a detailed look at a
newly excavated house
in Egyptian Kush
Mat Dalton, University of Cambridge
- National Corporation for Antiquities
and Museums, Sudan
- University of Durham
- University of Manchester
- University of Aberystwyth
- Purdue University
Share this project
The original architectural layout of this house has a number of features in common with New Kingdom Egyptian houses more widely. The deposits, floors, finds and features excavated within these spaces have challenged some of the more architecturally-based assumptions we held about how different areas of this house were used by its inhabitants, and have also provided us with an interesting - if still not completely understood - story of modification and adaptation over time.
Starting from the front of the house, a large space (D12.7.6) was added outside the house’s original front door later in its history, extending the residents’ property far into the adjacent street D12.10. The room’s initial floor brick pavement was covered by a series of sandy potsherd-rich deposits much like those in D12.10; the space was almost certainly an unroofed courtyard and seems to have acted in part as a dump for household rubbish. The house’s new front entrance to the west of this courtyard was enclosed by a low horseshoe-shaped retaining wall that contained an exceptionally exciting find: the upended fragment of an inscribed sandstone door lintel.
Aerial view of house D12.7 during excavation
Sandstone door lintel
The find depicts a seated woman with a small monkey standing at the foot of her chair and is part of a larger scene, the other pieces of which are now either lost or remain unexcavated. Significantly, the woman’s name is inscribed above her, providing us with one of the very few examples of a named non-royal individual that have so far been found at the site. This recycling of inscribed stone architectural elements – in this case by being built into a wall serving the more prosaic function of keeping rising street deposits from entering the house – is a common feature of later phase buildings at Amara West.
If the issue of rising street levels was a problem after extension D12.7.6 was built, it was certainly already causing difficulties earlier in the house’s history, when a retaining wall and low staircase, continuously added to over time, lead down to the original front doorway of the house. This entrance would have originally been framed by sandstone doorjambs, which were both cut out after the abandonment of D12.7 and probably reused elsewhere. Happily, the doorway’s original stone threshold was still intact, and proved to be another recycled piece of an inscribed stone door lintel. This stone contained a small portion of a hieroglyphic offering formula, as well as the highly worn traces of a possible seated figure and chair in its centre.
Kitchen room with bread ovens
The house’s entrance room (D12.7.5) beyond this doorway would have originally been a particularly impressive space, with a brick paved floor and probably the only vaulted ceiling within the building. This room also contained an entrance into the houses kitchen - possibly a later addition to the house and blocked off in the final phases of occupation. The kitchen contained four bread ovens built over at least two construction phases. Next to this oven room was a small annexe created by a flimsily constructed wall, which contained the site’s first evidence of animal stabling, in the form of preserved sheep or goat dung pellets and a thick brown organic crust. Micromorphological investigation will allow us to confirm if these deposits are the result of animals living in the room, or perhaps relate instead to the storage of dung, which may have been burnt as a fuel. At any rate the possible presence of animals or animal waste next to a cooking area raises questions of how residents’ health may have been impacted upon. It is also interesting to consider that any animals kept in this room would have been lead into and out of the house’s only entrance – its formal stone front door – which was also used by the house’s residents and any visitors.
Space D12.7.4, with pit in foreground through room D12.7.9
This room lead into a long central space (D12.7.4), which was equipped with a single grain grinding emplacement and contained a thick sequence of sandy surfaces interleaved with numerous water-laid silt lenses. This type of surface, which formed over an original mud plaster floor, could be formed by the frequent splashing of water over time, in order to keep down dust and form a compact surface. The surface is suggestive of an outdoor space, implying that instead of being an indoor room, D12.7.4 may instead been an open or only partially roofed internal courtyard.
As well as leading into the rear suite of the house, one end of D12.7.4 contained a doorway leading into a room containing nothing except an enormously large hole! Similarly arranged houses at Amara would strongly suggest that this room (D12.7.9) originally contained a staircase, providing access to an upper story or roof. Mud bricks were frequently dug out of the site in later times to be used as fertiliser or building materials, and a dense brick staircase would certainly have been a tempting target to these people, who have thoroughly removed any trace of its existence!
An unusual feature of D12.7 is the way in which all internal doorways – the majority of which had outward facing ‘insets’ that may have originally accommodated stone doorjambs or even wooden doors – were at some point in the house’s history all modified by the construction of one or two small walls within these insets. Was this the result of changing architectural fashions, the desire to reuse architectural elements elsewhere, or perhaps the intentional narrowing of doors in an effort to restrict the amount of light or wind entering rooms?
