Performing XRD analysis on Nile clay Nubian- and Egyptian-style samples from Attab and Ginis

Exams never end, not just for humans but even for archaeological artifacts.

Already before the Christmas break, I had happily returned to the lab, this time to prepare a new bunch of ceramic samples to undergo X-ray powder diffraction (XRPD) analysis. Thanks to a new cooperation with the TU München, and especially with Prof. H. A. Gilg (Chair of Engineering Geology) we decided in fact to complement our iNAA and OM analyses with this new laboratory methodology, with the aim of expanding our knowledge on the composition, provenance and technology of production of our Nile clay samples. All in all, we preliminary selected 30 ceramic specimens, among Nubian- and Egyptian-style sherds from the 2022 and 2023 excavated sites at Attab West and Ginis East. To this sample, we added a replica in modern Nubian (from Abri) Nile clay manufactured by us during our last workshop in Asparn.

Generally speaking, X-ray powder diffraction analysis is a well consolidated analytical technique used in the field of archaeometry and ceramic technology to determine the mineral phases present in the pastes, including those clay phases which are typically not visible under the microscope. This technique also provides information on the firing process the pottery went through. Certain minerals (e.g., calcite as one of the most known) can in fact degrade, disappear or be altered at given temperatures because the crystalline structure collapses through the process of dehydroxylation (Magetti 1982; Rice 1987). The analysis itself based on the phenomenon of diffraction of electromagnetic radiation, by exploiting the fact that X-rays falling on crystalline planes in minerals are reflected at varying angles (Velde and Druc 1999; Quin 2013). Hence, each mineral type will produce a characteristic X-ray diffraction spectrum with diagnostic peaks placed at given angular distances (expressed in degrees 2θ), allowing the qualitative identification of the minerals present within the ceramic sample. The heigh of those picks permits otherwise a semi-quantitative estimation of the ratios in which minerals are more or less represented.

Figure 1 – Lab kit for the preparation of samples for XRD analysis. Photo by G. D’Ercole.

Sample preparation is pretty much straightforward although partially destructive. The procedure requires that a tiny portion of the sherd be ground up (about 1g of powder) by hands with an agate mortar and a pestle, alike those used for iNAA, pressed in the mounting smear slide, and then put into the instrument. Proper pulverization and homogenization are crucial to achieve highly quality XRD data.

Figure 2 – Pulverization of the sample by hands in the agate mortar. Photo by G. D’Ercole.

The sample needs to be as representative of the ceramic sherd as possible – for this reason, it is sometimes advisable to grind a larger quantity of powder and above all finely ground so as to prevent larger crystals (e.g., coarse quartz grains) from interfering with the measurement. This latter can be carried out with different timing and levels of accuracy depending on whether one wants only a rough semi-quantitative estimate of the mineral phases in the sample or more accurate information.

Figure 3 – First set of potsherds ground up and ready to be analysed by XRD analysis. Note the diverse powder colours from black (reduced fired Nubian samples) to reddish-brown (oxidized fired Egyptian sherds). Photo by G. D’Ercole.
Figure 4 – Samples ready in the mounting smear slides. Photo by G. D’Ercole.

In performing XRD analysis, our main archaeological questions were the following:

  • Can we recognize the use of different clay raw materials for the different sites/locations (e.g., Attab, Ginis…);
  • Can we differentiate between Nubian- (also Pan-Grave) vs. Egyptian-style samples;
  • Can we differentiate between the different ceramic types and wares;
  • Can we demonstrate the intentional addition of tempers (calcite and/or quartz and/or feldspar and/or mica) in particular samples?
  • Can we know more about the firing process (i.e., firing temperatures) the ceramics went through?

Currently, together with Prof. Gilg, we just started to interpret the results of the first diffractograms. The data are not always straightforward to read and the differences between the various samples look sometimes very subtle – on the other hand our Nile clay samples have used us to significant challenges for many years already!

Preliminary, we can say that, based on the diagnostic mineral phases in the various spectra, it was possible to recognise four distinct groups or types of samples. These groups do not depend on the main phases (quartz or feldspar) as these are present in nearly homogenous amounts in all samples. Rather, some differences can be spotted in the clay minerals. Whether these latter can be ascribed to different clay sources, preparation recipes, or eventually the pot production (i.e., firing) has yet to be fully assessed.


Maggetti, M. 1982. Phase Analysis and its Significance for Technology and Origin. In J. S. Olin and A. D. Franklin (eds.), Archaeological Ceramics: 121−133. Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press.

Quinn, P. S. 2013. Ceramic Petrography: The Interpretation of Archaeological Pottery & Related Artefacts in Thin Section. Oxford, Archaeopress.

Rice, P. M. 1987. Pottery analysis. A sourcebook. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Velde, B. and Druc, I. C. 1999. Archaeological Ceramic Material. Origin and Utilization. Berlin Heidelberg, Springer-Verlag.

One paper out, a new exciting Raman spin-off project just launched

About two years ago, at the height of the Covid pandemic, the idea was born to initiate a scientific cooperation with our colleagues Fabian Dellefant and Melanie Kaliwoda from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the LMU and test together a new analytical methodology for archaeological ceramic material, namely Raman Spectroscopy.

Specifically, we aimed to first perform Raman spectroscopy towards carbon-bearing pottery and yields insights on the application of this technique for estimating maximum firing temperatures of Late Bronze Age vessels from Upper Nubia, comparing two site-specific data sets of samples, from the 18th Dynasty (1550–1290 BCE) at Sai Island and Dukki Gel (Kerma).

