DiverseNile’s Explorations in 3D Printing Ancient Nubian Objects

Digital technologies continue to inundate archaeology as a means of bridging scientific and humanistic approaches. More than merely an exercise in playing with flashy machines and fancy toys, 3D printing has wide-ranging implications for fostering education and outreach, the accessibility of archaeological heritage, and explorations in experimental archaeology.

In my first month as a postdoc with the DiverseNile project, I began looking into different strategies and methodologies for making 3D models and prints of small objects. First up, we looked into printing a seal impression from the AcrossBorders project’s excavations at Sai Island. This mid-18th dynasty mud seal impression bears the name of Nehi and the title “Overseer of the Gateway” and is intact apart from a finger smudge in the lower left corner.

We also decided to experiment with printing an inscribed stone heart scarab also from the AcrossBorders project at Sai Island (figure 1). This object was excavated from the 18th dynasty burial of Khnum-mes and is inscribed on the bottom with Chapter 30 from the Book of the Dead (Budka 2021). Check out a blog post from 2017 about this find here.

Figure 1: The large stone heart scarab from the burial of Khnum-mes

To create models, we use photogrammetric methods to align photos of the object in Agisoft’s Metashape to create a textured mesh (figure 2). The photos of this object were taken during a study season in Khartoum in 2017 by Cajetan Geiger.

Figure 2: The 3D model of the seal impression in the Metashape interface

For this project, we needed a printed object quickly for a television appearance (keep reading to find out more!) so I looked into commercial printing options. I came across Xometry, a Germany-based company offering on-demand manufacturing of industrial parts. I like to think that they were both confused and delighted when they saw the small, inscribed objects on their platform!

Pros of this service: Xometry has a well-designed, functional, and easy to use website. With their instant quoting engine, you can upload 3D models (.stl, .obj, and many other formats) and immediately receive a cost and shopping estimate. Also, if there are issues with your model the engine will detect them. You can also choose the specific color, material, weight, and finish of your print.

Cons: While the website has extensive options for types of printing materials, most of the options are obviously very light-weight industrial plastics, polycarbonates, silica glasses, and nylons. If you are aiming for realism in your 3D print, you will not come across colors or materials on this site that can replicate those of many archaeological objects. Also, it should be noted that for this company, the minimum order is €50. If you just want one or two prototypes of small objects, you will have to order A LOT of copies just to come close to this high of a minimum!

Given the drawbacks of working with large 3D printing companies like Xometry, I began to look into the possibility of collaborating with institutes on campus that may offer printers. After a bit of digging, I contacted the Medieninformatik Lab at LMU. Luckily, they have, not one, not two, but three (!) high quality, professional 3D printers; a Prusa Mini+ (PLA-3D printer), a Prusa i3 MK3S+ (PLA-3D printer), and the pièce de resistance, a Formlabs Form 3 (SLA-3D printer). The Prusa Mini+ and Prusa i3 models are some of the most ubiquitous printers (figure 3). They are extrusion-based printers which operate by heating a plastic material through a tube (filament) and distributing the heated material on a platform layer by layer, until it takes the full form of the object. The material is Polylactic acid (PLA) and can be heated at a low temperature. It is a robust, low-cost, and biodegradable material. Xometry prints using this method.

Figure 3: The Prusa Mini+ in action printing the heart scarab.

The Formlabs 3 printer operates with an entirely different method (figure 4). It uses stereolithography (SLA), which is a type of additive manufactory technology employing resin 3D printing. A light source like a laser or projector heats and cures liquid resin at a high temperature into hardened plastic in the shape of a 3D model. SLA printers have the ability to capture the highest resolution and most accurate details of objects, along with smoother surfaces and more complex geometries (size and shape of the print).

Figure 4: The Formlabs 3 printer preparing to cure resin for the print in the large orange vat.

