The question of markets and meeting points in New Kingdom Nubia

I just came back from a very inspiring and extremely enjoyable workshop on Cyprus within the framework of the ERC ComPAS Project. Under the title “Marks, Marketing, and Markets: Investigating the intersection of marking practices and commercial strategies in the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age eastern Mediterranean”, leading scholars discussed the relevance of pot marks, seals, marks on ingots and much more, focusing on the Late Bronze Age. Many thanks go to the organisers Cassandra M. Donnelly and Artemis Georgiou and their wonderful team!

In my own presentation, „The International Age in pharaonic Egypt: aspects of trade, exchange and marking systems“, I focused on the distribution of marked Oases amphorae as well as on the question of pot mark traditions in Nubia.

For me, it is striking that there are no pre-firing marking practices on Nubian ceramics – but a new trend for post-fired marks attested in the Middle Bronze Age on Egyptian imported Marl clay vessels (in C-Group and Kerma contexts). This is for example well illustrated by the upper part of a storage vessel we found last year in the Kerma cemetery GiE 003 at Ginis East: a large post-fired mark was scratched into the Marl clay surface – presumably in Nubia and for sure intended to transmit a code (as well as decorative aspects?).

Upper part of an Egyptian Marl clay vessel from GiE 003 with a post-fired pot mark.

There is still much research to be conducted on these post-firing pot marks on Egyptian jars found in Nubian contexts – aspects of agency (by whom, where and how was the scratching done) as well as sensory facets (the Egyptian jars have a totally different hardness, colour, and texture than Nubian Nile clay vessels) need to be considered.

Another important aspect of my presentation was the comparison between the pot mark tradition on New Kingdom Sai, Elephantine and in the rural hinterland of Sai, in the MUAFS concession. Here, I got much inspiration from a splendid chapter in an edited volume by Juan Carlos Moreno García with the title “Markets, transactions, and ancient Egypt: new venues for research in a comparative perspective” (Moreno García 2021).

I completely agree with Moreno García (2021) that New Kingdom temple towns in Nubia like Sai were “multifunction centres used, among other purposes, to facilitate contacts between different peoples arrived there to trade, and that some kind of divine sanction at a sacred environment was considered indispensable to formalize the transactions that occurred there.” The last aspect is especially interesting, placing the temples within the towns into a new context – the conversion of the religious landscape of New Kingdom Nubia has already received much attention, but not yet within the framework of trade and transactions. The general role of the temple towns as multifunctional and as trade hubs is well established and was already discussed by several scholars (see Budka 2020, 401, 407 with references as well as passim).

Within New Kingdom Nubia, it is especially relevant to look beyond the colonial towns with their temples, harbours and large-scale storage facilities. This is where the DiverseNile Project steps in and adds much food for thought based on the evidence in the MUAFS concession which is the hinterland of Sai in the 18th Dynasty and of Amara West in the Ramesside era.

Inspired by reading Moreno García’s 2021 chapter, I think it is possible to view the intriguing site AtW 001 from a new perspective. Since 2022, I was convinced that this rural site has something to do with the exchange of goods, especially the distribution of ceramics in 18th Dynasty Nubia (see Budka 2022, as “control posts for trade, gold transport and possibly the communication between hinterland communities and the newly established Egyptian centre on Sai Island”).

Drone photograph of Trench 2 at AtW 001 at the end of the season. Note the various storage pits at the site and lack of standing architecture. Photo: K. Rose, © DiverseNile Project.

Based on the results from the 2023, we could go a bit further and suggest that the “site might well have been linked to seasonal traffic/routes into the desert, possibly in connection with the provision of transport animals and livestock for gold working expeditions” (Budka et al. 2023, 29). In this context, we observed that “The lack of significant architectural remains suggests that AtW 001 was linked to a nearby settlement or temporary, possibly seasonal structures” (Budka et al. 2023, 30). Following ideas by Moreno García, I would now like to add that the lack of substantial architectural remains at AtW 001 could also be explained in a way that the open spaces of the sites were intended to serve travellers and to supervise trade. This would also allow to justify the large number of simple storage pits on the site. With its mix of material culture, including large amounts of Nubian ceramics as well as in-between vessels (see×1536.jpg), the site at Attab West could indeed have functioned as a seasonal market and a meeting place for various groups, including mobile communities.

All in all, New Kingdom Nubia seems to be an excellent case study for state-built meeting points and trade centres like Sai and other temple towns, but also for seasonal and occasional markets as illustrated by AtW 001 – the latter stressing the importance of semi-nomadic and nomadic groups when we talk about the exchange of commodities. These various types of markets and most importantly the diverse communities being involved are likely to be the keys for understanding the multiple use of marking systems we find in New Kingdom Egypt and Nubia.

Budka 2020 = J. Budka, AcrossBorders 2. Living in New Kingdom Sai. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant 1. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2020.

Budka 2022 = J. Budka, Early New Kingdom settlement activities in the periphery of Sai Island: towards a contextualisation of fresh evidence from Attab West, MittSAG – Der Antike Sudan 33, 2022, 45‒61.

