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.
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. 93–113.
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.
As anounced earlier, our DiverseNile Seminar Series 2022 will focus on material culture and society in Bronze Age Nubia and respective perspectives from landscape and resource management. I am delighted that the final programme is now available and includes a great line-up of international speakers:
I am very grateful to all speakers and especially to Rennan Lemos for organising this exciting online seminar. Registration is open and possible via email. If you registered already last year, we will just send you the 2022 Zoom link hoping that you will join us again! See you at our kick-off on January 25!
I have thought a lot about style recently ‒ on the one hand about stylistic questions of Ptolemaic coffins for the Ankh-Hor project, as well as for class preparation about Egyptian art, but of course also during the processing of ceramics from Nubia, from the colonial town of Sai Island.
Style is in general a much-disputed label in archaeology and art history. Recent studies have introduced a focus on “style as effect” (Bussels and van Oostveldt 2020, 221 with references), stressing the transformative power of style and discussing style together with objects and agency. Stylistic variations as reflections of intercultural exchange seem to be very evident in the ceramic corpus from colonial Nubia during the New Kingdom.
It is well established that are clear differences regarding the Egyptian style and the Nubian style pottery corpora in colonial Nubia, not only in terms of shape but also regarding the technology with wheel-made Egyptian and hand-made Nubian vessels. From the beginning of my study of pottery from Sai Island, I used the term “Egyptian style” for wheel-made products and soon differentiated between locally produced variants and imported vessels.
But let’s come back to the broad concept of style – I believe the main aim should be to address the complex processes involved in producing objects (as proposed by Marian Feldman 2006 for the “International Style” of the Late Bronze Age). My labels for New Kingdom pottery in Nubia also stress the production process – vessels which appear within the Nubian respectively in the Egyptian tradition, without marking them already as Nubian or Egyptian production. Of interest is the effect and the role these objects took in the framework of cultural encounters – sometimes taking hybrid forms, making it impossible to separate the distinctive traditions from each other. Hybrid pottery products from colonial Nubia must be regarded as something new and separating Egyptian and Nubian elements on these pots is not helpful or applicable. Giulia D’Ercole is currently working within the DiverseNile project on these hybrid products and their significance for cultural encounters, focusing on the production technique including the raw materials.
Within New Kingdom Nubia, regional style in ceramics was mostly expressed by surface treatment and decoration (see already Miélle 2014). One exceptional case is that the colonial experiences on Sai resulted in a new style of painting wheel-made ceramics. Deep bowls are attested in all sectors of the town and find parallels in Askut. Stuart Tyson Smith interpreted the preference of wavy lines and painted triangles on these bowls as local Nubian style (Smith 2003, fig. 3.7). Laurianne Miellé concentrated on the pending triangles painted in black on red and which seemingly refer to earlier Nubian decoration patterns known from C-Group vessels and Kerma Moyen bowls (Miélle 2014, 387‒389, fig. 4). However, this is not simply an inspiration by means of motif but there was a striking transformation in the execution style – incised decoration was carried out as painted decoration. Here, the colouring scheme seems to have been influenced by the new black-on-red style which became fashionable in the early 18th Dynasty, both in Egypt and New Kingdom Nubia. The shapes are markedly different from any Nubian style vessels and typically Egyptian; the production technique is also Egyptian, but in local variants of Nile clays. All in all, this new style of painted vessels must be seen as the embodiment of colonial experiences, transforming different cultural traditions to something new with multiple affinities in both directions.
Just as one example, this mixed context of sherds from sector SAV1 West in the colonial town of Sai shows the multiple styles of pottery we typically encounter in this urban centre with a strong cultural diversity in its material culture. There are imported Marl clay vessels from Egypt, one of which is painted and could be labelled as „Levantine style“ (although an Egyptian product); there are two bichrome decorated Nile clay vessels which were maybe produced locally in Nubia, but are very similar in style to Marl clay vessels and Nile clay vessels known from Egypt (see Budka 2015); one example attests the wheel-made painted bowls which seem to express a very specific colonial Nubian style restricted to Nubia (but here the style of painting is less clearly inspired by Nubian incised decoration). And finally, there is an undecorated, wheel-made dish produced locally on Sai and the rim sherd of a Kerma Classique beaker, probably also manufactured locally (and not imported from the Third Cataract region).
Sai is clearly another case study for a distinctive “local variation within a generally shared repertoire of material culture” (Näser 2017, 566) commonly found in New Kingdom Nubia which originates from specific social practices (Lemos 2020). Within the DiverseNile project and with our contact space biography approach, also considering the concept of Objectscapes, I believe we can take the results from Sai further. One aspect I will be working on in the next weeks is whether the intriguing concept of “Communities of Style” (Feldman 2014) is applicable to questions about pottery production in colonial Nubia, first of all for Sai and its hinterland, the MUAFS concession area.
Bussels and van Oostveldt 2020 = Stijn Bussels and Bram van Oostveldt, Egypt and/as style, in: Miguel John Versluys (ed.), Beyond Egyptomania: objects, style and agency, Berlin/Boston, 219–224.
