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).


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.


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!


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!

Where are you from? A „diverse“ material perspective on this common tricky question

Recently, I happened to have a conversation with a group of friends and colleagues who come from different parts of the world about the meaning and the various cultural and ontological implications of the question “Where are you from?”.

In seven years, that I have lived abroad, working in an international team, my way to approach and answer this question has perhaps changed as my point of view on the concepts of identity, nationality, and ethnicity which compound the complexity of us as humans.

Certainly, asking someone “Where are you from?” opens a multitude of different and equally acceptable answers. Most of us will reply indicating the place from where they were born providing to the interlocutor as many details on their specific provenance (state, region and even city) as they want to affirm and communicate their roots. Others will possibly prefer to answer with the place they currently live as this information might better fit with their actual perception of cultural identity.

Not by chance, these arguments are closely related to the work I am doing within our DiverseNile project and particularly, in my case, as specialist in provenance and technological studies on pottery, with the significance of materiality – and ceramic objects – for addressing questions on contact space biographies, cultural identity and encounters.

In our times, objects and goods mostly carry with them labels that inform us about the place of manufacture and from where their design come from (i.e., Designed in X, Made/Manufactured in X). These claims are regulated and controlled according to rules established by National and International commissions. Hence, the acronym COO stands for “Country of Origin” and represents the country or countries of manufacture, production, design, or brand origin where an article or product comes from (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Country_of_origin). A document called certificate of origin will then authenticate that the product sold or shipped was manufactured in a particular country (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certificate_of_origin).

In the past such labels did not exist. However, already in the late Predynastic period in Egypt (c. 3000 BCE) markings of vessels appeared as well as sealings on jar stoppers which refer to the provenance and owner of the contents (cf. e.g. Engel 2017). Markings of objects, especially amphorae, were more common in the Second Millennium BCE giving us information about the provenance and owners of the content as well as places of manufacture. However, most of the ceramic vessels intended for private use was not “registered”. Hence, the main task of ceramologists and archaeometrists consists in investigating on (and decoding) the place/s of origin and manufacture of ceramic objects, by means of the differentiation and classification of their characteristic stylistic, morphometric, technological, and compositional features.

Perhaps the concepts itself of provenance and origin of an object comprise several acceptations. First, there is the provenance/s of the raw materials (which in the case of ceramics includes both the clay raw materials and tempers), in the second instance, the place of manufacture, then the place (or places) of use of the object, and lastly that of discard (which might differ from that of use). To this list are added all the information concerning the “provenance” and “cultural identity” of the potter who produced the vessel and those regarding the people who used and discarded that object.  

Overall, the notion or idea of “identity” includes many areas that are still unexplored or that would otherwise require a thorough discussion. For many years, both in the field of archaeology and cultural anthropology, static and crystallized visions of identity have unfortunately dominated. Identities were often perceived as if they are closed monothetic entities or categories without reciprocal and fluid relations with the others. Recently, we have witnessed attempts to lighten such positions, through what could be defined as a deconstruction of the ontology of identity. Remarkably interesting, in this respect, is an essay by the cultural anthropologist Remotti (2010). He believes that the concept itself of “identity” can be dangerous as it might represent a kind of (artificial) opposition between “us” and the “others”.

The case study of Sai Island (as well as other central Egyptian towns in Nubia) (see e.g. Budka 2018; Carrano et al. 2009; D’Ercole and Sterba 2018; Ruffieux 2014; Spataro et al. 2015) has shown the interesting coexistence in the archaeological record of Egyptian-style objects produced with Nubian raw materials (we would now say Designed according to the Egyptian-style and Made in Nubia), objects produced entirely according to the Nubian style in Nubian raw materials (Designed and Made in Nubia), imported Egyptian objects (Designed and Made in Egypt) and also hybrid products (Designed in a mixture of Egyptian and Nubian style and Made in Nubia). So-called hybrid pottery types are however difficult to separate from the first category of Egyptian-style objects.

“Hybrid” Dinnerware Collection of modern design showing the attempt to combine and merge Eastern and Western cultures in a single plate.

The autoptic stylistic and morphological classification of pottery together with the chemical and technological laboratory analyses carried out on selected samples are fundamental tools to access this information. However, while the compositional data relating to the origin of the clay raw materials is in all respect’s objective and quantifiable (values ​​and proportions of specific diagnostic major, minor and trace chemical elements), the visual stylistic and technological information are more ephemeral and critical to access.

