Kerma Tombs from Attab to Ferka

Sudan & Nubia 24 is now out and it includes a paper by PI Julia Budka on the Kerma presence at Ginis East (Budka 2020). The paper also presents an updated overview of MUAFS fieldwork, which relates to my work in the DiverseNile Project focusing on Kerma, New Kingdom and early Napatan cemeteries in the region. In the past three seasons, the MUAFS team reidentified hundreds of sites firstly described by Vila, but also identified 40 additional sites so far, including tombs which are of interest to my subproject. In my previous posts, I have focused mainly on the New Kingdom. Here I will present a brief overview of the Kerma presence, as attested by cemetery sites and isolated tombs, in Attab-Ferka (figure 1).

Figure 1: Kerma sites in the region from Attab to Ferka (status 2020). Budka 2020, fig. 13.

I have previously mentioned that, for the New Kingdom, our knowledge is mainly based on evidence from major colonial settlements and cemeteries. There are clear geographical gaps in what we know about the Egyptian colonisation of Nubia in areas such as the Batn el-Hajjar (Edwards 2020) or the MUAFS concession area. A similar situation occurs during the Kerma Period. As Julia Budka pointed out in her recent S&N paper, evidence from Attab-Ferka is extremely relevant “to address the issue of the borders of the Kerma kingdom as well as cultural manifestations of what has been labelled as ‘rural Kerma’” (Budka 2020: 63).

Veronica Hinterhuber’s last post provided an overview of her general database of sites based on information published by Vila. Her work is invaluable for my preliminary assessment of mortuary sites in our concession area. Based on her database, 10 mortuary sites first identified by Vila as dating to the Kerma Period can help us to preliminarily understand the Kerma spread in the region. Recent fieldwork has identified a large degree of destruction and plundering at those sites, which makes it important to revisit previously published and archival data with a fresh mindset to extract valuable information. Comparison with other sites, especially those at the Kerma hinterland and other ‘peripheral’ zones across Nubia, also help us shed light onto blurred spots in our datasets from Attab-Ferka.

Besides the overall plundering, Kerma tombs in the region were tumuli with granite superstructures (usually not preserved) and oval or large rectangular pits containing bone fragments, sherds and very rarely burial goods (e.g., faience beads). Kerma tombs were either larger, aprioristically isolated tombs or part of cemeteries grouping a higher number of burials; e.g., at Ferka East and Kosha East. A few skeletons were found in situ, although plundered. They were all deposited in a flexed position, sometimes on a bed; e.g. at Ferka East. Kerma tombs were reused in the Christian Period. For instance, one wrapped body dating to this period was found inside a Kerma tomb at Kitfogga, Ferka East. Sherds usually include Kerma beakers and goblets. Due to plundering, it is difficult to determine, based on the amount of information currently available, whether these burials were characterised by a simple approach to graves goods or not. Comparison with sites such as Abu Fatima, where Stuart Tyson Smith and Sarah Schrader are currently working, should allow us to gain a better picture of continuity and variation in Kerma contact spaces between, for instance, elites and non-elites or urban and rural communities.

The region from Attab to Ferka was not only a contact space within the Kerma state. It was also an area where the Kerma ‘culture’ interacted with Egyptian patterns. For example, one very interesting burial was excavated by Vila at Shagun Dukki, Ginis East, where c. 10 other tombs were detected (figure 2). It consisted of a shallow, oval pit inside of which a flexed skeleton was found (disturbed). Together with the skeleton, a bone scarab was found in the right hand, a common pattern at Classic Kerma burials at Kerma city (Minor 2012: 144). Most scarabs found at Kerma city bear similarities with scarabs from Second Intermediate Period Egypt and Syria-Palestine and would have been acquired either via trade or reuse of graves in Lower Nubia (Minor 2012: 138-140). It is difficult to read the signs on the base of the scarab from Shagun Dukki. Moreover, bone was a material used to manufacture various items in the Kerma Period, as well as among other Nubian communities, and worked as a Nubian identity marker in the New Kingdom. Were bone scarabs the result of local copying practices? Looking at the evidence from Attab-Ferka holds the potential to shed light on internal contact and variability within the Kerma realm, as well as the local roles of foreign objects in local contexts in this period.

