With kith and kin…

Having just read an intriguing article by Stuart Thyson Smith (Smith 2013), I would like to share some thoughts about the inhabitants of Egyptian sites in Nubia during the New Kingdom.

Talking about the range of people typically present in fortresses, Smith rightly states (2013, 269): “Fortress inhabitants usually included both women and children, who are typically neglected in favor of the adult men who performed the more obvious military, political and economic roles associated with these specialized communities.” Data from cemeteries and texts illustrate the presence of women and children in the communities of fortresses and fortified towns. Archaeological evidence from the settlements themselves provides further clues towards understanding the complex composition of the population. Smith presents his careful assessment of the demography, gender and ethnicity at Askut and stresses several aspects of identity issues in archaeology.

Interaction with local peoples is probably attested by the presence of Nubian ceramics at the major Egyptian sites – especially by Nubian cooking ware which could be connected with Nubian women. However, pottery and the coexistence of Egyptian and Nubian types and wares are not straightforward to explain but could reflect various aspects, e.g. a temporary or local fashion or indeed the cultural identity of their users. It becomes even more challenging to find traces of children in the archaeological record. Smith (2013, 274-275) has stressed useful ethnographic parallels and mentions gaming pieces as possible children’s toys and several productive activities like pottery making where children were probably involved.

Very much in line with Smith’s work, AcrossBorders is currently testing the potential of the analysis of material culture to inform for the question of a ‘Nubian’ or ‘Egyptian’ lifestyle within a New Kingdom fortified town like Sai. The identity of the occupants is central to this investigation and must include the complete population which was much more complex and dynamic than just adult men sent from Egypt.

Besides the archaeological finds like pottery and small finds from settlements, a group of inscribed door lintels and door jambs from Egyptian houses provides valuable information. Female persons are mentioned by names and titles on these monuments, indicating their real presence at the specific sites (Budka 2001, 74-75). One door jamb discovered during the 32nd season of the joint mission of the German Archaeological Institute Cairo and the Swiss Institute Cairo at Elephantine is particularly interesting: It belongs to a Ramesside official with the name of Hori (Budka and von Pilgrim 2008). His wife Nofret-irj is mentioned on another door jamb from Elephantine and a seated double statue of the couple is now kept in the Louvre, Paris (A 68).

Statue of Hori & Nofret-irj, Louvre A68.

Statue of Hori & Nofret-irj, Louvre A68.

In this particular case we know, that Hori was coming from Thebes and lived in Elephantine for a certain time span. Common sense tells us that it is unlikely that officials like Hori went to their short-term contracts outside of their hometown without their families: They would have brought already existing wives and children with them. This is also supported by numerous rock inscriptions and stelae in the area of the First Cataract and in Nubia. At Sai Island, a Ramesside door lintel shows a seated couple as house owners; names and titles of wives of officials during the 18th Dynasty are still lacking from this kind of monument but might be unearthed in the future.

In conclusion, besides the very likely fact that Egyptian officials sent to Nubia in the New Kingdom found new partners (including indigenous Nubians) there and started a family in towns like Sai, we should not forget the possibility that men on duty were also accompanied by their already existing family. Individual choices whether an Egyptian wife and children came along on a short-term mission are likely and might become more visible with further work on the complete set of data from settlement sites.


Budka 2001 = J. Budka, Der König an der Haustür, Die Rolle des ägyptischen Herrschers an dekorierten Türgewänden von Beamten im Neuen Reich, Vienna 2001.

Budka and von Pilgrim 2008 = J. Budka and B. von Pilgrim 2008. V. Bauteile des Wohnsitzes einer thebanischen Beamtenfamilie in Elephantine, in: G. Dreyer et al., Stadt und Tempel von Elephantine. 33./34./35. Grabungsbericht, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 64, 2008, 88–97.

Smith 2013 = St. T. Smith, The Garrison and Inhabitants: A View from Askut, in: F. Jesse and C. Vogel (eds.), The Power of Walls – Fortifications in Ancient Northeastern Africa, Köln 2013, 269–291

“Groovy” stone objects from Pharaonic settlements

Since I joined AcrossBorders, my main focus of research has been the object studies from settlement sites in Egypt and Sudan. During the first months I have been reading through excavation reports from different settlement sites e.g. Amarna, Elephantine, Memphis, Qantir, Tell el-Retaba in Egypt and Amara-West, Askut, Sesebi and of course Sai in Sudan. The focus of interest was especially laid on New Kingdom objects such as tools and instruments (e.g. hammers, pounders, mortars, grinding stones, scrapers, weights and cosmetic palettes), personal adornments (e.g. pearls and amulets), household items (e.g. mud stoppers, sealings and furniture), figurines and statuettes, stone and faience vessels and different kind of other small objects such as models, games and scarabs. Whilst I have been reading the excavation reports I have simultaneously been building a structured literature database (using also Citavi like for our general reference database) organized according to different settlement sites and object categories. This preparation should help me in categorizing and contextualizing the objects to be found in upcoming excavation seasons at Elephantine.

