Cemeteries between Attab and Ferka: What to expect from them?

Before we’re able to go to the field, a lot of work on the cemeteries in our concession area is currently underway from Munich. Marion’s recent blog posts already discussed the potential of magnetometry for us to better understand what we are dealing with, and this is especially true in connection with Cajetan’s remote sensing work. Cajetan’s work has been revealing some interesting aspects of our sites and hopefully you’ll be able to catch glimpses of his work soon in here.

This work provides important background regarding the specificities of our sites. Alongside an assessment of the cemeteries and comparison with other sites across Nubia, this allows us to put together an ‚ideal type‘ (sensu Max Weber) that can guide us through future survey and excavation. The data sets produced by Vila, as well as previous MUAFS seasons, are also crucial for us to establish this ideal type, which works as a methodological tool to confirm our hypotheses (or not).

In my previous posts, I’ve already shared details about the assessment of sites I’ve been carrying out over the past months. Base on Vila’s data, we can know what to expect from the cemeteries in terms of preservation, types of structures etc. For example, the Late New Kingdom „tomb of Isis“ works an example of „elite“ or „sub-elite“ burial ground in the periphery of temple towns, where Egyptian and Nubian features mixed, probably to a greater extent than at temple towns—an example of hypothesis that we can create departing from an ideal type. This mixture occurred, for instance, in the combination of Egyptian substructures and a tumuli superstructure, remains of which were located in previous MUAFS seasons (see my previous posts). Departing from an ideal type such as the „tomb of Isis“ we can approach how the ideal varies across geographical and social spaces within our concession area.

For example, Marion and Cajetan’s work are shedding light on the extension of cemeteries where we can easily see from above those tumuli, some of which already explored by Vila, but also other features. It is difficult to determine from a distance what is the nature of this evidence. Comparative research then comes in handy. I’ve already proposed a discussion on the whereabouts of the majority of the Nubian population during the New Kingdom (a discussion that also applies to the Kerma period).

Figure 1: tomb types at Fadrus, adapted from Spence 2019, based on Säve-Söderbergh and Troy 1991.

Other Nubian cemeteries such as Fadrus in Lower Nubia add information about non-elite groups to our ideal type (figure 1). If larger tumuli such as the „tomb of Isis“ are easily located based on drone and satellite imagery, simple non-elite pit graves originally with no extensive superstructures pose more challenges. Though, comparisons allow us to open up to possibilities that include, in our research framework, social groups not clearly represented by evidence accumulated from large temple-town cemeteries. These groups—which comprised the bulk of Nubian populations working in the fields, mines, and probably carrying out other work in the service of larger centres—are yet to be fully understood (and here work at the cemeteries of Amarna provide us interesting comparison points, see Stevens 2018).

Several are the challenges of doing research from the office, as we cannot yet go to the field. But work conducted so far, from various fronts, help us establish a pretty solid starting point from which to explore our sites knowing more or less what to expect. This takes into account old and new evidence, extensive comparisons with other sites and a clear theoretical framework, which is essential to formulate research questions and carry out large scale projects such as DiverseNile.

References

Säve-Söderbergh and Troy 1991. New Kingdom pharaonic sites: the finds and the sites.

Spence 2019. New Kingdom burials in Lower and Upper Nubia. In Handbook of Ancient Nubia, ed. D. Raue.

Stevens 2018. Death and the city: The cemeteries of Amarna in their urban context. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 28 (1): 103–126. doi:10.1017/S0959774317000592

Where’s the population of New Kingdom colonial Nubia?

David Edwards‘ recent publication of ‚Pharaonic‘ remains in the Batn el-Hajar provides an important comparison point for us to understand the evidence from DiverseNile’s concession area from Attab to Ferka. From a mortuary landscape perspective, Edwards criticises archaeology’s traditional focus on elite tombs in the Middle Nile saying that we „should not narrow our perspectives, to the exclusion from our narratives of the vast majority of the population who were buried otherwise“ in areas other than the centres of foreign colonial power in Nubia (Edwards 2020: 396).

Until recently, a similar picture could be drawn for Egypt. Despite large non-elite cemeteries being known since the early 20th century (e.g., Matmar or Gurob), a monumental/elite bias characterised historical narratives about New Kingdom Egypt (see Richards 2005). Only recently, with the identification and excavation of large non-elite cemeteries at Amarna (Kemp et al. 2013), more scholars are paying attention to other social realities beyond the imposition of elite social spaces.