Hole cut into door-passage, with ceramic jar buried inside
This is not the only enigmatic aspect of D12.7’s doorways. Three roughly arm-length holes were found cut into the bases of walls, either in or immediately next to these entrances (more may still remain to be discovered, hidden behind the doorway modification walls mentioned above). One of these holes contained a small intact jar, laid upon its side with its mouth facing outwards. The burial of infants or foetuses in pots is known from other New Kingdom sites, but this vessel was filled only with windblown sand; its original significance to those who placed it here remains mysterious.
Room D12.7.1, with mastaba-bench at the back.
One of the most intriguing results of the season’s excavations has come from the most ‘formal’ room of the house, D12.7.1, which is furnished with a long, low mastaba seating platform, hard mud plaster floor, central hearth and a dado of white wall plaster (an arrangement similar to rooms in house E13.7, for example). Towards the north of this room we found an enigmatic installation (12068) not yet attested at either Amara West (and I have yet to find parallels from other New Kingdom town siites), formed of a mud plastered lower basin connected by a small channel to an upper basin. This upper basin contains a distinctive torus or ‘donut’ shaped basket impression flanked by two ceramic pot stand impressions, all made when the mud floor these objects sat upon was wet.
Feature 12068 in room D12.7.1
The exact function of feature 12068 is unclear, but its use does seem to have involved water – probably stored in ceramic vessels sitting upon these pot stands and then perhaps directed into or over the basket before being drained into the installation’s lower basin. It is uncertain what substances, if any, might have been put inside this basket, but a clue is provided by the lenses of red pigment deposited in the lower basin and also splashed upon the floor and walls around the feature. It seems plausible then that 12068 functioned as a pigment processing and mixing installation, although it may also have served other purposes that are for now less clear to us.
Due to its height above the rest of the room’s floor, we first thought that 10268 must be a late addition to the room, perhaps built once the presumably more formal original functions of this room had ceased to be as important. However, a sondage through the floor of D12.7.1 has partially revealed an earlier basin (12164), sitting on the earliest exposed floor of this room and adjoined by another torus-shaped basket impression. The apparently long-term presence of these installations, which could be linked to household-based craft or decorative activities, challenges our existing understanding of these ‘formal’ rooms, implying that a more multifunctional use of space may have been the norm at Amara West – even in quite large houses such as D12.7. As always, this prompts the difficult but important question of what else might have gone on within house rooms that has not left such obvious and well preserved traces, a problem that I will continue to address over the course of my PhD research through the micromorphological and geochemical analysis of this and other houses’ floor deposits.
Space D12.7.1 was flanked by a pair of similarly sized long and narrow rooms, reminiscent of the official storage magazines found within the town walls at Amara West. The northernmost of this pair (D12.7.3) in particular contained many flat stone slabs upon the floor, which may have been used as termite-proof bases on which to sit perishable items or wooden objects. Most evocative of storage were the many clay seal impressions found embedded in the soft silty floor of the southernmost of these rooms (D12.7.2), suggesting that this household participated in the town’s wider elite or official storage and sealing practices. The house also yielded impressions of larger stamps, some with royal names upon them. Back in D12.7.2, we were also lucky enough to get a glimpse further back in time, with a set of garden plots unexpectedly appearing just beneath the floor of this room, pointing to an agricultural use of the land later built over by this house.
Some work still remains to be done in D12.7. It is particularly important for our understanding of the house’s means of production and self-sufficiency to know whether the cooking facilities found in D12.7.7 were an originally planned part of the house or not. We also need to know how long these ovens were used for before the room and its neighbour D12.7.8 were eventually sealed off for good. Future excavations outside the house should also help to reveal D12.7’s temporal relationship with its neighbour D12.6 and a series of other houses to the north, helping us to build up a better picture of urban development in this area of the town. In addition, the ceramic assemblage, artefacts and other samples will need to be analysed, to provide more insights into life in the ancient house, when it was created (we provisionally date it to the late 19th or early 20th dynasty, around 1170BC) and when it was finally abandoned.
While house D12.7 has not given up all of its secrets, the 2014 excavations here have provided a detailed insight into the history and use of a large house at Amara West, showing in particular how what may at first appear to be a relatively standard architectural configuration can be modified and adapted over time – or perhaps even from the outset – to suit the needs and lifeways of its inhabitants.