Research on the New Kingdom settlement on Sai Island prior to AcrossBorders

Back in the summer of 2012, a joint paper by Florence Doyen and me was submitted to Egypt & Levant (Vienna), focusing on recent excavations on Sai Island within the area of the New Kingdom town.FotoÄ-L22-23

We are very happy that this paper has now been published, being part of a major double-volume of the peer-reviewed journal, covering reports from Tell el-Daba and other Nile delta sites as well as various chronological studies and research concentrating on the archaeology of the Levant.

Our article gives a hopefully useful overview of the history of research on Sai up to 2012, focusing on the recent work by the Sai Island Archaeological Mission (SIAM) of Charles-de-Gaulle – Lille 3 University (UMR 8164 HALMA-IPEL), France.[i] It aims to illustrate the rich potential of the site and its importance for the history of Upper Nubia. The preliminary assessments of the ceramics and architecture from SAV1 North, undertaken in 2011-2012, allow a better understanding of the evolution of the town. As one of the major results of the 2012 SIAM season, the fortified wall in SAV1 North can be dated to the reign of Thutmose III. Until now, there is no enclosure wall attested prior to this king who is well known as being responsible for the heyday of Pharaonic Sai.

SIAM did undertake important steps forward to a closer understanding of Sai Island during the 18th Dynasty – and today, AcrossBorders continues this path with new excavations and detailed assessments, focusing on the material culture and the intriguing mix of life styles at the site.

Full reference of the article:

Julia Budka & Florence Doyen, Living in New Kingdom towns in Upper Nubia – New evidence from recent excavations on Sai Island, Ägypten & Levante 22/23, 2012/2013, 167–208.

[i] Other than stated in the editor’s preface (p. 14-15), the study has nothing to do with my ERC Starting Grant nor the FWF START project – it rather summarizes the status quo from which the new projects were launched.

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.

Post-excavation working steps in Vienna

Back in Vienna, all of us are engaged with several tasks, most of them of course connected with the field season 2014.

I am still busy with finalising reports and accounts, hoping to finish the administrative aftermath of the season as soon as possible!

Giulia is particularly occupied as we brought a large number of ceramics samples to Vienna, thanks to the kind permission of NCAM. Two sets of new samples are already prepared for iNAA – Johannes Sterba and his colleague at the Atominstitut have been most efficiently as usual! Tomorrow we have an appointment at the Geozentrum in order to arrange the next thin sections – we are in particular focusing this time on Nubian fine wares (Black topped cups and beakers) and Egyptian wheel-made cooking pots. The latter are most likely real Egyptian products in a very sandy Nile E variant – of course this macroscopic assessment has to be checked by petrographic and chemical analysis.

Ceramic samples from Sai selected for thin sections.

Ceramic samples from Sai selected for thin sections.

Jördis is currently updating our literature database – a number of very important articles have been published recently. Especially stimulating and a must-read for all interested in Nubian archaeology is the special new issue of the Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections! A particular inspiring paper by Neal Spencer on “Creating and Re-Shaping Egypt in Kush: Responses at Amara West” corresponds nicely to AcrossBorders’ focus and aims.

The literature database is growing - counting already more than 750 entries!

The literature database is growing – counting already more than 800 entries!

Nadia is working on the samples of animal bones we took from Sai to Vienna – it’s a nice collection from SAV1 North, from Levels 5-3, thus datable to Dynasty 18.

SAV1 North is also the prime task for Florence – she is currently integrating her new data about the architecture gathered at the site in February with the previous documentation from earlier years.

Elke has started again with digitalising new pottery drawings and Daniela is helping me with the database of the small finds – focusing on the new objects from SAV1 West and reworking some of the photographs.

Preparing photos in reduced scale for the object database.

Preparing photos in reduced scale for the object database.

It’s hard to believe that we left Sai Island already more than a month ago – but all the data collected there will keep us busy during the next months!

Clay figurines from the Pharaonic town

Spending some days in Berlin, I just had the pleasure to meet Nicole and Julia – this season’s registrars of objects who did a great job on Sai! Reviewing the database and object drawings, I’d like to share some thoughts on animal figurines we encounter in the Pharaonic town of Sai.

