Presenting the DiverseNile Project at an international conference in Cairo

After a very successful Ankh-Hor Project season in Luxor as well as a wonderful participation in the South Asasif Conservation Project, I arrived in Cairo yesterday. I have the pleasure to spend four more days here in this splendid city before heading back to Germany. This is not just some leisure time after the intense excavations, but today is the opening of the international conference „Gateway to Africa: Cultural Exchanges across the Cataracts (from Prehistory to the Mameluk era)“.

The event is hosted at the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire and was organised by Valentina Gasperini, Gihane Zaki and Giuseppe Cecere. I am very thankful to the organisers for giving me the opportunity to present the DiverseNile project in this context. I will be talking about “Cross-cultural dynamics in the Attab to Ferka region: reconstructing Middle Nile contact space biographies in the Late Bronze Age.”

I will present the material evidence for complex encounters of various Egyptian and Nubian groups in the region of Attab to Ferka in the hinterland of the New Kingdom urban sites of Sai Island and Amara West. The rich archaeological record of this part of the Middle Nile reveals new insights into the ancient dynamics of social spaces. I will give some case studies from both settlements and cemeteries and will focus on the intriguing domestic site AtW 001 and the Kerma cemetery GiE 003.

I will discuss our recent idea that the material culture and evidence for past activities at such sites suggest complex intersecting and overlapping networks of skilled practices, for example for pottery production – see here also the latest blog post by Giulia D’Ercole.

I will also argue that the evidence from cemetery GiE 003 supports the general picture emerging regarding cultural exchanges in the Kerma empire. There was no single Kerman cultural input to interactions with the Hyksos, Egyptians and nomadic people but we must consider various hierarchical local responses determined by different communities’ ability to consume, shaping what can be called marginal communities in the Kerma state (cf. Lemos & Budka 2021 and most recently Walsh 2022). We are making very good progress in understanding the communities in the Attab to Ferka region and I am much looking forward to the next days and the possibility to discuss cultural exchanges throughout the centuries in the Nile Valley (and beyond) with all the participants of this exciting IFAO conference.

References

Lemos and Budka 2021 = Lemos, R. and Budka, J., Alternatives to colonization and marginal identities in New Kingdom colonial Nubia (1550-1070 BCE), World Archaeology 53/3 (2021), 401-418, https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2021.1999853

Walsh 2022 = Walsh, C., Marginal communities and cooperative strategies in the Kerma pastoral state, JNEH 10 (2022), https://doi.org./10.1515/janeh-2021-0014

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.  

References

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).

A surprising find from the Kerma cemetery at Ginis

In the course of excavations at site GiE003—a Kerma MoyenKerma Classique cemetery at Ginis East—we found a small intriguing object in a large, roughly rectangular Kerma Classique tomb containing nice pottery and the remains of a large funerary bed (sadly, extremely fragile and badly preserved).

At first, it was difficult to determine the nature of the object, made of ivory and measuring c. 2.3 x 2.2 cm (figure 1). However, after looking at Reisner’s report on the excavations at the cemeteries of Kerma I could determine that the object was actually the upper part—the body—of a fly pendant!

Figure 1: ivory body of a fly pendant from GiE003. Photos by R. Lemos.

Based on my extensive research on New Kingdom cemeteries in Nubia, I was expecting that Bronze Age cemeteries in the region of Ginis in general would comprise mostly non-elite contexts, as is the case with New Kingdom burial contexts in the Batn el-Hajar (Edwards 2020) or rural, small-scale communities in the Kerma hinterland at Abu Fatima (Akmenkalns 2018).

The overall wealth of the community buried at Ginis—at least in the Kerma Classique Period—surprised me a bit. The closest parallel to the tombs we excavated at Ginis would probably be the Kerma cemetery at Ukma West, both in terms of tomb architecture and grave goods (Vila 1987). At GiE003, wealthy archaeological contexts were detected, including animal offerings, funerary beds and especially grave goods, including a glazed steatite Second Intermediate Period scarab—which works as evidence for long distance trade—and our interesting fly pendant.

Fly pendants were found at Kerma (Reisner 1923). Those were made of gilded ivory or bronze. Fly pendants were also found at Semna (ivory; Dunham and Janssen 1960) and Buhen (electrum body and ivory wings; Randall-McIver and Wooley 1911; figure 2). At Kerma, fly pendants were usually associated with bodies wearing swords/daggers, which led Egyptologists to transfer the Egyptian military symbolism attributed to flies in the New Kingdom to Kerma contexts (Binder 2008). However, as these objects became more common in the Kerma Classique Period, one could hypothetically establish a connection between flies and the Kerma expansion (Manzo 2016).

Figure 2: fly pendant from grave J33 at Buhen now at Penn Museum.

Despite not being made of gold or electrum, the fragmentary fly pendant from Ginis works as evidence for the relative wealth of the community buried at the cemetery, which raises questions about the source of such wealth in the context of Bronze Age geographical “peripheries” in Nubia. The object also allows us to discuss other topics, such as identities and social hierarchies, but I need more research time before I’m able to do discuss these any further. Nonetheless, the fly pendant from Ginis allows us to catch glimpses of the potential of material culture to reveal unknown aspects about Kerma communities living outside of Kerma and therefore to understand cultural diversity in Bronze Age Nubia.

References

Akmenkalns, J. 2018. Cultural Continuity and Change in the Wake of Ancient Nubian-Egyptian Interactions. PhD thesis, UCSB.

