Amara West Research Project Exploring Lived Experience in Pharaonic Egypt’s Nubian Colony (1300-800 BC)
Pharaonic Egypt conquered Upper Nubia in around 1500BC, ushering in four centuries of colonial rule. Over the last 150 years, this has been largely interpreted through official royal texts and elite monuments left by the pharaonic state, resulting in a narrative of complete political, military and cultural control and domination. The Amara West Research Project, instigated in 2008, has significantly transformed our understanding of this colonialist era. In particular, the lived experience of ancient colonialism as practised by pharaonic Egypt, the phenomena of cultural entanglement and individual/household agency have been foregrounded, set within the dynamic environmental context of the Middle Nile Valley of the late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. The project avails of the potential for high-resolution archaeology using the excellent preservation levels in northern Sudan, the ability to export samples for analysis, allied to a multidisciplinary and international team comprising the British Museum collaborating with other museums, universities and research institutes.
The project is focused upon Amara West, a pharaonic town created around 1300BC, and occupied for around 3 centuries, although burials continued in the cemetery for a further two centuries. Founded as a new administrative centre for the Egyptian control and oversight of the colony of Upper Nubia, the site comprises well preserved domestic architecture, a stone cult temple, state-run storage facilities and two major burial grounds.
Five major outcomes of the project are highlighted here, each the result of a combination of specialists, disciplines and methods.
1)The town has been interpreted, since the first systematic excavations in the 1930s, as a classic planned Egyptian ‘temple-town’, emblematic of the Late Bronze Age conquest and control of Upper Nubia. This project’s excavations, and associated analyses, have revealed how, even at the outset, parts of the town (beyond temple, official residence and storage facilities) were unplanned, and left to the initiative of its inhabitants. Within a generation, further significant change would occur, as the individuals and households within the town began to shape the layout of the town and thus its function and appearance. For the majority of its history, the town reflected and mirrored local agency, not that of the pharaonic state, and thus demands a re-assessment of the dominant functionalist readings of pharaonic settlements in Nubia.
2) Through combining modern macro-archaeological excavation with geoarchaeology, micromorphology, materials analyses (petrography, SEM, NAA, FTIR, GC-MS) and bioarchaeological research (isotope analyses), upon a site with excellent preservation of architecture and occupation deposits, we have been able to produce a rich understanding of ancient activities within internal and external spaces across the living areas, cemetery and the surrounding. Examples include the role and ubiquity of water within the houses, the patterns of animal husbandry within and beyond houses, local metal production technologies, the differential access to cereals (principally barley/emmer wheat), the chaîne operatoire surrounding pigment sourcing, preparation and application within a vernacular setting (including identification of new blue and green pigments for this period/region) and the distinct clustering of craft production between houses. The study of the population themselves, via skeletal remains, has revealed insights into health, disease (including cancer, osteoarthritis, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases), and thus pain and healing (most long-bone fractures had healed)
3) The project is the first to reveal the importance of Nubian cultural markers within an ostensibly Egyptian settlement, above and beyond the reliance on funerary data and the handmade cooking pots that are common across many sites. In particular, the discovery of an oval building of distinctive Nubian design, amongst a series of more typically ‘Egyptian’ buildings demands that we re-assess the visibility and presence of Nubian cultural expression in these pharaonic towns. Further examples of indigenous influence include ‘cross-over’ ceramic technology (e.g. Egyptian ceramic forms produced with Nubian technology) and the inscribing of images of wild game on storage jars imported from Egypt. The curation of more ancient artefacts – collected from sites in the desert hinterland – within the town also reflects engagement with the deeper past of the region. Meanwhile, the discovery of excerpts of the early 2nd millennium BC poetical texts The Teaching of Amenemhat and Kemyt provide the first proof that these classics were being consumed outside Egypt itself.
4)Previous excavators and studies of this site had posited that the ‘Egyptian’ elite of the site had not been buried here, but returned to Egypt. The discovery of a necropolis of graves with pyramid chapels proved otherwise, in particular the identification of three large pyramids as the burial place of the Deputy of Kush, the foremost representative of the pharaonic state in Nubia, including one named Paser, who lived in the reign of Ramses III (1186-1155 BC). Furthermore, strontium isotope studies suggest distinctive values for the individuals buried in these tombs compared to remainder of the skeletal assemblages, making it likely such individuals were not members of locally based families, but posted from elsewhere (Egypt?), yet choosing to be buried locally.
