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Becoming Human: Archaeological Perspectives on Humanity, University of Bradford, 22nd November 2014

11 Nov

The University of Bradford is holding a free archaeology open day on the 22nd of November 2014 from 10am to 3pm as a part of the UK nation wide Becoming Human festival.  The University of Bradford’s day long event will feature a myriad of archaeologically-themed interactive showcases.   This will include stalls focusing on broad topics such as human evolution, past and present attitudes towards death, the role and function of pottery in prehistoric societies, and will also include a look at the fascinating Digitised Diseases project which highlights the value of 3D printing and digital visualisation in archaeology, among many other topics.  The event is free to attend, family friendly and does not need to be booked in advance.

becoming human 2

Poster for the open day. Image credit: Bradford University.

But what is the Becoming Human festival about?

Boiled down to its basic parts the festival hopes to challenge and inspire members of the public to think about just what it means to be considered human and what that means for us as a species today, how we interact with each other and why we do the things that we do.  The festival is all about the public engagement on a national-wide scale of current research in humanities that is being conducted in the country.  Throughout November 2014 (15th to the 23rd) there will be more than 150 individual events at a range of geographic locations helping to promote the value and wealth of humanities topics.  Poets and writers such as Will Self and Simon Armitage will be taking part as will the comedian Al Murray, in an effort to engage both your intellect and your imagination.  The other aims of the festival are to foster knowledge that is vital and accessible for all (something we bloggers can fully agree with!), and to help us understand ourselves and recognize the challenges that we face today.

In partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy, the Becoming Human festival is led by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.  The aim of the 2014 festival is to gauge the appetite for an annual nation-wide festival celebrating the humanities subjects in all of their diversity.  As such archaeology will play a small but determined part within the 2014 festival, and the event at the University of Bradford highlights just why archaeology is so fundamentally important in understanding what it means to be human, both where have come from and understanding the implications for where we could be heading as a species.

I recently had the chance to visit the archaeology department at the University of Bradford to see my good friend Natalie Atkinson, a doctoral candidate who is focusing on quantifying use wear in lithic tool assemblages as a part of the Fragmented Heritage project.  As well as highlighting the great breadth and depth of ongoing research at the department she also informed me about Bradford’s participation in the nation wide Becoming Human humanities festival.  Natalie had this to say about the upcoming Bradford showcase:

“The interactive stalls will be headed by prominent researchers such as Professor Ian Armit and Dr. Lindsey Buster, showcasing their work on Scupltor’s Cave.  Also contributing is the Jisc supported project Digitised Diseases, led by Dr. Andrew Wilson; a digital database for the viewing of fragile human skeletal remains with diagnostic attributes.  Dr. Adrian Evans will be demonstrating the key technologies and ideas that make up the multi million pound Fragmented Heritage Project, along with Dr Randolph Donahue who will be showing off the evolutionary family tree and Dr. Karina Croucher, who will be discussing attitudes towards life and death.  PhD researchers Rebecca Nicholls, Mike Copper and Emily Fioccoprile have also kindly contributed activities based on their PhD projects”.

becoming human

The program for Becoming Human at the department of archaeological sciences, Bradford. Image credit: Bradford University.

So if you are around in Yorkshire or near Bradford on the 22nd of November pop over to the archaeology department and learn about the human past in a fun and interactive environment!

Further Information

  • Learn more about the enticing Becoming Human festival here and browse the events by date and geographic location here.
  • Learn more about the University of Bradford archaeology themed Becoming Human day here.  Visited the open day and keen to learn more about the department of archaeology at Bradford?  Visit here!
  • Keep up to date with the rich variety of archaeological projects at Bradford via Dr. Karina Croucher’s twitter feed or visit her awesome blog focusing on both gender & identity and death & dying in the past and present.
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Lost Kingdoms of Central America: Teotihuacan

8 Oct

The Mexica, otherwise known as the Aztecs (1), called the city Teotihuacán in their Nahautl language, roughly meaning the place where time began.  Nestled in the Valley of Mexico, the Pre-Colombian city of Teotihuacan is one of the archaeological jewels of Mexico, where the pyramids of the Moon and the Sun dominate the 4 km long Avenue of the Dead as the main centre of attention for modern viewers of the city.  Situated around this planned civic ceremonial complex were the residential barrios of the population, largely organised along ethnic lines, which consisted of open plazas surrounded by an inward looking residential compound (Goodman 1999).  The 16th century AD rulers of Tenochtitlan, the powerful city-state at the centre of the Aztec Empire now located under modern-day Mexico City, regarded Teotihuacan as the foundation of Central American civilization  (Evans 2008), although note that Mexico is considered to be a part of North America along with the United States of America and Canada.  As Dr Jago Cooper of the British Museum recounts in the new BBC series Lost Kingdoms of Central America, the city of London itself would not pass the total population of Teotihuacan at its peak (around 100,000 people) until at least the 16th century AD.

temple of the sun

The Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan, dominating the Avenue of the Dead. To the sides of the avenue the smaller ceremonial structures can be seen. Image credit: BBC.

The City and Her People

As grand as the remains of the city of Teotihuacan (100 BC to AD 650) are, it is the site itself that has withstood test of time, allowing archaeologists and researchers to excavate, plan and map one of the largest cities that the 1st millennium AD world had ever seen.  Today Teotihuacan is a UNESCO world heritage site, chosen for its unique history, sheer magnificence and the incredible physical survival of planned city with a multi-ethnic population.  During the city’s history there were around 2300 stone built apartment compounds that could house up to hundred to the dozens of people, although there have been suggestions that were ‘invisible houses’ constructed on the outskirts of the urban planned city consisting of un-walled house dwellings (Evans & Webster 2005: 615).  There has been some suggestions that a portion of the early population came from the nearby basin city of Cuicuilco, which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption (Xitle) in the 1st century AD (Evans 2008).

The monumental civic architecture is heavily associated with the religious rulers of the city, although no formal burial location of such a leader has been excavated or documented.  The pyramids of the Moon (2nd largest, constructed around 200-450 AD) and the Sun  (largest, constructed around 100 AD) are the largest buildings found at the city, and would have originally had constructed temples on their summits.  The remains of adults and non-adults have been found around the perimeters and base corners of the pyramids, suggesting sacrifices (Evans 2008).

 Tantalizingly the documentary highlighted the ongoing archaeological excavation of a man-made cave under the 3rd century AD Feathered Serpent Temple building, as Dr Cooper interviewed the archaeologist Sergio Gomez on what could possibly contain the remains of one of Teotihuacan’s leaders.  Excavations at the temple have also uncovered the remains of 260 individuals who had likely been sacrificed around 300 AD.  Sugiyama (2005) suggests that the remains of individuals found at the temple probably highlights individuals who were taken from conquests outside of the city or represent individuals chosen from certain areas, the archaeological evidence shows that the individuals likely had bound hands and were carefully positioned into place and decorated heavily with artefacts of value.

teotihuacan

The beautiful mural art of the Great Mother Goddess of Teotihuacan, found at the Tepantitla complex and currently residing in the Anthropology museum in Mexico City. Image credit: Thomas Aleto via Flickr.