The encounter between natural sciences and archaeology was successful and from this idea an inspiring project developed, culminating in the publication of the paper: “Differentiation of Late Bronze Age Nubian- and Egyptian-style ceramics from northern Sudan by manufacturing firing temperatures using Raman spectroscopy”, in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, as part of the Special Issue Materiality of Earth edited by Pamela Fragnoli, Elisa Boccalon, Susanna Cereda, and Giovanna Liberotti, whom we all deeply thank for inviting us to contribute to this SI.

In testing Raman spectroscopy, our principal aims were to search for differences in producing technique and firing temperatures between the Nubian- and Egyptian-style samples; between the samples from Sai Island and those from Dukki Gel; and eventually among the different ceramic wares and types.

Now, as it is often the case, one idea leads to another and while some of the archaeological questions posed in the initial objectives of the work have not yet been fully answered, new exciting questions have arisen during the research and led us to further expand our Raman project into a new spin-off project focused on the investigation of the effects of oxidative weathering in relation to site-specific depositional environment and time.

Generally speaking, oxidative weathering is known to cause significant alteration modifications of the ceramic body after deposition resulting in distorting Raman spectra and potentially leading to an overestimation of the firing temperatures (Deldicque et al., 2023). Although all archaeological ceramics experienced oxidative weathering, our case study showed that the weathering effect was possibly more intense on the Dukki Gel than on the Sai Island samples hence to affect maximum firing conditions.

The new set of samples for which thin-sections were produced to perform Raman Spectroscopy.

In the coming months, together with Fabian Dellefant, we will particularly focus on this aspect of our research and perform Raman Spectroscopy on new samples, including ceramic sherds that have undergone extremely intensive oxidative weathering and experimental replica which were never exposed to any depositional and post-depositional processes.

Stay tuned to know more about the development of our work!


Deldicque, D., Rouzaud, J., Vandevelde, S., Medina-Alcaide, M.A., Ferrier, C., Perrenoud, C., Pozzi, J., Cabanis, M., 2023. Effects of oxidative weathering on Raman spectra of charcoal and bone chars: consequences in archaeology and paleothermometry. Comptes Rendus. Geoscience 355, 1–22. 10.5802/crgeos.186.

Ceramics matter: 16th Edition of the European Meeting on Ancient Ceramics (EMAC) in Pisa

For an Africanist archaeologist working in North Africa, the fall and winter seasons are mostly dedicated to excavation, while spring marks some how the beginning of the “conference season”.

Here, as a follow up of the blog post written by my colleague Chloë Ward on the Sudan Studies Conference Naples, I am glad to shorty report on the 16th EMAC Conference I attended last week in Pisa, Italy.

The EMAC is a important biennial conference gathering scholars and researchers with a broad spectrum background on ceramic technological and provenance studies from both the humanistic and hard science disciplinary areas. New approaches and up-to-date laboratory techniques to the study of ancient ceramics are typically presented in terms of analytical procedures, methodological papers, and case studies from all around the world.

The 1st EMAC edition took place in Rome, in 1991, while the first EMAC I personally attended was in Vienna, in 2011. This year, after two years of postponement because of the Covid Pandemic, the 16th edition of the EMAC has been back as an in-person conference in Italy, held by the University of Pisa, in the splendid setting of its Medieval and Renaissance town which is also one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe. Further, this year the EMAC conference was preceded by a 1st edition of the EMAC School dedicated to PhD students and young researchers as an opportunity for advanced training in non-destructive and non-invasive methods for the study of archaeological ceramics.

The conference (June 14-16) consists of six scientific sessions covering the diverse topics of Digital archaeology and potteries studies (S1), Experimental archaeology, technological traces, use wear and organic residues (S2 + S4), Raw materials ecologies and provenance (S3), Technology and production (S5), and Theory and Methods (S6).

Title page of our talk at the 16th EMAC in Pisa.

Our paper titled Chemical Characterization of Bronze Age Nile clayey ceramics from northern Sudan – is it really all the same?, co-authored by our PI, Julia Budka, Johannes H. Sterba, our colleague from the AI in Vienna, and by myself was included in Session 3: Raw materials ecologies an provenance. All in all, it summarized our study on over 600 ceramic samples conducted in the last 10 years within the framework of Julia’s ERC projects AcrossBorders and DiverseNile, dealing with the challenging but otherwise successful application of bulk geochemical analysis (Neutron Activation Analysis or NAA) to establish provenance for these characteristic vessels manufactured in Nile clay.  

Specifically, our case study spans several millennia from prehistory to the Late Bronze Age (New Kingdom period) and comprises ceramic material collected over a long stretch of the Nile, including our last samples from the new sites excavated in the MUAFS concession area, the AcrossBorders ceramic samples from the temple town of Sai Island, and further reference material among which the beautiful potsherds from the site of Dukki Gel, Kerma. Within this large data set, we aimed to investigate minute changes in the chemical composition of Nile clayey ceramics that might help to differentiate their provenance and production technology. In detail, we looked for bulk compositional differences (or otherwise similarities) between different traditions (i.e., wheel-made Egyptian style and hand-made Nubian style pottery), chronological periods, and sites/locations. We focused our interpretation on the preparation of the clay, that is the particular recipe or formula adopted by the ancient potters to produce their vessels. We recognized in fact that considering just the clay raw material is possibly not sufficiently representative of the whole range of cultural and social drives as well as of performative actions (e.g., depuration of the clay, tempering and so on) carried out at the anthropic level to make a given paste particularly suitable for the production of a certain type of traditional vessel.

Ceramic sherds submitted to INAA within our large scope provenance study. Samples from the DiverseNile field season 2023 and from Amara West are here included although not yet analysed.

I am pleased to remark here that our talk was appreciated not only as a specific case study but more in general for the questions and challenges it proposed at the interpretative level, as a methodological paper.

