The right lid for every pot?

Summer term is approaching an end at LMU (finally!) and there is again some time for research. I am currently busy with processing the pottery from AtW 001, but I also managed to work on the Kerma cemetery GiE 003. Our two student assistants, Caroline and Iulia, have been very hard-working in digitalising the original pottery drawings.

A topic that concerns me at the moment is the question of lids or covers for pots. In Egypt, ceramic lids are well attested since the earliest time. During the New Kingdom, it is sometimes really tricky to decide whether a shallow small dish was used as a lid or as an actual dish. In addition, reused sherds are commonly utilized as covers for pottery vessels (see also evidence from Sai Island, Budka 2020, 250, fig. 117).

How much do we know about lids and covers of pottery vessels from Nubia? Not a lot I am afraid (ast least I don’t).

Brigitte Gratien included some special types of lids in her corpus of the pottery of the Classical Kerma period (Gratien 1978, 36, fig. 7; fig. 63, type 19 and type 32, decorated lid). These are all specific for the site of Kerma and haven’t been found elsewhere. Type 32 of Gratien is especially noteworthy. It is a series of painted vessels with covers, which were interpreted as imitation of basketry or even as representation of a hut (Bonnet 2004, 83). For me, the interpretation of an imitation of basketry is more convincing, also because such imitations in pottery already exist much earlier, though with incised decoration (for nice examples, including pots with lids, see Old Kingdom Elephantine, Raue 2014, fig. 182).

One of the stunning painted vases with cover from Kerma, SNM 1119 (Bonnet 2004)

Interestingly, other than these basketry imitations from Elephantine, I do not know of any lids or covers of Nubian pottery prior to the Classical Kerma age. Could pots have been covered with non-ceramic materials – like with basketry or some other organic materials? And could the increase in pottery lids at the capital in Kerma during the heyday of the empire maybe reflect an inspiration from the Lower Nile/Egypt? Or something else? Another possibility is that we simply missed pottery lids in the Nubian ceramic tradition because we interpreted dishes and cups wrongly (as dishes/cups and not as lids).

These are all intriguing questions, and I will try to investigate them in more detail soon. For now, I would like to present some interesting case studies from the newly excavated Kerma cemetery GiE 003.

Feature 20 in Trench 1 is a rectangular burial pit with rounded edges, vertical walls, and impressions/pits in the east (40cm x 10cm) and west (30cm x 10cm). Remains of a contracted burial were still found in place on a wooden funerary bed. A goat/sheep offering and three almost complete pottery vessels were found below the foot end of the bed on the west side. The complete set of a red-burnished Kerma pot with a stone lid found in situ on top of the vessel (MUAFS 61 and 62) is especially remarkable.

The Kerma pot MUAFS 61 with its stone lid MUAFS 62.

The lid is just a nicely shaped circular disc without any modelling of the interior as it is for example known from lids of kohl pots. With a diameter of 5.4cm it fits perfectly on the pot. Some of you will wonder: with an in situ lid on the pot – what did they find inside the vessel? Well, to my disappointment the pot was completely empty except for some dust.

However, the stone lid MUAFS 62 is not a singular piece from GiE 003. Another stone lid was found in a plundering layer, MUAFS 10. Although it was impossible to associate this piece with a proper burial or feature, it is more or less contemporaneous to MUAFS 62 and can be attributed to the Classical Kerma time. With a diameter of 6.2cm it is slightly larger than MUAFS 62.

Apart from these two stone lids used as covers for pottery vessels, Trench 1 of GiE 003 also yielded a pottery lid. An almost complete lid, MUAFS 312-1/2022, was found in Feature 10 (a rectangular burial pit with pits for the funerary bed, very similar to Feature 20). This pottery lid is wheel-made, was imported from Egypt and is made in a Nile clay B2 variant. Such vessels are very common in the 17th Dynasty in Egypt (e.g. at Elephantine). With a diameter of 10.7cm and its convex shape, it is markedly different to the stone lids mentioned above.

The only attested wheel-made pottery lid from GiE 003 (original drawing J. Budka, digitalisation I. Comsa).

