British Museum blog

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: the end of work on site


Neal Spencer, British Museum

Work on site finished yesterday, with final recording, photography and then the logistics of getting all our equipment back by boat to the expedition house after sunset.

A last sunset over the ancient town

A last sunset over the ancient town

Some of our workmen, experienced in building mudbrick architecture on Ernetta island, constructed new walls along the ancient walls of house E13.7, to preserve the painted plaster surface from wind erosion over the coming months.

Ghazafi Mohamed and Hassan Nouri constructing protective walls in house E13.7

Ghazafi Mohamed and Hassan Nouri constructing protective walls in house E13.7

In the next few days we’ll be closing the house, moving objects to the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum and starting our journeys home….

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Amara West 2012: a splash of colour….


Neal Spencer, British Museum

The houses at Amara West can look a little drab to the modern eye: brown mud walls, often with brown mud plaster and even brown clay floors. We are missing the wooden furniture and any textiles that might have broken this monotony, but it is also clear that some parts of houses were brightly painted.

British Museum conservator Philip Kevin has been studying and conserving fragments of painted plaster on mud from Mat Dalton’s excavations in house E13.7 last year. After removing a rather dull white plaster layer from one fragment (F5133d), we can now see that earlier decoration featured yellow, blue, red and black.

Painted decoration from house E13.7

Painted decoration from house E13.7

It seems to consist of a yellow area bordered with a black line, and a more complex decorative motif to the right, which might have framed a door, or the shrine we believe was located in this room.

The same fragment, before removal of the white layer

The same fragment, before removal of the white layer

Further fragments will hopefully reveal more of the room’s original decoration, and the discovery of areas where pigments might have been prepared provides potential for further avenues of research.

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Amara West 2012: coffin mask emerges from a pyramid tomb


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Painted plaster mask on a coffin lid, as revealed in G309.

Painted plaster mask on a coffin lid, as revealed in G309.

There is a general rule in archaeology, the most important finds always come at the very end of the season… and why should it be any different at Amara West?

In the western chamber of pyramid tomb G309, Åshild Vågene has started to reveal a Ramesside coffin made of wood and decorated with painted plaster.

So far, we have exposed most of the red-painted face of a coffin mask, shown with large yellow earrings and a black wig.

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Amara West 2012: through ancient doorways


Neal Spencer, British Museum

Five weeks ago, Mary Shepperson revealed the remains of a stone doorway, tumbled into room two of house E13.6. Over the last few days we have reconstructed the gateway in the courtyard of our house – albeit laid flat on the ground rather than vertical…

Reconstructed sandstone door to room three of house E13.6

Reconstructed sandstone door to room three
of house E13.6

The imposing appearance of the doorway is now more evident, standing 2.35m tall, with a passageway of 88cm wide by 1.75m tall. In terms of scale, many of our field team would have to stoop to walk through the door.

The lintel is made from an unusually fine sandstone – perhaps from Sai island – whereas the doorjambs are of the poor quality sandstone we more often encounter. This doorway would have been set into the mudbrick wall.

The jambs are not inscribed – any inscription would have been into a layer of white plaster, now largely disappeared. On the lintel, the red- and yellow-painted hieroglyphs invoke the god Amun-Ra and Horus Lord of Ta-sety, and also refer to king Tuthmosis III.

Doorway in house E13.9 (excavated 2009)

Doorway in house E13.9 (excavated 2009)

Interestingly, this door was not the main house door, but rather framed the entrance to the central reception room, with a low bench against its back wall. As such it may have marked the transition from more prosaic spaces at the front of the house, towards a more formal space which could be used for welcoming visitors.

Beyond lay two more rooms – presumably the most private areas of the house.

A doorway in an adjacent and contemporary house (E13.9), excavated in 2009, simply lined with mud plaster and with unworked schist slabs for a lintel and threshold, shows how simple internal house doors could be at Amara West.

 

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Amara West 2012: fertility figurines discovered


Hélène Virenque, Egyptologist

Mary Shepperson and I found three small clay figurines in house E13.6, some of the few anthropomorphic representations found at Amara West.