Preliminary Results Printing with Xometry and the Medieninformatik Lab:

As apparent in figure 5, three different printing methods yielded three vastly different results. On the far left of the image is a print of the seal impression using a Prusa Mini+. As is evident, the fine details of the inscription of Nehi were too high resolution for the printer to capture with accuracy. The inscription is not legible and overall, the surface and geometry of the object are not clean. The middle print is of the seal impression from Xometry. Even though Xometry used a PLA printer (like the Prusa) the print is of a higher resolution, and the geometry of the object is more accurate. The surface is smoother and the inscription, while not perfect, is legible. Lastly, the far-right print is from the Formlabs 3 printer. This by far, is the highest quality and highest resolution print! The inscription is very legible, and the geometry of the object is extremely accurate. The surface is also smooth, extremely detailed, and shows no signs of lumps or imperfections in the raw material. While the Formlabs 3 printer is a more time-intensive and expensive process, the cured resin clearly is the superior material to capture intricate and complex details of smaller objects (figure 6).

Figure 5: Three prints of the seal impression from left to right: Prusa Mini+, Xometry print, and the Formlabs 3 print.
Figure 6: Detail of the Formlabs 3 print

In terms of the heart scarab, the differences between prints are less stark but still significant. As evident in figure 7, the Xometry print (on the left) and the Prusa Mini+ print (on the right) are similar in shape and detail. The Prusa print has a smoother and cleaner surface, and slightly more legible details near the top of the scarab.

Figure 7: The Xometry print of the heart scarab (top) on the left and the Prusa Mini+ print on the right.
Figure 8: The Xometry print of the heart scarab (bottom) on the left and the Prusa Mini+ print on the right.

The bottom of the scarab demonstrates the biggest difference between the two prints (figure 8). The inscription was not captured at all on the Xometry print (left), due to the direction in which the print was oriented. If the print is rendered layer by layer with the bottom of the object flat on the printing platform, then any detail on the bottom of the object will not be captured. However, with the Prusa Mini+ print (right) the object was printed at an angle, and the result is a legible inscription (figure 9).

Figure 9: A detailed image of the inscription on the heart scarab in natural light

From these preliminary printing exercises, it was fascinating to see just how different prints of the same object can turn out given the variety of available printers, raw materials, and approaches. Clearly the various methods explored here have their pros and cons. 3D printing methods must be tailored to the specific goals of the project and qualities of the object/3D model. Trial and error, if you have the available resources and time, is a terrific way to start!

The Significance and Broader Impact of 3D Modeling and Printing

As an archaeologist who is interested in digital technologies, I am asked all the time (by fellow archaeologists and non-specialists alike), what is the purpose of making 3D models of artifacts that already exist? What keeps us from creating glorified toys that just sit and gather dust on shelves?

The truth is….3D modeling applications in archaeology is a means of addressing several unique problems of studying the ancient past. Firstly, 3D prints of archaeological objects that can be handled and shared without any risk of damage to the original artifact is invaluable. For objects that are restricted to museum collections or excavation archives, 3D models increase the accessibility of the archaeological record, not only to scholars in different regions, but also to members of the public. High quality 3D models that capture valuable information such as inscriptions and technological means of production can be used as tools in public outreach and education. In fact, our PI Julia Budka just demonstrated this during her recent appearance on the wildly popular children’s show, “1, 2, oder 3?” On a show dedicated to ancient Egypt, she brought our Xometry print of the seal impression to teach children that even objects made of seemingly quotidian materials like mud can be extremely important to archaeologists. 3D models expand and diversify the types of environments in which objects can be used in teaching.

Here is a link to the full episode if you would like to check it out!

Lastly, 3D printing can be used alongside other experimental archaeological approaches. For example, our graduate student Sofia Patrevita is studying goldsmithing techniques in Nubian jewelry making, including the lost wax technique. See her recent blog post here. The 3D printing lab at LMU has the ability to print objects in wax (among other materials), which could allow us to experiment with recreating jewelry in various stages of production, giving us insight into the chaîne opératoire of Nubian goldsmithing. Sofia and I are looking forward to exploring this possibility in future collaborations!

A huge thanks to the Medieninformatik Lab at LMU for access to their printers and resources, and especially to Boris Kegels for providing the access and printer training. Thanks also too Christine Mayer and Prof. Dr. Nicola Lercari of the Institute for Digital Cultural Heritage Studies at LMU for helping facilitate this collaboration!

Stay tuned for an update on our most ambitious 3D printing project yet, a to-scale reproduction of Khnum-mes’s shabti from Sai Island!

