British Museum blog

Amara West 2012: the life-story of a pot

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8Marie Millet, British Museum

The Amara West team is now beginning to finalise plans for its next excavation season, in January and February 2013. In recent months, we’ve been digitising our field documentation (drawings, plans, maps …), which has allowed us to reconstruct biographies for objects found during our excavations earlier this year. This work is shedding light on life at the town of Amara West, the principal administrative centre of Upper Nubia during the Ramesside Period, at the end of the second millennium BC.

One object in particular caught my attention: a large vessel (C4460) buried in the floor of house E13.8. This single object enables us to tell a chapter in the story of “House of Ramesses-ruler-of-Thebes”, as Amara West was called in ancient times.

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8

House E13.8 was excavated last season by Tom Lyons and Shadia Abdu Rabu, between the enclosure wall and house E13.3. It was built over the remains of a production area with a kiln. Though this house was built over an empty, trapezoid-shaped space, it features all of the key elements of an Amara house: hearths, bread ovens, room with mastaba-bench.

Excavation at Amara West, 2012

Excavation at Amara West, 2012

In the back room, to the left of the door, we came across a large buried pot. Why was it there? Usually in archaeology we go back in time, because we are discovering the most recent part of a site and ‘peeling back’ the layers to find earlier remains. But with this object, we can tell the story from beginning to end.

We know that this very large jar was made on a potter’s wheel, as we can see wheel-marks on the interior surface. The exterior is a white colour. It’s made from Nile clay, which makes it difficult to distinguish whether it was produced in Egypt or in Upper Nubia: was it imported, or made locally at Amara West? Such pots are usually made from more specific Egyptian clay, ‘marl clay’, though in Abydos, examples made from Nile clay have been found with a white slip added to the exterior, to imitate pots made from marl clay.

Storage-jar, found at el-Amarna, Egypt, 1350 BC from the British Museum collection

Storage-jar, found at el-Amarna, Egypt, 1350 BC from the
British Museum collection

Egyptologists call this kind of jar a ‘meat jar’, as ink labels found on them, especially in Amarna, state that meat was stored inside. Some jars from this site in the British Museum collection offer a good comparison with the newly-excavated material.

The Amara West pot bears a hieratic inscription, carefully conserved by Philip Kevin, saying it held cqw– (bread) loaves (thanks to Robert Demarée for the translation). So this jar was used to transport or store a number of loaves. At a later stage, it was then buried in the floor at the back of the house, possibly to keep food cool, a change in function we often see with this type of jar, both at Amara West and at Amarna. The archaeological stratigraphy suggests that it was buried during the 20th dynasty. As to what was stored inside; that’s a question for our archaeobotanists, Caroline Cartwright and Philippa Ryan, who will be studying the jar in due course.

Unfortunately, this jar lost its neck, perhaps while it was in use at the back of the house or when the area was refilled and the pot completely forgotten. The room was filled with rubble, containing doum-palm trees seeds, charcoal, wood, fish bones and ochre. The weight of these deposits caused the pot to collapse in on itself.

So this jar tells us its own life through its breaks, marks, shape, material and location in the archaeological stratigraphy. This provides us with a glimpse into the daily life of the inhabitants of Amara West.

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Top of the pots

Marie Millet, College de France, Paris

Marie Millet sorting pottery in the Ramesside town

Since the first season of excavation at Amara West in 2009, I have been studying the pottery vessels from both the town and its cemeteries. I’m now getting back into the rhythm of living and working in Amara West and the island of Ernetta where the expedition house is located.

Typically, I work at the site twice a week – for an initial sorting of the masses of pottery which comes from the town – then the remainder of my time is spent in the study rooms and pottery store.

Cooking jar from 20th dynasty house, about 1130 BC (C4000)

Most of the pottery is broken into small pieces (sherds), but diagnostic fragments (rims, bases, decorated pieces, handles …) can allow us to identify the original shape of the vessels. Of course, we do also find complete vessels.

Firstly, all the pottery needs to be washed, for which we employ a local workman named Salah Mohamed Ali. Special recording sheets are then used to record the characteristics of ceramics from each individual archaeological context (pit, wall, oven, occupation layers).

The proportion of different types of vessel can provide information on the function of a room or space. For example, the middle room in a Ramesside house yielded a cooking jar but also trays for baking bread (dokka). In the middle of this room there was a fireplace and a grinding-emplacement, suggesting the space was used for food preparation.

An ancient kitchen? A plan of the room where the cooking jar was found

In contrast, the room next door, at the back of the house, yielded a small jug (C4019), of a type used for perfume or ointment, so this room may have been more private – perhaps a bedroom?

Ointment or perfume jug (C4019)

Despite much of the ceramic looking rather unimpressive, it can clarify important aspects about ancient life, including food preparation, trade patterns and also the chronology of different occupation levels.

It is crucial that the ceramic evidence is recorded accurately – both drawn and photographed. An archaeological illustrator, Elisabeth, helps out with some of the drawings. Eventually, these will be published, allowing the finds from Amara West to be compared with those from sites across Egypt and Sudan.

All of the pottery stays in our storeroom, so it is always a race against time to finish studying it. In fact, we are always playing catch-up: this week I am working on pottery from last year, while material floods in from ongoing excavations.

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Don’t forget you can share your photos with us by using #mybritishmuseum
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