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…


… 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.

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

Preparing samples for Neutron Activation Analysis

Time really goes by… not just for us but also for our dear ceramic samples. Not too long ago they were still hidden under the warm sun of Sudan in the nice setting of Sai Island. Since then, they have passed through the hands of different people and they have been – in turn – been photographed, drawn, recorded in our File Maker database and, finally, selected for the different laboratory analysis.
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At the end of July, thanks to our cooperation with the Departments of Lithospheric Research and of Geodynamics and Sedimentology and the great work done by Claudia Beybel at the ‘Dünnschlifflabor’, we successfully managed to conclude the preparation of the thin sections for a first group of 36 ceramics. Just today, we submitted the second group of 24 samples to the lab – so we will have a total of 60 thin sections for petrographic studies.

After the summer break, the first group of samples were taken to the Institute of Atomic and Subatomic Physics (AI) for the Neutron Activation Analysis. Johannes Sterba, Ing.Dr.  will be my scientific supervisor at the AI, introducing me to the wonderful world of INAA. He has not only a lot of experience in NAA and chemical analyses on ceramic materials, but also in working with archaeologists and ceramics from Egypt and the Levant.
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Under his supervision, I have prepared all the samples and on Friday August 23 Johannes put them in the machine ‒ so by the end of September we will hopefully have the first results! Waiting for them, I will share some of my experience about the preparation of the samples, illustrated by pictures taken in the lab.

Step 1 – Sampling strategy

Example for grinding the sample in the agata mortar.

Example for grinding the sample in the agata mortar.

Drilling one of the samples.

Drilling one of the samples.

Some of the prepared samples.

Some of the prepared samples.

One of the main advantages of INAA is that you need only very few grams of powder for each sample!

For most of our ceramic samples we just selected the small chips produced after the break for the thin section and ground them in an agate mortar to obtain a fine and homogeneous powder. This procedure takes only few minutes, but then you have to clean carefully both the mortar and the pestle in order to avoid any contamination between the samples (and an agate mortar can be quite heavy to hold and to carry…).

Seven potsherds were sampled by drilling, carefully avoiding the slip and/or the painting!

The obtained powder is temporarily collected in small plastic containers.






Step 2 – Weighing the powder

After one night in the oven at 90 °C, the sample is weighted by means of a precision balance (we need about 100 mg of powder) and transferred into pure silica vials. Both the vials and the spoon used for this operation are very small and thin. This is a good training both for your nerves and your hands (better not drink too much coffee before!)

The precision balance for weighting the powder.

The precision balance for weighting the powder.

Step 3 – Sealing the vials by fire

Before going into the reactor and to be irradiated, all the vials must be sealed. This operation is quite delicate and, at the same time, extremely important: poor seals will cause samples to open during irradiation! The sealing is made by fire, using a soldering iron arrangement in the same laboratory in which the samples were prepared. Once finished, we used an engraving tool to write the number of the sample on the side of each vial.

Important step: sealing the vials by fire.

Important step: sealing the vials by fire.

At this point everything is ready to start with the irradiation… just the time for our small samples to ‘rest’ a little bit immersed into a pure water solution!

Sealed sample within pure water solution.

Sealed sample within pure water solution.

Re-assigning Marls as Mixed clays?

Few days ago, preparing our sherds for the cutting of the thin sections, we stumbled across two samples (SAV/S 57 and SAV/S 59), previously classified as “marl D”. With a fresh break, they appeared a little bit peculiar compared to the others classified as this well established Egyptian fabric. Therefore we wondered if they actually were something different from a marl D (being aware of the variations within this group, cf. Rose 2007: 14-15), as for example a mixed clay, attested at other New Kingdom sites like Elephantine and Memphis (see Aston 1999: 6; Budka 2005: 94-95; Bourriau 2010: 27-28, G6b).

This ‘suspicion’ seems now to be confirmed by means of the microscopic observation of the thin section!

SAVS 57 blog

SAV/S 57

Under the thin calcareous layer forming the white slip of the vessel, both of these samples disguised a quite ferruginous matrix, surrounding by numerous silicate minerals as quartz and feldspar (mainly plagioclase). Among others, the non-plastic inclusions included: Fe-oxides, biotite and muscovite mica, clino-pyroxenes and possibly volcanic rock fragments plus scattered clay pellets. In addition, small to medium calcareous inclusions were identified in the framework – but in a significant lower amount than in the proper marl D fabric.

SAV/S 29

SAV/S 29

SAV/S 57 and 59 show a very fine and homogeneous texture and few shrinkage cracks. In contrast, some of the marl D samples (for example SAV/S 29) are characterized by a high secondary porosity.

Taken together, the present data suggests that both SAV/S 57 and SAV/S 59 are likely to be either a mixture of Nile and Marl clays, or even pure Nile silts containing a small percentage of limestone particles (cf. Bourriau 2010: 24, G6a)! Forthcoming chemical analyses will allow us to confirm (or modify) this idea looking at the bulk composition and at the comparison between the samples!

SAV/S 59

SAV/S 59

By now we can just stress once again the usefulness of such kind of scientific interdisciplinary approach and the advantages that may derive from combining macroscopic observations and analytical methods in the study of the ceramic materials.



Aston 1999 = D. A. Aston, Pottery from the Late New Kingdom to the Early Ptolemaic Period, Elephantine XIX, AV 95, Mainz am Rhein.

Bourriau 2010 = J. Bourriau, The Survey of Memphis IV. Kom Rabia: The New Kingdom Pottery, Excavation Memoir 93, London.

Budka 2005 = J. Budka, XII. Zur Keramik des Neuen Reiches – erste Beobachtungen anhand des Materials aus der Oststraße B II, in G. Dreyer et al., Stadt und Tempel von Elephantine, 31./32. Grabungsbericht, in MDAIK 61, 2005, 90–116.

