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!


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.


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!


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.


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.

Colonisation Through Objects and the Shaping of Diversity in Nubia

I recently passed my PhD viva at Cambridge and thought it would be nice to provide an overview of the work I’ve been carrying out in the past 4 years, which informs a lot about my research for DiverseNile. Firstly, there are many people to whom I’d like to say thank you—they’re all named in my thesis—but here I will just mention a few key individuals in my journey from Cambridge to Munich: Kate Spence, Stuart Tyson Smith, Paul Lane and our PI Julia Budka.

My thesis is entitled ‘Foreign Objects in Local Contexts: Mortuary Objectscapes in Late Colonial Nubia (16th-11th Century BC)’. From the title, you might be asking what do I mean by ‘Late Colonial Nubia’? It’s not my intention to discuss this here, but in my thesis I argue that we should rethink the terminology we use to describe Nubia’s history from a bottom-up perspective. At this point in my discussion, ‘Late Colonial’ means ‘New Kingdom’ Nubia, although after discussing this with Stuart Smith I realized that there’s more nuance to add to my bottom-up discussion of chronology. I hope to be able to talk about this in more detail soon.

In the Late Colonial Period (or New Kingdom), a huge set of Egyptian-style objects flooded Nubia. This global objectscape appears at various sites from the 1st to the 4th cataract. In my thesis, I explore how colonization materialized differently across Nubia through the reception, adoption and transformation of Egyptian-style objects in local contexts. By examining the social role performed by foreign objects in local contexts in Nubia, my thesis firstly unveils the existence of various burials communities which adopted and combined foreign objects in different ways to fit social spaces’ rules and styles. This is given in the different distributions and combinations of the same types of standardising objects at various sites and social spheres, similarly to the way people around the globe later consumed industrialised tea sets, revealing alternative social structures either potentializing or limiting cultural practices created by the same global objectscape (e.g., cup + saucer versus beaker + saucer).

But what kind of social contexts did the same objectscape create in various local contexts? For example, at the same time foreign heart scarabs materialised colonisation, they could also create alternative social contexts within Nubia. Heart scarabs allowed individuals buried at elite sites, e.g. Aniba, Sai or Soleb, to display cultural affinities with Egypt and their power to consume restricted foreign objects, but at the non-elite cemetery of Fadrus, where a single heart scarab was found amongst c. 700 burials, these objects seem to have perform a different role reinforcing community and solidarity. In between extreme alternative social realities (elite versus non-elite), foreign objects were received and adopted in various ways, but also materially transformed or “copied” following local expectations and demands. In my thesis, I discuss more closely the roles performed by standardising scarabs/seals, jewellery, shabtis and heart scarabs in the shaping of alternative social realities within Nubia. This resulted in social complexity and cultural diversity in a context of colonial domination and attempted cultural homogenisation through objects.

Figure 1: in situ heart scarab from Tomb 26 at Sai. Courtesy AcrossBorders Project.

In other words, my thesis investigates how the same types of objects ended up shaping complexity and diversity in Late Colonial/New Kingdom Nubia, despite ancient colonisation and modern homogenising, colonial perspectives to the archaeology of Nubia. My PhD approach informs a great deal about my current research for DiverseNile, which focuses on the variability of mortuary sites and material culture within Nubia, where I have the opportunity to explore in detail a ‘peripheral’ context which becomes the ‘centre’ of alternative experiences of colonisation.

Further reading

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.

Pitts, M. 2019. The Roman Object Revolution. Objectscapes and Intra-Cultural Connectivity in Northwest Europe. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Versluys,  M.J. (2017). Object-scapes. Towards a Material Constitution of Romaness?. In Materialising Roman Histories, ed. A. van Oyen and M. Pitts. Oxford: Oxbow. 191-199.

Smith, S.T. 2021. The Nubian Experience of Egyptian Domination During the New Kingdom. In The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia, ed. G. Emberling and B.B. Williams. Oxford Handbooks Online https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190496272.013.20.

Anniversary of a new challenge

The time between Xmas and New Year is often a kind of transition, for many a moment to pause, but for others also a super stressful time in which all kinds of things have to be finished and loads of papers are sitting on one’s desk because one deliberately waited for this “break” between the holidays…

Well, I do not want to go into details, but my current work in home office is far from being relaxed. Nevertheless, it seems adequate to pause for a moment and remember what was achieved in the last few years.

Today one week ago, I gave the first DiverseNile Xmas lecture – this zoom lecture was meant as a kind of “Thank you” to all my friends, colleagues and collaborators who supported me in the last decades.

I tried to outline the most important waypoints leading to the new project in the region between Attab and Ferka, taking my visits and research in the cataract areas as case studies, starting of course with my participation in the Elephantine project.

From the First, to the Third, Fourth and Second Cataract.

Today two years ago, I was leaving Khartoum to go north and start work in my new concession between Attab and Ferka, the first field season of the MUAFS project started. Our very promising results of this first season served as the basis for the successful acquisition of the present ERC DiverseNile project – thus really a day to remember!

Preparing my lecture for last week, I reassessed my old documentation of rock inscriptions at Tombos, but especially of the Humboldt University Nubian Expedition at the Fourth Cataract as part of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project. I will never forget the moment when we first entered our concession area in 2004 coming from the desert and looking on a barren, yet infinitely beautiful cataract landscape.

The three years of fieldwork in the area of Kirbekan were a great challenge, but this work has shaped me and taught me so much about archaeology and surveying. We had a great variety of funerary monuments and for me besides rock art the most interesting sites were tombs of the Napatan era and others associated with the Kerma culture. The discovery of Kerma remains/a local Kerma horizon was among the most impressive outcomes of the entire Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project! And fits perfectly to our current investigations in the Attab to Ferka region.

My visits to the Batn el-Hagar, the Kajbar cataract and of course Sai Island will never be forgotten. Sudan is such an impressive country with stunning landscapes and much more!

Without the years of the AcrossBorders project on Sai Island, my current research focus on remains from the Egyptian colonial era in the Attab to Ferka region with an emphasis on cultural diversity and the materialisation of cultural encounters would not be possible. Thus, many thanks again for all who supported me – there are exciting years ahead of us, stay tuned for new results from the MUAFS concession!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

D’Ercole, G. and Sterba, Johannes H. 2018. From Macro Wares to Micro Fabrics and INAA Compositional Groups: The pottery corpus of the New Kingdom town on Sai Island (Northern Sudan), 171–184, in: J. Budka and J. Auenmüller (eds.), From Microcosm to Macrocosm. Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, Leiden.

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

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

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

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

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

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