One of our objectives within the DiverseNile project, to reconstruct cultural encounters based on the material record by the detailed assessment of the most important productive activities, technologies and foodways, has received plenty of new material evidence during the 2022 excavation season. Most importantly, thanks to the support of NCAM and especially our inspector Huda Magzoub, I was able to export a selection of pottery samples for scientific analysis to Germany. These new samples from our excavations in Ginis East (sites GiE 001 and 003) and Attab West (site AtW 001) are of huge importance for the project, especially because due to the restrictions caused by the corona pandemic for archaeological fieldwork in the last two years, we could until now only investigate the petrography of ceramic samples from Dukki Gel.
This ties in with what our PostDoc Giulia D’Ercole has summarised in a recent paper: „For over seventy years, theoretical approaches and methods of classification of ceramic objects in Sudan have gradually changed, as have the perspectives and the general purposes of archaeological research. In general, scholarly attention has progressively shifted from forms (i.e., decoration and shape) to mineral and chemical compositions of ceramics and vessel contents (i.e., petrographic, compositional, and organic residue analyses)“ (D’Ercole 2021). This changed focus already influenced our research within the framework of the AcrossBorders project and is now continued with the DiverseNile project.
The analysis of the material culture in Work Package 3 of the DiverseNile project is undertaken from a multi-perspective level, including scientific analyses focusing on provenience studies (e.g. ceramic petrography and iNAA, see already D’Ercole and Sterba 2018). For the ceramics, we will combine macroscopic observations with analytical approaches and evaluate the results of optical microscopy (OM) and chemical analyses (XRF and iNAA) in conjunction. Together with LMU colleagues, Giulia has also introduced Raman spectroscopy as a new application to answer various technological questions, in particular on the manufacturing stages of production and firing of the pots. This will especially help to understand questions about local productions and influences of Nubian ceramic traditions for preparing wheel made pots in the Middle Nile region.
In the last days, I was busy preparing the documentation of our new ceramic samples from Ginis East and Attab West. I selected twenty-one samples for optical microscopy (OM) and thus for the preparation of thin sections, while I will bring 108 samples later this week to the Atominstitute in Vienna where they are being analysed for instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis (iNAA) by our colleague and external expert in the project, Johannes Sterba.
The new samples comprise sherds of various surface treatments and different fabrics of the Kerma ceramic tradition as well as diverse Egyptian style wheel made samples of which the majority seems to attest to a local pottery production in the Attab to Ferka region. Photographing the samples, I was again struck by the extremely interesting appearance of the material from the domestic site AtW 001. Although I know that the scientific analyses will take some time and I need to be patient, I cannot wait to integrate the results from iNAA and petrography with my archaeological assessment and macroscopical observations and discuss them further with Giulia and Johannes.
Like Aaron M. de Souza and Mary F. Ownby very truly remarked in a recent paper: more micro-analyses of Nubian material culture need to be undertaken to achieve a better understanding of cultural diversity in the Middle Nile (de Souza and Ownby 2022, 55).
D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, J. H. 2018. From macro wares to micro fabrics and INAA compositional groups: the Pottery Corpus of the New Kingdom town on Sai Island (northern Sudan), 171–183, in: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller (eds.), From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Leiden.
On Tuesday 25 there was the kick-off of the DiverseNile Seminar Series 2022 and our PI Julia Budka gave an inspiring opening lecture to inaugurate it. Among other topics, she mentioned the concept of agency of material culture and relevance of technologies. This led me to reflect once again in a more problematic way on the meaning of the terms materiality, identity, and style and on the use that we made of them nowadays in archaeology and, specifically, within the study of Nubian Bronze Age material culture, including our speculations on Egyptian style and Nubian style ceramic vessels.
But let’s start from the beginning, putting some basic theoretical arguments on the table!