Meanwhile I have been also looking at the small finds & objects database from previous excavations (2008-2014) at Sai and comparing that material with those found at the other settlement sites in Egypt and Sudan (see Budka & Doyen 2012-2013, 182-188 for more details). As I come from Finland where fishing is a common hobby, a few objects caught my special attention – more about the connection of these objects and fishing further below. The discussion of these objects here does not present a final and complete conclusion but should be seen more as an input for a debate.

Object SAV1N/0601 (© SIAM)

Object SAV1N/0601 (© SIAM)

The two here presented objects are described as follows. The first object SAV1N/0601 is a fragment of a rectangular piece of sandstone (7.4 x 8.4 x 3.1 cm) with rounded corners on one end. The peculiarity of this object are the two carved parallel grooves – one deeper than the other and running through the whole object surface getting slightly narrower the closer it gets to the broken edge. The second object SAV1N/2031 is also a sandstone fragment (8.2 x 7.3 x 4.1 cm) with a smooth surface. Along the surface of this object there are also two grooves. They are not running parallel but crossing each other oblong. These objects do not make out an exception in the material as there are other sandstone objects with similar characteristics e.g. SAV1N/0415, SAV1N/1432, SAV1N/1728, SAV1N/2174, SAV1N/1767 and SAV1N/2387.

Object SAV1N/2031 (© SIAM)

Object SAV1N/2031 (© SIAM)

While some of the objects cannot be dated because they come from unstratified/mixed contexts in SAV1 North, others are well attributable to the 18th Dynasty. SAV1N/2031 was found in a late phase of (re-)use of house N12, SAV1N/2174 can be associated with its prime use, dating to Thutmoside times (see Budka & Doyen 2012-2013, 176-177 and 182). Functional aspects of these objects, presumably of New Kingdom date, are not straightforward. I came across a broad variety of possible interpretations.

The first parallel comes from Tell el-Retaba, a major Dynastic-period site in Northern Egypt. In the excavation report about the New Kingdom remains (18th and 19th Dynasties) appears one sandstone object labelled as “whetstone” (Rzepka et. al. 2012-2013, 267-268, Figures 34 and 35). This flat rectangular piece of sandstone (7.3. x 7.4. x 3.4 cm) is complete in preservation, with numerous narrow grooves on the surface. According to the excavators these grooves are the result of the stone being used as a tool sharpener (Rzepka et. al. 2012-2013, 268, footnote 41 with further parallels). Though which tools were sharpened, is not discussed.

Another parallel comes from the Ramesside workshops at Qantir. In her impressive monograph about the stone- and metalworking tools and instruments Silvia Prell presents a variety of stone objects for grinding, rubbing and polishing the end-products (“Werkstück”) and whetting and sharpening of metal tools as also arrowheads e.g. made of bone (Prell 2011, 44-72). One of the characteristics of the “Schleifsteine” is that they mainly consist of quartzite. They were in general used as tools to work on the surfaces of the end-products. In contrast, the objects (“Wetzsteine” = whetstone) to sharpen metal tools consist mainly of sandstone (Prell 2011, 48). Some of the whetstones from Qantir possess grooves as found at Tell el-Retaba and Sai (Prell 2011, 48 and 52-53). As an example the complete conserved trapezoid whetstone Kat-Nr. 166 (5.5 x 5.1 x 2.2 cm) possess one clearly recognizable groove (Prell 2011, 51, Plate 05 and Catalogue p. 180). Left to this groove there is probably the mark of a second one. Silvia Prell states that the choice of sandstone for whetting and sharpening of metal tools such as knives and adze is not accidental; sandstone is well suitable for this purpose (Prell 2011, 48, 50 and 52). However, no remains of bronze or copper rust were found inside the grooves at Qantir. According to Prell the grooves seem not to be carved intentionally but originate from the constant whetting of metal tools on one place (Prell 2011, 52).

