Where’s the population of New Kingdom colonial Nubia?

David Edwards‘ recent publication of ‚Pharaonic‘ remains in the Batn el-Hajar provides an important comparison point for us to understand the evidence from DiverseNile’s concession area from Attab to Ferka. From a mortuary landscape perspective, Edwards criticises archaeology’s traditional focus on elite tombs in the Middle Nile saying that we „should not narrow our perspectives, to the exclusion from our narratives of the vast majority of the population who were buried otherwise“ in areas other than the centres of foreign colonial power in Nubia (Edwards 2020: 396).

Until recently, a similar picture could be drawn for Egypt. Despite large non-elite cemeteries being known since the early 20th century (e.g., Matmar or Gurob), a monumental/elite bias characterised historical narratives about New Kingdom Egypt (see Richards 2005). Only recently, with the identification and excavation of large non-elite cemeteries at Amarna (Kemp et al. 2013), more scholars are paying attention to other social realities beyond the imposition of elite social spaces.

The long history of archaeology in the Middle Nile has been strongly marked by colonisation, ancient and modern. Nubia’s history, especially in the New Kingdom, has remained, for a long time, in the shadow of Egypt’s history. This manifested as the discipline’s Egyptocentric focus on sites of colonial administration, its textual sources and elite cemeteries, which yielded Egyptian-style objects interpreted as essentially ‚Egyptian’—a manifestation of the alleged acculturation of passive local communities placed in lower ranks of ‚civilisation‘. Traditional, Egyptocentric research agendas contributed further to silencing past colonised groups, which only appear in Egyptian textual sources in inferior positions.

As a result, we still know barely anything about the majority of the population of New Kingdom Nubia, which inhabited areas other than the major colonial centres of power, e.g., Aniba, Sai, Soleb. The cemeteries at these sites house a small number of monumental tombs that, although used collectively, still represent a tiny fraction of society across the history of ancient colonial Nubia.

Who were the majority of the population of New Kingdom Nubia? Where did those people live and where were they buried? Where did they come from? Under what conditions did they live (and die)? Although research is moving forward to address new topics (see Spencer et al. 2017), these are questions that haven’t been explored for Nubia yet, mostly due to archaeology’s focus on acculturation/Egyptianisation in the New Kingdom.

Areas such as the Batn el-Hajar and the region south of Dal cataract, including DiverseNile’s concession from Attab to Ferka, are unlikely to yield monumental elite tombs. However, peripheral, today inhospitable desert areas along the Middle Nile hold an enormous potential to impact our narratives about ancient Nubia’s colonial past, shedding light on alternative histories, experiences and forms of being-in-the-world beyond Egyptological/Egyptocentric research interests grounded on sites of Egyptian colonial administration in the New Kingdom. So, where did the majority of the population live and die in New Kingdom Nubia? Likely in the geographical and social gaps along the Nile still to be fully explored.

Even at colonial administrative centres, such as Aniba, Sai and Soleb, social relations were more complex than simply being ‚Egyptian‘. Recent work confirmed, through isotopic analysis, that local individuals lived at those sites and worked in colonial administration; e.g., the master of goldsmiths Khnumose and other individuals close to him (Budka 2021). My previous work on the distribution and use of Egyptian-style objects in local contexts in colonial Nubia, which included subversive transformations of stylistic and use patterns, also show that things weren’t homogenous in colonial Nubia (Lemos 2020).

Currently, we know very few non-elite cemeteries in New Kingdom colonial Nubia. If social relations were far from being uniform at colonial centres of power, at non-elite cemeteries there was even more room for negotiations, which resulted in the shaping of alternative material realities and experiences of colonisation. Examples from non-elite cemetery of Fadrus in Lower Nubia allow us to understand better such negotiations, which could result in alternative social relations other than imposed colonial hierarchies (e.g., collective engagement and collaboration), as I have argued in a forthcoming paper (Lemos forthcoming).

Fadrus alone doesn’t fill the gap in our knowledge about the vast majority of the population of New Kingdom colonial Nubia, neither does the collective use of elite tombs at the centres of colonial administration. In both elite, administrative sites and non-elite sites, Egyptian-style material culture opens windows to complexity and diversity beyond previous homogenising interpretations of New Kingdom colonial Nubia that reflect disciplinary colonial traditions and interests. Therefore, turning our attention to ‚peripheral‘ regions previously neglected holds an immense potential for us not only to detect this vast mass of population left out of historical narratives, but also to uncover alternatives to colonial homogenisation (ancient and modern) through people’s diverse experiences of landscape, society and culture.

