Ramesside blue-painted pottery from Sai Island

One of the most interesting results of the 2014 and 2015 field seasons on Sai is the presence of early Ramesside material within the town. A number of pottery sherds from SAV1 West are datable to the 19th Dynasty – among them there are examples of the famous Blue-painted ware.

Blue painted pottery is among the best known wares from Ancient Egypt. Its main characteristics are the blue colour, a large range of decorative, mostly floral motives, fancy shapes, a rather short lifespan (approximately 1430-1140 BC, from the mid-18th Dynasty until late Ramesside times). The key finding places of blue painted pottery are urban centres and capitals like Thebes, Memphis, Amarna and Gurob. New excavations at settlement and temple sites as well as in cemeteries and cultic centres (e.g. at Qantir, Saqqara, South Abydos, Umm el-Qaab, and Elephantine) have produced additional material that underscores a much broader distribution and also a great variability in use (cf. Budka 2008, Budka 2013).

Blue-painted sherds from SAV1 West chiefly feature linear patterns comparable to the material at Qantir (Aston 1998, 354-419) and can consequently be dated to the Ramesside period. They also find close parallels at Umm el-Qaab/Abydos and Elephantine, again originating from the 19th Dynasty (Budka 2013).

Fragments of an early 19th Dynasty blue-painted vessel from SAV1 W with linear decoration.

Fragments of an early 19th Dynasty blue-painted vessel from SAV1 W with linear decoration.

A particular interesting piece is a fragment from the shoulder (or neck?) of a large vessel – it was found in an area of Square 1 in SAV1 West, where we recorded a sequence of archaeological levels from the early 19th dynasty down to the mid-18th Dynasty.

The small fragment of a blue-painted amphora with vertical grooves and its context.

The small fragment of a blue-painted amphora with vertical grooves and its context.

The blue-painted pottery fragment shows a special style of decoration: vertical grooves or the fluting of a zone around the neck and/or shoulder. This style is rare at Amarna (Rose 2007, 28-29), but well known from Ramesside contexts at Qantir (Aston 1998, 414), Saqqara, Thebes and Elephantine (Budka 2013). The famous amphora MFA 64.9 with applied decoration and a lid also falls into this group. Similar ornamental vessels were recently discovered at Elephantine.

All of the blue-painted fragments with fluting found in stratified contexts on Elephantine can be associated with the 19th Dynasty, most likely with the reigns of Seti I and Ramesses II. I would propose a similar date for the small fragment from Sai – this corresponds also to its stratigraphic find position in SAV1 West.

Future fieldwork in SAV1 West will hopefully help to contextualise this significant piece further.


Aston 1998 = D.A. Aston, Die Keramik des Grabungsplatzes Q I. Teil 1, Corpus of Fabrics, Wares and Shapes (Forschungen in der Ramses-Stadt. Die Grabungen des Pelizaeus-Museums Hildesheim in Qantir-Pi-Ramesse 1), Mainz 1998.

Budka 2008 = J. Budka, VIII. Weihgefäße und Festkeramik des Neuen Reiches von Elephantine, in G. Dreyer et al., Stadt und Tempel von Elephantine, 33./34./35. Grabungsbericht, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäolog­ischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 64, 2008, 106–132.

Budka 2013 = J. Budka, Festival Pottery of New Kingdom Egypt: Three Case Studies, in Functional Aspects of Egyptian Ceramics within their Archaeological Context. Proceedings of a Conference held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, July 24th – July 25th, 2009, ed. by Bettina Bader & Mary F. Ownby, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 217, Leuven 2013, 185–213

Rose 2007 = P. Rose, The Eighteenth Dynasty Pottery Corpus from Amarna, Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir 83, London 2007.


