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!

New insights at the end of week 2

The second week of fieldwork in the Pharaonic town of Sai, in sectors SAV1 East and SAV1 West, went really well. Yesterday, remains of a large mudbrick wall with parts of a schist pavement left in situ were discovered at SAV1 East. Apart from this find in Square 4C, work focus on Square 4B – and was quite successful. Although the layers of mixed debris and sandy pits on top of the New Kingdom structures are again massive, a minimum of three, possible four sections of walls were found. Together with the wall of the schist-covered room, all of this is very promising – it seems as if a lot will be added at the end of this season to the town plan of Sai around the sandstone Temple A and Building A!

North-western corner of Square 4B with remains of new mudbrick walls between layers of debris.

North-western corner of Square 4B with remains of new mudbrick walls between layers of debris.

Regarding pottery, the mixed layers hold a large percentage of early-mid 18th Dynasty ceramics – mostly beer jars and bread moulds. Like proposed in earlier seasons, possibly an indication that the area we are currently excavating was functionally attached to the temple and its cult.

AT SAV1 West, Martin Fera and Klara Sauter made very good progress documenting substantial debris and large sandy pits cutting into the New Kingdom levels. We are still busy with Post-Pharaonic layers, but the New Kingdom material found in these mixed contexts is very well preserved and of great interest. Exactly like in the last years, there is a striking high amount of painted wares. The highlight of this week is definitely a fragment of a nice Egyptian Blue Painted marl clay vessel.

2016-01-13 12.10.19_resized-1Work in the lab was of course also continued – this week, Meg Gundlach and Ken Griffin got some help from Huda Magzoub, especially in checking the Munsell codes of objects.

Thanks to our enthusiastic Sudanese trainee from NCAM, Roa Abdelaziz, also some work on ceramics from tomb 26 was conducted. Roa and I are currently puzzling with material from the uppermost debris found in the burial chamber and the lowermost shaft filling. This includes a number of Pre-Napatan and Napatan storage vessels.

All in all, I am more than satisfied with the progress and results of the first two weeks! Many thanks to all AcrossBorders team members and especially to the gang of local workmen headed by Hassan Dawd – great job so far!

Looking back: 2015 papers and reports

The 2016 season of AcrossBorders on Sai Island has almost begun – we’ll be flying to Khartoum later today.

As kind of a teaser what one can expect from the upcoming work, I’d like to look back at some of the research conducted by AcrossBorders in 2015. Three relevant papers just appeared in the last days/weeks.

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

In this paper, I tried to summarize AcrossBorders field seasons on Sai from 2013 to 2015 in the sectors SAV1 East and SAV1 West – stressing the important new results on Ramesside activities, both in the town area and the cemetery SAC5.

Bichrome Painted Nile Clay Vessels from Sai Island (Sudan), Bulletin de liaison de la céramique égyptienne 25, 2015, 327–337 by Julia Budka

This is a preliminary report on one of my favorite group of pottery vessels : Bichrome painted nile clay jars, commonly attested in Egypt but also in Lower and Upper Nubia. I discussed their form repertoire and the most common decorative motifs; first thoughts about their possible meaning and provenience were presented.

Ein Pyramidenfriedhof auf der Insel Sai, Sokar 31, 2015, 54–65, by Julia Budka

I am very happy that the magazine Sokar with a focus on Egyptian pyramids, allowed some space in the current volume dedicated to SAC5 on Sai and our discovery of tomb 26 and the pyramidion of Hornakht.

Last but not least, the fieldwork report from 2015 is now available and free to download!

Fishing for more details of 18th Dynasty contexts

We are already well into week 3 here at Elephantine. Reinforcement from Munich reached us – Giulia D’Ercole and Mona Elazab joined us yesterday. Giulia is concentrating on the petrographic assessment of the Nubian fabrics in comparison to Sai Island. Mona is assisting Meg Gundlach in the object registration while Eva Hemauer and Oliver Frank Stephan are still busy drawing ceramic vessels.

Two groups of vessels are of special interest besides the Nubian wares. First, the intriguing fire dogs – with a recent find from today, we are now up to 4 pieces directly associated with house 55. Compared to Sai Island, this is of course an almost ridiculous small amount. However, the total number of fire dogs from all early-mid 18th dynasty levels at Elephantine only comes up to 9! So actually the amount of fire dogs found in our building is quite significant within the local context. And since excavation of house 55 continues, there might even be more fire dogs waiting for us!

The second group of vessels are the so called “fish dishes” which kept us busy both at Sai and here at Elephantine in the past years. One of my first ideas was that the preference for Nile silt “fish dishes” on Sai Island compared to Marl clay version indicate that the “real” Egyptian Marl B/E trays were frequently reproduced in Nubia – and for this local material (Nile silt) was used. However, already last year things got more complicated: from site SAV1 West, a large number of Marl “fish dishes” were unearthed falling into exactly the same types as known at Elephantine, currently being studied for house 55.

Today, I just a very nice fragment of a Nile “fish dish” on my desk – coming from house 55 and closely resembling the Sai pieces – in ware, technique, shape and decorative pattern. Checking the pottery database, it surprised me a bit that from 19 “fish dishes” documented so far in house 55, 6 are made in Nile clay. For all 18th Dynasty layers and a total of 33 “fish dishes” only 9 were made in Nile clay. Thus, if one checks the proportions between Nile and Marl “fish dishes” not just on Elephantine, but takes the specific example of house 55 it becomes clear that the Nile versions were also quite frequent (31 %). The general preference for Marl clay is of course persistent for “fish dishes” at Egyptian sites (see e.g. https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2014/03/21/pottery-project-guest-blog-the-enigmatic-fish-dishes-of-the-petrie-museum/).

All in all, the current study of the material from house 55 nicely illustrates the rich potential of a focused analysis of finds from one specific context, especially if these data are at a later stage compared to other contexts on the site-level and, if possible, even on a more regional scale like we are aiming for with our study.

Making progress – post and pre-excavation working steps

Another jour fixe brought most of AcrossBorders’ team members together yesterday – after a very intense summer full of excavations in Egypt (Asasif, Abydos…), lab work (geoarchaeological samples, strontium isotope analysis, mollusks…), data base updates (pottery) & conferences (Florence, Vienna, Athens)!

Currently travelling back and forth between Vienna and Munich, I am very happy that the planned publications by Ingrid Adenstedt (reconstruction of SAV1; architectural report) and Florence Doyen (SAV1 North) are well in time and almost completed. Furthermore, nice first results came up from the strontium isotope analysis!

Within the framework of my FWF START-project, a first set of samples from Sai Island (soil, water, recent and ancient animal bones) were processed, thanks to a cooperation with Thomas Prohaska, at the Department of Chemistry – VIRIS Laboratory of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences. Anika Retzmann presented these data at the 3rd Doc Day 2015 in Tulln, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences on Oct. 13. The poster was entitled “Human mobility along the Nile: Preliminary strontium isotope analyses for migration studies in ancient Nubia” and illustrated the Sr isotope ratio of the environmental samples from Sai Island. Very exciting already and I am looking much forward to the next field season and further sampling!

Besides lab work and databases, we are currently also getting ready for the upcoming season on Elephantine! Work will again focus on the pottery and small finds from House 55 and is scheduled for late October until early December. With the new discovery of feature 15 and its contents at SAV1 East, I am excited to conduct a fresh comparison of aspects of the material culture from Sai and Elephantine during the early to mid-18th Dynasty. Now off to Vienna, we’ll keep you posted!