Tentative steps towards reconstructing cultural diversity in the Attab to Ferka region through material studies

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.

Such a privilege: unpacking ceramic samples in Munich just one month after excavating the sherds and their contexts in Sudan!

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.

Documenting a set of early New Kingdom samples from Attab West.

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).

References

D’Ercole, G. 2021. Seventy Years of Pottery Studies in the Archaeology of Mesolithic and Neolithic Sudan. Afr Archaeol Rev 38, 345–372. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-021-09432-y

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.

de Souza, A.M., Ownby, M.F. 2022. Re-assessing Middle Nubian cultural constructs through ceramic petrography. Afr Archaeol Rev 39, 35–58. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-022-09473-x

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.

Almost ready to leave Sudan

One thing that always strikes me on excavations is the bizarre feeling of time one develops – it seems ages ago that we left Munich, but also years ago that we closed the excavation in Attab West (on March 31) and also as if at least a week has passed since we left Ginis yesterday morning!

Well – here we are – getting ready to leave this beautiful country with its rich archaeological and cultural heritage tonight after a very successful season´and a busy day in Khartoum with final paperworks and preparing accounts.

A summary of the 2022 spring season will follow soon – for now I am really grateful to all international team members, our wonderful inspector Huda Magzoub and all the other extremely helpful Sudanese colleagues at NCAM! Many thanks!

We collected large amounts of data from Ginis as well as Attab that will keep us busy in the next months! And hopefully we will be back in our concession area with its stunning landscape later this year!

Processing of finds and surveying – an update from the field, week 5

Week 5 of our 2022 spring season is almost finished and we are getting ready to leave to Khartoum early next week.

We made great progress processing and documenting our recent finds. Sawyer and I were busy with drawing pottery and small finds, Rennan took last photos (Fig. 1). A special focus was on the rich material from the Kerma cemetery GiE 003.

Fig. 1: Rennan was busy photographing beads and other objects from GiE 003.

Because of the large amounts of ceramics, I could spend less time than I hoped for the continuation of the survey. Nevertheless, I managed to document some nice sites in the close vicinity of our digging house. For example, I re-traced the site labelled by Vila as 2-T-23 in Ginis East. Here, dwellings and remains of four saqiyas of a Medieval village are situated on a length of 1500m in the alluvial plain, still partly preserved. Sherds are scattered around the site which is now in parts covered by modern fields and has suffered from some destruction by car tracks.

One of the saqiya Vila documented in the 1970s is especially well preserved (Fig. 2). Recording this site was extremely pleasant because the setting close to the Nile is simply beautiful. One just needs to avoid the early morning hours – since it is hot, the nimiti flies are quite numerous at this time of the day.

Fig. 2: One of the stone-built saqiyas of site 2-T-23.

Yesterday, I covered another stretch of the east bank of the MUAFS concession and went to its very south-western part in Attab East. Here, the most spectacular monument is the extremely well preserved Islamic fortress Kourfa Hemmet, 2-T-57 (Fig. 3), which is surrounded by some Late Medieval remains. In this part of Attab, the Nile is very close to the sites, with a narrow strip of fields and one can already make out the Amara cataract in the water.

Fig. 3: View of the inner courtyard of the islamic fortress 2-T-57.

All these important monuments in a beautiful setting underline the general richness of archaeological sites in the MUAFS concession – and luckily we still have a few more days left in this gorgeous and peaceful part of northern Sudan!

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!

An update on GiE 002: A cemetery with some surprises

Week 2 was very dense – we had strong winds on several days, even had to stop work on Monday and Tuesday. While the team and the workmen moved on Sunday to Kerma cemetery GiE 003, I was staying with two workmen at one of the tombs we found at GiE 002.

* Please note: since we are excavating tombs, this blog post includes pictures of human remains.

The first tomb we found in Trench 1 was just a simple pit burial of probably Prenapatan or Napatan date. A minimum of 2 adult burials was found, but all mixed and displaced.

The other tomb in Trench 4 (Fig. 1) was really quite surprising: an intact burial, wrapped in textiles from the head to the feet was found in an extended sidewards position in the sandy filling (Fig. 2). A few mud bricks were found along the body, the back part of the neck was resting on a large mud brick. This female burial seems to date from Medieval times (a completely wrapped body of this period was found by Vila in a cemetery nearby in Ginis, at 3-P-37, see Vila 1977: 98-101, Fig. 44) and is of intrusive character.

Fig. 1 – The tomb in Trench 4 with the outline of the pit and its sandy filling.
Fig. 2 – The intrusive (seemingly Medieval) burial in the pit.

The same holds true for two (or maybe even three) individuals discovered slightly above the Medieval burial in the side niche of the tomb. One well preserved burial in a contracted position and one skull with remains of the shoulders was unearthed (Fig. 3). Another skull probably belongs to the contracted burial, but was slightly displaced. This requires an expert check by a physical anthropologist.

Fig. 3 – The contracted burial and another intrusive skull in the side niche.

