Excursion to Abri: comparing ancient and modern pottery traditions

The scientific analyses of the first set of samples from the last Field Season (SIAM Mission 2013) are almost concluded in Vienna and the preliminary processing of the data has already shown some very interesting and intriguing results.
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During the current season my main task is primarily selecting new ceramic specimens for the next analyses – having a large set of samples appears extremely important especially for the chemical results in order to improve the statistical reliability of the data! Beside many different New Kingdom wares (Egyptian and Local Nile clays, Nubian fabrics, Marl clays and Imports from Canaan, the Levant and the Oases) from the excavation areas SAV1 North, East and West within the Pharaonic town, we selected also some modern traditional ceramics to be used as comparative samples for the ancient production.

For this reason we went to the near-by city of Abri last week: Huda, our inspector of NCAM, and also Erich joined me – as a geologist Erich is also interested in seeing where the modern potters collect the raw material for their vessels.
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Not so far away from the centre of the village and from the area of the market there is in fact an intact ceramic workshop where a family of modern potters (‘bagadra’) still produce different kind of vessels according to a traditional recipe handed down from one generation to another!

Potters Abri Potter at the wheel small

Thanks to Huda (for this occasion our personal interpreter!) we had the unique opportunity to interview the potters and to ask them about their job, the function of the vessels and the manufacturing process!
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The pots are wheel-made (on a slow wheel), even though the upper part of the vessel is sometimes finished by coiling. Before the firing, they are put for 2-3 days upside down in the sand and then left some more days under the sun till they become completely dry.

Over 50 vessels are produced and then sold to Abri, Sai, Ernetta and even to Khartoum every month! This production consists mainly in large jars (zir) used for containing and keeping cool water,  but they also make smaller vessels (e. g. milk/mish jars), cooking pots (hala), flower pots, incense burners and so on!
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In addition, what appears really interesting is that the potters seem partially to differentiate their ‘recipe’ (in terms of choice of clayey raw material and tempers), according to the specific function and the performance required by the vessel!

We learnt a lot from this conversation and we came back home very inspired bringing with us some nice ceramic pieces kindly offered by the potters – they have been already documented and will be soon submitted for the next laboratory analyses!

SAI_4721Abri sample

Hybrid pottery types at Egyptian sites in Nubia

Hybrid pottery types

An interesting phenomenon was addressed during several papers at the colloquium last week in London: The appearance of “hybrid” pottery types – locally produced vessels modelled on Egyptian types, but with a “Nubian” influence as far as the surface treatment, production technique or decoration is concerned. Well attested at Sai, Amara West and Sesebi, such types raise a number of questions. Egyptian style vessels made of local fabrics, shaped by hand or (clumsily) wheel-made with a Nubian surface treatment like ripple burnishing or incised decoration might be products of a temporary or local fashion. It remains to be investigated whether they also refer to the cultural identity of their users or whether they are the results of more complicated processes. All in all, hybrid pottery types from New Kingdom levels seem to attest a complex mixture of life styles in Upper Nubia.

At Sai, examples have been found both at SAV1 North and SAV1 East in 18th Dynasty levels, especially in contexts datable to the Thutmoside period.

Annual Egyptological Colloquium at the British Museum: Nubia in the New Kingdom

On our way to London: Giulia, Florence and me will be attending scientific events at the British Museum, organized by our British colleagues headed by Neal Spencer. In addition, Veronica Hinterhuber, much waited-for future collaborator of AcrossBorders, will also join us on this occasion from Berlin! And I am especially happy that Huda Magzoub, our inspector from NCAM, kindly accepted an invitation as well and is already waiting for us in London!

Tomorrow we will be busy with two informal workshops, bringing together scholars currently working on New Kingdom sites in Nubia as well as some other colleagues with specific expertise. Giulia will present our pottery samples and I will mainly focus on questions of the early development of Sai at the very beginning of the 18th Dynasty. Huda has prepared a presentation on some nice New Kingdom pot sherds from the Sudan National Museum’s collection, among them an amphora from Sai with an hieratic docket.