Rose 2007 = P. J. Rose, The Eighteenth Dynasty Pottery Corpus from Amarna, Excavation Memoir 83, London.

First week at the Lab

Here in Vienna, things are proceeding quickly and very well. Thanks to the efficiency and the professionalism of our colleagues from the Departments of Lithospheric Research and of Geodynamics and Sedimentology and to the excellent scientific facilities available at their ‘Dünnschlif​flabor’ (thin section laboratory) in the Centre of Earth Sciences, the first set of samples is already prepared: ready for being looked at under the microscope!
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First set of thin sections.

First set of thin sections.

So, last week, coming back from London, we started also with the preparation of the second group of ceramics: 24 samples including different Nubian and Egyptian fabrics as well as imports.

At present, I’m temporary settled in the lab where I’m splitting my day between the observation of the first set of thin sections at the microscope and the preparation of the new samples together with Claudia Beybel who is patiently teaching me how to realize – step by step – a perfect ‘Dünnschliff’!

First of all, before starting with the cutting, the samples need to be consolidated, so they were immerged in a special glue (araldite) and put in vacuum so that the glue can penetrate deeply into the ceramic material. Since several of our samples (for example the Nubian wares) are very porous and brittle, this operation has sometimes to be repeated more than one time.
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As a next step, the samples remain 24 hours in the oven at 40 degree Celsius to become completely dry.

On the next day, they are finally ready to being cut in order to obtain a straight slice,almost completely plan.

The new cutting machine.

The new cutting machine.

Thanks to the new wonderful machine present in the lab, this procedure took relatively short time and the result was perfect.

Further steps involve the grinding and the polishing of the section; for this operation horizontal rotary plates with diamond discs of various grit sizes that magnetically adhere to the grinding wheel were used.
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Polishing the section on the plate.

Polishing the section on the plate.

The plates work in water and in transition from a coarse to the next fine grit size, the surface of the sample becomes perfectly flat and smooth! The final polishing is realized by hand with Si abrasive powder.

Gluing the section on the glass.

Gluing the section on the glass.





At this point, the samples can be glued on the glass slides, previously cleaned and matte on one side. After another night in the oven at 40 degree Celsius, the samples are ready to be cut at 30 micron.

And for Claudia and me it is finally the time for a coffee together on the nice terrace of the department!

The pottery samples: materials and methods

The ceramic samples for the archaeometric analyses comprise by now sixty-one sherds selected during the last field season from both sectors SAV 1North (48 samples) and SAV 1East (13 samples) of Sai Island New Kingdom Town.

All of the sherds have been classified according to their macroscopic features and these data were collected in the File Maker Database of the project.

In addition, prior to proceeding with the laboratory analyses, we took photographs of both the surfaces and sections of each sample. The samples are labelled with a new code: the acronym “SAV/S” (= “Sai Island New Kingdom Town/Sample”) followed by a progressive number, starting from SAV/S 01, and linked to the original ceramic number as recorded in the pottery database.
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NC 702.1 (SAV/S 14) – Dish in Nile clay B2/C2

NC 702.1 (SAV/S 14) – Dish in Nile clay B2/C2

The samples from both SAV 1North and SAV 1 East come from distinct areas, structures and layers of the archaeological deposit. They include different kinds of wares and shapes representing the variability of the pottery corpus. Among others, ceramics comprise Nubian beakers and cooking pots, Egyptian Nile silt wares (dishes, bowls, bread plates and bread moulds), Marl clay jars and imported amphora from both Canaan and the Egyptian oases.
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NC 702.8 (SAV/S 23) – squat jar in Marl A2

NC 702.8 (SAV/S 23) – squat jar in Marl A2

NC 766 (SAV/S 41) – Oasis amphora

NC 766 (SAV/S 41) – Oasis amphora







Forthcoming petrographic and chemical analyses will help us discriminating between these different samples and answering very important archaeological questions concerning the provenience, the technology of production, as well as the geographical distribution of these ceramics.

Work in progress: The exported pottery samples

Giulia d’Ercole has spent her first month in Vienna working on the selection of pottery sherds from Sai Island, unearthed from both areas SAV1 North and SAV1 East, which we exported thanks to the kind approval and support of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums. The samples have been registered according to fabric groups derived from a preliminary, macroscopical inspection.

The sherds comprise Nile silt wares and Marl clays, Nubian wares as weDSCN1422all as imports from Canaan and Egyptian oases. Our prime interests are possibilities to assess properties of local fabrics for both handmade Nubian style vessels and wheel-made vessels in Egyptian tradition.


Prior to the scientific analysis on the samples which will be undertaken later this summer, Giulia is now busy taking photographs of both the surfaces and sections of the sherds. These pictures will be included into the FileMaker database and form part of our documentation.DSCN1423a

Strengthening AcrossBorders in Vienna

DSC_4467Today, Giulia d’Ercole joined us at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.  As new PostDOC researcher of AcrossBorders, she will investigate in the next three years chemical, mineralogical and petrographic properties of New Kingdom ceramics from Sai. Giulia has worked at Sai Island since 2009, focused on the local ceramic tradition of the Prehistory (within the research project directed by Dr. Elena Garcea, Cassino University, Italy). She has already conducted petrographic (MI), mineralogical (X-Ray Diffraction) and chemical (X-Ray Fluor­escence) analysis on pelitic and ceramic samples from selected sites on the island. She will now expend her exper­ience of archaeometry to apply scientific analysis on samples from New Kingdom contexts on Sai.

I hope that Giulia will very soon settle down in her new domicile Vienna – “Seervaas und herzlich Willkommen!”


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!