The long history of archaeology in the Middle Nile has been strongly marked by colonisation, ancient and modern. Nubia’s history, especially in the New Kingdom, has remained, for a long time, in the shadow of Egypt’s history. This manifested as the discipline’s Egyptocentric focus on sites of colonial administration, its textual sources and elite cemeteries, which yielded Egyptian-style objects interpreted as essentially ‚Egyptian’—a manifestation of the alleged acculturation of passive local communities placed in lower ranks of ‚civilisation‘. Traditional, Egyptocentric research agendas contributed further to silencing past colonised groups, which only appear in Egyptian textual sources in inferior positions.

As a result, we still know barely anything about the majority of the population of New Kingdom Nubia, which inhabited areas other than the major colonial centres of power, e.g., Aniba, Sai, Soleb. The cemeteries at these sites house a small number of monumental tombs that, although used collectively, still represent a tiny fraction of society across the history of ancient colonial Nubia.

Who were the majority of the population of New Kingdom Nubia? Where did those people live and where were they buried? Where did they come from? Under what conditions did they live (and die)? Although research is moving forward to address new topics (see Spencer et al. 2017), these are questions that haven’t been explored for Nubia yet, mostly due to archaeology’s focus on acculturation/Egyptianisation in the New Kingdom.

Areas such as the Batn el-Hajar and the region south of Dal cataract, including DiverseNile’s concession from Attab to Ferka, are unlikely to yield monumental elite tombs. However, peripheral, today inhospitable desert areas along the Middle Nile hold an enormous potential to impact our narratives about ancient Nubia’s colonial past, shedding light on alternative histories, experiences and forms of being-in-the-world beyond Egyptological/Egyptocentric research interests grounded on sites of Egyptian colonial administration in the New Kingdom. So, where did the majority of the population live and die in New Kingdom Nubia? Likely in the geographical and social gaps along the Nile still to be fully explored.

Even at colonial administrative centres, such as Aniba, Sai and Soleb, social relations were more complex than simply being ‚Egyptian‘. Recent work confirmed, through isotopic analysis, that local individuals lived at those sites and worked in colonial administration; e.g., the master of goldsmiths Khnumose and other individuals close to him (Budka 2021). My previous work on the distribution and use of Egyptian-style objects in local contexts in colonial Nubia, which included subversive transformations of stylistic and use patterns, also show that things weren’t homogenous in colonial Nubia (Lemos 2020).

Currently, we know very few non-elite cemeteries in New Kingdom colonial Nubia. If social relations were far from being uniform at colonial centres of power, at non-elite cemeteries there was even more room for negotiations, which resulted in the shaping of alternative material realities and experiences of colonisation. Examples from non-elite cemetery of Fadrus in Lower Nubia allow us to understand better such negotiations, which could result in alternative social relations other than imposed colonial hierarchies (e.g., collective engagement and collaboration), as I have argued in a forthcoming paper (Lemos forthcoming).

Fadrus alone doesn’t fill the gap in our knowledge about the vast majority of the population of New Kingdom colonial Nubia, neither does the collective use of elite tombs at the centres of colonial administration. In both elite, administrative sites and non-elite sites, Egyptian-style material culture opens windows to complexity and diversity beyond previous homogenising interpretations of New Kingdom colonial Nubia that reflect disciplinary colonial traditions and interests. Therefore, turning our attention to ‚peripheral‘ regions previously neglected holds an immense potential for us not only to detect this vast mass of population left out of historical narratives, but also to uncover alternatives to colonial homogenisation (ancient and modern) through people’s diverse experiences of landscape, society and culture.

Fig. 1: non-elite graves at Ginis East (Villa 1977: 39).

Vila’s survey identified several burial sites, which are comparable to non-elite cemeteries, although most of the Vila sites don’t seem to be large „formal“ cemeteries like Fadrus (figure 1). DiverseNile’s focus on the regions where the majority of the population of the New Kingdom colonial Nubia lived and died is an important step towards understanding diversity and complexity in heterogeneous New Kingdom Nubia. Exploring such sites in comparison with other sites in Nubia holds a huge potential for us to rewrite Nubia’s diverse history in the New Kingdom, which was characterised by various, sometimes competing material experiences of colonisation, especially considering the creative potential of people living and dying at the fringes of society.

