ERC project DiverseNile

The project

Julia Budka’s second ERC project is entitled “Cultural diversity in the Middle Nile Valley. Reconstructing biographies in the periphery of urban centres in northern Sudan during the Bronze Age” and has the acronym DiverseNile. Within the MUAFS concession, the LMU team will be investigating the cultural contact between the various groups inhabiting this part of the Nile valley and their relations with the intriguing landscape of this region.

The DiverseNile project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 865463). It started in April 2020.

Contact space biographies in northern Sudan

The recent concepts using theories of ‘cultural entanglement’ are important starting points, but still not the solution to reconstruct the actual cultural milieu of the Nile Valley due to the current elite and centre bias. However, based on the latest results, we are now able to develop a novel method tackling the full complexity of cultural dynamics in the Middle Nile.

First, we will test the entanglement metaphor against evidence from various contexts, not just within the elite and Egyptian sphere. Secondly, the focus should be on aspects of non-consecutive developments of cultural processes and diverse degrees of adopting or ignoring cultural symbols. We need to investigate internal cultural factors, individual choices and careers, and related decisions of different groups of Nubians and Egyptian settlers that are likely to differ regarding their social context. Thus, social space as a framework of cultural encounters needs to be addressed in a new way, including the landscape properties and non-human activities (cf. Kolen and Renes 2015: 41). Since cultural interactions comprise not only exchange with other humans, but also experiences with diverse landscapes and new materiality, I introduce the concept of ‘Biography of the landscape’ ‒ by which I mean to consider the individual life cycles of all cohabiting actors, in particular humans, animals, other organisms and human-made technologies, that shape together “the landscape into a life world” (Kolen and Renes 2015: 32) ‒ to the study of peripheries in the Middle Nile. This new approach with a focus on peripheral regions, which are perceived as complex social spaces intertwined with the landscape, represents a research design allowing an urgently needed change of perspectives.

The main hypothesis of the project is that cultural diversity becomes archaeologically more obvious in peripheral zones, within the ‘contact spaces’ (Stockhammer and Athanassov 2018) of central sites with diverse populations.

Objectives of the project

The primary goal of DiverseNile is to refine the cultural entanglement concept in New Kingdom Nubia with its current elite and religious bias in favour of addressing actual cultural diversity in peripheral zones. In order to test the main hypothesis, a new concept, re-designing the concept of contact spaces (Stockhammer/Athanassov 2018) in combination with the landscape biography approach (Kolen/Renes 2015), will be applied. This new concept of ‘contact space biography’ aims to investigate whether degrees of cultural diversity and entanglement relate to the peripheral location of the sites, which may also be influenced by the general landscape.

Our new approach to reconstruct the biography of a landscape considering humans, non-humans, technologies and environmental properties in a peripheral frontier region in northern Sudan as a case study of a ‘contact space’ has four main objectives:

Objective 1: to highlight the social practice in borderscapes by disentangling dwelling places from previous cultural categorisations, and by reconstructing the dynamics of an ancient ‘contact space’ showing acceptance, appropriation or ignorance of various cultural influences (Work package 1);

Objective 2: to illustrate the cultural diversity on the religious level by disentangling burial grounds from previous cultural categorisations, reconstructing dynamics of an ancient ‘contact space’, and showing acceptance, appropriation or ignorance of various cultural influences (Work package 2);

Objective 3: to reconstruct cultural encounters based on the material record by the detailed assessment of the most important productive activities, technologies and foodways (Work package 3), focusing on 1) the typology, technology, material, function and contents of pottery, 2) the typology, technology, material and function of tools (stone, bone and wood) and 3) the faunal, human and botanical remains introducing strontium and lead isotope analysis for questions of mobility;

Objective 4: to reconstruct the biography of a border landscape by investigating the geological and geomorphological features of the study area as a framework for the historical and cultural processes (Work package 4), thus creating a portrait of a social space (as evident from Work package 1–3) and its environmental framework that is comparable to other examples around the world.

To achieve these aims, the project comprises four work packages (WP 1–4), bringing together archaeologists with scientists from other disciplines (geology, soil science, chemistry, nuclear physics and physical anthropology), applying diverse methods (e.g. optical microscopy, strontium and lead isotope analysis, instrumental neutron activation analysis). Our reconstruction of living conditions of various cultural groups of Bronze Age Middle Nile will include the investigation of past environmental and climatic settings as well as a comparative approach with central sites of ‘Egyptian’ and ‘Nubian’ type (Sai Island, Amara West and Kerma).

We expect that the present comprehension of categorisations of ‘Nubian’ or ‘Egyptian’ sites will be significantly revised by this new method capitalising on the concept of the dynamics of cultural encounters. DiverseNile will thus add most important new insights to the growing debate of how to understand ‘Nubian’ and ‘Egyptian’.

The team

The core team of DiverseNile comprises currently (status April 2024):

Suggested reading

Budka 2019 = Julia Budka with contributions by Giulia D’Ercole, Cajetan Geiger, Veronica Hinterhuber and Marion Scheiblecker. 2019. Towards Middle Nile Biographies: The Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project 2018/2019, Sudan & Nubia 23, 13–26.

Stockhammer/Athanassov 2018 = Stockhammer, P.W. and Athanassov, B. 2018. Conceptualising Contact Zones and Contact Spaces: An Archaeological Perspective, 93‒112, in: S. Gimatzidis, M. Pieniążek and S. Mangaloğlu-Votruba (eds.), Archaeology across Frontiers and Borderlands. Fragmentation and Connectivity in the North Aegean and the Central Balkans from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. OREA 9. Vienna.

Kolen/Renes 2015 = Kolen, J. and Renes, J. 2015. Landscape Biographies: Key Issues, 21–47, in: J. Kolen, H. Renes and R. Hermans (eds.), Landscape Biographies: Geographical, Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on the Production and Transmission of Landscapes. Amsterdam.