Excavating on the west bank of the MUAFS concession – summary of week 4

While the first weeks of our 2022 season focused on mortuary remains and excavations in cemeteries, first of all the Kerma cemetery GiE 003, we switched focus and location in our week 4.

Earlier this year during our MUAFS survey, I noted an extremely interesting site at Attab West, with loads of early 18th Dynasty potsherds as well as scatters of local schist pieces on the surface. This site, AtW 001, is a small almost circular mound (Fig. 1). Unfortunately, the new line of electricity runs right through the site and seems to have destroyed part of it. This week, we went back there and excavated one trench as a first check of whether stratigraphy is preserved and any structures are traceable.

Fig. 1: Work in Week 4 focused on site AtW 001 at Attab West. View of Trench 1 to the south, with the loose surface removed. The mound covered with potsherds and schist pieces on the surface is still visible in the back.

It was our first excavation on the west bank, which differs considerably from the east bank in terms of landscape and general conditions. Logistics are a bit more complicated as well, bringing the team and the equipment to the site by boat and through large sandy dunes with picturesque tamarisks.

In sum, the test excavation at AtW 001 was a challenge but also very rewarding – we found what can be classified as domestic rubbish, loads of ashy deposits, plant remains, animal bones and lots of pottery sherds as well as debris from fires and other everyday activities. The ceramics are nicely datable to the early 18th Dynasty to Thutmoside times. Interestingly, the amount of Nubian wares in the various horizons of fill was really high, accounting to ca. 30% of the ceramics. The lower fills only had very little ceramics inside and here the Nubian wares were more common than Egyptian style wheelmade pots – this is just a first impression and I will follow up on this with a more detailed assessment soon!

We seem to have at least two phases of activity in the New Kingdom period preserved, possibly an early phase and a slightly later one which can be dated to Thutmose III. Remains of collapsed mud bricks and overfired sherds indicate the former existence of buildings and possible also ovens or kilns, but no standing remains of architecture was identified up to now. There were several homogenous deposits of silt, partly showing some ash. The ashy spots of the earliest phase are directly on top of the natural alluvium, suggesting that we either have an open courtyard or maybe part of the periphery of a domestic site. Apart from ceramics, the finds included some grindstones and stone tools like pounders, testifying to some grinding and crushing activities. However, many questions about this site are still open and AtW 001 needs to be excavated on larger scale in the near future.

Fig. 2: Final status of Trench 1 at AtW 001 in 2022 – there is still much work waiting for us at this domestic site!

Overall, our site finds a perfect parallel in the nearby site 2-R-18 in the desert hinterland of Amara West (Stevens and Garnett 2017, previously documented by Vila in the 1970s). As highlighted by Anna Stevens and Anna Garnett, there were also rubbish deposits above homogenous deposits of silt and ash, which seem to have accumulated directly on top of the natural surface. Similar to our site, no traces of architecture were preserved at 2-R-18. The material culture, especially of the pottery and the stone tools, is extremely well comparable to our finds. The dating to the early 18th Dynasty is also almost identical.

Thus, the results of our trench are clearly promising and work at AtW 001 will continue in the near future. Especially the function and duration of use of this site will make a considerable impact to our aims of addressing seasonal sites as well as sites connected with gold working (as suggested by Stevens and Garnett 2017 for 2-R-18 and other desert hinterland sites) and other activities in the 18th Dynasty periphery of Sai Island.

With the final day of work at AtW 001 yesterday, our fieldwork with workmen and excavation has come to an end – just in time before Ramadan starts tomorrow. Part of the team – all of them fully recovered from the corona infection by now – has already left and is heading back to Vienna and Munich. A small team will continue with processing finds here at Ginis and documenting the rich material culture from our very successful excavations in 2022.

Fig. 3: Group picture of the DiverseNile 2022 fieldwork team.

Many thanks go to all team members of 2022 – it has been a challenging season with so much wind, cold weather, covid-19 and a dense excavation programme at four different sites. The results are clearly remarkable and I am very grateful to all! For now, I am really keen to process the new material in more detail in the upcoming week.

Reference

Stevens and Garnett 2017 = Stevens, A. and Garnett, A. 2017. Surveying the pharaonic desert hinterland of Amara West, 287‒306, in: N. Spencer, A. Stevens and M. Binder (eds.), Nubia in the New Kingdom. Lived Experience, Pharaonic Control and Indigenous Traditions. British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan 3. Leuven.

Upcoming DiverseNile Seminar: The significance of black ritual liquids

I am excited to announce the next DiverseNile Seminar which will take place tomorrow. Kate Fulcher is going to speak about the mysterious ‘black goo’ – black ritual liquids applied to coffins and cartonnage.

This topic is extremely exciting and in recent years, the use of bitumen in funerary contexts in the Middle Nile has received some new attention. For example, one of the contents from a vessel found in Tomb 26 was analysed by Kate using a GC-MS method and was shown to be bitumen. Where are the local sources for bitumen in ancient Sudan? Or was it imported? And more importantly, how was bitumen and other black substances used in rituals with coffins and cartonnage?

