Facing colonisation together? The collective use of tombs in New Kingdom colonial Nubia

I studied various cemeteries throughout Nubia for my PhD on the role of foreign objects in local contexts in New Kingdom colonial Nubia. The most important of these cemeteries are Aniba, Sai and Soleb. Other important cemeteries are either gradually coming to light (e.g., Amara West) or remain totally unpublished (e.g., Sesebi). I was interested mostly in variation across sites, which I explored through an analysis of distributions of types of objects at each of them. However, the sites that I just mentioned also have a lot in common.

One of the aspects that instantly caught my attention was the collective use of tombs, both synchronically and diachronically. It is interesting how Egyptologists usually interpret New Kingdom Nubia through the lens of Egyptianisation, but at the same fail to recognise one structural difference between the organisation of elite cemeteries in Egypt and Nubia in the New Kingdom. While elite tombs in Egypt, in places such as Thebes, bear an essential connection with one’s individuality, tombs at elite cemeteries in Nubia are essentially collective. One well-documented example is tomb 26 on Sai island, which will be published very soon (Budka 2021).

These tombs are usually interpreted as family tombs, which remains a plausible hypothesis. Elite tombs in New Kingdom Nubia usually consist of a vertical shaft leading to a main chamber connected with various smaller burial chambers. Inside these smaller chambers, there are the burials of more or less contemporary individuals. Individual chambers are usually occupied by “couples”; e.g. Khnummose and his alleged wife at Sai tomb 26 (figure 1) and Wsir and Taneferet at Aniba tomb S91. Later burials are usually placed in the larger main chamber, where archaeologists usually find scattered bones, and disarticulated skeletons alongside New Kingdom Egyptian-style objects and later pottery styles in upper layers. In extreme cases of tomb reuse, vertical shafts could be completely filled with burials, one on top of the other, as evidence from Soleb demonstrates.

Figure 1: burial chamber of Master of Goldsmiths Khnummose and his “wife”. Courtesy of the AcrossBorders project.

If we move to non-elite contexts we’ll find a different situation. In a context of overall material limitations, cemeteries are characterised by a vast majority of single burials possessing no burial goods or a few pots. The best example of non-elite cemetery in New Kingdom Nubia is Fadrus, which bears similarities with various non-elite cemeteries in New Kingdom Egypt in terms of scarcity. However, at Fadrus, a few larger tombs contained a considerably higher quantity of burial goods. These tombs are characterised by their collective use, both contemporaneously and by later generations.

I have suggested in a paper that will be published in the next Sudan & Nubia that the larger, collective tombs of Fadrus should not be interpreted as evidence for inter-site hierarchies, as has been done in the past. Instead, in my forthcoming paper, I suggested that these tombs should be interpreted through the lens of collective engagement theory (DeMarrais and Earle 2017; Lemos forthcoming). In a context of scarcity within a colonised Nubia, people seem to have gathered together to achieve more, namely access to Egyptian-style objects, including more restricted items within the New Kingdom Nubian mortuary landscape. On the contrary, those who remained by themselves ended up buried with no accompanying goods. It is possible that a similar collective logic was behind the organisation of cemeteries associated with Egyptian temple-towns such as Aniba, Sai and Soleb. However, it remains a difficult task to distinguish phases and individual burials sharing restricted Egyptian-style objects due to the high degree of plundering and the quality of most of the published evidence (see Näser 2017).

With DiverseNile, my focus turns to a different social space: geographical peripheries of temple-towns. Elite cemeteries associated with colonial centres seem to have been organized by extended families buried in collective tombs which were later reused. Non-elite cemeteries consisted of mostly poor individual graves with a few larger collective tombs housing the bodies of individuals potentially sharing objects that remained out of the reach of most their peers. In a different way, the burial evidence from the peripheries usually consist of graves scattered through the landscape with and a few ‘formal’ cemeteries. Scarcity also seems to be the rule here. However, there are also collective exceptions.

Chamber tomb 5-T-32 was among the sites excavated by the West Bank Survey from Faras to Gemai in Lower Nubia (figure 2). It consisted of a shallow mudbrick tomb divided into an entrance area leading via an unblocked arched doorway to an outer chamber or chapel, and a sealed arched doorway leading to the burial chamber. The tomb was located in the periphery of Mirgissa, one of the earlier fortresses reoccupied in the New Kingdom, and was plundered in ancient times. The excavators dated the tomb to the mid-18th Dynasty. The fact that no burials were placed in the outer chamber distinguishes tomb 5-T-32 from tombs at elite cemeteries associated with centres of colonial administration, such as nearby Aniba. The remains of 38 individuals were recovered from the burial chamber, eleven of which in situ. The bodies were deposited in an extended position, and remains of wood and rope suggest the existence of simpler mat coffins tied with ropes, which also appear in non-elite contexts in Egypt. Finds include steatite scarabs with parallels found at various Nubian cemeteries, New Kingdom pottery including a pilgrim flask, and a bronze finger ring and wooden headrest, which were more restricted objects in the Nubian mortuary objectscape of the New Kingdom.

Figure 2: tomb 5-T-32 in Abu Sir, periphery of Mirgissa (Nordström 2014: 135–137; plates 32–33).