Further, I really valued the holistic vision of the conference and the successful attempt of the organizing board to well intertwine over the different sessions the many different subjects and issues on ceramic production and use, such as to ideally follow all the successive stages of the manufacturing sequence, from raw material procurement to preparation, production, use and finally discard of the vessel. Further, this 16th EMAC gave more space to experimental archaeology, ethnographic study, and finally first tried to incorporate ORA studies in the wide range of inorganic analyses on ancient ceramics.

Of particular interest for us was certainly the talk given by Maritan et al. on the local and imported ceramic material from the Meroitic site of Sedeinga, nearby Sai Island, but I also much appreciated the methodological communication by Hein, Buxeda, Garrigós and Kilikoglou on the “Representativeness of a ceramic assemblage – significance and confidence in relation to sample size”, and the many good papers on the issue of manufacturing and shaping techniques, among which that by Gait et al. which nicely introduced the application of non destructive small-angle neutron scattering analysis (SANS) to identify forming techniques for both wheel made and handmade pots.

To conclude, I deeply admired the eco-friendly and low environmental impact slant of this 16th EMAC edition with its delicious and fully vegetarian Italian buffet, organic wine tasting, non-printed program and abstract book, and mostly the EMAC 2023 committee decision to donate the funds to charitable initiatives for the planet and the communities that inhabit it.

The splendid sun set view in Pisa from the restaurant terrace where the EMAC 2023 social dinner took place. Photo by Johannes Sterba.

Good news during very sad times for Sudan: our DiverseNile 2023 samples successfully sent to lab for INAA and OM analyses

Archaeologist is a meaningful career although our amazing job is constantly challenging under many respects and it often is physically and emotionally demanding. This is especially true for those among us who work in the field and even more for archaeologists who are part of projects, like ours, that investigate very remote and fragile geographical areas. And Sudan was in the past, and is clearly still nowadays, an extremely fragile and unpredictable land both in terms of its environmental and climatic conditions, resources, borders, cultural entities, and interregional socio-political relationships. This can be certainly attributed to the vastness of the country and to its long history of intricate and fragmented cultural, linguistic and religious identities which intertwine with an alike complex mosaic of many diverse and complementary landscapes and ecological niches.

Having said that, with these words, I do not want in any way to justify under the umbrella of the general geo-political complexity of the country, the horrible conflicts and fighting that have been going on in the capital city of Khartoum for days now and that make us seriously fear for the lives of our colleagues and friends there, as well as for the possibility of being able to return to work in our beloved Sudan. This insane war has in fact to do with geo-political balances and power games, and at the moment I consider myself blessed to have still had the privilege of having a successful field season there and hence returning just in time to get safely back home, in Munich – our team left Khartoum just five weeks ago, before all this catastrophe started!

Even more grateful we can consider ourselves, although in the last days ours is not just normal business, to manage to successfully export to Germany all our bunch of samples for laboratory analysis. And this was possible as usual thanks to the kind cooperation of our inspector and friend, Huda Magzoub, and of the NCAM in Khartoum.

A few days ago, just before the Easter break, my desk, or rather, every flat surfaces of my office (!) was still covered by a multitude of tiny, beautiful ceramic sherds for analysis. These samples, selected during the two weeks of field season I spent in Ginis, include a total of 131 specimens, attributable to Nubian-style and Egyptian-style ceramics made in Nile clays. Of these, 129 were eventually destinated to INAA and have been already successfully delivered to the AI of Vienna, where they are now in the wise hands of our colleague, Johannes Sterba. 28 intended for Optical Microscopy were additionally sent to Prague and are currently in the process of being manufactured as polished thin sections.

The sample incorporate mainly ceramic material from the Bronze Age sites in the area of Ginis and Attab, and specifically from the two excavated settlement sites of Attab West 001 ( 60 sherds in total) and Attab West 002 = Vila Site 2-S-54 (17 sherds in total), and from the cemetery GiE 003 in Ginis East (44 sherds in total). To these are added 10 samples from a surface collection conducted by our PI, Julia Budka, in the district of Kosha East (Kerma cemetery 3-P-7).

All in all, this material is highly significant in terms of diachronic representativeness of the area, covering in fact a wide time span from the Middle Kerma to the Kerma Classic and up until the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom period. Furthermore, these samples appear extremely promising with our general aim of understanding cultural diversity and investigating interregional and local social relationships between Egyptian and Nubian entities, comprising exceptionally not only Nubian Kerman material but also ceramic wares and types potentially attributable to the Pan-Grave cultural sphere (from Trench 5 at GiE 003).

I was glad to once again have a pleasant déjà vu of myself photographing, documenting, and packing these tiny samples that are now waiting to be analysed, while I am now busy in entering each of them in our Samples FileMaker DB.

Looking forward to revealing more about the inwardness of these tangible precious testimonies of Nubia’s Bronze Age material culture, I wish a bit of rest, peace, and hope for our beloved Sudan and mostly for all people and citizens who are now in danger because of this unjust violence.

Reflections on “Material meanings, technology and cultural choices: Pottery production in Bronze Age Nubia”

Time passes quickly, we know, especially when good things happen. Only last January with a 9-months pregnant belly – and an inspired although easily forgetful pregnancy brain – I wrote the blog post “Some thoughts around the concepts of materiality, identity and style”. By that time, I already had some ideas jumbling around in my mind, I was reading quite some articles about materiality, entanglement, and style, taking notes, and in a way I wanted to back them up somewhere, in a safe place, before starting my parental leave. Meanwhile, my second baby, Filippo, was born and he is now an eight months healthy and curious boy who crawls everywhere and chews anything (with a preference for books!) all around the apartment. Meanwhile, I have also ended my maternity leave and I am officially back in the office! And there could not be a more excited and effective return than being able to draw on those preliminary thoughts and notes and make them flow into my lecture on “Material meanings, technology and cultural choices. Pottery production in Bronze Age Nubia”, the penultimate within our 2022 DiverseNile Seminar Series of lectures on Landscape and Resource Management in Bronze Age Nubia.

