“Chamber pots” from Elephantine and Sai

Only 3 days have passed since we arrived on Elephantine Island in Egypt. Everything worked out fine and we had a very good start into the season.

Today, I used the day off from fieldwork to work on the pottery database from both Elephantine and Sai. One of the most exciting aspects of this analysis is that we are currently comparing the ceramic data from the New Kingdom town of Sai with the pottery corpus from the contemporaneous settlement at Elephantine.

Among the most important contexts from Sai is of course the material from feature 15. The large amount of intact vessels, their association with seal impressions and the clear stratigraphic sequence makes this cellar a perfect case study.

Unusual vessels from Feature 15, Sai.

Unusual vessels from Feature 15, Sai.

Besides dozens of bowls, plates and beakers, there are also two very unusual vessels from feature 15. They are unique within the pottery corpus of Sai, being heavy deep bowls with a thick flat base and a pronounced outer lip. We nicknamed them “chamber pots” and until today I was not able to find close parallels. Until today! Sitting here on my desk surrounded by all the New Kingdom pottery data from Elephantine, I suddenly remembered a complete pot we documented some years ago which is also unique within the local corpus.

Unusual pot from Elephantine...

Unusual pot from Elephantine…

The copy of the drawing of 37601X/b-29 was labelled as “Nachttopf” in my handwriting… and closely resembles our pots from feature 15! While the piece still has no parallel within the Elephantine material, it clearly compares nicely to the pots from Sai.

Although the functional use of these vessels still poses several questions (which I will leave open for now…any thoughts are of course welcome!), finds like this illustrate the huge potential of AcrossBorders’ approach to compare the Sai pottery corpus in detail with the one from Elephantine. Linking and differentiating Sai and Elephantine is making excellent progress and will of course continue!

People on Sai – Thoughts on the New Kingdom Prosopography of the Elite Necropolis SAC5

Prosopography is about people. This statement emphasises the importance of prosopography as a specific means of shedding light onto the social fabric and historical development of ancient and modern population groups. In our case, this society is the people of Sai during the New Kingdom. Prosopography in its broadest sense can be defined as “the investigation of the common background characteristics of a group of actors in history by means of a collective study of their lives” (Stone 1971). However, we can only tackle certain aspects of people’s lives using ‘prosopography’ due to the nature of the data from Pharaonic Egypt. Despite this shortcomings, what really matters are the questions we ask in order to understand lives and the social fabric based on prosopographical data. As for New Kingdom Sai, texts and monuments with names and titles of individuals from the island itself or with links to the Pharaonic town constitute the basis for a prosopographical ‘sociography’, i.e. an assessment and discussion of the social fabric of the town and its population.

Fig. 01

Fig. 01

Cemeteries of Pharaonic towns in both Egypt and Nubia represent certain parts of the local society. Within the New Kingdom funerary landscape of Sai, that consists of three burial grounds (SAC1, SAC4 and SAC5; Fig. 01), it is only cemetery SAC5 that yielded texts and objects with prosopographical data (Minault-Gout/Thill 2012, esp. 403-418). Both the architecture of the tombs with chapels and pyramids and single or multi-chambered subterranean structures and the remains of the funerary object assemblages allow us to call SAC5 the elite necropolis of New Kingdom Sai. The question of whether the individuals interred here were ‘Egyptian’ or ‘Nubian’ is not of special concern for our endeavour. The fact, that they were buried here, is proof that they belonged to the local community regardless of their origin or ethnicity.

At present, 26 elite tombs are excavated at SAC5. An assessment of their archaeological as well as prosopographical ‘yield’ (Fig. 02) shows that the use life of this cemetery spans most of the New Kingdom from mid-18th Dynasty to later Ramesside and even beyond to Napatan times. The title and name-bearing small-finds among the funerary assemblages are the typical objects also found in other elite New Kingdom cemeteries in Nubia, especially shabtis, heart scarabs and heart scarab pectorals. Architectural elements from the tomb chapels and pyramids preserve information on the interred persons, too. In tomb T 2, five male members of the New Kingdom Sai society are attested. Three of them – Merimose, Hui and Ky-iri – are local priests, although there is no indication of the cult they were attached to. The letter-scribe Horemheb is part of the administrative sphere of the town responsible for its correspondence. The objects from tomb T 8 bear witness to two further local priests. In tomb T 3, an intriguing faience plaque with the name of Ramessesnakht, viceroy of Nubia under Ramesses IX, came to light. The burial with this sealing plaque is not considered to belong to the viceroy himself. It might rather belong to a local member of the late Ramesside administration of Nubia who was given this plaque as a token of loyalty during his lifetime. However, Ramessesnakht’s tomb is not known.

