The Seminar Series under the general topic of “Cultural Diversity in Northeast Africa” has a wide chronological and regional scope and we will start with a view from Prehistoric Sudan. I am more than happy that we have one of the renown experts in this field as our first speaker: my dear friend and colleague Elena Garcea from the Università degli studi di Cassino e del Lazio Meridionale.
I first met Elena 10 years ago while we were both working on Sai Island – ever since, she has become a close friend and collaborator to which I owe fruitful comments, advices and plenty of discussion on various occasions. Elena collaborated already with the AcrossBorders project and one of the outcomes is a joint article which appeared in Antiquity in 2017, with Giulia D’Ercole (one of Elena’s former students) as the corresponding author (D’Ercole et al. 2017).
Here, it became very obvious that a shared view from Prehistoric and Bronze Age Sudan can result in interesting insights and pose a number of relevant questions. The long settlement sequence on Sai over millennia provided an excellent opportunity to study continuity and discontinuity in long-term pottery traditions. Thanks to Elena, we presented a preliminary version of this research at the 14th Congress of the Pan African Archaeological Association for Prehistory and Related Studies, hosted from July 14-18 2014 by the University of the Witwatersrand at Johannesburg, South Africa. This trip to South Africa was in many respects rewarding and one of my personal highlights of congress experiences.
Elena’s research is mostly focusing on the last hunter-fishers-gatherers and early food producers and users of domestic plants and animals in Sudan. All of her interpretations are always reflecting recent theoretical perspectives, in particular technical knowledge accumulation, storage strategies and optimal foraging theory. She has undertaken fieldwork not only in Sudan but also in Libya and Niger. In Sudan, she has worked in different parts of the country: Khartoum province and Jebel Sabaloka (central Sudan), Karima and Multaga-Abu Dom areas, Sai Island and Amara West district (northern Sudan).
Elena recently published a book on the Prehistory of Sudan (Garcea 2020). In my view this is an excellent piece of work, not only for students but for anyone who wants to understand the early history of Sudan within a wide framework. The book profits from more than thirty years of field experience and brings together this expertise with analyses in laboratories, conference presentations and numerous publications to develop a differentiated picture of Prehistoric Sudan.
I am personally very much looking forward to this kick-off of the DiverseNile Seminar Series! For those of you who I could convince that it will be clearly worth to attend Elena’s lecture: participation is free but registration via email is mandatory. See you all tomorrow!
D’Ercole, G., Budka, J., Sterba, J., Garcea, E., & Mader, D. 2017. The successful ‘recipe’ for a long-lasting tradition: Nubian ceramic assemblages from Sai Island (northern Sudan) from prehistory to the New Kingdom. Antiquity,91(355), 24-42. doi:10.15184/aqy.2016.262
In the last few weeks I haven’t been very present in our blog since I spent much time sitting at the microscope of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the LMU, just nearby to our office, examining and documenting the first batch of ceramic samples from the site of Dukki Gel. These samples have been included as a reference collection within our DiverseNile project thanks to the kind agreement of the excavator, Charles Bonnet, and the responsible ceramicist Philippe Ruffieux. Philippe has already studied all of these samples within their context and we can now address fresh questions within the DiverseNile work packages and with scientific analysis.
In times of the Covid pandemic, the procedure to access the laboratories is rightly strict: registration is mandatory before working in the microscopy room, only a maximum of three people are allowed to work simultaneously in the lab and of course we are required to wear medical masks and disinfect all devices and workspace at the end. All this will seem obvious, but what I personally find curious is the contrast between the meticulousness of the analytical procedure, further complicated by the current Covid rules, and the simple and tangible nature of the ancient ceramics, whose immense anthropological and material complexity, and huge archaeological interpretative potential is all enclosed in a thin section of just 30 microns thick.
In my last blog post – I introduced the method I use for the classification of the ceramic samples and the layout within the Filemaker database which I specifically designed for the purpose of the petrographic study.
So far a total of twenty-one ceramic samples from Dukki Gel has been analysed by optical microscopy (OM), while forty-three samples are currently located at the Atominstitute in Vienna where they are being analysed for instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis (iNAA) by our colleague and external expert in the project Johannes Sterba.
