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.

Egyptian cooking pots from New Kingdom Sai

A paper dealing with Egyptian cooking pots from contexts of the early to mid-18th Dynasty within the New Kingdom fortified town of Sai has just appeared in the new volume of Bulletin de liaison de la céramique égyptienne (Budka 2016).

As highlighted earlier on this blog, cooking pots are of particular interest for AcrossBorders and our research about cultural identities and Nubian vs. Egyptian lifestyle.

In all sectors recently excavated in the New Kingdom town, authentic Egyptian wheel-made cooking pots imported from Egypt as well as and locally made examples thrown on the wheel appear side by side with Nubian-style products (hand-made pots with basketry impression or incised decoration). The authentic Egyptian cooking pots from Sai Island are manufactured either in a sandy version of a Nile clay B2 or a variant of a Nile clay E of the Vienna System – both probably of Upper Egyptian origin.

In the BCE paper, I tried to argue that Egyptian cooking pots of the 18th Dynasty are not only a highly interesting class morphologically, but also one of the key vessel groups to illustrate the sometimes quite close relationship between the Egyptian wheel-thrown tradition and the Nubian hand-made ceramic production.

Reference

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

65 days ago still in the field, now ready for publication: an example for post-excavation working steps

Post-excavation work is keeping us very busy at the moment in Munich, the summer term has also started with teaching and exams. Among the priorities of current tasks is the digitalization of pottery drawings in order to prepare publication-ready illustrations. These days, it was the turn of a very thought-provoking group of vessels: Egyptian cooking pots. One of these vessels is of particular interest.

A large fragment of a cooking pot from Square 4B was among my favourite finds from SAV1 East during the 2016 field season. The vessel, SAV1E P179, found still filled with ashy deposits, was sitting next to the remaining parts of a mud brick wall.

IMG_8133a1Close by, another highlight, SAV1E 1595, a small steatite scarab, was discovered. Both finds, the cooking pot and the scarab, are coming from a room to the west of Building A – traces of pavements and various deposits allow reconstructing several phases of use in the early/mid-18th Dynasty.

Coming back to the cooking pot SAV1E P179: After documenting the vessel in its original find position, we removed it and the content was sieved for further analyses. The cooking pot itself was put on the “priority list” for drawing – Daniela did a great job in Sai, and now in the office with our interactive multi-touch pen display.

P1010385a

SAV1E P179 gives really significant evidence: stratigraphically datable to the Thutmoside period, it finds close parallels at Elephantine in Upper Egypt. It is a typical example of a wheel-made, authentic Egyptian cooking pot. It was made in a very sandy Nile clay variant which was presumably produced at Elephantine/in the Aswan region – this cooking pot was therefore shipped from Egypt to Sai!

CP SAV1East

Whereas storage vessels and amphorae are commonly transported along the Nile, it is quite remarkable that also cooking pots were transported for long distances to places outside of Egypt. Imported cooking pots allowed Egyptian-style cooking in Sai during the early to mid-18th Dynasty. Obviously authentic cooking pots were considered to be important like SAV1E P179 illustrates. Our ongoing processing of the data suggests that this gradually changed in the course of the 18th Dynasty – the degree of dependence of Sai from Egypt became different and the local production of wheel-made pottery was introduced/increased.

The pottery from Sai Island New Kingdom town promises fascinating insights into the complex and developing microcosm of the site attesting to a co-existence of Egyptian and Nubian elements – we will work hard to decipher as much as possible in the next months.

Tracing cooking and baking activities at SAV1 East

Among other aspects of daily life activities, AcrossBorders aims at studying in detail the craft specialisation of functional ceramics associated with cooking and baking and various aspects of food preparation. Here, the co-existence of Egyptian style (wheel-made) and Nubian (hand-made) cooking pots as well as the import of real Egyptian cooking pots are of particular interest. Today, a large fragment of a cooking pot produced in Egypt was documented at SAV1East in Square 4B – obviously in situ, set into an ashy deposit next to a wall and still filled with some ashy material and charcoal.