Although home to numerous gods as was typical for the Pre-Colombian cultures in the Valley of Mexico, the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan is a god unique to the Teotihuacan population, appearing only where they have settled and appearing little after the downfall of the city around the 6th century AD.  Surviving murals in the city suggest that the individual was valued only as a part of the population, and that the gods were venerated above this.  As Evans (2008) discusses it was a rich theme in Pre-Colombian cultures that geography played an important part in understanding the cosmology and origin of the human population.  Evidence of this has already been highlighted above with reference to man-made caves, but even the monumental architecture echoed the surrounding topography as evidenced by the outline of the pyramid of the Moon (Goodman 1999).

As Dr Jago Cooper highlights in the program the belief system of binding people together through religion is not just found in the monumental architecture, but also through the mural artwork and the social roles of groups (not individuals) within Teotihuacan society.  Sugiyama (2004: 99) remarks that the influence of Teotihuacan around the Basin of Mexico was notable with extensive trade links (obsidian, ceramics, foodstuffs, cotton, etc.), and it has been proposed that at least some of the leaders of the Maya city states in the Yucatan region in the Atlantic bay of Mexico may have originated from Teotihuacan (Webster & Evans 2005).

Brief Thoughts

I was first introduced to Central American and Mexican archaeology during an undergraduate module focusing specifically on Pre-Colombian Archaeology, and it is always a subject that has remained vital to my understanding of archaeology as a dynamic subject.  The civilizations of Central America remind me that although archaeological sites today appear dull and dirty (think of the marble and building work of the remains of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome), more often than not they were once coloured and painted, that they were (arguably still are) integral as to how a population (or society) referred to both itself and as to how it wanted others to see it.  The ceremonial stonework around the Feathered Serpent Temple at Teotihuacan seems that bit more visceral to me than the often firm and stately sculpture of Ancient Egypt, or say the perfect bronzed anatomy of the finely wrought representations of human flesh prevalent throughout the city states of Ancient Greece.

Of course, one of my main interests is in prehistoric archaeology (alongside osteology), but that doesn’t mean that influence cannot be drawn from around the world and from different time periods.  This is just a very short introduction to the city-state of Teotihuacan, but there are some further resources to have a look at below.  I highly recommend watching the Lost Kingdoms of Central America series as the episodes are informative, interesting and present up-to-date research on the sites that the series focuses on, particularly the ongoing archaeological excavations at Teotihuacan.  Archaeologists and anthropologists have uncovered and discovered a lot of information on the society, architecture, economy and religion of the Teotihuacan city-state that came to dominate the Basin of Mexico, yet there are many unanswered questions remaining, perhaps prominent of which are the identities of the rulers of the city themselves.

Note

(1).  The Aztec term, in this sense, relates to the rise of the Aztec Empire during the Mexica Triple Alliance (Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān) of the city states of Tenochtitlan (Mexica), Texcoco (Tepanec) and Tlacopan (Acolhua), who together ruled the valley of Mexico from 1428 until the Spanish Conquest of 1521.  Of these three city states it was Tenochtitlan, with a population of over 200,000, which gained dominance as the capital of the Aztec Empire.

Further Information

  • The 4 episodes of the Lost Kingdoms of Central America series can currently be found on the BBC Iplayer site (UK only, although I’m sure they can be somehow viewed outside of the UK).
  • The program is running in conjunction with the British Museum.  On their website you can find out more information on the four cultures explored, including information on the Olmec, Chiriquí, Teotihuacan and the Taíno cultures of Central America.
  • For any student studying for a degree or module in, or interested person intrigued by, the archaeology of Central America, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Susan Toby Evans‘s 2008 publication Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History (third edition out in 2013).  It is an in-depth and detailed book that highlights through clear text, diagrams and photographs the great wealth of the physical remains and cultural history of this part of the Americas.
  • I’ve blogged previously about some of the cultural destruction at Teotihuacan here.

Bibliography

Evans, S.T. 2008. Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. London: Thames and Hudson.

Goodman, D. 1999. Cities of the New World. In: Chant, C. & Goodman, D. (eds.). Pre-industrial Cities & Technology. London: Routledge. pp.242-262.

Sugiyama, S. 2004. Governance and polity at Classic Teotihuacan. In: Hendon, J. A. & Joyce, R. A. (eds.) Mesoamerican Archaeology: Theory and Practice. London: Blackwell Publishing. pp.97-123.

Sugiyama, S. 2005. Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Webster, D & Evans, T. 2005. Mesoamerican Civilisation. In: Scarre, C. (ed.) The Human Past. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. pp.594-639.

Book Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.

22 Jul

The British Museum in London is currently playing host to the Ancient Lives, New Discoveries exhibition, from the 22nd of May to the 30th of November 2014, which focuses on the innovative use of non-destructive CT scanning to digitally unwrap and investigate eight individual mummies who spread the span of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese history.  It is a unique opportunity to explore the individual bodies and mummy styles, from a naturally preserved desiccated corpse from 3500 BC, right up to the late richly decorated and individualised Roman period mummies of the 1st to 3rd centuries AD and the early Christian burials of Sudan from the 7th century AD.  Taylor & Antoine (2014) have produced a publication (priced at £19.99) in conjunction with the current British Museum exhibition and it is this that shall be reviewed here, rather than the exhibition itself.

But first we are going to quickly delve in the tantalising world of the mummy in archaeology.

britmus

The reader friendly yet relatively in-depth 192 page publication by Taylor and Antonio (2014) whets the appetite to learn more about Egyptian and Nile cultures. The front cover displays the painted case of  Tamut and the CT of her body, Tamut was a priestess from Thebes circa 900 BC.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Thinking About Mummies

The mummified remains of humans retain a unique position in the popular perception of past civilizations, offering as they do a face to face fleshed representation of the human past.   In the fleshed state the historic or prehistoric mummified individual helps to represent this version of the human past in an immediate biological projection, rather than through a secondary non-biological artefact, i.e. the individual is present.  This representation however works in a variety of ways.  The mummified person is, of course, the physical remains of an individual who had once lived, yet they also often actively represent the values of the culture that they came from (through the interpretation of the mortuary and funerary evidence and deposition contexts on a part of the archaeologist).  The modern person who views or interacts with the mummy also projects their own views and feelings onto the mummified person by, for instance, their thoughts of displaying the dead (Alberti et al. 2009).  Added to this is the fact that mummies are often seen as mysterious and filled with a silent potent dread, forever linked in the popular cultural mind with the supernatural wolf man or vampires of the Hammer horror films for instance, or remain linked with the so-called mythical curse of Tutankhamen.

