Advances in experimental archaeology: firing pottery, use of dung and much more

Most know by now that poop is of great interest for us archaeologists. Recently, the so-called ‘archaeology of dung’ has resulted in numerous cross-geographical publications confirming the use of animal dung in archaeological deposits as the main fuel source and several other purposes. Most of these studies focus on the analysis of the microscopic evidence attributable to dung, combining multi-proxy approaches to investigate the biological components and potential markers of herbivore dung, as well identifying archaeobotanical indications from dung pellets and related sediments. Less numerous are studies concerning the identification of dung as a tempering agent in ceramic material.

In a new paper just published, Giulia D’Ercole and I aimed to replicate, observe, and discuss the recipe utilised by the ancient potters of Sai Island (northern Sudan) in the New Kingdom period using an experimental approach. We discuss the possible adoption of organic inclusions, and especially animal dung, as tempering agents to produce some of the locally made Nubian and Egyptian style ceramics. We think that the use of animal dung within the large set of pottery production offers important fresh insights into both long-standing traditions and cultural encounters (Budka and D’Ercole 2022).

One observation in this paper was also that in terms of the firing process of our samples, it must have been at a low temperature resulting in a minimal supply of oxygen, as in most cases the typical relicts left by the combustion of organic materials were still visible. Questions regarding kilns for both handmade and wheel-made vessels, as opposed to open firing techniques, need to be investigated further, as does the kind of fuel used for firing pottery. Recent research suggests that fresh wood and animal dung were used in tandem in pottery kilns (see the case of the smelting furnace from Egypt, Verly et al. 2021), and possibly even for open firing.

This brings me to our most recent experiments connected with firing pottery. I spent the last weekend at Asparn (Austria), at the MAMUZ museum and had the pleasure to participate once again in the experimental archaeology class hosted by the University of Vienna.

Vera’s great Classical Kerma replicas placed in our lower bedding of goat dung.

Together with Vera and Ludwig Albustin and other colleagues, we were busy on the first day firing high quality replicas of Classical Kerma beakers. We used goat dung as the main fuel, but also some fresh wood and the results were really good – it went fast, and the appearance of the pots is very close to the ancient ones. We will clearly continue in this line, making more experiments with mixed fuels for firing pottery, for example with adding reed or straw.

Pottery firing in progress.

The second part of our experiments this year in Asparn was dedicated to fire dogs, their possible use and cooking pots. Our current line of research aims to test the advantage of using fire dogs together with Nubian style cooking pots – they differ slightly in shape and size of the Egyptian ones. I believe it is possible that the inhabitants of Sai found some creative ways to combine Egyptian fire dogs with Nubian cooking pots – thus they might have created something new.

Our new set of fire dogs which was fired and is now ready for use.
New replicas of Nubian cooking pots placed on fire dogs.

For some canines, all this effort and attention to the curious fire dogs remains incomprehensible. The different smells at the experimental archaeological site were a lot more exciting here.  

References

Budka and D’Ercole 2022 = Budka, J. and D’Ercole, G. 2022. An Experimental Approach to Assessing the Tempering and Firing of Local Pottery Production in Nubia during the New Kingdom Period. EXARC Journal 2022/2. https://exarc.net/ark:/88735/10638

Verly et al. 2021 = Verly, G., Rademakers, F.W., Somaglino, C., Tallet, P., Delvaux, L. and Degryse, P. 2021. The chaîne opératoire of Middle Kingdom smelting batteries and the problem of fuel: excavation, experimental and analytical studies on ancient Egyptian metallurgy. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 37 (article no. 102708) DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102708

Shit as integral part of the material world

I recently came across an academic article with the prominent use of the word “shit” in its title (Amicone et al. 2020) – the idea for a new blog post was born!

