British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: impressions in time


Marie Vandenbeusch, University of Geneva

The way houses are built in this region is in some ways timeless, particularly the roofs. Modern ceilings can show how ancient roofs, which we have to reconstruct from small fragments, were built. While it is easy to look at modern houses in villages near the site, it is more complicated when it concerns the ancient houses.

Marie studying hundreds of roofing fragments recovered from house E13.8

Marie studying hundreds of roofing fragments recovered from house E13.8

No roof survives in place at Amara West: only the walls and floors remain. But not everything has disappeared. Impressions on mud, though perhaps unimpressive at first sight are very helpful as they record the different layers and materials used to build the roofs.

Mud roof fragment with impression of a grass (?) matt, about 1100 BC

Mud roof fragment with impression of a grass (?) matt, about 1100 BC

The wood and other plant material disappeared long ago, eaten by termites. But the shapes impressed in the mud roofs tell us that large beams and poles were used. The roof of our dig house is built in the same way, though metal beams (sometimes from the abandoned railway line) are now preferred.

Modern parallel: beams and matting in the Khalifa House Museum, Khartoum

Modern parallel: beams and matting in the Khalifa House Museum, Khartoum

Layers of grass, reeds and palm fronds, sometimes tied into bundles, were also widely used, along with two different types of matt, as can be seen in some of the mud impressions. The way in which the mats were woven is very similar to those still made and used today in this area.

Though distant in time and culture, the modern houses can act as a place for us to test our theories and reconstructions of the ancient roofs. Some techniques survived thousands of years of changing cultures in northern Sudan, most probably because they are those which fit best with the climate and materials available in the area.

 

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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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2011: time to get started

Neal Spencer, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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