In short, the mummified remains of human beings are often emotive physical remains.  Yet they remain popular with both members of the public in museums and with archaeologists and physical anthropologists in studying the remains of past individuals and populations.  The preservation of soft tissues (including skin) can often highlight cultural practices or pathological evidence that do not survive in the skeletal record or remain undocumented in the written record (Panzer et al. 2014, Taylor & Antoine 2014).

Mummification Briefly

It also must be noted here that there are generally two processes of mummification that take place with human remains which are (a) active mummification of remains as practiced by humans, where the body of the deceased is prepared and preserved before final funerary deposition, and (b) accidental mummification, when the body is preserved through the luck of the burial environment.  Examples of natural preservation include the fascinating Pazyryk kurgan burials in the Altai, who have some of the earliest physical evidence of tattoos, and the western European bog bodies of the Iron Age, whose soft tissues are preserved in acidic bog and marsh environments.

The word mummy is itself a broad term, encompassing not just the classically bandaged Egyptian mummies but also the high altitude mummy bundles of the Inca, the Altai burials, and Tarim mummies of China, amongst many other known examples across the world.  We think of these exotic locations when we think of mummies, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the mummification of composite bodies (elements of individuals pieced together to form one and left above ground) took place during the British Bronze Age at a variety of locations (Parker-Pearson et al. 2005), and it may possibly have been a widespread mortuary phenomenon.  The work by Parker-Pearson and others (2005) is throwing light onto a practice that has, so far, been relatively invisible in places that do not have a favorable climate or burial conditions to preserve mummified individuals intact.  The purposeful mummification of the body then was a widely practiced process in both prehistoric and prehistoric contexts, practiced for a variety of reasons but it is often linked with the values held of an afterlife, of keeping the body as whole, lifelike and as safe as possible from decomposition (Alberti et al. 2009).

Many mummies from ancient (and not so ancient) Egyptian contexts were often used in corpse medicine (and as paint) in the late European medieval period and many more were excavated, transported and unwrapped in the 17th and 18th centuries during the gradual development of scientific inquiry.  It was in the 19th century that, in Europe, the unwrappings of mummies in both public and private contexts took off, as archaeological expeditions uncovered further named individuals at various sites and recordings were made of the anatomical aspects of the individuals that were unwrapped and dissected (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 17).  It should be noted however that many surviving mummies in collections from this period often have little to no documented provenance or contextual information regarding their find location and often placed in sarcophagi that are not from the same period (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 155).

Two important milestones in Egyptology stand out from this period.  The first was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which allowed the decipherment of the hieroglyphic text and thus the history of Egypt, which sent the European public into a tailspin of ancient Egyptian frenzy allowing many museums to build up substantial collections which were not always legally acquired.  The second was the advancement of medical science and the discovery and invention of the X-ray in 1890.  Mummy unwrappings continued but have become rare in recent decades, carried out only when there is a real need to and often only by a multidisciplinary team.  It is the use of X-rays and the development of CT scanning in the 1970’s (or CAT scan, computerized axial tomography) that has allowed non-invasive exploration of fragile mummies to produce 3D models that has really taken off, alongside the development of non-invasive biogeochemical sampling of mummy wrapping materials and mortuary substances (Panzer et al. 2014, Parker-Pearson et al. 2005).

Regardless of this wealth of knowledge and investigation, the ancient Egyptians themselves never fully documented the process of mummification in any records that have survived.  New techniques and on-going investigations are pushing back the boundary in understanding the origin and context of mummification however, as Jones et al. (2014) highlight in recent research in which the advent of purposeful Egyptian period mummification has been pushed back to over a thousands years before previously thought through study of the linen wrappings and resins used during the preservation process.  As Fletcher & Buckley (in Vogels 2013) highlight the fact that mummies are often still misunderstood and little studied in the archaeological record and it is, they state, very possible that mummies thought to be naturally preserved may well have been embalmed or treated on purpose for the preservation of the body, particularly in South American contexts.

Ancient Lives

The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries publication aims to highlight just what can be found using the latest in digital imaging technology on a selection of 8 human mummies from along the River Nile area.  The British Museum archive holds a total of 120 mummified individuals altogether, collected stage by stage since the museums foundation in the 1750’s, whilst the majority of the mummies highlighted in this publication were collected in the 19th century (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 13).  The period of intentional mummification by the Ancient Egyptians probably took place around the 2nd to 4th dynasties (3000 BC) right up until the Roman period of the fourth century AD.  The individuals under consideration span the Predynastic period (5500-3100 BC) right up until the Medieval period of the 7th century AD, a clever chronological approach in understanding the longitudinal aspects of mummification in ancient Egypt and northern Sudan.  The publication mixes the naturally mummified and the purposefully mummified, with the naturally preserved bodies of Gebelein Man B (3500 BC) from the Predynastic period and the anonymous 7th century AD tattooed medieval christian woman from Sudan both book-ending the publication.

If you picture mummies you see Tutankhamen, his ornate golden mask adorning his young body.  It may be a tired paradigm of Egyptian archaeology but this publication makes it clear that there was much more going on with regards to mortuary behaviour and funerary styles than is normally appreciated along the banks of the River Nile (Meyers 2014).  Thus the cross-section of individuals studied here spans not just a wide chronological time but also includes male and female adults and juveniles of different ages.  Alongside this the individual all come from different social groups and communities from villages, great temples and cities along the spread of the River Nile.  What this publication highlights then is the both the great variety in mortuary behaviour within the practice of mummification, but also the individual stories of the persons under study (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 2).

The 8 individuals under study, in publication order, are:

1. Gebelein Man B (Male, adult, Gebelein, c.3500 BC).

2. Unknown Man from Thebes (Male, middle/older adult 35 years and above, Thebes, c.600 BC).

3. Tamut (Female, adult, Thebes, c.900 BC).

4. Padiamenet (Male, middle adult 35-50 years, Thebes, c.700 BC).

5. Tjayasetimu (Female, juvenile 7 ± 3 years, Thebes or Fayum area, c.800 BC).

6. Roman Period Male (Male, adult, Thebes, 1st to 3rd century AD).

7. Roman Period Juvenile (Male, 2 years ± 9 months, location unknown, c. AD 40-60).

8. Christian Woman from Sudan (Female, young adult 20-35, Fourth Cataract Sudan, c. AD 655-775).

Although I will not discuss each and every individual above as it really is worth reading the book or visiting the exhibition if you can, I will highlight the Roman Period Male and Gebelein Man B as these are two mummies that really caught my attention.  They also represent two different approaches in the mortuary and funerary treatment of the individual and the society that they came from.  The Roman period male, below, is a particularly unique individual, stylized heavily to capture what the person looked like during his lifetime.

roman

The painted face of an unusual Roman period mummy dating from the c.1st to 3rd century AD. The adult male individual has several interesting features such as individually wrapped toes and fingers, padded thighs and breast area. It is likely that this is to represent the man as he was during life, possibly obese. The black bands on his cheek are a standard stylistic representation of a beard. Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Before the mummy had been CT scanned it was assumed for many years that the individual was a female due to the nature of the packing of the thighs and breast area.  Analysis of the skeleton highlighted that he was in fact an adult male, who had a lot of unusual dental wear by the time he died.  His incisors, canines and premolars showed heavy wear yet the molars have hardly any, although many of his molars had been lost ante-mortem.  This is suggestive of a change in the way this individual ate, using his front teeth as molars to crush and grind his food (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 144).  The way that this individual has been represented as a living individual on the front of his wrappings is a standard of the Roman period mummification, although many mummies also have encaustic life-like portraits painted on wood, often incorporated onto the bandages and packing of the mummy (the examples such as the Fayum portraits are well-known).