The last parallel presented here comes from recent excavations at Amarna. A group of sandstone objects are labelled as sanders to smoothen wooden surfaces (Kemp & Stevens 2010, 437-441). One sandstone object 37185 (9.4 x 6.7 x 2.3 cm) with a smooth but irregular surface has two shallow grooves (Kemp & Stevens 2010, 437, Figure 22.10 and Plate 22.7). The excavators interpret these grooves as result of extracting sand grains from the object; sandstone was imported to Amarna as it was not locally accessible (Kemp & Stevens 2010, 437-438). A similar interpretation is given to explain the narrow grooves on a travertine grinding-block (Kemp & Stevens 2010, 422, Figure 22.5 and Plate 22.5).

So coming back to the objects from Sai: Could they be whetstones for sharpening metal tools, stone pieces to extract sand grains or may the marks even be left overs of cutting stone? Above, I started this excursus mentioning a possible connection of these objects to fishing; what do I mean with that? As a child I was sometimes fishing with people who really knew what they were doing, so to say experts in their hobby. At that time I learned how to sharpen fishing hooks. Of course you can do this with just a flat whetstone. However, much easier is to take a special whetstone with a prior made groove and to grind the hook in that groove back and forth changing the angle at times. This is the reason why my interest was especially caught on these objects.

This analogy and hypothesis is of course a bit adventurous. The objects themselves do not give any clear evidence for their usage. As mentioned above they come from various contexts at settlement sites, mostly houses and workshops. Is the occurrence of these objects a phenomenon of a horizontal usage or are they scattered finds across time? As presented above, such objects are attested in New Kingdom settlement contexts in Egypt. The analysis of the function of these objects remains a tricky one. If we take into account that as yet, no fishing hooks have been found in New Kingdom contexts at Sai, the ground for the interpretation of these objects in connection with fishing hooks is clearly thin (bronze and copper alloy hooks for fishing are well attested from New Kingdom settlement contexts, see e.g. hooks in the MMA from Lisht North, accession number 09.180.748, 09.180.750 and 09.180.764 for smaller ones 1.9-4.1 cm and 22.1.954 for a bigger one 8.1 cm, though from the cemetery).  It is worth mentioning that the Pharaonic town of Sai has yielded evidence for fishing by large numbers of net weights.

Whetstones for sharpening fishing hooks require intentionally made grooves, therefore the grooves should be examined in more detail. Different kinds of grooves for different kinds of tools? The fishing hook hypothesis would of course exclude the possibility that the grooves were the result of sharpening, e.g. knives and adzes. I am not an expert in sharpening blades, but I think it is much more effective to hold a blade parallel to a stone and moving it along the surface than in an angle where it cuts the stone. In that case, sharpening should not result in any grooves (Prell 2011, 48-52; Kemp & Stevenson 2010, 443-444 for whetstones without grooves). If the stones were used as row material for the production of sand grains (as proposed for pieces from Amarna), it raises the question for what purpose?

So this excursus about “groovy” stone objects has actually put more questions into light than answers. Anyhow, if documented and examined accurately, they are a valuable source of information about life in settlements in ancient times.


Budka, J. & Doyen, F.
2012-2013           Living in New Kingdom towns in Upper Nubia – New evidence from recent excavations on Sai Island, Ägypten und Levante XXII/XXIII, 167–208.

Kemp, B. J. & Stevens, A. K.
2010      Busy lives at Amarna. Excavations in the main city (Grid 12 and the house of Ranefer, N49.18), Vol. II: The objects, Excavation memoir 91, London.

Prell, S.
2011      Einblicke in die Werkstätten der Residenz. Die Stein- und Metallwerkzeuge des Grabungsplatzes Q I, Die Grabungen des Pelizaeus-Museums Hildesheim in Qantir-Piramesse, Forschungen in der Ramses-Stadt 8, Hildesheim.

Rzepka, S., Nour el-Din, M. et al.
2012-2013           Egyptian mission rescue excavations in Tell el-Retaba. Part 1: New Kingdom remains, Ägypten und Levante XXII/XXIII, 253–288.

From Berlin via Thebes and Elephantine to Vienna

Today’s pottery workshop for the Junior Science Club brought together most of AcrossBorders’ current team members working in Vienna – and it was also the perfect opportunity for a very warm welcome to our most recent recruitment: Arvi Korhonen, a Finish Egyptologist who studied Egyptology and Northeast African Archaeology, Classical Archaeology and Cultural History and Theory in Berlin (Humboldt University) has joined AcrossBorders for the next years!
I first met Arvi in 2006 during my time in Berlin – and since then he has joined me for a number of seasons in the field, both at Thebes (Asasif) and on Elephantine.