Budka et al. 2023 = J. Budka, K. Rose & C. Ward, Cultural diversity in the Bronze Age in the Attab to Ferka region: new results based on excavations in 2023, MittSAG – Der Antike Sudan 34, 2023, 19−35.

Moreno García 2021 = J.C. Moreno García, Markets, transactions, and ancient Egypt: new venues for research in a comparative perspective. In Moreno García, Juan Carlos (ed.), Markets and exchanges in pre-modern and traditional societies, 189−229. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2021.

Conference hopping from Germany to Egypt

November is usually one of the busiest months of the year. This holds especially true when one has just returned from fieldwork in Egypt and even more since some conferences are now organised as hybrid events, allowing in person attendance.

Though it will be quite a challenge, I am extremy grateful to have been invited to two events in the next days of which the topics are very close to my special fields and also to WP 3 Material culture of the DiverseNile project.

Today, I will be heading towards Mainz in Germany. Tomorrow and on Saturday the international workshop „Excavating the extra-ordinary 2. Challenges & merits of working with small finds“ will take place.

My own presentation on Saturday has the title: „What makes a pottery sherd a small find? Processing re-used pottery from settlement contexts“.

Re-cut pot sherds are among my favourite small finds and they occur in great numbers at domestic sites in both Egypt and Sudan (e.g. Qantir, Elephantine, Amarna and Sai Island). As multi-functional tools they attest to material-saving recycling processes.

Re-used pottery sherds offer many intriguing lines of research, first because of the recycling process and questions related to objects biographies. Second, the multiple function of tools created from re-cut sherds allows to investigate diverse sets of tasks and practises in settlement contexts. Third, lids and covers created from pottery sherds illustrate the blurred boundaries between categories of finds in the archaeological documentation, especially between ceramic small finds and pottery. Lids are also commonly part of ceramic typologies when produced as individual vessels. Can we determine if it made a difference to the ancient users whether a lid was made from a re-used sherd or as a new vessel? I will use the nice example of a complete Kerma vessel found with a stone lid in situ in one of our tombs in cemetery GiE 003 as case study to discuss these points.

My lecture in Mainz mainly aims to address some terminological and methodological issues arising from processing re-used pottery sherds as small finds as well as dating problems. I will outline the recording procedure established in the framework of the ERC AcrossBorders project for New Kingdom Sai and how we have adapted this workflow for the ERC DiverseNile project.

On Sunday, I will be heading to Cairo for the next event, the conference “Living in the house: researching the domestic life in ancient Egypt and Sudan”. The conference is organized by Dr. Fatma Keshk on behalf of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale and the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw, Research Center in Cairo. The main focus of this event is settlement archaeology in its multi- and interdisciplinary aspects in ancient Egypt and Sudan. Chloe will also join the conference and we are expecting much input for the DiverseNile project, especially WP 1, settlements.

At the “Living in the house” conference, my lecture on Monday will again focus on ceramics, but this time on cooking ware.

I will present some results from the ERC Project AcrossBorders comparing cooking practices in two contemporaneous sites of the New Kingdom, Elephantine in Egypt and Sai Island in Nubia. I will also show a few examples from the MUAFS concession and how they fit to the other evidence. Preliminary results from organic residue analysis from Egyptian-style and Nubian-style cooking pots allow us to ask questions about diet and culinary traditions. My aim is to illustrate that dynamic and diverse choices within the New Kingdom reflect a high degree of cultural entanglement and challenge previous assumptions, for example of the role of Nubian cooking pots as cultural markers.

I am very much looking forward to these two workshops and especially the exchange and discussion with many colleagues.

The right lid for every pot?

Summer term is approaching an end at LMU (finally!) and there is again some time for research. I am currently busy with processing the pottery from AtW 001, but I also managed to work on the Kerma cemetery GiE 003. Our two student assistants, Caroline and Iulia, have been very hard-working in digitalising the original pottery drawings.

A topic that concerns me at the moment is the question of lids or covers for pots. In Egypt, ceramic lids are well attested since the earliest time. During the New Kingdom, it is sometimes really tricky to decide whether a shallow small dish was used as a lid or as an actual dish. In addition, reused sherds are commonly utilized as covers for pottery vessels (see also evidence from Sai Island, Budka 2020, 250, fig. 117).

How much do we know about lids and covers of pottery vessels from Nubia? Not a lot I am afraid (ast least I don’t).

Brigitte Gratien included some special types of lids in her corpus of the pottery of the Classical Kerma period (Gratien 1978, 36, fig. 7; fig. 63, type 19 and type 32, decorated lid). These are all specific for the site of Kerma and haven’t been found elsewhere. Type 32 of Gratien is especially noteworthy. It is a series of painted vessels with covers, which were interpreted as imitation of basketry or even as representation of a hut (Bonnet 2004, 83). For me, the interpretation of an imitation of basketry is more convincing, also because such imitations in pottery already exist much earlier, though with incised decoration (for nice examples, including pots with lids, see Old Kingdom Elephantine, Raue 2014, fig. 182).