Thursday and Friday will be completely occupied by the two-day colloquium “Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived experience, pharaonic control and local traditions” – a very rich programme focusing on new insights from the latest fieldwork at major settlements and cemeteries in Nubia. Elephantine, Aniba, Amara West, Sai, Sesebi, Dukki Gel, Tombos and other sites will be in the spotlight – temple architecture, settlements, tombs, statues, ceramics and other finds will illustrate the complex picture of the material culture and social identities at Egyptian sites in Nubia during the New Kingdom. Abstracts of the colloquium are available via the British Museum website!

Kerma presence at SAV1 East

A small sneak preview of my upcoming London paper: based on results from recent fieldwork, I will summarize our present understanding of the diachronic development of the New Kingdom town at Sai Island, and I will also briefly speak about the possible cohabitation of Egyptians and Nubians.

The earliest level at area SAV1 East within the New Kingdom town corresponds to the domestic remains and structures excavated by M. Azim in the 1970s around Temple A (SAV1, Azim 2011-2012). Azim was able to show that these occupation remains are earlier than the stone temple and thus Pre-Thutmose III in date – based on parallels from the site of Gism el-Arab and observations on Nubian ceramics found in the surroundings of Temple A, an interpretation of SAV1 as Kerma classique habitation site was tentatively suggested (Azim 2011-2012: 36-37).

As reported, feature 14 and other remains in the southern part of SAV1E allowed us to link our new excavation site with the domestic zone around Temple A. Interestingly, within the storage bin (feature 14) and in its surroundings there have been several fragments of Kerma vessels in the local Nubian tradition. A Nubian presence is therefore traceable at SAV1 East, mostly represented by cooking pots, but also fine wares and a storage vessel have been found. This compares well to material documented at SAV1 North and to what Azim mentioned for the zone around Temple A. Parallels can be also named  from other Upper Nubian sites like e.g. Sesebi (see Rose 2012).Kerma presence1Thanks to the associated Egyptian material at SAV1 East, we are able to date the Kerma material as early 18th Dynasty, pre-Thutmose III, but not pre-New Kingdom. Characterized by small structures with single-brick walls and storage facilities, the area at the eastern edge of the site can be safely interpreted as part of the newly founded Egyptian town without an earlier Kerma habitation below.


Azim, M. 2011-2012. Une installation civile antérieure au temple A, 11–36, in M. Azim/J.-F. Carlotti, Le temple à de l’île de Saï et ses abords, CRIPEL 29, 11–63.

Rose, P. 2012. Early 18th Dynasty Nubian Pottery from the Site of Sesebi, Sudan, in I. Forstner-Müller/P. Rose (eds.), Nubian Pottery from Egyptian Cultural Contexts of the Middle and Early New Kingdom. Proceedings of a Workshop held at the Austrian Archaeological Institute at Cairo, 1-12 December 2010, Ergänzungshefte zu den Jahresheften des Österreichischen Archäologischen Institutes 13, Vienna, 13‒29.

New finds from recent excavations and old archives

Having just returned from London, I am still really excited – the SARS-colloquium yesterday offered a lot of new information and was extremely interesting! A splendid event thanks to both SARS and the British Museum!

Besides fantastic new work at Kawa, the Fifth Cataract and at Kurru (among others), the period of the New Kingdom was addressed in several papers. Our “neighbours” at Amara West offered impressive summaries of the 2013 fieldwork – Neal Spencer reported on the investigation of the town, Michaela Binder showed the highlights of work in the cemetery. Thanks to our visit to Amara back in February, we have seen some of the new features and unexpected finds in course of excavation. As on the site, I was especially fascinated by the newly discovered inscribed door lintels and door jambs – now also with a personal name and title! Congratulations on these important finds adding new information on the administration and history of Ramesside Upper Nubia!