Work in progress in the Asasif, Thebes (2008).

Work in progress in the Asasif, Thebes (2008).

I am very happy that he will now study material culture within the framework of AcrossBorders – because of his expertise from several seasons of work at Elephantine, Arvi will in particular focus on finds from 18th Dynasty contexts at Elephantine (thanks to our cooperation with the Swiss Institute Cairo) and compare them with objects excavated on Sai Island.

Arvi explaining the technical drawing of pottery to pupils (Vienna 2014).

Arvi explaining the technical drawing of pottery to pupils (Vienna 2014).

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.

The enigmatic “fish dishes” again

As processing of the 18th Dynasty pottery from SAV1 West, 2014 season, continues, new information comes up daily! As reported, the material is closely similar to the pottery corpus from sector SAV1 North and also SAV1 East. However, there are also some – maybe significant – differences. For example, the amount of Blue painted pottery is remarkable; as in SAV1 East, we do encounter a number of conical bread moulds, these have been largely missing at SAV1 North.

Another intriguing group of vessels are the so-called “fish dishes”! A number of Marl clay examples were found in Square 1 at SAV1 West.

Fragment of Marl clay "fish dish", SAV1 West

Fragment of Marl clay “fish dish”, SAV1 West

This large fragment illustrates the geometric decorative pattern inside. In exactly the same style, but made in a local Nile clay, more than 10 fragments came up in the fillings of Building A at SAV1 East this season! Does this indicate a difference between our two current excavation areas? Or could it also be that my previous assumption, based on the comparison with Elephantine was completely wrong? I did speculate last year because there are more Nile silt “fish dishes” from Sai Island than Marl clay version that different from the situation in Egypt, the “real” Egyptian Marl B/E trays had been frequently reproduced in Nubia in local material. Are the new Marl dishes from SAV1 West just an accidental find? Or are they of chronological significance, maybe originating from a phase with the first “supply” of Egyptian functional wares? But how would this correspond to the findings of Nile “fish dishes” from SAV1 East which date to the heyday of Sai in the 18th Dynasty, the time of Thutmose III and Amenhotep II. It is especially this era when a lot of high quality material, including decorated Marl clay vessels, was brought to the temple town of Sai.

All in all, the picture deriving from the New Kingdom town of Sai Island gets more and more complex the better we understand the architectural layout, the structure of the town and especially the material culture! Every small pottery sherd potentially adds information…

Next week I will focus among other things on the large amount of incense burners, footed bowls and dishes with pigments, possible painter’s pots from the 2014 season. The pottery gives a nice glimpse into past activities at SAV1 West which we still have only touched on a superficial level.

Blue Painted pottery from the Pharaonic town of Sai

One of the best known pottery wares from Pharaonic Egypt is the so-called Blue painted ware, popular from the mid 18th Dynasty until Ramesside time and thus obviously a good example for a time-specific taste regarding the decoration of ceramics. Until now, Blue painted pottery was found in rather limited numbers in Nubia, at both cemetery sites like Tombos and also at New Kingdom settlements like Sesebi, Amara West and Sai Island.

The number of Blue painted sherds coming from the fortified town of Sai was very small before this season – by now we have more than doubled it, but there are still not more than a good dozen fragments of this specific ware!

In 2014, both Marl clay and Nile silt wares with blue decoration have been unearthed at SAV1 West. The Nile clay vessels are simple beakers with linear design, the Marl clay vessels are larger in size, closed shapes and with more fancy motifs. My favourite piece is a large body sherd with a beautiful design, found east of the enclosure wall.

DSCN3770aIt is a Marl clay vessel imported from Egypt, an uncoated ware (Vienna System Marl A3 variant) with the decoration executed in blue, black and red. It finds perfect parallels in Egypt, especially in my corpus of blue painted vessels at Elephantine. It falls into the category of the very early, pre-Amarna type of Blue painted ware. Well dateable to the mid 18th Dynasty thanks to comparisons, this corresponds to its archaeological context at Sai – the vessel belongs to the phase when the site experienced its heyday during the reigns of Thutmose III and Amenhotep II.

For now the new Blue painted sherds from Sai are very useful for dating, but in general I do hope that we will be able to contextualise them as well – using them as small indicators for what seems to have been a quite sophisticated lifestyle here in Upper Nubia during the 18th Dynasty.