Reference:

Budka, Julia. 2021. Tomb 26 on Sai Island: a New Kingdom Elite Tomb and Its Relevance for Sai and Beyond. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

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.

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

Reflections on “Material meanings, technology and cultural choices: Pottery production in Bronze Age Nubia”

Time passes quickly, we know, especially when good things happen. Only last January with a 9-months pregnant belly – and an inspired although easily forgetful pregnancy brain – I wrote the blog post “Some thoughts around the concepts of materiality, identity and style”. By that time, I already had some ideas jumbling around in my mind, I was reading quite some articles about materiality, entanglement, and style, taking notes, and in a way I wanted to back them up somewhere, in a safe place, before starting my parental leave. Meanwhile, my second baby, Filippo, was born and he is now an eight months healthy and curious boy who crawls everywhere and chews anything (with a preference for books!) all around the apartment. Meanwhile, I have also ended my maternity leave and I am officially back in the office! And there could not be a more excited and effective return than being able to draw on those preliminary thoughts and notes and make them flow into my lecture on “Material meanings, technology and cultural choices. Pottery production in Bronze Age Nubia”, the penultimate within our 2022 DiverseNile Seminar Series of lectures on Landscape and Resource Management in Bronze Age Nubia.

Once again, I wish to express my gratitude to both Julia Budka and Rennan Lemos for having invited me to give this talk. Also, I take the chance to thank the colleagues who were present in the audience and took part in the discussion. For those who have not had the opportunity to attend the lecture, you can find it recorded on our website at the following link: DiverseNile Seminar Series 2022 (uni-muenchen.de). Eventually, I am going to summarize below some of the main topics I covered. In principle, there was the idea of taking stock of the state of the art of my results and current research aims within the Work Package 3 of the project. Also, I meant to compare the large-scope technological and compositional study conducted within the frame of the ERC AcrossBorders project on the ceramic assemblage from the New Kingdom colonial town of Sai Island with the results available from the analysis of the ceramic material from the Kerma/New Kingdom site of Dukki Gel. The latter have been actually already included in our DiverseNile database and together with the Sai Island corpus constitute a pretty massive reference collection of over 300 samples.

Fig. 1: One example for our new samples from the MUAFS concession – here a collection of Nubian-style sherds from the domestic site AtW 001 (photo: J. Budka).

Eventually, I was keen to introduce our new set of samples – 108 beautiful and highly promising ceramic sherds, among which diverse examples of Nubian-style and Egyptian-style wares in Nile clay, selected during our last field season from the region between Attab and Ferka, namely from the sites of Attab West 001, Ginis East 001, and Ginis East 003, two settlement sites and a Kerma cemetery (Figures 1 and 2).

Fig. 2: A summary of the number and provenience of our new set of samples from the MUAFS concession.

For presenting these data, I built up a consistent theoretical frame that provided for the concepts of materiality, style, and “chaîne opératoire”. I started by talking about the meaning that we attribute to objects, not only those with high symbolic value like luxury goods or amulets, but also and above all those objects of domestic use, which we all have in our kitchens and which intersect daily with our traditions, culinary practices, gestures, and phares so that every family, and in a broad sense every culture, has not only its own family lexicon (sensu Ginzburg 1963) but also a familiar lexicon of the material culture that has belonged to it. I have therefore examined the etymology of the word object, from the Medieval Latin obiectum „thing put before“ (the mind or sight), from which comes the idea of the object as everything that the subject (human/culture) perceives as different from himself. Hence the reference to a long tradition of philosophical and linguistic studies in which the objects, and material culture in the extended sense, has been interpreted according to an anthropocentric one-way perspective mainly as static representation of the (human) subject (for further details see Fahalander 2008). The discussion continued by examining the concept of material culture in archaeology and anthropology with reference to the academic movement of ‘Processual archaeology’ and then in accordance to the ‘post-Processualism’. Eventually, I have talked upon the recently increasing interest on ‘things and materiality’, the so-called New Materialism (see e.g., Olsen et al. 2012) and with it a new way of perceiving the material reality as centred on itself, if not freed by the human subject (it can never be completely so), at least less depended on the human apparatus of symbolic representation and functional meanings. Not by chance in the last decades, we have also witnessed a progressive change of terminology with the use of the words things and materiality gradually replaced that of material culture.