Although proof is lacking, I would assume that this pottery lid was used as the cover for one of the few Marl clay vessels imported from Egypt attested from Trench 1. However, the pottery found inside of Feature 10 apart from the lid was all Kerma in style, including typical Black topped fine wares.

To conclude, it requires more in situ found assemblages like MUAFS 61 and 62 to answer broader questions about the use of lids in Nubia in general and Kerma cemeteries in more particular. For now, the evidence from GiE 003 suggests some intriguing variation, especially in the Classical Kerma age.  

References

Bonnet 2004 = C. Bonnet, Catalogue no. 57: Vase with cover, in: D.A. Welsby and J.R. Anderson (eds.), Sudan. Ancient Treasures. An Exhibition of recent discoveries from the Sudan National Museum, London 2004, 83.

Budka 2020 = J. Budka, AcrossBorders 2: Living in New Kingdom Sai. Archaeology of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant 1, Vienna 2020.

Gratien 1978 = B. Gratien, Les cultures Kerma. Essai de classification, Lille 1978.

Raue 2014 = D. Raue, Elephantine und Nubien im 4. – 2. Jahrtausend v. Chr., Habilitation thesis, Leipzig 2014 (published in 2018, Berlin).

Another recruitment: introducing our new student assistant Caroline

Together with Chloë Ward, another new team member joined the ERC DiverseNile team in June. I am very happy that Caroline Stadlmann is now assisting the project with digitalising drawings, especially pottery drawings. Among the priorities of  our current tasks is the digitalisation of pottery drawings we made during our field season in Sudan in order to prepare publication-ready illustrations.

Caroline drawing in the field in Asasif.

Caroline is a very active MA student in Egyptology at LMU. She has worked with me in Egypt, for both the Ankh-Hor and also the South Asasif Conservation Project (directed by Dr. Elena Pischikova), last year. She has gained much experience in archaeological artefact drawing and was very quick to learn the digitalising of the original pencil drawings into beautiful graphics.

One example of the pottery sherds from the Kerma cemetery GiE 003.

In the last weeks, I was busy processing pottery from the Kerma cemetery GiE 003 and together with Iulia, Caroline provided me with nice drawings which will soon be published. Her present task is the large amount of New Kingdom ceramics from AtW 001, so this will keep her busy for the next weeks! Welcome to the team, Caroline!

Thinking about style in colonial Nubia

I have thought a lot about style recently ‒ on the one hand about stylistic questions of Ptolemaic coffins for the Ankh-Hor project, as well as for class preparation about Egyptian art, but of course also during the processing of ceramics from Nubia, from the colonial town of Sai Island.

Style is in general a much-disputed label in archaeology and art history. Recent studies have introduced a focus on “style as effect” (Bussels and van Oostveldt 2020, 221 with references), stressing the transformative power of style and discussing style together with objects and agency. Stylistic variations as reflections of intercultural exchange seem to be very evident in the ceramic corpus from colonial Nubia during the New Kingdom.

It is well established that are clear differences regarding the Egyptian style and the Nubian style pottery corpora in colonial Nubia, not only in terms of shape but also regarding the technology with wheel-made Egyptian and hand-made Nubian vessels. From the beginning of my study of pottery from Sai Island, I used the term “Egyptian style” for wheel-made products and soon differentiated between locally produced variants and imported vessels.

But let’s come back to the broad concept of style – I believe the main aim should be to address the complex processes involved in producing objects (as proposed by Marian Feldman 2006 for the “International Style” of the Late Bronze Age). My labels for New Kingdom pottery in Nubia also stress the production process – vessels which appear within the Nubian respectively in the Egyptian tradition, without marking them already as Nubian or Egyptian production. Of interest is the effect and the role these objects took in the framework of cultural encounters – sometimes taking hybrid forms, making it impossible to separate the distinctive traditions from each other. Hybrid pottery products from colonial Nubia must be regarded as something new and separating Egyptian and Nubian elements on these pots is not helpful or applicable. Giulia D’Ercole is currently working within the DiverseNile project on these hybrid products and their significance for cultural encounters, focusing on the production technique including the raw materials.

