The periphery of New Kingdom urban centres in the Middle Nile

My ERC project DiverseNile focuses on the Attab to Ferka region as a peripheral zone in the neighbourhood of Amara West and Sai Island. However, I do not apply the problematic core-periphery concept for our case study of the Bronze Age, but I have introduced the contact space biography approach.

This morning, I just read a very inspiring paper I found in a new open access journal: Federica Sulas and Innocent Pikirayi wrote about “From Centre-Periphery Models to Textured Urban Landscapes: Comparative Perspectives from Sub-Saharan Africa”.

They review the relations between ancient capital centres in Africa and their peripheries, using Aksum and Great Zimbabwe as case studies. They include a very good introduction about the history of research from central-place theory and world-system theory to network theories and stress that „archaeological research on centre–periphery relations has largely focused on the structure of integrated, regional economic systems“ (Sulas and Pikirayi 2020, 67). Like DiverseNile, they advocate to take the dynamics of interactions into account, the fluidity of what is considered “centre” and what “periphery”.

In Nubian studies and Egyptology, there is a considerable gap of work at sites in the periphery of major settlements (see Moeller 2016, 25). At present, despite of much progress on settlement patterns in Nubia during the New Kingdom (see e.g. Budka and Auenmüller 2018) we still know almost nothing about the surroundings of administrative centres set up by the Egyptians in the Middle Nile and the cultural processes within this periphery. The urban centres of this period in the Middle Nile are the Egyptian type towns Amara West, Sai, Soleb, Sesebi and Tombos and Kerma City as capital of the Nubian Kerma Kingdom. Very little rural settlements have been investigated up to now, creating a dearth of means to contextualise the central sites (Spencer et al. 2017: 42). Sites classified as ‘Egyptian’ apart from the main centres are almost unknown (Edwards 2012) and there are only two case studies for Kerma ‘provincial’ sites with Gism el-Arba (Gratien et al. 2003; 2008) and H25 near Kawa (Ross 2014).

If we want to understand the proper dynamics of Bronze Age Middle Nile, this bias between studies of urban centres and rural places in the so-called peripheries needs to be addressed. However, such a new study should avoid the problematic issues of a hierarchy of sites associated with the centre-periphery relations. Thus, DiverseNile intends to offer a new model focusing on the landscape and consequently human and non-human actors in a defined contact space.

Our new approach: beyond core and periphery

Within the DiverseNile project, we understand the Attab to Ferka area as a dynamic, fluid contact space shaped by diverse human and non-human actors. My main thesis is that we need to investigate cultural relations and coalitions between people on a regional level within the so-called periphery of the main urban centres in order to catch a more direct cultural footprint than what the elite sources and state built foundations can reveal. I expect that cultural refigurations reflected in material remains are partly less, partly more visible than in the centres shaped by elite authorities, where dynamic cultural developments are often disguised under an ‘official’ appearance. However, I completely agree with Sulas and Pikirayi that: “Peripheral settlements are always an integral part of the core, as these play a crucial part in enhancing the dynamics exhibited at the centre” (Sulas and Pikirayi 2020, 80). Thus, our new work in the Attab to Ferka region will allow us to contextualise the findings at sites like Amara West and Sai further.

There is still much work to do and data to assess, but I am positive that in the next few years, we will be able to propose a new understanding of ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’ in Bronze Age Middle Nile (see already the stimulating article by Henriette Hafsaas-Tsakos 2009).

References

Budka, Julia and Auenmüller, Johannes 2018. Eds. From Microcosm to Macrocosm. Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Leiden.

Edwards, David N. 2012. The Third-Second Millennia BC. Kerma and New Kingdom Settlements, 59–87, in: A. Osman and D.N. Edwards (eds.), Archaeology of a Nubian frontier. Survey on the Nile Third Cataract, Sudan. Leicester.

Gratien, Brigitte et al. 2003. Gism el-Arba, habitat 2. Rapport préliminaire sur un centre de stockage Kerma au bord du Nil, Cahiers de Recherches de l’Institut de Papyrologie et d’Égyptologie de Lille 23, 29–43.

Gratien, Brigitte et al. 2008. Gism el-Arba – Habitat 2, Campagne 2005–2006, Kush 19 (2003–2008), 21–35.

Hafsaas-Tsakos, Henriette 2009. The Kingdom of Kush: An African Centre on the Periphery of the Bronze Age World System, Norwegian Archaeological Review 42, 50–70.

Moeller, Nadine 2016. The Archaeology of Urbanism in Ancient Egypt. From the Prehistoric Period to the End of the Middle Kingdom. Cambridge.

Ross, T.I. 2014. El-Eided Mohamadein (H25): A Kerma, New Kingdom and Napatan settlement on the Alfreda Nile, Sudan & Nubia 18, 58‒68.

Spencer, Neal et al. 2017. Introduction: History and historiography of a colonial entanglement, and the shaping of new archaeologies for Nubia in the New Kingdom, 1‒61, 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.

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

Towards a better understanding of the New Kingdom isoscape in Upper Nubia

A paper by the AcrossBorders project on the application of strontium isotopes to investigate cultural entanglement in Sai and its surroundings was just published (Retzmann et al. 2019)! In this study, strontium isotopes were applied to identify possible ‘colonialists’ coming from Egypt within the skeletal remains retrieved from Tomb 26 of the pharaonic cemetery SAC5 on Sai Island.

The local strontium signal on Sai Island during the New Kingdom was derived from archaeological animal samples (rodent, sheep/goat, dog and local mollusc shells, all dating from the New Kingdom) in agreement with local environmental samples (paleo sediments and literature Sr isotope value of Nile River water during the New Kingdom era).

