End of fieldwork on Sai Island

After very intense last days – with severe attacks by nimiti-flies from 6:45 am onwards – and a total of 10 successful weeks, we finished fieldwork on Friday and returned back to Khartoum yesterday. Most of the team has left already this morning; Cajetan and me stay two more days to arrange our export samples and other things.
To be very honest: I am still too tired to write up a proper summary of this simply amazing season! I am also too impressed by all of the finds from the last days – the big cellars we excavated in square 4D at SAV1 East were better preserved than originally thought. Their discovery itself did not come as a surprise – thanks to Martin Fera and his close look on the map of the geophysical survey back in 2011, we were expecting something similar like feature 15.

The two new cellars in Sq. 4D during excavation.

Feature 83, the southern cellar, was exposed first, because it was disturbed by a later pit in its central and western part. The pavement in the eastern part was still preserved and yielded some nice in situ finds of pottery and animal bones.

Cellar 85 with its vault still in place.

Feature 85, situated in the north, however, was much better preserved: at least it was not disturbed by pits from above. Part of its vault is still in place, only its side walls have collapsed and covered the lower part of the cellar. A really amazing find, very unexpected for SAV1 East in general – and very challenging for the very last week of a fieldwork project!
Both new cellars are similar in date and belong to the major Thutmoside building phase at SAV1 East – contemporaneous to Building A. They add important data to the general layout of the town and the functional interpretation of SAV1 East.

For now a big “thank you” to all the brave workmen and the staff working at SAV1 East – including the “magazine guys” who helped us finishing on the very last day, despite of the black flies attacks! When even the workman who never never never wears a mosquito net does ask for one and then does not take it off for one second, you really know that these last weeks were like hell – but with much reward regarding the archaeology of New Kingdom Sai!

“Chamber pots” from Elephantine and Sai

Only 3 days have passed since we arrived on Elephantine Island in Egypt. Everything worked out fine and we had a very good start into the season.

Today, I used the day off from fieldwork to work on the pottery database from both Elephantine and Sai. One of the most exciting aspects of this analysis is that we are currently comparing the ceramic data from the New Kingdom town of Sai with the pottery corpus from the contemporaneous settlement at Elephantine.

Among the most important contexts from Sai is of course the material from feature 15. The large amount of intact vessels, their association with seal impressions and the clear stratigraphic sequence makes this cellar a perfect case study.

Unusual vessels from Feature 15, Sai.

Unusual vessels from Feature 15, Sai.

Besides dozens of bowls, plates and beakers, there are also two very unusual vessels from feature 15. They are unique within the pottery corpus of Sai, being heavy deep bowls with a thick flat base and a pronounced outer lip. We nicknamed them “chamber pots” and until today I was not able to find close parallels. Until today! Sitting here on my desk surrounded by all the New Kingdom pottery data from Elephantine, I suddenly remembered a complete pot we documented some years ago which is also unique within the local corpus.

Unusual pot from Elephantine...

Unusual pot from Elephantine…

The copy of the drawing of 37601X/b-29 was labelled as “Nachttopf” in my handwriting… and closely resembles our pots from feature 15! While the piece still has no parallel within the Elephantine material, it clearly compares nicely to the pots from Sai.

Although the functional use of these vessels still poses several questions (which I will leave open for now…any thoughts are of course welcome!), finds like this illustrate the huge potential of AcrossBorders’ approach to compare the Sai pottery corpus in detail with the one from Elephantine. Linking and differentiating Sai and Elephantine is making excellent progress and will of course continue!

Feature 15 – another update

Giving a lecture about Sai in Hamburg last week, I had not only the pleasure to meet dear colleagues and friends there (and to have a great Abydos-Berlin-reunion!), but also to spend some time thinking about feature 15.

Feature 15 is definitely the highlight of AcrossBorders’ excavations in SAV1 East and has kept us busy ever since 2013. The large subterranean room (5.6 x 2.2 x 1.2m) was dug into the natural gravel deposit and lined with red bricks. Its filling deposit was very rich in archaeological material: large amounts of charcoal, hundreds of dom-palm fruits, abundant animal bones, c. 100 almost intact ceramic vessels and more than 200 clay sealings. The sealings comprise a large number of royal names (Amenhotep I, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III), a seal of the viceroy Nehi and various floral decorations in a style typical for the Second Intermediate Period.

Feature 15_Seite_1Thanks to the stratigraphic sequence, several phases of use can be reconstructed for feature 15. A dating of these building phases was already proposed in 2015, based on the clay sealings and the ceramics (Budka 2015) – the stages show an interesting correspondence with the building phases of Temple A and its surroundings. Most importantly, a section of wall 44, the western boundary wall of the courtyard of Building A, is set into feature 15, thus definitely later in date and sitting on top of the lowermost deposit of feature 15.

