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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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Return to Amara West

Neal Spencer, British Museum

The steep river bank at Amara West, overlooking the Nile.

Amidst the chaos, heat and dust of our building work at the dig house, we finally managed a short visit to the archaeological site of Amara West itself earlier this week, to see whether much change is evident from the end of our excavation season in late February.

During the season our daily commute consists of a 10-minute journey downstream in a small launch with outboard motor – the return journey takes 20 minutes as the boat contends with the Nile current.

Motor-launch for the commute to Amara West.

The boat is usually laden with workmen, equipment and of course ancient pottery and artefacts being brought back to the expedition house for study and storage.

The site is much as we left it in February, though windblown sand has started to cover up the buildings we excavated.

View over Amara West, with stone architecture from the Governor’s Residence on the surface

Amara West is buffeted by strong northerly winds most of the year, sometimes so strong we have to stop work for the day. This wind, and the sand it brings, is largely responsible for the good preservation of the New Kingdom houses and other buildings.

Shadia Abdu Rabo, antiquities inspector, with Neal Spencer, in 20th dynasty house (about 1100 BC).

We also know the sand was a problem in ancient times, as the inhabitants took measures to keep it out of houses as the outside ground level rose.

20th dynasty villa, excavated in 2009, now almost covered with windblown sand.

We’re now at an advanced stage of planning next season’s excavation priorities for the town – to continue in the group of mid-sized houses near the governor’s residence, and to start work in the smaller houses at the southern end of the town.

Excavations will begin in eight weeks time.

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Getting prepared

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Amara West, Sudan

Far from the British Museum, preparations are underway for the next phase of excavations in the Amara West research project.

Amara West is an ancient town in northern Sudan, which was occupied by pharaonic Egypt between 1500 and 1070 BC. We’ve been studying it since 2008, carrying out archaeological digs every year. Our next season starts in January when we’ll be writing regular updates on our progress.

For now, I’m here with Claire Messenger, who co-ordinates the British Museum international training programme, for a two-week visit to meet with colleagues from the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) and to prepare the project house for the busy season ahead.

During excavations, a team of 10-15 specialists lives in a converted mudbrick house, on the nearby island of Ernetta, a short boat-trip from the ancient site. This picturesque island features clusters of traditional Nubian houses set among date-palm groves and small plots for growing fava beans and other vegetables. Three mosques, three small shops and a cemetery are also found on the island – but no vehicles.

The island seen from the river Nile

The house, owned by local primary school teacher Kawsar Mohamed Ali, is arranged around large courtyards, and is designed for the local climate, particularly the cool verandahs to encourage airflow during the summer heat. However, aspects of the house need to be changed to fit with our requirements: installation of showers, creation of object and equipment stores, and of course more bedrooms than the typical family needs. Throughout, we are trying to retain the original appearance and ambience of the house.

Mud-bricks laid out to dry next to the expedition house

Skills not taught in Egyptology or archaeology courses are needed here! Local builders are employed to convert the house, using a mixture of traditional materials (mud, sand, mudbricks) and more modern products (cement, electrical wiring). There is no mains electricity here on the island, or in the nearby area, so we only have power in the evenings, run from the neighbour’s water-pump (it doubles as a generator). Loading up the water tank

All our water comes from the Nile, for washing, cooking and drinking – we use ceramic filters to make sure it’s pure.

Many key pieces of equipment are not available locally, so earlier this week we bought a 500-litre fibreglass water tank in the capital city, Khartoum, strapped it to the roof of a Landcruiser and drove the 700 km north to site. We hope the water-tank will ensure we have a more reliable supply of water in the coming seasons. Throughout it all we’ve had the tremendous assistance of our Sudanese inspector, Shadia Abdu Rabo.

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