British Museum blog

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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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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The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 67: Korea. The Korea Foundation Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen on 16 December 2014. You can find out more about the refurb at koreabritishmuseum.tumblr.com  The unique culture of Korea combines a strong sense of national identity with influences from other parts of the Far East. Korean religion, language, geography and everyday life were directly affected by the country’s geographic position, resulting in a rich mix of art and artefacts.
Objects on display in Room 67 date from prehistory to the present day and include ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, painting, screen-printed books and illuminated manuscripts.
A reconstruction of a traditional sarangbang, or scholar’s study, is also on display and was built by contemporary Korean craftsmen. This is Room 66, Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
By the 4th century AD, Christianity was flourishing in both Egypt and Ethiopia. Christian Egyptians became known as the Copts (from the Greek name for Egyptians) and the church maintained strong links with its Ethiopian counterparts. Since antiquity, Ethiopia had been a major trade route, linking Egypt and the Mediterranean with India and the Far East.
The resulting history of cultural exchange and religious diversity is illustrated through objects in Room 66, which reflect the faiths and identities which coexisted in Egypt and Ethiopia. Objects from towns, monasteries and settlements range from decorated textiles and architectural elements to sculpture and ceramics. It's time for our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery. This is Room 65, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Sudan, Egypt and Nubia. Ancient Nubia, the Nile Valley upstream of the First Cataract, now straddles the border between Egypt and Sudan. Rich and vibrant cultures developed in this region at the same time as Pharaonic Egypt. Among them was the earliest sub-Saharan urban culture in Africa, which was based at Kerma.
These cultures traded extensively with Egypt and for two brief periods Nubian kingdoms dominated their northern neighbour.
The objects on display in Room 65 illustrate these indigenous pagan, Christian and Islamic cultures and the interaction between Nubia and Egypt. This is our next gallery space in the #MuseumOfTheFuture series. It's Room 64, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Early Egypt. Rapid advances in the technology and social organisation of Egypt during the 5th millennium BC produced a material culture of increasing sophistication. Further innovations followed in about 3100 BC when the separate Predynastic peoples of Upper and Lower Egypt were united under a single ruler. The resulting increase in wealth and strong central control led to dramatic achievements in architecture, writing and fine goods, culminating in the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza in around 2600 BC.
Objects on display in Room 64 illustrate the cultural, technological and political development of early civilisation in Egypt throughout this period. In this picture you can see Gebelein Man, a mummy who was naturally preserved in the desert sands, and who used to have the unofficial nickname of Ginger (although the Museum doesn't use this name). In the background you can see an interactive virtual autopsy of the mummy which was installed in the newly refurbished gallery last year. It's Toulouse-Lautrec's 150th birthday! Here's his poster for a Parisian cabaret 
#history #art #artist #Paris Although this gilded cartonnage mask of a mummy conveys vitality and alertness, the features are more bland and idealised than those of other masks. The eyes, ears, nose, mouth and chin are highly stylised and not fully integrated into the face. The collar, the wig and the necklace with an ankh (‘life’) pendant, are attributes showing that the deceased has entered the afterlife and been assimilated with the gods. A winged scarab beetle on the top and images of gods on the back also emphasise the funerary character of the mask.

The use of gold was connected to the belief that the sun god Re, with whom the mummy hoped to be united, had flesh of pure gold. The back of the wig is decorated in many colours, with a row of deities, a ba and falcon with outstretched wings and seven short columns of near-unintelligible hieroglyphs.

See this cartonnage mask in our exhibition #8mummies – now extended until 19 April 2015.
#MummyMonday #mummies
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