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.

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!