Geoarchaeology from Sai Island, 2016

What a geoarchaeological season it was! We haven’t gotten over it as yet and can foresee a year of excitement in the lab(s). No, we did not have quite a romantic relationship with the nimitis who were just starting to cuddle up with us when we left the place. Instead it was a season of fun involving sampling from within the trenches to better understand the use of space and site formation processes, of provenancing the sandstones found within the Pharaonic town and locating the New Kingdom sandstone quarry and overall placing the 18th Dynasty remains in their environmental context.

One of the main focuses of this year’s fieldwork was directed on locating the source of building stone for the New Kingdom stone buildings. In this respect, we had received helpful assistance by Prof Klemm and Rosemarie Klemm. A detailed survey was carried out both within and outside the island. No quarry site from Pharaonic times, however, was found outside the island, in the vicinity of the sandstone outcrops of Gebel Abri. On the other hand, several quarries in the sandstones were identified adjacent to the New Kingdom town itself!

With the Klemms 1When scrutinised more carefully with Professor Klemm’s long experience of Pharaonic sandstone quarries, analogous chisel marks have now been identified on the sandstone outcrops of the quarries and on the blocks of stones used in the temple. Here, we would like to thank Martin Fera for lending us his geological hammer, about which we would ALL somehow manage to forget from time to time, thus creating much commotion, laughter and fun amidst our fieldwork.

Sandstone quarry with New Kingdom chisel marks 1This year’s survey also produced further suggestion about the Pharaonic harbour or landing ground in the adjacent alluvial platform when rock-cut features for tying ship ropes were found at least at two places. In addition, rock cut steps bearing chisel marks identical to those of the temple have also been identified.

In addition, six boreholes were dug towards the western side of the Pharaonic town. This has revealed no trace of an extramural settlement where sampled. 4.5mts of hand auger 1A thorough landscape survey has also been undertaken to understand the nature of the deposits, especially towards the northern part of the island. This has enabled us to collect data to develop a surface map of the vicinity of the town. Along with the data from the hand auger profiles, exposed sections, soil micromorphology and the surface map, a better understanding of the site setting and geomorphology of the location can be integrated within the GIS for various purposes.

The grass is always green on the other side. Now that we are back at home in the dark and cold, we are longing for some sunshine and clear sky like that of Sai. Knowing that is not a possibility at the moment, we are at least happy that we have a good load of micromorphological and petrographical samples to analyse through in the coming months.

Making progress – post and pre-excavation working steps

Another jour fixe brought most of AcrossBorders’ team members together yesterday – after a very intense summer full of excavations in Egypt (Asasif, Abydos…), lab work (geoarchaeological samples, strontium isotope analysis, mollusks…), data base updates (pottery) & conferences (Florence, Vienna, Athens)!

Currently travelling back and forth between Vienna and Munich, I am very happy that the planned publications by Ingrid Adenstedt (reconstruction of SAV1; architectural report) and Florence Doyen (SAV1 North) are well in time and almost completed. Furthermore, nice first results came up from the strontium isotope analysis!

Within the framework of my FWF START-project, a first set of samples from Sai Island (soil, water, recent and ancient animal bones) were processed, thanks to a cooperation with Thomas Prohaska, at the Department of Chemistry – VIRIS Laboratory of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences. Anika Retzmann presented these data at the 3rd Doc Day 2015 in Tulln, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences on Oct. 13. The poster was entitled “Human mobility along the Nile: Preliminary strontium isotope analyses for migration studies in ancient Nubia” and illustrated the Sr isotope ratio of the environmental samples from Sai Island. Very exciting already and I am looking much forward to the next field season and further sampling!

Besides lab work and databases, we are currently also getting ready for the upcoming season on Elephantine! Work will again focus on the pottery and small finds from House 55 and is scheduled for late October until early December. With the new discovery of feature 15 and its contents at SAV1 East, I am excited to conduct a fresh comparison of aspects of the material culture from Sai and Elephantine during the early to mid-18th Dynasty. Now off to Vienna, we’ll keep you posted!

A Lab-orious Summer

Our readers must be thinking why ‘lab-orious’? Well, our geoarchaeological samples are grabbing all my attention during this time of the summer. As a result, quite willingly, a lot of laborious time is being spent in the ‘lab’. Obviously, the reason behind this is an underlying eagerness towards analysing the end products, i.e., the thin sections as soon as possible!

After having travelled quite a few thousand kilometers from Sai Island, all the samples had arrived at the McBurney Laboratory of Geoarchaeology, University of Cambridge in perfect condition in June 2015. Thereafter, laboratory procedures had begun which include thin section manufacturing followed by microscopic analysis, geochemical analyses of loose soil/sediments and finally integration of these several strands of data for interpretation.

The process of manufacturing the thin sections is being undertaken following the method described by Murphy (Murphy 1986; Goldberg and Macphail 2006). The soil/sediment blocks were first removed from the cling film, air dried on a shelf for one to two weeks, before being dried in an oven for two days (48 hours) at 40°C. This was followed by impregnation with a mixture of crystallitic polymer resin (1700ml), acetone (200ml) and catalyst (methyl ethyl ketone peroxide or MEKP) (0.5ml). The samples were then left under a vacuum-pumping machine for 24 hours so as to allow infiltration of the resin into the soil pore space.

These impregnated blocks have now been left for curing in a fume cupboard (at least for two-three months) for complete hardening. When fully consolidated, they will be converted into thin sections.

Stay tuned for more updates on last stage of thin section manufacturing and obviously for the updates on analysis.