I therefore examined the concepts of materiality and style in reference to the manufacturing sequence linked to the production of Egyptian-style and Nubian-style vessels in Nile clay, with case studies from both Sai Island and Dukki Gel, and thus observed in which stages of the chaîne opératoire were the identity aspects of the aforementioned cultures and ceramic traditions more (or less) emphasized.

Looking at the ceramic manufacture not just as a finished product resulted from the human action and intended for functional, social, and representative needs, but as the outcome of a series of gestures and corporeal actions that take shape in the first place in direct contact with the environment, by means the choice and manipulation of the raw materials, implies putting ourselves in a new multi-scale perspective, so that we can move forward from the anthropocentric dimension and add to the dialectical relation objects vs. humans a third party, namely the environment with its vegetation, animals, bodies, and various materials such as clay, water and sand.

Secondly, can we ask ourselves with greater knowledge and detail “Who produced the vessels?” That is, who, among the Nubian and / or Egyptian potters having their workshops settled in Upper Nubia – most of the analysed Egyptian style and Nubian style Nile wares in Nile clay from Sai Island have showed indeed the same chemical fingerprint (D’Ercole and Sterba forthcoming) – selected the raw material for making their vessels, kneaded the pastes, and then went to shape the pots, to treat the surfaces, to apply the decorations and finally to make the fire? It is plausible to think that if not all, at least some of the gestures and stages of the manufacturing sequences took place simultaneously in the same workshop without a too rigid separation between Egyptian and Nubian production. That is, that the same potter/s possibly prepared and fired together Nubian and Egyptian style vessels and that only the stages related to the production and finishing (those where we have observed the greater diversity of style!) took place separately on the basis of specific technological skills and regional traditions.

It is still plausible to think that in such promiscuous contexts some of the so-called hybrid vessels, showing a mixture of Egyptian and Nubian stylistic aspects and technologies, have taken shape, perhaps initially accidentally, to then become objects possibly intentionally sought and widespread as the expression of a shared use of the same territory and mostly of the progressive entanglement between the Egyptian and Nubian cultures. To what extent were these isolated cases or is it realistic (and ethically correct) to speak about “Creolization” or “Koinezation” of ceramic styles? (for the term koiné and “International artistic koiné” cf., Feldman 2006).

A solid theoretical background combined with a broad-spectrum analytical approach based on the combined macroscopic and microscopic analysis of several ceramic collections from several bordering regions environmentally and culturally highly similar but also extremity distinctive (e.g., Sai Island, Kerma/Dukki Gel, and the Attab to Ferka region) is already allowing us to answer some of these questions and to formulate many others more and more punctual on the way of expanding our knowledge on the complex system of socio-cultural, economical, and ecological dynamics that took place during the Bronze Age period in the various regions of Nubia.

References

D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, J. H. Forthcoming. Chemical analyses of the pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai. In: J. Budka (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J.H. Sterba and P. Ruffieux). AcrossBorders 3: Vessels for the home away from Egypt. The pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai Island. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant, Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Fahlander, F. 2008. Differences that matter. Materialities, material culture and social practice (127-154). In: Glørstad, H., & Hedeager, L. eds. Six essays on the materiality of society and culture. Bricoleur Press.

Feldman, M. H. 2006. Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an ‘International Style’ in the Ancient Near East, 1400–1200BCE. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ginzburg, N. 1963. Family Lexicon. Daunt Books.

Olsen, B., Shanks, M., Webmoor, T., Witmore, C. 2012. Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. University of California Press.

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.

Some thoughts around the concepts of materiality, identity and style

On Tuesday 25 there was the kick-off of the DiverseNile Seminar Series 2022 and our PI Julia Budka gave an inspiring opening lecture to inaugurate it. Among other topics, she mentioned the concept of agency of material culture and relevance of technologies. This led me to reflect once again in a more problematic way on the meaning of the terms materiality, identity, and style and on the use that we made of them nowadays in archaeology and, specifically, within the study of Nubian Bronze Age material culture, including our speculations on Egyptian style and Nubian style ceramic vessels.

But let’s start from the beginning, putting some basic theoretical arguments on the table!