Figure 2: A Kerma burial at Shagun Dukki, Ginis East (Vila 1977: 25).

Gratien has previously pointed out how little we know about the Kerma state outside Kerma city, as well as how the Kerma state related to other ‘Nubian’ communities north and south of the Third Cataract (Gratien 2014: 95; 1978; Bonnet 2014). Evidence from Sai (Gratien 1986) and the Fourth Cataract (Paner 2014; Herbst and Smith 2014; Wlodarska 2014; Emberling et al. 2014) can illuminate further aspects of the spread of Kerma throughout the Middle Nile. The publication of evidence from Lower Nubia is also much expected (see Edwards 2020). Recent scholarship has also been shedding light on alternative, ‘rural’ experiences of the Kerma state outside of Kerma city (Akmenkalns 2018) and comparative, ‘global’ perspectives on specific categories of artefacts across cultural borders provide interesting avenues of inquiry (Walsh 2020). In a few years, the results of the DiverseNile Project will also contribute to our understanding of a more complex and diversified landscape beyond rigid cultural divisions.

References

Akmenkalns, J. 2018. Cultural continuity and change in the wake of ancient Nubian-Egyptian interactions. PhD thesis, University of California Santa Barbara.

Bonnet, C. 2014. Forty years research on Kerma cultures. In The Fourth Cataract and beyond, eds. J. Anderson and D. Welsby, 81-94. Leuven: Peeters.

Budka, J. 2020. Kerma presence at Ginis East: The 2020 season of the Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project. Sudan & Nubia 24: 57-71.

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

Emberling, G. et al. 2014. Peripheral vision: Identity at the margins of the early Kingdom of Kush. In The Fourth Cataract and beyond, eds. J. Anderson and D. Welsby, 329-336. Leuven: Peeters.

Gratien, B 1986. Saï I. La Nécropole Kerma. Paris: CNRS.

Gratien, B. 1978. Les cultures Kerma: essai de classification. Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Publications de l’Université de Lille III.

Gratien, B. 2014. Kerma north of the Third Cataract. In The Fourth Cataract and beyond, eds. J. Anderson and D. Welsby, 95-101. Leuven: Peeters.

Herbst, G. and S. T. Smith. 2014. Pre-Kerma transition at the Nile Fourth Cataract: First assessments of a multi-component, stratified prehistoric settlement in the UCSB/ASU Salvage Concession. In The Fourth Cataract and beyond, eds. J. Anderson and D. Welsby, 311-320. Leuven: Peeters.

Minor, E. 2012. The Use of Egyptian and Egyptianizing Material Culture in Nubian Burials of the Classic Kerma Period. PhD thesis, University of California Berkeley.

Paner, H. 2014. Kerma Culture in the Fourth Cataract of the Nile. In The Fourth Cataract and beyond, eds. J. Anderson and D. Welsby, 53-80. Leuven: Peeters.

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

Walsh, C. 2020. Techniques for Egyptian eyes: Diplomacy and the transmission of cosmetic practices between Egypt and Kerma. Journal of Egyptian History 13: 295-332.

Wlodarska, M. 2014. Kerma burials in the Fourth Cataract region – Three seasons of excavations at Shemkhiya. In The Fourth Cataract and beyond, eds. J. Anderson and D. Welsby, 321-328. Leuven: Peeters.

On the footsteps of Vila and the archaeology of monumental surveys in northern Sudan

Every archaeologist knows that what we write about the past is mediated by present-day questions, expectations and challenges, but also state-of-the-art documentation techniques. Archaeologists don’t simply reconstruct what happened back in the day. Instead, archaeological and historical narratives are essentially modern constructions that can either be repaired or demolished as scholarship moves forward. Archaeological research is also mediated by complex site and object biographies that span thousands of years; e.g., in our case, from the Neolithic to monumental surveys carried out in northern Sudan in the mid-20th century.

To understand tombs, burials and mortuary objects in the region from Attab to Ferka we need to understand the impact of André Vila’s work in the region, the epistemological framework from which he was reporting and his methodology. How Vila’s work materialise in the landscape directly affect the questions we ask and the methodologies we apply today. Not surprisingly, archaeologists in Sudan usually deal with traces left by earlier archaeologists at various sites, and retracing their steps becomes a fundamental aspect of accessing the past through remaining material culture (e.g., Howley 2018: 86-87).