Once again, I wish to express my gratitude to both Julia Budka and Rennan Lemos for having invited me to give this talk. Also, I take the chance to thank the colleagues who were present in the audience and took part in the discussion. For those who have not had the opportunity to attend the lecture, you can find it recorded on our website at the following link: DiverseNile Seminar Series 2022 ( Eventually, I am going to summarize below some of the main topics I covered. In principle, there was the idea of taking stock of the state of the art of my results and current research aims within the Work Package 3 of the project. Also, I meant to compare the large-scope technological and compositional study conducted within the frame of the ERC AcrossBorders project on the ceramic assemblage from the New Kingdom colonial town of Sai Island with the results available from the analysis of the ceramic material from the Kerma/New Kingdom site of Dukki Gel. The latter have been actually already included in our DiverseNile database and together with the Sai Island corpus constitute a pretty massive reference collection of over 300 samples.

Fig. 1: One example for our new samples from the MUAFS concession – here a collection of Nubian-style sherds from the domestic site AtW 001 (photo: J. Budka).

Eventually, I was keen to introduce our new set of samples – 108 beautiful and highly promising ceramic sherds, among which diverse examples of Nubian-style and Egyptian-style wares in Nile clay, selected during our last field season from the region between Attab and Ferka, namely from the sites of Attab West 001, Ginis East 001, and Ginis East 003, two settlement sites and a Kerma cemetery (Figures 1 and 2).

Fig. 2: A summary of the number and provenience of our new set of samples from the MUAFS concession.

For presenting these data, I built up a consistent theoretical frame that provided for the concepts of materiality, style, and “chaîne opératoire”. I started by talking about the meaning that we attribute to objects, not only those with high symbolic value like luxury goods or amulets, but also and above all those objects of domestic use, which we all have in our kitchens and which intersect daily with our traditions, culinary practices, gestures, and phares so that every family, and in a broad sense every culture, has not only its own family lexicon (sensu Ginzburg 1963) but also a familiar lexicon of the material culture that has belonged to it. I have therefore examined the etymology of the word object, from the Medieval Latin obiectum „thing put before“ (the mind or sight), from which comes the idea of the object as everything that the subject (human/culture) perceives as different from himself. Hence the reference to a long tradition of philosophical and linguistic studies in which the objects, and material culture in the extended sense, has been interpreted according to an anthropocentric one-way perspective mainly as static representation of the (human) subject (for further details see Fahalander 2008). The discussion continued by examining the concept of material culture in archaeology and anthropology with reference to the academic movement of ‘Processual archaeology’ and then in accordance to the ‘post-Processualism’. Eventually, I have talked upon the recently increasing interest on ‘things and materiality’, the so-called New Materialism (see e.g., Olsen et al. 2012) and with it a new way of perceiving the material reality as centred on itself, if not freed by the human subject (it can never be completely so), at least less depended on the human apparatus of symbolic representation and functional meanings. Not by chance in the last decades, we have also witnessed a progressive change of terminology with the use of the words things and materiality gradually replaced that of material culture.

I therefore examined the concepts of materiality and style in reference to the manufacturing sequence linked to the production of Egyptian-style and Nubian-style vessels in Nile clay, with case studies from both Sai Island and Dukki Gel, and thus observed in which stages of the chaîne opératoire were the identity aspects of the aforementioned cultures and ceramic traditions more (or less) emphasized.

Looking at the ceramic manufacture not just as a finished product resulted from the human action and intended for functional, social, and representative needs, but as the outcome of a series of gestures and corporeal actions that take shape in the first place in direct contact with the environment, by means the choice and manipulation of the raw materials, implies putting ourselves in a new multi-scale perspective, so that we can move forward from the anthropocentric dimension and add to the dialectical relation objects vs. humans a third party, namely the environment with its vegetation, animals, bodies, and various materials such as clay, water and sand.

Secondly, can we ask ourselves with greater knowledge and detail “Who produced the vessels?” That is, who, among the Nubian and / or Egyptian potters having their workshops settled in Upper Nubia – most of the analysed Egyptian style and Nubian style Nile wares in Nile clay from Sai Island have showed indeed the same chemical fingerprint (D’Ercole and Sterba forthcoming) – selected the raw material for making their vessels, kneaded the pastes, and then went to shape the pots, to treat the surfaces, to apply the decorations and finally to make the fire? It is plausible to think that if not all, at least some of the gestures and stages of the manufacturing sequences took place simultaneously in the same workshop without a too rigid separation between Egyptian and Nubian production. That is, that the same potter/s possibly prepared and fired together Nubian and Egyptian style vessels and that only the stages related to the production and finishing (those where we have observed the greater diversity of style!) took place separately on the basis of specific technological skills and regional traditions.

It is still plausible to think that in such promiscuous contexts some of the so-called hybrid vessels, showing a mixture of Egyptian and Nubian stylistic aspects and technologies, have taken shape, perhaps initially accidentally, to then become objects possibly intentionally sought and widespread as the expression of a shared use of the same territory and mostly of the progressive entanglement between the Egyptian and Nubian cultures. To what extent were these isolated cases or is it realistic (and ethically correct) to speak about “Creolization” or “Koinezation” of ceramic styles? (for the term koiné and “International artistic koiné” cf., Feldman 2006).

