British Museum blog

After-excavation care at Amara West

Elisabeth Pamberg, archaeological illustrator/conservator

Salt crystals on the rim of beer jar C8008

I visited the stores where we keep the objects excavated from the site, to check they were in good condition. Objects from a site like this one often contain salts that could damage them, so I wasn’t surprised to observe that several objects had salt crystals on them, particularly the pottery and some stone sculpture.

The artefacts retrieved at Amara West are subject to environmental conditions which include high humidity and salinity, the result of the site’s proximity to the Nile. Ceramic and stone buried in soil absorb the salts present in the deposits.

Beer jar C8007 after desalination this week

Following my advice, and discussions with Marie Millet and Neal Spencer, two beer jars from grave 201 were chosen for treatment, as they were affected by salt, with a thick visible layer of white concretions.

The salts are harmful and are not only an aesthetic issue; they obscure the object’s surface and can lead to surface exfoliation – the surface lifting off. Eventually, the crystallisation of salts can lead to disintegration.

The most efficient way to extract salt consists of soaking the objects in water over a long period of time, though extra steps need to be taken with fragile objects, or those bearing paint.

The removal of soluble salts can be a very lengthy procedure. In this case, the jars were bathed repeatedly in plenty of warm water for a period of eight days with the water being changed every day.

Unfortunately, no distilled or deionised water and conductivity meter (to measure the decreasing level of salt) is available here. Nonetheless, soluble salts appear to have completely disappeared from the jars, ensuring their long-term preservation.

Looking to future seasons, we might consider testing salt levels in the local river water, which is used for washing all pottery prior to study, recording and storage.

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Going underground – unearthing more burials at Amara West

Dyan Semple, physical anthropologist, University of Alberta

Gone underground: the shaft of grave 234, with tarpaulin covering the eastern chamber

Along with Michaela and Carina, I’m working in cemetery C at Amara West, currently in the western chamber of Grave 201.

This tomb has a central shaft and two chambers to the east and the west. It had already been partially excavated in 2009, but this year we removed the alluvium from above the western chamber, to avoid the possibility of it falling in while we were excavating.

A lot of the bones had been crushed by earlier collapse, but five articulated burials were found at the rear of the space. As they lay one on top of the other, I had to be very careful to separate them – finding a place to stand was the first issue, and then I could remove the more recent burials at the front, after recording them.

Dyan cleaning skeletons in Grave 201

From the way the skeletons are arranged, it is possible to tell that some of the individuals had been tightly bound for burial. They were buried in an extended position, laid out with their hands beneath them and their feet crossed. In some cases, however, the binding was tight and thick, leading to bodies being placed face down, perhaps accidentally.

I didn’t find any traces of cloth, although some of the individuals had wood pieces associated with their remains, which may once have been a coffin or funerary bed.

In addition to wood fragments, three scarabs have been found in the grave – one individual had two faience scarabs associated with them, clutched in the left hand, and lying under the crushed skull.

One scarab bore the prenomen cartouche of Thutmosis III, a pharaoh of the mid-18th Dynasty, which is much earlier than the use of this cemetery for burials. However, objects like these were kept for long periods of time, and scarabs with this royal name were still being made centuries later.

Scarab (F9490) of glazed steatite, found in Grave 201

The final task in this grave is drawing a cross-section of the chambers and shafts, and I have already started work in the eastern chamber of Grave 234, which is a similarly constructed chamber tomb.

Though the bones are again crushed, there is a large amount of relatively intact wood along the back of the chamber, and ceramic jars and bowls are visible at the sides and centre. One burial seems to have been placed in the chamber after it had already partially collapsed. It appears that there are at least 10 individuals in the chamber, so the excavation of Grave 234 will likely occupy the remainder of the season for Carina and I.

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New explorations on the south side at Amara West

Charly Vallance, archaeologist

Frustrating times – seeking the town wall in the first days

In my second season at Amara West – I spend the rest of the year as a field archaeologist in the UK – I have been excavating in the south-west portion of the town, an area never previously investigated, alongside Shadia Abdo Rabo, a curator at the Sudanese National Museum, also acting as our inspector from the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums.

The first stage of our work was to locate the south-west corner of the town’s enclosure wall. You might think a wall 3.5 metres wide and several metres high would be easy to find, especially with the help of magnetometry data.

The architecture of excavation – sandbags keeping sand out of the deep trench

But, after two days of hard digging, there was no sign of the wall corner; local workman Abdul Razig was becoming increasingly frustrated and threatened to move trenches!

