, a team of workmen from Ernetta Island and I excavated a suite of rooms from two houses located next to the Governor’s Residence at Amara West. These buildings contained multiple phases of renovation, including up to five overlying floor surfaces. The rooms were also very domestic in nature, with six bread ovens and four grain grinding emplacements preserved across the phases.

Mekawi Abdel Rahman removing rubble from the plaster walls

By the end of the season we had exposed the partially destroyed and levelled remains of an older, deeper building, upon whose walls much of the architecture of our two houses had been constructed.

This year we’re excavating this older building with the aim of finding out how it was used by its ancient inhabitants, why it was replaced, and how it may have varied in use and layout from its successor.

Over the past couple of days we’ve been gradually teasing the remains of this building out of the rubble. It can be hard physical work – thick concrete-like deposits of mudbrick wall collapse, and silt fills the rooms, which make formidable barriers, and a great contrast to the loose sand we often encounter above!

The early plaster wall of building E13.7, with black painted line

At this early stage, the parts of the building we have exposed paint a very different picture from the house above. The rooms are generally much larger, with fine white plaster walls and internal decoration – rather than the ubiquitous brown mud plaster walls of the later building. Two rooms even preserve an attractive band of white and black painted plaster decoration. Intriguingly, not a single grain grinding emplacement has been found. Perhaps these rooms did not fulfil a domestic function?

Perhaps most tantalising, however, is the appearance of a fragmentary series of blue, red and white painted cornice fragments, which appear to have collapsed from a single wall in the building’s largest room. This wall seems to have been a focal point of the room – could it have been a small household shrine?

Painted mud plaster moulding emerging from the rubble in building E13.7

Over the coming weeks we’ll be continuing our work in these rooms, including exposing their original floor surfaces. We hope this further work might answer some of our questions, but as always in archaeology, it will no doubt present us with new challenges…

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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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