As outlined in the article, the strontium values suggest that all people buried in Tomb 26 are members of the local population. A striking outcome, since the tomb, the tomb equipment, the personal names and titles are all clearly ‘Egyptian’.

These fresh results tie in nicely with research at other main Upper Nubian centres like Tombos (Smith and Buzon 2017) and Amara West (Buzon and Simonetti 2013) – and will be of great importance also for DiverseNile. More information on the complex coexistence and biological and cultural entanglement of Egyptians and Nubians during the New Kingdom are urgently needed.

We need to reconstruct the isoscape of the Attab-Ferka region in the next years.

In this respect, we will continue to investigate the isoscape of Upper Nubia further, enlarging our scope with my new concession – I am very happy that the successful team around Anika who did this for Sai will be again involved! The MUAFS area will provide new data from soil, water, molluscs and of course animal bones and human teeth which will allow us to place the data from Sai in a broader context. The periphery of Sai and Amara West, our Attab to Ferka region, has rich potential to check the validity of our present strontium analysis.

References

Buzon and Simonetti 2013 = Buzon, M. R. and Simonetti, A., Strontium isotope (87Sr/86Sr) variability in the Nile Valley: identifying residential mobility during ancient Egyptian and Nubian sociopolitical changes in the New Kingdom and Napatan periods, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 151, 2013, 1-9.

Retzmann et al. 2019 = A. Retzmann, J. Budka, H. Sattmann, J. Irrgeher, T. Prohaska, The New Kingdom population on Sai Island: Application of Sr isotopes to investigate cultural entanglement in ancient Nubia, Ägypten und Levante 29, 2019, 355–380

Smith and Buzon 2017 = Smith, S. T., and Buzon, M. R., Colonial encounters at New Kingdom Tombos: Cultural entanglements and hybrid identity, 615–630, 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 2017.

Cultural diversity in the Middle Nile: New media coverage for DiverseNile

Despite of the recent developments because of the crisis due to the COVID-19 virus, my new ERC project, DiverseNile, will start on April 1st 2020 here at LMU Munich. I am very grateful to the wonderful support of the administrative staff both in Brussels and in Munich – it was quite a challenge, but now all is set to go!

More information on the project, my team and our intermediate goals will follow shortly – for now I would like to share a new dissemination article in which I tried to highlight the challenges and aims of DiverseNile (read it open access or download it here as PDF).

DiverseNile will be conducted within the framework of the MUAFS project – the Attab to Ferka region in Sudan is the perfect area for our new study.

Location of the MUAFS concession in relation to the Batn el-Haggar, Amara West and Sai Island.

I believe that in order to address the actual diversity of ancient groups in the Nile Valley a new approach focusing on the periphery and hinterland of the main centres is needed, considering both landscape and people in an integrative method. This is where DiverseNile will step in with our perfect case study between Attab and Ferka. The main objective of DiverseNile is to reconstruct Middle Nile landscape biographies beyond established cultural categories, enabling new insights into ancient dynamics of social spaces. Can’t wait to get started in April!

Assessing functional aspects of GiE 001: Preliminary data from the finds

The last two days were really nice – hot and sunny. Today, the weather has changed again, a very strong wind made work difficult today and the temperatures are again a bit cooler.

Since work in the field with such a wind was not possible after lunch, I spent this afternoon playing with some statistics for the two test trenches in GiE 001 where we are currently working.

Of course, any interpretation based on two test trenches only must remain very tentative, but I believe there are already some interesting facts and possible glues for understanding the function of the site. The domestic character of GIE 001 was already noted by Vila and we confirmed its dating to the New Kingdom with a strong Kerma presence in 2019. What new data derives now from our test trenches?

Let’s look at the pottery – the surface material was mixed in both trenches, comprising Kerma, Egyptian New Kingdom, Napatan and Christian wares. Many of the sherds are very eroded (wind-worn).

Trench 1 only yielded a total of 328 sherds, of which 13 are diagnostic pieces (4%). 271 pieces from all sherds (83%) can be dated to the Kerma/New Kingdom period.

This pattern is repeated in Trench 2 were a larger quantity of pottery was found. As of today, a total of 3709 sherds were collected, 177 of which are diagnostic pieces (5%). In this trench, 3203 sherds belong to the Kerma/New Kingdom horizon (86% and thus the clear majority).

Especially relevant was today’s muddy layer in a deep level which yielded only 13 small pottery sherds, but of which all are New Kingdom in date, 6 wheel-made of the Egyptian tradition, 7 handmade Nubian wares.

Some stone artefacts from Trench 2 in GiE 001.

The second most frequent category of finds after pottery are stone tools and lithics. These were quite numerous, especially in Trench 2, where for example 102 pieces were collected from the surface layer. The stone artefacts are mostly flakes and here predominately quartz flakes; very frequent are also fragments from sandstone grindstones and handmills. A few chert flakes and some pounders and hammer stones were also noted.

All in all, the stone artefacts seem to attest first of all quartz working and grinding of materials. This fits perfectly to the topographical situation of the site – just south of GiE 001, there is a large quartz vein visible on the surface. And this might very well be connected with ancient gold working like it is well attested in the general region of Upper Nubia and especially around the main centres of the New Kingdom empire like Sai, Sesebi and Amara West.

Overview of quartz vein just south of site GiE 001.

In the 1970s, Vila documented a gold working site at Kosha East (the neighbouring village of Ginis) where New Kingdom and Napatan ceramics on the surface next to a quartz vein resemble the evidence from GiE 001.

Excavation and processing of data at GiE 001 must of course continue, but for now, this New Kingdom ocupation site seems associated with gold exploitation in the periphery of Sai Island. Exciting first glimpses into the use of the Bronze and Iron Age landscapes in the MUAFS concession!