New Discoveries

It becomes evident quite quickly when reading the publication just how important the use of non-invasive scanning and imaging techniques are in the study of mummified individuals.  Not only are the bodies themselves not disturbed but they can be digitally stripped back layer by layer, from the bandages to the bone to unveil the person underneath as last seen by the embalmers and mortuary workers who prepared the body and decorated it.  As such the method highlights not just the soft tissue and skeletal anatomy but also the fabrics, packing and artefacts used and located on and within the mummy.

It can also highlight ante-mortem and post-mortem damage to the mummified remains, as well as the mistakes of the embalmer.  Padiamenet’s body, an adult male temple door-keeper from the 25th dynasty (c.700 BC), displays evidence that his head had become detached from his body during mummification.  The scanning of his body highlighted two poles inserted into the chest are used to support the head, with evidence of the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae remaining slightly misaligned (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 105).  Alongside this his coffin had to be extended, with linen wrap covering his protruding feet.  Cartonnage cases and coffins were often mass manufactured, only personalised as and when the individual died.

One of my personal favourites of the mummies investigated here is the naturally mummified body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male who died around 3500 BC in the Predynastic period.  One of 6 natural mummies in the British Museum collection, Gebelein Man B  was buried in a cemetery in Upper Egypt dating to the middle Predynastic period and lived in an era before Egyptian unification when chiefdom’s ruled the area.  The area in which he was buried suggests that Gebelein was a relatively important local settlement who practiced mixed subsistence of agriculture (cattle, sheep, and goats) with the fishing, fowling and collecting of wild fruits and berries (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 36).  The burial site of Gebelein Man B have provided the only evidence, or expression, for religious belief as the body was placed in a formal grave, with evidence for the crouched body having been placed between mats and probable deposited with offerings which have subsequently been removed by grave robbers (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 38).

gebelein man b skelly

The skeleton and body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male and a natural mummification from c.3500 BC.  Notice the semi-circular unknown artefact towards the bottom of his torso and the fracture of the right femur and ribs, likely due to post-mortem movement or excavation.  Fractures tend to break in a characteristic way when the person is alive (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 31).  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Gebelein Man B lived during a period of change in which the introduction of writing was eventually introduced, but no name was recorded for any resident of Gebelein, thus this individual, unlike many in the book, remains nameless.  His body is remarkably preserved for a body that has survived for over 5500 years, with his beard, nails and hair still in evidence.  The teeth are lightly worn, the presence of fusion lines in the long bones and the pelvis (pubic symphysis) all highlight that he was in his early twenties when he died (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 33).

Although the majority of the soft tissues have been preserved, the major organs have shrunk due to the desiccation process which must have been rapid to allow for such extensive preserve ration of his body.  When mummification became intensely practiced in the Dynastic period of Egyptian and northern Sudanese history the organs were often removed, preserved and kept in canopic jars separate to the body, so the preservation in-situ of Gebelein Man B’s viscera may offer a rare chance to sample human health during this period.  Perhaps most  interestingly is the preservation of foodstuffs in both the stomach and the colon, which could allow analysis of the foods consumed during Gebelein Man B’s lifetime.

gebelein man b skelly belly

Gebelein Man B (c.3500 BC) stripped back from the above image to reveal the soft tissues (in blue) still present in his cranium and torso.  The tissue highlighted in his pelvis is likely to be remains of his last meal.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Importantly Taylor & Antoine (2014: 39) highlight that whilst Gebelein Man B was a natural mummification, it should not be noted as a precursor to the artificial mummification that was practiced later.  Although re-cutting into a graveyard and noticing the preserved burials may have influenced generations of the population, at all times during the prehistory and historical span of this book people of lower status were buried in simple pits.  The long mortuary and  funerary rites involved in depositing the dead alongside deeper graves to protect bodies from grave robbing may have been two processes that influence the uptake in artificial mummification of individuals from around 3000 BC onwards.

The book does a fantastic job at introducing the importance of mummification to the ancient Egyptian and north Sudan cultures.  Today it may seem unusual, and at odds with the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage of depositing a body in the ground as soon as possible mentality, that this was a period of time where it was important that the body was prepared properly, over long periods of time, to maintain the individual identity of the deceased (Vogels 2013: 11). Yet it is an endlessly fascinating period of time that has captured the heart of many archaeologists, Egyptologists, and the general public.  Ancient Lives, new Discoveries will, no doubt, do the same.

Conclusion

As I read the book, I could not help but wonder if there was some variation within the same period for at least some of these individuals highlighted here.  It was a question that went unanswered in this publication, but I did feel that the book highlighted that the archaeology of mummification had much more to offer, especially in the realm of non-invasive imaging.  As such the publication is an invigorating read, wrote in a straightforward and easy to read manner that doesn’t skip on explaining the techniques used in the approach to understand the individual mummies skeletal biology, artefacts found with the bodies, and burial or deposition context of the individual.

This contextualisation of the individual is a smart approach in being able to engage an audience to understand that these mummies are individuals with their own life history.  I did feel that perhaps a larger contextual approach on funerary and burials rites could perhaps elucidate further information on a general population scale, however this was a minor niggle.  I was impressed at the use of the clear and precise terminology and the overall style of the publication.  The images in particular are clearly and precisely presented, and it is a joy to study the cross sections throughout the book, offering as they do, an unparalleled view of the ancient mummies.

It is wrong, though, to think that the mummification of human remains is something that was done purely in the past.  Recent research led, in part, by Buckley & Fletcher (2013: 12) has led to the actual mummification of a recently deceased person to explore the actual embalming chemicals and methodology used by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the body.  Alan, who donated his body to archaeological science, has already provided a wealth of knowledge on the actual mortuary process of embalming a human body the ancient Egyptian way by highlighting that a natron salt bath was the most effective way to preserve a body during the act of mummification (Marchant 2011).  Yet there are still many mysteries sounding the actual step by step method and role of mummification in the cultures of ancient Egypt and northern Sudan but this publication, and the exhibition at the British Museum, go some way to (digitally) unwrap the secrets that they hold.

Acknowledgements

I thank Hattie Clarke of the British Museum Press for providing the images for this post and for quickly answering  any questions that I had.  I also thank Loretta Kilroe for providing helpful comments on the archaeology of Egypt and Sudan.

