Showcasing settlement archaeology in Egypt and Nubia

The last 5 years have been really busy – with fieldwork at Sai and Elephantine, AcrossBorders has illustrated the rich potential of modern settlement archaeology, taking advantage of recent developments in archaeometry and other interdisciplinary fields.

Results from micromorphology, geology, isotope analysis and archaeometry of ceramics and other materials provide much food for thought and illustrate the complex entanglement of cultures in New Kingdom Nubia. Cooking pots are among the most interesting findings as I have just outlined in a German blog post for the Young Academy on derStandard.at.

The closing of the AcrossBorders project is already approaching – to celebrate its success, an interdisciplinary workshop with most of our cooperation partners and many team members will take place next week in Vienna. Hoping for a fruitful discussion of possible future developments related to settlement archaeology in Egypt and Sudan, I am very much looking forward to this event.

Winter in Egypt, week 3 at Elephantine

Having had a very pleasant visit from Friends of the Egyptian Museum in Munich today, I was just reminded that actually winter has arrived in Europe… Someone told me that it’s even supposed to snow in Munich early next week – well, I’d better not think to much about this… Anyway, I thought I share some pictures of the beauty of Aswan, especially for all of you who are not enjoying the very nice weather here in Egypt!

Week 3 just started, some more days to go before I have to head back to Munich (and will face real winter after all…). We are still focusing on Nubian wares and other pottery vessels; Oliver will be concentrating on pots from the early phases of use of House 55 this week. Lucia has already produced wonderful drawings of the numerous net weights and will continue with female figurines in the next days. Daniela is busy polishing the database and completing some entries. Making very good progress, more to come!

Nubian wares of House 55

This working week at Elephantine just flew by… I am back concentrating on another of my favorite topics within the intriguing House 55: the Nubian wares, comprising both fine wares and household wares, including drinking, serving and storage vessels as well as abundant cooking pots.

Most fascinating about the considerable assemblage of Nubian wares is besides the broad spectrum of forms and types that we find them in all levels of use of House 55 – thus, they are not restricted to the earliest phases from the 17th Dynasty and very early 18th Dynasty, but continue well into Thutmoside times. This also holds true for Kerma Black topped fine ware which is in particular of special importance – and of particular interest for us as we find good parallels in the New Kingdom town of Sai and AcrossBorders’ most recent works there.

My database currently holds 222 Nubian vessels from House 55 – 29 are Black topped fine wares, the well-known beakers, but also dishes, and small cups. Three more boxes full of Nubian sherds are still waiting to be documented, so these numbers will definitely increase in the next days. Detailed statistics and assessments of course have to wait until the very end, but the prospects are already really exciting!

Start of week 2 on Elephantine

It’s almost unbelievable – after four busy years, the excavations in House 55 on Elephantine are really finished! Today, Martin Fera took some last photos with the most recent details, including a newly emptied silo, to be added for the image based modelling of the complete building. Documentation will now focus on ceramics and finds – and the aim is, to have an overview at the end of the season of all materials.

The pottery is already well assessed – more drawings and photos will be produced, but with 2000 vessels in the database, the record is now very strong and representative.

The small finds will still keep us busy for a while – currently c. 3600 objects are in the database, but more are still waiting to be recorded. Today, I focused on some re-used sherds which are attested in a very high number. I am in particular interested in the various types of net weights. Most common in House 55 is type C in the classification by Cornelius von Pilgrim (1996). Currently, 64 net weights were recorded and except for one, all fall into this type. The single other weight is type A, the so-called axe-shape type.

Today’s focus: net weights from re-used sherds.

This dominance of type C net weights, mostly produced from Marl C and Marl A4 sherds, is striking – in particular in comparison with Sai Island. As outlined earlier, type C is quite rare in the new Kingdom town of Sai and definitely outnumbered by type A.

In 2013, I was still very unsecure about the interpretation of this difference – with little material excavated on Sai back then, all might have been accidental. But after five seasons on Sai and four seasons of work on House 44, it is now clear that the original line of interpretation is the most likely one, based on a large set of data from both sites.