One of the highlights was definitely the lecture by Hans-Åke Nordström – he reported on his major publication project of the last years, to be submitted for printing very soon: “The West Bank Survey of the 1960s. From Early Nubian to New Kingdom.” This is the first of a series of volume on the UNESCO-campaign undertaken in Lower Nubia – an analysis of the complete fieldnotes and records by the Scandinavian Joint Expedition which all have been collected in a large FileMaker database. Nordström presented the diachronic distribution of sites in the area surveyed more than 50 years ago – among them important A-group and Kerma sites, but also New Kingdom sites and here in particular tombs of various types. This new material, presented in a splendid overview and set into context, will be of major importance for comparison of current fieldwork.

Equally impressive was David Edwards’ paper – he gave an overview of “Pharaonic” Sites in the region of the Batn el-Hajjar, focusing on the 130 km from Gemai to Dal, surveyed by Tony Mills from 1963-1969. Edwards has carefully revisited the archives and fieldnotes of the work in the 1960s – they offer a lot of information, raise many questions and illustrate the rich potential of this early work. Edwards contextualised the location of major “Pharaonic” sites within the ancient landscape, especially referring to ancient goldmines, strategic and administrative values of fortresses. It was in particular striking that he could show how much an isolated perspective on “Pharaonic” sites can gain if we consider contemporaneous Nubian sites at the same time!

All in all, yesterday clearly illustrated how much is changing in Nubian archaeology with every new season of excavation, but also with careful (re)assessments of older excavations, archives and survey reports. It was especially stimulating that most of us working currently in Northern Sudan in the period of the Egyptian New Kingdom share similar thoughts and ideas on certain subjects – especially about the so-called “Colonisation” of Nubia, presumably much more complex than previously thought, an on proposed firm frontiers between “Nubian” and “Egyptian” in this region, not reflecting obviously the past reality. The New Kingdom in Nubia must have been a period of a highly interesting co-existence, a merging and also adaptation of different cultures – requiring a lot of future research to be assessed in more detail.

A Brief Summary of the 2013 field season

After 10 weeks in Sudan, it feels very strange to get ready for leaving in a few days! Today I had to pack everything up at the Museum and to say goodbye to all of the kind and helpful colleagues of NCAM and the French Unit.

Having spent the last days with preparing the lecture and writing the report, many new ideas and thoughts have crossed my mind and I am very eager to continue the post-excavation processing of SAV1 East! We really made some significant discoveries this season – for now, I will just give a brief overview focusing on the most important results.

The key discovery at the new excavation site SAV1E and the highlight of the 2013 season on Sai Island was of course the confirmation of the geophysical survey picture: we were able to trace the eastern part of a very large rectangular mud brick structure (North-South extension of 16.3 + x m; East-West 10 + x m) which we labelled Building A.

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Most of the bricks from its walls have been taken out and are now just “phantom walls” represented by a sandy pit, but we found large sections of the foundation trench and also an area with a floor coating towards the North. Associated finds and especially potteryallowed us to date Building A to the mid 18th Dynasty (see below). Its western part still remains to be excavated – the prime task for next season!

All in all, the new fieldwork conducted in 2013 at SAV1E adds important aspects to the understanding of the development and history of the Pharaonic Town of Sai Island:

(1)   The earliest remains at SAV1E are dating to the early 18th Dynasty; there is nothing of the Kerma period prior to the New Kingdom. The area can therefore be safely interpreted as part of the newly founded Egyptian town. The Kerma ceramics we found are clearly originating from early New Kingdom contexts as in SAV1 North.

(2)   The southern part of SAV1E with remains like the storage bin (feature 14) can be linked with the domestic zone excavated around Temple A by M. Azim – this area is characterized by small structures with single-brick walls and storage facilities. It is an early occupation phase comparable to Level 4 at SAV1N and clearly of pre-Thutmose III date. The in situ vessels of storage bin 14 give a more precise dating as early 18th Dynasty, possibly Ahmose-Thutmose I.