Within New Kingdom Nubia, regional style in ceramics was mostly expressed by surface treatment and decoration (see already Miélle 2014). One exceptional case is that the colonial experiences on Sai resulted in a new style of painting wheel-made ceramics. Deep bowls are attested in all sectors of the town and find parallels in Askut. Stuart Tyson Smith interpreted the preference of wavy lines and painted triangles on these bowls as local Nubian style (Smith 2003, fig. 3.7). Laurianne Miellé concentrated on the pending triangles painted in black on red and which seemingly refer to earlier Nubian decoration patterns known from C-Group vessels and Kerma Moyen bowls (Miélle 2014, 387‒389, fig. 4). However, this is not simply an inspiration by means of motif but there was a striking transformation in the execution style – incised decoration was carried out as painted decoration. Here, the colouring scheme seems to have been influenced by the new black-on-red style which became fashionable in the early 18th Dynasty, both in Egypt and New Kingdom Nubia. The shapes are markedly different from any Nubian style vessels and typically Egyptian; the production technique is also Egyptian, but in local variants of Nile clays. All in all, this new style of painted vessels must be seen as the embodiment of colonial experiences, transforming different cultural traditions to something new with multiple affinities in both directions.

Typical New Kingdom pottery context from the colonial town of Sai (photo J. Budka, processing S. Neumann).

Just as one example, this mixed context of sherds from sector SAV1 West in the colonial town of Sai shows the multiple styles of pottery we typically encounter in this urban centre with a strong cultural diversity in its material culture. There are imported Marl clay vessels from Egypt, one of which is painted and could be labelled as „Levantine style“ (although an Egyptian product); there are two bichrome decorated Nile clay vessels which were maybe produced locally in Nubia, but are very similar in style to Marl clay vessels and Nile clay vessels known from Egypt (see Budka 2015); one example attests the wheel-made painted bowls which seem to express a very specific colonial Nubian style restricted to Nubia (but here the style of painting is less clearly inspired by Nubian incised decoration). And finally, there is an undecorated, wheel-made dish produced locally on Sai and the rim sherd of a Kerma Classique beaker, probably also manufactured locally (and not imported from the Third Cataract region).

Sai is clearly another case study for a distinctive “local variation within a generally shared repertoire of material culture” (Näser 2017, 566) commonly found in New Kingdom Nubia which originates from specific social practices (Lemos 2020). Within the DiverseNile project and with our contact space biography approach, also considering the concept of Objectscapes, I believe we can take the results from Sai further. One aspect I will be working on in the next weeks is whether the intriguing concept of “Communities of Style” (Feldman 2014) is applicable to questions about pottery production in colonial Nubia, first of all for Sai and its hinterland, the MUAFS concession area.

References:

Bussels and van Oostveldt 2020 = Stijn Bussels and Bram van Oostveldt, Egypt and/as style, in: Miguel John Versluys (ed.), Beyond Egyptomania: objects, style and agency, Berlin/Boston, 219–224.

Budka 2015 = Julia Budka, Bichrome Painted Nile Clay Vessels from Sai Island (Sudan), Bulletin de la céramique égyptienne 25, 331–341.

Feldman 2006 = Marian Feldman, Diplomacy by Design. Luxury Arts and an ‚International Style‘ in the Ancient Near East,1400-1200 BCE, Chicago.

Feldman 2014 = Marian Feldman, Communities of Style : Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant, Chicago.

Lemos 2020 = Rennan Lemos, Material Culture and Colonization in Ancient Nubia: Evidence from the New Kingdom Cemeteries, in: Claire Smith (ed.), Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, Cham, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51726-1_3307-1.

Miélle 2014 = Laurianne Miélle, Nubian traditions on the ceramics found in the pharaonic town on Sai Island, in: Julie R. Anderson and Derek 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, 387–392.

