Summer term is approaching an end at LMU (finally!) and there is again some time for research. I am currently busy with processing the pottery from AtW 001, but I also managed to work on the Kerma cemetery GiE 003. Our two student assistants, Caroline and Iulia, have been very hard-working in digitalising the original pottery drawings.
A topic that concerns me at the moment is the question of lids or covers for pots. In Egypt, ceramic lids are well attested since the earliest time. During the New Kingdom, it is sometimes really tricky to decide whether a shallow small dish was used as a lid or as an actual dish. In addition, reused sherds are commonly utilized as covers for pottery vessels (see also evidence from Sai Island, Budka 2020, 250, fig. 117).
How much do we know about lids and covers of pottery vessels from Nubia? Not a lot I am afraid (ast least I don’t).
Brigitte Gratien included some special types of lids in her corpus of the pottery of the Classical Kerma period (Gratien 1978, 36, fig. 7; fig. 63, type 19 and type 32, decorated lid). These are all specific for the site of Kerma and haven’t been found elsewhere. Type 32 of Gratien is especially noteworthy. It is a series of painted vessels with covers, which were interpreted as imitation of basketry or even as representation of a hut (Bonnet 2004, 83). For me, the interpretation of an imitation of basketry is more convincing, also because such imitations in pottery already exist much earlier, though with incised decoration (for nice examples, including pots with lids, see Old Kingdom Elephantine, Raue 2014, fig. 182).
Interestingly, other than these basketry imitations from Elephantine, I do not know of any lids or covers of Nubian pottery prior to the Classical Kerma age. Could pots have been covered with non-ceramic materials – like with basketry or some other organic materials? And could the increase in pottery lids at the capital in Kerma during the heyday of the empire maybe reflect an inspiration from the Lower Nile/Egypt? Or something else? Another possibility is that we simply missed pottery lids in the Nubian ceramic tradition because we interpreted dishes and cups wrongly (as dishes/cups and not as lids).
These are all intriguing questions, and I will try to investigate them in more detail soon. For now, I would like to present some interesting case studies from the newly excavated Kerma cemetery GiE 003.
Feature 20 in Trench 1 is a rectangular burial pit with rounded edges, vertical walls, and impressions/pits in the east (40cm x 10cm) and west (30cm x 10cm). Remains of a contracted burial were still found in place on a wooden funerary bed. A goat/sheep offering and three almost complete pottery vessels were found below the foot end of the bed on the west side. The complete set of a red-burnished Kerma pot with a stone lid found in situ on top of the vessel (MUAFS 61 and 62) is especially remarkable.
The lid is just a nicely shaped circular disc without any modelling of the interior as it is for example known from lids of kohl pots. With a diameter of 5.4cm it fits perfectly on the pot. Some of you will wonder: with an in situ lid on the pot – what did they find inside the vessel? Well, to my disappointment the pot was completely empty except for some dust.
However, the stone lid MUAFS 62 is not a singular piece from GiE 003. Another stone lid was found in a plundering layer, MUAFS 10. Although it was impossible to associate this piece with a proper burial or feature, it is more or less contemporaneous to MUAFS 62 and can be attributed to the Classical Kerma time. With a diameter of 6.2cm it is slightly larger than MUAFS 62.
Apart from these two stone lids used as covers for pottery vessels, Trench 1 of GiE 003 also yielded a pottery lid. An almost complete lid, MUAFS 312-1/2022, was found in Feature 10 (a rectangular burial pit with pits for the funerary bed, very similar to Feature 20). This pottery lid is wheel-made, was imported from Egypt and is made in a Nile clay B2 variant. Such vessels are very common in the 17th Dynasty in Egypt (e.g. at Elephantine). With a diameter of 10.7cm and its convex shape, it is markedly different to the stone lids mentioned above.
Although proof is lacking, I would assume that this pottery lid was used as the cover for one of the few Marl clay vessels imported from Egypt attested from Trench 1. However, the pottery found inside of Feature 10 apart from the lid was all Kerma in style, including typical Black topped fine wares.
To conclude, it requires more in situ found assemblages like MUAFS 61 and 62 to answer broader questions about the use of lids in Nubia in general and Kerma cemeteries in more particular. For now, the evidence from GiE 003 suggests some intriguing variation, especially in the Classical Kerma age.