In the last decades, the approach to materiality and the study of material culture has become a central aspect of the research and new important cognitive theories have been developed around this concept. Back in 2001 Colin Renfrew wrote “Symbol before concept: Material engagement and the early development of society” challenging the theoretical biases of cognitive archaeology and putting the bases for understanding the engagement of the mind with the material world (Renfrew 2001; see also Iliopoulos 2019, 40). In 2004, Renfrew and Malafouris developed the so-called Material Engagement Theory (MET), from which comes the notion of creative “thinging” which refers to the capacity of humans to feel/think through and about things (Malafouris 2004, 2019a). Some years later, Olsen et al. define archaeology as “the discipline of things”, that is the science of the objects, “obliged the archaeologists to be bricoleurs, who collect bits and pieces, not because of an erratic whimbut because of a commitment, a fidelity to the materials we engage” (Olsen et al. 2012, 4).
All in all, MET shares with New Materialisms (see e.g., Edgeworth 2016) “a special ‘attentiveness’ to things, as well as an interest in understanding the ‘vitality’ and the ‘mattering’ of mater” (Malafouris 2019b, 9). Further, New Materialisms support “an object agency”, that is an existence of their own of the objects that transcends that of human symbolic systems. This can be seen primarily as a reaction to the symbolism of the post-processual approach (cf. Hodder 1982) and more generally as a tendency to move beyond the concepts of “meaning” and “identity” of material culture, to embrace otherwise a new ontology of materiality that sees it freed from particular forms of representations (Tsoraki et al. 2020; see also Deleuze 2007).
In other words, if for decades the philosophical thought as well as the field of social and cultural studies have been dominated by a dialectical setting of the terms “material” and “symbol” (or “meaning”) with the former in fact understood as a “signifier” or simple representative of the latter(let’s think of the dualism of Descartes, of the logic behind the linguistic structuralism or, taken to the extreme, of Magritte’s provocative sentence under his famous painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), the New Materialism in archaeology, as in other fields of science, newly and provocatively suggests to shift away from an emphasis on representation and attends otherwise “to the material vibrancy of past objects and the roles that materials themselves play in the production of meaning” (Tsoraki et al. 2020, 494-495; cf. McFadyen and Hicks 2020, 3).
What does this mean in practice? How can objects exist free of the representation that man has of them? How is it possible to extrapolate from the concept of style the symbolic value acquired through the context of human thought, experience and action? What kind of speculation or ontology of matter does the New Materialism propose?
Actually, the New Materialism does turn attention away from the human agency and responsibility (cf. Ribeiro 2016; Whittle 2018), nor rejects the concept of representation per se. Rather, it aims to overcome it, exploring a more-than representational version of material meanings, and embracing a systemic (and relational) rather than dualistic vision of reality. This decentres the human subject and the mere ontology of symbolism and representation (see Tsoraki 2020, 497), considering otherwise a multiple system of relationships where things, humans, landscape, and in a broader sense whatever forms part of it (including raw materials, rocks, animals, and plants) is interconnected and linked to each other’s.
This new systemic and relational ontology expands the study of material culture further beyond the frame of the human context and its apparatus of symbolic, aesthetic, or functional meanings, embracing the much wider space of ecology. Notably, the study of things assumes a more fluid and dynamic vision, with the concept of chaîne opératoire becoming the most suitable and powerful analytical tool in order to return a vibrant analysis of past material object (e.g., lithics as ceramic assemblages) as embedded in a network of diverse and intertwined human and non-human actions. The chaîne opératoire in fact “imposes systematization in data collection, as well as the acknowledgement of a variety of elements that are invariably brought together in the conduct of technical activities” (Gosselain 2012, 246). Style, intended in its broader sense as ‘technological style’ (sensu Lechtman 1977), “potentially resides in every phase of the manufacturing sequence or chaîne opératoire” (Sillar and Tite 2000, 8).
Bringing this discussion back to the context of the Bronze Age in the Middle Nile, this premise constitutes part of the theoretical background behind the Work package 3 of our DiverseNile project, and specifically what our PI, my colleagues, and I are approaching to observe and understand through the technological analysis of ceramics, focusing on the typology, technology, material, function and contents of pottery, by combining a standard macroscopic approach with various complementary laboratory methodologies (e.g., OM, iNAA, Raman Spectroscopy, Organic Residue Analysis).