Fig. 1: non-elite graves at Ginis East (Villa 1977: 39).

Vila’s survey identified several burial sites, which are comparable to non-elite cemeteries, although most of the Vila sites don’t seem to be large „formal“ cemeteries like Fadrus (figure 1). DiverseNile’s focus on the regions where the majority of the population of the New Kingdom colonial Nubia lived and died is an important step towards understanding diversity and complexity in heterogeneous New Kingdom Nubia. Exploring such sites in comparison with other sites in Nubia holds a huge potential for us to rewrite Nubia’s diverse history in the New Kingdom, which was characterised by various, sometimes competing material experiences of colonisation, especially considering the creative potential of people living and dying at the fringes of society.


Budka, J. forthcoming 2021. Tomb 26 on Sai island: A New Kingdom elite tomb and its relevance for Sai and beyond. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

Edwards, D. 2020. The Archaeological Survey of Sudanese Nubia, 1963-69. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Kemp, B. J. et al. 2013. Life, Death and Beyond in Akhenaten’s Egypt: Excavating the South Tombs Cemetery at Amarna. Antiquity 87: 64–78.

Lemos, R. 2020. Material culture and colonization in ancient Nubia: Evidence from the New Kingdom cemeteries. Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, ed. C. Smith. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51726-1.

Lemos, R. forthcoming 2022. Heart Scarabs and other heart-related objects in New Kingdom Nubia. Sudan & Nubia 25.

Richards, R. 2005. Society and death in ancient Egypt. Cambridge: CUP.

Spencer, N. et al. 2017. Introduction: History and historiography of a colonial entanglement, and the shaping of new archaeologies for Nubia in the New Kingdom. In Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived experience, pharaonic control and indigenous traditions, ed. N. Spencer, A. Stevens and M. Binder, 1–61. Leuven: Peeters.

Vila, A. 1977. La prospection archeologique de la valee du Nil au sud de la cataracte de Dal 5. Paris: CNRS.

A View from Sai Island

Tomorrow, the second lecture of our DiverseNile Seminar will take place. This time, it will be me presenting and I will talk about “Cultural Diversity in Urban ‚Contact Spaces‘ in New Kingdom Nubia: A View from Sai Island”.

Sai Island is one of the prime case studies to investigate settlement patterns in New Kingdom Nubia. In tomorrow’s presentation, I will focus on state-built foundations like Sai as colonial urban sites and their hinterland. I will explain why I introduced the concept of ‘contact space biography’ for the DiverseNile project and outline this approach.

A view from Sai Island: here towards Gebel Abri.

The starting point for my new research in the Attab to Ferka region were several open questions deriving from my work on Sai between 2011-2018 – tomorrow, I will address some of them, stressing why a view from a colonial temple town is crucial to understand cultural dynamics in rural and peripheral regions of the Middle Nile.

The location of Sai Island in the Middle Nile.

Since time is limited, I will select some examples to address cultural diversity in New Kingdom Nubia: the use of the so-called fire dogs and the question of cooking pots as well as foodways in general. For the latter, I would like to introduce the ‘food system’ concept as presented by Kelly Reed in a brand-new article which provides much food for thought. Reed argues that with such an approach, archaeologists are required to consider „all the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population“ (Reed 2021, 57). This does seem particularly fitting for the DiverseNile project and our aims.  I also very much like her attempt to apply system theory and social-network analyses to highlight the multiple links between society, environment and food. Within our contact space of the Attab to Ferka region, we also want to identify the specific stakeholders (actors such as families, individuals and official institutions as well as the ‚goverment‘, thus the Egyptian state) of this ancient Bronze Age ‘food system’ and thus presumably showing complex connections between the urban sites of Sai and Amara West and their hinterland with rural sites like villages at Ginis and Kosha. New information on food supply and distribution systems will be highly relevant to reconstruct contact space biographies in our project. Last, but definitly not least, the peripheral settlements in our research concession were always an integral part of the ‘food system’ of Sai and contributed to the dynamics we can trace in this state-built foundation (cf. Sulas and Pikirayi 2020, 80).

For more, please zoom in tomorrow at 1pm, late registrations are of course  still welcome!