O. Gosselain (2000: 193) stated that “Decoration belongs to a category of manufacturing stages that are both particularly visible and technically malleable, and likely to reflect wider and more superficial categories of social boundaries. Fashioning, on the other hand, constitutes a very stable element of pottery traditions and is expected to reflect the most rooted and enduring aspects of a potter’s identity”. Hence, decoration, more than technological behaviours and manufacturing choices, is a fairly permeable category, susceptible to change and innovation (Gosselain 2010). This is well traceable in the decoration of Egyptian ceramics which partly adopted Nubian ways of decoration. Differently, a change and contamination in the technological and manufacturing stages of pottery (e.g., surface treatment, forming/fashioning) often indicates a stronger and deeper level of cultural communication and social transmission. In this respect, the so-called hybrid Egyptian-Nubian products from Sai and elsewhere perfectly embrace the extraordinary complex and intertwined dynamics of cultural encounter between Nubians and Egyptians in New Kingdom Nubia.

The main purpose of my work task within the DiverseNile project is the understanding of these dynamics through a scientific and objective analysis of the various identity codes and “provenance attributes” of the ceramic objects found in the area between Attab to Ferka, and their comparison with the pottery corpus of the central sites like Sai. Also, it is possible that the categories themselves of “provenance”, “identity” and “cultural belonging” will be re-calibrated and newly shaped according to a new and more fluid vision of the materiality of the human culture. Possibly, when asked “Where you come from?”, objects will then surprise us with a new range of answers.


Budka, J. 2018. Pots & People. Ceramics from Sai Island and Elephantine, 147–170, in: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller (eds.), From Microcosm to Macrocosm. Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, Leiden.

Carrano, J.L., Girty, G.H. and Carrano, C.J. 2009. Re-examining the Egyptian colonial encounter in Nubia through a compositional, mineralogical, and textural comparison of ceramics. Journal of Archaeo­logical Science 36, 785–797.

D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, Johannes 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), 171–184, in: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller (eds.), From Microcosm to Macrocosm. Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, Leiden.

Engel, E.-M. 2017. Umm el-Qaab VI: Das Grab des Qa’a, Architektur und Inventar. Mit einem Beitrag von Thomas Hikade. Archäologische Veröffentlichungen, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo 100. Wiesbaden, Harrassowit.

Gosselain, O. 2000. Materializing identities: an African perspective. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 7, 187–216.

Gosselain, O. 2010. Exploring the dynamics of African pottery cultures, 193–226, in: R. Barndon, A. Engevik and I. Øye (eds.), The Archaeology of Regional Technologies: Case Studies from the Palaeolithic to the Age of the Vikings. Edwin Mellen Press, Lampeter.

Remotti, F. 2010. L’ossessione identitaria. Laterza, Rome.

Ruffieux, P. 2014. Early 18th Dynasty Pottery Found in Kerma (Dokki Gel), 417–429, in: J.R. Anderson and D.A. Welsby (eds.), The Fourth Cataract and Beyond. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference for Nubian Studies, British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan 1, Leuven.

Spataro, M., Millet, M. and Spencer, N. 2015. The New Kingdom settlement of Amara West (Nubia, Sudan): mineralogical and chemical investigation of the ceramics. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 7.4, 399–421.

Mortuary archaeology in the area from Attab to Ferka (MUAFS concession area)

With my appointment as the newest member of the DiverseNile team, it’s now time to present Work Package 2: The Variability of Funerary Monuments in the Region from Attab to Ferka, Northern Sudan.

Figure 1: Map of MUAFS concession with overview of surveyed areas (C. Geiger).

As responsible for Work Package 2, I will investigate, with PI Julia Budka, all aspects of mortuary sites within the MUAFS concession area (figure 1). The area from Attab to Ferka was firstly surveyed by André Vila within a larger survey from Dal to Missiminia. The results of Vila’s survey were published by the French CNRS in 15 volumes, which describe numerous sites located in the area­­­­­. Volumes 3 to 6 focus on the MUAFS concession in the region from Attab to Ferka.

Vila identified a series of funerary sites between Attab and Ferka, which I will explore in my research within the DiverseNile team. The aim is to understand the materialisation of cultural diversity through tomb architecture, burial customs and goods, focusing on the Bronze Age, which in our concession area comprises the Kerma, Egyptian New Kingdom and Napatan periods.

The 2018/19 and 2020 seasons of MUAFS survey re-identified and documented various burials sites previously listed by Vila, some of which were extensively plundered in recent times (Budka 2019; see also our online reports). Two cemeteries at Ginis East seem to be especially relevant for future excavation. GiE002 (Vila site 2-T-13) and GiE003 (Vila site 2-T-13) date to the Kerma Period and Egyptian New Kingdom, respectively. Kerma cemeteries usually comprise tumuli burials, while New Kingdom sites include shaft tombs with no preserved superstructure. Magnetometry was carried out at both sites in 2019 and will be used to further assess the archaeological potential of the cemeteries to plan future excavations. An additional survey is also planned for the next season, which will hopefully reveal more potentially relevant cemeteries or isolated tombs.

