British Museum blog

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: excavating excavations


Tom Lyons, archaeologist and Neal Spencer, British Museum

The EES team, with workmen, at Amara West in 1938-9. Seated left of centre is I.E.S. Edwards, then working as Assistant Keeper in the British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities.

The EES team, with workmen, at Amara West in 1938-9. Seated left of centre is I.E.S. Edwards, then working as Assistant Keeper in the British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities.

One house we have been excavating (E13.8) is not only located against the four metre-thick northern wall of the town but also at the limit of previous excavations undertaken by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES). The EES excavated the temple, parts of the town and the cemeteries in 1938-9 and 1947–50.

Tom cleaning a wall previous exposed by the EES. To the left is the edge of house E13.8

Tom cleaning a wall previous exposed by the EES.

Part of being an archaeologist in the twenty-first century includes rediscovering and reinterpreting the work of our predecessors in the field, when methods and aims were different from today. The excavators of the 1930s and 1940s focused on the temple, inscriptions and architectural plans. Occupation deposits received almost no attention, and of course many analytical methods now available were unheard of then.

We have just emptied 61 years of accumulated sand from one of the buildings excavated in 1949-50, immediately adjacent to our house E13.8. At the base of the excavation, we found a wall of a building they designated E.12.6.

In addition to confirming the accuracy of their plan, we can now explicitly link their architectural phases to ours, which means much of the town excavated in the 1930s and 40s can be fitted into the stages of urban development we have been able to reconstruct from the houses we are investigating.

The previous excavators never saw the eastern side of building E.12.6, and it is something we may find in the coming weeks…

Italian matchbox discarded by the EES excavators in the 1940s.

Italian matchbox discarded by the EES excavators in the 1940s.

Other aspects of the EES excavations have also come to light – including a fine matchbox found next to the residence of the Deputy of Kush, in a street partly excavated in the late 1940s. It has been registered as a find alongside the artefacts of the ancient inhabitants, as it all forms part of the site’s history.

Thanks are due to the Egypt Exloration Society, for permission to use the archive image.

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Amara West 2012: mid-season report from the cemetery


Michaela Binder, Durham University

We’re now halfway through the season in the cemeteries of Amara West and we have excavated 10 tombs (four still ongoing) and made a number of exciting new discoveries. One of the more surprising discoveries so far was the tumulus dating to the early-middle Kerma period excavated by Ashild Vagene and Mohammed Saad at the start of the season.

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

Another major part of this season’s works is the pyramid tomb G309, only the third known at Amara West. Though of distinctive Egyptian appearance on the outside, underneath the surface the grave provides a particular mixture of Egyptian and Nubian cultural elements – a characteristic encountered in so many aspects of life at Amara West.

Difficult working conditions for Philip Kevin consolidating the coffin in G309

Difficult working conditions for Philip Kevin consolidating the coffin in G309

In G309 this is exemplified through a pottery assemblage which features several examples of Egyptian vessel types produced with a technique more typical of local Nubian pottery. At present, Philip Kevin, conservator in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum, is working to preserve parts of a wooden coffin decorated with painted plaster.

No less interesting is G314, the grave Laurel Engbring has been working on for the past few weeks. Underneath a low burial mound, the grave features a shaft with two small burial chambers. While the western one still awaits investigation the eastern chamber is now almost fully exposed.

Mohammed Saad with workmen Rami Mohammed Abdu and Nayel Terab excavating Grave 319

Mohammed Saad with workmen Rami Mohammed Abdu and Nayel Terab excavating Grave 319

Inside we were able to document for the first time an almost complete wooden burial bed. Thanks to Philip, several large side elements could be consolidated and preserved. A female, placed on the bed in a flexed position – characteristic of Nubian funerary traditions – appears to have been covered in a coarse woven textile.

Elsewhere in the cemetery Mohammed Saad, after his exciting discoveries of an almost intact burial container in G317, has moved on to another, slightly different tomb with a nicely carved rock-cut burial chamber. A first glimpse into it leaves us with high expectations: three well-preserved skulls are visible, alongside pottery, all partly covered in sand…

 


 

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Amara West 2012: wind stops play


Neal Spencer, British Museum

‘Wednesday February 1st. Before breakfast, a mighty wind arose ….’

Ancient houses, and our sieves - all that remained on site after wind forced us to stop work

Ancient houses, and our sieves - all that remained on site after wind forced us to stop work

This excerpt from Mary Shepperson’s excavation diary only hints at the howling northerly wind that forced us to stop work on site at 11.00am yesterday. Besides reducing visibility, sand was pouring into rooms as we excavated them, and recording was impossible due to flapping tapes and the sail-like properties of drawing boards.

We stopped work, huddled by the river awaiting our boat, and during the ride home could not see the other bank of the Nile.