Be sure to join us tomorrow as Kate will address these important questions – as usual, last-minute registration via email is still possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Update on Raman Spectroscopy analysis on Nubian and Egyptian style samples

At the beginning of June, we have announced the launch of a new pilot study – as part of the WP 3 of the DiverseNile project – implementing and testing the potential of the Raman Spectroscopy technique on a selection of ceramic samples coming from our reference collection from the sites of Sai Island (SAV/S-samples) and Dukki Gel, Kerma (DG-samples).

This study is currently in progress as part of our cooperation with the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the LMU, and namely with Fabian Dellefant, co-author of this post, who is a geoscientist and doctoral student under the supervisors of Prof. Dr. Trepmann and Prof. Dr. Gilder.

Due to fast measurements and its non-destructive approach with only little sample preparation, Raman spectroscopy can be easily applied to ancient ceramic materials, answering various technological questions, in particular on the manufacturing stages of production and firing of the pots.

For our investigation, we analysed so far a total number of 8 samples/thin sections (namely samples DG-18, DG-23, DG-29, DG-35, SAV/S 02, SAV/S 14, SAV/S 17, and SAV/S 51). Of all these, micro photos were primarily taken under the petrographic microscope with both transmitted and reflected light in order to select the areas of the sample to be examined with Raman Spectroscopy (normally two different spots including the clay matrix and particular organic components, both within the inner portion or core of the sample and on the rim area).

These samples are either locally produced cooking pots or other local ware manufactured both according to the so-called Nubian (DG-18, DG-23, DG-29, and SAV/S 02) and Egyptian style (DG-35, SAV/S 14, SAV/S 17, and SAV/S 51).  All of them consist of a non-calcareous optically active clay matrix with dark cores and red or buff oxidised surfaces. In some specimens, the oxidised margins are narrow and well defined, while in others the red-black zonation appears larger and less regular. The Egyptian style samples normally show a kind of “sandwich” structure consisting of a dark core enclosed, both above and below, by red oxidised surfaces (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Photos of the fractures from thin section scanning of samples SAV/S 02 (left) and SAV/S 17 (right). Note the large amount of organic inclusions which have been totally or partially carbonized and are surrounded by voids. Both samples show a dark core due to insufficient penetration of oxygen during firing.

All these samples contain, in a different extent, organic matter either plant remains (chaff, straw, grass and possibly various cereals components), and probably herbivore manure (those finely divided straw particles). The organics are either totally or partially carbonized so that the plant inclusions are often preserved as black carbonized relics into the voids.

The carbonaceous core (dark-grey zone in the center of the ceramic samples) can be the result of insufficient firing under oxidizing conditions. It is also related to the use of a paste of high organic component. During the firing of the pot, the combustion of the organics acts indeed as a reducing agent, taking away oxygen from the firing environment (Velde and Druc 1999: 126-127, see also Quinn 2013).

In organic chemistry, the process of thermal decomposition, obtained by the application of heat and in the complete absence of an oxidizing agent is known as pyrolysis or graphitization.

Pyrolysis-GC/MS to ceramics which are conspicuously black or exhibit a black inner core from incomplete burn-out has been applied for the assessment of molecular properties of organic matter in archaeological pottery matrix (see Kaal et al. 2013).

In Raman Spectroscopy, vibrational modes of specific crystallographic components are used to determine a specific crystallographic structure. In our case, the temperature-dependent formation of graphite is used to quantify the highest temperature the sample has experienced.

The lab setup consists of an optical microscope with different magnifications and a computer software, which handles data acquisition (Fig. 2). Measurements are conducted by using a laser with a 532 cm-1 wavelength directly on the thin section which has been first well-polished and cleaned with ethanol. In the lab, temperature is kept constant at 18° C degrees with the lights turned off so as not to interfere with the measurement.

Fig. 2 Lab of the Museum Mineralogia in Munich with the optical microscope (right) and the computer (left), which were used for the investigation.

In the investigated ceramics, the precursor of the measured graphite can be either organic material, such as grass and straw, or dung of herbivores, which was mingled into the clay before heating. Furthermore, in some samples firing ash could have been added as well. Our preliminary results show that graphite can be clearly detected in the sample material. Interestingly, a group of samples showed graphite formation only within the organic components, which is interpreted as being the relicts from plant inclusions. Other samples clearly show graphite spectra also within the clay matrix, which could have been added to the clay as ash in the first place (see e.g., SAV/S 02, Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 Optical microphotograph with reflected light of sample SAV/S 02. Datapoint 12 (pink) marks an organic component in a void and refers to the Raman spectra SAV_2_1-r12 in Fig. 4. Datapoint 22 (blue) characterizes the ceramics matrix and refers to the Raman spectra SAV_2_1-r22 in Fig. 4.
Fig. 4 Raman spectra of a datapoint from the matrix and an organic component. The spectrum of the matrix refers to datapoint 22 and the spectrum of the organic component refers to datapoint 12 of Fig. 3.