Disclaimer

A copy of the British Museum publication Ancient Lives, New Discoveries was provided for the author to review.  No monetary transaction took place.

Further Information

  • The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries British Museum exhibition in London, England, is now open to the public until the 30th November 2014 with ticket prices at £10.00 for adults, £8.00 for students and children going free (other discounts are available).  Learn more about the 8 individual mummies at the British Museum website here.
  • An enlightening interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen Buckley, who are both a part of the York Mummy Group, on mummification and the Mummifying Alan project can be found here at The Post Hole journal.
  • The journal Papers in Anthropology, issued under the European Anthropological Association, have a new open access special edition out (Vol. 23 (1) 2014) which focuses exclusively on mummy studies and mummification.  Click the title above to learn more.
  • Head over to Loretta Kilroe’s blog, Cake and Ceramics, here to learn more about the daily life of an Egyptologist and to learn about her other projects on the go.

Bibliography

Alberti, S. J. M.M., Bienkowski, P., Chapman, M. J. & Drew, R. 2009. Should We Display the Dead? Museum and Society. 7 (3): 133-149. (Open Access).

Jones, J., Higham, T. F. G., Oldfield, R., O’Connor, T. P. & Buckley, S.A. 2014. Evidence for Prehistoric Origins of Egyptian Mummification in Late Neolithic Burials. PLoS ONE(8): e103608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103608. (Open Access).

Marchant, J. 2011. Egyptian Mummification Method Resurrected in the UK. New Scientist. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Meyers, K. 2014. Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Fascinating Look Into the Life and Death of Eight Ancient Egyptians.  Bones Don’t lie. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Panzer,  S., Peschel, O., Haas-Gebhard, B., Bachmeier, B. E., Pusch, C. M. & Nerlich, A. G. 2014. Reconstructing the Life of an Unknown (ca. 500 Years-Old South American Inca) Mummy – Multidisciplinary Study of  a Peruvian Inca Mummy Suggests Severe Chagas Diseas and Ritual Homicide. PLoS One. (2): e89528. (Open Access).

Parker-Pearson, M., Chamberlain, A., Craig, O., Marshall, P., Mulville, J., Smith, H., Henery, C., Collins, M., Cook, G., Craig, G., Evans, J., Hiller, J., Montgomery, J., Schwenninger, J-L., Taylor, G. & Wess, T. 2005. Evidence for Mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity. 79 (305): 529-546.

Taylor, J. H. & Antoine, D. 2014. Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.  London: The British Museum Press.

Vogels, R. 2013. Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings – An Interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen BuckleyThe Post Hole. Special Edition. 1-16. (Open Access).

The Wonders of Easter Island: A BBC Documentary

2 Feb

I have been pleasantly surprised by the great many documentaries aired on the BBC Four channel that focus on archaeology, perhaps none more so than a recent series entitled Lost Kingdoms of South America.  Presented by the knowledgeable and engaging Dr Jago Cooper, the series explored various (and to me some unknown) cultures in the pre-Colombian continent.  I admit to having a great interest in Mesoamerican and South American archaeology, as such it was a delight to watch these detailed documentaries.

Therefore I was quite happy to come across another BBC 4 feature the other day, this time with a focus on Easter Island (here-after Rapa Nui), a tiny Pacific volcanic island well-known for the megalithic human moai statues that dominate the landscape and the birdman cult that super-ceded the creation of the statues (Lipo et al 2013).  For a previous undergraduate essay I had researched the island’s history so I was familiar with the ecocide theory, the tale of the island’s supposed descent into war/ruin after using up the majority of the island’s natural resources.  However this documentary discovered a far more nuanced tale to tell.

easterislandmap

Geographic location of Easter Island, one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. Annexed by Chile in 1888, the island remains a special territory of the country. The aboriginal habitation of the island from Polynesian populations is hypothesized to have been in the mid 1st millennium AD (700-1100), although dates vary widely (Chapman 1997). The pre-European contact population maximum is thought to have been around 14,000 individuals, although post 1722 (the year Roggeveen landed) the aboriginal population greatly diminished and fluctuated due, in part, to slavery exploitation, the introduction of new diseases and repeated famines. The modern population currently stands at around 5800. (Image credit: Eric Gaba 2008).

Once again presented by Dr Jago Cooper, an archaeologist and curator at the British Museum, the 90 minute documentary was an interesting and informative show.  It was a pretty comprehensive overview of the history of the people of Rapa Nui, discussing their somewhat still mysterious origins (Chapman 1997) right through to the issues that dominate the island to this day.  It was also a show that actively engaged with a wide range of current specialists on the history and archaeology of the island.  It detailed not just the controversial theories of the island’s ecological diversity decline, but also the range and depth of archaeological research conducted on an island that has captivated and captured the hearts of many.

I am not going to review the whole program here but I do want to highlight a few parts where, for me, the program really came alive with the great value that archaeology has to offer.

Ecology and Landscape at Rapa Nui

The ecology and landscape environment of Rapa Nui have undergone extensive changes throughout the human habitation of the island, perhaps none more so than in the last 400 years.  Visitors to the island today will note the largely steppe like appearance of the landscape – the only trees still standing can largely be found around the main settlement of Hanga Roa in the south-west of the island.  The island was previously heavily forested with trees, shrubs and ferns.  The main predominate tree of the forested island was the now extinct palm tree Paschalococos disperta (Rapa Nui palm), which disappeared from the environmental record around 1650.  It is important to note that while there are various extinction events of various flora and fauna (land-birds such as herons and parrots) throughout the island’s natural history, there seems to be a fairly major change in landscape and ecology in the middle of  the 2nd millennium AD (Chapman 1997).

Although there are many theories on the collapse of the ecology of the island (from over-population, the various causes of intense deforestation and the impact of invasive species) it is likely thought that a combination of these and other factors were involved.  It is not my intent here to discuss this but to highlight the implications of this in the archaeological record.

The loss of the forests that covered Rapa Nui has led to some serious consequences in the landscapes ability to hold minerals and water in the soil.  The Roggeveen expedition of 1722, at least a century after the extinction of the main palm trees, stated that Rapa Nui was exceptionally fertile in its soil quality, that the population successfully cultivated sweet potatoes, bananas and sugar cane.  Further expeditions in the 18th century repeated claims of fairly well fed individuals.  This is interesting as we have archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence of a decrease in the ecological flora typically ascribed to a sub-tropical Polynesian environment.

