The time between Xmas and New Year is often a kind of transition, for many a moment to pause, but for others also a super stressful time in which all kinds of things have to be finished and loads of papers are sitting on one’s desk because one deliberately waited for this “break” between the holidays…
Well, I do not want to go into details, but my current work in home office is far from being relaxed. Nevertheless, it seems adequate to pause for a moment and remember what was achieved in the last few years.
Today one week ago, I gave the first DiverseNile Xmas lecture – this zoom lecture was meant as a kind of “Thank you” to all my friends, colleagues and collaborators who supported me in the last decades.
I tried to outline the most important waypoints leading to the new project in the region between Attab and Ferka, taking my visits and research in the cataract areas as case studies, starting of course with my participation in the Elephantine project.
Today two years ago, I was leaving Khartoum to go north and start work in my new concession between Attab and Ferka, the first field season of the MUAFS project started. Our very promising results of this first season served as the basis for the successful acquisition of the present ERC DiverseNile project – thus really a day to remember!
Preparing my lecture for last week, I reassessed my old documentation of rock inscriptions at Tombos, but especially of the Humboldt University Nubian Expedition at the Fourth Cataract as part of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project. I will never forget the moment when we first entered our concession area in 2004 coming from the desert and looking on a barren, yet infinitely beautiful cataract landscape.
The three years of fieldwork in the area of Kirbekan were a great challenge, but this work has shaped me and taught me so much about archaeology and surveying. We had a great variety of funerary monuments and for me besides rock art the most interesting sites were tombs of the Napatan era and others associated with the Kerma culture. The discovery of Kerma remains/a local Kerma horizon was among the most impressive outcomes of the entire Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project! And fits perfectly to our current investigations in the Attab to Ferka region.
My visits to the Batn el-Hagar, the Kajbar cataract and of course Sai Island will never be forgotten. Sudan is such an impressive country with stunning landscapes and much more!
Without the years of the AcrossBorders project on Sai Island, my current research focus on remains from the Egyptian colonial era in the Attab to Ferka region with an emphasis on cultural diversity and the materialisation of cultural encounters would not be possible. Thus, many thanks again for all who supported me – there are exciting years ahead of us, stay tuned for new results from the MUAFS concession!
Following up my last blog entry I would like to provide you an insight into the first archaeological prospection campaign almost two years ago, the work in the field and our challenges.
The first geophysical campaign in the Attab to Ferka region included magnetometry as well as magnetic susceptibility measurements. It took place during the first MUAFS season in December 2018/January 2019 and covered more than 6 ha at four different sites on the East bank of the Nile (GiE001 – GiE004). Our grid system for magnetic measurements consists of 40 x 40 m squares, which were staked out using a right-angle prism, measuring tapes and ranging poles. The advantage of staking out by hand is that we could perfectly orientate our grid system regarding the site and its visible traces as well as the topography. Excepting some quartz outcrops, burial mounds, dense bushes and deep wadis, staking out and walking with the magnetometer was feasible.
For every grid corner we were using wooden sticks to fix our marked base lines for the measurements. For taking magnetic measurements we used the Foerster Ferex 4.032 Gradiometer (65 cm Gradient) in handheld Quadro-sensor configuration. The grids are measured in zig-zag mode every 2 m to reach a spatial coverage of 0,5 x 0,125 m. It is important not to use ferromagnetic pieces for the instrument, that’s why the frame is completely non-magnetic. Furthermore, the measuring person as well as the helping people around are not wearing magnetic clothes/accessories.
Not only the measuring equipment and person have to be non-magnetic, there shouldn’t be magnetic disturbances in the surrounding area as well, for example streets, train, powerlines etc. Their noise is affecting the measurements and at its worst making them impossible or useless. Our investigated sites were suitable for magnetic measurements; solely the pillars of the powerline were disturbing the measurements in the direct surrounding of the pillars at our first site.
But there were other challenges: strong winds during our campaign made it quite difficult to stake out the grids properly. That’s why it took longer as usual and influenced also the communication as you couldn’t understand each other standing 40 m apart. Additionally, it was quite tricky to walk straight, with the same speed and with a constant distance between the probes and the ground (ideally 30 cm). It was not only more time consuming but also taking more strength to do the measurements in that windy, squally surrounding and also to avoid vibrations of the bag-pack and the magnetometer frame, which would affect the measurements.