Reed, K. 2021. Food systems in archaeology. Examining production and consumption in the past. Archaeological Dialogues, 28(1), 51-75. doi:10.1017/S1380203821000088

Sulas, Federica and Pikirayi, Innocent 2020. From Centre-Periphery Models to Textured Urban Landscapes: Comparative Perspectives from Sub-Saharan Africa, Journal of Urban Archaeology 1, 67–83 https://www.brepolsonline.net/doi/epdf/10.1484/J.JUA.5.120910

Evidence for Kerma settlements and an intriguing dry-stone structure in Kosha East

Studying Kerma remains in the MUAFS concession area will provide fresh and urgently needed input for manifold, still open questions about a region far north of the Kerma capital, as our PI Julia Budka stated lately in her article about the Kerma presence in Ginis East (Budka 2020).

Today, I would like to give a short outlook over the settlements of the Kerma horizon in the Attab to Ferka region and exemplarily introducing you to an intriguing site, which seems to hold the potential for further thought (for Kerma tombs in Attab to Ferka see the blog entry of my colleague Rennan Lemos with his presentation of a fascinating Kerma burial).

Currently, 30 settlements classified as Kerma are included in our database – whereby Egyptian New Kingdom presence at some of them and vice versa clearly illustrates the need to move away from the previous used interpretation of sites as rigid ‘Egyptian and ‘Nubian’ cultural units, addressing them as more closer interconnected cultures in this region (Budka 2020: 63).

Concerning their location, the settlements with Kerma presence are consistently distributed between both river banks with a certain dominance (18) on the right bank. Kerma sites on the left bank (12) were often situated in an impressive distance from the modern Nile, thus following the ancient course of the river. Besides a striking number of Kerma remains in the districts Attab and Ginis, Kerma sites can also be traced much further north (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Kerma sites in the region from Attab to Ferka (status 2020). Budka 2020: fig. 13 (modified).

These observations will not only shed further light on Sai during the Kerma period and its periphery, or the northern borders of the Kerma kingdom. Particularly important will be the insight how people lived there in the period of the New Kingdom occupation of Nubia – how the diverse social and cultural groups interacted with each other away from the major urban centres, collectively shaping, exploiting and making the landscape their home (Budka 2020: 63, Budka 2019: 24).

In a contact space like Attab to Ferka, it is the physical manifestations of the living that can shed light on how a cultural exchange could have happened, not only through the adoption or modification of ‘Egyptian’ patterns by the Nubians, but clearly vice versa – visible in the choice of design or used building material. Concerning the latter, with the fascinating site we will have a closer look now, I will focus today on dry-stone as building technique – a method Liszka states that “appears to have been passed down through generations of Nubians for many millennia” (Liszka 2017: 41).

Besides the material the second characteristic of this site, detected by Vila and his team at Mindiq and numbered as NF-36-M/3-P-8 is its location further in the north of the MUAFS concession (Vila 1976: 90–96). More precisely the archaeological remains were found in the north-eastern part of Kosha East, situated in an impressive distance of 750 m to the modern Nile on the first hills rising 10 to 12m above the Kosha plain. The site occupied an overall surface of 200 x 60m (NE-SW), with intermediate sterile zones.Within this area, the areal NF-36-M/3-P-8A/B is from special interest (Fig. 2), being categorised by Vila as habitation site – a term he specifically used for remains of organised structures, perhaps being once a permanent settlement.

Whereas Vila still proposed a Neolithic or Nubien Ancien/Moyen context of the site, his attribution could be revised by our PI during our last campaign, giving, besides the Neolithic, a presumptive Old or Middle Kerma date, based on a large number of Kerma pottery.

Looking closer at Vila’s description of the character and the nature of the site, the division in 3-P-8A and 3-P-8B is explained by the existence of stone structures together with sherds and stone tools in part 3-P-8A at the centre and in the northern part of the site, whereas 3-P-8B consisted of a massive amount of stone tools scattered all over the site, with a certain concentration in the southern part, where no sherds were found.

Figure 2: Mindiq, General sketch plan of site NF-36-M/3-P-8A/B (Kosha E). Vila 1976: fig. 41 (modified).

Concerning the questions of used material and building techniques the design of the stone remains in 3-P-8A are highly interesting – for a tentative interpretation of the site’s purpose also the nature of 3-P-8B can add some hints. In 3-P-8A Vila noted the remains of five dry stone huts – and in close proximity to them (originally connected?) – a feature from special interest (3-P-8A/1) (only) for which he gave a more detailed sketch plan and description: Its visible remains consisted of a quite circular structure made of stone blocks (possibly continuing with similar adjoining structures further north) with a diameter of approx. 4m. Within this stone structure the most interesting detail is a square stone-lined bin measuring approx. 60 cm x 60cm, with a depth of around 50/60cm, whose vertical walls were reinforced with raised slabs (Figs. 3a, b).