Bonnet 2004 = C. Bonnet, Catalogue no. 57: Vase with cover, in: D.A. Welsby and J.R. Anderson (eds.), Sudan. Ancient Treasures. An Exhibition of recent discoveries from the Sudan National Museum, London 2004, 83.
Budka 2020 = J. Budka, AcrossBorders 2: Living in New Kingdom Sai. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant 1, Vienna 2020.
Gratien 1978 = B. Gratien, Les cultures Kerma. Essai de classification, Lille 1978.
Raue 2014 = D. Raue, Elephantine und Nubien im 4. – 2. Jahrtausend v. Chr., Habilitation thesis, Leipzig 2014 (published in 2018, Berlin).
Since joining the project in June, I have been busy catching up on the research that has been conducted to date. A considerable amount of this goes back much further than the start of the DiverseNile project to an archaeological survey which took place between 1969 and 1973 directed by André Vila (Budka 2020). As much as we archaeologists enjoy excavation, we also spend a huge amount of time using and building on the work of our predecessors (see also the earlier blog posts by Rennan Lemos and Veronica Hinterhuber). This is particularly important when considering large concession areas such as the one held by the DiverseNile project and the questions the project poses.
Past work such as Vila’s survey can help inform current (and future!) projects in myriad ways. At the most basic level, we can use the results to help locate potential sites of interest for the project and then identify and re-explore them in the field in Sudan. This can also be significant in noting changes in archaeological sites since Vila’s survey, which is crucial for their preservation (Budka 2019; 2020). We can also integrate past data into our current research, increasing the data we have available at our disposal to answer our present research questions. Finally, we can use this survey data to explore research and archaeological practices both today and in the past. Understanding these practices is crucial as they directly influence the way that archaeological knowledge is constructed (Ward 2022). Therefore, a key consideration when using Vila’s data is to understand how it was collected and presented at the time, this means we can make use of it much more effectively. To this end, considering Vila’s results as ‘legacy data’ is a useful way of integrating this past research into our current project.
Normally, the term legacy data in archaeology is used to define ‘obsolete’ archaeological data but, given the vast importance of digital data for any kind of analysis, manipulation, or mapping, this can broadly be applied to any data which is not digital (Allison 2008). As such, any work involving the re-contextualisation, application of modern techniques, or modelling of past data can be considered working with legacy data (Wylie 2016). Thinking of this evidence as legacy data rather than simply data is crucial when using it in any new or future research as it demands a more complex engagement with the material then simply extracting quantitative data. It would be redundant to simply apply new methods to old data, without engaging with more fundamental questions which consider how the data was originally collected and how it fits into the broader historical and methodological contexts of previous studies.
Fortunately for us, Vila’s survey is comprehensively published across 11 volumes, all of which are available on the website of the SFDAS (Section française de la direction des antiquités du Soudan). The volumes are nicely bookended by an introductory volume — which provides crucial information on how the survey and recording was conducted by the team, as well as the classification system used — and a concluding volume — which provides some quantitative analyses of the results of the survey.
This is a fantastic resource for the project to draw upon as a key consideration when making effective use of legacy data is not only to understand the methodological processes used, but also to ensure the replication of past results (Corti and Thompson 2004; Corti 2007; Corti 2011). As in any science, the reproducibility of results is fundamental in ensuring the accuracy — and therefore usability — of past research, which is crucial when incorporating it into contemporary research. Furthermore, advances in the archaeology of Sudan means that some of Vila’s results — for example, in terms of phasing — may well need to be re-examined and ‘updated’ to take into account the half-century of subsequent research.
Of course, all of this leads to additional questions on the future of the research and data created by the DiverseNile project. This includes thinking about the best ways to collect, store, and share our data and ‘futureproof’ our work.
Keep reading the blog for future updates on Vila’s work and its integration into the DiverseNile project!
