Sai Island 2014: Geoarchaeological investigations

The aim of the geoarchaeological fieldwork within the framework of AcrossBorders was to expand our knowledge about the existing rock types, their relationships, Quaternary sediments, geomorphological evolution and estimations about possible Nile erosion processes at the site of the Pharaonic settlement. The scarcity of vegetation, presence of riverfront exposures as well as excellent outcrops provided by excavated graves offer great geoarchaeological working conditions.

Sai Island is situated between the 2nd and 3rd Nile cataracts, which are a result of a large scale east-west trending tectonic uplift zone, which forces the Nile to incise into uplifted Neoproterozoic crystalline basement and its sedimentary cover (Thurmond et al. 2004). Consequently, Sai Island comprises medium-grade metamorphic Precambrian rocks (amphibolite, dolomite, quartzite, biotite gneiss, calcite marble) in the west and southeast, dipping around 30° towards the Northwest. These rocks are commonly cross-cut by large quartz-veins.  In the central and northern part of the island these meta-volcano-sedimentary rocks are overlain by subhorizontal Nubian Sandstone, mainly consisting of medium- to coarse-grained fluvial quartz sandstone, conglomerate, rare siltstone and occasional silicified wood.

Yellowish Nubian Sandstone overlying dark amphibolite in the southeast part of Sai Island

Yellowish Nubian Sandstone overlying dark amphibolite in the southeast part of Sai Island

Almost all of these rocks are covered by thin layers of comparably much younger Nile sediments (in some places with Palaeolithic artefacts) and only the Nubian Sandstone of Jebel Adu raises as an Inselberg from the flat terraces surfaces (van Peer et al. 2003, Anonymous 2005).

Example of small basement outcrop in the more fertile West of the island

Example of small basement outcrop in the more fertile West of the island

The pre-Holocene Nile sediments mainly comprise gravely channel deposits and fine-grained floodplain sediments. The sub-rounded to rounded gravel of the pre-Holocene Nile terraces are strongly dominated by quartz clasts, followed by chert and beautiful agate and virtually free of carbonate clasts, while the fine-grained floodplain sediments commonly show soil formation processes and related calcrete (Lewis et al. 2011).

Photo showing typical composition and grain-size of gravelly terrace surfaces

Photo showing typical composition and grain-size of gravelly terrace surfaces

The rock types occurring at the site of the Pharaonic settlement in general reflect the geological reality of the island and most of them are locally available. By far the most common rock types are quartz sandstone and amphibolite, while vein quartz, calcrete, biotite gneiss, calcite marble are comparable rare. Rock types which probably have been brought to the island include granite, diorite, gabbro and gypsum.


Anonymous, Geological map of Sudan. 1 : 3,500,000, Geological Research Authority of the Sudan, Khartoum, 2005.

J. Lewis, J. Smith, & E. Garcea, Paleoenvironmental implications of the isotope geochemistry and granulometry of Quaternary alluvial sediments and paleosols from Sai Island, Sudan. GSA Annual Meeting, 9-12 October 2011, Minneapolis, abstract, 2011, 95-19.

A.K. Thurmond, R.J. Stern, M.G. Abdelsalam,  K.C. Nielsen, M.M. Abdeen & E. Hinz, The Nubian Swell. Journal of African Earth Sciences, 39, 2004, 401-407.

P. Van Peer, R. Fullagar, S. Stokes, R.M. Bailey, J. Moeyersons, F. Steenhoudt, A. Geerts, T. Vanderbeken, M. de Dapper & F. Geus, The Early to Middle Stone Age Transition and the Emergence of Modern Human Behaviour at site 8-B-11, Sai Island, Sudan. Journal of Human Evolution, 45, 2003, 187-193.

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. new balance running shoes
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. kids air max 95
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! air max griffey
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! nike free reviews
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

Landscape archaeology and environmental remains at Sai

Simply a perfect start into the New Year – we arrived safely yesterday on Sai Island, early enough to enjoy the beautiful sunset!

IMG_1241Today we got settled and are currently preparing everything to start excavating on Saturday. With the beginning of 2014, I have furthermore the pleasure to welcome two new team members of AcrossBorders, both of them will also join us in a few days on the island.

Erich Draganits studied Geology and Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Vienna. Within the Earth Sciences he is specialized in clastic sedimentology, deformation of sediments, landscape evolution and Earth surface processes. Based on his expertise and interest in interdisciplinary research he carries out geoarchaeological studies at numerous archaeological excavations including diverse sites, periods and countries like Austria, Italy, Greece, India, Turkey and now also Sudan.

This January, Erich will conduct a first geoarchaeological survey (including drilling and test pits) on Sai – investigating the harbour situation, geological formations, sandstone quarries and more. He will closely cooperate with Konstantina Saliari and also Giulia d’Ercole who is investigating the clay deposits of the island related to her research on the local pottery production.

Konstantina Saliari is the second newcomer. She has studied archaeology and prehistoric archaeology at Athens where she received her MA in 2011. She is currently a PhD student of the University of Vienna and has joined AcrossBorders as researcher specializing in zooarchaeological remains. In the upcoming season, Konstantina will work on animal bones coming from the site of SAV1N within the New Kingdom town of Sai.