Budka 2015 = Julia Budka, Bichrome Painted Nile Clay Vessels from Sai Island (Sudan), Bulletin de la céramique égyptienne 25, 331–341.
Feldman 2006 = Marian Feldman, Diplomacy by Design. Luxury Arts and an ‚International Style‘ in the Ancient Near East,1400-1200 BCE, Chicago.
Feldman 2014 = Marian Feldman, Communities of Style : Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant, Chicago.
Miélle 2014 = Laurianne Miélle, Nubian traditions on the ceramics found in the pharaonic town on Sai Island, in: Julie R. Anderson and Derek 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, 387–392.
Näser 2017 = Claudia Näser, Structures and realities of the Egyptian presence in Lower Nubia from the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom: The Egyptian cemetery S/SA at Aniba, in: Neal Spencer, Anna Stevens and Michaela Binder (eds.), Nubia in the New Kingdom. Lived experience, pharaonic control and indigenous traditions, British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan 3, Leuven, 557‒574.
Smith 2003 = Stuart Tyson Smith, Pots and politics: Ceramics from Askut and Egyptian colonialism during the Middle through New Kingdoms, in: Carol A. Redmount and Cathleen A. Keller (eds.), Egyptian Pottery. Proceedings of the 1990 Pottery Symposium at the University of California, University of California Publications in Egyptian Archaeology 8, Berkeley, 43–79.
In recent decades, Egyptology and Sudan Archaeology have undergone some long needed substantial changes – through a gradual shift in perspective, Nubia’s cultures, long disparaged as copies of the “superior” Egyptian one, were finally acknowledged as what they were – clearly distinct and independent cultures in their own right, reflecting the extraordinarily long and rich cultural history of Nubia, the region of the Middle Nile valley.
A deeper questioning of the views of early researchers, who – bound to their zeitgeist – shaped Nubia’s allegedly inferior image for a long time, took already place in the 1980s and 1990s (see f.ex. the important articles by Adams 1981 and Trigger 1994). Trigger for example excellently analysed the influence of the circumstances of respective times on colonial and post-colonial archaeology. Furthermore, researchers like Charles Bonnet and also my own teacher, Steffen Wenig at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, who introduced me to the uniqueness of the Nubian cultures, worked hard to correct the out-dated picture of earlier times – laying the foundation, on which we continue to build.
And in fact, the scientific community of today has not only become aware of the dangers of Egyptocentric approaches towards Nubia, but is also including other long neglected topics such as gender archaeology (see f.ex. Minor 2018). However – and as usual – there is still a need for further optimisation in various areas.
Today, I would like to shed light on a sensitive aspect within our scientific work – namely the language we use in relation to Nubia, here by the example indigenous (resp. indigeneity). This term was, opposed to previous colonial mind-sets, introduced to distinguish and emphasise the unique character of Nubian cultures compared to Egyptian ones (e.g. already by Trigger 1994: 343).
In this sense indigenous was and isclearlyused with only good intentions – it however poses problems on two interrelated levels, which I would like to discuss firstly by looking at the term „indigenous“ in its modern use and secondly by presenting its controversial debate in this context. It is precisely this critical discussion that, as you will see in the following, mostly affected my discomfort in applying this term on past Nubian societies as well.
As first and surely minor problem to be mentioned is the (in the general understanding) primary (and not entirely congruent) association of indigenous with Australia’s and North America’s First Nations, as the term firstly emerged in the 1970s out of the American Indian Movement and the Canadian Indian Brotherhood. In this respect indigenous was explicitly chosen by their leaders – as a way of a clear self-identification as well as to unite those peoples for a better representation in international and political arenas such as the United Nations (Tuhiwai Smith 1999: 7).
That indigenous now encompasses modern First Nations in an international or global context dates back in the 1980s, when a specific definition of the term was developed by the UN (J.M. Cobo):
Indigenous peoples (…) are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies (…), consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories (…). They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve (…) to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, (…) in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems. (Cobo 1983: E/CN.4 Sub.2 /1983/21/Add.8; see also Klenke & Socha 2013: 33).
Astonishingly, it than still took two decades until the UN-Resolution “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous“ was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 defining the framework for the survival and well-being of indigenous peoples all over the world – being the today most comprehensive global instrument for their rights.
While clearly being an urgently needed step in the right direction, the modern use of indigenous is – quite understandably, as you will see below – subject ofon-going debates, not only in the scientific but also in the concerned communities themselves.
The criticism is manifold, starting already at a rather general level, where f.ex. researchers like Tuhiwai Smith point out the problematic indeterminacy of the term which seems “to collectivize many distinct populations whose experiences under imperialism have been vastly different.” (Tuhiwai Smith 1999: 6).
But also in fields like ethnology and cultural anthropology, the term indigeneity resp. the need of its clear differentiation of the (similar but not equal) concept of ethnicity (both as a practice of negotiating social identity) has led to many controversial discussions. Since a more detailed presentation of this highly interesting topic would request another blog, only the two most opposite poles are touched in the following and further readings recommended here (f.ex. contra: Kuper 2003 and 2005; pro: Kenrick & Lewis 2004): Thus, the harshest critics complain that the term’s underlying linkage of territory, culture, history, and descent would evoke associations of primordiality and essentialist identity – an opinion sharply rejected by others, seeing in such implied racist components a colonial undermining and further intensification of the struggles of First Nations (see detailed Klenke & Socha 2013: 30–33).