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Amara West 2012: the town – halfway through the season


Neal Spencer, British Museum

With three weeks digging left, it’s a good time to reflect on the key discoveries of the season so far in the town of Amara West. Though these have included objects, from the spectacular to the mundane, the combination of stratigraphy and architecture unearthed has allowed us to interpret the purpose of buildings – and one of our key challenges has been to work out which walls belong to which structures, and in what order they were built.

House E13.8

A trapezoid-shaped house, E13.8 is tucked into a space between house E13.3 and the north town wall, and now seems to have been quite a late-comer to Amara West, as Shadia Abdu Rabu and Tom Lyons’ excavations have shown. Whereas the house next door went through over a century of internal changes (from around 1150 BC) but retained its location and basic layout, house E13.8 was built during the last phases of occupation of the town – or at least the last preserved phases.

House E13.8, with location of oven from an earlier building we have just discovered

House E13.8, with location of oven from an earlier building we have just discovered

The modest dwelling features a room directly off the alley, with a space to the left in which a number of ovens had been built into the town wall, which may have been partly eroded and destroyed at this point. The middle room of the house was set around a circular hearth, with a low brick bench on the back wall (mastaba). This room had been replastered at least once.

In the past week, earlier structures have begun to be revealed – and it seems the two back rooms sat above a larger space which contained at least one large oven. More brickwork is appearing beneath the front room, including one wall which might be part of a very early phase building excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society.

The big question we hope to solve before the end of the season is: what function did this earlier building fulfill? It does not yet display the characteristics of an Amara West house.

House E13.6

Again, a surprise here. Unlike the house immediately west of here (E13.4), house E13.6 was only preserved to a few courses in depth, constructed over earlier remains. The house itself was in some ways unremarkable – with a central room featuring a mastaba – though no evidence of a staircase was preserved, unlike nearly every house at Amara West; access to the roof was important for light and air in such a cramped neighbourhood. Of course, the discovery of a painted, carved, door-lintel gave a glimpse at how splendid the interior of this house may once have looked.

The inscribed lintel found in house E13.6

The inscribed lintel found in house E13.6

Beneath, Mary Shepperson and Hélène Virenque have revealed a whole series of walls of earlier phases. Many seem to relate to the long store-rooms with vaulted roofs partly revealed in previous seasons – but others might not. Finding out whether some of these rooms join with the house behind (E13.7) is a key question for the next three weeks. If not, was it built before or after? Or was one building partly dismantled to make way for the next?

Street E13.12

Mat Dalton set out to reveal more of house E13.7, but most of his attention has been diverted to the street, where a fascinating history of refurbishing is being traced. We are now able to walk along an ancient street, past the fronts of houses, giving us a sense of the space, architectural scale, and the dense urban environment that is very rare in domestic archaeology.

Street E13.12 with doors to house E13.4 (left) and E13.9

Street E13.12 with doors to house E13.4 (left) and E13.9

In the last few days, Mat has returned to the scene of his 2010 excavations, in a square room where the presence of a number of ovens suggested it was used as a space for communal cooking. As ever at Amara West, find one oven and several more are likely to follow in quick succession. There are now at least three phases of oven use in the room, some of which are associated with grinding emplacements and their basins. This space would have allowed the neighbourhood’s inhabitants to prepare a significant amount of food.

After the excavations, results of scientific analyses on samples taken from the site should help tell us more about the inhabitants’ diet and how different spaces were used – evidence that can help our imagination make all these urban spaces bustle with people, heat, smoke and undoubtedly much conversation….

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Amara West 2012: excavating in the cemeteries


Mohammed Saad, Inspector, National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, Sudan and Amara West Field School participant

I’m currently excavating a grave (317) in Cemetery D. It extends east-west and is around 2.5 metres in length, with a rather small shaft (only about 90cm long) leading to a small burial chamber around 1.2m wide. There are no remnants of a superstructure, and the roof of the chamber has been removed by surface erosion, where a scatter of schist stones suggests the grave was looted in ancient times.

Mohammed recording the location of the skeletons

Mohammed recording the location of the skeletons

We unearthed skeletal remains and some faience and shell beads scattered in windblown sand in the burial chamber, but below this we found another skeleton, undisturbed and intact. Among the most interesting things about this burial are the plant remains found associated with it, which when studied will tell us more about how the bodies were treated for burial. The individual is rested on the remains of matting made from plant material. Its colour ranges between light and dark grey, but it’s very soft and fragile. Wrappings of this kind have been found in other graves at Amara West, but rarely so well-preserved as in this case.

Lower burial with ceramic vessels placed by the head

Lower burial with ceramic vessels placed by the head

Directly underlying this skeleton, I found another one. This time, it was a completely intact adult male with a bad fracture to one of the bones of the left hand, and covered in the same kind of matting. There were also some objects buried alongside him: a shallow bowl and a small jar, which we think might date to the New Kingdom period, or shortly afterwards.