Potential of decorated pottery I: Semiotics

At present, analysing semiotic aspects of ancient pottery is quite on vogue in archaeology (cf. Preucel 2010: 230–238 and passim). I do see much potential in this approach and I have recently presented a small case study on Blue painted pottery (Budka 2013). Of course there are clear limits of possibilities to reconstruct ancient ideas and symbolism – nevertheless the famous Blue painted ware with ornamental Hathor vessels (for which see most recently the great post by Anna Garnett, Manchester Museum), Bes jars and mostly floral decoration nicely illustrates that such New Kingdom vessels had a symbolic value, probably with several semantic layers.

Selected Blue painted pottery vessels (Berlin and London).

Selected Blue painted pottery vessels (Berlin and London).

The colour blue may have referred to faience and glass instead of pottery in the first place. Colin Hope assumed a time-specific taste for the Blue painted pottery: “The impetus for its manufacture undoubtedly lay in the taste for elaboration during an age of luxury” (Hope 1982, 88). A preference for blue as a matter of taste and an expression of a specific Zeitgeist seems indeed likely (cf. Budka 2013). Here it is important that as archaeologist we take into account a wide range of emotions possibly associated with objects in various contexts and in different social strata – of course these associations cannot be kept apart from culture and society in general (cf.  Tarlow 2000, 713). The aesthetic qualities of Blue painted vessels are usually highly valued in the eyes of modern Egyptologists – but can we trace aspects of its approval in the mind of the Ancient Egyptians? It is striking that common vessel types like simple beakers and dishes appear together with special, large ornamental vessels with complex applications within the corpus of Blue painted ware (cf. Budka 2008). Thus, sometimes the only difference to well-known vessel types of the New Kingdom is simply the decoration. Here the colour blue and the common floral motifs (painted or moulded) like the blue lotus seem to refer to wide-ranging creative aspects and especially to rebirth (cf. Budka 2013).

For a short time, Blue painted pottery formed an integral component of the material culture of the New Kingdom, both of the domestic equipment and of the votive offerings for temples and sanctuaries. Similar to painted wares in various cultural contexts around the world, it may have “served as the good china of the day” (Wonderley 1986, 506). Because of the particular character of the ware daily activities for which Blue painted pottery was used, received a special connotation. I don’t think that the simple presence of blue painted or other “exotic” vessels in domestic settings do necessarily suggest a “palace character”, a comfortable lifestyle or high status of its inhabitants: they point rather to the presence of religious, cultic or festive activities respectively the evocation of such a sphere.

Blue painted pottery is present at all sites investigated within the framework of AcrossBorders – at Sai, Elephantine and also at Abydos. But the number of sherds found at Sai is still very limited – maybe this is one of the differences to the Egyptian sites. However, there is the possibility to investigate the multiple semantic layers of ceramic vessels with another case study for our project: a group of decorated vessels in red-and-black painted (Bichrome) style. These vessels are attested in Egypt both in Nile clay and in Marl clay variants, whereas in Upper Nubia preferably Nile silt versions are known (Ruffieux 2009; Budka 2011).

Bichrome painted jar fragment from Sai Island.

Bichrome painted jar fragment from Sai Island.

Based on a number of closely similar fragments from Elephantine and Sai, we will try to find possible answers to the question whether the specific decorative bichrome painted style and the most common motifs like antelopes, horses and flowers have a similar symbolic value for its users, both in Egypt and Upper Nubia. Our last week at Elephantine will therefore focus on the documentation of these very specific red-and-black painted vessels.

My New Kingdom pottery database of Elephantine counts a total of 52 Nile clay vessels and 52 Marl clay bichrome painted sherds which will enable us to address some of the questions outlined here.

Fragments of a bichrome painted Nile clay jar from Elephantine.

Fragments of a bichrome painted Nile clay jar from Elephantine.


Budka 2008 = VIII. Weihgefäße und Festkeramik des Neuen Reiches von Elephantine, in G. Dreyer et al., Stadt und Tempel von Elephantine, 33./34./35. Grabungsbericht, in Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäolog­ischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 64, 106–132.

Budka 2011 = J. Budka, The early New Kingdom at Sai Island: Preliminary results based on the pottery analysis (4th Season 2010), in Sudan & Nubia 15, 23–33.

Budka 2013 = Festival Pottery of New Kingdom Egypt: Three Case Studies, in Functional Aspects of Egyptian Ceramics within their Archaeological Context. Proceedings of a Conference held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, July 24th – July 25th, 2009, ed. by Bettina Bader & Mary F. Ownby, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 217, Leuven, 185–213.