A crucial part of fieldwork though is the exact positioning of the investigated areas! As magnetometry is a passive method, you can repeat the measurements as often as needed. Using precise positioning you can come back to specific spots you are interested in. For example, excavation trenches can be specified easily avoiding time consuming and expensive large area trenches. Furthermore, archaeological survey results can be combined, at best including dating of architectural features. Altogether it is feasible to follow special issues and questions regarding the micro and macro region of sites.
To georeference our magnetic data we took the coordinates of every wooden stick marking the corners of the grids. Therefore, we were using our dGPS (Differential Global Positioning System). As no official benchmarks are available in the Attab to Ferka region new fixpoints were set. The advantage is that we can use them not only for surveys but also for integrating the excavation trenches into our GIS-projects.
Unfortunately, several of our benchmarks set in 2018/2019 and embedded in concrete were missing when coming back to the region for the excavation campaign in early 2020. That’s why a quick solution had to be found to use the created measurement grid further on, where not only the benchmarks and survey points were integrated, but also the data collected during drone mapping and magnetic survey. A fictive grid was set up based on the remaining benchmarks to embed the new excavation trenches and their photogrammetry data.
Our challenge now is to merge both datasets to be able to compare the excavated features with all collected magnetic data as well as our high-resolution drone images. This allows to verify the magnetometry results and learn more for new measurements in future.
Recently, I happened to have a conversation with a group of friends and colleagues who come from different parts of the world about the meaning and the various cultural and ontological implications of the question “Where are you from?”.
In seven years, that I have lived abroad, working in an international team, my way to approach and answer this question has perhaps changed as my point of view on the concepts of identity, nationality, and ethnicity which compound the complexity of us as humans.
Certainly, asking someone “Where are you from?” opens a multitude of different and equally acceptable answers. Most of us will reply indicating the place from where they were born providing to the interlocutor as many details on their specific provenance (state, region and even city) as they want to affirm and communicate their roots. Others will possibly prefer to answer with the place they currently live as this information might better fit with their actual perception of cultural identity.
Not by chance, these arguments are closely related to the work I am doing within our DiverseNile project and particularly, in my case, as specialist in provenance and technological studies on pottery, with the significance of materiality – and ceramic objects – for addressing questions on contact space biographies, cultural identity and encounters.
In our times, objects and goods mostly carry with them labels that inform us about the place of manufacture and from where their design come from (i.e., Designed in X, Made/Manufactured in X). These claims are regulated and controlled according to rules established by National and International commissions. Hence, the acronym COO stands for “Country of Origin” and represents the country or countries of manufacture, production, design, or brand origin where an article or product comes from (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Country_of_origin). A document called certificate of origin will then authenticate that the product sold or shipped was manufactured in a particular country (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certificate_of_origin).
In the past such labels did not exist. However, already in the late Predynastic period in Egypt (c. 3000 BCE) markings of vessels appeared as well as sealings on jar stoppers which refer to the provenance and owner of the contents (cf. e.g. Engel 2017). Markings of objects, especially amphorae, were more common in the Second Millennium BCE giving us information about the provenance and owners of the content as well as places of manufacture. However, most of the ceramic vessels intended for private use was not “registered”. Hence, the main task of ceramologists and archaeometrists consists in investigating on (and decoding) the place/s of origin and manufacture of ceramic objects, by means of the differentiation and classification of their characteristic stylistic, morphometric, technological, and compositional features.
Perhaps the concepts itself of provenance and origin of an object comprise several acceptations. First, there is the provenance/s of the raw materials (which in the case of ceramics includes both the clay raw materials and tempers), in the second instance, the place of manufacture, then the place (or places) of use of the object, and lastly that of discard (which might differ from that of use). To this list are added all the information concerning the “provenance” and “cultural identity” of the potter who produced the vessel and those regarding the people who used and discarded that object.
Overall, the notion or idea of “identity” includes many areas that are still unexplored or that would otherwise require a thorough discussion. For many years, both in the field of archaeology and cultural anthropology, static and crystallized visions of identity have unfortunately dominated. Identities were often perceived as if they are closed monothetic entities or categories without reciprocal and fluid relations with the others. Recently, we have witnessed attempts to lighten such positions, through what could be defined as a deconstruction of the ontology of identity. Remarkably interesting, in this respect, is an essay by the cultural anthropologist Remotti (2010). He believes that the concept itself of “identity” can be dangerous as it might represent a kind of (artificial) opposition between “us” and the “others”.