5)A high resolution reconstruction of riverine activity around the site has been created through sondages, GPR investigation and Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating of aeolian sand deposits between Nile flood layers. This has confirmed that the ancient town of Amara West was founded on a small island against the left (north) bank of the Nile, but that channel failure occurred within a generation of the town’s creation. The impact of this – a reduced barrier to aeolian sand ingress, increasingly difficult living and agricultural conditions – can be traced across micromorphological analysis of street and outside space deposits, the architectural mitigation measures taken within houses and the rise in stress markers amongst the late-phase skeletons within the cemeteries. The implications of this discovery are significant, not least our interpretation that the site was abandoned due to an increasingly challenging climatic situation, rather than the political or military retreat of the Egyptian state.
The results of this 10-year project have had significant impact in terms of our understanding, for the Nile Valley and beyond, of early urbanism, individual/household agency in ancient societies, hybridity and cultural entanglement within colonial contexts, and the importance of moving beyond normative, functionalist models for ancient towns. In particular, it allows pharaonic settlements to be read and understood through sensorial aspects, ancient experience and the inhabitants themselves, moving beyond the dominant visual/textual readings of architecture, phase and finished artefact.
Three particular strands of research from this project bear direct relevance to the contemporary world. Firstly, the study of subsistence and risk management strategies has been approached through a twin-track analyses of late Bronze Age and early 21st century AD data, using archaeological, historical and ethnographic datasets. This has resulted in the dissemination of information on plants and crops that might be more suitable in the current volatile climatic context (prompted by global climate change but particularly local transformation brought about by dam construction and resulting reservoirs). Secondly, the identification of the oldest attested case of metastatic carcinoma (possibly derived from lung cancer) is an important contribution to our understanding of the deep history of this disease. Finally, the project’s outputs are likely to form a key component of future studies and understanding of colonialism and empire from a lived experience perspective. This has implications not only as regards the pharaonic Empire, but also more recent cases including the intertwined histories of European states and those in northeast Africa and the Middle East.
In addition to the research outputs listed above which inform the scientific and archaeological communities, the Amara West Research Project has instigated an innovative programme of community engagement since 2014. This includes the construction of a visitor orientation area with English- and Arabic-language information panels, alongside presentations and workshops in nearby villages. Visits to site for local schoolchildren are facilitated by our local workmen, who have been trained for the purpose.
Three Arabic-language books have been created. (1) A book aimed at adult populations  and covering not only the major research results, but also the historical context and the history of exploration of the site . (2) A book for schoolchildren , co-authored by members of the project and local primary school-teachers, foregrounding notions of local heritage and oral histories alongside the archaeological work. (3) A book for children on agriculture past and present, again co-authored by project and community. This last book [to be distributed early 2018] reflects the overwhelmingly agricultural nature of local labour patterns.。
Recognising the growing importance of mobile phone technology, the project has created video podcasts (Arabic/English) to enhance engagement. Nubian is the first language of most communities in the area; as this language is no longer expressed through script, we have completed a podcast in collaboration with a local heritage activist Fekri Hassan Taha, to be distributed in early 2018.
These community archaeology initiatives offer an opportunity to enhance knowledge of local histories and heritage, given that national school curricula only focus on major historical events.
Neal Spencer is Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, responsible for the curation, research and display of the prehistoric, ancient and medieval cultures of the Nile Valley. The Department leads a wide-ranging programme of fieldwork in Egypt and Sudan, alongside training and community outreach programmes in both countries. This includes the International Training Programme which has hosted 253 museum professionals from 39 countries since 2006. Neal plays a lead role within the Museum on the digital representation of research and provides strategic oversight of the Research Space project, an innovative semantic web research platform. Since 2015, Neal has overseen a project to collect the material culture of 20th and 21st century Egypt for the British Museum.
Holding a BA and PhD in Egyptology (University of Cambridge), Neal’s own research has focused on temple construction and urban experience in the Nile Valley, and the relationship between Egypt and Nubia. He has directed projects at Samanud (1998-1999) and Kom Firin (2002-2011) in the Egyptian Nile Delta, and in 2008 instigated the Amara West Project in Sudan, an interdisciplinary archaeological project foregrounding lived experience, cultural entanglement and local agency. In addition, Neal has published research on the 19th century reception of ancient Egyptian art by the British sculptor Onslow Ford, on non-royal temple construction initiatives, and copper alloy masterpieces from the first millennium BC.
He has acted as lead on research and programme grants from the Leverhulme Trust, British Academy, Arcadia Trust, Fondation Michela Schiff-Giorgini, the Institute for Bioarchaeology, the Egypt Exploration Society, the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust, the Cultural Protection Fund and the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project. Neal is a Trustee of the Egypt Exploration Society and the Sudan Archaeological Research Society, a Committee member of the Scientific Board of the Museo Egizio (Turin) and the Griffith Institute (University of Oxford), and was formerly a Trustee of the Freud Museum London.
(Photo:Shanghai Archaeology Forum (SAF) official website)