Näser 2017 = Claudia Näser, Structures and realities of the Egyptian presence in Lower Nubia from the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom: The Egyptian cemetery S/SA at Aniba, in: Neal Spencer, Anna Stevens and Michaela Binder (eds.), Nubia in the New Kingdom. Lived experience, pharaonic control and indigenous traditions, British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan 3, Leuven, 557‒574.

Smith 2003 = Stuart Tyson Smith, Pots and politics: Ceramics from Askut and Egyptian colonialism during the Middle through New Kingdoms, in: Carol A. Redmount and Cathleen A. Keller (eds.), Egyptian Pottery. Proceedings of the 1990 Pottery Symposium at the University of California, University of California Publications in Egyptian Archaeology 8, Berkeley, 43–79.

Shit as integral part of the material world

I recently came across an academic article with the prominent use of the word “shit” in its title (Amicone et al. 2020) – the idea for a new blog post was born!

But why is poop of interest for us archaeologists? Well, I will try to outline some of the most important aspects associated with excrements of human and non-human origin in archaeology (without aiming for a concise or complete overview). To start with, let us remember that within the DiverseNile project we follow the concept of ‘Biography of the Landscape’ which I introduced for our case study of the MUAFS concession in the Middle Nile. This approach considers the individual life cycles of all cohabiting actors, in particular humans, fauna and flora, as well as human-made technologies – it goes without saying, that for understanding life cycles, also excrements need to be considered. And so here we are: let’s focus on shit.

Today, ancient human faeces (palaeofaeces) and coprolites (animal droppings, mostly fossilized) are recognised in archaeology as important evidence containing rich information about the diet and health of ancient people and animals. Chemical analysis, especially lipid analysis and ancient DNA, are conducted and the value for parasitological analyses is well understood. Fragile things like human faeces survive best in protected areas like caves and mines.

One of the most prominent archaeological sites which yielded a large number of excrements is the salt mine of Hallstatt in Austria. The well-preserved excrements in Hallstatt were already recognised as early as 1868. However, the early researchers obviously had problems to imagine that they were handling human faeces and attributed these excrements to ‘a large domestic animal’ of unclear species. It took decades until the correct human origin was identified and more time until detailed analyses are conducted and the human poop from Hallstatt was recognised as what it is: a real treasure in the mine, an incredible useful deposit full of information for us as archaeologists! Just like the poop found at other sites like Çatalhöyük in Turkey.

In ancient Egypt and Sudan, studies like this are still in its infancy. Human excrements rarely survive and until recently, dung in Egyptology was mostly associated with the dung beetle, the scarab and thus with symbolic and religious meanings. However, recent excavations both in Egypt and Sudan now focus on the multiple use of animal dung in antiquity. Goat droppings are common finds in settlement contexts indicating the stabling of animals (see, e.g., Sigl 2020) and they are also attested as fuel in households (e.g. Malleson 2020). The AcrossBorders project has contributed to the question of fuel as well. Considering that wood was, in general, rare along the Nile valley and therefore an expensive raw material, animal dung was tested in 2018 by means of a series of experiments for its suitability as a fuel for cooking in ancient Sudan (Budka et al. 2019).

Various types of animal dung we used in the last years for a series of experiments (photo: J. Budka).

Different types of herbivore dung were tried using replicas of Egyptian and Nubian cooking pots from the Second Millennium BCE; we conducted our experiments again at Asparn/Zaya (see the recent blog post by Sawyer on this year’s results). The results suggest that especially donkey, sheep, goat and cattle dung provide beneficial conditions for keeping good and durable cooking temperatures while preventing fast cooling on small scale fireplaces. This seems to be especially beneficial for dishes containing legumes and cereals, which require long cooking times.

Animal dung was for sure used for multiple purposes. Recently, a group of researchers could show that the combined use of green wood (fresh acacia) and donkey dung as fuel for the Middle Kingdom smelting furnaces at Ayn Soukhna is likely (Verly et al. 2021). In similar lines, we successfully used goat and cow dung as fuel to fire ceramic vessels. In our experiments in Asparn 2021, we also used some fresh wood and straw to start the fire in the beginning. Thus, a dual use of some wood and animal dung seems very likely also for pottery kilns. Furthermore, with the cow dung we achieved temperatures of 1250°! Thus, we could have easily used our fire for smelting metal.