Fig. 02

Fig. 02

Tomb 5 is of special importance for the upper end of the social fabric of the Pharaonic town. Based on the names and titles from a heart scarab, a shabti and a faience vase, it belonged to a family of local mayors. While the other tombs from SAC5 provided ‘only’ scribes and priests, we encounter here the highest municipal representatives of Pharaonic state agency in New Kingdom Sai, the city governors Ipy and Neby. Both date to the mid-18th Dynasty and might be father and son, since the mayoral office is regularly transmitted like this in the New Kingdom. The exact familial relation of the songstress Henut-aat (or Henut-taui) to both Ipy and Neby is unclear. Her title, however, puts her in a rather high female elite stratum as well. One of the tomb owners, Neby, even seems to be identical with the mayor and director Neby attested further north at the Tanjur rapids in the Batn el-Hajar with three rock inscriptions (Hintze/Reineke 1989, 170-177; Fig. 03 after Hintze/Reineke 1989, 235). His territorial radius even went well beyond the confines of the town.

Fig. 03

Fig. 03

Mayors or city governors are typical for all New Kingdom towns and cities in Egypt and Nubia. A recent assessment of the distribution of New Kingdom mayoral tombs has shown, that they are in most cases buried in the elite necropoleis of the city which they administered (Auenmüller 2011; Fig. 04). This typological trait can also be seen with Ipy and Neby and their interment in tomb 5 at SAC5. However, there is another mid-18th Dynasty mayor of Sai attested. This Ahmose installed two statues of himself at Thebes (Bologna KS 1823) and Karnak (CG  42047) respectively. Both statues indicate his special relations to Thebes or even a Theban origin. He therefore might be the first mayor of the newly established colonial town, sent to Sai under Thutmose III. Although Ahmose’s tomb is not known, it is generally assumed that his funeral took place at Thebes, his home town and place of belonging. By contrast, Ipy and Neby seem to represent the second generation of local administrators who lived on Sai for some time, identified themselves with the town, were parts of its social fabric and finally chose to be buried here.

Fig. 04

Fig. 04

Further titles and names are attested through funerary stelae and shabtis. However, due to the rather fragmented state they are less informative. They nevertheless show that SAC5 in its original state must have been a very well equipped funerary landscape for the local elite. This was further stressed by AcrossBorders’ discovery of a new tomb, tomb T 26 (Budka 2015). This new monument yielded the pyramidion of a very important person: the deputy of Kush Hornakht, who flourished in the 19th Dynasty. He and his elite colleagues that are also – or especially – known from the area of the town will be subject of some future blog posts.

A summarising look back at the Sai SAC5 prosopography allows for some comments: Although the data is quite fragmented, it displays both religious and administrative personnel of the town. Both domains, temple and administration, are typically represented by officials in New Kingdom town cemeteries in Egypt and Nubia (cf. esp. Soleb: Schiff-Giorgini 1971). Of high importance for and within the town’s social fabric are the two 18th Dynasty mayors Ipy and Neby. They belonged to the Egyptian elite that came or was sent south to Nubia to act as municipal agents of the Pharaonic state on Sai. Exceptional, however, is the attestation of the deputy of Kush Hornakht, who we know was active in the 19th Dynasty. His person provokes further thoughts on the role of Sai as administrative centre and urban fabric in Upper Nubia during Ramesside times.