Here, we can build on results of the AcrossBorders project and our focus on the analysis of the ceramic assemblage from the New Kingdom colonial town of Sai Island and on the study of the differences between locally made wheel-made Egyptian and hand-made Nubian vessels. In the current project, we will expand our geographical scale, evaluating and comparing various ceramic reference collections from the central sites of Sai, Dukki Gel, and Amara West, with first hand material from the MUAFS concession area in the Attab to Ferka region.
What we know already now are the following main points:
There exist significant stylistic variations between Egyptian style and Nubian style ceramics which are reflected on several levels i.e., in the aesthetic, morphometric, and technological aspects of the ceramic production of New Kingdom Nubia;
the ceramics manufactured locally at Sai Island, either in Egyptian and Nubian style, do not differ significantly in their chemical composition (the stage of raw material procurement), while a different chemical fingerprint has been recognized for specific imported Egyptian products (i.e., Egyptian cooking pots in Nile clay) (D’Ercole and Sterba 2018; D’Ercole and Sterba forthcoming);
within New Kingdom Nubia, regional style in ceramics was mostly expressed by surface treatment and decoration that is within the manufacturing stages of production and finishing, while minor differences can be seen in the so-called preparation stage i.e., the formula or recipe used for making the pastes (D’Ercole forthcoming);
about the use of vessels, some functions seem to be exclusive to Egyptian or Nubian vessels, while for others we observe overlaps even if, regardless of the generic function (e.g., cooking pots), the specific content of the vessel could vary (ORA studies hold much potential here);
the evidence from Sai is another example for well-known so-called hybrid products, which are interesting examples of the encounter between the Egyptian and Nubian traditions.
This is in summary the state of the art of what we know from Sai Island on the stylistic and technological variations between Egyptian style and Nubian style vessels. However, there are still open questions about the system of production and use of vessels in New Kingdom Nubia as well as the relational dynamics that pass between those ceramic products, the human agents, and the past cultural and environmental landscape. The new material from the MUAFS concession area in the Attab to Ferka region is very promising in this sense and will give important insights on these topics. I cannot spoil it here, so please stay tuned on this blog 😉!
Generally speaking, is for example the definition of Egyptian and Nubian style, as we know it from Sai and other central colonial sites, applicable in the same way to the ceramic assemblages coming from the peripheral and rural contexts? How much has the cultural, environmental and ecological (also thinking in terms of raw materials, tools and energy sources) landscape influenced the choices of production, use and function of the vessels? What about the hybrid products? And does it make sense to talk, especially in rural and peripheral contexts, of a single Nubian tradition or should we consider the existence of a melting pot of Nubian influences (and eventually ceramic styles) intersected with the Egyptian one?
The questions on the table are still many that after months of remote research and theoretical debate, it is ever more urgent to return to the field to face in a tangible way the study of the material evidence. Looking much forward to it!
D’Ercole, G., In prep. Petrography of the pottery from the New Kingdom town of Sai. In: J. Budka, ed. (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J.H. Sterba and P. Ruffieux). AcrossBorders 3: Vessels for the home away from Egypt. The pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai Island. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant, Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.
D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, J. H. (2018). From macro wares to micro fabrics and INAA compositional groups: the Pottery Corpus of the New Kingdom town on Sai Island (northern Sudan). In: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller, eds. From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia (pp. 171-183). Leiden: Sidestone press.
D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, J. H. In prep. Chemical analyses of the pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai. In: J. Budka, ed. (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J.H. Sterba and P. Ruffieux). AcrossBorders 3: Vessels for the home away from Egypt. The pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai Island. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant, Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.
Deleuze, G. (2007). Two Regimes of Madness, Revised Edition: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e).
Edgeworth, M. (2016). Grounded Objects. Archaeology and Speculative Realism. Archaeological Dialogues,23 (1), pp. 93–113.
Gosselain, O. P. (2012) Technology. In: Insoll, T. (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (pp. 243–260). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Iliopoulos, A. (2019). Material Engagement Theory and its philosophical ties to pragmatism. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 18, pp. 39–63.
Lechtman, H. (1977). Style in technology: some early thoughts. In: H. Lechtman, and T.S. Merrill (Eds.), Material culture: style, organization, and dynamics of technology (pp. 3-20). St Paul: West Publishing Company.