At all three sites currently investigated by AcrossBorders – SAV1 North, SAV1 East and SAV1 West, mould-made animal figurines, especially of horses, have been found in the upper levels and in mixed fillings of pits cut into the Pharaonic brick work. They are of Medieval date and complement the small corpus of human figurines from the same period.

In addition, all excavation areas have yielded small, hand-modelled clay figurines of humans and in particular of quadrupeds. The clay is usually poorly fired and most figurines are only fragmentary preserved. There are a few rams attested, but the majority represents cattle. As of now, 8 bull figurines have been found at SAV1 North, 1 piece at SAV1 East and 3 figurines at SAV1 West.

Pencil drawing of one of the new figurines from SAV1 West.

Pencil drawing of one of the new figurines from SAV1 West.

The cattle figurines seem to be of 18th Dynasty date and the question arises whether they fall into the well attested Nubian tradition to value cattle highly – especially because the clay figurines might indicate household religious practice and cattle played an important role in Nubian religion (Smith 2003, 133). The prominence of Nubian cattle survived the Kerma kingdom, the animals had a key significance for the Egyptians during the New Kingdom. Our small clay figurines find ready parallels at several sites in Nubia, for example at Quban (Emery and Kirwan 1935, fig. 33) and Askut (Smith 2003, 135, fig. 5.32). At Sai, a particularly well preserved piece was discovered in the so-called governor’s residence, SAF2, during French excavation in the 1970s.

Cattle figurine from the so-called governor's residence.

Cattle figurine from the so-called governor’s residence.

I do hope that upcoming work at SAV1 West will allow us to contextualise the group of cattle figurines in more detail and to confirm their date as New Kingdom. With future finds, we will then be able to continue thinking about the symbolic value and function of these simple but very appealing representations of important animals.



Emery and Kirwan 1935 = W. B. Emery and L.P. Kirwan, The Excavations and Survey between Wadi es-Sebua and Adindan 1929-1931, 2 vols., SAE, Mission archéologique de Nubie 1929-1934, Cairo 1935.

Smith 2003 = St. T. Smith, Wretched Kush. Ethnic identities and boundaries in Egypt’s Nubian Empire, London and New York.

Almost ready to close the 2014 field season


Time is passing by – tomorrow will be the last day of our 2014 field season in tSAI_3419he New Kingdom town of Sai Island; and it was a very fruitful, productive and pleasant season! Large amounts of material were unearthed and all working areas provided interesting results. We are currently busy packing the pottery collected as representative samples, washing the last diagnostic sherds and making final drawings of important pieces.

SAI_3417The database of small finds from both SAV1 West and SAV1 East now comprises 1732 pieces – and several large boxes of grind stones and pounders are still awaiting registration; one of the first tasks for 2015! The majorities of the finds from the 2014 season are worked stones and Status DB 2702re-used pot sherds, but there are also fayence pieces (Nun bowls, beads, one ring) and a lot of clay objects. Some of the latter are nicely identifiable, e.g. rudimentary female figurines and animal figurines, but others are more obscure. One example is SAV1E 851 – a rather amorphic piece of clay with incised decoration on several sides. Its incised decoration pattern reminds us of the female figurines commonly found in the New Kingdom town of Sai, but its shape is markedly different. Its context does furthermore not allow a precise dating – it is coming from one of the mixed areas in Square 1B, in the northern area of Building A – ranging in date from the 18th Dynasty up to Christian and Ottoman times.

All in all, the finds from this season nicely complement the corpus we already know from sector SAV1 North – and its wide repertoire and remarkable diversity is very promising, processing will keep us busy in the next months!

Pottery from the 2014 season at SAV1 West

Having closed fieldwork for this year, we are currently mapping our trenches and I am happy to spend some more time in the courtyard working with the pottery! There’s still a lot to do…
SAI_0006 smallHuda and ESAI_0004 smalllke are helping with washing, sorting, registering and drawing the large amounts of New Kingdom pottery from the 2014 season.