Figure 3a: Sketch plan and section of circular structure with stone-lined bin (NF-36-M/3-P-8A/1). (Vila 1976: fig. 42).
Figure 3b: Detail of stone-lined bin in NF-36-M/3-P-8A/1, view towards S. (Vila 1976: fig. 44.1).

When visiting the place in the 1970ies, Vila and his team noted a heavily disturbed area in the northern part of the site, dividing 3-P-8A in two zones (Fig. 2), and consisting of pits of modern stone extractions. A similar picture emerged during our visit in the last campaign, when we found the site badly damaged by modern gold mining. These endangering activities not only clearly illustrate the urgent need of our research in the MUAFS concession, but also the richness of resources of this region, especially in this area, still being extracted today.

Thus, together with the abundance of stone tools indicated by Vila in 3-P-8A/B – further attested by the numerous quartz flakes we found on site – may point to an original purpose of the site associated with gold processing activities. In this context, one may wonder what role the above mentioned stone-lined bin might have played and if the architectural nature of the site 3-P-8/A with its dry-stone constructions could strengthen this assumption? Looking outside the box – thus beyond the MUAFS research area to other comparable frontier and contact spaces of similar time periods within Nubia may help to gain more thought-provoking hints.

Here I will just refer to the evidence in the Batn el-Hagar, recently published by Edwards who introduced the occurrence of a fascinating category of Pharaonic sites, that clearly outnumbered other types of settlements in this region. Besides their number, their peculiarity consists especially of their dry-stone architecture and their often curvilinear layout – representing as Edwards stated “a still unfamiliar form of an ‘Egyptian’ presence” in Nubia (Edwards 2020: 378). These sites were apparently linked to gold mining activities within the region, which is why Edwards refers to them as ‘workshop sites’. Mostly situated in larger distances to the Nile their architecture consists of a number or dry-stone walls forming complexes of subcircular or curvilinear rooms. The different equipment found in these rooms points to different working units and working steps, as illustrated by large granite mortars and grinding installations of diverse types – but it is especially indicated by numerous stone-lined bins or tanks (Fig. 4) comparable to “our” example from Mindiq. Some of the latter seemed to be originally associated withworking processes using water and still contained accumulations of fine water-laid crushed gold bearing quartz (Edwards 2020: 404).

Figure 4: Example of a stone-lined bin (diam: 55 cm, depth: 45 cm, workshop site 11-Q-61, Saras E). Edwards 2020: fig. 3.3.31.

Concerning the rather unusual ‘Egyptian’ architectural appearance of those workshop sites, Edwards suggested a possible more complex history of Egyptian gold mining in this region – and a very plausible stronger role of Nubians in this context. His assumption was not only based on often found Nubian or Kerma style pottery within these workshops (f. ex. Duweishat area, workshop 16-O-12, Attiri – Sorki, with even a predominance of Nubian style ceramics, Edwards 2020: 226–234), but also on the existence of at least one similar site clearly dating in the Middle Kerma period (Duweishat area, workshop 16-S-16, also addressed as ‘Kerma/C-Group’ workshop site). The layout, finds and crushed quartz debris of his clearly Nubian site hold striking similarities to those qualified as Pharaonic workshop sites in this region (Edwards 2020: 406–407).

Figure 5: ‘Kerma/C-Group’ workshop site (16-S-16, Duweishat), 1967. Several large grindstones are visible at floor level of the nearest structure. Edwards 2020: Fig. 7.32.

Returning to our site in Kosha E, 3-P-8A/B, it would be tempting not only to assume a similar functional purpose, but – indicated by the today still visible remains – an original possibly related architectural layout. With clearly still needed further research in the coming years, this site with its presumed Old and Middle Kerma context already is from special interest due to its possible earlier date than the aforementioned site 16-S-16 in the Duweishat region. Thus site 3-P-8A/B, holds not only important hints about the gold-working activities in the Attab to Ferka area but also may help to shed further light on early Nubian gold exploitation.