Vila’s survey can be seen as part of a long tradition of large-scale surveys going back to the first Archaeological Survey of Nubia (see Adams 2007). From Dal (the southern limit of Lake Nubia) to Nilwatti Island, Vila identified 462 sites of which 219 sites are within the MUAFS concession (figure 1). These sites were attributed to cultural units, e.g., Kerma, Christian etc. Even though Vila noted that various sites belonged to one or more cultural units, today archaeologists approach those ‘units’ more fluidly, especially in situations of cultural exchanges, which is especially true for Kerma and New Kingdom sites. On the one hand, revisiting sites surveyed and reported in the 1960s and ’70s requires us to contextualise archaeology to ‘deconstruct’ theoretical biases and ask different questions. On the other hand, Vila’s methodology determines the extent to which sites can be explored.

Figure 1: distribution of sites in the MUAFS/DiverseNile concession area (map: C. Geiger)

In terms of method, Vila’s survey aimed to keep disturbance to sites to a minimum. Test excavations and sampling followed rigid guidelines and excavations were only carried out when cultural affiliations couldn’t be distinguished otherwise, e.g., based on surface finds. Cemeteries were approached in a slightly different way. Cemeteries were usually cleared to determine their extent and number of graves at each site. A few graves were fully excavated and recorded, as well as ‘peculiar’ collective burials (figure 2).

Figure 2: Bagagin Farki, Ginis East. “Egyptian” New Kingdom pit burial containing an individual deposited in extended position together with sherds from two pots and the remains of other six individuals (Vila 1977, Vol. 5: 47)

In Work Package 2, I am responsible, among other things, for reassessing the material from such graves. For example, comparison of items from graves in our concession area with objects from other sites allows us to shed new light onto different roles performed by the same types of objects in different contexts (Lemos 2020). Scientific analysis of pottery also allows us to explore the (potentially) alternative role of objects in rituals (stay tune to Giulia D’Ercole’s blog!). I am currently collaborating with Kate Fulcher from the British Museum on the topic of mortuary rituals in New Kingdom Nubia based on scientific analysis of artefacts (see Fulcher and Budka 2020 for examples of such approaches).

Working with previously excavated material culture poses several theoretical and methodological challenges, mostly related to the lack of information provided by earlier excavation reports and the problematical categories used to classify things. However, revisiting the burials excavated by Vila holds an immense potential for us to ask different questions within larger-scale perspectives on burial communities, the role of (foreign) objects in the constitution of (local) social relations and identity formation strategies. Comparative approaches to sites and material culture allow us to understand different social realities within Nubia, challenging previous homogenising perspectives on cultural interactions focusing on elite centres. Revisiting sites also holds great potential to unveil things under new theoretical perspectives and using state-of-the-art documentation techniques. This is especially the case because disturbance to sites was limited during Vila’s survey, although looting poses an additional challenge to new fieldwork in our concession area.

Ultimately, researching burials and other sites in our concession area and excavating sites firstly worked by Vila presupposes a deep knowledge of the data sets produced by him, what was ignored/discarded, what was considered worth investigating etc. Previous ways of excavating, identifying and reporting sites also determine the extent to which we can revisit them through excavation and comparative analysis.

References

Adams, W. Y. 2007. A Century of Archaeological Salvage, 1907-2007. Sudan and & Nubia 11: 48-56.

Fulcher, K. and J. Budka. 2020. Pigments, incense, and bitumen from the New Kingdom town and cemetery on SaiIsland in Nubia. Journal of Archaeological Science https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102550.

Howley, K. 2018. Return to Taharqo’s Temple at Sanam: the inaugural field season of the Sanam Temple Project. Sudan & Nubia 22: 81-88.

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.

Vila, A. 1977. La prospection archéologique de la Vallée du Nil, au Sud de la Cataracte de Dal (Nubie Sudanaise). Fascicule 5: Le district de Ginis, Est et Ouest. Paris: CNRS.

Mortuary archaeology in the area from Attab to Ferka (MUAFS concession area)

With my appointment as the newest member of the DiverseNile team, it’s now time to present Work Package 2: The Variability of Funerary Monuments in the Region from Attab to Ferka, Northern Sudan.