Binder, S. 2008. The Gold of Honor in New Kingdom Egypt. Oxford: Aris and Phillips.

Dunham, D. and J. Janssen. 1960. Second Cataract Forts. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.

Edwards, D. 2020. The Archaeological Survey of Sudanese Nubia. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Manzo, A. 2016. Weapons, Ideology and Identity at Kerma (Upper Nubia, 2500-1500 BC). Annali, Sezione Orientale 76: 3-29.

Randall-McIver, D. and L. Wooley. 1911. Buhen. Philadelpha: University Museum.

Reisner, G. 1923. Excavations at Kerma. Cambridge, Mass: Peabody Museum.

Vila, A. 1987. Le cimetière kermaïque d’Ukma Ouest. Paris: CNRS.

Corona & wind, but also loads of finds – summary of week 3

After a very exhausting week 2, we started with really bad news into week 3 – half of the team tested positive for the corona virus… Fortunately, all are getting better and only have mild symptoms, but this unpleasant infection in the digging house changed our entire daily routine and of course had an impact on the work in the field. Only four of us tested negative and could carry out the excavations tasks.

On the bright side, despite of our sudden reduction of people working in the field and again strong winds, we managed to finish both GiE 002 (the Prenapatan/Napatan cemetery) and also GiE 003 (the Kerma cemetery) this week.

*NB: Since we are excavating cemeteries, this blog post contains pictures of human remains.

At Trench 4 in GiE 002, I had another well-preserved burial in extended position in the southern niche of the tomb. It was partly moved during the looting in antiquity but is otherwise complete. With remains of mud bricks which were formerly blocking the niche (Fig. 1), this tomb finds close parallels in Missimina (Vila xxx), also as far as the material culture is concerned.

Fig. 1: A view of the burial within the niche of the tomb in Trench 4.

The Kerma cemetery GiE 003 situated between Attab and Ginis East really turned out to be worth all of our efforts. Despite of ancient looting, some of the Kerma burials were nicely preserved and some finds were left in place for us. Furthermore, dating the cemetery and a certain spatial development became possible. With our Trench 2 in the southern part of the cemetery, we cleaned part of the cemetery which shows large circular pits of the Middle Kerma period (Fig. 2). In Trench 1 further north, we had mostly rectangular pits, all with depressions on the east and west end, which can be nicely dated to the Classical Kerma period (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2: Our inspector Huda excavating animal bones in one of the Middle Kerma graves.
Fig. 3: View of some of the excavated graves in Trench 1 datable to the Classical Kerma period.

In general, GiE 003 finds a very close parallel in the cemetery of Ukma in the Second Cataract region (Vila 1987). At our sites, the wooden funerary beds are not as nicely preserved and the burials more disturbed, but the pottery is very similar as are pieces of jewelry like beads and other objects. Some complete pottery vessels were found in GiE 003 and others can still be large reconstructed from fragments. One of the highlights from a Classical Kerma burial was a 15th Dynasty scarab with a royal name and this important piece will be presented in a separate blog post.

All in all, I am more than happy with the results this week and just wish that all of us can work again soon as the complete team – catching the Covid19 virus is never a good thing but getting infected while on excavation in the field in Sudan is really bad timing. Especially since our last week of excavation is approaching. Please keep your fingers crossed, we will keep you posted.

References

Vila 1980 = A. Vila, La prospection archéologique de la Vallée du Nil, au Sud de la Cataracte de Dal (Nubie Soudanaise). Fascicule 12: La nécropole de Missiminia. I. Les sépultures napatéennes. Paris 1980.

Vila 1987 = A. Vila, Le cimetière Kermaique d’Ukma Ouest. Paris.

Sand, wind and dust – week 2, 2022 fieldwork season at Ginis

This week was as the last ended – we had very strong winds, 3 days in a row with too much sand and dust in the air to excavate in open areas. The only place I could continue to work was the tomb in Trench 4 in GiE 002.

However, photographing, surveying and measuring under these conditions were really a challenge and Fabian and Max managed all what was possible (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Measuring outlines of stratigraphical units in the tomb at GiE 002 during heavy wind was anything else than easy or pleasant.

The results in this tomb (Fig. 2) are really amazing – we have found seven individuals so far and maybe more are to come!

Fig. 2: I hope to finally finish excavating this really intriguing tomb at GiE 002 in the upcoming days.

Originally, week 2 of our spring season was supposed to focus on excavation in GIE 003, a large Kerma cemetery at Attab/Ginis East. Here, we opened two trenches. In both of them, we found several burial pits and features filled with sand and human bones just below the surface, originally covered by tumulus superstructures. Excavation of these pits started on Thursday (Fig. 3) and although all is plundered, the material culture is really illustrative – high quality Kerma Classique ceramic vessels, Egyptian Marl clay vessels and some various types of beads as well as a pendant made of a mollusc. We are all very much looking forward to the next week!

Fig. 3: Excavations at the Kerma cemetery are now finally progressing fine!

In week 2, we were joined by late-comers from Munich and the 2022 field team is now complete: Together with Iulia, Sawyer helps with various tasks in the field and both of our student assistants were also drawing pottery during the very windy days; Rennan is excavating in the Kerma cemetery and Cajetan is using our drone for making aerial photographs.

Internet connection was and still is really unstable here at Ginis and more than updates on our weekend is difficult – so I hope to get your again interested next Friday!