Hope 1982 = C.A. Hope, Blue-Painted Pottery, in E. Brovarski, S.K. Doll and R.E. Freed (eds.), Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom, Exhibition Catalogue, Boston, 88-90.

Preucel 2010 = R. W. Preucel, Archaeological Semiotics, Malden and Oxford.

Ruffieux 2009 = P. Ruffieux, Poteries découvertes dans un temple égyptien de la XVIIIe dynastie à Doukki Gel (Kerma), in Genava 57, 121-134.

Tarlow 2000 = S. Tarlow, Emotion in Archaeology, in Current Anthropology 41, no. 5, 713-745.

Wonderley 1986 = A. Wonderley, Material Symbolics in Pre-Columbian Households: The Painted Pottery of Naco, Honduras, in Journal of Anthropological Research 42, no. 4, 497-534.

The enigmatic “fish dishes” from New Kingdom settlements

A peculiar type of vessel is frequently found in Egyptian settlements, already from the 13th Dynasty onwards (see Bader 2001, 81–83; Aston and Bader 2009). These quite large, thick walled oval, handmade trays show incised decoration on the interior – commonly depicting fishes, lotus flowers and geometric motives (see, e.g., a nice dish from Kahun, now at the Manchester Museum).

Consequently a label as “fish dish” was proposed for these trays which somehow resemble the well-known Nun-bowls of the New Kingdom (cf. Bader 2001, 81–83). However, in settlement contexts of the later Second Intermediate Period and the early New Kingdom the pattern of these trays are mostly geometrical – diagonal lines, net pattern and fish bone pattern. The function is therefore still debated – such dishes might have been used for peeling corn or scaling fishes (“Schälbecken”), as bread trays or as trays with a (still unclear) ritual function (cf. Seiler 2005, 120–121).

At all sites investigated within the framework of AcrossBorders (Sai Island, Elephantine and South-Abydos), so-called “bread trays” are well attested.

Fragment of Marl "bread tray" from Elephantine.

Fragment of Marl “bread tray” from Elephantine.

Fragment of Marl "bread tray" from South Abydos

Fragment of Marl “bread tray” from South Abydos







At Sai Island, the trays occur both in Egyptian Marl clay (Marl B and Marl E, a special variant of Marl B, see Arnold and Bourriau 1993, 182 and fig. 26) and in local Nile clay variants; the shapes and decoration patterns are in both cases the same. Parallels for the Marl clay examples are known, apart from Elephantine and South Abydos, from early 18th Dynasty contexts at Deir el-Ballas (Bourriau 1990, 21–22) and also from Lower and Upper Nubia (e.g. Buhen (Emery, Smith and Millard 1979, pl. 73) and Sesebi (Spence and Rose et al. 2011, 37)). As yet, the only published parallel for a Nile clay tray comes from a funerary context at Thebes (Seiler 2005, 104-5, fig. 52). However, in the Egyptian settlement at Elephantine, Nile clay trays were found in strata of the 18th Dynasty, closely resembling the ones from Sai.

Nile clay "bread tray" from Sai Island.

Nile clay “bread tray” from Sai Island.

Today, I searched both the Sai Island and the Elephantine New Kingdom databases for “bread trays”. The results are quite remarkable – in both cases 16 pieces for levels ranging in date from the early 18th Dynasty to the mid/late 18th Dynasty have been studied in detail and are included in the databases. At Elephantine, only four examples are made in coarse Nile clay (25 %), whereas the others are made in Marl B respectively Marl E (75 %). At SAV1North, nine examples are of a local, very coarse Nile clay (56 %) and seven have been produced in Egypt, made in a Marl B/E variant (44 %).

Of course the number of these vessels documented in detail is very small – I will have to address the same question to the general statistics of all New Kingdom contexts at SAV1North and Elephantine, not just to the database entries only. Nevertheless, I think this small, but significant difference allows already some preliminary thoughts: Maybe it was more difficult at Sai in Upper Nubia to get replacements for the “real” Marl B/E trays – thus, they were produced in local material. Alternatively one also might speculate, considering the still unknown function of the vessels, that the shape was for some reasons more popular in Sai and more frequently created on demand. It seems as if the difference in material did not make a difference for the ancient users of the trays – and this, from my perspective, makes a use as “Schälbecken” quite unlikely; the Nile clay versions are much softer and porous, not well suited for peeling organic materials. All in all, these vessels might have been fashionable in Upper Nubia because they reflected “Egyptian” life style and were foreign to the local Nubian culture – their specific outer appearance and properties which we as archaeologists use to create classifications and typologies maybe had little significance within the antique context.


