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).


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

An update: Kerma sites in the Attab to Ferka region

The last weeks were busy, among other tasks with completing data for our GIS project in order to create new maps based on our survey results. As I have shown in my OREA e-lecture, Cajetan has created site distribution maps according to periods – simply fantastic to work with!

Since the ERC project DiverseNile will focus on Bronze Age remains, the sites currently labelled as ‘Kerma’ are of much interest. The present map also includes some unclear sites where a proper dating and/or association with the Kerma culture remains to be checked.

Kerma sites in the Attab to Ferka region identifed by the MUAFS project (status: 2020)

Brigitte Gratien, one of the leading experts on the Kerma culture, recently pointed out the general problems related to Kerma remains outside of the heartland of the Kerma kingdom at the Third Cataract:

As everybody knows, writing about Kerma north of the Third Cataract is not so easy. Most of the excavations were done a long time ago and the results come mostly from the Nile valley. Where are the borders of the Kerma state or kingdom? What are the stages in the expansion of Kerma to the north, and what was the nature of the links and relationship with the other Nubian cultures and with Egypt?’(Gratien 2014, 95)

The Attab to Ferka region and renewed excavations at Kerma sites in the area have much potential to address these questions and problems which will be of first priority for the DiverseNile project. In general, very little rural settlements have been investigated up to now in northern Sudan, creating a lack of means to contextualise the central sites like Kerma or Sai Island. Sai is regarded, due to the strong Kerma presence on the island prior to the New Kingdom and especially the very large cemetery with huge tumuli, as northern stronghold of the Kerma kingdom. But how does this presumed function of the island relate to the periphery of Sai? What do we know about Kerma dwellings in the area?

This brings us back to the MUAFS concession and to our newly established distribution of ‘Kerma’ sites. Camps, settlements and cemeteries of the Kerma culture were recorded at both riverbanks. Except for two large Kerma tumulus cemeteries associated with the Kerma classique period in Ferka East, 3-G-16 and 3-G-19, all of the sites are clustered in the southern districts of Attab, Ginis and Kosha, thus quite close to Sai Island.

Dry-stone architecture datable to the Brone Age at Attab West.

Of particular interest are 1) stone structures in the Attab West district associated with 18th Dynasty pottery but of unclear cultural attribution since also Nubian material culture was present (Budka 2019, 24‒25) and 2) various settlement sites in the district of Ginis East. The latter were partly investigated by our text excavations earlier this year.

It is still too early, but sites like GiE 001 and the ‘watchtowers’ in Attab West will hopefully allow a comparison of ‘provincial’ Kerma remains like Gism el-Arba (Gratien et al. 2003; 2008) and H25 near Kawa (Ross 2014) with the capital of the Kushite kingdom, Kerma itself (Bonnet 2014). At least some of the questions regarding Kerma north of the Third Cataract are likely to be answered in the next years.


Bonnet 2014 = Bonnet, C. 2014. La ville de Kerma: une capitale nubienne au sud de lʼEgypte. Paris.

Budka 2019 = Budka, J. 2019. ‘Towards Middle Nile Biographies: The Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project 2018/2019’, Sudan & Nubia 23, 13‒26.

Gratien 2014 = Gratien, B. 2014. ‘Kerma north of the Third Cataract’, in J. Anderson and D. 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, 95‒101.

Gratien et al. 2003 = Gratien, B., Marchi, S., Thuriot, O. and J.-M. Willot 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 et al. 2008 = Gratien, B., Marchi, S., Sys, D. and R.-P. Dissaux 2008. ‘Gism el-Arba – Habitat 2, Campagne 2005–2006’, Kush 19 (2003-2008), 21-35.

Ross 2014 = Ross, T.I. 2014. ‘El-Eided Mohamadein (H25): A Kerma, New Kingdom and Napatan settlement on the Alfreda Nile’, Sudan & Nubia 18, 58‒68.