Apart from some Prenapatan (or maybe Napatan) sherds in the filling, no finds were made so far. My assumption is that the niche will continue as a proper side chamber to the south (see Fig. 4) and that we will find remains of the original burials in a lower depth. Let’s see if this expectation comes true! Already now, our findings in GiE 002 differ from the results by Vila and suggest a very interesting long use-life of this cemetery with multiple burials from various periods.

Fig. 4 – The status of the tomb with the upper burials removed – the side niche seems to continue towards the south.

Reference

Vila 1977 = A. Vila, La prospection archéologique de la Vallée du Nil, au Sud de la Cataracte de Dal (Nubie Soudanaise). Fascicule 5: Le district de Ginis, Est et Ouest. Paris 1977.

Summary of week 1, 2022 fieldwork season at Ginis

We had an early and unpleasant start into the weekend – because of a strong sandstorm we needed to stop work at Thursday already before breakfast. Since we were just cleaning the human remains in the first tomb we found at GiE 002 and discovered a second pit burial, this was indeed unfortunate.

However, the first week of our 2022 was intense and in many respects successful. Part of this success might not seem very positive at the first glance, but is nevertheless of much relevance for the project. We stopped work at the settlement site GiE 001 already after 4 days. We did not succeeded in finding archaeological features at this site, but we confirmed my earlier impression about this site based on the results from the two test trenches we opened in 2020 (Trench 1 and 2`, Budka 2020, 66-67). With one large area (Fig. 1) and one small test trench (Fig. 2) we now know for sure that a thin sandy surface layer with finds from various periods – Kerma, 18th Dynasty, Ramesside, Napatan and Medieval – is directly on top of natural alluvial layers. No archaeological stratigraphy or sediments are preserved. Our magnetometry from 2018/2019 does not show any archaeological features but simply differences in the soil (e.g. sandy areas).

Fig. 1: Trench 3 at GiE 001 which did not yield any archaeological layers other than the top soil mixed with finds.
Fig. 2: Trench 4 where the natural surface was just covered by a sandy top layer comprising much pottery and stone tools (mixed date).

With this confirmed, we moved on Wednesday to cemetery GIE 002 just a bit further south. Here, the main aim was finding some tombs to check the dating as proposed by Vila in the 1970s. He dated the small cemetery with largely dismantled stone superstructures to the New Kingdom, but already the one pit burial he excavated and its pottery vessels suggest that this is too early. A Pre-Napatan or Napatan dating would clearly fit much better.

This is now getting more and more likely after just 1.5 days of work – we discovered two tombs of the pit burial type as described by Vila (site 2-T-13) and all of the associated ceramics seem to postdate the New Kingdom.

First, we opened a large area where we thought depressions of three tombs are visible on the surface (and on the magnetometry, Fig. 3). The result was a bit surprising, only one tomb in the eastern part was found (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3: Location of Trench 1 at GiE 002.
Fig. 4: the burial pit in Trench 1 found refilled by windblown sand.

In the sandy filling of this burial pit, we have a minimum of one adult burial in displaced position (Fig. 5). Because of the sandstorm, we did not yet finish excavations and still need to clean the pit. Since Vila found the remains of seven individuals in a similar burial pit (Vila 1977, 48, fig. 16), I expect more human remains closer to the bottom.

Fig. 5: the pit burial yielded displaced human remains within the sandy filling.

Two other areas in GiE 002 yielded no burials at all, but Trench 4 finally comprised another pit burial filled with windblown sand (Fig. 6). We also started work in another area (Trench 5) but had to stop there because of the storm. Thus, with a minimum of two pit burials to be excavated we will be able to reassess this site – please keep your fingers crossed that the tombs also include some diagnostic pottery!

Fig. 6: the newly discovered burial pit before we needed to stop because of the storm.

In our first week, the division of work within the team worked out perfectly. Max and Fabian from Novetus were documenting all trenches at GiE 001 and GiE 002, Iulia was responsible for writing find labels and the consecutive find list. Our inspector Huda helped with supervising the workmen and our driver Imad was helpful in many respects. All of them, our wonderful gang of Sudanese workmen included, did a great job and I am very much looking forward to the results of the upcoming week.

References

Budka 2020 =J. Budka, Kerma presence at Ginis East: the 2020 season of the Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project, Sudan & Nubia 24, 2020, 57-71.

Vila 1977 = A. Vila, La prospection archéologique de la Vallée du Nil, au Sud de la Cataracte de Dal (Nubie Soudanaise). Fascicule 5: Le district de Ginis, Est et Ouest. Paris 1977.

First impressions from GiE 001, 2022 fieldwork season

Time flies by, especially in the field. We have been really busy since our arrival at Ginis on Thursday. Apart from logistics and last constructions in the new digging house, we prepared the start of fieldwork at the New Kingdom site of GiE 001. I am delighted that new team members have arrived at Ginis: This season, the LMU DiverseNile team is strengthened by two employees of Novetus (Vienna). Maximilian Bergner and Fabian Spitaler are both experienced field archaeologists and responsible for the excavation work and field documentation in this 2022 season.