One of the stunning painted vases with cover from Kerma, SNM 1119 (Bonnet 2004)

Interestingly, other than these basketry imitations from Elephantine, I do not know of any lids or covers of Nubian pottery prior to the Classical Kerma age. Could pots have been covered with non-ceramic materials – like with basketry or some other organic materials? And could the increase in pottery lids at the capital in Kerma during the heyday of the empire maybe reflect an inspiration from the Lower Nile/Egypt? Or something else? Another possibility is that we simply missed pottery lids in the Nubian ceramic tradition because we interpreted dishes and cups wrongly (as dishes/cups and not as lids).

These are all intriguing questions, and I will try to investigate them in more detail soon. For now, I would like to present some interesting case studies from the newly excavated Kerma cemetery GiE 003.

Feature 20 in Trench 1 is a rectangular burial pit with rounded edges, vertical walls, and impressions/pits in the east (40cm x 10cm) and west (30cm x 10cm). Remains of a contracted burial were still found in place on a wooden funerary bed. A goat/sheep offering and three almost complete pottery vessels were found below the foot end of the bed on the west side. The complete set of a red-burnished Kerma pot with a stone lid found in situ on top of the vessel (MUAFS 61 and 62) is especially remarkable.

The Kerma pot MUAFS 61 with its stone lid MUAFS 62.

The lid is just a nicely shaped circular disc without any modelling of the interior as it is for example known from lids of kohl pots. With a diameter of 5.4cm it fits perfectly on the pot. Some of you will wonder: with an in situ lid on the pot – what did they find inside the vessel? Well, to my disappointment the pot was completely empty except for some dust.

However, the stone lid MUAFS 62 is not a singular piece from GiE 003. Another stone lid was found in a plundering layer, MUAFS 10. Although it was impossible to associate this piece with a proper burial or feature, it is more or less contemporaneous to MUAFS 62 and can be attributed to the Classical Kerma time. With a diameter of 6.2cm it is slightly larger than MUAFS 62.

Apart from these two stone lids used as covers for pottery vessels, Trench 1 of GiE 003 also yielded a pottery lid. An almost complete lid, MUAFS 312-1/2022, was found in Feature 10 (a rectangular burial pit with pits for the funerary bed, very similar to Feature 20). This pottery lid is wheel-made, was imported from Egypt and is made in a Nile clay B2 variant. Such vessels are very common in the 17th Dynasty in Egypt (e.g. at Elephantine). With a diameter of 10.7cm and its convex shape, it is markedly different to the stone lids mentioned above.

The only attested wheel-made pottery lid from GiE 003 (original drawing J. Budka, digitalisation I. Comsa).

Although proof is lacking, I would assume that this pottery lid was used as the cover for one of the few Marl clay vessels imported from Egypt attested from Trench 1. However, the pottery found inside of Feature 10 apart from the lid was all Kerma in style, including typical Black topped fine wares.

To conclude, it requires more in situ found assemblages like MUAFS 61 and 62 to answer broader questions about the use of lids in Nubia in general and Kerma cemeteries in more particular. For now, the evidence from GiE 003 suggests some intriguing variation, especially in the Classical Kerma age.  


Bonnet 2004 = C. Bonnet, Catalogue no. 57: Vase with cover, in: D.A. Welsby and J.R. Anderson (eds.), Sudan. Ancient Treasures. An Exhibition of recent discoveries from the Sudan National Museum, London 2004, 83.

Budka 2020 = J. Budka, AcrossBorders 2: Living in New Kingdom Sai. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant 1, Vienna 2020.

Gratien 1978 = B. Gratien, Les cultures Kerma. Essai de classification, Lille 1978.

Raue 2014 = D. Raue, Elephantine und Nubien im 4. – 2. Jahrtausend v. Chr., Habilitation thesis, Leipzig 2014 (published in 2018, Berlin).

Communicating the huge attractiveness of Egyptian and Nubian archaeology

Two weeks ago, I had the great chance to participate at the Austrian Science Slam in Vienna. This evening was not only fun – I hope that I could also show some of the wonderful sides of my “dream job”, working as an archaeologist in Egypt and Sudan.

For those who are interested: all videos of the evening are now online, check out my performance on youtube.

I tried to explain the huge attractiveness of my field with my good old “friend” Nehi, viceroy of Kush under Thutmose III, and our recent finds related to him from Sai Island and Elephantine. In particular, I stressed why sealings like the one of Nehi we found at Sai are really worth as much as gold for us archaeologists.

My next opportunity to engage with the public – other than this blog! – will be the Munich SoapboxScience event in 2 weeks. This will be quite something different than standing on the stage in a theater like in Vienna and I am much looking forward to this! After all – it’s all about telling people what archaeologist really do, other than romantic phantasies and pictures created by Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. And: feedback from non-scientists is always really interesting and often surprising.