The interpretation of the maximum temperature the sample experienced is based on the ratio of two Raman peaks, which have a wavenumber of ~1390 cm-1 and 1606 cm-1. Given the dataset shown in Fig. 4, the maximum temperature can be estimated to ~600 °C after Guizani et al. 2017.

In the following weeks, we will proceed to the data processing and potential grouping based on the various Raman spectra collected from our pottery samples (we measured on average up to 20-25 datapoints for each sample). This will allow us to develop our preliminary interpretations and come to more specific conclusions on the quality of the organic material added to the paste and the heating temperatures reached during the firing. Eventually we might get insights on the type of clay sources selected to make the pots.

We can maybe spoil a bit things for you, anticipating that possibly some of the examined samples experienced a more homogeneous firing than others, these latter showing otherwise varying temperatures!

References

Guizani, C., Haddad, K., Limousy, L., and Jeguirim, M. 2017. New insights on the structural evolution of biomass char upon pyrolysis as revealed by the Raman spectroscopy and elemental analysis. Carbon 119:519–521. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.carbon.2017.04.078.

Kaal, J., Lantes-Suárez, O., Martínez CortizasA., Prieto, B., and Prieto Martínez, M. P. 2013. How Useful is Pyrolysis-GC/MS for the Assessment of Molecular Properties of Organic Matter in Archaeological Pottery Matrix? An Exploratory Case Study from North-West Spain. Archaeometry 56 (S1): 187–207. https://doi.org/10.1111/arcm.12057.

Quinn, Patrick S. 2013 Ceramic Petrography. The Interpretation of Archaeological Pottery and Related Artefacts in Thin Section, Oxford.

Velde, Bruce and Druc, Isabelle C. 1999. Archaeological Ceramic Material. Origin and Utilization, Berlin.

Of identities and bodies: new DiverseNile Seminar on mortuary diversity

According to the cold and rainy weather here in Munich, summer has long past – fittingly, our short summer break of the DiverseNile Seminar is now officially over. It is my pleasure to announce the upcoming lecture on Tuesday, August 31: Michele Buzon will be talking about „Intersectional Identities and Bodies: Exploring Biological, Geographic, and Mortuary Diversity in the Ancient Nile Valley“.

Michele is bioarchaeologist and Professor of Anthropology at Purdue University in Indiana, USA. I have the pleasure knowing her since many years, having met her both in Sudan and at conferences. She is the codirector of the important excavations at Tombos and we were therefore always in close contact during my AcrossBorders project. Our assessment of the strontium isotope analysis from Sai could nicely built on data published by her and co-authors. As I outlined in an earlier post, only common efforts will allow us to establish a strontium isoscape for New Kingdom Nubia and much work is still waiting for all of us.

Michele is one of the key figures in modern Nubian bioarchaeology conducting contextualized interpretations that combine skeletal evidence with settlement, environmental, and mortuary data. This approach allows to create a more nuanced picture of life and death in ancient Nubia (see also her recent summary of Bioarchaeology of Nubia in the Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia, Buzon 2021).

I am very much looking forward to her presentation and hope that many of you will be joining us – without doubts, Michele is going to show exciting material, fresh data and will offer much food for thought! As usual, late registration for our DiverseNile seminar is still possible via email.

Reference

Buzon, Michele R. 2021. Bioarchaeology of Nubia, in: The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia, edited by Geoff Emberling and Bruce Beyer Williams, Oxford, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190496272.013.55

Facing colonisation together? The collective use of tombs in New Kingdom colonial Nubia

I studied various cemeteries throughout Nubia for my PhD on the role of foreign objects in local contexts in New Kingdom colonial Nubia. The most important of these cemeteries are Aniba, Sai and Soleb. Other important cemeteries are either gradually coming to light (e.g., Amara West) or remain totally unpublished (e.g., Sesebi). I was interested mostly in variation across sites, which I explored through an analysis of distributions of types of objects at each of them. However, the sites that I just mentioned also have a lot in common.

One of the aspects that instantly caught my attention was the collective use of tombs, both synchronically and diachronically. It is interesting how Egyptologists usually interpret New Kingdom Nubia through the lens of Egyptianisation, but at the same fail to recognise one structural difference between the organisation of elite cemeteries in Egypt and Nubia in the New Kingdom. While elite tombs in Egypt, in places such as Thebes, bear an essential connection with one’s individuality, tombs at elite cemeteries in Nubia are essentially collective. One well-documented example is tomb 26 on Sai island, which will be published very soon (Budka 2021).