Auenmüller 2011: J. Auenmüller, Individuum – Gruppe – Gesellschaft – Raum. Raumsoziologische Perspektivierungen einiger (provinzieller) HA.tj-a Bürgermeister des Neuen Reiches, in: G. Neunert, K. Gabler & A. Verbovsek (eds.), Sozialisationen: Individuum – Gruppe – Gesellschaft, GOF IV/51, Wiesbaden 2011, 17-32.

Budka 2015: J. Budka, Ein Pyramidenfriedhof auf der Insel Sai, in: Sokar 31, 2015, 54-65.

Hintze/Reineke 1989: F. Hintze & W. F. Reineke, Felsinschriften aus dem sudanesischen Nubien, Publikation der Nubien-Expedition 1961-1963, Band 1, Berlin 1989.

Minault-Gout/Thill 2012: A. Minault-Gout & F. Thill. Sai II. Le cimetière des tombes hypogées du Nouvel Empire SAC5, FIFAO 69, Cairo 2012.

Schiff-Giorgini 1971: M. Schiff-Giorgini, Soleb II. Les necropoles, Florence 1971.

Stone 1971: L. Stone, Prosopography, in: Daedalus 100, No. 1, 1971, 46-79.

Feature 15 – another update

Giving a lecture about Sai in Hamburg last week, I had not only the pleasure to meet dear colleagues and friends there (and to have a great Abydos-Berlin-reunion!), but also to spend some time thinking about feature 15.

Feature 15 is definitely the highlight of AcrossBorders’ excavations in SAV1 East and has kept us busy ever since 2013. The large subterranean room (5.6 x 2.2 x 1.2m) was dug into the natural gravel deposit and lined with red bricks. Its filling deposit was very rich in archaeological material: large amounts of charcoal, hundreds of dom-palm fruits, abundant animal bones, c. 100 almost intact ceramic vessels and more than 200 clay sealings. The sealings comprise a large number of royal names (Amenhotep I, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III), a seal of the viceroy Nehi and various floral decorations in a style typical for the Second Intermediate Period.

Feature 15_Seite_1Thanks to the stratigraphic sequence, several phases of use can be reconstructed for feature 15. A dating of these building phases was already proposed in 2015, based on the clay sealings and the ceramics (Budka 2015) – the stages show an interesting correspondence with the building phases of Temple A and its surroundings. Most importantly, a section of wall 44, the western boundary wall of the courtyard of Building A, is set into feature 15, thus definitely later in date and sitting on top of the lowermost deposit of feature 15.

It was therefore clear that feature 15 was already in place before one of the main walls of the courtyard of Building A, wall 44, was built. Only this season in 2016, we removed wall 44 and excavated the deposit below it, exposing the westernmost part of feature 15.

The deposit corresponded to the lower filling of feature 15 east of wall 44. Several fragments of pottery and a clay sealing are especially significant. The small fragment of a mud sealing (SAV1E 203) shows a stamp which contains the name of Mn-xpr-ra (Thutmose III), written vertically and without a cartouche, with a nbw-sign beneath. Two uaeri extend downwards from the disc and face the exterior sides of the stamp. The top of the stamp is not preserved.

Feature 15_Seite_2

The results from the 2016 season therefore nicely support the reconstruction of the building phases from 2015 ‒ Building A was extended in the later phase of the reign of Thutmose III (maybe even under Amenhotep II) and wall 44 was set into feature 15 at this stage.

The study of the complete set of finds discovered in feature 15, currently underway, will contribute to the functional analysis of SAV1 East in general and Building A in particular.


Budka 2015 = J. Budka, The Pharaonic town on Sai Island and its role in the urban landscape of New Kingdom Kush, Sudan & Nubia 19, 40–53.

Hidden Highlights 3: SAC5 085

Findspot: SAC5, Tomb 26 (shaft) Season: 2015 Material: Fayence Dimensions: 12x19x5mm

Findspot: SAC5, Tomb 26 (shaft)
Season: 2015
Material: Fayence
Dimensions: 12x19x5mm

The 2016 cemetery season has produced a lot of great material that we want to share here on the blog, particularly our growing collection of scarabs. However, working with all the new finds has made me slightly nostalgic and I spent some time this week reacquainting myself with last season’s treasures. So many wonderful things forgotten!