A solid theoretical background combined with a broad-spectrum analytical approach based on the combined macroscopic and microscopic analysis of several ceramic collections from several bordering regions environmentally and culturally highly similar but also extremity distinctive (e.g., Sai Island, Kerma/Dukki Gel, and the Attab to Ferka region) is already allowing us to answer some of these questions and to formulate many others more and more punctual on the way of expanding our knowledge on the complex system of socio-cultural, economical, and ecological dynamics that took place during the Bronze Age period in the various regions of Nubia.


D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, J. H. Forthcoming. Chemical analyses of the pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai. In: J. Budka (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J.H. 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: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Fahlander, F. 2008. Differences that matter. Materialities, material culture and social practice (127-154). In: Glørstad, H., & Hedeager, L. eds. Six essays on the materiality of society and culture. Bricoleur Press.

Feldman, M. H. 2006. Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an ‘International Style’ in the Ancient Near East, 1400–1200BCE. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ginzburg, N. 1963. Family Lexicon. Daunt Books.

Olsen, B., Shanks, M., Webmoor, T., Witmore, C. 2012. Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. University of California Press.

Some thoughts around the concepts of materiality, identity and style

On Tuesday 25 there was the kick-off of the DiverseNile Seminar Series 2022 and our PI Julia Budka gave an inspiring opening lecture to inaugurate it. Among other topics, she mentioned the concept of agency of material culture and relevance of technologies. This led me to reflect once again in a more problematic way on the meaning of the terms materiality, identity, and style and on the use that we made of them nowadays in archaeology and, specifically, within the study of Nubian Bronze Age material culture, including our speculations on Egyptian style and Nubian style ceramic vessels.

But let’s start from the beginning, putting some basic theoretical arguments on the table!

In the last decades, the approach to materiality and the study of material culture has become a central aspect of the research and new important cognitive theories have been developed around this concept. Back in 2001 Colin Renfrew wrote “Symbol before concept: Material engagement and the early development of society” challenging the theoretical biases of cognitive archaeology and putting the bases for understanding the engagement of the mind with the material world (Renfrew 2001; see also Iliopoulos 2019, 40). In 2004, Renfrew and Malafouris developed the so-called Material Engagement Theory (MET), from which comes the notion of creative “thinging” which refers to the capacity of humans to feel/think through and about things (Malafouris 2004, 2019a). Some years later, Olsen et al. define archaeology as “the discipline of things”, that is the science of the objects, “obliged the archaeologists to be bricoleurs, who collect bits and pieces, not because of an erratic whim but because of a commitment, a fidelity to the materials we engage” (Olsen et al. 2012, 4).

All in all, MET shares with New Materialisms (see e.g., Edgeworth 2016) “a special ‘attentiveness’ to things, as well as an interest in understanding the ‘vitality’ and the ‘mattering’ of mater” (Malafouris 2019b, 9). Further, New Materialisms support “an object agency”, that is an existence of their own of the objects that transcends that of human symbolic systems. This can be seen primarily as a reaction to the symbolism of the post-processual approach (cf. Hodder 1982) and more generally as a tendency to move beyond the concepts of “meaning” and “identity” of material culture, to embrace otherwise a new ontology of materiality that sees it freed from particular forms of representations (Tsoraki et al. 2020; see also Deleuze 2007).

In other words, if for decades the philosophical thought as well as the field of social and cultural studies have been dominated by a dialectical setting of the terms “material” and “symbol” (or “meaning”) with the former in fact understood as a “signifier” or simple representative of the latter (let’s think of the dualism of Descartes, of the logic behind the linguistic structuralism or, taken to the extreme, of Magritte’s provocative sentence under his famous painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), the New Materialism in archaeology, as in other fields of science, newly and provocatively suggests to shift away from an emphasis on representation and attends otherwise “to the material vibrancy of past objects and the roles that materials themselves play in the production of meaning” (Tsoraki et al. 2020, 494-495; cf. McFadyen and Hicks 2020, 3).

What does this mean in practice? How can objects exist free of the representation that man has of them? How is it possible to extrapolate from the concept of style the symbolic value acquired through the context of human thought, experience and action? What kind of speculation or ontology of matter does the New Materialism propose?

Actually, the New Materialism does turn attention away from the human agency and responsibility (cf. Ribeiro 2016; Whittle 2018), nor rejects the concept of representation per se. Rather, it aims to overcome it, exploring a more-than representational version of material meanings, and embracing a systemic (and relational) rather than dualistic vision of reality. This decentres the human subject and the mere ontology of symbolism and representation (see Tsoraki 2020, 497), considering otherwise a multiple system of relationships where things, humans, landscape, and in a broader sense whatever forms part of it (including raw materials, rocks, animals, and plants) is interconnected and linked to each other’s.

This new systemic and relational ontology expands the study of material culture further beyond the frame of the human context and its apparatus of symbolic, aesthetic, or functional meanings, embracing the much wider space of ecology. Notably, the study of things assumes a more fluid and dynamic vision, with the concept of chaîne opératoire becoming the most suitable and powerful analytical tool in order to return a vibrant analysis of past material object (e.g., lithics as ceramic assemblages) as embedded in a network of diverse and intertwined human and non-human actions. The chaîne opératoire in fact “imposes systematization in data collection, as well as the acknowledgement of a variety of elements that are invariably brought together in the conduct of technical activities” (Gosselain 2012, 246). Style, intended in its broader sense as ‘technological style’ (sensu Lechtman 1977), “potentially resides in every phase of the manufacturing sequence or chaîne opératoire” (Sillar and Tite 2000, 8).

Diagram summarizing the more important interrelationships affecting the technological choices made in pottery production (from Sillar and Tite 2000, 6).