Most of the samples for OM (18 out of 21) are Nubian vessels among which are cooking pots (both basketry impressed and incised ware), jars, globular vessels and also fine black topped Kerma ware. Further, three Egyptian-type vessels (two red slipped bowls and one fragment of a bread mould) were analysed under the microscope.
Petrographically, the Nubian samples from Dukki Gel appear quite homogeneous in term of their composition, displaying mineralogical and textural features which also resemble very much the petrography of the Nubian samples analysed from the New Kingdom town of Sai Island (see D’Ercole and Sterba 2018; D’Ercole in prep.). Differences in the textural features, in the proportion of some specific mineral phases, and in the amount and type of the organic tempers contained in the paste allowed distinguishing four principal petrographic groups or micro fabrics. The first group is characterized by a very sandy framework with a dominant grain size in the class of silt to very fine-grained sand, a good sorting of the non-plastics and very few organics mainly small and tubular in shape. The second group also displays a sandy framework, sorting is moderate with some medium sized rounded quartz and feldspar possibly added as temper, and common tubular organics partially carbonized and moderately aligned. Group 3, to which belongs the majority of the analysed samples, is sandy, moderately sorted, with common to abundant organics, either partially or completely carbonized, heterogeneous in shape and size, and possibly referring to various parts of plant remains (including stem, glume, palea, and lemma?) (Fig. 1) and also herbivore dung. Finally, the fourth group of Dukki Gel Nubian samples contains abundant heterogeneous organics similar to group 3 but also large carbonate inclusions of microcrystalline calcite most likely intentionally added as tempering material. To this last group, which does not show a real comparison with the material from Sai, where the presence of calcite was ubiquitous and seemed a natural component in the clay source/ soil rather than a tempering agent, refers exclusively cooking pots with basketry impressions and a single jar.
All in all, similarly to what was observed for Sai Island, the petrofacies of the Nubian ceramics is very homogeneous and points to the selection of clays, or better soils, derived from local Holocene Nile alluvia, with a composition very similar along the various sectors of the Nile river (D’Ercole and Sterba 2018). These ceramics were possibly tempered with some medium- and coarse-sized aeolian sand or with quartz grains drained by the local river systems. Technologically, the amount and type of the organic material added to the paste (more or less abundant and selected) makes the main difference and allows distinguishing among various sub-recipes or ways of doing the vessels. Further, the orientation of the voids left by the combustion of the organic matter into the paste permits to recognize among the use of different manufacturing techniques. Specifically, in the cooking pots with basketry impressions which were built on a mat, the organics appear generally well or moderately aligned with a prevalent presence of longitudinal features like stems or plant stalks (Fig. 2a). Differently, in those pots (e.g., globular pots, bowls) built with the coiling technique, the organics show mainly a poor alignment and a specific orientation that indicates the ‘relict’ coil features (Fig. 2b). The black topped and the fine polished Kerma ware generally contain less organics, these latter are also smaller in size indicating either the use of herbivore dung and/or a selection of added plant remains.
Highly interesting in the sample from Dukki Gel, is the presence of a jar with a roughly polished / wet-smoothed black surface which although showing clear Nubian technological exterior features is characterized by a coarser and sandier fabric with more abundant feldspar and granitoid rock fragments resembling certain Egyptian cooking pots (Fig. 3). This sample, so far an unicum in our selection, points to an hybridization of Nubian and Egyptian traditions (this time with the intersection of some performance of ‘Egyptian’ criteria to a general Nubian technological and stylistical formula) and well supports our overall theoretical framework and working approach on the complexity and diversity among various Nubian local narrative experiences and conceptions of material culture.
Hopefully by the end of this month, we also will have the first set of chemical data from the reference collection from Dukki Gel in our hands which we will then compare with the macroscopic evidence and with these petrographic remarks.
D’Ercole, G. In prep. Petrography of the pottery from the New Kingdom town of Sai, in: J. Budka, with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J. Sterba and P. Ruffieux, AcrossBorders 3: Vessels for the home away from Egypt. The pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai Island. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant. Vienna.
D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, J. 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), 171–183, in: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller (eds.), From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Leiden.