Arnold and Bourriau 1993 = Dorothea Arnold and Janine Bourriau (eds.), An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Pottery, SDAIK 17, Mainz am Rhein 1993.

Aston and Bader 2009 = David A. Aston and Bettina Bader, with a contribution by Karl G. Kunst, Fishes, ringstand, nudes and hippos – a preliminary report on the Hyksos palace pit complex L81, E & L 19, 2009, 19–89.

Bader 2001 = Bettina Bader Tell el-Daba XIII, Typologie und Chronologie der Mergel C-Ton Keramik des Mittleren Reiches und der Zweiten Zwischenzeit, UZK 19, Vienna 2001.

Bourriau 1990 = Janine Bourriau, The Pottery, 15–22 and 54–65 [figs.], in: P. Lacovara, Deir el-Ballas, Preliminary Report on the Deir el-Ballas Expedition, 1980-1986, ARCE Reports 12, Winona Lake, Indiana.

Budka 2006 = Julia Budka, The Oriental Institute Ahmose and Tetisheri Project at Abydos 2002-2004: The New Kingdom pottery, E & L 16, 2006, 83–120.

Emery, Smith and Millard 1979 = Walter B. Emery, Harry S. Smith and Ann Millard, The Fortress of Buhen. The archaeological report, EEF Excavation Memoir 49, London 1979.

Seiler 2005 = Anne Seiler, Tradition & Wandel. Die Keramik als Spiegel der Kulturentwicklung in der Zweiten Zwischenzeit, SDAIK 32, Mainz am Rhein 2005.

Spence and Rose et al. 2011 = Kate Spence and Pamela Rose et al., Sesebi 2011, Sudan & Nubia 15, 2011, 34–38.

At Egypt’s Southern Border: Early New Kingdom pottery from Elephantine

Yesterday, Sebastian Stiefel and I have happily arrived on Elephantine Island. Thanks to our cooperation with the Swiss Institute for Architectural and Archaeological Research in Egypt and the German Archaeological Institute Cairo, we will work here in the upcoming weeks on New Kingdom ceramics, excavated in settlement contexts in various areas of the ancient town. Our special interest is of course a detailed comparison between the material from this important Egyptian site just north of the First Cataract and the finds from Sai Island in Upper Nubia.

While Sebastian is already busy in drawing ceramics, I am currently sorting through boxes and checking database entries. Today, I had the nice opportunity to come back to contexts I’ve worked on in my first season of the New Kingdom ceramics project, back in 2000! 13 years later and with much more experience and a wider knowledge of parallels, I took a fresh look at certain samples and specific sherds which posed some problems.

Among these sherds is an intriguing type of vessel: carinated dishes with incised wavy lines and finger pinched or cut rims. These dishes are regularly red washed, sometimes with additional white as decoration, and they often show vertical applications on the upper part of the vessel. This type is commonly associated with the Second Intermediate Period pottery tradition in Egypt; early variants are already attested since the late Middle Kingdom in Egypt, but these dishes are more common during the Second Intermediate Period (cf. Budka 2011: 29-30).

Carinated dishes with incised wavy-line decoration.

Carinated dishes with incised wavy-line decoration.

Back in 2000, I therefore concluded my sherds from early 18th Dynasty context must be residual pieces – traces of the former occupation during the 17th Dynasty. But now, with both more material from Elephantine and the very close parallels from Sai Island, I would interpret this differently. It seems as if certain variants of these carinated dishes survived up to Thutmoside times, at least to the reign of Thutmose III. At Elephantine, we not only encounter it in Level 10 (Bauschicht 10, early 18th Dynasty to Hatshepsut), but also rarely in the following Level 9 of mid-late 18th Dynasty date. The same holds true for Sai – Level 4, early 18th Dynasty and Level 3, Thutmoside-late 18th Dynasty, produced examples of such vessels. Furthermore, our colleagues working at Sesebi also found similar types in 18th Dynasty contexts (Spence, Rose et al. 2011: 35, fig. 5).

Carinated dishes with incised wavy-line decoration from New Kingdom contexts.

Carinated dishes with incised wavy-line decoration from New Kingdom contexts.

With the present knowledge, I therefore feel reluctant to explain all of these wavy-line decorated carinated dishes from New Kingdom strata as residual pieces, originating in the Second Intermediate Period. Rather, this particular type illustrates that we have to think about possibly very long traditions of ceramic types as well as regional productions and local preferences. Second Intermediate style was not completely passé by the time of the 18th Dynasty! This is very obvious at both Egypt’s Southern border as illustrated by Elephantine and in Upper Nubia with Sai Island as a case study.