Clay female figurines from house E13.6 (left-right F6018, F5998, F5996)

Clay female figurines from house E13.6 (left-right F6018, F5998, F5996)

Although incomplete, the three figurines have the same rectangular shape and a fine polished surface. They each depict a naked woman, in a very schematic form, with only the breasts and a pubic triangle shown in detail. The breasts are usually added as separate pieces of clay, and thus easily break off, as with two of our examples. The pubic triangle was marked with a series of small holes. None feature legs or arms.

Wooden figurine of a woman with clay hair, from Thebes about 1750 BC. British Museum collection

Wooden figurine of a woman with clay hair, from Thebes about 1750 BC. British Museum collection

Such representations are well known in ancient Egypt, especially from the Middle Kingdom onwards. By emphasing the genitalia, they evoke the woman as a source of fertility and thus could be associated with the cult of the goddess Hathor.

Some similar statuettes were found in Upper Egypt, placed in the temple of Deir el-Bahri during the New Kingdom. Other more elaborate types of fertility figurine, in painted wood, are known from late Middle Kingdom tombs.

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A unique form of decoration


Jamie Hood, British Museum

As work on the Chiseldon Iron Age cauldrons progresses we are constantly making discoveries. Possibly the most exciting feature we have found so far is a decorated handle.

The decorated handle and section of rim came from a cauldron that had broken into several pieces during burial due to the weight of the overlying soil. Although we had used X-radiography to examine the handle fragment in its soil block before we began conservation, it was difficult to make out the surface due to the dense soil and corroded condition of the metal. This meant that when I was removing the soil I had to progress extremely slowly. However, it made discovering the decoration below especially exciting.

X-radiograph of the handle before conservation

X-radiograph of the handle before conservation

The decoration consists of three curved plates that have been riveted below the rim on either side of and directly beneath the handle. The additional plates were carefully made and are likely not only to have been decorative, but also served to strengthen the point where the handle is attached.

Decorated handle after conservation.

Decorated handle after conservation.

While the plates could represent abstract decoration they strongly resemble a cow’s head, with the side-plates representing ears, the central plate a muzzle and the handle taking the form of boldly curved horns. Stylised decoration inspired by the shape of animals was not uncommon in the Iron Age and its association with feasting in this context is particularly relevant. However, decoration on cauldrons is extremely rare and this is a significant and exciting discovery.

Three-dimensional image of the handle

Three-dimensional image of the handle

To help with the interpretation Stephen Crummy, an illustrator from the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, has been scanning the decorated handle with a laser to make a three-dimensional image which will show its shape far more accurately and aid in creating a virtual reconstruction of the vessel.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

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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: changing funerary practises


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Up in Cemetery D at Amara West it’s getting increasingly busy as we look towards the last week of excavation. For the last few days I’ve been working with Laurel Engbring on G314 – which has turned out to be one of the most important discoveries this year, with two burial chambers underneath a tumulus superstructure.

Laurel recovering a large vessel from the western chamber in G314

Laurel recovering a large vessel from the western chamber in G314

The large amount of schist slabs covering and blocking the narrow shaft may have prevented the thorough looting (ancient and modern) we often encounter in Cemetery D. Therefore, both chambers provide us with a glimpse into burial customs and cultural expression in the time period after the Egyptian occupation of Amara West, from around 1000 BC onwards. Preservation of organic materials and human remains is also excellent in this grave.

3,000 years of bed-making – ancient fragment from G314 (left), modern example (right).

3,000 years of bed-making – ancient fragment
from G314 (left), modern example (right).

In the western chamber we have revealed one wooden burial bed, and there may be one beneath it. Seven individuals were buried in this small chamber (five metres-square), including adults and children – lying over each other in a rather confusing manner.

The burial positions changed over the period during which the grave was used: the uppermost were buried in a Nubian manner, tightly flexed, whereas the bodies underneath were buried in an extended position, typical of burials in Egypt. A third extended burial has just been found in the entrance area to the western chamber.

What the motivations were for laying out the bodies in this way is difficult to say.

The pottery assemblage from this tomb includes vessel types so far unknown at Amara West, suggesting the development of a local tradition in which Egyptian vessel forms were taken and modified to suit local tastes.