In the last decades, the approach to materiality and the study of material culture has become a central aspect of the research and new important cognitive theories have been developed around this concept. Back in 2001 Colin Renfrew wrote “Symbol before concept: Material engagement and the early development of society” challenging the theoretical biases of cognitive archaeology and putting the bases for understanding the engagement of the mind with the material world (Renfrew 2001; see also Iliopoulos 2019, 40). In 2004, Renfrew and Malafouris developed the so-called Material Engagement Theory (MET), from which comes the notion of creative “thinging” which refers to the capacity of humans to feel/think through and about things (Malafouris 2004, 2019a). Some years later, Olsen et al. define archaeology as “the discipline of things”, that is the science of the objects, “obliged the archaeologists to be bricoleurs, who collect bits and pieces, not because of an erratic whim but because of a commitment, a fidelity to the materials we engage” (Olsen et al. 2012, 4).

All in all, MET shares with New Materialisms (see e.g., Edgeworth 2016) “a special ‘attentiveness’ to things, as well as an interest in understanding the ‘vitality’ and the ‘mattering’ of mater” (Malafouris 2019b, 9). Further, New Materialisms support “an object agency”, that is an existence of their own of the objects that transcends that of human symbolic systems. This can be seen primarily as a reaction to the symbolism of the post-processual approach (cf. Hodder 1982) and more generally as a tendency to move beyond the concepts of “meaning” and “identity” of material culture, to embrace otherwise a new ontology of materiality that sees it freed from particular forms of representations (Tsoraki et al. 2020; see also Deleuze 2007).

In other words, if for decades the philosophical thought as well as the field of social and cultural studies have been dominated by a dialectical setting of the terms “material” and “symbol” (or “meaning”) with the former in fact understood as a “signifier” or simple representative of the latter (let’s think of the dualism of Descartes, of the logic behind the linguistic structuralism or, taken to the extreme, of Magritte’s provocative sentence under his famous painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), the New Materialism in archaeology, as in other fields of science, newly and provocatively suggests to shift away from an emphasis on representation and attends otherwise “to the material vibrancy of past objects and the roles that materials themselves play in the production of meaning” (Tsoraki et al. 2020, 494-495; cf. McFadyen and Hicks 2020, 3).

What does this mean in practice? How can objects exist free of the representation that man has of them? How is it possible to extrapolate from the concept of style the symbolic value acquired through the context of human thought, experience and action? What kind of speculation or ontology of matter does the New Materialism propose?

Actually, the New Materialism does turn attention away from the human agency and responsibility (cf. Ribeiro 2016; Whittle 2018), nor rejects the concept of representation per se. Rather, it aims to overcome it, exploring a more-than representational version of material meanings, and embracing a systemic (and relational) rather than dualistic vision of reality. This decentres the human subject and the mere ontology of symbolism and representation (see Tsoraki 2020, 497), considering otherwise a multiple system of relationships where things, humans, landscape, and in a broader sense whatever forms part of it (including raw materials, rocks, animals, and plants) is interconnected and linked to each other’s.

This new systemic and relational ontology expands the study of material culture further beyond the frame of the human context and its apparatus of symbolic, aesthetic, or functional meanings, embracing the much wider space of ecology. Notably, the study of things assumes a more fluid and dynamic vision, with the concept of chaîne opératoire becoming the most suitable and powerful analytical tool in order to return a vibrant analysis of past material object (e.g., lithics as ceramic assemblages) as embedded in a network of diverse and intertwined human and non-human actions. The chaîne opératoire in fact “imposes systematization in data collection, as well as the acknowledgement of a variety of elements that are invariably brought together in the conduct of technical activities” (Gosselain 2012, 246). Style, intended in its broader sense as ‘technological style’ (sensu Lechtman 1977), “potentially resides in every phase of the manufacturing sequence or chaîne opératoire” (Sillar and Tite 2000, 8).

Diagram summarizing the more important interrelationships affecting the technological choices made in pottery production (from Sillar and Tite 2000, 6).

