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.

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.

Fire dogs and food preparation on Sai

Among the most interesting functional vessel types found in the New Kingdom town of Sai are so-called fire dogs, currently studied by Nicole Mosiniak.

The common assumption is that these vessels were used to hold a cooking pot over a fire. In 2014, thanks to the cooperation and help of the University of Vienna and the NHM, we conducted one experimental project on fire dogs at the “MAMUZ” open-air Museum in Asparn (Lower Austria).

We had several questions we wanted to investigate, first of all the way of manufacture of the fire dogs and their possible function(s). All in all, our experiments showed that cooking is possible with copies of the Ancient Egyptian devices – but it is still not a very convincing way of preparing food, thus Nicole is still taking into consideration also other possible uses respectively a multi-functional use.

Our modern copies of ancient fire dogs holding a cooking pot above the fire place in Asparn.

Our modern copies of ancient fire dogs holding a cooking pot above the fire place in Asparn.

This year, an interesting new find came up in SAV1 East. From this sector, until 2014 only five fire dogs were documented – except for one all from surface layers and thus without proper context. This should change during the 2015 season while excavating feature 15.

Feature 15 is a subterranean room located in the central courtyard of Building A. It is of rectangular shape and once had a vaulted roof. Feature 15 is lined with red bricks and red bricks also form the pavement of the structure.

Ashy deposits, large amounts of charcoal, hundreds of dome-palm fruits and abundant animal bones with traces of burning, suggest that feature 15 might have been used as a room for food preparation. Among more than 80 almost intact vessels, mostly plates and dishes, beakers, storage jars and pot stands, there was also a fragment of a fire dog.

Drawing of fire dog fragment from feature 15 (Oliver Frank Stephan).

Drawing of fire dog fragment from feature 15 (Oliver Frank Stephan).

SAV1W P163 has a rim diameter of c. 16 cm and shows traces of burning on several spots. It is the first fire dog found on Sai from a sealed context dating to the early-mid 18th Dynasty. Although its function is not explicit, the associated finds from feature 15 might point towards a use within food preparation and here as support for cooking pots. However, it should be noted that only one cooking pot was found in feature 15.

All in all, the fresh finds from feature 15 stress that the large number of fire dogs from Sai might result from a quite complex use of these devices which is still not completely understood.

Discussing ceramics from Sai Island and other Nubian sites

I am very happy to welcome our colleague Huda Magzoub, Antiquities Inspector of NCAM, who has worked with us on Sai in the past years, in Austria! Huda will join us next week at the International Conference for Nubian Studies in Neuchatel, Switzerland and we took this opportunity to hold a small workshop in Vienna, bringing together the AcrossBorders team members.

P1020968aAfter some general discussion of our 2014 field season, we focused on ceramics from Sai. The enigmatic fire dogs, currently studied by Nicole Mosiniak, were talked over again: we watched the movies we made during our weekend at Asparn and explained to Huda our ideas based on the experiment of cooking with fire dogs. We all agreed that additional work will have to be done, hopefully also more experiments – it seems obvious that the function of the fire dogs is still not understood on a satisfying level: Sai Island and the large amount of fire dogs from the New Kingdom town has much potential in this respect!

FD cooking

It is POSSIBLE to place pots on our fire dogs…

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… but it’s not very convincing! Huda was thinking about alternative arrangements…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giulia gave a short summary of our present understanding of the fabrics from Sai, based on recent iNAA and petrography.

P1020972aIn the afternoon, we practiced the documentation of pottery vessels with registration forms and the database. We discussed here some examples from the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum – Huda is currently working on the New Kingdom material from old excavations, for example at Buhen, Mirgissa and other places. Some vessels provide very interesting parallels to our material from Sai. Without doubt, it will be an important contribution to Nubian archaeology to present ceramics from former excavations with an updated knowledge, adding specifics about the wares and fabrics and the dating.

Furthermore, Arvi passed on some of his experience of drawing pottery. Ela Bielat, who will be joining us for fieldwork in Elephantine, practiced together with Daniela the drawing of sherds while Jördis enjoyed illustrating exemplary small finds. With Huda among us, it really felt as we are back to the field and lab at Sai!

P1020978aAll in all, today was not only a perfect closing of our summer break: Summarizing AcrossBorders’ achievements of the last two years and preparing for the upcoming work at Elephantine and Sai, was ideal for all of us – the group which will be travelling to Neuchatel next week, but also the team members who will stay behind and continue with their individual tasks.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12520-014-0199-y).

An update from work on the pottery database

The last week has been mainly devoted to registering site photos, object photos and working on the various databases, especially the ones dedicated to small finds and pottery.

As noted earlier, the appearance of fire dogs was very remarkable at the new site SAV1 West. At present 21 pieces have been registered in 2014, making up 10 % of the 209 diagnostics from Square 1 currently in the database. 8 “legs” or “ears” have been found, 12 fragments of the lower part and 1 “nose”, all of which show some traces of burning.

Example of a "leg" of a fire dog from SAV1 West.

Example of a “leg” of a fire dog from SAV1 West.

Fragment of the lower part of a fire dog from SAV1 West.

Fragment of the lower part of a fire dog from SAV1 West.

Most of the pieces come from the eastern half of the square, especially from the substantial layer of debris covering the New Kingdom mud brick structures. It remains to be investigated whether we can associate the fire dogs with the use-life of these remains. All in all, SAV1 West seems to mirror the situation at SAV1 North – after five years of excavation 126 fire dogs have been unearthed in this northern area of the Pharaonic town. In contrast, only 5 fragments of fire dogs have been found in two seasons (2013 and 2014) at SAV1 East.