The case study of Sai Island (as well as other central Egyptian towns in Nubia) (see e.g. Budka 2018; Carrano et al. 2009; D’Ercole and Sterba 2018; Ruffieux 2014; Spataro et al. 2015) has shown the interesting coexistence in the archaeological record of Egyptian-style objects produced with Nubian raw materials (we would now say Designed according to the Egyptian-style and Made in Nubia), objects produced entirely according to the Nubian style in Nubian raw materials (Designed and Made in Nubia), imported Egyptian objects (Designed and Made in Egypt) and also hybrid products (Designed in a mixture of Egyptian and Nubian style and Made in Nubia). So-called hybrid pottery types are however difficult to separate from the first category of Egyptian-style objects.
The autoptic stylistic and morphological classification of pottery together with the chemical and technological laboratory analyses carried out on selected samples are fundamental tools to access this information. However, while the compositional data relating to the origin of the clay raw materials is in all respect’s objective and quantifiable (values and proportions of specific diagnostic major, minor and trace chemical elements), the visual stylistic and technological information are more ephemeral and critical to access.
O. Gosselain (2000: 193) stated that “Decoration belongs to a category of manufacturing stages that are both particularly visible and technically malleable, and likely to reflect wider and more superficial categories of social boundaries. Fashioning, on the other hand, constitutes a very stable element of pottery traditions and is expected to reﬂect the most rooted and enduring aspects of a potter’s identity”. Hence, decoration, more than technological behaviours and manufacturing choices, is a fairly permeable category, susceptible to change and innovation (Gosselain 2010). This is well traceable in the decoration of Egyptian ceramics which partly adopted Nubian ways of decoration. Differently, a change and contamination in the technological and manufacturing stages of pottery (e.g., surface treatment, forming/fashioning) often indicates a stronger and deeper level of cultural communication and social transmission. In this respect, the so-called hybrid Egyptian-Nubian products from Sai and elsewhere perfectly embrace the extraordinary complex and intertwined dynamics of cultural encounter between Nubians and Egyptians in New Kingdom Nubia.
The main purpose of my work task within the DiverseNile project is the understanding of these dynamics through a scientific and objective analysis of the various identity codes and “provenance attributes” of the ceramic objects found in the area between Attab to Ferka, and their comparison with the pottery corpus of the central sites like Sai. Also, it is possible that the categories themselves of “provenance”, “identity” and “cultural belonging” will be re-calibrated and newly shaped according to a new and more fluid vision of the materiality of the human culture. Possibly, when asked “Where you come from?”, objects will then surprise us with a new range of answers.
Budka, J. 2018. Pots & People. Ceramics from Sai Island and Elephantine, 147–170, in: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller (eds.), From Microcosm to Macrocosm. Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, Leiden.
Carrano, J.L., Girty, G.H. and Carrano, C.J. 2009. Re-examining the Egyptian colonial encounter in Nubia through a compositional, mineralogical, and textural comparison of ceramics. Journal of Archaeological Science 36, 785–797.
D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, Johannes H. 2018. From Macro Wares to Micro Fabrics and INAA Compositional Groups: The pottery corpus of the New Kingdom town on Sai Island (Northern Sudan), 171–184, in: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller (eds.), From Microcosm to Macrocosm. Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, Leiden.
Engel, E.-M. 2017. Umm el-Qaab VI: Das Grab des Qa’a, Architektur und Inventar. Mit einem Beitrag von Thomas Hikade. Archäologische Veröffentlichungen, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo 100. Wiesbaden, Harrassowit.
Gosselain, O. 2000. Materializing identities: an African perspective. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 7, 187–216.
Gosselain, O. 2010. Exploring the dynamics of African pottery cultures, 193–226, in: R. Barndon, A. Engevik and I. Øye (eds.), The Archaeology of Regional Technologies: Case Studies from the Palaeolithic to the Age of the Vikings. Edwin Mellen Press, Lampeter.
Remotti, F. 2010. L’ossessione identitaria. Laterza, Rome.