It was therefore clear that feature 15 was already in place before one of the main walls of the courtyard of Building A, wall 44, was built. Only this season in 2016, we removed wall 44 and excavated the deposit below it, exposing the westernmost part of feature 15.

The deposit corresponded to the lower filling of feature 15 east of wall 44. Several fragments of pottery and a clay sealing are especially significant. The small fragment of a mud sealing (SAV1E 203) shows a stamp which contains the name of Mn-xpr-ra (Thutmose III), written vertically and without a cartouche, with a nbw-sign beneath. Two uaeri extend downwards from the disc and face the exterior sides of the stamp. The top of the stamp is not preserved.

Feature 15_Seite_2

The results from the 2016 season therefore nicely support the reconstruction of the building phases from 2015 ‒ Building A was extended in the later phase of the reign of Thutmose III (maybe even under Amenhotep II) and wall 44 was set into feature 15 at this stage.

The study of the complete set of finds discovered in feature 15, currently underway, will contribute to the functional analysis of SAV1 East in general and Building A in particular.


Budka 2015 = J. Budka, The Pharaonic town on Sai Island and its role in the urban landscape of New Kingdom Kush, Sudan & Nubia 19, 40–53.

Summary of week 7 at Sai Island: focusing on tombs, ceramics & finds

Week 7 of AcrossBorders’ 2016 season has just ended – it was a very busy week – with the start of work in the cemetery, the arrival of a group of German students from Munich (all newcomers to Sai), our Austrian physical anthropologists (Marlies Wohlschlager and Andrea Stadlmayr) and the departure of our distinguished external experts Dietrich and Rosemarie Klemm (LINK). Today, two other team members, Sayantani Neogi and Sean Taylor have left Sai and are returning to Europe after a rich season of landscape archaeology with special assistance by THE sandstone experts from Munich…

Fieldwork focused in week 7 on cemetery SAC5 – and here both on tomb 26 and the neighboring area. A sector towards the south and southeast of tomb 26 was cleaned in order to check the existence of other shaft tombs – until now, unsuccessfully, but with plenty of pottery and bones attesting the use of the site as burial place during the 18th Dynasty, Ramesside times, Pre-Napatan and Napatan era.

First surface cleaning in SAC5 earlier this week.

First surface cleaning in SAC5 earlier this week.

In tomb 26, we started removing the uppermost flood deposits in the burial chamber, finding very fragile human remains. It was thus time to pass work in the chamber on to Marlies and Andrea in order that they can document the original position of the bones and their distribution – they did a great job cleaning the very fragile pieces as best as possible. A minimum number of 4 individuals were found still more or less in position in the northwestern corner of the chamber.

Marlies and Andrea busy in the burial chamber of tomb 26.

Marlies and Andrea busy in the burial chamber of tomb 26.

We were busy cleaning and documenting these remains in the last days – so it still remains unclear whether they are from the first phase of burial (plundered) or maybe a slightly re-deposited secondary phase. The latter seems more likely from my perspective. And there is still hope for more remains below this level of burial remains – a very nice scarab is still sealed in solid mud debris just in the entrance area. We’ll keep you updated in the next 3 weeks to come!

Very promising: a scarab close to the entrance of the burial chamber!

Very promising: a scarab close to the entrance of the burial chamber!

With the Munich group arriving, life in the magazine has quite changed for our registrar Meg: three students busy with drawing ceramics, one assisting her with several registration tasks! Two workmen are washing sherds from both the town and the cemetery – so also the courtyard is well occupied.

The small finds from SAV1 West and SAV1 East excavated in this season are now all registered and most of them photographed. One of my personal favorites is coming from feature 15 – no surprise given all the great finds unearthed in this cellar! This tiny figure of a ram functioned as a lid or stopper for a very small vessel– it is unique in our contexts so far and definitely one of the highlights of 2016.

SAV1E 181

End of Sai Island New Kingdom town season 2016

Time flies by – the town season 2016 was officially closed yesterday and celebrated together with all workmen with a traditional sheep-dinner and party last night!

Week 6 on Sai Island focused on “cosmetic work” at SAV1 East – the complete area was cleaned for the final surface documentation, description of features and drawings.

Final cleaning at SAV1 East.

Final cleaning at SAV1 East.

