Can you give a brief overview of Amara West for those of our readers/followers/users who are not familiar with the site?
The site, located south of the Dal Cataract in modern northern Sudan, was seemingly the administrative centre of occupied Kush (Upper Nubia) in the 19th and 20th dynasties. We know this as excavations by the Egypt Exploration Society in 1938-9 and 1947–50 uncovered a decorated temple set within a walled town. The earliest evidence – other than stelae and mud-sealings which may have been brought from other earlier sites – dates to the reign of Seti I. The site’s identification as an administrative centre is based on the discovery of a large formal building, with in situ doorjambs naming a number of holders of the title ‘deputy of Kush’. Along with a counterpart ‘deputy of Wawat (Lower Nubia)’, he reported directly to the Viceroy of Kush.
Many questions are thrown up by the previous excavations, which were of good standard for their time. Why did the administrative centre move from the 18th dynasty towns of Sesebi and Soleb in the reign of Seti I? And why was Amara chosen, given the proximity of the large Egyptian city of on Sai island? Were local resources (precious metal?) a factor? Did occupation continue here after Egyptian rule ended? Where were the Egyptians stationed here buried? And is there any evidence for cultural interactions, between occupier and occupied, as one would expect in a colonial context?
More information can be found at www.britishmuseum.org/AmaraWest
The BM website states that there were similarities found between Amara West and Kom Firin (in the Nile Delta in Egypt). Can you elaborate on the nature of these similarities?
Both sites feature walled towns seemingly founded on virgin ground in the early 19th dynasty. Kom Firin may have been created as a direct response to the growing threat from Libya, while Amara West suggests a need to restructure the distribution of urban settlements in Upper Nubia. Both seem to have been founded on islands, with the temple and main gates orientated towards the smaller river channels. Kom Firin is much larger in extent than Amara, but the walled town presents similar architectural features, such as imposing gates and corner towers.
How would you characterize Amara West – a fort? An outpost? A frontier city? Or perhaps some other designation?
The historical context – at least during the 19th and early 20th dynasties – suggests military threats were not significant, and the fact that elite housing spread outside the town walls at Amara further supports the idea that this was a town with military-style walls rather than a true fort. Furthermore, it was not truly on the southern frontier, as Ramesside burials are also found upstream at Sai and Tombos, presumably with associated Egyptian (or Egyptianised) inhabitants. It was not a large place - only 20-30 houses, with perhaps a population of around 200, though the number of inhabitants presumably fluctuated across the two-three centuries of occupation.
Taking into account Seti I is the first Egyptian king attested at the site, and that the town of Sai lay close by, do you have any hypothesis (or tentative ideas) regarding why Amara West was founded?
We’re still working on this one! Prior to us resuming work, others have wondered about access to natural resources (e.g. exhausting the gold deposits further south), or proximity to routes across the desert to the west, providing access to goods from further afield. But such hypotheses are difficult to test archaeologically. We may of course find evidence of 18th dynasty occupation layers, which would change our picture of New Kingdom Nubia.
Do you think the abandonment/decline in population during the reign of Ramesses IX was a gradual process? Or was it perhaps more of a sudden en masse departure?
We wonder if such an abandonment ever happened, I think we need to move away from depending on Egyptian royal inscriptions to gauge population levels – life may well have continued much as before (note the evidence for Egyptian serving under Nubian rulers in the Second Intermidate Period). One of our cemeteries is in use for 1-2 centuries after the end of the New Kingdom (with a mixture of Egyptian and Nubian-style burial assemblages), and we have a small amount of ceramics of the post-New Kingdom on the surface in the southern part of the town. The old excavation records are not sufficient to confidently date the latest occupation phases found in the 1930s and 1940s – hopefully our work will shed more light on the period. It is interesting that more and more evidence of the 10th-8th centuries BC is coming up through new excavations and re-analysis of older material (Kawa, Tombos, Aniba), further suggesting that abandonment did not take place on a massive scale. On the other hand, we are hoping to track possible climate change through work in the palaeochannel (with the Universities of Manchester and Aberystwyth) and by looking at shifting patterns of food processing and consumption. Dramatic shifts in cliamte would also affect demographic patterns.
What similarities and differences have you noticed between the Sudanese and the Egyptian governments with regards to their approach to archaeological projects?
In both counrties, we deal with antiquities departments that are part of larger government ministries, and the approach to archaeology is broadly similar (one is accompanied by an inspector, local labourers are used for excavation). Given the scale of the tourist industry in Egypt, the Supreme Council of Antiquities is by necessity a very large organisation, also responsible for the hundreds of foreign missions working in the country. Sudan is getting easier from a logistical viewpoint (roads, equipments, mobile and internet networks), and the smaller scale of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums can help. But working in both countries, which I still do today, has been overwhelmingly positive.
Does the Sudanese government allow finds to leave the country for further analysis?
Yes, the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums generously allows archaeological samples to be analysed in laboratories outside Sudan. In addition, objects can be occasionally exported for short-term loans to allow further study.
Does the majority of Amara West object analysis take place in the UK or in the Sudan?
Probably both – all the finds and nearly all the pottery are worked on at Amara, while skeletal material, archaeological samples (botany, ceramic fabrics, skeletal material) is analysed in the UK.
Your publication of Kom Firin (Kom Firin I: the Ramesside temple and the site survey London: British Museum Press. 2008.) is available for free on the web (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_publications/online_research_publications/kom_firin_i.aspx , as is the BM’s journal BMSAES ( http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/online_journals/bmsaes.aspx ). In your opinion, what is the rationale behind making archaeological reports free on the internet?”
Archaeological research should be done to further our understanding of the past, and this is only possible if the results are made available for discussion, criticism and further development of the interpretation. Traditionally, this has been done with books, but these are expensive to produce and reach very few people, especially in Egypt and Sudan where there are less well-stocked archaeological libraries. It is not a case of paper <em>vs </em>online – different publications require different outputs. In this case, we did both: the book is crucial for scholars looking at comparative material, while the online publication provides the widest possible access. Interestingly, publishers who place books online for free have found sales of paper copies do not suffer, in fact they often sell more copies!
Will you be doing likewise with any Amara West publications?
Very much so – paper publications will be a part of the outpur, but we hope to use online methods of disseminating the material. Thus there’s an article on the cemeteries in the latest British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan (forthcoming in issue 16), and eventually our database of finds, maps, context sheets, photographs etc will be accessible to all researchers. On a less formal level, the blog allows people an insight into the workings of an interdisciplinary research project (http://blog.britishmuseum.org/category/archaeology/amara-west/).
Do you think other researchers could benefit by making their publications free for download? Why do you think so few do allow this?
Of course, and I think it is gradually changing, with more and more Egyptologists happy to publish online. Again it’s not always suitable, but whether its an art historical study or an archaeological report, the large amounts of colour images possible with online publication represent a big advantage over traditional books.
What’s next for the Amara West Project?We’ve just arrived in Sudan for our next season, with ongoing work in the cemeteries and town, which I am sure will provide much information on the lived experience of inhabitants in a pharaonic town in Kush – and probably throw up a host of new questions!
Dr. Neal Spencer is the Director of the Amara West Excavation Project and an Assistant Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum. The AEO would like to thank Dr. Spencer for his time in illuminating his current project to our readers.