On the fifth day, relief, as several areas of mudbrick were exposed and identified as belonging to the town walls. The walls have suffered badly from deep pits dug through them to extract clay for building material.

Inside the walls, two distinct rooms were discovered, each one of considerable size, filled with over a metre of disturbed sands and silts, making excavation rather heavy-going. Battles with inflowing sand from the surrounding desert have been a daily occurrence, and one which has made us all experts in sandbag logistics.

Paved court with stone doorways (D13.3.1) in course of excavation

The biggest discovery to date has been a mudbrick pavement in pristine condition laid across the surfaces of both rooms. This was a sign we were digging something pretty grand. The presence of two elaborate entrances flanked by large sandstone door jambs leading north from the paved areas emphasise that we are not in a modest domestic building.

The finer detail: cleaning a small pottery bowl found in the corner of room D13.3.2

The purpose of the rooms is currently unclear, though the pottery suggests it dates to the late New Kingdom.

Perhaps one space was an open courtyard, a communal area tucked away in the south-west corner of the town? Or was it a rather grand residence? Only with more digging will we find out more: from 7am tomorrow, armed with shovels, picks and trowels, we will be out there again, trying to seek evidence for these and other questions…

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Glimpses of diet through plant remains

Philippa Ryan, British Museum

Philippa sampling a 3,100 year old hearth in a large villa (E12.10) at Amara West

I’m in Sudan looking at ancient plant remains from Amara West to investigate past diet and the potential impact of climate change on how plants were used.

This type of evidence can also provide insight into social behaviour, such as differences in diet between richer and poorer households. Additionally, identifying certain types of plant remains, such as cereal processing detritus, can help to investigate the functions of certain rooms or outdoor areas in the town.

Tools of the trade: sieves for botanical samples

The excavators take sediment samples from archaeological contexts such as hearths, ovens, floors and storage bins for botanical analysis. Back at the dig-house, I process the bags of sediment they have collected to extract the charred and desiccated plant remains – using dry-sieving and flotation.

Philippa sorting through a sample after sieving, back in the work room

At the end of the dig season, these samples will then be taken back to the British Museum, with the permission of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, where I will identify the seeds and fruits in conjunction with Caroline Cartwright, who is also analysing the wood charcoal. Modern analytical equipment such as a Scanning Electron Microscopes can help with the identifications.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of tamarisk charcoal from Amara West (Caroline Cartwright)

In addition, I am taking further sediment samples back for processing in the laboratory to extract phytoliths (microscopic silicified plant cells) as another way of investigating the plant record.

On the Nile near Amara West, seeking modern plant material for reference collection

Whilst here, I have also been collecting plants to compare with the ancient plant materials. I have gathered grasses, reeds and branches of trees and shrubs from the riverbanks via boat (watching out for the large crocodiles!), a trip into the desert, and from the island of Ernetta where we are living.

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Stepping back in time… ancient footprint found in Amara West

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Foot impression in the clay surface of the Ramesside period (house E13.7)

The buildings, objects and even destruction episodes we come across every day during our excavations reflect a range of ancient human activities – but occasionally we happen on something more immediately touching.

As the workmen cleared rubble down towards the floor of the large room of a house we’re currently excavating, the shape of an adult foot appeared earlier this week.

This impression was made at least 3,100 years ago, when the clay surface was still wet.

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The tempo of the working day gathers pace…

Tom Lyons, archaeologist

Sunrise on the Nile at Ernetta, before boarding for the commute to Amara West

Being a new member of the British Museum’s excavation team at Amara West I’ve had to adapt to a different set of working conditions including a new set of colleagues, unfamiliar archaeology, wide-ranging temperatures and a spectacular dawn commute to work on a crowded boat down the Nile.

Having left behind my regular archaeological job in Britain where one typically investigates ditches, field systems and scant remains of housing I now find myself in one of the best preserved pharaonic towns (chiefly thanks to 3000 years of windblown sand).

Collapsed doorway from an earlier house, found beneath later architecture of house E13.3-N

As I’ve worked on other archaeological projects in the near east I have encountered buildings constructed in mud brick before. Many archaeological principles remain the same and now that the excavation is nearing a close I’m very familiar with the process of revealing buried architecture among collapsed buildings, and clay floor surfaces and recovering a variety of domestic objects such as large grinding stones, ovens and masses and masses of pottery.

My task is to supervise the excavation of a narrow house dating to about 1100 BC with local workmen removing the archaeological structures and deposits after I identify, draw and describe them. This task is complicated by the fact that several different phases of architecture still exist in the same space. Distinguishing them and reconstructing the original sequence of events is a crucial component of the work.