Another really interesting in situ situation with a functional ceramic type was found in Square 4C: a large baking plate is still in place – close to a mud brick wall, sitting on a very ashy deposit.

Luckily a good portion of this 18th Dynasty baking plate was left in place despite the pitting of the area in Medieval/Ottoman times.

Luckily a good portion of this 18th Dynasty baking plate was left in place despite the pitting of the area in Medieval/Ottoman times.

Until now, we only had small fragments of these plates from SAV1 East and otherwise hundreds of conical bread moulds (probably associated with the nearby Temple A). The new baking plate and its find context are therefore of particular interest – therefore we decided to take a micromorphological sample from the ashy deposit associated with this area (and nicely “sealed” by the baking plate on top) which might have functioned as temporary “kitchen”.

Quite a challenge, but managed without problems: samples taken at SAV1 East.

Quite a challenge, but managed without problems: samples taken at SAV1 East.

These new data from SAV1 East – ceramics, archaeological context and micromorphology – will contribute to a better understanding of  some aspect of food preparation within the New Kingdom town of Sai.

A modified Egyptian cooking pot from SAV1 West?

Work is progressing well in SAV1 West – occupational deposits and new sections of walls with several phases of use datable to the mid and late 18th Dynasty have been exposed in the last days. The ceramics are very exciting – a large percentage of Egyptian marl clay wares, considerable amounts of painted wares and a very good state of preservation.

One context was especially interesting and I would like to share first impressions, hoping for some feedback at this early stage of processing. The stratigraphic unit in question comprises the last level of debris covering a small mudbrick structure in the south-eastern corner of Square 1SE. Because of its preservation, it is very likely that the pottery represents the original inventory that was shifted/mixed when the late antique pitting in the area occurred, cutting down to the original layers.

154 diagnostic sherds attest to a late 18th Dynasty date. 12 % of these diagnostics were Nubian cooking pots with clear traces of use (their surface is smoked and soothed) – mostly with basketry impression and one single piece with incised decoration. Except that this is quite a high amount of Nubian pottery, all is consistent with the findings in SAV1 West so far. Most of the Nubian cooking ware in the New Kingdom town of Sai features basketry patterns, whereas coarse incised patterns with diagonally cut lines below the rim (very common at Elephantine and mostly associated with the Pangrave culture) is less common.

Snapshot from the field: the pencil marks the unique sherd in question; below are some of the Nubian sherds.

Snapshot from the field: the pencil marks the unique sherd in question; below are some of the Nubian sherds.

What makes the context in Square 1SE special is one rim sherd: An Egyptian Nile clay cooking pot occurs side by side with the Nubian ones – basically, something which is not unusual, but already well attested at SAV1 West. Imported, authentic Egyptian wheel-made cooking pots and locally made examples thrown on the wheel are used side by side with Nubian-style products in New Kingdom Sai and were found in all sectors in the Pharaonic town (SAV1 North, SAV1 East and SAV1 West).

But: this authentic Egyptian cooking pot (produced in and imported from Egypt) is not smoked (so maybe was not yet used?), but displays a very unusual feature. Below its rim, there are several diagonally arranged black lines – definitely painted/drawn. With these strokes, the Egyptian cooking pot resembles Nubian style variants with incised decoration. So-called hybrid styles – Nubian surface treatments on otherwise Egyptian pottery vessels – are well attested at Sai, other Nubian sites and also Elephantine. But is this also the case with the unique piece in question? Did the “artist” of these black lines wanted to show that something is missing on this pot? Was it a spontaneous idea of someone familiar with the incised cooking ware? Or are these lines really to be interpreted as decoration, to fuse Nubian cooking tradition with the Egyptian style? Since the authentic Egyptian cooking pots are made and fired in Egypt, it was of course not possible to apply pre-firing incised decoration on them like on the Nubian ones and the hybrid forms at Elephantine. On the other hand, we have a number of locally produced Egyptian style cooking pots on Sai – and none of them shows incised decoration…

Much food for thought and a lot of open questions – but at the end of a long working day with much routine work and processing, findings like these are inspiring and give fresh ideas and much energy!