Investigating life in
an Egyptian town
- National Corporation for Antiquities
and Museums, Sudan
- University of Durham
- University of Manchester
- University of Aberystwyth
- Purdue University
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The historical context: Egypt in Nubia
At present, we have no evidence that Amara West was occupied before the reign of the 19th dynasty pharaoh Seti I (1290-1279 BC), though a number of 18th dynasty monuments have been found at the site, including a monumental stela of Amenhotep II, perhaps moved from elsewhere, and a number of administrative seals bearing earlier pharaoh’s names.
However, the region of Upper Nubia, at least that between Tombos in the Third Cataract of the Nile northwards, was under Egyptian control from early in the 18th dynasty, following the campaigns of Ahmose (about 1550 BC) and his successors, which pushed back the Kushite state centred at Kerma, that had briefly controlled parts of Upper Egypt. This led to the foundation of several important towns, including Sai, Tombos, Sesebi and Soleb (the last two acting as administrative centres), and associated cemeteries.
These settlements ensured the control of the region, and particularly resources such as gold, and the trade of goods coming from further to the south. A 'deputy of Kush' was pharaoh’s representative in the area, with a counterpart 'deputy of Wawat' in Lower Nubia, both reporting to the 'king’s son of Kush', also known as the Viceroy. Many of these officials may have been indigenous to Nubia, but trained at the Egyptian court, and took on many of the trappings of elite pharaonic culture.
Limestone stela showing the viceroy of Kush Usersatet offering to Thoth.
Why build at Amara West?
Houses at Amara West, stone doorways provide access from the street
Pharaonic monuments are found further upstream, notably at the sacred mountain of Gebel Barkal downstream of the Fourth Cataract, and the rock inscriptions upon a quartzite outcrop at Kurgus, near the Fifth Cataract. The material evidence from archaeological sites in the area, however, is dominated by indigenous cultures, and it is generally assumed that there was little Egyptian occupation in the area upstream from Tombos.
A perplexing question about Amara West is why was it founded in that location? It seems particularly strange when the area had already been occupied for over two centuries, and the large town of Sai lay just upstream. Access to natural resources, climate change and the monitoring of trade routes are all possibilities, and the current project hopes to find out more about this.
Throughout the 19th and 20th dynasties, the region remained under pharaonic control, and the inscription of Ramses IX in the temple at Amara West is the latest dated monument of a New Kingdom pharaoh in Upper Nubia. The centuries following the collapse of Egyptian control – and how gradual the wane of power was – are unclear.
Earlier scholars believed Upper Nubia endured several centuries of depopulation and harsh climatic conditions, before the flourishing of the second Kushite state, centred around the Fourth Cataract, in the ninth century BC. New excavations and re-analysis of earlier work is beginning to show the presence of post-New Kingdom (also termed early Napatan or pre-Napatan) cemeteries at Sai, Tombos and now at Amara West. It remains unclear whether the town at Amara West housed a signficant population at this period.
By the seventh century BC, the focus of human activity in the Amara West region had shifted to the south bank, with cemeteries, settlements and a now lost Meroitic temple known. It remains to be seen if this was precipitated by climate change, and the drying up of the river channel north of Amara West.
British Museum excavation in Sudan
Sphinx of Taharqo, from Temple T at Kawa, Sudan, Kushite, about 680 BC
The earliest objects from Sudan entered the British Museum in 1835, and the collection now features nearly 5,000 objects, reflecting both the periods of Egyptian dominance of Nubia, but also the indigenous cultures of the region. Iconic pieces include the sphinx of Taharqo from Kawa, and the wall reliefs from the pyramid chapel of Queen Shanakdakhete at Meroe.
As with British Museum projects in Egypt, excavations in Sudan are not designed to find objects to add to the collection. Rather, the fieldwork is a means of providing context to the existing collection through better understanding of the cultures which produced the objects.
New excavations can often help us understand what objects were for, and how they were used. The excavated objects stay in Sudan, they do not become part of the British Museum collection, although the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums generously permits the export of samples and study material for scientific analysis.
In addition to Amara West, the British Museum conducts fieldwork at the Meroitic settlement and temple of Dangeil (with the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums), and epigraphic work at Tombos, Kurgus and Jebel Dosha. Between 1999 and 2010, the Museum played a key role in rescue excavations in the Fourth Cataract, before the area was flooded beneath the new dam’s reservoir. In addition, the Museum undertakes fieldwork at the large town of Kawa (under the auspices of the Sudan Archaeological Research Society).