Potential of decorated pottery I: Semiotics

At present, analysing semiotic aspects of ancient pottery is quite on vogue in archaeology (cf. Preucel 2010: 230–238 and passim). I do see much potential in this approach and I have recently presented a small case study on Blue painted pottery (Budka 2013). Of course there are clear limits of possibilities to reconstruct ancient ideas and symbolism – nevertheless the famous Blue painted ware with ornamental Hathor vessels (for which see most recently the great post by Anna Garnett, Manchester Museum), Bes jars and mostly floral decoration nicely illustrates that such New Kingdom vessels had a symbolic value, probably with several semantic layers.

Selected Blue painted pottery vessels (Berlin and London).

Selected Blue painted pottery vessels (Berlin and London).

The colour blue may have referred to faience and glass instead of pottery in the first place. Colin Hope assumed a time-specific taste for the Blue painted pottery: “The impetus for its manufacture undoubtedly lay in the taste for elaboration during an age of luxury” (Hope 1982, 88). A preference for blue as a matter of taste and an expression of a specific Zeitgeist seems indeed likely (cf. Budka 2013). Here it is important that as archaeologist we take into account a wide range of emotions possibly associated with objects in various contexts and in different social strata – of course these associations cannot be kept apart from culture and society in general (cf.  Tarlow 2000, 713). The aesthetic qualities of Blue painted vessels are usually highly valued in the eyes of modern Egyptologists – but can we trace aspects of its approval in the mind of the Ancient Egyptians? It is striking that common vessel types like simple beakers and dishes appear together with special, large ornamental vessels with complex applications within the corpus of Blue painted ware (cf. Budka 2008). Thus, sometimes the only difference to well-known vessel types of the New Kingdom is simply the decoration. Here the colour blue and the common floral motifs (painted or moulded) like the blue lotus seem to refer to wide-ranging creative aspects and especially to rebirth (cf. Budka 2013).

For a short time, Blue painted pottery formed an integral component of the material culture of the New Kingdom, both of the domestic equipment and of the votive offerings for temples and sanctuaries. Similar to painted wares in various cultural contexts around the world, it may have “served as the good china of the day” (Wonderley 1986, 506). Because of the particular character of the ware daily activities for which Blue painted pottery was used, received a special connotation. I don’t think that the simple presence of blue painted or other “exotic” vessels in domestic settings do necessarily suggest a “palace character”, a comfortable lifestyle or high status of its inhabitants: they point rather to the presence of religious, cultic or festive activities respectively the evocation of such a sphere.

Blue painted pottery is present at all sites investigated within the framework of AcrossBorders – at Sai, Elephantine and also at Abydos. But the number of sherds found at Sai is still very limited – maybe this is one of the differences to the Egyptian sites. However, there is the possibility to investigate the multiple semantic layers of ceramic vessels with another case study for our project: a group of decorated vessels in red-and-black painted (Bichrome) style. These vessels are attested in Egypt both in Nile clay and in Marl clay variants, whereas in Upper Nubia preferably Nile silt versions are known (Ruffieux 2009; Budka 2011).

Bichrome painted jar fragment from Sai Island.

Bichrome painted jar fragment from Sai Island.

Based on a number of closely similar fragments from Elephantine and Sai, we will try to find possible answers to the question whether the specific decorative bichrome painted style and the most common motifs like antelopes, horses and flowers have a similar symbolic value for its users, both in Egypt and Upper Nubia. Our last week at Elephantine will therefore focus on the documentation of these very specific red-and-black painted vessels.

My New Kingdom pottery database of Elephantine counts a total of 52 Nile clay vessels and 52 Marl clay bichrome painted sherds which will enable us to address some of the questions outlined here.

Fragments of a bichrome painted Nile clay jar from Elephantine.

Fragments of a bichrome painted Nile clay jar from Elephantine.


Budka 2008 = VIII. Weihgefäße und Festkeramik des Neuen Reiches von Elephantine, in G. Dreyer et al., Stadt und Tempel von Elephantine, 33./34./35. Grabungsbericht, in Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäolog­ischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 64, 106–132.

Budka 2011 = J. Budka, The early New Kingdom at Sai Island: Preliminary results based on the pottery analysis (4th Season 2010), in Sudan & Nubia 15, 23–33.