Bringing this discussion back to the context of the Bronze Age in the Middle Nile, this premise constitutes part of the theoretical background behind the Work package 3 of our DiverseNile project, and specifically what our PI, my colleagues, and I are approaching to observe and understand through the technological analysis of ceramics, focusing on the typology, technology, material, function and contents of pottery, by combining a standard macroscopic approach with various complementary laboratory methodologies (e.g., OM, iNAA, Raman Spectroscopy, Organic Residue Analysis).

Here, we can build on results of the AcrossBorders project and our focus on the analysis of the ceramic assemblage from the New Kingdom colonial town of Sai Island and on the study of the differences between locally made wheel-made Egyptian and hand-made Nubian vessels. In the current project, we will expand our geographical scale, evaluating and comparing various ceramic reference collections from the central sites of Sai, Dukki Gel, and Amara West, with first hand material from the MUAFS concession area in the Attab to Ferka region.

What we know already now are the following main points:

  1. There exist significant stylistic variations between Egyptian style and Nubian style ceramics which are reflected on several levels i.e., in the aesthetic, morphometric, and technological aspects of the ceramic production of New Kingdom Nubia;
  2. the ceramics manufactured locally at Sai Island, either in Egyptian and Nubian style, do not differ significantly in their chemical composition (the stage of raw material procurement), while a different chemical fingerprint has been recognized for specific imported Egyptian products (i.e., Egyptian cooking pots in Nile clay) (D’Ercole and Sterba 2018; D’Ercole and Sterba forthcoming);
  3. within New Kingdom Nubia, regional style in ceramics was mostly expressed by surface treatment and decoration that is within the manufacturing stages of production and finishing, while minor differences can be seen in the so-called preparation stage i.e., the formula or recipe used for making the pastes (D’Ercole forthcoming);
  4. about the use of vessels, some functions seem to be exclusive to Egyptian or Nubian vessels, while for others we observe overlaps even if, regardless of the generic function (e.g., cooking pots), the specific content of the vessel could vary (ORA studies hold much potential here);
  5. the evidence from Sai is another example for well-known so-called hybrid products, which are interesting examples of the encounter between the Egyptian and Nubian traditions.

This is in summary the state of the art of what we know from Sai Island on the stylistic and technological variations between Egyptian style and Nubian style vessels. However, there are still open questions about the system of production and use of vessels in New Kingdom Nubia as well as the relational dynamics that pass between those ceramic products, the human agents, and the past cultural and environmental landscape. The new material from the MUAFS concession area in the Attab to Ferka region is very promising in this sense and will give important insights on these topics. I cannot spoil it here, so please stay tuned on this blog 😉!

Example of set of wheel-made Egyptian style ceramics from one of the 18th Dynasty sites in the MUAFS concession (photo: J. Budka).

Generally speaking, is for example the definition of Egyptian and Nubian style, as we know it from Sai and other central colonial sites, applicable in the same way to the ceramic assemblages coming from the peripheral and rural contexts? How much has the cultural, environmental and ecological (also thinking in terms of raw materials, tools and energy sources) landscape influenced the choices of production, use and function of the vessels? What about the hybrid products? And does it make sense to talk, especially in rural and peripheral contexts, of a single Nubian tradition or should we consider the existence of a melting pot of Nubian influences (and eventually ceramic styles) intersected with the Egyptian one?

The questions on the table are still many that after months of remote research and theoretical debate, it is ever more urgent to return to the field to face in a tangible way the study of the material evidence. Looking much forward to it!

References:

D’Ercole, G., In prep. Petrography of the pottery from the New Kingdom town of Sai. In: J. Budka, ed. (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J.H. Sterba and P. Ruffieux). AcrossBorders 3: Vessels for the home away from Egypt. The pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai Island. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant, Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press. 

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). In: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller, eds. From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia (pp. 171-183). Leiden: Sidestone press.

D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, J. H. In prep. Chemical analyses of the pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai. In: J. Budka, ed. (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J.H. Sterba and P. Ruffieux). AcrossBorders 3: Vessels for the home away from Egypt. The pottery corpus from the New Kingdom town of Sai Island. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant, Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Deleuze, G. (2007). Two Regimes of Madness, Revised Edition: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e).

Edgeworth, M. (2016). Grounded Objects. Archaeology and Speculative Realism. Archaeological Dialogues,23 (1), pp. 93113.