These tombs are usually interpreted as family tombs, which remains a plausible hypothesis. Elite tombs in New Kingdom Nubia usually consist of a vertical shaft leading to a main chamber connected with various smaller burial chambers. Inside these smaller chambers, there are the burials of more or less contemporary individuals. Individual chambers are usually occupied by “couples”; e.g. Khnummose and his alleged wife at Sai tomb 26 (figure 1) and Wsir and Taneferet at Aniba tomb S91. Later burials are usually placed in the larger main chamber, where archaeologists usually find scattered bones, and disarticulated skeletons alongside New Kingdom Egyptian-style objects and later pottery styles in upper layers. In extreme cases of tomb reuse, vertical shafts could be completely filled with burials, one on top of the other, as evidence from Soleb demonstrates.

Figure 1: burial chamber of Master of Goldsmiths Khnummose and his “wife”. Courtesy of the AcrossBorders project.

If we move to non-elite contexts we’ll find a different situation. In a context of overall material limitations, cemeteries are characterised by a vast majority of single burials possessing no burial goods or a few pots. The best example of non-elite cemetery in New Kingdom Nubia is Fadrus, which bears similarities with various non-elite cemeteries in New Kingdom Egypt in terms of scarcity. However, at Fadrus, a few larger tombs contained a considerably higher quantity of burial goods. These tombs are characterised by their collective use, both contemporaneously and by later generations.

I have suggested in a paper that will be published in the next Sudan & Nubia that the larger, collective tombs of Fadrus should not be interpreted as evidence for inter-site hierarchies, as has been done in the past. Instead, in my forthcoming paper, I suggested that these tombs should be interpreted through the lens of collective engagement theory (DeMarrais and Earle 2017; Lemos forthcoming). In a context of scarcity within a colonised Nubia, people seem to have gathered together to achieve more, namely access to Egyptian-style objects, including more restricted items within the New Kingdom Nubian mortuary landscape. On the contrary, those who remained by themselves ended up buried with no accompanying goods. It is possible that a similar collective logic was behind the organisation of cemeteries associated with Egyptian temple-towns such as Aniba, Sai and Soleb. However, it remains a difficult task to distinguish phases and individual burials sharing restricted Egyptian-style objects due to the high degree of plundering and the quality of most of the published evidence (see Näser 2017).

With DiverseNile, my focus turns to a different social space: geographical peripheries of temple-towns. Elite cemeteries associated with colonial centres seem to have been organized by extended families buried in collective tombs which were later reused. Non-elite cemeteries consisted of mostly poor individual graves with a few larger collective tombs housing the bodies of individuals potentially sharing objects that remained out of the reach of most their peers. In a different way, the burial evidence from the peripheries usually consist of graves scattered through the landscape with and a few ‘formal’ cemeteries. Scarcity also seems to be the rule here. However, there are also collective exceptions.

Chamber tomb 5-T-32 was among the sites excavated by the West Bank Survey from Faras to Gemai in Lower Nubia (figure 2). It consisted of a shallow mudbrick tomb divided into an entrance area leading via an unblocked arched doorway to an outer chamber or chapel, and a sealed arched doorway leading to the burial chamber. The tomb was located in the periphery of Mirgissa, one of the earlier fortresses reoccupied in the New Kingdom, and was plundered in ancient times. The excavators dated the tomb to the mid-18th Dynasty. The fact that no burials were placed in the outer chamber distinguishes tomb 5-T-32 from tombs at elite cemeteries associated with centres of colonial administration, such as nearby Aniba. The remains of 38 individuals were recovered from the burial chamber, eleven of which in situ. The bodies were deposited in an extended position, and remains of wood and rope suggest the existence of simpler mat coffins tied with ropes, which also appear in non-elite contexts in Egypt. Finds include steatite scarabs with parallels found at various Nubian cemeteries, New Kingdom pottery including a pilgrim flask, and a bronze finger ring and wooden headrest, which were more restricted objects in the Nubian mortuary objectscape of the New Kingdom.

Figure 2: tomb 5-T-32 in Abu Sir, periphery of Mirgissa (Nordström 2014: 135–137; plates 32–33).

In a previous post, I discussed tomb 3-P-50 at Ginis West containing some nice restricted Egyptian-style objects, despite its tumulus superstructure. Although the tomb was plundered, with only scattered bones being recovered, it was most likely used collectively. After looking at the evidence from tombs such as 5-T-32 and 3-P-50, located in the periphery of Mirgissa and Amara West, respectively, I started feeling like there’s something happening here. At this stage, I’m still scratching the surface, but I think it’s probably a good idea to keep pursuing the communal engagement path to see what we can potentially learn from the peripheries of colonised Nubia. Therefore, I was especially happy to hear Andrea Manzo talk about heterarchy and communal engagement in Eastern Sudan in our last DiverseNile seminar (see also Manzo 2017). Degrees of variations can be detected amid elite sites, while evidence from non-elite sites provides us grounds from which to discuss alternative social realities taking place in colonised Nubia. I don’t really know what to expect from the colonial peripheries, but I’m optimistic evidence from these areas will allows to expand the discussion on alternative social realities, especially in the light of fresh excavations planned for the near future.