Malafouris, L. (2004). The cognitive basis of material engagement: Where brain, body and culture conflate. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden & C. Renfrew (Eds.), Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world (pp. 53–62). Cambridge: The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Google Scholar.
Malafouris, L. (2019a). Thinking as “Thinging”: Psychology With Things. Current Directions in Psychological Science,29 (1), pp. 3–8.
Malafouris, L. (2019b). Mind and material engagement. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 18, pp. 1–17.
McFadyen, L., and D. Hicks. 2020. Introduction: From Archaeography to Photology. In D. Hicks and L. McFadyen(Eds.) Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive (pp. 1–20). London: Bloomsbury.
Olsen, B., Shanks, M., Webmoor, T., & Witmore, C. (2012). Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
Renfrew, C. (2001). Symbol before concept: Material engagement and the early development of society. In I. Hodder (Ed.), Archaeological theory today (pp. 122–140). Cambridge: Polity Press.
Renfrew, C. (2004). Towards a theory of material engagement. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden, & C. Renfrew (Eds.), Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world (pp. 23–32). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
Ribeiro, A. (2016). Against Object Agency. A Counterreaction to Sørensen’s ‘Hammers and Nails’. Archaeological Dialogues,23(2), pp. 229–235.
Sillar, B. and Tite, M.S. (2000). The Challenge of ‘Technological Choices’ for Materials Science Approaches in Archaeology. Archaeometry,42(2), pp. 2–20.
Tsoraki, C.,Barton, H., Crellin, R. J., and Harris, O. J. T. (2020). Making marks meaningful: new materialism and the microwear assemblage. World Archaeology, 52 (3), pp. 493–511.
Whittle, A. (2018). The Times of Their Lives: Hunting History in the Archaeology of Neolithic Europe. Oxford: Oxbow.
In the framework of the DiverseNile project, I have introduced the application of ‘contact space biographies’ as a new concept in the study of intercultural encounters in the Middle Nile. We will specify the question of cultural encounters through the distribution of the sites and their duration, settlement infrastructures, building techniques, production activities and technologies, trade, diet, material culture, burial customs, religious practices and social structures. The importance of peripheral areas, like the Attab to Ferka region, for our understanding of cultural formations will be stressed. In line with this, the DiverseNile Seminar Series 2021 focuses on cultural diversity in Northeast Africa, giving several case studies from various perspectives.
Our next presentation, to be held tomorrow by Loretta Kilroe, will introduce an exciting example of so-called ‘provincial’ Kerma remains in the Northern Dongola Reach.
Site H25 was partly excavated in the last years and yielded settlement remains and evidence from the Kerma, New Kingdom and Napatan eras (Ross 2014; Porter 2019; Kilroe 2019). The site is, among others, shedding new light onto trade networks in New Kingdom Nubia. Because Loretta is an expert on ancient Egyptian and Sudanese pottery, she will focus tomorrow on ceramics and what they can tell us about frontier economics.
I am personally very much looking forward to this exciting presentation about an as yet little known but very important site! As usual, last minute registrations are still possible and highly welcome!
Time passes by for everyone. Also, and above all for archaeologists. Still, it is pleasant when this comes with experience and new opportunities.
On February 2013 I wrote my first post for the AcrossBorders blog. At that time, I was sitting in the magazine rooms of the Sai Island excavation house starting to get familiar with the Nubian fabrics of the New Kingdom town. A few months later I moved to Vienna to join the ERC Starting Grant ‘AcrossBorders’ project led by Julia Budka.
Since then, hundreds of ceramic samples have passed through my hands. These were both Nubian-style and Egyptian-style vessels locally produced at Sai Island / Upper Nubia, but also Imported Nile clays, Marl clays and Oasis clays from Egypt, together with other imported wares from Levant. These materials constituted the aim of my research for AcrossBorders and were sampled, documented and analysed by me together with Johannes Sterba, at the Atominstitut of Vienna. Over the years, thanks to Julia Budka, I have learned how to recognize and classify these wares and fabrics and we calibrated together on them the different analytical strategies and research objectives. Now I fairly know each of those samples by heart.