Budka 2013 = Festival Pottery of New Kingdom Egypt: Three Case Studies, in Functional Aspects of Egyptian Ceramics within their Archaeological Context. Proceedings of a Conference held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, July 24th – July 25th, 2009, ed. by Bettina Bader & Mary F. Ownby, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 217, Leuven, 185–213.

Hope 1982 = C.A. Hope, Blue-Painted Pottery, in E. Brovarski, S.K. Doll and R.E. Freed (eds.), Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom, Exhibition Catalogue, Boston, 88-90.

Preucel 2010 = R. W. Preucel, Archaeological Semiotics, Malden and Oxford.

Ruffieux 2009 = P. Ruffieux, Poteries découvertes dans un temple égyptien de la XVIIIe dynastie à Doukki Gel (Kerma), in Genava 57, 121-134.

Tarlow 2000 = S. Tarlow, Emotion in Archaeology, in Current Anthropology 41, no. 5, 713-745.

Wonderley 1986 = A. Wonderley, Material Symbolics in Pre-Columbian Households: The Painted Pottery of Naco, Honduras, in Journal of Anthropological Research 42, no. 4, 497-534.

The enigmatic “fish dishes” from New Kingdom settlements

A peculiar type of vessel is frequently found in Egyptian settlements, already from the 13th Dynasty onwards (see Bader 2001, 81–83; Aston and Bader 2009). These quite large, thick walled oval, handmade trays show incised decoration on the interior – commonly depicting fishes, lotus flowers and geometric motives (see, e.g., a nice dish from Kahun, now at the Manchester Museum).

Consequently a label as “fish dish” was proposed for these trays which somehow resemble the well-known Nun-bowls of the New Kingdom (cf. Bader 2001, 81–83). However, in settlement contexts of the later Second Intermediate Period and the early New Kingdom the pattern of these trays are mostly geometrical – diagonal lines, net pattern and fish bone pattern. The function is therefore still debated – such dishes might have been used for peeling corn or scaling fishes (“Schälbecken”), as bread trays or as trays with a (still unclear) ritual function (cf. Seiler 2005, 120–121).

At all sites investigated within the framework of AcrossBorders (Sai Island, Elephantine and South-Abydos), so-called “bread trays” are well attested.

Fragment of Marl "bread tray" from Elephantine.

Fragment of Marl “bread tray” from Elephantine.

Fragment of Marl "bread tray" from South Abydos

Fragment of Marl “bread tray” from South Abydos







At Sai Island, the trays occur both in Egyptian Marl clay (Marl B and Marl E, a special variant of Marl B, see Arnold and Bourriau 1993, 182 and fig. 26) and in local Nile clay variants; the shapes and decoration patterns are in both cases the same. Parallels for the Marl clay examples are known, apart from Elephantine and South Abydos, from early 18th Dynasty contexts at Deir el-Ballas (Bourriau 1990, 21–22) and also from Lower and Upper Nubia (e.g. Buhen (Emery, Smith and Millard 1979, pl. 73) and Sesebi (Spence and Rose et al. 2011, 37)). As yet, the only published parallel for a Nile clay tray comes from a funerary context at Thebes (Seiler 2005, 104-5, fig. 52). However, in the Egyptian settlement at Elephantine, Nile clay trays were found in strata of the 18th Dynasty, closely resembling the ones from Sai.

Nile clay "bread tray" from Sai Island.

Nile clay “bread tray” from Sai Island.

Today, I searched both the Sai Island and the Elephantine New Kingdom databases for “bread trays”. The results are quite remarkable – in both cases 16 pieces for levels ranging in date from the early 18th Dynasty to the mid/late 18th Dynasty have been studied in detail and are included in the databases. At Elephantine, only four examples are made in coarse Nile clay (25 %), whereas the others are made in Marl B respectively Marl E (75 %). At SAV1North, nine examples are of a local, very coarse Nile clay (56 %) and seven have been produced in Egypt, made in a Marl B/E variant (44 %).