In total, the corpus of fire dogs from the New Kingdom town of Sai comprises with the new finds from 2014 more than 150 pieces – a very large amount and strikingly different  from other known New Kingdom settlements. For example, my pottery database of the material from Elephantine in Egypt, currently a total of 11002 pieces, only includes 15 fire dogs, thus less than 0.1 %! This seems to be especially relevant because other than this special ceramic type, both vessel types and quantities from 18th Dynasty Elephantine compare very nicely to the corpus from Sai Island. It seems logical to assume that the considerable quantity of fire dogs from Sai is connected with their functional use on the island – a use which still has to be verified! At the moment, it is striking that both sites yielding fire dogs in large numbers, SAV1 West and SAV1 North, are immediately adjacent to the city wall and comprise what seems to be suburban domestic architecture, maybe of a workshop-like character.

I am very much looking forward to the outcome of the ongoing research of Nicole Mosiniak about the fascination yet still very puzzling fire dogs!

The least complicated dogs on Sai Island...

The least complicated dogs on Sai Island… Photo: N. Mosiniak 2014.

The “fire dogs” of Sai – a work in progress

From the end of January till the middle of March I joined the excavation on Sai Island, being responsible for drawing pottery and working on my M.A-thesis at Humboldt University Berlin with a very interesting object group as the subject: the so called fire dogs.

Several „fire dog“-fragments from SAV 1 North

Several „fire dog“-fragments from SAV 1 North

These pottery objects are in common scientific opinion described as a helping device for heating pots (see Aston 1989). The fortunate fact that a big number of “fire dogs” has been discovered in the Pharaonic town of Sai, offers a great opportunity understanding and evaluating these items more thoroughly. The basic outward appearance of a “fire dog” vessel is more or less a wheel made, bowl-like body with protruding elements like a handle or a knob at one side and mostly two “legs” or “ears” on top. In addition several pierced holes complete the look of the object.

At the moment my corpus of “fire dogs” consists of 126 pieces – from small fragments of the ear right up to a few half preserved objects that give an impression of the overall shape. The “fire dogs” from Sai show a variety in size, the majority offers an impression of folded ears and in general burned parts can be recognized.

With the aid of the vast number of fragments, some interesting facts concerning the shape, function and manufacturing process can and will be figured out.

At present, at least two different production types are distinguishable:

Type a) round body with a knob, pierced holes and the rest of a folded „ear“.

Type a) round body with a knob, pierced holes and the rest of a folded „ear“.

 Type a) inner view

Type a) inner view

a) The protruding elements are added to a massive, round body in form of a bowl. It seems as if the “ears” have been made out of a wrapped clay layer and then being attached to the body.

Type b) inner view

Type b) inner view

Type b) front view

Type b) front view

 

 

 

 

 

 

b) The body is constructed like a bowl-like vessel but then cut half in the middle. As a result, the two ears can be folded to the sites into the typical position. Therefore the overall shape of this type is probably made out of one piece and hollow inside.

More food for thoughts are the handles, which are added to a few examples instead of a knob. At one handle, some marks which resemble cuts can be discovered at the inside part of it. Another point is the sometimes very flat rim with small punctured impressions. Pamela J. Rose proposes for her examples from Amarna the idea that maybe the process of drying flattened the rim while the “fire dog” stood on it (Rose 2007, 50). However, not all “fire dogs” from the New Kingdom town of Sai provide this feature.

„fire dog“ with part of a handle instead of a knob

„fire dog“ with part of a handle instead of a knob

Handle with cut-resembeling marks

Handle with cut-resembeling marks

Especially the traces of use, like burning or abrasion, shall help identifying the function of this pottery type. At the moment some hints support the general assumption that “fire dogs” have been used to hold something over fire by standing on their 3 possible floor spaces (two legs and the knob or handle). In spite of that, there are also other examples that will need a new evaluation and explanation. A kind of multifunctional use within the object group seems likely.

During the 2013 season on Sai, I focused on collecting data, grouping the pieces, making drawings for documentation and taking photos of the objects. The next step here in Berlin is the analysis of the material in form of my M.A.-thesis. Still unanswered questions will hopefully find a solution by conclusive arguments based on the material from Sai and comparisons with other sites.IMG_2372

Besides all the scientific aspects I am very grateful to work with that material on my studies. It is a very nice opportunity for a student to get into contact with the “real” work of an archaeologist, having to make up one’s mind how to organize your “own project”. So all my thanks to Julia Budka and especially to the ancient inhabitants of Sai for this interesting left over from their past.

References:

Aston, D. A 1989: Ancient Egyptian “Fire Dogs” – A New Interpretation, MDAIK 45, 27–32.

Rose, P. J. 2007: The Eighteenth Dynasty pottery corpus from Amarna, EES Excavation Memoir 83, London.

Fire dogs … and other adorable canines!

Nicole Mosiniak, a MA student from Humboldt University Berlin and skilled draftsperson with a lot of experience in documenting ceramics from Egypt, just started her research on the so called “fire dogs” from the Pharaonic town of Sai Island. IMG_4305DSC_6819

The nick name of these ceramic vessels (of which we found large numbers) derives from hopefully clear associations: a snout-like nose, two eye-like perforations and two long conical ear-like extensions (some archaeologists have had also connotatNC_5ions with pigs, which are not as convincing because of the long ears)! Although the functional use of these vessels is not precisely known, they are usually connected in Egyptological literature with processes involving fire and burning, most likely cooking.

Nicole aims at reassessing these ideas and will report about her recent findings herself in the near future!

As our team is full of dog-lovers apart from Nicole, we are very happy that we could extend our affection for canine creatures: from the New Kingdom “fire dogs” to another simply adorable representative of canines: Thanks to the Sudanese school holidays, the digging house became the temporary residence of our cook’s family puppy-dog – with the multi-lingual education and attention she is currently receiving, a dog with a most promising future!IMG_4289IMG_4283