Yet, we do not grow where things are easy, we grow when we face challenges (and new opportunities).
With October, I happily started in Munich a new three-year contract within Julia Budka’s ERC Consolidator Grant project ‘Diverse Nile’, where I am, together with other researchers and Julia Budka, responsible for the Work Package 3: Reconstructing cultural encounters based on the material culture. My main tasks within WP 3 include petrographic technological and compositional analyses on the ceramic materials sampled from the new concession area in the Attab to Ferka region, dating to the Bronze Age.
Emphasis will lay on pottery technology and mostly on the so-called hybrid products and their significance for cultural encounters (see, e.g., Stockhammer 2013; Matić 2017; Beck 2018; Steel 2018; Souza 2020), on Nubian local style vessels and on the provenience of wheel-made ‘Egyptian’ pottery.
Analytical methods will comprise petrographic (OM) and provenance chemical analysis (iNAA and possibly XRF) but also digital image analysis (DIA) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) on selected samples. Further, since the focus will lay mainly on pottery technology and manufacturing techniques, other analytical methodologies (e.g., radiography and computed tomography, CT) will be evaluated for studying the internal structures of the objects and the diversity among specific hand -made (i.e., coiling, mold-building, slab-building), wheel-made and possibly also mixed hand-made and wheel-made forming techniques (see e.g., Sanger 2016). A greater importance will be given to observe the technology of production of the vessels aimed at outlining all stages of the manufacturing processes, from raw material procurement through preparation, production, finishing, until use, and discard.
From a theoretical perspective, a new challenge will be to deal with the ceramic assemblages from the periphery of the central urban sites and relate them to our reference collection from Sai Island. Were there any different strategies in the selection of raw materials, preparation of the vessels and manufacturing techniques between central and peripheral sites? Furthermore, were the proportions between local Nubian-style, Egyptian-style, and various imported vessels equal or not between core sites and periphery?
For this purpose, comparative material from other main New Kingdom/Kerma central sites in Upper Nubia will be incorporated to our principal reference collection from Sai Island.
Luckily, Covid times have not completely blocked us, and thanks to a kind agreement with our colleague and friend Philippe Ruffieux, we are currently waiting to welcome in Munich a bunch of approx. forty samples, among which typical Nubian (Kerma) and Egyptian Nile clay wares from the New Kingdom/Kerma-Dukki Gel site.
It will be a pleasure to start my new task within the DiverseNile project by documenting, sampling, and examining this highly relevant material!
Beck, T. 2018. Postkoloniale Objektepistemologien? Homi Bhabhas Konzepte in archäologischen Forschungen – ein Überblick, 237–262, in: M. Hilgert, H. Simon and K.P. Hofmann (eds.), Objektepistemologien. Zur Vermessung eines transdisziplinären Forschungsraums. Berlin.
Matić, U. 2017. Der dritte Raum, Hybridität und das Niltal: das epistemologische Potenzial der postkolonialen Theorie in der Ägyptologie, 93‒111, in: S. Beck, B. Backes and A. Verbovsek (eds.), Interkulturalität: Kontakt ‒ Konflikt ‒ Konzeptualisierung. Beiträge des sechsten Berliner Arbeitskreises Junge Aegyptologie (BAJA 6), 13.11.-15.11.2015. Wiesbaden.
Sanger, M.C. 2016. Investigating pottery vessel manufacturing techniques using radiographic imaging and computed tomography: Studies from the Late Archaic American Southeast, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 9, 586‒598.
Steel, L. 2018. Egyptianizing practices and cultural hybridity in the Southern Levant during the Late Bronze Age, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 20, 15‒30.
Stockhammer, P.W. 2013. From Hybridity to Entanglement, from Essentialism to Practice, Archaeological Review from Cambridge Issue 28.1: Archaeology and Cultural Mixing, 11‒28.
Souza, A. M. de. 2010. Melting Pots: Entanglement, Appropriation, Hybridity, and Assertive Objects between the Pan-Grave and Egyptian Ceramic Traditions, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 27, 1‒23.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!