Allison, P. 2008. Dealing with Legacy Data ‒ an introduction. Internet Archaeology 24. DOI:10.11141/ia.24.8
Budka, J. 2019 (with contributions by Giulia D’Ercole, Cajetan Geiger, Veronica Hinterhuber & Marion Scheiblecker). Towards Middle Nile Biographies: The Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project 2018/2019, 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, Sudan & Nubia 24: 57‒71
Corti, L. 2007. Re-using archived qualitative data ‒ where, how, why? Archival Science: 37‒54
Corti, L. 2011. The European Landscape of Qualitative Social Research Archives: Methodological and Practical Issues. Forum: Qualitative Soical Research 12(3)
Corti, L. and Thompson, P. 2004. Secondary Analysis of Archive Data. In: Seale, Gobo, Gubrium, et al. (eds) Qualitative Research Practice. London: Sage: 327‒343
Vila, A. 1975. La prospection archéologique de la Vallée du Nil, au Sud de la Cataracte de Dal (Nubie Soudanaise).Fascicule 1: General introduction. Paris: CNRS
Vila, A. 1979. La prospection archéologique de la Vallée du Nil, au Sud de la Cataracte de Dal (Nubie Soudanaise).Fascicule 11: Récapitulations et conclusions. Paris: CNRS
Ward, C. 2022. Excavating the Archive/Archiving the Excavation: Archival Processes and Contexts in Archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Practice 10(2). DOI:10.1017/aap.2022.1
Wylie, A. 2016. How Archaeological Evidence Bites Back: Strategies for Putting Old Data to Work in New Ways. Science, Technology, & Human Values 42(2): 203‒225
Most know by now that poop is of great interest for us archaeologists. Recently, the so-called ‘archaeology of dung’ has resulted in numerous cross-geographical publications confirming the use of animal dung in archaeological deposits as the main fuel source and several other purposes. Most of these studies focus on the analysis of the microscopic evidence attributable to dung, combining multi-proxy approaches to investigate the biological components and potential markers of herbivore dung, as well identifying archaeobotanical indications from dung pellets and related sediments. Less numerous are studies concerning the identification of dung as a tempering agent in ceramic material.
In a new paper just published, Giulia D’Ercole and I aimed to replicate, observe, and discuss the recipe utilised by the ancient potters of Sai Island (northern Sudan) in the New Kingdom period using an experimental approach. We discuss the possible adoption of organic inclusions, and especially animal dung, as tempering agents to produce some of the locally made Nubian and Egyptian style ceramics. We think that the use of animal dung within the large set of pottery production offers important fresh insights into both long-standing traditions and cultural encounters (Budka and D’Ercole 2022).
One observation in this paper was also that in terms of the firing process of our samples, it must have been at a low temperature resulting in a minimal supply of oxygen, as in most cases the typical relicts left by the combustion of organic materials were still visible. Questions regarding kilns for both handmade and wheel-made vessels, as opposed to open firing techniques, need to be investigated further, as does the kind of fuel used for firing pottery. Recent research suggests that fresh wood and animal dung were used in tandem in pottery kilns (see the case of the smelting furnace from Egypt, Verly et al. 2021), and possibly even for open firing.
This brings me to our most recent experiments connected with firing pottery. I spent the last weekend at Asparn (Austria), at the MAMUZ museum and had the pleasure to participate once again in the experimental archaeology class hosted by the University of Vienna.
Together with Vera and Ludwig Albustin and other colleagues, we were busy on the first day firing high quality replicas of Classical Kerma beakers. We used goat dung as the main fuel, but also some fresh wood and the results were really good – it went fast, and the appearance of the pots is very close to the ancient ones. We will clearly continue in this line, making more experiments with mixed fuels for firing pottery, for example with adding reed or straw.
The second part of our experiments this year in Asparn was dedicated to fire dogs, their possible use and cooking pots. Our current line of research aims to test the advantage of using fire dogs together with Nubian style cooking pots – they differ slightly in shape and size of the Egyptian ones. I believe it is possible that the inhabitants of Sai found some creative ways to combine Egyptian fire dogs with Nubian cooking pots – thus they might have created something new.
For some canines, all this effort and attention to the curious fire dogs remains incomprehensible. The different smells at the experimental archaeological site were a lot more exciting here.
Budka and D’Ercole 2022 = Budka, J. and D’Ercole, G. 2022. An Experimental Approach to Assessing the Tempering and Firing of Local Pottery Production in Nubia during the New Kingdom Period. EXARC Journal 2022/2. https://exarc.net/ark:/88735/10638
Verly et al. 2021 = Verly, G., Rademakers, F.W., Somaglino, C., Tallet, P., Delvaux, L. and Degryse, P. 2021. The chaîne opératoire of Middle Kingdom smelting batteries and the problem of fuel: excavation, experimental and analytical studies on ancient Egyptian metallurgy. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 37 (article no. 102708) DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102708
One of the first associations most archaeologists have with ancient Nubia is as a source of gold. Although it is well known that raw gold was extracted from various locations across Nubia (see Klemm & Klemm 2013), the previous focus of research was on Lower Nubia, the region between the Second and Third Cataract as well as the Eastern Desert (see most recently Davies & Welsby 2020).
