The archaeobotany of Amara West

Philippa Ryan and Caroline Cartwright

The excellent preservation of the town settlement, along with two cemeteries has allowed recovery of reliable archaeobotanical evidence that is being used to study plants used for food, fuel and craft activities.

A pilot study of the charred seeds and phytoliths was initially funded by the Leverhulme Trust as part of the ‘Health and diet in occupied Nubia through political and climate change’ (2011-2014) project. Further analyses of charred seeds and phytoliths are now being undertaken as part of the Arts and Humanities Research council funded ‘Subsistence and sustainability in a changing Sudan’ project.

The identification of wood and charcoal from the cemeteries and settlement is ongoing. Macrobotanical remains principally survive in the town site in charred form. There are examples of desiccated wood artefacts in post-New Kingdom graves, and it is possible that this preservation mirrors increased aridity during this timeframe.

Methodology and preservation

The oven room from villa E12.10

The oven room from villa E12.10

The initial pilot study of charred macroremains (seeds and fruits) and phytoliths has focused on plant remains from a villa located outside the west wall of the town (E12.10) and smaller houses within the north west of the town (E13.3-N and E13.3-S).

Analyses of macro- and micro-remains provide complementary information since they survive through different taphonomic processes and also afford a means of cross-checking results and trends. Seeds in the town survive principally through charring, most likely through their coming into contact with fire in ovens and hearths. Phytoliths are silt-sized opaline silica micro-fossils, formed when some plants deposit soluble silica (taken up in groundwater) within and in between certain plant cells. Charred seeds can enable identification of a wider range of plants than phytoliths, but phytoliths can be preserved in both charred and non-charred contexts (such as from floor areas and grinding emplacements). Phytoliths can also be preserved in plant parts that do not frequently survive charring, such as leaves and stems, and this is useful for investigating patterns of cereal-processing, fuel and some categories of basketry.

Charred macros are removed from sediments on site through a combination of dry-sieving and flotation, and are then exported to the British Museum for analysis. Sediment samples for phytoliths analysis are also exported, and phytoliths are extracted through a series of laboratory techniques to remove clays, carbonates and organics. Extracted phytoliths are mounted onto slides and analysed under the microscope in transmitted light at x400 magnification.

The variable pressure scanning electron microscope has been used to study modern and archaeological plant remains to determine identifying features that can be used for macrobotanical analysis and, at higher magnifications, to examine seed coat patterning and epidermal cell arrangements.


barley grain
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    A barley grain, (variable pressure scanning electron microscope). © Caroline Cartwright

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    Barley phytoliths (variable pressure scanning electron microscope). © Caroline Cartwright

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    Emmer wheat spikelet fork (variable pressure scanning electron microscope). © Caroline Cartwright

The most common botanical elements recovered in the charred record are cereal grains and crop processing by-products. In the initial study, the cereals present are emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) and six-row barley (Hordeum vulgare ssp. vulgare). Phytoliths from wheat and barley husks (the bracts surrounding the grain) are also routinely found. Although barley is often grown as an animal food crop today and in the past, it can also be an important food source for humans, as it tolerates higher salinity and drier conditions than wheat. The high proportions of barley may reflect multiple taphonomic pathways as well as aridity.

The presence and distribution of wheat de-husking suggests dehusking of the cereals occurred in a dedicated room in the villa, but in multipurpose spaces in the smaller houses. This suggests wheat was stored in spikelet form, yet to undergo a final processing stage prior to grinding and consumption. Differential access to cereals is suggested by the large storage bins in the villa, not found in smaller dwellings, which may have had grain provided in ear or spikelet form from centralised storage facilities. Large storage ‘magazines’ are present at Amara West; some were previously excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES).

Other plants

Reeds growing along the river bank
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    Reeds growing along the river bank

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    River bank vegetation near Amara West, including Tamarix.

The charred remains also include domesticated lentils (Lens culinaris) and flax (Linum usitatissimum). Several fruits have been identified, including sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus), doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica), white cross berry (Grewia tenax), Christ’s thorn (Ziziphus spina-christi), Cucumis sp. (a genus that includes melons) and colocynth (Citrulllus colocynthus). These fruits all have geographic distributions that include northern Sudan.

There are also various other types of wild seeds including sedges (Cyperaceae), which grow in wetter environments such as river banks, and wild grasses.

Further studies

New research aims to analyse a wider range of buildings to further refine our understanding of indigenous versus colonial foodways, as well as settlement phases to extend the spatial and temporal scope of the botanical data. Samples analysed have all been from the late New Kingdom occupation phases, at the onset of localised aridity – indicated from geomorphological data for the drying of a Nile channel to the north of the site.

This would have reduced the amount of suitable agricultural land. Analysing samples from earlier site phases has the potential to investigate how the increasing aridity impacted upon plant exploitation and agricultural practices. Samples are also being analysed from small non-urban nearby desert settlements, excavated during 2014, which date to earlier on in the New Kingdom occupation of the region.