Further reading

Budka, J. 2021. Tomb 26 on Sai island: A New Kingdom elite tomb and its relevance for Sai and beyond (with contributions by J. Auenmüller, C. Geiger, R. Lemos, A. Stadlmayr and M. Wohlschlager). Leiden: Sidestone Press [in press].

DeMarrais, E. and T. Earle. 2017. Collective Action Theory and the Dynamics of Complex Societies. Annual Review of Anthropology 46: 183–201.

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

Lemos, R. forthcoming. Heart Scarabs and Other Heart-Related Objects in New Kingdom Nubia. Sudan & Nubia 25.

Manzo, A. 2017. Architecture, Power, and Communication: Case Studies from Ancient Nubia. African Archaeological Review 34: 121–143. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-016-9239-6.

Näser, C. 2017. Structures and Realities of the Egyptian Presence in Lower Nubia from the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom. In Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived Experience, Pharaonic Control and Indigenous Traditions, ed. N. Spencer, A. Stevens and M. Binder, 557– 574. Leuven: Peeters.

Nördström, H.-Å. 2014. The West Bank Survey from Faras to Gemai. Oxford: Archaeopress.

New research goals at the time of Covid-19. Testing Raman Spectroscopy on Nubian and Egyptian-style pots

If there is something that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is resilience, work flexibility and mostly the capacity to design alternative solutions to meet the various physical restrictions and newly shaped work conditions and needs. Further, we learned the importance of networks and acquiring skills even in remote formats, and that online (and/or hybrid) classes and conferences can give virtuous outputs as those in presence.  Within the framework of our project, a successful  example of this is certainly represented by our online Diverse Nile Seminar Series 2021 Cultural Diversity in Northeast Africa.

For me operating within the Work package 3 of the project and principally dealing with laboratory analysis on the material data – ceramic samples – collected in the field, the pandemic has inevitably meant that I had to shift my main focus from the study of fresh excavation data to the study of reference collections. Hence, in the last months my work schedule has been mainly centred on documentation, database archive, and comparison among the various ceramic datasets. Also, the obligatory permanence in Germany (missing the field and the warmness of the Sudanese sun) together with the need to work often via remote or, whenever possible from the lab, pushed me to convey my working goals to search for new theoretical approaches and interpretative inputs, eventually enlarging the spectrum of the analytical competencies and methodologies devoted to the study of the ceramic samples.

In these circumstances the idea was born together with our PI and other colleagues from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the LMU to cooperate and expand the networking between our departments hence to test together a new analytical methodology for archaeological ceramic material, namely Raman Spectroscopy.

This technique, which took its unusual name after the Indian physicist C. V. Raman who was the first to observe Raman scattering in 1928 and won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930 for this discovery, is a molecular spectroscopy procedure which provides information about vibration and rotational states of molecules. It works using the interaction of a source of monochromatic light, normally an intensive monochromatic laser radiation, and the matter of the sample. The largest part (99.99%) of the laser light radiates through the sample, a very small proportion is scattered in all spatial directions (so-called Rayleigh scattering), finally an even smaller part is scattered inelastically (so-called Raman scattering). This latter contains information about the sample, its molecular structure (no the single chemical elements) and specific characteristics of the material (see among others, Spieß et al. 1999; also What is Raman Spectroscopy? | Raman Spectroscopy Principle (edinst.com); Raman spectroscopy – Wikipedia).

For the study of archaeological samples like ceramics, Raman spectroscopy has the advantage of being a non-destructive (only a minimum portion of the sample as the same slide of the thin section is needed), rapid and relatively low-priced technique. However, the high potential of this methodology may collide with the natural heterogeneity of most of the ancient, especially hand-made, ceramic manufactures (Medeghini et al. 2014; Vandenabeele & Van Pevenage 2017; see also Legodi & de Waal 2007). This is why, at the moment, our goal consists primarily to observe the methodological potentials of Raman and discern its use for our specific research questions.

For our trial study, we selected ten samples (of which six are ceramics from Sai Island and four from the Dukki Gel’s reference collection). All of them are either locally produced cooking pots or other local ware manufactured both according to the so-called Nubian and Egyptian style (Figure 1). In testing this new analytical technique, our main aims are the following: to search for differences in producing technique and firing temperatures/regimes 1) between the Nubian and Egyptian-style samples; 2) between the Nubian samples from Sai Island and those from Dukki Gel; 3) between the Egyptian-style samples from Sai Island and those from Dukki Gel; 4) among the different Nubian types (cooking pots with basketry impressions, incisions, and others). In addition, we also want to look at the behaviour of the organics and their carbonization and check for a possibility of a better characterisation of some opaque mineral phases.