Gosselain, O. P. (2012) Technology. In: Insoll, T. (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (pp. 243–260). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hodder, I. (1982). Theoretical Archaeology: A Reactionary View. In I. Hodder (Ed.), Symbolic and Structural Archaeology (pp. 1–16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Iliopoulos, A. (2019). Material Engagement Theory and its philosophical ties to pragmatism. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 18, pp. 39–63.

Lechtman, H. (1977). Style in technology: some early thoughts. In: H. Lechtman, and T.S. Merrill (Eds.), Material culture: style, organization, and dynamics of technology (pp. 3-20). St Paul: West Publishing Company.

Malafouris, L. (2004). The cognitive basis of material engagement: Where brain, body and culture conflate. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden & C. Renfrew (Eds.), Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world (pp. 53–62). Cambridge: The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Google Scholar.

Malafouris, L. (2019a). Thinking as “Thinging”: Psychology With Things. Current Directions in Psychological Science,29 (1), pp. 3–8.

Malafouris, L. (2019b). Mind and material engagement. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 18, pp. 1–17.

McFadyen, L., and D. Hicks. 2020. Introduction: From Archaeography to Photology. In D. Hicks and L. McFadyen(Eds.) Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive (pp. 1–20). London: Bloomsbury.

Olsen, B., Shanks, M., Webmoor, T., & Witmore, C. (2012). Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. 

Renfrew, C. (2001). Symbol before concept: Material engagement and the early development of society. In I. Hodder (Ed.), Archaeological theory today (pp. 122–140). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Renfrew, C. (2004). Towards a theory of material engagement. In E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden, & C. Renfrew (Eds.), Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world (pp. 23–32). Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Ribeiro, A. (2016). Against Object Agency. A Counterreaction to Sørensen’s ‘Hammers and Nails’. Archaeological Dialogues,23(2), pp. 229–235.

Sillar, B. and Tite, M.S. (2000). The Challenge of ‘Technological Choices’ for Materials Science Approaches in Archaeology. Archaeometry,42(2), pp. 2–20.

Tsoraki, C.,Barton, H., Crellin, R. J., and Harris, O. J. T. (2020). Making marks meaningful: new materialism and the microwear assemblage. World Archaeology, 52 (3), pp. 493–511.

Whittle, A. (2018). The Times of Their Lives: Hunting History in the Archaeology of Neolithic Europe. Oxford: Oxbow.

‚Digging‘ in the Sudan National Museum storeroom

This MUAFS/DiverseNile season is divided in two fronts: there will be simultaneous work on site and in Khartoum. I’m working in the storeroom at the Sudan National Museum together with Shadia Abdu and the assistance of various colleagues from NCAM with the aim to document objects previously excavated by Vila in the region from Attab to Ferka. This is a crucial step for us to better understand the sites located in the project’s concession area and to design future excavation and research strategies, especially concerning the cemeteries I’m investigating for DiverseNile’s work package 2.

The storeroom of the Sudan National Museum is an endless source of invaluable information about all things Sudan and Nubia. It’s a great privilege and amazing experience to be able to go through drawers and shelves containing not only all sorts of objects, but also glimpses of the history of archaeology in Sudan, including the drawer cabinets themselves, which were designed by Arkell to contain ancient objects (fig. 1). Arkell later brought the same design to the Petrie Museum in London

Fig. 1: drawer cabinet designed by Arkell at the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum (photo by R. Lemos, courtesy of the SNM)

The objects kept at the SNM hold an enormous research potential not only for us to re-contextualise archaeological sites, but also to carry out new analyses and answer questions that archaeology back then didn’t really think about asking. For example, reassessing the pottery from various tombs is important for us to understand the (re)use history of archaeological contexts inside and around cemeteries (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: a selection of the vessels I’m re-documenting, mostly from tomb 3-P-50 at Ginis West (photo by R. Lemos, courtesy of the SNM)

Tomb 3-P-50 at Ginis West is one of the most important burial contexts that I’m currently looking at. After some preliminary observations based on material published in the 1970’s, I was able to put forward some questions and hypotheses that help us move research forward. Now I have the chance to carry out a first hand study of some of the objects from inside tomb 3-P-50—including my favourites, the pretty shabtis of lady of the house Isis (fig. 3). This is important as it allows me to ask more in depth questions to move forward.