But why is poop of interest for us archaeologists? Well, I will try to outline some of the most important aspects associated with excrements of human and non-human origin in archaeology (without aiming for a concise or complete overview). To start with, let us remember that within the DiverseNile project we follow the concept of ‘Biography of the Landscape’ which I introduced for our case study of the MUAFS concession in the Middle Nile. This approach considers the individual life cycles of all cohabiting actors, in particular humans, fauna and flora, as well as human-made technologies – it goes without saying, that for understanding life cycles, also excrements need to be considered. And so here we are: let’s focus on shit.

Today, ancient human faeces (palaeofaeces) and coprolites (animal droppings, mostly fossilized) are recognised in archaeology as important evidence containing rich information about the diet and health of ancient people and animals. Chemical analysis, especially lipid analysis and ancient DNA, are conducted and the value for parasitological analyses is well understood. Fragile things like human faeces survive best in protected areas like caves and mines.

One of the most prominent archaeological sites which yielded a large number of excrements is the salt mine of Hallstatt in Austria. The well-preserved excrements in Hallstatt were already recognised as early as 1868. However, the early researchers obviously had problems to imagine that they were handling human faeces and attributed these excrements to ‘a large domestic animal’ of unclear species. It took decades until the correct human origin was identified and more time until detailed analyses are conducted and the human poop from Hallstatt was recognised as what it is: a real treasure in the mine, an incredible useful deposit full of information for us as archaeologists! Just like the poop found at other sites like Çatalhöyük in Turkey.

In ancient Egypt and Sudan, studies like this are still in its infancy. Human excrements rarely survive and until recently, dung in Egyptology was mostly associated with the dung beetle, the scarab and thus with symbolic and religious meanings. However, recent excavations both in Egypt and Sudan now focus on the multiple use of animal dung in antiquity. Goat droppings are common finds in settlement contexts indicating the stabling of animals (see, e.g., Sigl 2020) and they are also attested as fuel in households (e.g. Malleson 2020). The AcrossBorders project has contributed to the question of fuel as well. Considering that wood was, in general, rare along the Nile valley and therefore an expensive raw material, animal dung was tested in 2018 by means of a series of experiments for its suitability as a fuel for cooking in ancient Sudan (Budka et al. 2019).

Various types of animal dung we used in the last years for a series of experiments (photo: J. Budka).

Different types of herbivore dung were tried using replicas of Egyptian and Nubian cooking pots from the Second Millennium BCE; we conducted our experiments again at Asparn/Zaya (see the recent blog post by Sawyer on this year’s results). The results suggest that especially donkey, sheep, goat and cattle dung provide beneficial conditions for keeping good and durable cooking temperatures while preventing fast cooling on small scale fireplaces. This seems to be especially beneficial for dishes containing legumes and cereals, which require long cooking times.

Animal dung was for sure used for multiple purposes. Recently, a group of researchers could show that the combined use of green wood (fresh acacia) and donkey dung as fuel for the Middle Kingdom smelting furnaces at Ayn Soukhna is likely (Verly et al. 2021). In similar lines, we successfully used goat and cow dung as fuel to fire ceramic vessels. In our experiments in Asparn 2021, we also used some fresh wood and straw to start the fire in the beginning. Thus, a dual use of some wood and animal dung seems very likely also for pottery kilns. Furthermore, with the cow dung we achieved temperatures of 1250°! Thus, we could have easily used our fire for smelting metal.

This heap of cattle dung was setup to fire modern replicas of ancient ceramic vessels (photo: C. Geiger).
We used some wood and straw for the inflammation of the cattle dung which then reached very high temperatures (photo: J. Budka).
One of the replicas of the Nubian-style cooking pots which survived the firing in much too high temperatures (up to 1250°) (photo: J. Budka).

That the dung of the most common domestic animals in ancient Egypt and Sudan – donkey, goat and sheep as well as cattle – was used for several purposes comes as no surprise. We know that herbivore dung was also used since earliest times for tempering clay to produce ceramic vessels. Here, Giulia is currently investigating possible differences between hand-made Nubian wares and wheel-made Egyptian-style products. The petrography of some samples from Dukki Gel already revealed interesting details (for dung tempering of ceramics in general see also Amicone et al. 2020).