Ruffieux, P. 2014. Early 18th Dynasty Pottery Found in Kerma (Dokki Gel), 417–429, in: J.R. Anderson and D.A. Welsby (eds.), The Fourth Cataract and Beyond. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference for Nubian Studies, British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan 1, Leuven.
Spataro, M., Millet, M. and Spencer, N. 2015. The New Kingdom settlement of Amara West (Nubia, Sudan): mineralogical and chemical investigation of the ceramics. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 7.4, 399–421.
Every archaeologist knows that what we write about the past is mediated by present-day questions, expectations and challenges, but also state-of-the-art documentation techniques. Archaeologists don’t simply reconstruct what happened back in the day. Instead, archaeological and historical narratives are essentially modern constructions that can either be repaired or demolished as scholarship moves forward. Archaeological research is also mediated by complex site and object biographies that span thousands of years; e.g., in our case, from the Neolithic to monumental surveys carried out in northern Sudan in the mid-20th century.
To understand tombs, burials and mortuary objects in the region from Attab to Ferka we need to understand the impact of André Vila’s work in the region, the epistemological framework from which he was reporting and his methodology. How Vila’s work materialise in the landscape directly affect the questions we ask and the methodologies we apply today. Not surprisingly, archaeologists in Sudan usually deal with traces left by earlier archaeologists at various sites, and retracing their steps becomes a fundamental aspect of accessing the past through remaining material culture (e.g., Howley 2018: 86-87).
Vila’s survey can be seen as part of a long tradition of large-scale surveys going back to the first Archaeological Survey of Nubia (see Adams 2007). From Dal (the southern limit of Lake Nubia) to Nilwatti Island, Vila identified 462 sites of which 219 sites are within the MUAFS concession (figure 1). These sites were attributed to cultural units, e.g., Kerma, Christian etc. Even though Vila noted that various sites belonged to one or more cultural units, today archaeologists approach those ‘units’ more fluidly, especially in situations of cultural exchanges, which is especially true for Kerma and New Kingdom sites. On the one hand, revisiting sites surveyed and reported in the 1960s and ’70s requires us to contextualise archaeology to ‘deconstruct’ theoretical biases and ask different questions. On the other hand, Vila’s methodology determines the extent to which sites can be explored.
In terms of method, Vila’s survey aimed to keep disturbance to sites to a minimum. Test excavations and sampling followed rigid guidelines and excavations were only carried out when cultural affiliations couldn’t be distinguished otherwise, e.g., based on surface finds. Cemeteries were approached in a slightly different way. Cemeteries were usually cleared to determine their extent and number of graves at each site. A few graves were fully excavated and recorded, as well as ‘peculiar’ collective burials (figure 2).
In Work Package 2, I am responsible, among other things, for reassessing the material from such graves. For example, comparison of items from graves in our concession area with objects from other sites allows us to shed new light onto different roles performed by the same types of objects in different contexts (Lemos 2020). Scientific analysis of pottery also allows us to explore the (potentially) alternative role of objects in rituals (stay tune to Giulia D’Ercole’s blog!). I am currently collaborating with Kate Fulcher from the British Museum on the topic of mortuary rituals in New Kingdom Nubia based on scientific analysis of artefacts (see Fulcher and Budka 2020 for examples of such approaches).
Working with previously excavated material culture poses several theoretical and methodological challenges, mostly related to the lack of information provided by earlier excavation reports and the problematical categories used to classify things. However, revisiting the burials excavated by Vila holds an immense potential for us to ask different questions within larger-scale perspectives on burial communities, the role of (foreign) objects in the constitution of (local) social relations and identity formation strategies. Comparative approaches to sites and material culture allow us to understand different social realities within Nubia, challenging previous homogenising perspectives on cultural interactions focusing on elite centres. Revisiting sites also holds great potential to unveil things under new theoretical perspectives and using state-of-the-art documentation techniques. This is especially the case because disturbance to sites was limited during Vila’s survey, although looting poses an additional challenge to new fieldwork in our concession area.
Ultimately, researching burials and other sites in our concession area and excavating sites firstly worked by Vila presupposes a deep knowledge of the data sets produced by him, what was ignored/discarded, what was considered worth investigating etc. Previous ways of excavating, identifying and reporting sites also determine the extent to which we can revisit them through excavation and comparative analysis.
Adams, W. Y. 2007. A Century of Archaeological Salvage, 1907-2007. Sudan and & Nubia 11: 48-56.