A particular favorite of mine was this sweet little Hathor amulet (SAC5 085), intended to be strung through the extension at the top. As a protectress of nearly all aspects of life, including within the necropolis, Hathor was the perfect choice for personal adornment. Though our example is quite small and delicate, the detail in her hair and face is exceptional. Found in the burial shaft of Tomb 26, she was an early indication of the quality of finds to come and she has not disappointed us, this season or last!

From Sai Island to the First Cataract with love

A perfect day is about to end – on our day off from work, we had an excellent trip to Soleb, Gebel Dosha and Sedeigna. These sites never fail to amaze me anew on each visit in the last years! Gebel Dosha with its great rock inscriptions and splendid view is definitely one of my favourite places in Upper Nubia. I was very pleased that also the newcomers of the team seemed to enjoy the wonderful setting!

Photo shooting at Gebel Dosha.

Photo shooting at Gebel Dosha.

Re-visiting the site and its inscriptions today just fitted perfectly to one of the recent finds from our work at Sai, so far probably the highlight of the cemetery season: Earlier this week, a lovely steatite scarab was found in the burial chamber of tomb 26.

SAC5 279 aSAC5 279 (15 x 10 x 7 mm) is simply beautifully made. Its decorated side can be associated with one of the main themes of our project: AcrossBorders, working both at Sai Island in Sudan and Elephantine Island in Egypt, is focusing on all kinds of references and connections between the First Cataract area and the region of Sai. The scarab SAC5 279, like some inscriptions from Gebel Dosha we saw today, is referring to gods from the First Cataract region – in this case to the female deities of the triad of the First Cataract (Khnum, Satet and Anuket). On SAC5 279, Satet is sitting to the left, Anuket to the right – the goddesses are facing each other, with an ankh sign on the knee. A “mr” sign and the “aA”-hieroglyph flank the goddesses and I would translate the complete set as “much beloved by Satet and Anuket.”

The First Cataract triad was in general very popular in Lower Nubia, and in Upper Nubia as well – but in the case of rock inscriptions like at Gebel Dosha and scarabs like SAC5 279 from Sai one might very well speculate that the owners/producers had actual bonds with the area around Aswan and were “crossing borders” during their lifetime, referring to gods from their hometown in delicate moments.

The batteries are definitely recharged after this great Friday and we are all ready for week 9 and more fascinating finds with complex meanings!

Summary of week 7 at Sai Island: focusing on tombs, ceramics & finds

Week 7 of AcrossBorders’ 2016 season has just ended – it was a very busy week – with the start of work in the cemetery, the arrival of a group of German students from Munich (all newcomers to Sai), our Austrian physical anthropologists (Marlies Wohlschlager and Andrea Stadlmayr) and the departure of our distinguished external experts Dietrich and Rosemarie Klemm (LINK). Today, two other team members, Sayantani Neogi and Sean Taylor have left Sai and are returning to Europe after a rich season of landscape archaeology with special assistance by THE sandstone experts from Munich…

Fieldwork focused in week 7 on cemetery SAC5 – and here both on tomb 26 and the neighboring area. A sector towards the south and southeast of tomb 26 was cleaned in order to check the existence of other shaft tombs – until now, unsuccessfully, but with plenty of pottery and bones attesting the use of the site as burial place during the 18th Dynasty, Ramesside times, Pre-Napatan and Napatan era.

First surface cleaning in SAC5 earlier this week.

First surface cleaning in SAC5 earlier this week.

In tomb 26, we started removing the uppermost flood deposits in the burial chamber, finding very fragile human remains. It was thus time to pass work in the chamber on to Marlies and Andrea in order that they can document the original position of the bones and their distribution – they did a great job cleaning the very fragile pieces as best as possible. A minimum number of 4 individuals were found still more or less in position in the northwestern corner of the chamber.

Marlies and Andrea busy in the burial chamber of tomb 26.

Marlies and Andrea busy in the burial chamber of tomb 26.

We were busy cleaning and documenting these remains in the last days – so it still remains unclear whether they are from the first phase of burial (plundered) or maybe a slightly re-deposited secondary phase. The latter seems more likely from my perspective. And there is still hope for more remains below this level of burial remains – a very nice scarab is still sealed in solid mud debris just in the entrance area. We’ll keep you updated in the next 3 weeks to come!