Beginning the excavation of house E13.3-N, four weeks ago

Now that the end of this season is approaching, the tempo of the working day gathers pace – while the number of as yet unanswered questions increases.

After excavating three rooms in the building almost completely, only the standing architecture and the very earliest floors (and deposits) remain, my attention now turns to the rest of the house next door, partly excavated in 2010 during last year’s season.

Tom Lyons cleaning a door blocking in front of the house

At present we think there are three architectural phases, although identifying each one and its true extent sometimes feels like informed speculation at best – or at worst a confusing set of circular relationships. A simple sketch plan of the archaeology as you interpret it can be much more constructive than unsatisfying discussions of the buildings under the glare of the midday Saharan sun.

In most cases the answers usually reveal themselves with further digging…

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Excavating a chamber tomb

Carina Summerfield-Hill, physical anthropologist

Rami Mohamed Abdu and Abou Ad Abu Taher excavating through the roof of the western chamber

I’m one of three physical anthropologists working in Cemetery C at Amara West, and in recent days I’ve been working on a chamber tomb (Grave 234) – the largest and most exciting of grave types here.
Rami Mohamed Abdu lifting the beer jar from the shaft of grave 234

The tomb consists of a central shaft with an underground eastern and western chamber. We started excavating down into the central shaft to expose the doorway to each chamber. The sand in the shaft contained a complete Egyptian-style beer jar.

Since then, we have focused on excavating the western chamber.

The safest way to excavate it was to dig down from above, through the chamber’s roof, otherwise the fragile but heavy layers of alluvium could collapse on us. Once the chamber was exposed, we removed windblown sand which had accumulated inside.

It contains three articulated burials and a concentration of disarticulated bone that included four complete skulls.

Carina Summerfield-Hill excavating the Nubian style crouched burial

So far I have excavated one of the articulated burials towards the centre of the chamber, the feet of which poked out into the shaft.

The entire burial was within the remains of a wooden casing, and was of an adult female, fully articulated in a crouch position – this was a really pleasing discovery as it is a local Nubian tradition of burial, as opposed to the Egyptian tradition of laying the body out in an extended burial position. This is the first Nubian burial type to be found in Cemetery C!

Western chamber of Grave 234 with three articulated burials and concentration of disarticulated human remains (under cover to the right)

The western chamber also contains two further articulated burials that are extended – It is fascinating to see two different traditions in the same grave.

Over the coming days I shall be excavating these two extended burials along with the concentration of disarticulated bones, so there is a lot of work still to do.

And next we have the eastern chamber, where we have just begun removing the surface to get access.

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In the back rooms

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Large vessel (C4029) found buried in the floor of the back room

Halfway through our third season of excavations in the northwest part of the walled town, our understanding of the nature of the area, and how it changed – whether on a room-by-room or building-by-building basis – is continuing to evolve.

No two house plans are the same, undoubtedly dictated by a range of factors. Here, some of the houses needed to be built into and over existing architecture, including large vaulted storerooms. But the circumstances of individual household units could also prompt houses to be joined, divided or internally re-arranged.

Papyri contemporary with Amara West describe complex fluctuations in houses at Thebes, with numbers oscillating between six and 15 people in a short time frame, due to deaths, marriages and even divorce.

The four 20th dynasty houses excavated so far in the northwestern town have between three and four rooms each, and the back room in three of the houses has a rather different character.

View along house E13.3-N with back room far from the front door

These are small spaces – only five metres² – and as we have no evidence for windows in any of the rooms, they are likely to have been very dark. None of the three back rooms has an outside wall, thus would have stayed cool during hot days and retained warmth during the very cold nights.

How were these rooms used? It is tempting to assume some were bedrooms, but none have bed alcoves familiar from larger pharaonic houses, including villa E12.10 at Amara West.

In fact, the inhabitants may have slept in the central room, warmed by the hearth. The back of one house clearly functioned as a space for ritual activity – an ancestor bust was found there.

A notable concentration of finer pottery vessels is found in these rooms – but also objects of more glamorous materials.

Plan of house E13.3-N, with room 27 to top right

In the last weeks, we have completed excavation of the back room in house E13.3-N. The pattern continues in the earliest layers in the room – fragments of a fine calcite (Egyptian alabaster) bowl were recovered alongside faience beads, a bone earring, and a faience Taweret amulet.