References

Budka, J. forthcoming 2021. Tomb 26 on Sai island: A New Kingdom elite tomb and its relevance for Sai and beyond. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

Edwards, D. 2020. The Archaeological Survey of Sudanese Nubia, 1963-69. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Kemp, B. J. et al. 2013. Life, Death and Beyond in Akhenaten’s Egypt: Excavating the South Tombs Cemetery at Amarna. Antiquity 87: 64–78.

Lemos, R. 2020. Material culture and colonization in ancient Nubia: Evidence from the New Kingdom cemeteries. Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, ed. C. Smith. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51726-1.

Lemos, R. forthcoming 2022. Heart Scarabs and other heart-related objects in New Kingdom Nubia. Sudan & Nubia 25.

Richards, R. 2005. Society and death in ancient Egypt. Cambridge: CUP.

Spencer, N. et al. 2017. Introduction: History and historiography of a colonial entanglement, and the shaping of new archaeologies for Nubia in the New Kingdom. In Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived experience, pharaonic control and indigenous traditions, ed. N. Spencer, A. Stevens and M. Binder, 1–61. Leuven: Peeters.

Vila, A. 1977. La prospection archeologique de la valee du Nil au sud de la cataracte de Dal 5. Paris: CNRS.

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

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!

Closing the first MUAFS season

Wow – it has been an amazing first season in my new concession up north between Attab and Ferka! Today, we left our house at Attab East and arrived safely in Khartoum – in just a few hours, we will board the plane back to Munich via Istanbul.

A proper summary of our results will follow as soon as I got some sleep. But for now, my amazing team deserved loads of thanks – for making a great season full of important new data possible and for all the individual commitment in many respects!

Many thanks goes as always to our dear friend and NCAM inspector Huda who was a great support, helping with surveying in the desert and on the east bank, with ceramics and with the geophysical survey. Our two Mohammeds – the cook and the driver – enabled us to focus on our scientific work, taking care of all logistics in challenging times and providing us with plenty of delicious food.

Looking already now very much forward to the second season of the MUAFS project and coming back to the beautiful landscape full of archaeology covering several millennia of history just downstream of the Dal cataract.

Tracing the Kerma Period in Ginis and elsewhere

Just one last visit to Abri and to WLAN, before it goes back to Khartoum! Has been a great first short season of the MUAFS project with plenty of intriguing data and impressions!

We documented many impressive sites in the last two weeks – altogether, I managed to re-identify and check 119 sites, which Vila recorded in the 1970s. For some of these sites, the dating is of much interest. A slightly revised dating as compared to the published data adds fresh information about several periods of presence in this part of the Nile valley, for example during the Napatan period.

Of prime interest this week was the Kerma period and here in particular settlement sites and cemeteries. Various large tumuli cemeteries, especially of the Kerma Moyen and Kerma Classique periods, are located at the East Bank; we found several older and smaller ones on the West Bank.

Ginis East was once again of particular importance and two more sites were investigated by magnetometry this season. GiE 003, labelled by Vila as 2-T-39, is a huge tumulus cemetery comprising probably more than 150 tombs, stretching from East to West and now partly destroyed by modern pathways and streets. A similar site is 2-P-7, located further upstream at Kosha East. There, the tumuli are quite dismantled, but various ceramics including Egyptian imports can still be found and suggest a Kerma Moyen date as prime phase of use for this cemetery.

Kerma cemetery 2-P-7

Marion’s work with the Ferrex Foerster magnetometer revealed amazing results at GiE 004, a Kerma settlement documented by Vila as site 2-T-5. The main structure of the site and its multiple circular huts, possible enclosures for animals and fences are clearly visible on the magnetogramm. The site is surrounded by later structures from Post-Meroitic and Christian times – like at other places in our concession, a long-lasting multi-period use of this part of Ginis East is obvious.

Finally, intriguing Kerma sites can be found at Attab West – in the immediate surroundings of 18th Dynasty sites, comprising both mudbrick and stone architecture. These sites, which are located along an ancient branch of the Nile, are especially relevant to investigate cultural encounters during the Bronze Age in our concession area since Egyptian pottery was found frequently associated with Kerma Classique ceramics.

One of the Kerma sites with much Egyptian pottery on the surface.

So many exciting new finds, so much work to do in the near future between Attab and Ferka!