Figure 1 – Examples of Nubian cooking pots with basketry impressions from Sai Island (left) and Dukki Gel; Kerma (right).

In the last days, together with the colleague Fabian Dellefant, geoscientist and doctoral student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the LMU, we have realized high resolution scans of the selected ceramic thin sections and photographed them at the petrographic microscope under different light conditions (both transmitted cross polarized and plane polarized light, and also reflected light) in order to describe and document the areas which we are ultimately going to analyse by Raman.

Stay tuned to know more about our ongoing work and first results!

Selected references and links

Legodi, M. A. &, de Waal, D. 2007. Raman spectroscopic study of ancient South African domestic clay pottery, Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy, 66, Issue 1, 135-142.

Medeghini et al. 2014. Micro-Raman spectroscopy and ancient ceramics: applications and problems. Journal of Raman Spectroscopy, 45, Issue 11-12, Special Issue: Raman in Art and Archaeology 2013, 1244-1250.

Spieß, G. et al. 1999. Eine einfache Einführung in die Raman-Spektroskopie. LMU. Die quantitative Analyse (uni-muenchen.de).

Vandenabeele, P. & Van Pevenage J. 2017. Raman Spectroscopy and the Study of Ceramic Manufacture: Possibilities, Results, and Challenges. In Hunt, Al (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Ceramic Analysis.

What is Raman Spectroscopy? | Raman Spectroscopy Principle (edinst.com)

A View from Sai Island

Tomorrow, the second lecture of our DiverseNile Seminar will take place. This time, it will be me presenting and I will talk about “Cultural Diversity in Urban ‚Contact Spaces‘ in New Kingdom Nubia: A View from Sai Island”.

Sai Island is one of the prime case studies to investigate settlement patterns in New Kingdom Nubia. In tomorrow’s presentation, I will focus on state-built foundations like Sai as colonial urban sites and their hinterland. I will explain why I introduced the concept of ‘contact space biography’ for the DiverseNile project and outline this approach.

A view from Sai Island: here towards Gebel Abri.

The starting point for my new research in the Attab to Ferka region were several open questions deriving from my work on Sai between 2011-2018 – tomorrow, I will address some of them, stressing why a view from a colonial temple town is crucial to understand cultural dynamics in rural and peripheral regions of the Middle Nile.

The location of Sai Island in the Middle Nile.

Since time is limited, I will select some examples to address cultural diversity in New Kingdom Nubia: the use of the so-called fire dogs and the question of cooking pots as well as foodways in general. For the latter, I would like to introduce the ‘food system’ concept as presented by Kelly Reed in a brand-new article which provides much food for thought. Reed argues that with such an approach, archaeologists are required to consider „all the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population“ (Reed 2021, 57). This does seem particularly fitting for the DiverseNile project and our aims.  I also very much like her attempt to apply system theory and social-network analyses to highlight the multiple links between society, environment and food. Within our contact space of the Attab to Ferka region, we also want to identify the specific stakeholders (actors such as families, individuals and official institutions as well as the ‚goverment‘, thus the Egyptian state) of this ancient Bronze Age ‘food system’ and thus presumably showing complex connections between the urban sites of Sai and Amara West and their hinterland with rural sites like villages at Ginis and Kosha. New information on food supply and distribution systems will be highly relevant to reconstruct contact space biographies in our project. Last, but definitly not least, the peripheral settlements in our research concession were always an integral part of the ‘food system’ of Sai and contributed to the dynamics we can trace in this state-built foundation (cf. Sulas and Pikirayi 2020, 80).

For more, please zoom in tomorrow at 1pm, late registrations are of course  still welcome!

References:

Reed, K. 2021. Food systems in archaeology. Examining production and consumption in the past. Archaeological Dialogues, 28(1), 51-75. doi:10.1017/S1380203821000088

Sulas, Federica and Pikirayi, Innocent 2020. From Centre-Periphery Models to Textured Urban Landscapes: Comparative Perspectives from Sub-Saharan Africa, Journal of Urban Archaeology 1, 67–83 https://www.brepolsonline.net/doi/epdf/10.1484/J.JUA.5.120910

First preliminary remarks on the petrography of the Dukki Gel ceramic samples

In the last few weeks I haven’t been very present in our blog since I spent much time sitting at the microscope of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the LMU, just nearby to our office, examining and documenting the first batch of ceramic samples from the site of Dukki Gel. These samples have been included as a reference collection within our DiverseNile project thanks to the kind agreement of the excavator, Charles Bonnet, and the responsible ceramicist Philippe Ruffieux. Philippe has already studied all of these samples within their context and we can now address fresh questions within the DiverseNile work packages and with scientific analysis.

In times of the Covid pandemic, the procedure to access the laboratories is rightly strict: registration is mandatory before working in the microscopy room, only a maximum of three people are allowed to work simultaneously in the lab and of course we are required to wear medical masks and disinfect all devices and workspace at the end. All this will seem obvious, but what I personally find curious is the contrast between the meticulousness of the analytical procedure, further complicated by the current Covid rules, and the simple and tangible nature of the ancient ceramics, whose immense  anthropological and material complexity, and huge archaeological interpretative potential is all enclosed in a thin section of just 30 microns thick.