Fragments of a calcite bowl (F4743) found in back room of house E13.3-N

The purpose of the niche in the back wall remains unknown. But as with one other back room, we also found a large pottery vessel buried in the floor. We have taken samples from the pot, found with its lid still in place: perhaps chemical or botanical analyses can hint at the original contents?

However, a more prosaic function for these rooms is also possible. Finding objects in a room does not mean the inhabitants used them in that space, or placed them there for safe-keeping.

Some back rooms may simply have become areas in which to place unwanted rubbish – tucked out of the way at the back of the house.

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Finding the buildings beneath

Mat Dalton, archaeologist

The later houses, excavated in 2009, with the earlier walls beginning to appear (behind scale)

In 2010, a team of workmen from Ernetta Island and I excavated a suite of rooms from two houses located next to the Governor’s Residence at Amara West. These buildings contained multiple phases of renovation, including up to five overlying floor surfaces. The rooms were also very domestic in nature, with six bread ovens and four grain grinding emplacements preserved across the phases.

Mekawi Abdel Rahman removing rubble from the plaster walls

By the end of the season we had exposed the partially destroyed and levelled remains of an older, deeper building, upon whose walls much of the architecture of our two houses had been constructed.

This year we’re excavating this older building with the aim of finding out how it was used by its ancient inhabitants, why it was replaced, and how it may have varied in use and layout from its successor.

Over the past couple of days we’ve been gradually teasing the remains of this building out of the rubble. It can be hard physical work – thick concrete-like deposits of mudbrick wall collapse, and silt fills the rooms, which make formidable barriers, and a great contrast to the loose sand we often encounter above!

The early plaster wall of building E13.7, with black painted line

At this early stage, the parts of the building we have exposed paint a very different picture from the house above. The rooms are generally much larger, with fine white plaster walls and internal decoration – rather than the ubiquitous brown mud plaster walls of the later building. Two rooms even preserve an attractive band of white and black painted plaster decoration. Intriguingly, not a single grain grinding emplacement has been found. Perhaps these rooms did not fulfil a domestic function?

Perhaps most tantalising, however, is the appearance of a fragmentary series of blue, red and white painted cornice fragments, which appear to have collapsed from a single wall in the building’s largest room. This wall seems to have been a focal point of the room – could it have been a small household shrine?

Painted mud plaster moulding emerging from the rubble in building E13.7

Over the coming weeks we’ll be continuing our work in these rooms, including exposing their original floor surfaces. We hope this further work might answer some of our questions, but as always in archaeology, it will no doubt present us with new challenges…

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In search of ancient Nile channels

Mark Macklin, University of Aberystwyth and
Jamie Woodward, University of Manchester

Pit dug through the ancient Nile channel at Amara West

As part of a wider international project investigating the evolution of the Nile and its major tributaries over the last 30,000 years (funded by the Australian Research Council since 2008, and more recently by The Leverhulme Trust), we have been reconstructing past river environments, channel movements, and flooding in the desert Nile of Northern Sudan.

We are especially interested in the impact that environmental change has had on riverine societies over the last 7,000 years or so.

Our research has focussed on two sections of the Sudanese Nile and involves collaboration with two British Museum field projects. The first is centred on Dongola, between the fourth and third Nile cataracts, and the second at Amara West.

The primary aim of our work at Amara West is to establish the relationship between the settlement of the New Kingdom town (about 1290-1070 BC), which is located on a former island within the River Nile, and the river channels that surround it.

Map showing the original island position of Amara West

During a reconnaissance visit in 2009 we began to investigate the sedimentary record preserved in the now abandoned channel immediately to the north of the town.

Two key questions we are hoping to answer include:

    Was the channel flowing during the New Kingdom as suggested by the town layout?
    Did the drying up of the channel affect the viability of settlement at Amara West?

This year a four metre-deep pit, shored up with 82 sandbags, was dug into the sediments infilling the now dry channel, which revealed a detailed record of past Nile floods.

Mark Macklin and Jamie Woodward examining layers of sand and river silt

On the basis of preliminary dating of sediment samples collected in 2009, this sequence begins around 1100 BC, close to the end of Egyptian occupation of the area, and spans several centuries.

Additional samples have been collected in the last few days to provide more precise dating for the drying out of the channel. These will allow us to better understand the relationship between changing river environments and the archaeological record of Amara West.

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Edward Ruscha (b. 1937), Made in California. Colour lithograph, 1971. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
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Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Vote McGovern. Screenprint, 1972. © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London.
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Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Flags I. Screenprint, 1973. Collection of Johanna and Leslie Garfield. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging.
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