As von Pilgrim has proposed (von Pilgrim 1996, 275–278) type C, recycled from pottery sherds, seems to represent the ad hoc product for individual needs. The distribution of net weights at Sai was probably organized at a more formal level than in Elephantine, with imported net weights of type A and only rare cases of versions from re-used sherds. A “centralized system of food production” as reflected in the use of net weights of type A was already suggested by Smith for the Middle Kingdom phase at Askut (Smith 2003, 101) and seems to be supported by the evidence from Sai in close comparison with Elephantine.

Tomorrow will be another busy day, full of net weights, sherds and other interesting traces of activities on 18th Dynasty Elephantine!

References

von Pilgrim 1996 = C. von Pilgrim, Elephantine XVIII. Untersuchungen in der Stadt des Mittleren Reiches und des Zweiten Zwischenzeit, AV 91, Mainz am Rhein 1996.

Smith 2003 = St. T. Smith, Wretched Kush. Ethnic identities and boundaries in Egypt’s Nubian Empire, London and New York 2003.

Back at work on Elephantine

The last excavations of the Swiss Institute Cairo in House 55 on Elephantine will start tomorrow – fieldwork is almost finished and during the last 10 days, Martin Fera and Seta Stuhec produced for AcrossBorders a complete photogrammetric documentation. An image based 3D model will soon be available, allowing a better illustration of the complex situation within the buildings with its multiple installations and various rooms.

House 55 was quite a challenge for SFM documentation.

Martin taking the very last photos this afternoon…

The focus of the 2017 season is again on ceramics, small finds and other objects. Daniela and Lucia are busy documenting objects, Oliver is producing pottery drawings and I am processing the remaining ceramic assemblages from the 46th season on Elephantine (fall 2016 and spring 2017). The focus of all of us is on the early phases of use of House 55. I am currently busy with very interesting material from the long corridor in the entrance area of the building – the amount of Nubian pottery is extremely high and raises various questions. Besides typical Pan grave style cooking pots there is also Kerma Black Topped fine ware present as well as Nubian storage vessels.

3 more busy weeks ahead of us and the final season of work at House 55 looks very promising so far!

Miniature canopic jars from Tomb 26

Among the interesting finds associated with the southernmost burial in Chamber 5 of Tomb 26 on Sai Island are four miniature jars. The burial was placed in a wooden coffin, had a funerary mask and many flakes of gold foil were discovered in the area of the upper body. In addition to the steatite scarab found at the left hand, an uninscribed heart scarab was found directly between the ribs, thus it was placed on the breast of the deceased.

More items of typical Egyptian New Kingdom burial equipment are the four small ceramic jars which were found close to the skull.

The four small, globular jars as they were found in situ.

These jars are clearly miniature canopic jars – their lids were found a few centimeters apart from the jars, buried between the debris from the collapsed ceiling. All lids show human heads and are also made in clay. Interestingly, the jars were made in Egyptian Marl clay and imitate with their coated surface stone vessels. Miniature canopic jars were also documented in several tombs of SAC5 excavated by the French mission – but none of them is the same type of vessel and the lids are also markedly different (see A. Minault-Gout/F. Thill, Saï II. Le cimetière des tombes hypogées du Nouvel Empire (SAC5), Fouilles de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire 69, Cairo 2012, Pls. 90 and 131).

Miniature canopic jars united with their lids today in Khartoum.

Today, we finished the photographic documentation of this interesting and so far unique set of 18th Dynasty miniature canopic jars from Sai, drawings will be produced in the next days – another step done towards the final publication of Tomb 26!

We like it hot – in Khartoum

Since Saturday, a small AcrossBorders team is busy working in Khartoum in the National Museum of Sudan. This two-week study season is dedicated to the documentation of finds from our 2017 fieldwork season on Sai Island. Due to the amazing discoveries both in the town and the cemetery, we simply ran out of time back in March and had to postpone the study of some objects. I am especially grateful to our colleagues from NCAM for their constant support and for a very productive setup and generous working hours! And we are really delighted that Huda Magzoub, our dear colleague, inspector and friend, joined as for this ultimate AcrossBorders season in Sudan. Temperatures here in Khartoum are quite a change compared to Vienna and Munich ;-).

Besides work on objects from Tomb 26, we are currently busy with material from the two large cellars we excavated in SAV1 East (Features 83 and 85). Both cellars represent very good contexts from the mid-18th Dynasty and therefore their pottery and small finds have particular importance for our study of the material culture in New Kingdom Sai.