Bringing this discussion back to the context of the Bronze Age in the Middle Nile, this premise constitutes part of the theoretical background behind the Work package 3 of our DiverseNile project, and specifically what our PI, my colleagues, and I are approaching to observe and understand through the technological analysis of ceramics, focusing on the typology, technology, material, function and contents of pottery, by combining a standard macroscopic approach with various complementary laboratory methodologies (e.g., OM, iNAA, Raman Spectroscopy, Organic Residue Analysis).

Here, we can build on results of the AcrossBorders project and our focus on the analysis of the ceramic assemblage from the New Kingdom colonial town of Sai Island and on the study of the differences between locally made wheel-made Egyptian and hand-made Nubian vessels. In the current project, we will expand our geographical scale, evaluating and comparing various ceramic reference collections from the central sites of Sai, Dukki Gel, and Amara West, with first hand material from the MUAFS concession area in the Attab to Ferka region.

What we know already now are the following main points:

  1. There exist significant stylistic variations between Egyptian style and Nubian style ceramics which are reflected on several levels i.e., in the aesthetic, morphometric, and technological aspects of the ceramic production of New Kingdom Nubia;
  2. the ceramics manufactured locally at Sai Island, either in Egyptian and Nubian style, do not differ significantly in their chemical composition (the stage of raw material procurement), while a different chemical fingerprint has been recognized for specific imported Egyptian products (i.e., Egyptian cooking pots in Nile clay) (D’Ercole and Sterba 2018; D’Ercole and Sterba forthcoming);
  3. within New Kingdom Nubia, regional style in ceramics was mostly expressed by surface treatment and decoration that is within the manufacturing stages of production and finishing, while minor differences can be seen in the so-called preparation stage i.e., the formula or recipe used for making the pastes (D’Ercole forthcoming);
  4. about the use of vessels, some functions seem to be exclusive to Egyptian or Nubian vessels, while for others we observe overlaps even if, regardless of the generic function (e.g., cooking pots), the specific content of the vessel could vary (ORA studies hold much potential here);
  5. the evidence from Sai is another example for well-known so-called hybrid products, which are interesting examples of the encounter between the Egyptian and Nubian traditions.

This is in summary the state of the art of what we know from Sai Island on the stylistic and technological variations between Egyptian style and Nubian style vessels. However, there are still open questions about the system of production and use of vessels in New Kingdom Nubia as well as the relational dynamics that pass between those ceramic products, the human agents, and the past cultural and environmental landscape. The new material from the MUAFS concession area in the Attab to Ferka region is very promising in this sense and will give important insights on these topics. I cannot spoil it here, so please stay tuned on this blog 😉!

Example of set of wheel-made Egyptian style ceramics from one of the 18th Dynasty sites in the MUAFS concession (photo: J. Budka).

Generally speaking, is for example the definition of Egyptian and Nubian style, as we know it from Sai and other central colonial sites, applicable in the same way to the ceramic assemblages coming from the peripheral and rural contexts? How much has the cultural, environmental and ecological (also thinking in terms of raw materials, tools and energy sources) landscape influenced the choices of production, use and function of the vessels? What about the hybrid products? And does it make sense to talk, especially in rural and peripheral contexts, of a single Nubian tradition or should we consider the existence of a melting pot of Nubian influences (and eventually ceramic styles) intersected with the Egyptian one?

The questions on the table are still many that after months of remote research and theoretical debate, it is ever more urgent to return to the field to face in a tangible way the study of the material evidence. Looking much forward to it!


D’Ercole, G., In prep. Petrography of the pottery from the New Kingdom town of Sai. In: J. Budka, ed. (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J.H. 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: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press. 

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). In: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller, eds. From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia (pp. 171-183). Leiden: Sidestone press.

D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, J. H. In prep. Chemical analyses of the pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai. In: J. Budka, ed. (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J.H. 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: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Deleuze, G. (2007). Two Regimes of Madness, Revised Edition: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e).

Edgeworth, M. (2016). Grounded Objects. Archaeology and Speculative Realism. Archaeological Dialogues,23 (1), pp. 93113.

Gosselain, O. P. (2012) Technology. In: Insoll, T. (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (pp. 243–260). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hodder, I. (1982). Theoretical Archaeology: A Reactionary View. In I. Hodder (Ed.), Symbolic and Structural Archaeology (pp. 1–16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Iliopoulos, A. (2019). Material Engagement Theory and its philosophical ties to pragmatism. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 18, pp. 39–63.

Lechtman, H. (1977). Style in technology: some early thoughts. In: H. Lechtman, and T.S. Merrill (Eds.), Material culture: style, organization, and dynamics of technology (pp. 3-20). St Paul: West Publishing Company.

Malafouris, L. (2004). The cognitive basis of material engagement: Where brain, body and culture conflate. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden & C. Renfrew (Eds.), Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world (pp. 53–62). Cambridge: The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Google Scholar.

Malafouris, L. (2019a). Thinking as “Thinging”: Psychology With Things. Current Directions in Psychological Science,29 (1), pp. 3–8.

Malafouris, L. (2019b). Mind and material engagement. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 18, pp. 1–17.

McFadyen, L., and D. Hicks. 2020. Introduction: From Archaeography to Photology. In D. Hicks and L. McFadyen(Eds.) Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive (pp. 1–20). London: Bloomsbury.

Olsen, B., Shanks, M., Webmoor, T., & Witmore, C. (2012). Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. 