Specific areas and small features were excavated – most importantly a very interesting part of Square 4C with a newly discovered rectangular storage pit (feature 76) and impressions of two firing places for baking plates within the pavement associated with this feature. This is one of the rare cases were intact, undisturbed contexts from Dynasty 18 were documented at SAV1 East.

The final task at SAV1 East was to fully excavate feature 15. Wall 44, set into the cellar/feature 15, was carefully dismantled step by step, brick by brick. Although I proposed a dating for the building phases of cellar and wall already last year, firm proof was still missing as the deposit below wall 44 was not yet accessible.

Wall 44, set into feature 15, was carefully removed in order to document the western part of feature 15 and the deposit below the wall.

Wall 44, set into feature 15, was carefully removed in order to document the western part of feature 15 and the deposit below the wall.

Having now cleaned the entire feature, my preliminary assessment was strengthened: both the pottery and seal impressions from below wall 44 testify to a dating in the reign of Thutmose III. Thus, wall 44 was built into feature 44 not prior to the mid/late reign of this king – corresponding nicely to the proposed main building phases of Building A.

Sieving the undisturbed contexts in feature 15 was again very successful: a number of artefacts, most importantly seal impressions were found!

Sieving the undisturbed contexts in feature 15 was again very successful: a number of artefacts, most importantly seal impressions were found!

Excavations in test trench 1 in the new area SAV1 Northeast continued in week 6 as well – and the results are very promising: a substantial mud brick structure of mid-18th Dynasty date was discovered! Very likely the eastern enclosure wall of Sai city, enabling us to upgrade the town map!

Work in progress in test trench 1, SAV1 Northeast.

Work in progress in test trench 1, SAV1 Northeast.

A more concise summary of the town season will follow – for now I would like to thank the team members who have already left the island (Jördis Vieth, Klara Sauter and Adrian de Vries): the data collected in the last weeks are extremely rich and will keep us very busy for a while!

Fire dogs and food preparation on Sai

Among the most interesting functional vessel types found in the New Kingdom town of Sai are so-called fire dogs, currently studied by Nicole Mosiniak.

The common assumption is that these vessels were used to hold a cooking pot over a fire. In 2014, thanks to the cooperation and help of the University of Vienna and the NHM, we conducted one experimental project on fire dogs at the “MAMUZ” open-air Museum in Asparn (Lower Austria).

We had several questions we wanted to investigate, first of all the way of manufacture of the fire dogs and their possible function(s). All in all, our experiments showed that cooking is possible with copies of the Ancient Egyptian devices – but it is still not a very convincing way of preparing food, thus Nicole is still taking into consideration also other possible uses respectively a multi-functional use.

Our modern copies of ancient fire dogs holding a cooking pot above the fire place in Asparn.

Our modern copies of ancient fire dogs holding a cooking pot above the fire place in Asparn.

This year, an interesting new find came up in SAV1 East. From this sector, until 2014 only five fire dogs were documented – except for one all from surface layers and thus without proper context. This should change during the 2015 season while excavating feature 15.

Feature 15 is a subterranean room located in the central courtyard of Building A. It is of rectangular shape and once had a vaulted roof. Feature 15 is lined with red bricks and red bricks also form the pavement of the structure.

Ashy deposits, large amounts of charcoal, hundreds of dome-palm fruits and abundant animal bones with traces of burning, suggest that feature 15 might have been used as a room for food preparation. Among more than 80 almost intact vessels, mostly plates and dishes, beakers, storage jars and pot stands, there was also a fragment of a fire dog.

Drawing of fire dog fragment from feature 15 (Oliver Frank Stephan).

Drawing of fire dog fragment from feature 15 (Oliver Frank Stephan).

SAV1W P163 has a rim diameter of c. 16 cm and shows traces of burning on several spots. It is the first fire dog found on Sai from a sealed context dating to the early-mid 18th Dynasty. Although its function is not explicit, the associated finds from feature 15 might point towards a use within food preparation and here as support for cooking pots. However, it should be noted that only one cooking pot was found in feature 15.

All in all, the fresh finds from feature 15 stress that the large number of fire dogs from Sai might result from a quite complex use of these devices which is still not completely understood.

AcrossBorders 2015: looking back at a fruitful season

Thanks to the great help and support by our Sudanese colleagues, everything was arranged in the last days here in Khartoum and a set of samples is waiting to be exported; Martin and me are flying out early tomorrow morning – as the last team members of AcrossBorders’ 2015 field season.