However, besides this discussion and not least in regard of the role ethnology and cultural anthropology played within colonialism (f.ex. defining ethnic groups for easier administration of colonised regions), there is a general consent to emphasise the aspect of self-definition as most significant criterion in this question (Klenke & Socha 2013: 31).
It is this precisely criterion – self-definition – that leads to my problems in using the term indigenous for ancient societies as those of Ancient Nubiaas well as for modern ones – as the term clearly bears the label of being an external attribution and not a self-defined one. And indeed, concerned peoples themselves are well aware of this problematic connotation, as it was f.ex. recently clearly put into words by the “Indigenous Foundations” (University of British Columbia) themselves:
“Although the term ‘Indigenous’ may be considered to be the most inclusive term of all, (….) it could be also seen as a contentious term, since it defines groups primarily in relation to their colonizers”.
All these aspects shown here clearly illustrate that also in modern discourses the search for a satisfactory solution for an adequate and autonomous terminology concerning modern First Nations is not at all finished yet.
The argument of self-definition mentioned above however is just as valid when dealing with past societies, in our case within Egyptology. Whereas no Egyptologist would use the term indigenous in context of the conquest of Egypt by the Nubian 25th Dynasty (would a sentence such as “Piye subdued the indigenous people of Thebes/Upper Egypt” not sound quite unfamiliar?), it is very often applied when addressing f.ex. the Kingdom of Kerma or the later Kingdom of Kush.
But, although well intentioned, in labelling Nubia’s ancient cultures as indigenous the same external perspective is expressed that was criticised above, in this case on Ancient Nubian peoples and their very own territories – even implying their subaltern position in relation to “their” Egyptian conquerors. Thus, this term evokes the uncomfortable feeling of an (unconscious) continuation of colonial stereotypes, just in a different guise – be they ancient or modern. And it is precisely these implications that bring us back to the point of an anachronistic Egyptocentric perspective that we are, after all, trying to overcome.
In this sense, such negative implications clearly illustrate, that, in all of the efforts to optimise our approach to Ancient Nubia, also the used terminology and language should continuously examined, especially since it can cause so much harm – as Tucholsky excellently stated in his famous bon mot „Language is like a weapon“.
With reflecting our terminology by f.ex. avoiding the term indigenous,also a self-reflection of our own perspectives can be further enhanced – why not adopt this time, not entirely but wisely, kind of a “Nubiocentric” stance? After all – there is no need to classify the Nubian cultures/peoples as indigenous, there is no need to define them in relation to Egypt – why not addressing them as what they are?: As Nubian peoples or cultures in their own right and in their own territories – as Kerma people of the strong Kingdom of Kerma, as Kushites of the powerful Kingdom of Kush, and so on and on…
Certainly there are grey areas, especially when dealing with periods of stronger interconnections between Nubians and Egyptians, like the New Kingdom Colonial Period.
With these thoughts – which also go to the Sudanese people in these difficult times – I would like to conclude here and invite everyone interested to further discuss these important questions, also beyond the example chosen today, here with us in this space!
Adams, W.Y. 1981. Paradigms in Sudan Archaeology, in: Africa Today 28(2), 15–24.
Cobo, J.R.M. 1983. Study of the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples. Final report submitted by the Special Rapporteur, Mr. José Martínez Cobo. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/publications/martinez-cobo-study.html
Kenrick, J. and Lewis, J. 2004. Indigenous Peoples’s Rights and the Politics of the Term “Indigenous”, in: Anthropology Today 20(2), 4–9.
Klenke, K. and Socha, P. 2013, Emerging Indigeneity – Völkerrechtswissenschaft und ethnologische Praxis subnationaler kultureller Gemeinschaften, in: Bizer, K. et al. (eds). Sui generis. Rechte zum Schutz traditioneller kultureller Ausdrucksweisen. Göttinger Studien zu Cultural Property 5, Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen, 21–42.
Kuper, A. 2003. The Return of the Native, in: Current Anthropology 44, 389–402.
– 2005. The Reinvention of Primitive Society. Transformations of a Myth. New York: Routledge.
Minor, E. 2018. Decolonizing Reisner: the Case Study of a Classic Kerma Female Burial for Reinterpreting Early Nubian Archaeological Collections through Digital Archival Resources, in: Honegger, M. (ed.), Nubian Archaeology in the XXIst Century: Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Conference for Nubian Studies, Neuchâtel, 1st–6th September 2014. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 273. Leuven: Peeters, 251–262.
Sillar, B. 2005. Who’s indigenous? Whose archaeology?, in: Public Archaeology 4(2–3), 71–94.
Trigger, B.G. 1994. Paradigms in Sudan Archaeology, in: The International Journal of African Historical Studies 27(2), 323–345.
Tuhiwai Smith, L. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.