As was reported already at the beginning of the 2014 season, both the quantity and the quality of the material from SAV1 West are very impressive: hundreds of diagnostic sherds are still waiting for a proper documentation – the detailed analysis will have to be postponed to next year.

SAI_0010 smallThe amount of painted wares is intriguing as is the large size of the fragments and the high number of complete profiles! The corpus of SAV1 West compares nicely to SAV1 North – most of the material can be dated to the period from Thutmose III to Amenhotep III.

I am aiming to finish the basic statistics (in particular assessing the proportions of wares and shapes) and to establish the preliminary dating of the material further until our departure at the end of February – with the great support I got this will insha’allah work out!

Drawing ceramics from Sai Island, New Kingdom Pharaonic town: One of the masterpieces

Additionally to processing the find from our current excavations at SAV1 East and SAV1 West, we continue, like in 2013, documenting material which was excavated in SAV1 North in the last years by Florence Doyen.

Nicole, Julia andDSC_5023 Elke have been very busy in the last weeks and I would like to present one of the masterpieces. This unique fragment also nicely illustrates why detailed drawings of pottery vessels are simply necessary in additions to photos: technical and morphological details, the general shape and also the outline of decorative patterns can be best clarified with a drawing in 1:1.

Rhyton SAV1N

Pencil drawing of decorated rhyton SAV1N N/C 1205.

The important piece recently documented with an accurate drawing by Nicole is a lower part of a decorated rhyton, covered in a red slip and burnished, made in a very fine Nile B (SAV1N N/C 1205). The area around the perforated bottom of this vessel is painted in black with floral elements. Just above these lotus flowers a register with figural painting is still partly visible. According to the remains it seems to be a scene in the marshes: a striding male figure is carrying something with a pole set on his shoulder. Maybe the hanging objects are large fishes? Nicole is still not completly convinced and I must admit that her nice drawing also raised some doubts for my interpretation.

As I have stressed in an earlier post, rhytons like N/C 1205 had the character of luxury items in 18th Dynasty Egypt, the vessel shape being characteristically Aegean. Our small masterpiece from SAV1 North is an Egyptian copy in Nile clay of a Late Minoan IA rhyton.

First Results: Mud bricks, ceramics and much more

Week 2 at SAV1 East and SAV1 West has just started – our first week of fieldwork passed very quickly, with promising first results! Both sites are keeping us really busy, but already at this early stage some findings are worth mentioning:

SAI_2960At SAV1 East we are actually following up our work of last year – the western extensions to our first squares at this site mirror the discoveries from 2013. We were already able to trace mud brick remains just below the surface – according to their alignment they could very well represent the western part of Building A – possibly with some entrance rooms and a substantial wall enclosing the large courtyard. Like in the eastern trenches, we are facing the problem of many pits and disturbances dug into the Pharaonic remains – nevertheless we are very optimistic to come up with a more complete understanding of the 18th Dynasty building activity in this area in the next weeks.

SAI_2924In both trenches at SAV1 West in situ remains of the enclosure wall have been unearthed. Associated small finds and the ceramics support its dating to the 18th Dynasty. Especially at Square 1 the amounts of New Kingdom pottery are huge – east of the wall we have large assemblages of mid 18th Dynasty ceramics, comparing well to SAV1 North and also in some respects to SAV1 East. Especially remarkable are a considerable number of Nubian cooking pots, of so-called Fire dogs, of fish dishes and painted wares! One of my favorite pieces which just came out today is a Blue painted sherd – until now this particular type of decorated ware was very rare at Sai – will our current excavations modify this picture?

We also started to register the small finds and tools – some of the highlights are net weights, Nun bowls and female figurines – all very well known from other Egyptian sites and also within the Pharaonic town of Sai.

All in all, we are more than happy with the outcome of the first week and very keen to continue the investigation of life at Sai Island during the New Kingdom! Lots of questions are still open…

Ready, set, go: The field season 2014

DSC_6538The second field season of AcrossBorders is approaching – tomorrow the first team members will already depart to Khartoum, travelling to Sai Island on December 31!