Looking back, it’s a challenge to summarize these ten weeks in the field on Sai Island. The 2015 field season resulted in various important insights and added valuable information about the evolution of the Pharaonic town of Sai Island and its development from the early 18th Dynasty to the Ramesside era. The four most important results can be briefly summarized as follows:

(1)     The features unearthed in the southern part of SAV1 East pre-date “Building A” and probably belong to the early 18th Dynasty. With feature 57, a terrace wall set against the natural gravel deposit, affinities to the building technique of the Kerma culture – dry-stone walls with galus/earth– can be noted. All in all, these southern remains mirror our findings in 2013 and can be interpreted as the northern extensions of the area excavated by Michel Azim around temple A. A dating to the very early New Kingdom (Ahmose? Amenhotep I?) is most likely.

Early 18th Dynasty remains along the southern edge of SAV1 East; including the terracing wall feature 57.

Early 18th Dynasty remains along the southern edge of SAV1 East; including the terracing wall feature 57.

(2)     “Building A” at SAV1 East provides a close parallel to the so-called residence SAF2 in the southern part of the Pharaonic town, probably also regarding its function. For the first time, large sets of seal impressions were discovered in the Pharaonic town of Sai, allowing reconstructing patterns of the Egyptian administration in Upper Nubia. The recent finds illustrate very well the importance of Sai as administrative centre during the time of Thutmose III, but probably already during the reign of Hatshepsut.

(3)     The earliest phase of occupation within the town enclosure at SAV1 West is contemporaneous to the building of the town wall and dates to the mid-18th Dynasty. There is clear negative evidence for an early 18th Dynasty presence at the site. It has to be highlighted that we also have hints for Ramesside activities at SAV1 West.

Nothing predating the town enclosure was found in SAV1 West - the earliest exposed structures are contemporaneous to the town wall.

Nothing predating the town enclosure was found in SAV1 West – the earliest exposed structures are contemporaneous to the town wall.

(4)     More New Kingdom tombs are still unexcavated in the southern part of the major pyramid cemetery SAC5 – this is clearly illustrated by tomb 26. The findings in tomb 26 testify that there were burials during the 19th Dynasty – of high officials like the jdnw of Kush Hornakht. This is of great importance for understanding the relationship between Sai and Amara West in this era and might be of historical significance for Upper Nubia in a broader sense.

The shaft of tomb 26 yielded a lot of interesting finds attesting to a multiple use!

The shaft of tomb 26 yielded a lot of interesting finds attesting to a multiple use!

Once again I would like to thank everybody who contributed to this very successful 2015 season – all international team members, all colleagues from NCAM and especially our inspector Huda Magzoub who did a fantastic job as usual, all of the house staff (Sidahmed, Abdelfatah, Osama, Moatez and Ahmed), the field staff and of course the local communities on Sai. Looking much forward to the post-excavation processing of this rich set of data, samples and finds and of course to the next season 2016!


The success of the 2015 season was only possibly with great team work!

Cemetery, seals, pots and Nun-bowls in week 8

This week work focused again on fieldwork in the cemetery SAC5 and registration and studying of various find categories in the dig house.

Excavation in area 1 in the southern part of SAC5 proved to be very interesting: we now know that this large sector set between two small hill outcrops probably was completly void of tombs. No burial monuments were located, but rather various interesting topographical features exposed – Martin Fera will compose a digital landscape model in the next weeks attempting a first interpretation of this topography. The fresh information will allow some new insights into the landscape, evolution and size of the New Kingdom cemetery SAC5.

Area 1 with newly exposed topographies.

Area 1 with newly exposed topographies.

In agreement with Florence Thill, we started digging another area in SAC5: area 2 is located north of area 1, just next to various 18th Dynasty monuments like tomb 8. The surface material discovered so far covers all the periods attested for the use of SAC5 as a burial site: mid-late 18th Dynasty, Late Ramesside, Pre-Napatan and Napatan.

Today, a sandy depression was found, surrounded on three sides by bedrock – we’ll continue excavating there, of course hoping for a shaft opening belonging to a new tomb.

Promising new area 2 in SAC5.

Promising new area 2 in SAC5.

Feature 15 keeps us busy in the digging house – most of the washing of the ceramics is now done, but sorting is still ongoing. 60 vessels have been reconstructed so far – dozens of more are still waiting to be joined. Oliver Frank Stephan concentrates on drawing the complete profiles and reconstructed pots. Registration of finds from feature 15 continued – Ken Griffin and Meg Gundlach have been very productive in entering different types of objects into the database. By now, a total of 329 small finds were registered from feature 15! And I am not yet done with sieving, some bags with material from directly above the pavement are still unchecked, for sure comprising more objects. Already 171 seal impressions were documented, mostly dating to Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. We continue to be a bit baffled about the large amount of clay sealings from such a small structure!