On Saturday, we opened a large new trench and started excavations with a team of local workmen. We placed the trench based on the results from the magnetometer survey in 2018/2019 and of course the local topography.

Start of work at Trench 3 on Saturday.

On our second day, we are currently still removing surface layers of sand and soft mud levels – the area used to be a favourite resting place for one of the sheep herds of Ginis (and the animals still have plenty opportunities just a bit further to the east and fortunately quickly adapted to this change in their daily routine). This is evident by many droppings and darkened spots on the surface.

Most of the trench is covered by loose sand below the uppermost surface (photo: I. Comsa).
Imaged based documentation of the individual stratigraphical units in the new trench.

Nevertheless, already in the uppermost layers we are finding plenty of New Kingdom pottery. I processed the first baskets from these layers this afternoon. Interestingly, some contexts produced more Nubian style pottery than Egyptian style pottery – maybe this is just accidental, but the occurrence of Black-Topped Kerma style wares as well as impressed and incised decorated Nubian wares and basketry impressed cooking pots are intriguing. As documented earlier, I am also stunned by the fact that both 18th Dynasty and Ramesside pottery is present, suggesting a long period of use of this settlement.

Work will continue tomorrow and we will try to keep you posted – internet connection is very unstable at our digging house in Ginis, but the connection in the town of Abri allows me to upload small data like this blog post.

Back in Sudan, ready to start fieldwork in Ginis

After some really busy and intense weeks, I finally made it back to Sudan. Iulia and I arrived yesterday night. Everything is sorted and we are ready to leave Khartoum to the north tomorrow morning with our friend and colleague Huda as our NCAM inspector – to start our first proper excavation season for the ERC DiverseNile project.

This spring season is super exciting: we will excavate several New Kingdom sites at Ginis East, hopefully also on the West bank. Other than in our test excavations in 2020, we will open large areas and conduct our excavation work with the help of local workmen. Starting on Saturday with site GiE 001, we will test once more the results of the magnetometry from 2018/2019.

Fig. 1: results of magnetometry of GiE 001 2018/2019 and its sourroundings (M. Scheiblecker).

This season is also exciting because we will live for the first time in the new digging house in Ginis East. Construction work started in January and has been finished just in time, allowing us to settle down in our new home away from home during these weeks in northern Sudan. I am very much looking forward to this!

Excavations are scheduled for 4 weeks, with an extra week for processing and/or survey, depending on our results. Of course I will keep you updated – hoping that internet connection will allow to do so.

Survey results 2021/2022 at Ginis East: an important Abkan site

During our short season in December 2021/January 2022, we were able to record 14 sites on the East bank of the district of Ginis. These are 12 sites previously recorded by Vila as well as two new MUAFS sites (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Recorded sites in Ginis East, Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022. Map: C. Geiger.

One particularly noteworthy site is the Abkan occupation site 2-T-21 at Ginis East, on a hill above the modern asphalt road (Fig. 2). According to the current chronologies, the Abkan period is dated to between c. 5500 and 3700 cal BCE (see D’Ercole 2021 with discussion and references).

Fig. 2: Overview of site 2-T-21. Photo: J. Budka.

We could note that the meticulous documentation by Vila (1977) for 2-T-21 was correct (Fig. 3). Many diagnostic pottery sherds are still scattered on the surface. This site is clearly worth a more detailed investigation, although it has recently suffered from modern destruction like car tracks running through the site.

Vila’s sketch map of site 2-T-21 (Vila 1977, 60, Fig. 23).

Significant traces of Abkan occupation were recently documented by Elena Garcea on the island of Sai (Garcea 2020, 50 and 94 with references). The contemporaneous sites in our concession, of which several were documented on both riverbanks in Attab and Ginis, hold much potential and have received until now only little attention. Especially the relations of the Neolithic Abkan sites to Khartoum Variant sites in the region between the Dal Cataract and Sai Island needs to be explored in detail, not only regarding the chronology and possible overlaps but also in terms of subsistence strategies of these prehistoric communities as semi-sedentary hunter-gatherers and/or herding groups. This ties in with general questions about changes in the settlement strategies by Mesolithic groups compared to Neolithic communities (see D’Ercole 2021). Furthermore, until today, no cemeteries of the Abkan cultural complex have been identified – a highly unusual feature for a Neolithic culture in Sudan and something worth investigating in the future. Maybe the region between Attab and Ferka will provide some answers in this respect.

References

D’Ercole, G. 2021. Seventy Years of Pottery Studies in the Archaeology of Mesolithic and Neolithic Sudan. Afr Archaeol Rev 38, 345–372. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-021-09432-y

Garcea, E. 2020. The Prehistory of the Sudan. Springers Briefs in Archaeology. Cham.

Vila, A. 1977. La prospection archéologique de la Vallée du Nil, au Sud de la Cataracte de Dal (Nubie Soudanaise). Fascicule 5: Le district de Ginis, Est et Ouest. Paris.