(3)   The northern part of SAV1E yielded so-called Building A – a not yet fully exposed mud brick structure with an orthogonal layout and most importantly with striking parallels to the so-called residence SAF2 in the Southern part of the Pharaonic Town. We really cannot wait to excavate the western part of Building A in order to confirm this hypothesis! As we have been fortunate to discover pottery in the foundation trench, we have a good dating indication of the building date of Building A: the pot sherds give us a terminus ante quem non for the setting of the foundations and this is the time of Thutmose III! This all suggests that Building A belongs to the major remodelling of the New Kingdom Town of Sai during the reign of this king. The newly discovered structure does also fit nicely into the grid-pattern of the Southern part of the town with roughly north-south and east-west aligned streets and it is most likely contemporaneous with Temple A and the mud brick enclosure wall.

View above Temple A to SAV1E at the end of fieldwork in 2013

View above Temple A to SAV1E at the end of fieldwork in 2013

Summing up, the first field season of AcrossBorders in 2013 was very successful and will allow us making very specific plans for the upcoming seasons!


During the last two weeks, I had the pleasure to share the lab with Huda, our inspector, Vicky and Nicole – still very busy and concentrate on her plenty nice fire-dogs! – and to have a first look at the Nubian ceramic assemblages from both SAV 1N (excavations 2008-12) and SAV 1E (the new excavation) areas within the Pharaonic town of Sai Island.
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I am very grateful to Julia Budka to allow me to access these materials and to daily exchange with me precious remarks and ideas about pottery! Having the opportunity to study and to compare these ceramics already now, on the field, is really useful to me and also very important in order to elaborate the best sampling strategy for the future laboratory analyses (OM, XRPD, XRF, INAA)!

In these days, a preliminary macroscopic classification of the wares was realized and four different fabrics were recognized, basing on content and the typology of the main non-plastic inclusions present in the pastes.
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As a general remark, all the Nubian wares are characterized by a sandy-silt matrix and contain – in a variable amount – small (< 0,5 mm) to medium (1 < 2 mm) quartz grains, mica plus white calcareous inclusions (probably micritic calcite aggregates?). Organics (dung and/or straw and chaff remains) are also present and they seem to represent the main tempering agent used by the ancient potters.

Example of Nubian Fabric 1 - Fine ware, dung tempered

Example of Nubian Fabric 1 – Fine ware, dung tempered

Example of Nubian Fabric 3 - Coarse ware, chaff tempered

Example of Nubian Fabric 3 – Coarse ware, chaff tempered

It was a very nice ‘surprise’ to me realizing close similarities between these ceramics of the New Kingdom (c. 1500-1100 BC) and their ‘ancestors’ from the Pre-Kerma period (c. 3000- 2600 BC)!  Such a continuity observed in the selection of both raw material and tempers appears to be the result of a very ancient and durable local tradition; highly important to recognize and to understand in its cultural and social meaning!
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In the next days, I will have also the opportunity to compare this Nubian material with the Egyptian-style pottery from the same contexts!


Assessing Nubian Fabrics of the New Kingdom

DSC_6354This week we have the pleasure to introduce a new team member who has just joint us in the lab: Giulia d’Ercole has recently received her PhD in Prehistorian Archaeology at the Sapienza Università di Roma. She has worked on manufacture techniques of Nubian ceramic traditions in the 6th-3rd Millennia BC, focusing on Khartoum variant, Abkan and Pre-Kerma material and taking Sai Island as a sample site. Giulia will soon become a member of the core team of AcrossBorders in Vienna, extending her research into the New Kingdom, conducting in particular petrographical, mineralogical and chemical analysis of the ceramics. I am very happy that she made it to Sai island prior to her appointment!

She is currently assessing the Nubian ceramics of the New Kingdom, both from SAV1E, the new excavation site of 2013 and from SAV1N, the area to the north within the Pharaonic village, excavated in the last 5 years. Trying to establish main groupings for the fabrics and wares, it is already striking that some vessels show a close similarity to the Prehistorian wares, whereas others are distinctly different. Giulia’s first evaluation thus raises a lot of interesting questions and shows the rich potential of her line of research!