And of course there’s plenty of interesting details for the physical anthropologist. Just yesterday, Laurel recovered an individual with a healed fracture of the sacrum (a large bone at the base of the spine) and a lumbar vertebrae – indications of what must have been an incredibly painful fall on the individual’s backside…

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Amara West 2012: approaching the final week


Neal Spencer, British Museum

The weather continues to surprise, with strong and cold winds making the sky seem foggy. We’re hearing that fellow excavators near Khartoum, and as far north as Luxor in Egypt, are also reporting strange conditions.

Workmen and excavators keeping warm before work starts

At Amara, when we arrive before 7am, the workmen are usually huddling around a fire to keep warm. Far from electrical lights, we also become more aware of the cycles of the moon – we’ve just had a full moon, and work started today as the moon set over the town and cemetery.

The moon setting over Amara West at 06.58 on 9 February 2012

We start our last week of digging on Saturday – trying to answer some outstanding questions, but most importantly ensuring everything we’ve excavated has been properly documented so that research and post-excavation work can continue over the rest of the year.

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Our #AfricanRockArt project team is cataloguing and uploading around 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent. Working with digital photographs has allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ.

As part of the cataloguing process, the project team document each photograph, identifying what is depicted. Sometimes images are faded or unclear. Using photo manipulation software, images can be run through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can now see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye.

This painted panel, from Kondoa District in #Tanzania, shows the white outline of an elephant’s head at the right, along with some figures in red that it is possible to highlight with digital enhancement.

Tanzania contains some of the densest concentrations of rock art in East Africa, mainly paintings found in the Kondoa area and adjoining Lake Eyasi basin. The oldest of these paintings are attributed to hunter-gatherers and may be 10,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio to learn more about the project and see stunning #rockart from Africa. This week we’re highlighting the work of our #AfricanRockArt image project. The project team are now in the third year of cataloguing, and have uploaded around 19,000 digital photographs of rock art from all over #Africa to the Museum’s collection online database.

This photograph shows an engraving of a large, almost life-sized elephant, found on the Messak Plateau in #Libya. This region is home to tens of thousands of depictions, and is best known for larger-than-life-size engravings of animals such as elephants, rhino and a now extinct species of buffalo. This work of rock art most likely comes from the Early Hunter Period and could be up to 12,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio and explore 30,000 years of stunning rock art from Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Watch the incredible discovery of this colossal statue, submerged under the sea of thousands of years. This colossal 5.4-metre statue of Hapy was discovered underwater in what was the thriving and cosmopolitan seaport of Thonis-Heracleion. It once stood in front of a temple and would have been an impressive sight for traders and visitors arriving from the Mediterranean.

Come face to face with the ancient Egyptian god Hapy for yourself in our‪ #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016.

Colossal statue of Hapy. Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt. About 380-250 BC. Maritime Museum, Alexandria. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. The discovery of this stela, which once stood at the entrance of the main entry port into ancient Egypt, was an extraordinary moment. Its inscription detailing taxes helped solve a 2,000-year-old mystery!

This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through the cities of Thonis and Naukratis, and it originally stood in the Temple of Amun-Gereb. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis.

A bilingual decree found in 1881 refers in its Greek inscription to ‘the Temple of Heracleion’ and in hieroglyphs to ‘the Temple of Amun-Gereb’. Together these objects revealed that Thonis and Heracleion were the same place.

Learn more about the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition.
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 380–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that the #SunkenCities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the ancient Egyptian cities were believed to be lost.

Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. The amazing rediscovery of these lost cities is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

See more magical moments of discovery in our #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

#archaeology #diving #ancientEgypt This week we’re highlighting some of the incredible clocks and watches on display in the Museum. Mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe at some time between 1200 and 1300. Their introduction coincided with a growing need to regulate the times of Christian prayer in the monasteries. Telling the time with a sundial was especially difficult in western Europe with its unreliable weather. From the end of the 13th century, clocks were being installed in cathedrals, abbeys and churches all around Europe.

The design of turret clocks (public clocks) changed little over the following three centuries and this particular example, made around 1600, has similar characteristics to clocks made for churches in the medieval period. The maker of this clock was Leonard Tenant, one of the most prolific makers of church clocks in the first half of the 17th century. The clock was installed in Cassiobury Park, a country house near Watford.

See this incredible clock in Rooms 38-39 
#clocks #watches #horology
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