Renfrew, C. (2001). Symbol before concept: Material engagement and the early development of society. In I. Hodder (Ed.), Archaeological theory today (pp. 122–140). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Renfrew, C. (2004). Towards a theory of material engagement. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden, & C. Renfrew (Eds.), Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world (pp. 23–32). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Ribeiro, A. (2016). Against Object Agency. A Counterreaction to Sørensen’s ‘Hammers and Nails’. Archaeological Dialogues,23(2), pp. 229–235.

Sillar, B. and Tite, M.S. (2000). The Challenge of ‘Technological Choices’ for Materials Science Approaches in Archaeology. Archaeometry,42(2), pp. 2–20.

Tsoraki, C.,Barton, H., Crellin, R. J., and Harris, O. J. T. (2020). Making marks meaningful: new materialism and the microwear assemblage. World Archaeology, 52 (3), pp. 493–511.

Whittle, A. (2018). The Times of Their Lives: Hunting History in the Archaeology of Neolithic Europe. Oxford: Oxbow.

New research goals at the time of Covid-19. Testing Raman Spectroscopy on Nubian and Egyptian-style pots

If there is something that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is resilience, work flexibility and mostly the capacity to design alternative solutions to meet the various physical restrictions and newly shaped work conditions and needs. Further, we learned the importance of networks and acquiring skills even in remote formats, and that online (and/or hybrid) classes and conferences can give virtuous outputs as those in presence.  Within the framework of our project, a successful  example of this is certainly represented by our online Diverse Nile Seminar Series 2021 Cultural Diversity in Northeast Africa.

For me operating within the Work package 3 of the project and principally dealing with laboratory analysis on the material data – ceramic samples – collected in the field, the pandemic has inevitably meant that I had to shift my main focus from the study of fresh excavation data to the study of reference collections. Hence, in the last months my work schedule has been mainly centred on documentation, database archive, and comparison among the various ceramic datasets. Also, the obligatory permanence in Germany (missing the field and the warmness of the Sudanese sun) together with the need to work often via remote or, whenever possible from the lab, pushed me to convey my working goals to search for new theoretical approaches and interpretative inputs, eventually enlarging the spectrum of the analytical competencies and methodologies devoted to the study of the ceramic samples.

In these circumstances the idea was born together with our PI and other colleagues from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the LMU to cooperate and expand the networking between our departments hence to test together a new analytical methodology for archaeological ceramic material, namely Raman Spectroscopy.

This technique, which took its unusual name after the Indian physicist C. V. Raman who was the first to observe Raman scattering in 1928 and won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930 for this discovery, is a molecular spectroscopy procedure which provides information about vibration and rotational states of molecules. It works using the interaction of a source of monochromatic light, normally an intensive monochromatic laser radiation, and the matter of the sample. The largest part (99.99%) of the laser light radiates through the sample, a very small proportion is scattered in all spatial directions (so-called Rayleigh scattering), finally an even smaller part is scattered inelastically (so-called Raman scattering). This latter contains information about the sample, its molecular structure (no the single chemical elements) and specific characteristics of the material (see among others, Spieß et al. 1999; also What is Raman Spectroscopy? | Raman Spectroscopy Principle (; Raman spectroscopy – Wikipedia).

For the study of archaeological samples like ceramics, Raman spectroscopy has the advantage of being a non-destructive (only a minimum portion of the sample as the same slide of the thin section is needed), rapid and relatively low-priced technique. However, the high potential of this methodology may collide with the natural heterogeneity of most of the ancient, especially hand-made, ceramic manufactures (Medeghini et al. 2014; Vandenabeele & Van Pevenage 2017; see also Legodi & de Waal 2007). This is why, at the moment, our goal consists primarily to observe the methodological potentials of Raman and discern its use for our specific research questions.

For our trial study, we selected ten samples (of which six are ceramics from Sai Island and four from the Dukki Gel’s reference collection). All of them are either locally produced cooking pots or other local ware manufactured both according to the so-called Nubian and Egyptian style (Figure 1). In testing this new analytical technique, our main aims are the following: to search for differences in producing technique and firing temperatures/regimes 1) between the Nubian and Egyptian-style samples; 2) between the Nubian samples from Sai Island and those from Dukki Gel; 3) between the Egyptian-style samples from Sai Island and those from Dukki Gel; 4) among the different Nubian types (cooking pots with basketry impressions, incisions, and others). In addition, we also want to look at the behaviour of the organics and their carbonization and check for a possibility of a better characterisation of some opaque mineral phases.

Figure 1 – Examples of Nubian cooking pots with basketry impressions from Sai Island (left) and Dukki Gel; Kerma (right).

In the last days, together with the colleague Fabian Dellefant, geoscientist and doctoral student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the LMU, we have realized high resolution scans of the selected ceramic thin sections and photographed them at the petrographic microscope under different light conditions (both transmitted cross polarized and plane polarized light, and also reflected light) in order to describe and document the areas which we are ultimately going to analyse by Raman.

Stay tuned to know more about our ongoing work and first results!

Selected references and links

Legodi, M. A. &, de Waal, D. 2007. Raman spectroscopic study of ancient South African domestic clay pottery, Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy, 66, Issue 1, 135-142.

Medeghini et al. 2014. Micro-Raman spectroscopy and ancient ceramics: applications and problems. Journal of Raman Spectroscopy, 45, Issue 11-12, Special Issue: Raman in Art and Archaeology 2013, 1244-1250.

Spieß, G. et al. 1999. Eine einfache Einführung in die Raman-Spektroskopie. LMU. Die quantitative Analyse (

Vandenabeele, P. & Van Pevenage J. 2017. Raman Spectroscopy and the Study of Ceramic Manufacture: Possibilities, Results, and Challenges. In Hunt, Al (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Ceramic Analysis.

What is Raman Spectroscopy? | Raman Spectroscopy Principle (

First preliminary remarks on the petrography of the Dukki Gel ceramic samples

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.