The program shed light on this topic in a few surprising ways.  Firstly there are numerous caverns throughout Rapa Nui, some of which have carved artwork and glyphs attributed to different tribal groups.  Some, however, were clearly used as agricultural areas to help grow banana crops and sweet potatoes.  Further to this there was also evidence of lithic mulch across the island, that at least some of the forest chopped down was to make way for agricultural plots of land.  This, for me, was a new term I had not come across before.  It is the laying stones (of varying sizes, but in this case just under football size) across the landscape in small plots of lithic mulch gardens or in larger areas to encourage more nutrients into the soils and stabilize the landscape.

easterisnaldrocks

Dr Jago Cooper, some rocks and a horse.  The process of using lithic-mulch to help grow food produce has been used in countries throughout the world, and it is a distinct process though one that can be overlooked. (Image credit: BBC).

This encourages the retention of minerals and water in the soil below encouraging plant growth and helps to increase  the crop biomass and overall yields.  The stones also help to decrease/stop the rate of soil erosion from wind or water run off and shadow the soils from direct sunlight whilst also producing an environment which encourages other vegetation to grow (Lightfoot & Eddy 1994: 425).  Lithic mulch gardens have been noted at a variety of archaeological sites across the world that occur in predominately dry environments (Anasazi and Hohokam sites in Arizona, Negev in Israel, Maori in New Zealand etc) (Lightfoot & Eddy 1994: 426).

Inevitably the ecology and landscape has changed due to the actions of the human populations, both from those that are aboriginal and those that visited the island post-European contact.  Perhaps most damaging to the island soil ecology was the widespread grazing of over 70,000 sheep in the early 20th century, helping to destabilize the soils which has led to intense soil and field erosion ever since.

 The Moai and the Ahu Platforms

The moai are the quite wonderful sculpted megalithic stone statues, made mostly of volcanic tuff, that dominate the island.  They are largely found on either ahu platforms in groups or dotted around inland individually (termed road statues).  They are largely quarried from the main site of Rano Raraku on the foothills of the Terevaka volcano, the highest point on the island.  Around 887 statues have been documented and recorded so far, with almost 50% of them still located in and around Rano Raraku in a variety of completed states (Lipo et al 2013).  The statues were created over a 500-600 year period in the early part of the 2nd millennium AD, although exact dates are not known.

The smoothed statues are known for their overly large heads and minimal stylistic appearance that are carved in flat planes.  With an average height of 4 meters and width of 1.6 meters, the statues weigh in at 12 tonnes on average, although there are exceptions and some are often rather larger and heavier.  Some statues also have pukao, either hats or hairstyles, that adorn the top of the statue heads, which can weigh many tons themselves.  Although nearly every statue recorded is in a standing pose there is one statue that shows a kneeling position, Tukuturi at Rano Raraku, that also has a beard – a highly unusual feature of the statues and reminiscent of other Polynesian societies.  It is thought that this individual was carved late in the statue phase.          

easterislandahu

The Rapa Nui moai, with one of the individuals ‘wearing’ a pukao. Note the ahu stone platform on which the statues are standing on, and the fairly desolate landscape behind the statues. There is evidence to believe that the statues, or at least some of them, had been painted over in a variety of colours with coral and stone insets for eyes.  During the Birdman cult era glyphs were also added to some of the statues (Image credit: BBC).

A number of the statues are found on the ahu fitted stone ceremonial platforms that can be found around the whole perimeter of the island.  Nearly every ahu platform faces inland – there is only one documented case where the statues face out towards the sea.  It is thought that the statues represent the chiefs of ancestors of the aboriginal population, with the individuals facing inland towards their respective tribal land (Lipo et al 2013).  Researchers have also noted the boundary motifs of tribes on some moai throughout the Rapa Nui island, suggesting that fairly individual identities existed (Chapman 1997), regardless of their ancestral origin (Stefan 1999).  The ahu platforms consist of carefully fitted stone sections with distinct stone wings to the side of the platform and stone fields out to the front of the platform.

The documentary highlighted the fact that it is likely a variety of methods were used to transport the statues to their respective sites. There was a pretty impressive part where it was highlighted that the statues could walk to site:

easterislandwalking

Noted in the oral tradition of the native Rapa Nui population, the walking of the statues to their site could have been possible as Lipo et al. (2013) demonstrated with their smaller size replica statue in some rather interesting experimental archaeology. Wooden rollers and other methods of transportation have also been discussed. (Image credit: BBC).

Lipo et al. (2013) have stated that wear marks on the torso and heads of the statues indicate that great pressures were hinged at these areas suggesting that the size, shape and centre of gravity of the statues all point towards a rocking motion to gather the momentum to walk the statues.

After the initial contact with European sailors following Roggeveen’s landing in 1722 (in which the moai were still standing) it was reported that the toppling of the statues had commenced, with almost no statues standing on the ahu platforms by 1868.  It has been postulated by some researchers and historians (Lipo et al. 2013) that the statues were thrown down with force by rival tribal bands, but others have pointed out that at least some of the statues were carefully placed face down.  What is known is that some of the ahu platforms where the statues are face-down also function as ossuaries or burial complexes.  Today a total of 50 moai have been placed back in the standing position, whilst a few have been shipped to institutions are the world (Lipo et al. 2013).

For further information on the Moai I’d recommend checking out an ongoing project entitled Easter Island Statue Project, co-directed by Jo Anne Van Tilburg and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, whose homepage can be found here.  A detailed map of the moai on the ahu platforms on the island can be found here.

Human Osteology and Population Origin

I think it is pertinent to touch on here a few of the (few) human osteology studies that have been carried out on aboriginal skeletal material of the Rapa Nui.  It has long been argued by some early archaeologist, such as Thor Heyerdahl, that Rapi Nui and other Polynesian islands were settled by Native Americans.  Although some archaeologists concede that contact between Native Americans and Polynesians was feasible (Chapman 1997: 161), the majority of the osteological and genetic tests carried out on human skeletal material indicates a Polynesian origin for the aboriginal inhabitants of Rapa Nui (Chapman 1997, Chapman & Gill 1998, Stefan 1999).

Chapman & Gill (1998: 189) measured the stature of 92 individuals from the Rapa Nui aboriginal population (54 males and 38 females from prehistoric (A.D. 1680-1722) and protohistoric (A.D. 1722-1868) populations.  The individuals were taken from the various tribal populations on the island and the bones (in ranked order: femur, tibia, fibula, humerus, radius or ulna) were measured and analysed using a regression formula devised for New Zealand Maori populations (Chapman & Gill 1998: 189).  The results stated that there was no statistical difference between the tribal areas of the island and stature, male average was 1726 mm and 1595 mm for females, reflective of general sex dimorphism (Chapman & Gill 1998: 191).  The stature range was found to be within range of other Polynesian groups and there were no obvious differences in stature within the population of the Rapa Nui island.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Measuring a right humerus with an osteometric board and a calculator. Stature estimation is a vital technique in bioanthropology to gauge the height of past populations (useful guide here, image credit: Paul Duffy at Aberdeen Council).