Some grinded donkey dung we used for tempering our clay at Asparn (photo: G. D’Ercole).

But what about other animals and their droppings? We tested horse dung several times in Asparn – it burns well, but very fast, produces high temperatures but makes a stable fire with a constant temperature almost impossible. Given the fact that horses were restricted to elite and military contexts in the New Kingdom, it is rather unlikely that horse dung was used a lot for domestic purposes and production processes in ancient Egypt and Sudan.

Pork was the most common source for meat in Egyptian settlements during the New Kingdom and we could trace a high number of pigs also in the New Kingdom town of Sai. Therefore, we tested pig dung as fuel in 2019 and the results were rather unsatisfying: the dung was not only much harder to inflame, but also much smellier. The low flammability of these excrements clearly reflects the diet of the animals which is markedly different to that of herbivores.

Finally, although the camel (camelus dromedarius) was only introduced as domestic animal in the Nile Valley during Ptolemaic times, we also examined the firing qualities of camel dung. The dung was kindly provided by a friend and colleague at LMU who knows the owner of camels in close vicinity to Munich.

Equipped with this exotic dung directly imported to Austria from Bavaria, we started our experiments in Asparn. The small and dense camel droppings did not yield convincing results (although they smoked a lot) and were less suited as fuel than cattle, donkey and goat dung.

Small test set of camel dung after firing (photo: S. Neumann).

With this short account on some of the multiple kinds of usage of various animal dung in ancient Egypt and Sudan, I hope to have illustrated that considering excrements as integral part of material culture has much potential for an improved understanding of certain tasks and activities and primarily for questions of raw materials and resources which are still sometimes neglected in favour of the finished products.

References

Amicone, Silvia, Morandi, Lionello and Shira Gur-Arieh. 2020.  ‘Seeing shit’: assessing the visibility of dung tempering in ancient pottery using an experimental approach, Environmental Archaeology, 1–16.

Budka, Julia, Geiger, Cajetan, Heindl, Patrizia, Hinterhuber, Veronica and Hans Reschreiter. 2019. The question of fuel for cooking in ancient Egypt and Sudan. EXARC Journal 2019.

Malleson, Claire. 2020. Chaff, dung, and wood: fuel use at Tell el-Retaba. Archaeobotanical investigations in the Third Intermediate Period settlement, Area 9 excavations 2015-2019, Ägypten und Levante 30, 179–202.

Sigl, Johanna. 2020. Elephantine, Ägypten: Neues zu Lebenswirklichkeiten (Projekt „Realities of Life“) im späten Mittleren Reich am ersten Nilkatarakt. Weitere Forschungsergebnisse der Jahre 2019 und 2020, e-Forschungsberichte des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 2020 (3), 1–8.

Verly, Georges, Frederik W. Rademakers, Claire Somaglino, Pierre Tallet, Luc Delvaux, and Patrick Degryse. 2021. The chaîne opératoire of Middle Kingdom smelting batteries and the problem of fuel: excavation, experimental and analytical studies on ancient Egyptian metallurgy, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 37 (article no. 102708) DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102708

Fire dogs and more at Asparn: glimpses of experimental archaeology

As the new student assistant of the DiverseNile Project, I am happy to give in my first blog post an overview and summary about the experimental archaeology days at the MAMUZ Museum in Asparn/Zaya and of course about our experiments with the fire dogs, dung fires and pottery making.

Over the course of four days many archaeologists, experts and students came together in Asparn to work on several different experiments, share ideas, discuss questions and, of course, creating the possibility to experience archaeology in a practical and exciting way. Being outside in the nature, doing practical tasks and having a slight glimpse into how life was in the past was especially refreshing for everyone who had (and still has) to sit daily in front of a computer screen to follow online lectures.

I’ll start with a short summary about the event itself before I’ll describe our experiments.