Exciting: this week a substantial number of new seal types were registered.

Exciting: this week a substantial number of new seal types were registered.

Sabine Tschorn started with drawing representative fragments of faience vessels – most of which are Nun-bowls, but other shapes like small chalices are also attested. The number of fragments from SAV1 West is much higher than from SAV1 East – probably related to the different character of the areas, but it could also be explained by the slightly later date of deposits in SAV1 West. The late 18th Dynasty, a well-known heyday of faience production, is better attested in our western area than within the surroundings of Building A towards the East.

Happy with small, but diagnostic pieces of Nun-bowls from SAV1 West.

Happy about small, but diagnostic pieces of Nun-bowls from SAV1 West.

Last but not least I am very thankful to Stuart Tyson Smith and his team for welcoming us this week in Tombos – we got a splendid tour through the cemetery and the town site. There are many parallels to Sai Island and I am looking much forward to future results of the Tombos mission and a continous open exchange and collaboration.

End of week 7: mud sealings, pottery vessels & not yet a tomb

The final phase of our 2015 field season is approaching, only three more weeks to go!

This week, Miranda Semple and Sayantani Neogi successfully completed their geoarchaeological research respectively the micromorphological sampling within the New Kingdom town area – several profiles of cultural deposition were taken from SAV1 West and SAV1 East. This set of soil blocks is the starting point for thin section manufacture and micromorphological analysis in the upcoming years. Taken from 18th Dynasty contexts, they will allow us addressing questions of site formation processes and the ancient use of space.

Our group of Viennese physical anthropologists (Anna Sonnberger, Andrea Stadlmayr and Marlies Wohlschlager) started their work with sorting bones from the town excavation – even if there are some interesting human remains from SAV1 West and SAV1 East, they are of course eagerly waiting for new material from the cemetery site SAC 5. At the cemetery, the group of workmen supervised by Pierre Meyrat and Huda Magzoub were busy with surface cleaning in area 1. No clear outlines of possible superstructures or shafts of New Kingdom tombs were yet found, but several sandy areas are notable.

Work in progress, area 1, SAC 5.

Work in progress, area 1, SAC 5.

In the magazine, registering of both finds and pottery continued. In addition, Sabine Tschorn has joint us to work on the quite substantial corpus of Nun-bowls from the town site. The current focus of find processing, however, is still on the large amount of material coming from feature 15 – Oliver Frank Stephan is currently drawing the intact and almost complete vessels from this important context. A large number of pots is broken in many fragments – reconstructing and gluing them is very time-consuming, but of course essential.

30 complete or almost complete pots from feature 15 were already drawn this week.

30 complete or almost complete pots from feature 15 were already drawn this week.

Ken Griffin and Meg Gundlach continued with registering finds – our database now comprises a total of 3800 objects! Especially interesting is the corpus of seal impressions from feature 15 – 42 mud sealings were already registered, more than a dozen new ones just came up today! There is a number of well-preserved impressions of seals of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, but others are still in the style of the Second Intermediate Period.

One of the fragmented mud sealings with knotted geometrical patterns common in the Second Intermediate Period.

One of the fragmented mud sealings with a knotted geometrical pattern common in the Second Intermediate Period.

Processing and photographing different categories of finds, drawing and sorting of ceramics and of course the field work in the cemetery SAC 5 will keep us very busy in the next weeks.

More complete pots from Feature 15

Back in 2013, I was extremely happy to find two in situ vessels in the small storage bin in SAV1 East. Given the poor state of preservation of standing architecture and undisturbed deposits in this area, this really was – and still is – important, especially for the early New Kingdom use of our site.

However, things have now changed: never would I have imagined to find dozens and dozens and dozens of intact 18th Dynasty vessels in feature 15… we are currently progressing in cleaning the very ashy deposit within this large cellar – and cleaning more and more pots and other finds!


Especially along the northern and southern wall intact vessels were left there, stacked together and often piled one above the other. The variety of the corpus is large and comprises different types of dishes and plates, large storage vessels and zirs, amphorae, pot stands and bread moulds and bread plates.


Two almost complete vessels set agains the southern wall of feature 15.

Two almost complete vessels set against the southern wall of feature 15.

Imported amphora, set with other vessels close to the northern wall of feature 15.

Imported amphora, found together with other vessels close to the northern wall of feature 15.

One of the nicest pieces so far is an almost complete Canaanite amphora! We took it out today and Ken Griffin kindly helped sieving its contents. Being just half way through, he already found some nice clay sealings! More tomorrow insha’allah…