Stefan (1999) and Chapman’s (1997) studies both indicate that the initial aboriginal population of Rapa Nui were from Polynesian origins.  Stefan’s (1999) studied 50 cranio-facial measurements on the crania of  prehistoric/protohistoric Rapa Nui populations and discovered greater between-group homogeneity in males than females but not the population as a whole.  Chapman (1997: 171) study does highlight the need to thoroughly investigate the prehistoric and protohistoric populations genetically for any further population admixture and genetic drift from later populations, with the need to specifically sample individuals from each main geographic location of the island.  As far as I am aware I do not know of any stable isotopic work that has been carried out on the skeletal remains, but this could add another informative dimension to understanding the Rapa Nui culture (1).

It must also be remembered  the island was repeatedly visited (and raided) after Roggeveen’s first landing by European ships in the same century, which ultimately led to a rejection of all ships by the Rapa Nui.  During the 19th century Peruvian ships also repeatedly and successfully made slave raids on the island, capturing up to a thousand aboriginals to work in the mines in Peru.  The slave raids, but also the introduction of new diseases from the Europeans and from surviving miners, caused the aboriginal population to dramatically fall resulting in an aboriginal population of only 111 individuals at one point in 1877.  Although a historic low, the population had undergone fluctuation before but probably never to this dramatic extent.  The documentary state that around half of the modern population (around 2500 individuals) claim to be genetically related to the original aboriginal population.

The program also produced a succinct point by highlighting the ongoing struggles of Rapa Nui to become recognised as an independent island.  There are still many controversies surrounding the Rapa Nui culture and as highlighted above there is still little agreement on certain key points of the population history of the island and the ecological effects that this produced.

Conclusion

Although only briefly mentioned here it is worth noting that Rapa Nui has evidence for a rich and diverse culture.  Interestingly Forment et al. (2001) highlight the fact that the wooden carvings of human figures, known as moai kavakava, were being carved and produced in the same period as the terminal phase of the megalithic statues.  Also noted is the fact that the wooden carvings probably do not indicate accurate physical reflections of the population (Forment et al. 2001: 532) as some researchers have suggested.  There are also numerous petroglyphs present throughout the island as well as an apparent script called rongorongo, which included glyphs of geometric and pictographic images (Chapman 1997).  Although Rapa Nui is only 15 miles by 7 miles in size, it has produced an incredibly diverse cultural legacy and material culture.  This is echoed today by the living population who understand the very real threat of population collapse and remain intent to keep their culture, and cultural heritage, alive.

Notes

(1). If I am mistaken (I only did a quick literature search) please email me or drop a comment below.

Important Update 25/10/14

New genomic evidence has shown that the human population of Rapa Nui had contact with the Native American populations from around AD 1300-1500.  The genome wide study of 27 native Rapa Nui individuals has discovered that there was significant contact between the inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Native American populations from around 19 to 23 generations ago.  The evidence for European based population admixture dates from around AD 1850-1895.  This is an outstanding piece of news, please see the Past Horizons article for more information.  The 2014 Current Biology article can be found here.

Further Information

Bibliography

Chapman, P. M. 1997. A Biological Review of the Prehistoric Rapanui. The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 106 (2): 161-174. (Open access). 

Chapman, P. M. & Gill, W. G. 1998. Estimation of Stature for the Prehistoric/Protohistoric Rapanui. The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 107 (2): 187-194. (Open access).

Forment, F., Huyge, D. & Valladas, H. 2001. AMS 14C Age Determinations of Rapanui (Easter Island) Wood Sculpture: Moai Kavakava ET 48.63 from Brussels. Antiquity. 75: 529-32. (Open access via academia).

Lightfoot, D.R. & Eddy, F.W. 1994. The Agricultural Utility of Lithic-Mulch Gardens: Past and PresentGeoJournal. 34 (4): 425-437. (Partially open access).

Lipo, C. P., Hunt, T. L. & Haoa, S. R. 2013. The ‘Walking’ Megalithic Statues (Moai) of Easter IslandJournal of Archaeological Science40 (6): 2859-2866. (Abstract only).

Stefan, V. H. 1999. Craniometric Variation and Homogeneity in Prehistoric/Protohistoric Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Regional Populations. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 110 (4): 407-419. (Abstract only).

Guest post: ‘Thoughts from Amara West’ by Loretta Kilroe.

19 Nov

Loretta Kilroe holds a research masters and a bachelors degree in Egyptology from the University of Oxford.  Loretta’s specialism is the study of ancient Egyptian ceramics and post new kingdom ceramics specifically.  The main focus of her research is the aim to approach ceramics from a social context with an eye to using changes in form and context to make inferences about society.  Loretta is currently applying for PhD programs and can be found blogging at Cakes and Ceramics.

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Often I find, when I mention working in Sudan, people zip straight to thinking of war or corruption. In the UK, people tend to be surprised when I rave about the wonderful hospitality, the delicious food, the view of stars in the middle of the desert, and particularly the rich archaeological sites, bursting out of the country’s seams.

When I finished my undergrad at Oxford, I was lucky enough to be invited to join the British Museum team in Amara West early this year, as an assistant ceramicist. At Oxford, most people studying Egyptology are linguists, but I found that getting to grips with pottery typologies was like another language in itself, and much more interesting in my opinion!

potsforconvention

Loretta and a selection of the ceramics and pots excavated from the Amara West site in Sudan.  Photography by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

Amara West is located just across the river from Abri, the largest town in the Nubian area, and just upriver from Sai, a famous site which inspired the development of the Kerma pottery typology. It is a late New Kingdom ‘colonial’ town, established by the Egyptians as part of their administration over Nubia, although the extent to which it was populated by Egyptians is debated. The British Museum excavation has been running since 2009, after a survey season from the British School in Rome, which identified key areas of the site. However the British Museum was not the first to discover the sand-coated town. Fairman excavated extensively with the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1920s and uncovered parts of the town and cemeteries as well as the Ramesside temple. The cemetery records are scanty however, especially since a few graves were only excavated to keep the workers occupied while finds were packed up for museums apparently! The BM’s research aims have steered in rather the opposite direction from this early work, and seek to find out what daily life was like in a town like this, instead of monumental architecture. And the dig has thrown up some beautifully touching examples of it: a treasured bracelet dropped on the ground and lost, yellow painted walls, a sealing in a house incredibly matching a scarab amulet found in one of the graves.

The dig team live close to the site, on Ernetta island, 20 minutes boat ride downstream from the old town. The experience of living there, I found, significantly informed my understanding of the archaeology of the town. I know anthropologically-informed approaches have been growing in popularity in the archaeological community (with all its usual controversy), but coming from the land of sofas and fridges, it is 100% useful living with people who understand the climate and how to cope with it. Thus mastabas (mud-brick benches against walls) which are outside all the houses in Ernetta, and in the courtyard, covered in a bright throw, are pretty much the same as those in the ancient Amara West houses. To keep water cool, it is kept in huge, porous ceramic pots, pretty similar to those we find in the sand. And the island is surrounded on its outskirts by date palms, which upon stepping out from, instantly leave you to the mercy of the sandy wind. Recent evidence has suggested that Amara was once an island and when the Nile moved course, the inhabitants of the town had to start building barriers before their front doors to keep out the sand.

lorettadighouse

The dig house, with the mastabas visible outside in the courtyard, resemble the buildings that were probably quite a common sight during the Amara West heyday.  Photography by Loretta Kilroe, property belongs to the British Museum.