Of course the number of these vessels documented in detail is very small – I will have to address the same question to the general statistics of all New Kingdom contexts at SAV1North and Elephantine, not just to the database entries only. Nevertheless, I think this small, but significant difference allows already some preliminary thoughts: Maybe it was more difficult at Sai in Upper Nubia to get replacements for the “real” Marl B/E trays – thus, they were produced in local material. Alternatively one also might speculate, considering the still unknown function of the vessels, that the shape was for some reasons more popular in Sai and more frequently created on demand. It seems as if the difference in material did not make a difference for the ancient users of the trays – and this, from my perspective, makes a use as “Schälbecken” quite unlikely; the Nile clay versions are much softer and porous, not well suited for peeling organic materials. All in all, these vessels might have been fashionable in Upper Nubia because they reflected “Egyptian” life style and were foreign to the local Nubian culture – their specific outer appearance and properties which we as archaeologists use to create classifications and typologies maybe had little significance within the antique context.


Arnold and Bourriau 1993 = Dorothea Arnold and Janine Bourriau (eds.), An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Pottery, SDAIK 17, Mainz am Rhein 1993.

Aston and Bader 2009 = David A. Aston and Bettina Bader, with a contribution by Karl G. Kunst, Fishes, ringstand, nudes and hippos – a preliminary report on the Hyksos palace pit complex L81, E & L 19, 2009, 19–89.

Bader 2001 = Bettina Bader Tell el-Daba XIII, Typologie und Chronologie der Mergel C-Ton Keramik des Mittleren Reiches und der Zweiten Zwischenzeit, UZK 19, Vienna 2001.

Bourriau 1990 = Janine Bourriau, The Pottery, 15–22 and 54–65 [figs.], in: P. Lacovara, Deir el-Ballas, Preliminary Report on the Deir el-Ballas Expedition, 1980-1986, ARCE Reports 12, Winona Lake, Indiana.

Budka 2006 = Julia Budka, The Oriental Institute Ahmose and Tetisheri Project at Abydos 2002-2004: The New Kingdom pottery, E & L 16, 2006, 83–120.

Emery, Smith and Millard 1979 = Walter B. Emery, Harry S. Smith and Ann Millard, The Fortress of Buhen. The archaeological report, EEF Excavation Memoir 49, London 1979.

Seiler 2005 = Anne Seiler, Tradition & Wandel. Die Keramik als Spiegel der Kulturentwicklung in der Zweiten Zwischenzeit, SDAIK 32, Mainz am Rhein 2005.

Spence and Rose et al. 2011 = Kate Spence and Pamela Rose et al., Sesebi 2011, Sudan & Nubia 15, 2011, 34–38.

Back in Vienna again …

Running is risky...

Running is risky…

The rainy weather here in Vienna strengthens the impression that the summer is almost over – at least the holidays are gone. Back at my desk in Vienna, not exactly in best shape (running is risky, obviously especially in Berlin…), but very happy about the progress Giulia is making in the lab with her petrographic studies and about the advancement in digitalizing our files and data thanks to Daniela and Elke! The selected samples for Neutron Activation Analysis were successfully submitted to the Institute of Atomic and Subatomic Physics last week, so we’re eagerly waiting for first results in September.

Meeting so many of my team members in Berlin was just great – many thanks to Jördis, Nicole and Sebastian for taking some time to talk about SAV1 East, firedogs and more! I am furthermore keeping my fingers crossed that Julia Preisigke, like Nicole one of my indispensable pottery assistants at Abydos, will join us as planned in 2014 on Sai Island. There is quite a number of similarities between the 18th Dynasty pottery deposited at Umm el-Qaab and the ceramics we are finding at Sai – parallels which have to be investigated further!

DSCN2257aThese nice prospects of both upcoming scientific analysis and future fieldwork make it much easier to deal with the paperwork here at my desk!