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Amara West 2012: paint it red, yellow, blue…


Hélène Virenque, Egyptologist

Since the start of excavations three weeks ago, room three – to the north of the room where Mary Shepperson found the decorated lintel – of house E13.6 has demanded most of my attention. Last week we revealed the walls of a phase beneath the house, which might be part of a long magazine, of the type already found in this area during an earlier season.

Rather different, here, is the construction of small walls one brick-width thick, delimiting two small spaces within the possible storage magazines.

Among the sand, mudbrick rubble and ceramics which filled this area, we came across pigments: lumps of yellow and red ochre (a natural resource), but also blue pigment, which must be made from transforming calcium carbonate and copper oxide. The blue pigment was found on ceramic sherds, on which it was prepared before use. We also found small blocks of pigment where one side has been flattened through rubbing, while the other has been impressed with the fingers of the ancient painter.

Completing the picture, a large granodiorite stone was found in the northern of the two small spaces; yellow pigment adhering to the depression in the working surface indicates this stone was used for pigment preparation.

Granodiorite stone with remains of yellow pigment

Granodiorite stone with remains of yellow pigment

Usually, raw pigments were mixed with a medium such as gum arabic or egg-white, before being applied. Perhaps these colours were being prepared to paint the walls of some rooms. Many were plastered with plain clay, but we have found evidence of red and white-painted walls. Fragments of painted plaster, possibly from a household shrine, found in 2011, display a similar colour palette, with reds, blues and yellows.

Thus far we can only be sure that these small – perhaps short-lived – spaces were used to prepare colour pigments. It does not mean the space was a dedicated workshop, as small-scale craft activities are known to have taken place within people’s houses.

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Amara West 2012: an osteoarchaeologist’s dream…


Laurel Engbring, physical anthropologist

Archaeology can be a bit of a gamble: you can dig for weeks and find nothing.

I began this season at Amara West excavating two shafts. They had little preserved inside them; though we did find the disarticulated remains of a neonate (a newborn child).

Laurel planning a layer of stones above the shaft in G314

Laurel planning a layer of stones above the shaft in G314

The tumulus I am currently excavating (G314) started out as a simple raised mound in Cemetery D, and initially proved somewhat frustrating. Beneath the sandy surface of the shaft lurked a series of schist slabs and large stones, covering a smaller east to west oriented shaft, lined in places with mudbrick. After photographing, leveling, planning and sectioning the stones, I excitedly removed the layer of huge stones, anticipating what lay beneath.

This turned out to be another layer of stones. After documenting this layer, and removing it, a third layer was revealed. In some ways this was frustrating. In other ways, the effort enhanced the anticipation.

Removing the schist slabs from G314

Removing the schist slabs from G314

When a fourth layer of schist slabs was removed, we finally discovered chambers extending to the east and west, nearly two metres in each direction.

My initial peek into the western chamber revealed disarticulated human bones and a few large ceramic vessels: an osteoarchaeologist’s dream!

The excavation and recording of the bones has just begun, making the 5.30am starts much easier.

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Amara West 2012: tumuli among the pyramid-tombs

Michaela Binder, Durham University

Here at Amara West, Milena Grzybowska and a team of workmen are still working to remove the windblown sand that fills the shaft at the centre of the brick chapel found earlier this week. They have now reached a depth of 1.8 metres below the surface and have further to go, though entrances to burial chambers on the east and west side of the shaft are already visible.

Removing sand from the chapel of G309

Removing sand from the chapel of G309

Elsewhere in the cemetery, Ashild and Mohammed continue excavating tumulus G308. Even though the grave was disturbed, the skull and parts of the legs were still in situ. These remnants indicate that the adult individual was buried in a contracted body position, a characteristic feature of Nubian burials – consistent with the tumulus superstructure.

This is the first grave of this type excavated in Cemetery D, and the Nubian-style pottery suggests a dating late in the New Kingdom shortly afterwards. Interestingly, the grave is located just metres from the typically pharaonic pyramid tombs.

Tumulus G311

Tumulus G311

A different tumulus (G311) was excavated by Laurel Engbring. Its superstructure, about five metres in diameter, is made up of schist gravel. On the edge of the small burial pit, she discovered the remains of a neonate (a newborn child). The discovery of an infant is unusual, as very few infants and children have been found in the cemeteries at Amara West. This is typical of pharaonic burial grounds, as small children were often buried inside housing areas, or in separate cemeteries.

Yet again, we seem to be seeing both Egyptian and Nubian funerary traditions in this cemetery.

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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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At the mouth of the Nile, the city of Thonis-Heracleion flourished as the main entry point into Egypt. Underwater excavations have found a large harbour, numerous ships and anchors, proving this was an international port. 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 Thonis and Naukratis. A copy was found in the main Egyptian temple in each port. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis. 
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Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. On loan from National Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
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