In the big garden that belongs to the MAMUZ Museum, which is worth a visit and currently showcases an exhibition about experimental archaeology, are several reconstructed buildings and structures that showcase the history of humans in that area. Starting from tents of the palaeolithic times and ending at the current experimental construction of a medieval church. Inside and next to these buildings all different kinds of experiments were conducted, and certain techniques showcased, all part of a class of the University of Vienna where we could participate as guests from Munich. Experts showed how stones were chipped during the Stone Age and what materials were used for that, another explained how bones and horns were carved into tools and accessories, pottery was being made, as well as weaving, cooking a pig for a whole day in a pit and Ritschert (a stew the people who worked inside the Hallstatt mine ate everyday), iron and bronze smelting, creating jewellery and much more. One experiment I found extremely fascinating was the cremation of a pig on a pyre to figure out more about human burials of the European Bronze Age. The pig (which died naturally of an old age and not explicitly for this experiment!) was even dressed up and got ritual offerings for its descend into the fire and therefore afterlife, whatever that might have looked like for the people of the Bronze Age. Watching this, I can really imagine how special and touching such a burial practice was for these people, watching a loved one being consumed by the flames over several hours in such a way seems bizarre from our current, modern perspective of life and death.
Recapitulating I can really recommend the experimental archaeology days in Asparn. It was an incredible insight into life with its problems in the past and amazing that everyone showed you their skills and techniques while letting you try them out as well.

Now to our experiments: first we focused to let every participant get a feeling for the material clay while recreating Nubian figurines depicting female idols and animals. After everyone had fun creating figurines and got familiar with the material, we went one step back and created our own usable clay. Therefore, we learned what processes were necessary to get a formable material out of dry earth clumps. One part of our group was busy preparing the dry dung, in this case goat and horse dung, so it can be used to temper the clay. With that we created two types of different clay, one with the horse dung and the other with the goat dung.

The next task was important: recreating new fire dogs (based on the original drawings of the fire dogs from Sai Island and existing replicas made years ago within the AcrossBorders project) with the two different clay types which can be used for upcoming experiments. For all of us, who didn’t use pottery since elementary school, this was quite the big challenge to create them in the right proportions and dealing with the problems if parts breaking off or how to close cracks again. But in my opinion, everyone did a great job and we now have plenty of fire dogs that will hopefully survive a lot of future experiments!

Producing a new set of fire dogs. Photo: J. Budka.

While our figurines, fire dogs and test vessels were drying to be ready for burning, we started to figure out how the different dung types we had available behaved when trying to make a fire out of them. For our first small experiments that way, we split up in two groups where each group had to use camel and horse dung and, in the end, compare the results. For our first attempts the results were not really convincing: in both groups it took us a long time to start a fire with the camel dung, it produced a lot of (not so pleasant) smoke, the flames didn’t last long only with constant blowing into the fire, but when it worked we reached around 500°C. The horse dung was a little bit better, but it was still hard to get to a flame. The two experiments got inconclusive results with the highest temperatures varying in between 300°C and 660°C.
Though there are many reasons why our fires didn’t work the way we hoped, first we had to figure out how we organise the experiments on our own and with try and error we found better ways to observe our fires for the next tasks. Also, the quantity of the dung we used had a big impact on how the fires behaved, small amounts burned down way to quickly, and the windy weather wasn’t great for the flames either. But when experiments don’t work out the way you anticipate you learn a lot more and can change parameters for the coming ones.

Meanwhile, our PI Julia Budka conducted, together with a group of colleagues, the firing of pottery using cow dung as fuel. Surprisingly that fire reached over 1000°C, an incredible heat for such a simple fire. Whereas we found that exciting, the pottery didn’t, and a few were damaged in that heat. But this surprising result needed a follow up experiment, checking whether these high temperatures can be replicated.
Therefore we created two small fires, like in our previous experiments, with two different cow dungs to see which temperatures we could reach. We quickly realized that small fires didn’t reach those high temperatures and were only around 500°C and behaved like horse and camel dung previously. Therefore, we decided to create a bigger fire, which worked surprisingly better! We quickly reached the same temperatures in the small experiment and surpassed them in a short amount of time. While blowing into the fire with three persons in a row, we successfully reached over 1000°C in a few minutes and this in a smaller fire, compared to the one where the pottery was burned. This opens a possibility for different future experiments!