Very promising: a scarab close to the entrance of the burial chamber!

Very promising: a scarab close to the entrance of the burial chamber!

With the Munich group arriving, life in the magazine has quite changed for our registrar Meg: three students busy with drawing ceramics, one assisting her with several registration tasks! Two workmen are washing sherds from both the town and the cemetery – so also the courtyard is well occupied.

The small finds from SAV1 West and SAV1 East excavated in this season are now all registered and most of them photographed. One of my personal favorites is coming from feature 15 – no surprise given all the great finds unearthed in this cellar! This tiny figure of a ram functioned as a lid or stopper for a very small vessel– it is unique in our contexts so far and definitely one of the highlights of 2016.

SAV1E 181

Hidden Highlights 2: SAV1E 2771

Findspot: SAV1E Material: Fired Clay Dimensions: 21x19x19mm

Findspot: SAV1E
Material: Fired Clay
Dimensions: 21x19x19mm

In a season with many excellent finds, this beautifully crafted six-sided dice (SAV1E 2771) stands out as one of the best. The dice is well preserved and missing only a small piece of the corner between faces three and four. In addition to the standard dots (pips), each number received further decoration: a circle around the one, incised lines connecting the dots of two through five, and a fern pattern filling the face of six. Though the popular game of senet used stick die as early as the Predynastic Period, the six-sided dice did not reach Egypt until much later than our New Kingdom focus. Nonetheless, the detailed and artistic production of this example from SAV1 East makes it a highlight of the 2016 season.

Hidden Highlights 1: SAV1W 1677

In the course of every season at Sai we find a lot of great material culture that never appears in the blogs, either in the form of the weekly highlights or themed object posts. Some of these things are rare and beautiful. Some of them are weird and wonderful. So, we thought we would start a series of posts to showcase some of our favorite finds of the season. Hopefully you love them as much as we do!

Findspot: SAV1W Material: Fired Ceramic Dimensions: 91x29x73mm

Findspot: SAV1W
Material: Fired Ceramic
Dimensions: 91x29x73mm

Here at Sai we are no strangers to figurines. In fact, there are nearly one hundred entries in the database classified as figurines, most often zoomorphic. Of this large collection, none are quite like SAV1W 1677…

SAV1W 1677 is the head portion of a larger animal figurine. The eyes are represented by small points of clay pulled out from the head. Between the eyes are nine incised lines, which look very much like the mane of a horse. The elongated mouth and nose of the figurine are also rather equine. Horse figurines are well known within our corpus, with many already featured here on the blog.

Fig 2 smallHowever, it is clear that these features have been grossly exaggerated for this figurine—the snout itself is 60mm in length! Furthermore, rather than the rounded muzzle of a horse, here the snout flares out and the end surface is concave. No incised details for either the nostrils or mouth have been added. Unfortunately the surface is slightly burnt, so it is not possible to tell if additional details were also added in paint.

Thus, it may be that this creature only shares equine features and is not intended to portray a realistic horse. Perhaps it is simply a creation living only in the mind of the artisan. And being on an island, isn’t it possible that their fictional creatures are river dwellers?  Could this in fact be evidence of a local Nile monster? The Nubian Nessy!?


A scarab, lots of schist, pottery and stone tools: good progress in the New Kingdom town of Sai

Week 3 of fieldwork in sectors SAV1 East and West of the New Kingdom town of Sai has just ended. There were several highlights this week – first of all a scarab from the floor of a small, not yet completely excavated room in SAV1 East. Of course this find came up just after our registrars Meg and Ken finished a blog post about their activities! We’ll share this highlight in another post very soon.

Very good news from SAV1 East: more remains of mud brick walls in situ were unearthed – in combination with lots of schist plates and plaster: evidence of destroyed pavements.