One of the major questions dig members did keep talking about however, was how ancient inhabitants would have coped with the nimiti. If you work in Sudan, never mind the heat, the lack of electricity or the different food– little black flies known as nimiti will be the bane of your life. When the season gets hot, out they come in swarms, and crawl all over you all day in the sun. They bite, but luckily don’t carry any diseases this far north. It could get very irritating trying to draw a pot with nimiti crawling up into your armpit, and not being able to swipe them because the vessel was just in the right position! My personal theory is the cramped, smokey houses we think most people would have lived in, were perfect refuges against the flies who hate the dark and smoke.

Now I applied for my research masters planning to study grave good groups, particularly ceramics, from the late Old Kingdom, to assess levels of state control in a time they were traditionally assumed to be weakening. So it is quite by accident that I ended up specialising in a period over 2000 years later, the Third Intermediate Period. I never found the later periods of Egyptian history compelling until I started looking at the pottery actually. In Sudan in particular, towards the end of the New Kingdom Egyptian-style pottery tends to get pretty ugly-which is what I absolutely love for some reason!

The pottery in the town levels at Amara currently being excavated, dates through the Ramesside period. Pottery evidence in the villas built at some stage outside the town wall indicates these were built in the later Ramesside period, evidently at a time when there was thought no need for defenses. The problem arises when you approach the graves. Many of them date to the Ramesside and late Ramesside too, like the town; but some date to the Post New Kingdom (Third Intermediate Period in Egypt), a time when there are no occupation levels in the town. This is a conundrum which the research team, and my own research, try to address.

villa (1)

A villa at the Amara West site in Sudan partially uncovered.  Photograph by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

For the two month excavation period, I was responsible for the cemetery ceramics excavated from Cemetery C. The team alternate excavating between the two cemeteries on the site; D is located on an escarpment and was the ideal location for elite burial. The remains of a pyramid tomb was actually found by Fairman in this cemetery, and although all the graves have so far been looted in both cemeteries, enough broken material remains to piece together some idea of the wealth of this little community. The items in the graves also reflect a fascinating hybridisation of identity within the town, with artefacts from both the Nubian and the Egyptian cultural tradition often found side by side. Egyptian scarabs and painted coffin fragments have turned up, as have miraculous remains of woven baskets and eggshell jewellery.

Post New-Kingdom/Third Intermediate Period pottery is understudied partially because this damage to contemporary occupation levels is quite common, so there are a lack of stratified deposits to learn from. However, in the case of Nubia, the decrease in variety as well as quality perceived has led to many interpretations of Nubian society as breaking up after the Egyptians left. The ceramics at this time are certainly very different from the blue-painted vessels and carefully formed jars of the 18th dynasty. Beer jars, one of the most common vessels in both cemetery and occupation levels, become so poorly made, they cannot even stand upright, and the bases are squashed by fingerprints. Red-rimmed bowls no longer have a neat little border, but the red quite literally dribbles everywhere. And by the time we get well into this pre-Napatan phase, pilgrim flask handles are stunted pieces of clay squashed onto the neck, useless for holding.

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The desk and work station at the excavation, full of ceramics and pots ready to be described and analysed.  Photograph by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

All these features are often dismissed as resulting from potters disinterest in aesthetics or the loss of technical knowledge as society broke down. However when I was in contact with examples of these vessels, I came to the conclusion that this view was distinctly limited. In Egyptology, ceramics are typically focused on in answering chronological questions, but my thesis sought to challenge these boundaries and discuss what social changes these ceramic shifts could indicate. The developments I suggested are too long to go into much detail here, but as a summary, I believe they reflect the changing purposes of these culturally Egyptian vessels when used by an increasingly hybridised society. Nubian pottery focuses much more on decoration than perfect wheel-thrown forms, and thus I believe the dribbly red rims become a deliberate aesthetic feature. A rare hybrid bowl lends support to this theory; hand-made and fired according to Nubian techniques, it was nonetheless shaped and coloured as a standard Egyptian bowl, indicating it was an imitation–and the red rim distinctly dribbles. At another site, Hillat el-Arab, later beer jars are replaced in graves by pilgrim flasks, suggesting that the reason beer jars could no longer stand up was because their use was obsolete.

I hope to be talking about this development with red-rimmed bowls at the Current Research in Egyptology conference this April at UCL, so come along if you’re interested in finding out some more detail about what can, when summarised, sound like a bit of a crackpot theory!

Nileandmountain

The Nile river, the lifeblood of Egypt and Sudan.  Photograph taken by Loretta Kilroe.

Research at Amara West is due to continue for the foreseeable future –a Collaborative Doctoral Scheme has just been awarded for a scholar to research the use of colour in New Kingdom towns with Amara as a significant case study– and there are still villas and graves to uncover. Together with the early New Kingdom site of Tombos further south, the increasing influx of archaeological projects in Sudan is shedding new light on how we understand New Kingdom expansion and the development of the later Napatan state. Meanwhile, I hope to return to Sudan one day in the near future–it is without a doubt the high point of places I have excavated!

Further Information:

Bibliography:

Aston, D. 1996. Egyptian Pottery of the Late New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. Tentative Footsteps in a Forbidding Terrain. Studien zur Archáologie und Geshichte Altágyptens 13. Heidelberg: Heidelberger Orientverlag.  (An excellent typology for the Egyptian Third Intermediate Period).

Bader, B. & Ownby, M. (eds.). 2009. Functional Aspects of Egyptian Ceramics in their Archaeological Context: Proceedings of a Conference held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, July 24th – July 25th, 2009. Leuven: Peeters. (One of the ceramic studies focusing on a social approach).

Binder, M. Spencer, N. & Millet, M. 2010. ‘The New Kingdom Cemetery at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia14: 25-44.

Binder, M. Spencer, N. & Millet, M. 2011. ‘Cemetery D at Amara West: the Ramesside Period and its aftermath’. Sudan & Nubia16: 47-99. (Open Access).

Spencer, N. 2009. ‘Cemeteries and a Ramesside Suburb at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia13: 47–61. (All official British Museum team publications).

Spencer, N. 2010. ‘Nubian architecture in an Egyptian town? Building E12.11 at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia14: 15-24.

Spencer, N., Woodward, J. & Macklin, M. 2012. ‘Re-assessing the Abandonment of Amara West: The Impact of a Changing Nile?‘. Sudan and Nubia16: 37-43.

Spencer, N. 2013. ‘Insights into Life in Occupied Kush during the New Kingdom: New Research at Amara West‘. Antike Sudan. 23: 21–28.