This heap of cattle dung was setup to fire modern replicas of ancient ceramic vessels (photo: C. Geiger).
We used some wood and straw for the inflammation of the cattle dung which then reached very high temperatures (photo: J. Budka).
One of the replicas of the Nubian-style cooking pots which survived the firing in much too high temperatures (up to 1250°) (photo: J. Budka).

That the dung of the most common domestic animals in ancient Egypt and Sudan – donkey, goat and sheep as well as cattle – was used for several purposes comes as no surprise. We know that herbivore dung was also used since earliest times for tempering clay to produce ceramic vessels. Here, Giulia is currently investigating possible differences between hand-made Nubian wares and wheel-made Egyptian-style products. The petrography of some samples from Dukki Gel already revealed interesting details (for dung tempering of ceramics in general see also Amicone et al. 2020).

Some grinded donkey dung we used for tempering our clay at Asparn (photo: G. D’Ercole).

But what about other animals and their droppings? We tested horse dung several times in Asparn – it burns well, but very fast, produces high temperatures but makes a stable fire with a constant temperature almost impossible. Given the fact that horses were restricted to elite and military contexts in the New Kingdom, it is rather unlikely that horse dung was used a lot for domestic purposes and production processes in ancient Egypt and Sudan.

Pork was the most common source for meat in Egyptian settlements during the New Kingdom and we could trace a high number of pigs also in the New Kingdom town of Sai. Therefore, we tested pig dung as fuel in 2019 and the results were rather unsatisfying: the dung was not only much harder to inflame, but also much smellier. The low flammability of these excrements clearly reflects the diet of the animals which is markedly different to that of herbivores.

Finally, although the camel (camelus dromedarius) was only introduced as domestic animal in the Nile Valley during Ptolemaic times, we also examined the firing qualities of camel dung. The dung was kindly provided by a friend and colleague at LMU who knows the owner of camels in close vicinity to Munich.

Equipped with this exotic dung directly imported to Austria from Bavaria, we started our experiments in Asparn. The small and dense camel droppings did not yield convincing results (although they smoked a lot) and were less suited as fuel than cattle, donkey and goat dung.

Small test set of camel dung after firing (photo: S. Neumann).

With this short account on some of the multiple kinds of usage of various animal dung in ancient Egypt and Sudan, I hope to have illustrated that considering excrements as integral part of material culture has much potential for an improved understanding of certain tasks and activities and primarily for questions of raw materials and resources which are still sometimes neglected in favour of the finished products.

References

Amicone, Silvia, Morandi, Lionello and Shira Gur-Arieh. 2020.  ‘Seeing shit’: assessing the visibility of dung tempering in ancient pottery using an experimental approach, Environmental Archaeology, 1–16.

Budka, Julia, Geiger, Cajetan, Heindl, Patrizia, Hinterhuber, Veronica and Hans Reschreiter. 2019. The question of fuel for cooking in ancient Egypt and Sudan. EXARC Journal 2019.

Malleson, Claire. 2020. Chaff, dung, and wood: fuel use at Tell el-Retaba. Archaeobotanical investigations in the Third Intermediate Period settlement, Area 9 excavations 2015-2019, Ägypten und Levante 30, 179–202.

Sigl, Johanna. 2020. Elephantine, Ägypten: Neues zu Lebenswirklichkeiten (Projekt „Realities of Life“) im späten Mittleren Reich am ersten Nilkatarakt. Weitere Forschungsergebnisse der Jahre 2019 und 2020, e-Forschungsberichte des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 2020 (3), 1–8.

Verly, Georges, Frederik W. Rademakers, Claire Somaglino, Pierre Tallet, Luc Delvaux, and Patrick Degryse. 2021. The chaîne opératoire of Middle Kingdom smelting batteries and the problem of fuel: excavation, experimental and analytical studies on ancient Egyptian metallurgy, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 37 (article no. 102708) DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102708