Environmental and climatic settings and changes are important issues for our research questions and the aim to reconstruct living conditions at Sai Island during the New Kingdom. We aim at estimating the human interaction with the landscape and will tackle the question of the location of settlement areas and cemeteries over the ages. Assessments of real living conditions in the past are essential to understand the relations of the Egyptians living on Sai with the indigenous Nubian population.

Just one small example – from Egyptian texts, temple reliefs and wall paintings we have plenty of evidence that various wild and domestic animals were imported to Egypt from Nubia.

Davies & Gardiner, The tomb of Huy, Theban Tomb series vol. 4, pl. 48: Boat with cattle from Nubia, being brought to Egypt.

Davies & Gardiner, The tomb of Huy, Theban Tomb series vol. 4, pl. 48: Boat with cattle from Nubia, being brought to Egypt.

At least five different types of cattle are mentioned in the texts! For example, the beautiful paintings in the tomb of viceroy Huy at Thebes show jw3-cattle being brought from Kush. It is intriguing whether there are possibilities to reconstruct differences between cattle also in reality, using the corresponding bones. How do the actual remains relate to the texts and pictoral representations of Upper Nubian animals in general? What kind of wild and domestic animals can we trace at Sai Island and can we estimate their numbers?

Davies & Gardiner, The tomb of Huy, Theban Tomb series vol. 4, pl. 23: jw3-cattle are brought from Kush.

Davies & Gardiner, The tomb of Huy, Theban Tomb series vol. 4, pl. 23: jw3-cattle are brought from Kush.

Joint research by Erich, Konstantina and others will help to understand the environmental conditions on Sai – the expected new data will allow putting the island in a broader context and can also adress very detailed questions about living conditions in Kush.

I am very happy to welcome Erich and Konstantina as new team members, looking forward to their first results this season!

The gold of Kush

Nubia is famous for its rich supply of gold and it is well known that Nubian gold was among the main Egyptian economic interests during a long time span (cf. Vercoutter 1959). During the London colloquium last week, the role of gold for the Egyptian presence in Nubia was discussed again.

There is increasing evidence that the location of the Egyptian New Kingdom sites in the Abri-Delgo-reach as rich gold ore region was important for their function (see Klemm & Klemm 2013, also Darnell 2013, 828). For example, recent work at Sesebi has stressed the importance of gold exploitation for the function of the site (Spence/Rose 2009; Spence et al. 2011). Evidence from Tombos (Stuart T. Smith) and Amara West (Neal Spencer) show a similar picture. Also Sai Island had direct access to gold ores and probably played a role in gold mining of the New Kingdom.

The German geologists Rosmarie and Dieter Klemm gave a very interesting paper in London – and more information can be found in their recent publication “Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia.” According to the Klemms, gold mining expanded during the 18th dynasty to large scale in Nubia. They could trace a significant change in processing and prospecting methods, most importantly “the introduction of the grinding mill to the mining industry in the New Kingdom” (Klemm & Klemm 2013, 9) which allowed the increased exploitation of auriferous quartz vein systems. From their point of view, there is a connection between Ancient Egypt’s gold mining industry in the Abri-Delgo-reach and the New Kingdom temples of the region (Klemm & Klemm 2013, 568-570). And indeed – at all of the sites mentioned, mills and grinding stones suitable for producing quartz powder have been found.

Kushites bringing gold to Egypt, tomb of Viceroy Huy (Thebes)

Kushites bringing gold to Egypt, tomb of Viceroy Huy (Thebes)

Back in 1959, Vercoutter reconstructed the amount of gold coming from Kush in contrast to Wawat according to Egyptian texts (Vercoutter 1959, 135): there is a clear difference, especially during the reign of Thutmose III (also the starting date of the Royal building activity in the region) when much more gold of Wawat was registered. From the time of Amenhotep III onwards, Kush seems to have gained in importance as gold mining area – scenes like the famous representations in the tomb of Viceroy Huy illustrate that gold was an important item sent to Egypt at the end of the 18th Dynasty. Textual evidence implies a decline in gold production in Ramesside time – something we might be able to confirm or modify by future archaeological fieldwork!



Darnell 2013 = John C. Darnell, A Bureaucratic Challenge? Archaeology and Administration in a Desert Environment (Second Millennium B.C.E.), in J.C. Moreno García (ed.), The Administration of Egypt, HdO 104, Leiden 2013, 785-830.

Klemm & Klemm 2013 = Rosemarie Klemm, Dietrich Klemm, Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Geoarchaeology of the Ancient Gold Mining Sites in the Egyptian and Sudanese Eastern Deserts, Natural Science in Archaeology, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht, London: Springer, 2013

Spence/Rose 2009 = Kate Spence, Pam Rose, Fieldwork at Sesebi, 2009, Sudan & Nubia 13, 2009, 38–46.

Spence et al. 2011 = Kate Spence et al., Sesebi 2011, Sudan & Nubia 15, 2011, 34–39.

Vercoutter 1959 = Jean Vercoutter, The Gold of Kush, Kush 7, 1959, 120-153.