Recent fieldwork in the Forth Cataract region is shedding new light on Nubia’s gold production and processing in regions previously considered as marginal. Of prime importance are the excavations at Hosh el-Guruf (Emberling & Williams 2010: 22; Williams 2020: 188).
I am delighted that tomorrow’s DiverseNile Seminar will be focusing on “Hosh el Guruf, a gold processing centre on the Fourth Cataract and a gold industry in Old Kush”. Bruce Williams will present evidence from this important site which offers glimpses of early gold processing activities, among others numerous large grindstones associated with quartz crushing to extract gold.
One of the big questions about gold processing in Nubia is the origin of this grindstone technology (see Meyer 2010) – was it an innovation brought by the Egyptians or is it rather a local technique? Hosh el-Guruf has the potential to provide here answers and to illustrate the complexity of Nubian organisation of gold processing before the Egyptian colonisation (Williams 2020: 188).
I am very much looing forward to tomorrow’s lecture and highly recommend not to miss it!
Davies, W. Vivian & Derek A. Welsby (eds) 2020. Travelling the Korosko Road: archaeological exploration in Sudanʼs Eastern Desert. Sudan Archaeological Research Society Publication 24. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Emberling, G. & B. Williams. 2010. The Kingdom of Kush in the 4th Cataract: Archaeological Salvage of the Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition 2007 Season. Part I. Preliminary Report on the Sites of Hosh el-Guruf and El-Widay. Gdańsk Archaeological Museum and Heritage Protection Fund African Reports7: 17–38.
Klemm, R. & D. Klemm. 2013. Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Geoarchaeology of the Ancient Gold Mining Sites in the Egyptian and Sudanese Eastern Deserts. New York: Springer.
Meyer, C. 2010. The Kingdom of Kush in the 4th Cataract: Archaeological Salvage of the Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition 2007 Season. Part II. Grinding Stones and Gold Mining at Hosh el Guruf, Sudan. Gdańsk Archaeological Museum and Heritage Protection Fund African Reports 7: 39–52.
Williams, B. 2020. Kush in the Wider World during the Kerma Period, in G. Emberling & B. Williams (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia: 179–200. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
While the first weeks of our 2022 season focused on mortuary remains and excavations in cemeteries, first of all the Kerma cemetery GiE 003, we switched focus and location in our week 4.
Earlier this year during our MUAFS survey, I noted an extremely interesting site at Attab West, with loads of early 18th Dynasty potsherds as well as scatters of local schist pieces on the surface. This site, AtW 001, is a small almost circular mound (Fig. 1). Unfortunately, the new line of electricity runs right through the site and seems to have destroyed part of it. This week, we went back there and excavated one trench as a first check of whether stratigraphy is preserved and any structures are traceable.
It was our first excavation on the west bank, which differs considerably from the east bank in terms of landscape and general conditions. Logistics are a bit more complicated as well, bringing the team and the equipment to the site by boat and through large sandy dunes with picturesque tamarisks.
In sum, the test excavation at AtW 001 was a challenge but also very rewarding – we found what can be classified as domestic rubbish, loads of ashy deposits, plant remains, animal bones and lots of pottery sherds as well as debris from fires and other everyday activities. The ceramics are nicely datable to the early 18th Dynasty to Thutmoside times. Interestingly, the amount of Nubian wares in the various horizons of fill was really high, accounting to ca. 30% of the ceramics. The lower fills only had very little ceramics inside and here the Nubian wares were more common than Egyptian style wheelmade pots – this is just a first impression and I will follow up on this with a more detailed assessment soon!
We seem to have at least two phases of activity in the New Kingdom period preserved, possibly an early phase and a slightly later one which can be dated to Thutmose III. Remains of collapsed mud bricks and overfired sherds indicate the former existence of buildings and possible also ovens or kilns, but no standing remains of architecture was identified up to now. There were several homogenous deposits of silt, partly showing some ash. The ashy spots of the earliest phase are directly on top of the natural alluvium, suggesting that we either have an open courtyard or maybe part of the periphery of a domestic site. Apart from ceramics, the finds included some grindstones and stone tools like pounders, testifying to some grinding and crushing activities. However, many questions about this site are still open and AtW 001 needs to be excavated on larger scale in the near future.