R0120678aPottery and stone tools were especially numerous from SAV1 West – more blue painted sherds were found, a number of fire dogs including a very unusual one without a “nose”, and lots of beer jars, dishes/plates and pot stands. The stone tools included very nice palettes, grinders and small dishes with yellow and red pigments. They seem to fall into the category of Egyptian type cosmetic instruments well attested at New Kingdom sites. Together with some painter’s pots this all fits very well to last year’s results and attests to some sort of production and use of pigments during the 18th Dynasty.

At SAV1 East, the upcoming week will focus on the clearance of the already visible 18th Dynasty buildings. At SAV1 West, strong layers of debris still need to be removed and are hopefully hiding some in situ-remains of the New Kingdom.

The new square 1SE enlarges our excavation area substantially.

The new square 1SE enlarges our excavation area at SAV1 West substantially.

A Day in the Life of AcrossBorders Registrars

Object registration for the AcrossBorders Project is performed by Meg Gundlach and Ken Griffin, who return to Sai Island for their second season. Meg Gundlach is a post-doctoral researcher for the AcrossBorders Project while Ken Griffin, a Lecturer in Egyptology at Swansea University, is here as an external expert. This blog post is an account of their daily activities on Sai.

Our day starts with a 6.30am alarm. The last few mornings on Sai have been rather chilly so it’s out of bed and dressed as quickly as possible! Work officially starts at 7.00am, but beforehand we have a small breakfast and a drink, then make our way to the storage magazine. The first task of the day is to register objects that have been left for us by Julia. These are usually objects found during pottery sorting from the previous afternoon, such as re-used pot sherds (lids, scrapers, tokens, gaming pieces, and sometimes figurines). One of the highlights for us this season was a beautifully painted figurine of a horse (SAV1E 2675), dating to the Christian era, of which only the head survives (fig. 1).

fig. 1

fig. 1

Objects are registered in a FileMaker database, which now consists of an impressive 4300 objects. The most common type of object is stone tools, which make up over half the database: pounders, hammers, grindstones, handmills, and whetstones.

Around 8.30am we relocate from the magazine to the office, in order to spend the next two hours undertaking photography. The objects that have been registered in the past 24 hours are photographed first. This season we have also been photographing objects from the 2013 and 2014 excavation season that were not previously done. Today we had two boxes of whetstones, which are perhaps the most frustrating objects to photograph because they are usually friable sandstone, thus continuously leaving grains of sand on the backdrop.

Our main breakfast takes place between 10.30–11.00am, following which we return to the magazine to continue our work. The next two hours are spent sorting photographs. Photos from today (usually around 350 images) are renamed, rotated, cropped, and straightened by Ken. Next, a set of low-resolution thumbnails are produced for each image, which can be inserted into the FileMaker database without making the file-size too large. The images are sorted into folders by Meg, who also inserts the thumbnails into the database and clickable links to high-resolution images of the objects. With our photo duties complete, we undertake any number of tasks outstanding before lunch at 3.00pm. This often includes more object registration, washing of some re-used sherds, and inventorying boxes of objects.

Our lunch break finishes at 4.00pm and it’s back to the magazine for the final two hours of work. With the excavation work completed for the day, we are greeted by new finds! Meg sorts and records the non-registered material, such as bones (both human and animal), charcoal, organic material, shell, and wood. Ken, on the other hand, starts registering of the other objects into the database. This season we had a number of nice objects to register, including a finely produced faience earring (SAV1E 2729), of which only half survives (fig. 2).

fig. 2

fig. 2

We have had several new fragments of New Kingdom Nun-bowls, which were studied last season by Sabine Tschorn, including one that preserves part of the pool in the centre (SAV1W 1544 fig. 3).

fig. 3

fig. 3

Most recently, a model boat (SAV1W 1574) was discovered in the Western part of the town (fig. 4). Crudely modelled in clay, the boat was painted white, and closely resembles the papyrus skiffs commonly depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings.

fig. 4

fig. 4

Over the past week we have been joined in the magazine by our Sudanese inspector, Huda Magzoub, who has volunteered to Munsell the stone tools. For this, we are extremely grateful (fig. 5)!

fig. 5

fig. 5

With work finished, it’s time for a shower and some rest before dinner is served at 8.00pm. Now for some sleep to recharge the batteries for the following day’s work!