The dung fire used for cooking with a set of firedogs and a Nubian cooking pot. Photo: S. Neumann.

As our last experiments we used two firedogs and one cooking pot to figure out if such a setup is useful for cooking. We started a fire with horse dung in the middle between the two firedogs, above it we placed the pot, so it sat on the two firedogs. For a while it worked pretty well, but as the dung created more and more ash the space was not big enough that the fire could get enough oxygen to burn and be sustained with new dung properly. It was a long and tedious process to cook something this way. Also, the term cooking is misleading, we just barely managed to heat the water inside the pot a little bit.

A trial arrangment of two fire dogs holding a cooking pot above the dung fire. Photo: S. Neumann.

Since this experiment didn’t work well, we decided to change our methods and tried a big fire with cow dung again. We spread out the dung on a bigger area, created a well working fire and placed the firedogs and the pot in the centre of it. The fire was burning and reached a temperature of around 470°C, but surprisingly the contents in our pot only measured around 60°C. Where did all the heat go? Was the pot absorbing all the heat or the firedogs? In the end the firedogs suffered quite a bit in this fire, they ended up turning completely black – nothing which is known from the real archaeological findings.

With that our experiments in Asparn ended with a lot more questions and we still have no definitive answer how the firedogs were used exactly. Let’s hope we can continue our experiments next year with the new knowledge and questions we gained this time!

Back to practical work: Experimental archaeology in Asparn

It’s hard to believe – after more than one year with cancelled fieldwork in Egypt and Sudan, with online teaching including a digital format for our block seminar „Introduction to field archaeology“, it is now finally happening again: we are getting ready to go „to the field“ – respectively to practical work in Asparn/Zaya in Austria.

As a follow-up to our activities within the AcrossBorders project and built on the then established cooperation with the University of Vienna, we will conduct experimental archaeology related to Egyptian fire dogs and Nubian cooking pots at the MAMUZ Museum. Three days full of experiments are ahead of us – they take place within the framework of a MA course on field archaeology and will combine teaching with pressing research questions like the specific use of fire dogs.

Modern replicas of so-called fire dogs supporting copies of cooking pots (photo: J. Budka). Since 2013, we have been testing various positions and arrangments – is this one the best solution?

Among others, we will produce a new set of replicas of fire dogs and will then test them with modern copies of Nubian cooking pots. Back in 2019, we were very successful in using one fire dog with a dung fire to heat dishes like bulgur. Temperatures of 450-580° were enough, the cooking time was c. 20 min and the addition of fuel was easy. This year we will make some new tests with barely.

Patrizia and me back in 2019 with the successful preparation of bulgur in a cookingpot held by one fire dog in the newly proposed position (photo: J. Distefano).

As fuel for our experiments we will use various animal dung – we verified already in 2018 that dung as fuel works very fine and is indeed a possible alternative to wood which was scarce and precious in both ancient Egypt and Sudan.

The three main types of animal dung we will use this year at Asparn. Note the considerable difference in size and composition of the droppings! (photo: J. Budka).

This year, thanks to a kind colleague and friend here in Munich, we will also be able to test camel dung along with horse and cattle. Of course the domestication of camels in Egypt and Sudan happened much later than our period in question, the Late Bronze Age (camels were getting important in Ptolemaic times only), but burning ‘exotic’ animal dung in Austria is just very tempting and hopefully it will give a sense of being in the field in northeast Africa as well.

Looking much forward to this excursion starting the day after tomorrow and many thanks to all the colleagues in Vienna and here in Munich who made it possible. Of course, we will keep you posted about our results which will also be of relevance for the ongoing DivereNile project and our understanding of food production and cooking in Bronze Age Nubia.