Figure 1: Map of MUAFS concession with overview of surveyed areas (C. Geiger).

As responsible for Work Package 2, I will investigate, with PI Julia Budka, all aspects of mortuary sites within the MUAFS concession area (figure 1). The area from Attab to Ferka was firstly surveyed by André Vila within a larger survey from Dal to Missiminia. The results of Vila’s survey were published by the French CNRS in 15 volumes, which describe numerous sites located in the area­­­­­. Volumes 3 to 6 focus on the MUAFS concession in the region from Attab to Ferka.

Vila identified a series of funerary sites between Attab and Ferka, which I will explore in my research within the DiverseNile team. The aim is to understand the materialisation of cultural diversity through tomb architecture, burial customs and goods, focusing on the Bronze Age, which in our concession area comprises the Kerma, Egyptian New Kingdom and Napatan periods.

The 2018/19 and 2020 seasons of MUAFS survey re-identified and documented various burials sites previously listed by Vila, some of which were extensively plundered in recent times (Budka 2019; see also our online reports). Two cemeteries at Ginis East seem to be especially relevant for future excavation. GiE002 (Vila site 2-T-13) and GiE003 (Vila site 2-T-13) date to the Kerma Period and Egyptian New Kingdom, respectively. Kerma cemeteries usually comprise tumuli burials, while New Kingdom sites include shaft tombs with no preserved superstructure. Magnetometry was carried out at both sites in 2019 and will be used to further assess the archaeological potential of the cemeteries to plan future excavations. An additional survey is also planned for the next season, which will hopefully reveal more potentially relevant cemeteries or isolated tombs.

Besides new excavations, a large part of research on mortuary sites in our concession area consists of revisiting publications, archives and material culture previously excavated and now in museums. I’m currently developing a research strategy that will explore both avenues. My PhD experience demonstrated the huge potential of revisiting old excavation reports and archival material (see, for example, Edwards 2020), as well as museum collections from a fresh theoretical perspective.

In general, the DiverseNile project focuses on shifting conceptualisations and experiences of ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’. My previous research stresses the contextual role performed by foreign objects in local contexts in New Kingdom cemeteries in Nubia. I argue that foreign, Egyptian-style objects could perform alternative, local tasks other than materialising Egyptian colonisation through objects in Nubian contexts (Lemos 2020). DiverseNile Work Package 2 will combine both general theoretical perspectives to unveil cultural diversity in contexts previously thought to express homogenisation only.

I am also particularly interested in refining our understanding of New Kingdom chronology in Nubia. So far, Egyptocentric approaches have mainly accepted that the same dates used to understand Egyptian history apply to Nubian colonial contexts. In my PhD thesis, I discuss the use of alternative terminology, based on local Nubian experiences of colonisation, instead of landmarks of Egyptian political history. DiverseNile has been adopting ‘Bronze Age Nubia’ as a working alternative. PI Julia Budka and I will be closely working on this topic, and I hope that new excavations will provide us with more refined dates than those usually extracted from typological approaches to sites and material culture. This would be especially relevant for the end of the New Kingdom colonial period/pre-Napatan Period, which is still poorly understood (e.g., Thill 2007; Binder 2011).

Stay tuned to this space for updates regarding my work on mortuary sites and material culture in Attab-Ferka!

References

Binder, M. 2011. The 10th-9th century BC – New Evidence from Cemetery C of Amara West. Sudan & Nubia 15: 39-53.

Budka, J. 2019 (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, C. Geiger, V. Hinterhuber and M. Scheiblecker). Towards Middle Nile Biographies: the Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project 2018/2019. Sudan & Nubia 23: 13-26.

Edwards, D. ed. 2020. The Archaeological Survey of Sudanese Nubia, 1963-1969. The Pharaonic Sites. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Lemos, R. 2020. Material Culture and Colonization in Ancient Nubia: Evidence from the New Kingdom Cemeteries. In Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, ed. C. Smith. New York: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51726-1_3307-1

Thill, F. 2007. Les réoccupations “(pré)napatéennes” dans le cimetière égyptien 8B5/SAC5 de Sai. In Mélanges offerts à Francis Geus, ed. B. Gratien. CRIPEL 26: 353–369.