Overall, our site finds a perfect parallel in the nearby site 2-R-18 in the desert hinterland of Amara West (Stevens and Garnett 2017, previously documented by Vila in the 1970s). As highlighted by Anna Stevens and Anna Garnett, there were also rubbish deposits above homogenous deposits of silt and ash, which seem to have accumulated directly on top of the natural surface. Similar to our site, no traces of architecture were preserved at 2-R-18. The material culture, especially of the pottery and the stone tools, is extremely well comparable to our finds. The dating to the early 18th Dynasty is also almost identical.
Thus, the results of our trench are clearly promising and work at AtW 001 will continue in the near future. Especially the function and duration of use of this site will make a considerable impact to our aims of addressing seasonal sites as well as sites connected with gold working (as suggested by Stevens and Garnett 2017 for 2-R-18 and other desert hinterland sites) and other activities in the 18th Dynasty periphery of Sai Island.
With the final day of work at AtW 001 yesterday, our fieldwork with workmen and excavation has come to an end – just in time before Ramadan starts tomorrow. Part of the team – all of them fully recovered from the corona infection by now – has already left and is heading back to Vienna and Munich. A small team will continue with processing finds here at Ginis and documenting the rich material culture from our very successful excavations in 2022.
Many thanks go to all team members of 2022 – it has been a challenging season with so much wind, cold weather, covid-19 and a dense excavation programme at four different sites. The results are clearly remarkable and I am very grateful to all! For now, I am really keen to process the new material in more detail in the upcoming week.
Stevens and Garnett 2017 = Stevens, A. and Garnett, A. 2017. Surveying the pharaonic desert hinterland of Amara West, 287‒306, in: N. Spencer, A. Stevens and M. Binder (eds.), Nubia in the New Kingdom. Lived Experience, Pharaonic Control and Indigenous Traditions. British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan 3. Leuven.
After a very exhausting week 2, we started with really bad news into week 3 – half of the team tested positive for the corona virus… Fortunately, all are getting better and only have mild symptoms, but this unpleasant infection in the digging house changed our entire daily routine and of course had an impact on the work in the field. Only four of us tested negative and could carry out the excavations tasks.
On the bright side, despite of our sudden reduction of people working in the field and again strong winds, we managed to finish both GiE 002 (the Prenapatan/Napatan cemetery) and also GiE 003 (the Kerma cemetery) this week.
*NB: Since we are excavating cemeteries, this blog post contains pictures of human remains.
At Trench 4 in GiE 002, I had another well-preserved burial in extended position in the southern niche of the tomb. It was partly moved during the looting in antiquity but is otherwise complete. With remains of mud bricks which were formerly blocking the niche (Fig. 1), this tomb finds close parallels in Missimina (Vila xxx), also as far as the material culture is concerned.
The Kerma cemetery GiE 003 situated between Attab and Ginis East really turned out to be worth all of our efforts. Despite of ancient looting, some of the Kerma burials were nicely preserved and some finds were left in place for us. Furthermore, dating the cemetery and a certain spatial development became possible. With our Trench 2 in the southern part of the cemetery, we cleaned part of the cemetery which shows large circular pits of the Middle Kerma period (Fig. 2). In Trench 1 further north, we had mostly rectangular pits, all with depressions on the east and west end, which can be nicely dated to the Classical Kerma period (Fig. 3).
In general, GiE 003 finds a very close parallel in the cemetery of Ukma in the Second Cataract region (Vila 1987). At our sites, the wooden funerary beds are not as nicely preserved and the burials more disturbed, but the pottery is very similar as are pieces of jewelry like beads and other objects. Some complete pottery vessels were found in GiE 003 and others can still be large reconstructed from fragments. One of the highlights from a Classical Kerma burial was a 15th Dynasty scarab with a royal name and this important piece will be presented in a separate blog post.
All in all, I am more than happy with the results this week and just wish that all of us can work again soon as the complete team – catching the Covid19 virus is never a good thing but getting infected while on excavation in the field in Sudan is really bad timing. Especially since our last week of excavation is approaching. Please keep your fingers crossed, we will keep you posted.
Vila 1980 = A. Vila, La prospection archéologique de la Vallée du Nil, au Sud de la Cataracte de Dal (Nubie Soudanaise). Fascicule 12: La nécropole de Missiminia. I. Les sépultures napatéennes. Paris 1980.