I was especially looking forward to start working on the sherds from Feature 83. Below the collapsed bricks from the vault of this cellar, some smashed pottery vessels were found on the floor.

Broken pots at the bottom of Feature 83 – note the smashed jar in the middle of the picture.

These ceramics clearly belong to the latest phase of use of the structure and can be dated to the mid-18th Dynasty – but back in Sai, they were all broken vessels, not allowing proper photographs or drawings. In the last days here in Khartoum, I managed to reconstruct them – my personal favourite is this nice imported jug with painted decoration. A real beauty came out of those smashed sherds!

Reconstructed imported jug from Feature 83.

AcrossBorders in retrospect

Those were the days – back in 2013 we had our first season on Sai Island, starting work at sector SAV1 East. The outlines of Building A were discovered, exciting finds in the southern part of our squares allowed us to date the earliest remains in this area to the very early New Kingdom. Among the highlights were pots from the early 18th Dynasty, found in situ in a small storage bin.

Continuous excavations until this spring season 2017 brought to light further evidence supporting this original interpretation. It is well timed that a substantial volume on “Nubia in the New Kingdom” was just published – edited by Neal Spencer, Anna Stevens and Michaela Binder these proceedings of a conference in London 2013 bring together the latest results and a large variety of finds dating to the New Kingdom, unearthed in northern Sudan. I am proud that also AcrossBorders’ work on Sai Island is represented in this splendid and important volume – an overview about “Life in the New Kingdom town of Sai Island: some new perspectives” summarizes the potential of the first season back in 2013 in SAV1 East – and illustrates among others the significant find of the storage bin with its in situ pots.

Since 2013, I regularly wrote a blog post “summer break” in August, announcing vacation and a short break from our various tasks including blogging – well, those were the days… 2017 is a bit different – with the closing conference “From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia”, to be held from 1–3 September, 2017 in Munich, we are all very busy and time for vacation is limited. Travelling between Vienna and Munich, we are especially involved in the anthropological findings in Tomb 26 and the GIS applications of our documentation; the digital landscape models of Sai are getting prepared and all will be presented at the conference.

Perfectly timed is now the release of a video produced by the FWF high lightening our main research questions and most important discoveries on Sai. For those of you who have missed photos and reports about the nimiti flies in the last months – I am convinced that the video will make up for this: beautiful shots of SAV1 East, the one and only nimiti paradise ;-).

How to cook like an Egyptian – experimental archaeology in Asparn/Zaya, Austria

Working on Egyptian and Nubian cooking pots, both in the field and back home in Munich, Julia Budka and Daniela Penzer—who wrote her Masters thesis about Egyptian cooking pots earlier this year—created another practical session for the LMU students this summer.

Dealing with Egyptian and Nubian cooking pots during the production of our drawings doesn’t give us the opportunity to understand the process of cooking with them. There are lots of questions following our studies of these pots: First, it is necessary to understand how the pot was made. Second, it is useful to think about ways to combine the theoretical aspects of pottery making with practical exercises. Finally, the essential task would be to cook in replicas under more or less similar conditions as had been done in ancient times. The keyword here is experimental archaeology.

Within the practical class, a poster was prepared to illustrate the fundamental changes in cooking pot tradition at the beginning and throughout the 18th Dynasty (see Budka 2016). While texts and paintings give us a good overview regarding funerary practices and traditions, cooking is underrepresented in the reliefs and tomb decoration. Without a theoretical background, someone can just suggest why one shape of cooking pot was replaced with another one, and so experimental studies can provide us with useful information, which cannot be produced by the archaeological context alone. Also, the difference in cooking in Nubian cooking pots compared to Egyptian ones can be investigated further, maybe leading to interesting conclusions about diet and the cooking process. To create as much useful data as possible, the main tasks for the upcoming experiments won’t only be cooking in the pots, but to observe the different effects of distinctive temperature during the fire process and the permeability of water caused by the composition of the pots. Measuring temperature and heat will be crucial for significant results.

The experiments took again place in Asparn/Zaya in Austria – like Julia’s former experiments with fire dogs and other tasks and only possible because of Julia’s cooperation with the University of Vienna, from June 30th until July 2nd. We began our work by preparing the clay after Hans Reschreiter, field director of the famous Austrian excavations in Hallstatt, gave a nice introduction to the clay we used. The first task was to grind the clay with simple methods, such as using a stone or wooden tool.

