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!


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.

From Abri, Sudan to Asparn, Austria: experimenting with ancient recipes for making pottery

In January, during the 2014 field season, together with Huda Magzoub – our inspector of NCAM – and Erich Draganits – the geologist of the project – we went for a one-day excursion to the pottery workshop in Abri (1). Our purpose was to interview the two modern potters working there and collecting information concerning the manufacturing sequence of the vessels they produce for the people of the village and surroundings. air max tn
Talking with them, we learned they produce every year many kinds of vessels (i.e. large jars for storing the water, cooking pots and vessels for milk production), following a traditional recipe. This recipe,however,will vary according to the specific function and performance of use of the respective vessels.

They explained to us, for example, that for the zir (water storage vessel) they prefer to use  as the raw material a soil collected in the inland, far from the river banks: this soil is less hard and compact compared to the proper Nile silt and therefore more suitable for the production of such large vessels that have to be porous and also light in order to be movable. air max 90s
In addition, the modern potters seem partially to differentiate also the tempers they add to the clay: they select intentionally the dung from goat or sheep for the small pots, while the one from donkey is preferable for making larger vessels.

The variables in terms of clayey raw material and tempers we observed in the nowadays pottery production at Abri may explain some minor technological differences we also notice in our New Kingdom assemblage from Sai Island and especially in the organic-rich Nubian fabrics.
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Three full days (26/06-28/06) of experimental archaeology at the “MAMUZ” open-air Museum in Asparn (Lower Austria), organized thanks to the kind cooperation of our colleagues from the University of Vienna (especially the archaeologists and prehistorians responsible for the experimental archaeology class: among others Stefan Eichert, Mathias Mehofer and Hans Reschreiter – the latter with the initial idea for us to join!), were the perfect occasion to test our ideas and impressions, playing a bit with clay and tempers in order to experiment by ourselves the ancient pottery recipes!

One of our experimental projects in Asparn (the other one concentrated on fire dogs and their possible function) was dedicated to the production of small clay test tablets (c. 9 x 9 cm) using different kind of clay and tempers we collected in situ at Sai Island.

As a raw material, we employed two different samples of clay (labelled clay “type A” and “type B”) collected at different locations of the island. As a tempers we used: sand, caliche, charcoal and dung from goat, cow and donkey from Sai Island plus a sample of horse dung from Austria. new balance womens

Preparing the temper - dung from donkey.

Preparing the temper – dung from donkey.

We prepared the test tablets following an accurate protocol, taking notes of all the relevant scientific steps: from the preparation of the clayey raw material and tempers (STEP 1) to the production/forming of the tablets (STEP 2) and then to the drying (STEP 3) and the firing (STEP 4) phases. air max 180

Mixing the clay with water.

Mixing the clay with water.

All in all, 17 test tablets were realized of which: eight were produced using the clay “type A” in combination with the different set of tempers and eight using the clay “type B” with the same tempers (for each series one tablet was made only with clay). In addition, a further tablet was realized with clay “type B” by adding a larger amount of dung from donkey.

Clay type A and dung from goat.

Clay type A and dung from goat.

Vera and Nicole forming the tablets.

Vera and Nicole forming the tablets.

The tablets were weighted during the production and then after the drying and the firing to check how much water they lost.

Our test tablets.

Our test tablets.

Our next step will consist in analyzing them by iNAA and also in preparing thin sections to be studied under the microscope!

Looking forward for the results, we already learned a lot from this experience and had so much fun working together!

Many thanks go first of all again to our colleagues and to all students of the experimental archaeology class of the University of Vienna, to Vera and Ludwig Albustin who have been of invaluable help in preparing the clay and much more! Thanks also to the AcrossBorders’ team: Julia Budka, Nicole Mosiniak, Jördis Vieth and Arvi Korhonen. We did a great team job, sharing for three days the joys and also the pains of being potters!

Having fun in Asparn...

Having fun in Asparn…

The hard life of a potter...

The hard life of a potter…

(1) A comparable excursion was already done by our colleagues working at Amara West – the pottery specialists Marie Millet and Michela Spartaro also used the valuable information provided by the modern potters and included modern clay samples into their scientific analysis. See the recent paper: M. Spataro, M. Millet & N. Spencer, The New Kingdom settlement of Amara West (Nubia, Sudan): mineralogical and chemical investigation of the ceramics, in: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 2014, esp. fig. 4 (