Figure 1 – Detail of organic inclusion with visible plant cell structure from Sample DG-17. PPL micropho by G. D’Ercole.

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.

Figure 2a – Thin section scan of Sample DG-18 (Nubian cooking pot). The good alignment of the pores structures and of the voids and relicts left by the combustion of the organics indicates that this vessel was built on a mat. Image by G. D’Ercole.
Figure 2b – Thin section scan of Sample DG-17 (Nubian large bowl). The specific concentric alignment of the pores structures and of the voids and relicts left by the combustion of the organics indicates that this vessel was manufactured with the coiling technique. Image by G. D’Ercole.

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.

Figure 3 – Sample DG-22 (Nubian jar) with roughly polished / wet-smoothed surfaces characterized by a sandy fabric rich in alkali feldspar. Photo by G. D’Ercole.

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.

Designing the petrographic documentation for the ceramic samples of the DiverseNile project

Documentation is the bread and butter of archaeological research. Archaeologists are daily committed to documenting everything: sites formation processes, dwellings, funerary remains, and above all the various products of material culture.

Any method of documentation, from the most essential and traditional (i.e., technical drawing of archaeological strata and finds) to the most elaborated (i.e., image-based 3D-modelling of artefacts, human remains, and sites) constitutes a fundamental step toward archaeological reconstruction. Documentation mainly serves the archaeologist to record and understand the material remains, settlement and funerary features identified during the archaeological excavation and to leave a trace of it. Also, through documentation, a preliminary process of interpretation and critical reading of the data is carried out. Furthermore, the system we adopt to document and classify archaeological data is not unbiased, rather it already implies a methodological choice and a specific scholarly interpretative approach.

As responsible, within the Work Package 3 of the DiverseNile project, for the technological and compositional analyses of the ceramic materials, I want to outline the method I use for the petrographic classification of the ceramic samples which we are going to analyse from the new concession area in the Attab to Ferka region and from our reference collections (e.g., the AcrossBorders ceramic samples from Sai Island; the New Kingdom/Kerma-Dukki Gel pottery samples; see also D’Ercole and Sterba 2018).

Generally speaking, petrography, via optical microscopy (OM), is a well-established procedure employed to examine ceramic objects and identify the source of clay raw materials and tempers used to manufacture the vessels (Fig. 1). This technique allows answering to crucial archaeological questions on pottery provenance and technology.

Figure 1. Example of ceramic thin section illustrating some common features documented for petrographic analysis. Adapted from Smith 2008: 74, Fig. 6.1.

In Sudanese archaeology, the interest in provenance and technological studies on pottery started approx. 50 years ago. In 1972, Nordström, referring to the work of Anna Shepard (1956), produced a systematic publication on early Nubian ceramics from the region of Abka-Wadi Halfa and defined the term fabric meaning the set of the compositional and anthropogenic characteristics of the ceramic material that could be determined by microscopic observation and comprised both the composition of the groundmass (or clay matrix) and non-plastic inclusions plus the potter’s technological choices adopted to make the vessel.

For the study of the ceramic material of our DiverseNile project I have designed a specific petrographic layout within the Filemaker database of the ceramic samples (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Layout of the petrographic database designed for the DiverseNile project.

The petrographic layout includes information on the archaeological provenance and dating of the samples. It also correlates the micro fabric or petrographic group to the macroscopic evidence, that is the visual description, shape, function, and macro ware of the ceramic specimens. The consecutive entries inform on a) the groundmass or clay matrix of the sample (i.e., colour, homogeneity and optical activity); b) non-plastic inclusions (i.e., sorting, dominant grain size, maximum grain size, abundance, and mineral composition); c) plastic inclusions (i.e., clay pellets, argillaceous rock fragments etc.); d) porosity (i.e., voids abundance, type, dominant size, iso-orientation); e) organics (i.e., abundance, type, dominant size). The database also notifies on the firing regime of the ceramic sample (i.e., oxidised, reduced, reduced with narrow ox margins, dark core due to insufficient ox, oxidised to reduced). Finally, a graphic field incorporates the microscopic photos of the thin section taken under both cross-polarised (XPL) and plane polarised (PPL) light. Comments, possible comparison with other samples, and a link to the iNAA compositional groups are included as further relevant information.

The purpose of this database is to simplify the data entry of the petrographic evidence and to standardize it according to an easy-to-use, flexible, and consistent classificatory system that embraces the main information on the composition and technology of production of the ceramic data (see among others Quinn 2013).

At a subsequent step, this information will be intertwined with the results obtained from the other laboratory analyses and eventually with the archaeological data to provide a further analytical and interpretive tool for understanding the diversity and complexity of the material culture of the human groups living in the periphery of the Egyptian towns in Sudanese Nubia.


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.

Nordström, H. – Å 1972. Neolithic and A-Group sites. Uppsala, Scandinavian University.

Quinn, P. S. 2013. Ceramic Petrography: The Interpretation of Archaeological Pottery & Related Artefacts in Thin Section. Oxford, Archaeopress.

Shepard, A. O. 1956. Ceramics for the Archaeologist. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Smith, M. S. 2008. Petrography, Chapter 6, 73-107, in: J. M. Herbert, T. E. Mc Reynold (eds.), Woodland Pottery Sourcing in the Carolina Sandhills. Research Report No. 29, Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Where are you from? A „diverse“ material perspective on this common tricky question

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 ( A document called certificate of origin will then authenticate that the product sold or shipped was manufactured in a particular country (

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.

“Hybrid” Dinnerware Collection of modern design showing the attempt to combine and merge Eastern and Western cultures in a single plate.

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.

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