Budka, Julia. 2011. “The early New Kingdom at Sai Island: Preliminary results based on the pottery analysis (4th Season 2010).” Sudan & Nubia 15, p. 23-33.

Spence, Kate, Pamela Rose et al. 2011. “Sesebi 2011.” Sudan & Nubia 15, p. 34-38.

Nehi at Elephantine

Nehi, Viceroy of Kush under Thutmose III, is a well-known figure of the Egyptian administration in Dynasty 18 (see e.g.  Leblanc 2009). He was responsible for building several temples in Lower and Upper Nubia, also the Amun temple at Sai, located just south of our excavation area SAV1 East.

My special interest for Nehi goes back to 1998 and my first participation in the joint German-Swiss mission at Elephantine. Like other officials of the Egyptian administration of Nubia, Nehi left several records and monuments in the area of the First Cataract: in particular stelae and rock inscriptions, records which I always thought have a peculiar “personal” touch – they invoke the illusion of getting close to those persons of the past, to some of their activities and thoughts, to almost grasp them as individuals.

It was one of the very joyful moments of my early career when a great topic as MA thesis was proposed to me in the dig house at Elephantine. And one of the stars of this thesis was no one else than Nehi!

Budka 2001 Taf 3a

Door jamb of Nehi from Elephantine (Budka 2001, pl. 3a)

As monument per  se the unpublished object I had to deal with might not seem extremely interesting: it is a surface find from the kom of the ancient town of Elephantine, a sandstone block measuring 35 x 21 x 12 cm. It has a partly faded vertical column with hieroglyphs at its front side and can be identified as lower part of a left doorjamb (Budka 2001, 69; 107, cat. 1). Within the Egyptian settlement architecture made in mud bricks, architectural features like column bases and door elements were regularly executed in stone.

The text identifies the former owner of the building to which the jamb belonged: King’s son, overseer of the southern foreign lands, Nehi!

The importance of this small piece derives from its parallels – especially at Aniba and at Sai Island. Most probably these door frames belonged to administrative buildings and magazines attesting among others the adoration for king Thutmose III. Nehi as the highest official of the Nubian administration demonstrated his loyalty to the king, combining it with the worship of Egyptian gods.

At Elephantine, the stone block by Nehi may attest a temporary residence for the viceroy: the island was an important site to organize expeditions to the South and to count and distribute goods and more.

Further monuments by Nehi discovered at Elephantine are: a splendid sistrophorous statue JE 39749 (now kept at the Nubian Museum at Aswan) and a stela found close to the temple of Satet.

Stela of Nehi from Elephantine (Dreyer 1987, pl. 17c)

Stela of Nehi from Elephantine (Dreyer 1987, pl. 17c)

On this stela only the representation of Nehi adoring Amun-Ra-Kamutef has survived – the ithyphallic god was chiseled out during the Amarna age (Dreyer 1987, 113-14, pl. 17c).

What interests me most about Nehi and other officials of his time is to try to use all archaeological data available to reconstruct patterns of their past living conditions. The similarities in the architecture and stone monuments found at sites like Elephantine, Aniba and Sai Island are striking and this official line of record would propose few differences between these places. But does this picture change if we take un-inscribed records like ceramics, objects and other materials like animal bones and organic remains into consideration? A detailed assessment of the New Kingdom town of Sai and a close comparison with Elephantine might provide some answers – tracking Nehi by his inscribed monuments is one thing, trying to contextualize these records and establish aspects of their environment goes one step further. I am confident that our research within the framework of AcrossBorders will get us closer to understand the living conditions of viceroy Nehi and his contemporaries.



Budka 2001 = Julia Budka. Der König an der Haustür, Die Rolle des ägyptischen Herrschers an dekorierten Türgewänden von Beamten im Neuen Reich, Vienna 2001.

Dreyer 1987 = Günter Dreyer, X. Ausgewählte Kleinfunde, in Werner Kaiser et al., Stadt und Tempel von Elephantine, 13./14. Grabungsbericht, MDAIK 43, 1987, 107-114.

Leblanc 2009 = Christian Leblanc 2009. Nehy, prince et premiere rapporteur du roi, in I. Regen & F. Servajan (eds.), Verba manent, Recueil d’etudes dédiées à Dimitri Meeks par ses collègues et amis, Montpellier 2009, 241-251.