In my last blog post – I introduced the method I use for the classification of the ceramic samples and the layout within the Filemaker database which I specifically designed for the purpose of the petrographic study.

So far a total of twenty-one ceramic samples from Dukki Gel has been analysed by optical microscopy (OM), while forty-three samples are currently located at 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.

Most of the samples for OM (18 out of 21) are Nubian vessels among which are cooking pots (both basketry impressed and incised ware), jars, globular vessels and also fine black topped Kerma ware. Further, three Egyptian-type vessels (two red slipped bowls and one fragment of a bread mould) were analysed under the microscope.

Petrographically, the Nubian samples from Dukki Gel appear quite homogeneous in term of their composition, displaying mineralogical and textural features which also resemble very much the petrography of the Nubian samples analysed from the New Kingdom town of Sai Island (see D’Ercole and Sterba 2018; D’Ercole in prep.). Differences in the textural features, in the proportion of some specific mineral phases, and in the amount and type of the organic tempers contained in the paste allowed distinguishing four principal petrographic groups or micro fabrics. The first group is characterized by a very sandy framework with a dominant grain size in the class of silt to very fine-grained sand, a good sorting of the non-plastics and very few organics mainly small and tubular in shape. The second group also displays a sandy framework, sorting is moderate with some medium sized rounded quartz and feldspar possibly added as temper, and common tubular organics partially carbonized and moderately aligned. Group 3, to which belongs the majority of the analysed samples, is sandy, moderately sorted, with common to abundant organics, either partially or completely carbonized, heterogeneous in shape and size,  and possibly referring to various parts of plant remains (including stem, glume, palea, and lemma?) (Fig. 1) and also herbivore dung. Finally, the fourth group of Dukki Gel Nubian samples contains abundant heterogeneous organics similar to group 3 but also large carbonate inclusions of microcrystalline calcite most likely intentionally added as tempering material. To this last group, which does not show a real comparison with the material from Sai, where the presence of calcite was ubiquitous and seemed a natural component in the clay source/ soil rather than a tempering agent, refers exclusively cooking pots with basketry impressions and a single jar.

Figure 1 – Detail of organic inclusion with visible plant cell structure from Sample DG-17. PPL micropho by G. D’Ercole.

All in all, similarly to what was observed for Sai Island, the petrofacies of the Nubian ceramics is very homogeneous and points to the selection of clays, or better soils, derived from local Holocene Nile alluvia, with a composition very similar along the various sectors of the Nile river (D’Ercole and Sterba 2018). These ceramics were possibly tempered with some medium- and coarse-sized aeolian sand or with quartz grains drained by the local river systems. Technologically, the amount and type of the organic material added to the paste (more or less abundant and selected) makes the main difference and allows distinguishing among various sub-recipes or ways of doing the vessels. Further, the orientation of the voids left by the combustion of the organic matter into the paste permits to recognize among the use of different manufacturing techniques. Specifically, in the cooking pots with basketry impressions which were built on a mat, the organics appear generally well or moderately aligned with a prevalent presence of longitudinal features like stems or plant stalks (Fig. 2a). Differently, in those pots (e.g., globular pots, bowls) built with the coiling technique, the organics show mainly a poor alignment and a specific orientation that indicates the ‘relict’ coil features (Fig. 2b). The black topped and the fine polished Kerma ware generally contain less organics, these latter are also smaller in size indicating either the use of herbivore dung and/or a selection of added plant remains.

Figure 2a – Thin section scan of Sample DG-18 (Nubian cooking pot). The good alignment of the pores structures and of the voids and relicts left by the combustion of the organics indicates that this vessel was built on a mat. Image by G. D’Ercole.
Figure 2b – Thin section scan of Sample DG-17 (Nubian large bowl). The specific concentric alignment of the pores structures and of the voids and relicts left by the combustion of the organics indicates that this vessel was manufactured with the coiling technique. Image by G. D’Ercole.

Highly interesting in the sample from Dukki Gel, is the presence of a jar with a roughly polished / wet-smoothed black surface which although showing clear Nubian technological exterior features is characterized by a coarser and sandier fabric with more abundant feldspar and granitoid rock fragments resembling certain Egyptian cooking pots (Fig. 3). This sample, so far an unicum in our selection, points to an hybridization of Nubian and Egyptian traditions (this time with the intersection of some performance of ‘Egyptian’ criteria to a general Nubian technological and stylistical formula) and well supports our overall theoretical framework and working approach on the complexity and diversity among various Nubian local narrative experiences and conceptions of material culture.

Figure 3 – Sample DG-22 (Nubian jar) with roughly polished / wet-smoothed surfaces characterized by a sandy fabric rich in alkali feldspar. Photo by G. D’Ercole.