Vila 1987 = A. Vila, Le cimetière Kermaique d’Ukma Ouest. Paris.
Week 2 was very dense – we had strong winds on several days, even had to stop work on Monday and Tuesday. While the team and the workmen moved on Sunday to Kerma cemetery GiE 003, I was staying with two workmen at one of the tombs we found at GiE 002.
* Please note: since we are excavating tombs, this blog post includes pictures of human remains.
The first tomb we found in Trench 1 was just a simple pit burial of probably Prenapatan or Napatan date. A minimum of 2 adult burials was found, but all mixed and displaced.
The other tomb in Trench 4 (Fig. 1) was really quite surprising: an intact burial, wrapped in textiles from the head to the feet was found in an extended sidewards position in the sandy filling (Fig. 2). A few mud bricks were found along the body, the back part of the neck was resting on a large mud brick. This female burial seems to date from Medieval times (a completely wrapped body of this period was found by Vila in a cemetery nearby in Ginis, at 3-P-37, see Vila 1977: 98-101, Fig. 44) and is of intrusive character.
The same holds true for two (or maybe even three) individuals discovered slightly above the Medieval burial in the side niche of the tomb. One well preserved burial in a contracted position and one skull with remains of the shoulders was unearthed (Fig. 3). Another skull probably belongs to the contracted burial, but was slightly displaced. This requires an expert check by a physical anthropologist.
Apart from some Prenapatan (or maybe Napatan) sherds in the filling, no finds were made so far. My assumption is that the niche will continue as a proper side chamber to the south (see Fig. 4) and that we will find remains of the original burials in a lower depth. Let’s see if this expectation comes true! Already now, our findings in GiE 002 differ from the results by Vila and suggest a very interesting long use-life of this cemetery with multiple burials from various periods.
Vila 1977 = A. Vila, La prospection archéologique de la Vallée du Nil, au Sud de la Cataracte de Dal (Nubie Soudanaise). Fascicule 5: Le district de Ginis, Est et Ouest. Paris 1977.
Time flies by, especially in the field. We have been really busy since our arrival at Ginis on Thursday. Apart from logistics and last constructions in the new digging house, we prepared the start of fieldwork at the New Kingdom site of GiE 001. I am delighted that new team members have arrived at Ginis: This season, the LMU DiverseNile team is strengthened by two employees of Novetus (Vienna). Maximilian Bergner and Fabian Spitaler are both experienced field archaeologists and responsible for the excavation work and field documentation in this 2022 season.
On Saturday, we opened a large new trench and started excavations with a team of local workmen. We placed the trench based on the results from the magnetometer survey in 2018/2019 and of course the local topography.
On our second day, we are currently still removing surface layers of sand and soft mud levels – the area used to be a favourite resting place for one of the sheep herds of Ginis (and the animals still have plenty opportunities just a bit further to the east and fortunately quickly adapted to this change in their daily routine). This is evident by many droppings and darkened spots on the surface.
Nevertheless, already in the uppermost layers we are finding plenty of New Kingdom pottery. I processed the first baskets from these layers this afternoon. Interestingly, some contexts produced more Nubian style pottery than Egyptian style pottery – maybe this is just accidental, but the occurrence of Black-Topped Kerma style wares as well as impressed and incised decorated Nubian wares and basketry impressed cooking pots are intriguing. As documented earlier, I am also stunned by the fact that both 18th Dynasty and Ramesside pottery is present, suggesting a long period of use of this settlement.
Work will continue tomorrow and we will try to keep you posted – internet connection is very unstable at our digging house in Ginis, but the connection in the town of Abri allows me to upload small data like this blog post.
I am excited to announce the next DiverseNile Seminar which will take place tomorrow. Kate Fulcher is going to speak about the mysterious ‘black goo’ – black ritual liquids applied to coffins and cartonnage.
This topic is extremely exciting and in recent years, the use of bitumen in funerary contexts in the Middle Nile has received some new attention. For example, one of the contents from a vessel found in Tomb 26 was analysed by Kate using a GC-MS method and was shown to be bitumen. Where are the local sources for bitumen in ancient Sudan? Or was it imported? And more importantly, how was bitumen and other black substances used in rituals with coffins and cartonnage?
Be sure to join us tomorrow as Kate will address these important questions – as usual, last-minute registration via email is still possible.
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 whimbut 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).
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:
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;
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);
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);
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);
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 😉!
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.
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