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 ( 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.


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.

Designing the petrographic documentation for the ceramic samples of the DiverseNile project

Documentation is the bread and butter of archaeological research. Archaeologists are daily committed to documenting everything: sites formation processes, dwellings, funerary remains, and above all the various products of material culture.

Any method of documentation, from the most essential and traditional (i.e., technical drawing of archaeological strata and finds) to the most elaborated (i.e., image-based 3D-modelling of artefacts, human remains, and sites) constitutes a fundamental step toward archaeological reconstruction. Documentation mainly serves the archaeologist to record and understand the material remains, settlement and funerary features identified during the archaeological excavation and to leave a trace of it. Also, through documentation, a preliminary process of interpretation and critical reading of the data is carried out. Furthermore, the system we adopt to document and classify archaeological data is not unbiased, rather it already implies a methodological choice and a specific scholarly interpretative approach.

As responsible, within the Work Package 3 of the DiverseNile project, for the technological and compositional analyses of the ceramic materials, I want to outline the method I use for the petrographic classification of the ceramic samples which we are going to analyse from the new concession area in the Attab to Ferka region and from our reference collections (e.g., the AcrossBorders ceramic samples from Sai Island; the New Kingdom/Kerma-Dukki Gel pottery samples; see also D’Ercole and Sterba 2018).

Generally speaking, petrography, via optical microscopy (OM), is a well-established procedure employed to examine ceramic objects and identify the source of clay raw materials and tempers used to manufacture the vessels (Fig. 1). This technique allows answering to crucial archaeological questions on pottery provenance and technology.

Figure 1. Example of ceramic thin section illustrating some common features documented for petrographic analysis. Adapted from Smith 2008: 74, Fig. 6.1.

In Sudanese archaeology, the interest in provenance and technological studies on pottery started approx. 50 years ago. In 1972, Nordström, referring to the work of Anna Shepard (1956), produced a systematic publication on early Nubian ceramics from the region of Abka-Wadi Halfa and defined the term fabric meaning the set of the compositional and anthropogenic characteristics of the ceramic material that could be determined by microscopic observation and comprised both the composition of the groundmass (or clay matrix) and non-plastic inclusions plus the potter’s technological choices adopted to make the vessel.

For the study of the ceramic material of our DiverseNile project I have designed a specific petrographic layout within the Filemaker database of the ceramic samples (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Layout of the petrographic database designed for the DiverseNile project.

The petrographic layout includes information on the archaeological provenance and dating of the samples. It also correlates the micro fabric or petrographic group to the macroscopic evidence, that is the visual description, shape, function, and macro ware of the ceramic specimens. The consecutive entries inform on a) the groundmass or clay matrix of the sample (i.e., colour, homogeneity and optical activity); b) non-plastic inclusions (i.e., sorting, dominant grain size, maximum grain size, abundance, and mineral composition); c) plastic inclusions (i.e., clay pellets, argillaceous rock fragments etc.); d) porosity (i.e., voids abundance, type, dominant size, iso-orientation); e) organics (i.e., abundance, type, dominant size). The database also notifies on the firing regime of the ceramic sample (i.e., oxidised, reduced, reduced with narrow ox margins, dark core due to insufficient ox, oxidised to reduced). Finally, a graphic field incorporates the microscopic photos of the thin section taken under both cross-polarised (XPL) and plane polarised (PPL) light. Comments, possible comparison with other samples, and a link to the iNAA compositional groups are included as further relevant information.

The purpose of this database is to simplify the data entry of the petrographic evidence and to standardize it according to an easy-to-use, flexible, and consistent classificatory system that embraces the main information on the composition and technology of production of the ceramic data (see among others Quinn 2013).

At a subsequent step, this information will be intertwined with the results obtained from the other laboratory analyses and eventually with the archaeological data to provide a further analytical and interpretive tool for understanding the diversity and complexity of the material culture of the human groups living in the periphery of the Egyptian towns in Sudanese Nubia.


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.

Nordström, H. – Å 1972. Neolithic and A-Group sites. Uppsala, Scandinavian University.

Quinn, P. S. 2013. Ceramic Petrography: The Interpretation of Archaeological Pottery & Related Artefacts in Thin Section. Oxford, Archaeopress.

Shepard, A. O. 1956. Ceramics for the Archaeologist. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Smith, M. S. 2008. Petrography, Chapter 6, 73-107, in: J. M. Herbert, T. E. Mc Reynold (eds.), Woodland Pottery Sourcing in the Carolina Sandhills. Research Report No. 29, Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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 ( A document called certificate of origin will then authenticate that the product sold or shipped was manufactured in a particular country (

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.