Our 2014 season is planned as six weeks of excavation and additional two weeks of studying finds and ceramics in the digging house. An international team of twenty scientists will come to Sai Island to investigate aspects of the New Kingdom town, working on various tasks and different areas. We will be supported by an inspector of NCAM – and we’re very happy that we have again the pleasure to work with Huda Magzoub! We will furthermore profit from the experience of our Rais Imad Mohammed Farah who will, like in the last years, supervise our Sudanese workmen.

Compared to the initial season in 2013, we will go much further, in terms of excavation areas, methods and technology: A new excavation site with the name SAV1 West will be opened towards the west of the fortified town. One of the major aims is to test the structure and setting of the enclosure wall there. We hope to be able to provide a dating for the town wall; as yet it is based on the stratigraphical sequence and the corresponding ceramics found at SAV1North only. The question when exactly the Pharaonic site of Sai was surrounded by a mud brick fortification wall is of major importance to understand both the evolution of the site and its character as “temple town.”

Overview of the as yet unexplored western part of the New Kingdom town, north of the Ottoman fortress.

Overview of the as yet unexplored western part of the New Kingdom town, north of the Ottoman fortress.

Of course excavation at SAV1 East will continue – “building A” will be our focus and here especially its western part. Will we be able to confirm our preliminary interpretation of this building as administrative structure comparable to the so-called governor’s residence in the South?

2014 will also serve as testing phase for new documentation techniques – we will in particular use “structure from motion” and 3D applications, including a 3D laser scan of SAV1, thanks to cooperation with the Vienna University of Technology. Robert Kalasek from the Department of Spatial Planning of the Centre for Regional Science will conduct this laser scan, working closely with our architect Ingrid Adenstedt.

In addition, a geoarchaeological survey of the New Kingdom area will be undertaken by geologist Erich Draganits. For the first time, zooarchaeological remains excavated from the town area will be analysed in detail – Konstantina Saliari will focus especially on animals bones from SAV1North. Giulia d’Ercole will continue her studies on the petrography of the New Kingdom ceramics and will select new samples for both thin sections and iNAA. In particular we want to test more of the local, but also of the possibly imported Nile clays of the 18th Dynasty. Documentation of the small finds and tools as well as the pottery will be carried out simultaneously with the excavation. The architectural remains of SAV1 North will be investigated – Florence Doyen is coming for a last on site-check prior to her publication of this site within the New Kingdom town.

Last but not least, this year the “Sai Island Cultural Promotion” funded by the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project (QSAP) will start its work. First steps towards the planning of a site museum will be undertaken and several French experts will join us for this task.

A busy season is waiting for us – I have no doubts that it will be productive and highly interesting, thanks to all of the support by our Sudanese friends and colleagues and of course due to the joint efforts of all team members!

On the road between Lille, London, Vienna and Berlin

On the roadThe last two weeks have been full of travelling and meetings, not in Egypt as originally planned, but here in Europe – the excellent Table ronde at Lille, a brilliant Kirwan Memorial Lecture by Vivian Davies at London, meetings with team members and future collaborators here in Vienna, planning for the next field season at Sai Island and placing orders for various equipment. Tonight, I hope to head for Vienna Airport the very last time in September – going to Berlin and picking up equipment, materials and my SUV there. Back to Vienna by car early next week – insha’allah!

As Giulia reported, all is progressing very well, thanks to the support of our colleagues, in both the Center for Earth Sciences with studying finished thin sections and preparing the new ones and in the Atomic Institute where we will get the NAA results of the first group of samples at the end of this month. Giulia will then start to compare her petrographic observations with the data deriving from the chemical analysis.

Florence has also joined the Table ronde at Lille – she is making good progress in assessing the building phases of SAV1 North; and I am concentrating right now (whenever there is time besides all the travelling & organizational work…) on the ceramic sequence from this site. In the upcoming field season 2014 we will not only continue in SAV1 East and open a new excavation area, but will also focus on studying the small finds, tools and different materials like animal bones from SAV1 North aiming to present a concise analysis of its architecture and functional aspects within the New Kingdom town in due time. It will be in particular relevant to understand aspects of the internal organization and to test whether functionally diverse quarters existed within the town enclosure.