Hopefully by the end of this month, we also will have the first set of chemical data from the reference collection from Dukki Gel in our hands which we will then compare with the macroscopic evidence and with these petrographic remarks.

References

D’Ercole, G. In prep. Petrography of the pottery from the New Kingdom town of Sai, in: J. Budka, with contributions by G. D’Ercole, J. 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.

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.

Working on cultural diversity in Upper Nubia during the lockdown

These are challenging times – for everybody, for many groups more than others (just think of the heroes in hospitals, schools, kindergarten and supermarkets as well as many other places and the awful situation for everybody involved in gastronomy, tourism and culture). We as archaeologists are more or less well prepared for doing much of our work from home. Spending weeks and moths per year in the field, often stuck on an island somewhere, we are also used to a certain kind of isolation.

However, there are of course real problematic issues for us we are currently facing. First of all, of course going to the field in Sudan and Egypt – nothing that is possible at the moment and also planning our next season in the MUAFS concession is still extremely difficult because of the pandemic. Second, our teaching activities are restricted to online formats. Whereas this works without problems for lecture classes and seminars, our planned block seminar “Introduction to field archaeology” where we wanted to have various practical training for our participants would need to be completely revised as an online format. We have postponed it for now, hoping that it might be possible in March – I remain skeptical (or realistic?) since the extension of the lockdown in Munich is very likely, but let’s wait and see. Third, working at home and taking shifts in working in the office to secure isolation and limited risks for everybody is currently without alternative, but I miss having the complete team present and exchanging in a casual way.

Well – as archaeologists we are trained to be patient, and all will be better somewhen!

For now, I wanted to give a small update on our work progress. Everybody of the team is busy with several work tasks within the work packages – much efforts are currently spent by Giulia and Veronica on databases, by Jessica on enlarging our digital library and by Cajetan on various aspects of remote sensing. Rennan was busy with his PhD viva at Cambridge which he passed very successfully and now continues with collecting data useful to approach the mortuary archaeology of the MUAFS concession.

It was very silent from my side as PI and this with good reasons – it is the end of the teaching term, there’s a lot of administration keeping me busy and most importantly: I tried to finish a monograph about Tomb 26 on Sai Island in the last months. This process has taken quite some time and actually benefitted from the lockdown and that I was unable to leave Europe over the winter. This book is now almost ready and I could easy repeat what I had written in 2018 about the merits and flaws of preparing archaeological publications, especially about crazy working hours and panic attacks. And about the feeling of being overwhelmed when you know exactly that the really important things in life are neglected but you can’t help it – partner, family, friends and pets suffer and need to be very patient and supportive (or bribed in the case of animals). Friends and family got used to my slightly bizarre answers on the phone “yes, all is fine, I am still in my tomb, can we speak later?” and for this I am very grateful! Interestingly, there was not much difference between the last months in lockdown and the final book preparation period back in 2018. The results of isolation are just the same, with more silence in the office and maybe with the slight difference that I could not meet friends now, even if I could spare the time.

For the DiverseNile project, preparing the AcrossBorders publications is hugely relevant. There are so many aspects we will be able to compare with sites in our new concession which are after all located in the ‘periphery’ of Sai Island. Tomb 26 is one of the Egyptian style pyramid tombs on Sai where the local elite was buried. We had more than 36 burials in this monument and we are now able to reconstruct in detail the life history of the tomb and its users. Although the burial assemblages like the one of Khnummose follow Egyptian standards, there are also certain local markers and individual concepts which I describe in the forthcoming book. We assume that none of the users of Tomb 26 was actually coming from Egypt, all of them are belonging to the local elite with indigenous roots. Interestingly, we also have some Nubian features, especially traceable by the choice of ceramics and bodily adornment.

The probably best example is a young female who was buried with an ivory bracelet in Tomb 26 (Fig. 1). This bracelet was badly damaged and broken, but its find position over the ulna of the individual allowed a clear interpretation. Similar bracelets are known from several New Kingdom sites in Nubia (e.g. Buhen, Mirgissa and Fadrus) and can be regarded as typical ‘Nubian’.

In situ position of ivory bracelet in Tomb 26 on Sai (photo: J. Budka).

Overall, Tomb 26 on Sai Island illustrates as a case study the potential of investigating the variability of funerary practices within a common repertoire of burial customs adopted from Egyptian standards as being rooted in distinct social practices. One of the main tasks for the near future within the framework of the DiverseNile project is, therefore, to determine the degree of diversity not only in elite contexts such as the pyramid cemetery on Sai but also in social groups not belonging to the elite of New Kingdom Nubia in order to achieve a more comprehensive picture of past communities in the Middle Nile region. Our cemeteries in the Attab to Ferka region will allow us to make here considerable progress in the next years, especially because of our joint approach using both funerary and settlement records to reconstruct past communities.