Not least this early site has the potential to deeper explore the still pending ‘chicken or the egg-problem’ – so the question (is it) ‘Egyptian or Nubian?’ that Liszka chose concisely as title of her important article (Liszka 2017) on the matter of dry-stone architecture in Nubia in ‘Egyptian’ contexts. It is precisely such sites, that not only allow us to find answers concerning the activities of ancient people living there and the reasons for the choice of diverse building techniques, for different materials or locations (f. ex. being possible rather pragmatic choices depending on the better availability of stone or are they rather hinting to an internal cultural variability? Or point they to a rather seasonal occupation resp. are explained by the sites purpose?). But most importantly, architectural remains, such as these dry-stone buildings used by ‘Nubians’ or ‘Egyptians’ can also contribute to reconstruct the dynamics of such an ancient ‘contact space’ as the Attab and Ferka region – does it point, f. ex. to knowledge transfer throughout the times and cultures or to the inclusion of craftsmanship of well-trained people, thus not only resulting in acceptance or appropriation of various cultural influences, but also in possible fusions creating together something new.

In this regard – stay tuned for further insights in the fascinating topic of exploring the settlement-scape and the nature of living in the Attab to Ferka region!


Budka, J. 2019 (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, C. Geiger, V. Hinterhuber and M. Scheiblecker). Towards Middle Nile Biographies: the Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project 2018/2019, in: Sudan & Nubia 23, 13–26.

Budka, J. 2020. Kerma presence at Ginis East: The 2020 season of the Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project, in: Sudan & Nubia 24, 57–71.

Edwards, D.N (ed.). 2020. The Archaeological Survey of Sudanese Nubia, 1963–69. The Pharaonic Sites. Oxford.

Liszka, K. 2017. Egyptian or Nubian? Dry-Stone Architecture at Wadi el-Hudi, Wadi es-Sebua, and the Eastern Desert’, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 103(1), 35–51.

Vila. A. 1976. La prospection archéologique de la vallée du Nil au sud de la Cataracte de Dal. Fascicule 4. District de Mograkka (Est et Ouest). District de Kosha (Est et Ouest).Paris.

Discussing theory and methodology

I’ve been really busy with several commitments besides my research project, but I’d like to give you a quick update about what I’ve been up to lately. As you know, my WP2 research focuses specifically on the data collected by Vila within the region from Attab to Ferka. However, in order to have a more comprehensive idea of the significance of this data, comparison with other regions is a key aspect of my methodology. If sites such as tomb 3-P-50 at Ginis West allow us to start challenging ingrained conceptions about society and culture in New Kingdom Nubia, e.g., colonial ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’, putting sites like this into a broader context is a really important step.

In previous posts, I stressed the importance of data sets like those produced by the ASSN or the Finish Expedition in the Batn el-Hajar area, as well as sites in the 4th cataract. But comparative research shouldn’t be limited to feeding information from different sites into a database, although it remains an important aspect of my research. A descriptive approach to data would allow us to identify previously ignored data, especially for regions that are not usually part of major narratives about Nubia, e.g., the Attab-Ferka area. However, a clear theoretical approach allows us to abstract descriptions into understandings of broader social phenomena.

I’ve recently been invited to speak in the New Perspectives on Ancient Nubia seminar series, co-hosted by the Bade Museum and University of California Berkeley. In my talk, I discussed the role and potential of postcolonial and decolonial theory for New Kingdom Nubia. A broader theoretical approach allows us to bring together evidence from different contexts into a general narrative about social logics that both produce and are produced by the material culture we investigate and describe in our databases.

Postcolonial theory has had a huge impact in archaeology, although its role in the Nile valley has not always been that explicit. Postcolonial theory provides us with a framework from which we’re able to criticise colonial narratives and practices, but also to unveil hidden, silenced logics that have remained outside mainstream historical narratives. This is highly important for the DiverseNile theoretical and methodological framework.

Egyptian-style material culture has been understood, as whole, through a generalising lens that emphasised the Egyptian presence and transposition of knowledges and practices to an acculturated Nubia. My research in the last few years allowed to unveil, from a postcolonial perspective, alternative realities created by transformed foreign objects in local contexts in New Kingdom Nubia (I explore this further in a forthcoming paper on heart scarabs, which will be published in the next issue of Sudan & Nubia). So, developing and applying a postcolonial approach to our data from the region from Attab to Ferka, combined with information from the very centres of colonial power in New Kingdom Nubia, will certainly shed more light on the substance of diversity, allowing us to include regions traditionally excluded from historical narratives into histories of alternative experiences created and sustained by alternatives roles performed by spreading material culture. That’s a bit of what I’ve been reading, thinking and writing lately. I’d be happy to think about these issues together with anyone interested!