In a previous post, I discussed tomb 3-P-50 at Ginis West containing some nice restricted Egyptian-style objects, despite its tumulus superstructure. Although the tomb was plundered, with only scattered bones being recovered, it was most likely used collectively. After looking at the evidence from tombs such as 5-T-32 and 3-P-50, located in the periphery of Mirgissa and Amara West, respectively, I started feeling like there’s something happening here. At this stage, I’m still scratching the surface, but I think it’s probably a good idea to keep pursuing the communal engagement path to see what we can potentially learn from the peripheries of colonised Nubia. Therefore, I was especially happy to hear Andrea Manzo talk about heterarchy and communal engagement in Eastern Sudan in our last DiverseNile seminar (see also Manzo 2017). Degrees of variations can be detected amid elite sites, while evidence from non-elite sites provides us grounds from which to discuss alternative social realities taking place in colonised Nubia. I don’t really know what to expect from the colonial peripheries, but I’m optimistic evidence from these areas will allows to expand the discussion on alternative social realities, especially in the light of fresh excavations planned for the near future.

Further reading

Budka, J. 2021. Tomb 26 on Sai island: A New Kingdom elite tomb and its relevance for Sai and beyond (with contributions by J. Auenmüller, C. Geiger, R. Lemos, A. Stadlmayr and M. Wohlschlager). Leiden: Sidestone Press [in press].

DeMarrais, E. and T. Earle. 2017. Collective Action Theory and the Dynamics of Complex Societies. Annual Review of Anthropology 46: 183–201.

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. Heart Scarabs and Other Heart-Related Objects in New Kingdom Nubia. Sudan & Nubia 25.

Manzo, A. 2017. Architecture, Power, and Communication: Case Studies from Ancient Nubia. African Archaeological Review 34: 121–143. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-016-9239-6.

Näser, C. 2017. Structures and Realities of the Egyptian Presence in Lower Nubia from the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom. In Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived Experience, Pharaonic Control and Indigenous Traditions, ed. N. Spencer, A. Stevens and M. Binder, 557– 574. Leuven: Peeters.

Nördström, H.-Å. 2014. The West Bank Survey from Faras to Gemai. Oxford: Archaeopress.

A View from Sai Island

Tomorrow, the second lecture of our DiverseNile Seminar will take place. This time, it will be me presenting and I will talk about “Cultural Diversity in Urban ‚Contact Spaces‘ in New Kingdom Nubia: A View from Sai Island”.

Sai Island is one of the prime case studies to investigate settlement patterns in New Kingdom Nubia. In tomorrow’s presentation, I will focus on state-built foundations like Sai as colonial urban sites and their hinterland. I will explain why I introduced the concept of ‘contact space biography’ for the DiverseNile project and outline this approach.

A view from Sai Island: here towards Gebel Abri.

The starting point for my new research in the Attab to Ferka region were several open questions deriving from my work on Sai between 2011-2018 – tomorrow, I will address some of them, stressing why a view from a colonial temple town is crucial to understand cultural dynamics in rural and peripheral regions of the Middle Nile.

The location of Sai Island in the Middle Nile.

Since time is limited, I will select some examples to address cultural diversity in New Kingdom Nubia: the use of the so-called fire dogs and the question of cooking pots as well as foodways in general. For the latter, I would like to introduce the ‘food system’ concept as presented by Kelly Reed in a brand-new article which provides much food for thought. Reed argues that with such an approach, archaeologists are required to consider „all the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population“ (Reed 2021, 57). This does seem particularly fitting for the DiverseNile project and our aims.  I also very much like her attempt to apply system theory and social-network analyses to highlight the multiple links between society, environment and food. Within our contact space of the Attab to Ferka region, we also want to identify the specific stakeholders (actors such as families, individuals and official institutions as well as the ‚goverment‘, thus the Egyptian state) of this ancient Bronze Age ‘food system’ and thus presumably showing complex connections between the urban sites of Sai and Amara West and their hinterland with rural sites like villages at Ginis and Kosha. New information on food supply and distribution systems will be highly relevant to reconstruct contact space biographies in our project. Last, but definitly not least, the peripheral settlements in our research concession were always an integral part of the ‘food system’ of Sai and contributed to the dynamics we can trace in this state-built foundation (cf. Sulas and Pikirayi 2020, 80).

For more, please zoom in tomorrow at 1pm, late registrations are of course  still welcome!


Reed, K. 2021. Food systems in archaeology. Examining production and consumption in the past. Archaeological Dialogues, 28(1), 51-75. doi:10.1017/S1380203821000088

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

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 https://www.brepolsonline.net/doi/epdf/10.1484/J.JUA.5.120910

New media coverage for the MUAFS project

Perfect timing – summer term at LMU Munich has just ended, I am currently in Vienna, busy with preparing the next AcrossBorders volume to be published with the Austrian Science press, and a new dissemination article about the MUAFS project just appeared in the latest issue of The Project Repository Journal (July 2019, pp. 50-51) and is now live.

In this short article, freely available for download, I tried to stress that the MUAFS research concession is primary a geological boundary zone being located next to a cataract region – the Second Cataract and especially the Dal Cataract – , and secondly a frontier in terms of cultures. During millennia, the region was on one hand the northernmost area of an archaeological culture, and on the other hand the southernmost area of influence by other cultural groups. The Attab to Ferka region is therefore a perfect case study for a contact space which is shaped by diverse encounters of human actors as a complex social space.

We could confirm this rich potential with the results of our first field season back in December and January. The new approach of the MUAFS project to focus on cultural encounters and peripheral sites in a border region over several millennia will result in important new insights of this region of the Middle Nile Valley. With this new research concession, my team and I have the means to fill the considerable gap of investigations at sites in the periphery of major settlements in the Nile Valley. Within the MUAFS project’s long durée approach, the focus of the next years will be on Bronze Age and Iron Age sites. The distribution of these sites within the concession area already poses several questions which need to be addressed by means of excavations and detailed data analysis.

An update on our plans for the next field season in Sudan will follow shortly.