Fig. 3: one of the green faience shabtis of lady of the house Isis from tomb 3-P-50 at Ginis West + SNM object card (photo by R. Lemos, courtesy of the SNM)

It’s a great opportunity to be able to work in the Sudan National Museum storeroom. As a material culture person, I feel privileged and humbled to be able to handle with my own hands the results of years and years of archaeology in Sudan, carefully kept by our wonderful colleagues at NCAM. Working inside the SNM is certainly a great way of closing this dreadful year. May the next year be better for all of us! Cheers from Khartoum!

New publication: marginal identities in colonial Nubia in focus

My paper ‘Alternatives to colonization and marginal identities in New Kingdom colonial Nubia (1550–1070 BCE)’, co-authored with Julia Budka, is now published in World Archaeology. This results from initial comparative research on the role of ‘peripheral’ cemeteries in New Kingdom Nubia, combined with results from my PhD on material culture from colonial cemeteries.


The paper is now online but will appear in a special issue edited by Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal on ‘The Archaeology of Marginal Spaces’. Our contribution focuses not only on the alternative roles performed by material culture (the focus of my PhD), but mostly on how these alternative roles helped shaping marginal realities that contextually challenged mainstream social norms (i.e. the Egyptian colonization of Nubia in the New Kingdom).
It was a great opportunity to combine evidence that I explored in my thesis with evidence that I’m now looking at for DiverseNile. I believe this combination can still produce more interesting results and I hope you will also find these discussions interesting. As always, I’m always up for exchanging and discussing ideas!

Discussing theory and methodology

I’ve been really busy with several commitments besides my research project, but I’d like to give you a quick update about what I’ve been up to lately. As you know, my WP2 research focuses specifically on the data collected by Vila within the region from Attab to Ferka. However, in order to have a more comprehensive idea of the significance of this data, comparison with other regions is a key aspect of my methodology. If sites such as tomb 3-P-50 at Ginis West allow us to start challenging ingrained conceptions about society and culture in New Kingdom Nubia, e.g., colonial ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’, putting sites like this into a broader context is a really important step.

In previous posts, I stressed the importance of data sets like those produced by the ASSN or the Finish Expedition in the Batn el-Hajar area, as well as sites in the 4th cataract. But comparative research shouldn’t be limited to feeding information from different sites into a database, although it remains an important aspect of my research. A descriptive approach to data would allow us to identify previously ignored data, especially for regions that are not usually part of major narratives about Nubia, e.g., the Attab-Ferka area. However, a clear theoretical approach allows us to abstract descriptions into understandings of broader social phenomena.

I’ve recently been invited to speak in the New Perspectives on Ancient Nubia seminar series, co-hosted by the Bade Museum and University of California Berkeley. In my talk, I discussed the role and potential of postcolonial and decolonial theory for New Kingdom Nubia. A broader theoretical approach allows us to bring together evidence from different contexts into a general narrative about social logics that both produce and are produced by the material culture we investigate and describe in our databases.

Postcolonial theory has had a huge impact in archaeology, although its role in the Nile valley has not always been that explicit. Postcolonial theory provides us with a framework from which we’re able to criticise colonial narratives and practices, but also to unveil hidden, silenced logics that have remained outside mainstream historical narratives. This is highly important for the DiverseNile theoretical and methodological framework.

Egyptian-style material culture has been understood, as whole, through a generalising lens that emphasised the Egyptian presence and transposition of knowledges and practices to an acculturated Nubia. My research in the last few years allowed to unveil, from a postcolonial perspective, alternative realities created by transformed foreign objects in local contexts in New Kingdom Nubia (I explore this further in a forthcoming paper on heart scarabs, which will be published in the next issue of Sudan & Nubia). So, developing and applying a postcolonial approach to our data from the region from Attab to Ferka, combined with information from the very centres of colonial power in New Kingdom Nubia, will certainly shed more light on the substance of diversity, allowing us to include regions traditionally excluded from historical narratives into histories of alternative experiences created and sustained by alternatives roles performed by spreading material culture. That’s a bit of what I’ve been reading, thinking and writing lately. I’d be happy to think about these issues together with anyone interested!