Besides new excavations, a large part of research on mortuary sites in our concession area consists of revisiting publications, archives and material culture previously excavated and now in museums. I’m currently developing a research strategy that will explore both avenues. My PhD experience demonstrated the huge potential of revisiting old excavation reports and archival material (see, for example, Edwards 2020), as well as museum collections from a fresh theoretical perspective.

In general, the DiverseNile project focuses on shifting conceptualisations and experiences of ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’. My previous research stresses the contextual role performed by foreign objects in local contexts in New Kingdom cemeteries in Nubia. I argue that foreign, Egyptian-style objects could perform alternative, local tasks other than materialising Egyptian colonisation through objects in Nubian contexts (Lemos 2020). DiverseNile Work Package 2 will combine both general theoretical perspectives to unveil cultural diversity in contexts previously thought to express homogenisation only.

I am also particularly interested in refining our understanding of New Kingdom chronology in Nubia. So far, Egyptocentric approaches have mainly accepted that the same dates used to understand Egyptian history apply to Nubian colonial contexts. In my PhD thesis, I discuss the use of alternative terminology, based on local Nubian experiences of colonisation, instead of landmarks of Egyptian political history. DiverseNile has been adopting ‘Bronze Age Nubia’ as a working alternative. PI Julia Budka and I will be closely working on this topic, and I hope that new excavations will provide us with more refined dates than those usually extracted from typological approaches to sites and material culture. This would be especially relevant for the end of the New Kingdom colonial period/pre-Napatan Period, which is still poorly understood (e.g., Thill 2007; Binder 2011).

Stay tuned to this space for updates regarding my work on mortuary sites and material culture in Attab-Ferka!


Binder, M. 2011. The 10th-9th century BC – New Evidence from Cemetery C of Amara West. Sudan & Nubia 15: 39-53.

Budka, J. 2019 (with contributions by G. D’Ercole, C. Geiger, V. Hinterhuber and M. Scheiblecker). Towards Middle Nile Biographies: the Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project 2018/2019. Sudan & Nubia 23: 13-26.

Edwards, D. ed. 2020. The Archaeological Survey of Sudanese Nubia, 1963-1969. The Pharaonic Sites. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Lemos, R. 2020. Material Culture and Colonization in Ancient Nubia: Evidence from the New Kingdom Cemeteries. In Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, ed. C. Smith. New York: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51726-1_3307-1

Thill, F. 2007. Les réoccupations “(pré)napatéennes” dans le cimetière égyptien 8B5/SAC5 de Sai. In Mélanges offerts à Francis Geus, ed. B. Gratien. CRIPEL 26: 353–369.

New recruitment: proud to introduce Rennan Lemos

Good things come to those who wait – this holds especially true in the times of the corona pandemic. I am more than delighted and very grateful to all who made it possible despite of the crisis that finally, after a very long wait since March, I can now welcome Rennan Lemos from Brazil as a new team member for the ERC DiverseNile project! Welcome to Munich, dear Rennan!

Rennan’s first day in office here in Munich.

Rennan was the successful candidate in a call for applications earlier this year – we had very strong candidates from all over the world, but he convinced us in the end, especially because of his PhD thesis which fits perfectly to the objectives of DiverseNile.

Early in 2020, Rennan has handed in his thesis, entitled Foreign Objects in Local Contexts: Mortuary Objectscapes in Late Colonial Nubia, under the supervision of Dr Kate Spence at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

He is a trained specialist in Egyptian and Nubian material culture, with extensive experience excavating, handling, documenting and publishing ancient objects. In his career, he has focused on the study of elite and non-elite mortuary contexts in Egypt and Sudan, usually associated with theoretical perspectives in favour of social complexity and cultural diversity.

Rennan’s PhD thesis deals with the problem of the spread of Egyptian-style material culture in mortuary contexts in New Kingdom Nubia. His work offers a more complex perspective on the role of foreign objects in mortuary contexts in Nubia beyond previous homogenising approaches based on the concept of Egyptianisation, but it also presents a critique to approaches excessively focused on cultural contacts, such as cultural entanglement. His interpretation of material from various cemeteries in Sudan is conducted in the light of state-of-the-art theoretical discussions in Material Culture Studies, Postcolonial Theory and Sudanese Archaeology.

All of this and especially his deep knowledge of mortuary material culture and contexts in Nubia made Rennan the perfect choice for us: He is now the responsible person for Work Package 2 (The Variability of Funerary Monuments in the Region from Attab to Ferka), aiming to illustrate the cultural diversity on the religious level by disentangling burial grounds from previous cultural categorisations and showing acceptance, appropriation or ignorance of various cultural influences in the funerary sphere.

Looking much forward to this new collaboration with our fresh team member!