British Museum blog

Insights in clay: luxury products and trade at Amara West


Marie Millet, College de France, Paris

I’ve recently spent two weeks working at the British Museum, meeting colleagues working on the Amara West project, drawing pottery from last season’s excavations and also looking at archive material. Though the majority of our finds, including pottery, stay in Sudan, each season we have the opportunity to bring back samples for scientific analysis, and also to borrow vessels of particular interest for conservation and reconstruction. These will be returned to Sudan in due course.

Mycenaean stirrup jar found at Amara West

Mycenaean stirrup jar found at Amara West

I have previously written about the shapes and purposes of the vessels we find in excavations, but another important part of working on pottery is to study the fabrics, that is, the different preparations of clay – often mixed with materials such as chaff – used to make the vessels. As the composition of clay varies from region to region, the fabrics can indicate where a vessel may have been made, which has implications for the organisation of production, transport and trade networks. I completed an initial classification on site using a hand-lense that provides magnification of 20x.

A photograph showing the clay fabric of a pottery vessel

A photograph showing the clay fabric of a pottery vessel

Back in the British Museum laboratories, a range of scientific techniques can be applied to refine my classification, using much higher magnifications, but also analysis of the inclusions and chemical make-up of individual samples. This research is being led by Michela Spataro of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. Preliminary results suggest that much of the ‘Egyptian-style’ pottery which dominates the assemblage at Amara West is actually being produced in the local region, from clay very similar to that used for the Nubian handmade cooking vessels. Yet we have no evidence for the kilns in which this pottery was made.

Conservator Rachel Swift carefully reconstructed fragments of Mycenaean stirrup jars, found in a domestic context in the southwestern corner of the town. These distinctive vessels were used to store oil or perfume, and can provide insights into the inhabitants’ access and desire for imported luxury products. Rachel’s work produced fragments of four different vessels, and Andrew Shapland, curator in the Department of Greece and Rome, brought us to a storeroom where a large collection of similar vessels from other excavations are housed. This provided us with a better sense of the date of these vessels, but also illustrated how much the decoration and pottery fabric itself could vary. Such variations can hint at whether the vessels were produced in Greece, or were imitations produced in the Levant or Egypt. We now plan chemical analyses to confirm where each vessel was made.

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Concluding our short series of gold objects from the Museum’s collection is this group of items found in the Fishpool hoard. The hoard was buried in Nottinghamshire sometime during the War of the Roses (1455–1485), and contains some outstanding pieces of jewellery. 1,237 objects were found in this hoard in total. At the time it was deposited, its value would have been around £400, which is around £300,000 in today’s money! The variety of this collection of objects includes brilliant examples of fine craftsmanship. The turquoise ring in the centre was highly valued as it was believed that turquoise would protect the wearer from poisoning, drowning or falling off a horse.
#hoard #gold #jewellery #turquoise #treasure Continuing our exploration of the golden objects in the Museum, this amazing inlaid plaque is from 15th-century China. Lined with semi-precious stones, this piece would have formed part of a pair sewn into a robe. We can tell this belonged to an emperor of the Ming dynasty because only he would have been allowed to use items decorated with five-clawed dragons.
#Ming #gold #jewellery #China #BritishMuseum Our next trio of objects shows off some of the shimmering gold in the Museum’s collection. This stunning piece of jewellery comes from Egypt and was made around 600 BC. It was worn across the chest – this type of accessory is known as a ‘pectoral’. Popular throughout ancient Egypt, pectorals have been found from as early as 2600 BC. This example is made from gold and is inlaid with glass, showcasing the incredible level of craftsmanship in Egypt at the time, and asserting the status of the wearer. Falcons were important symbols in ancient Egypt – the god Horus took the form of a falcon.
#AncientEgypt #gold #jewellery #BritishMuseum In 1991, BMW invited South African artist Esther Mahlangu to make a work of art in their Art Car project to mark the end of apartheid. Her work, with its brightly coloured geometric shapes, draws on the traditional house-painting designs of Ndebele people in South Africa. Under apartheid the Ndebele were forced to live in ethnically defined rural reserves – their designs are an expression of cultural identity, and can be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation.

See this incredible Art Car as part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens 27 October 2016. You can book your tickets now by following the link in our bio.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
#SouthAfrica #history #art #design Mapungubwe was the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa from AD 1220 to 1290. This gold rhinoceros, alongside four other gold sculptures, was discovered in three royal graves there. They are among the most significant sculptures in Africa today. They depict animals of high status – an ox, a wild cat, and a rhinoceros – and also objects associated with power – a sceptre and a bowl or crown. These treasures were discovered alongside hundreds of gold objects, including bracelets and beads. Gold was mined in the regions around Mapungubwe for trade with the coast, as part of an international trade network stretching as far as China, becoming a status symbol for the kingdom’s rulers.

On loan from the University of Pretoria @upmuseums, these gold treasures will be a highlight of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, opening 27 October 2016. Find out more about the exhibition by following the link in our bio.
#SouthAfrica #rhino #art #history Our special exhibition this autumn will explore the fascinating history of South Africa through art, telling a story that stretches back 100,000 years.

Rock art is one of South Africa’s oldest artistic traditions. It was first made by the ancestors of San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, South Africa’s first peoples, at least 30,000 years ago.

This rock painting will feature in the exhibition. It depicts San|Bushmen running between eland, a type of antelope that is spiritually important. Hunter-gatherer rock paintings such as this are understood to relate to a ritual practice named ‘the great healing’ or ‘trance dance’, which continues today in the Kalahari outside of South Africa. 
The paintings address the relationship between healers, or shamans, and the worlds of the living and the dead. In the painting some eland are bleeding from the nose and frothing at the mouth. Eland do this when they are close to death, and shamans show similar symptoms when they are metaphorically ‘dying’ and entering the world of the dead during the great trance dance.

Find out more about our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition by clicking on the link in our bio.

The Zaamenkomst Panel. Detail of rock art depicting San|Bushmen running between eland. Made before 1900. On loan from Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections and SARADA. Photo: Neil Rusch.
#rockart #SouthAfrica #painting
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