The dry and dusty powder was then mixed with water before kneading. We grogged the clay with a measured amount of animal dung (e.g. donkey dung, cow, and goat dung, etc.), which Julia had brought from Sudan especially for experiments like this. However, another chunk of clay was simply grogged with chaff. Shortly after producing enough clay to work with we immediately started modelling our first small pots and dishes.

The progress of this work was nice to watch. Vera and Vig Albustin, both very experienced experimental potters (who joined AcrossBorders already at the fire dog experiment in 2014), showed us different ways to build the pottery by hand and using different shaping methods such as “paddle and anvil” or the “coiling-technique” (see Arnold/Bourriau 1993 for more details).

Step two (also under the guidance of Vera and Vig, who made realistic replicas of Nubian and Egyptian cooking pots before the actual excursion) was the process of firing the pottery in an open fire place.

On our second day, we continued with shaping different pots and dishes and began with the preparation of our experiment. The firing process of the pots was completed and everything ready for the main task on day three: experimental cooking in Egyptian style cooking pots.

First, we decided to arrange two cooking pots directly over a fire. We arranged the smaller pot over a triplet of stones and filled it with 2 litres of water. Additionally, a bigger pot was placed over fire dogs and filled with 5 litres of water.

Daniela was equipped with an infrared-thermometer in order to test the temperature of the blaze and fire; the outside temperature of the pot and also the temperature of the water periodically.

The purpose of this experiment was to check the time it took for the water to reach boiling point. Meanwhile, we had to continuously take care of the fire, which was sometimes not easy given that one of the pots was arranged over three stones.

After this first attempt to get some useful data, we prepared our lunch: Egyptian style “foul”. Daniela brought the ingredients: oil, onion, tomatoes, garlic and (canned) foul beans. Following the instructions in the recipe, Daniela again checked the temperature with the thermometer while cooking in our two pots; one over the stones and the second with AcrossBorders’ nice fire dogs.

The result of our cooking was quite delicious, with everybody enjoying the lunch break. Back in Munich, Daniela will be busy with interpreting the data and following up the experiments we performed.

To sum up, it is easy to say that the experience of working with clay, preparing it, producing small pots, and to perform the firing process was useful when you’re working with pottery on the project. It was a nice opportunity to perform different shaping methods with your own hands and to learn how to dry and then fire the pots. Everybody would therefore recommend that experimental archaeology is a perfect way to understand the subject of your research in more detail. Additionally, doing it as a team was also quite fun!

References

Arnold/Bourriau 1993 = Dorothea Arnold/Janine Bourriau (eds), An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Pottery, Mainz am Rhein 1993

Budka 2016 = Julia Budka, Egyptian cooking pots from the Pharaonic town of Sai Island, Nubia, Bulletin de liaison de la céramique égyptienne 26, 285‒295.

On the move – to and from Sai

An upcoming workshop organized within the framework of the program “LMU – UCB Research in Humanities” brings together researchers from LMU Munich and the UC Berkeley to discuss phenomena of “Archaeologies of human mobility and migration”.  I am very happy to be able to participate and much looking forward to this event with a rich variety of archaeological case studies.

AcrossBorders, its aims and results are of course highly relevant for understanding people and things “on the move”, migration between Egypt and Nubia, but also aspects of appropriation and the entanglement of cultures. The location of Sai Island in a territory of strategic value with changing boundaries and alternating ruling powers in the Second Millennium BC (Egypt and Nubia) allows the addressing of questions of ancient lives across borders and cultures.

In general, we know that mobility of administrative staff and officials was common in New Kingdom Egypt – examples from Sai include the viceroy of Kush Nehi and other officials.  Nehi’s monuments in Egypt and Nubia (incl. door jambs, lintels, statues, stelae etc.) illustrate that high officials had temporary living quarters in different parts of Egypt as well as in Nubia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My paper will present results of the AcrossBorders project based on the study of the material culture, here especially of ceramics including data from iNAA. In addition to the analysis of finds and architecture from the settlement, the mortuary evidence helps investigating the coexistence of Egyptians and Nubians on the island. The latest results from Tomb 26 will be discussed, highlightening also the potential of ongoing strontium isotope analysis for exploring the origin of the occupants of New Kingdom Sai.