Goldberg, P. and Macphail, R. (2006). Practical and Theoretical Geoarchaeology. Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford.

Murphy, C. (1986). Thin Section Preparation of Soils and Sediments. AB Academic Publishers, Berhamsted.

Some geoarchaeology in and around Sai Island

It is somewhat unusual when you are just 150cms tall, a female with a different skin colour, wearing uncommon attire, do not speak the language and are moving around alone in the desert with a knife and a hammer. Infrequent passersby in their cars or on their donkeys stop by and ask you whether you are lost or not! Well, that exactly what had happened when I, a geoarchaeologist, had been working in and around the New Kingdom temple Town of Sai Island. I joined the AcrossBorders team during the field season of 2015 and what an interesting season it had been!

I undertook geoarchaeological survey in the vicinity of the site. I was mostly assisted in the field by Hassan Dawd, a local from the island and since many years one of the best workmen assisting in the field. Not only did he take a keen interest in digging holes as per my instructions, but was of utmost help in keeping the dreadful date flies (called nimiti in Sudan) away by burning donkey dung, so as to allow me to concentrate in my job. Well, in that respect I can point out that the donkeys have also been very supportive. I was also occasionally assisted in the field by various other team members namely Miranda Semple and Martin Fera.

Test pitting and hand augering going on in the alluvial platform adjacent to the site.

Test pitting and hand augering going on in the alluvial platform adjacent to the site.

During the 2015 field season at Sai, I was assigned with objectives of placing the archaeological site in its environmental context, to understand the nature of any surface preparation prior to the establishment of the settlement, provenance of sandstones found within the Pharaonic town, potential sandstone quarry locations and to shed light on any possible harbour/landing ground on the island during the period concerned. To try to have some answers for these objectives I conducted test pitting, hand auger profiles (I somehow tend to relate this Dutch auger with a magic-wand; not only there is a visual similarity but also this can create absolute magical interpretation out soil profiles) and of course looked out for exposed and available sections and quarry pits. At each profile loci, the stratigraphy was located, recorded and photographed and old land surfaces sampled as appropriate. Three types of samples were taken: intact soil block samples for micromorphological analysis, small bulk samples for physical characterisation (pH, particle size analysis, organic content using loss-on-ignition, multi-element analysis) and sand-stone blocks for petrographic analysis.

Six profiles were recorded from the landscape survey and seven sets of soil block and bulk samples were collected. In addition, from Profile 9 in SAV1 N, two sets if soil block and bulk samples were collected from below the contact zone of the anthropogenic sediments and natural soil. Besides these, thirty-nine rock samples have been collected for further scientific analysis from different sandstone outcrops of the island and from on-site debris. These outcrops are mainly at Jebel Adou and the village of Adou, where at least 4-5 quarry places (unsure of the period of quarrying though) have been marked. The aim behind collecting sandstones from on-site debris was to provenance their sources by characterising their mechanical and chemical properties.

 Remains of sandstone quarrying at Sai Island.

Remains of sandstone quarrying at Sai Island.

Now I very much look forward to process all these samples and to have a rich pool of data. My sincere thanks to Julia all the other team members for making work so easy. We will keep you updated about our geoarchaeological findings.

Kick-off: Year 3 and new perspectives in micro- and geoarchaeology

Time flies by: AcrossBorders is by now already in its third year! Having just returned from a very successful season at Elephantine (thanks to our good cooperation with the Swiss Institute Cairo), I am more than happy that we just held a kick-off meeting in Vienna (Dec 8-9): Our new colleagues from the Charles McBurney Laboratory for Geoarchaeology in Cambrigde, Sayantani Neogi and Miranda Semple, joined us for two days of sharing information, ideas and thoughts about possible applications of micromorphology and geoarchaeology on Sai Island.

Microarchaeology, commonly applied to investigate formation processes on sites in Britain, Turkey and Syria (and very successfully by our colleagues working at Amara West), can provide astonishing results in uncovering human activities in seemingly insignificant traces within archaeological sections. Micro­morpho­­logy and geochemistry will therefore be applied to investigate formation processes and cultural activities within the town site of Sai. Both anthropogenic activities and natural processes will be investigated by chemical analyses, petrographical studies and thin sections of archaeo­logical deposits. There will be a particular focus on floors, walls and archaeological deposits within open areas.

Miranda explaining some of her previous studies at sites in Syria.

Miranda explaining some of her previous studies at sites in Syria.

Miranda is our new specialist for investigating activity areas and more in the different sectors of the Pharaonic town – the focus of her research will be on sampling contexts from our current excavation in SAV1 West.

Sayantani has conducted landscape archaeology in different parts of the world, e.g. in India and Spain.

Sayantani has conducted landscape archaeology in different parts of the world, e.g. in India and Spain.

Sayantani will concentrate on the landscape archaeology and the environmental setting of Sai Island during the 2nd millennium BC. For the upcoming season, sampling of relevant sections, drilling and test pits are planned as well as a detailed geoarchaeological survey in the area of the Pharaonic town and the New Kingdom cemeteries.

All of this will happen of course in close exchange with us working on the architecture, pottery, faunal remains and other finds.

Giulia explaining some of her observations on the petrography of our ceramics.

Giulia sharing some of her observations on the petrography of our ceramics.

I am much looking forward to our 2015 season and I am delighted that thanks to the strong interdisciplinary approach of AcrossBorders, the project is now applying multiple methods, including micro- and geoarchaeology with physical and chemical analyses of samples. This would not be possible without the support of several colleagues and here I am especially grateful to Charles French and his lab in Cambridge (Charles McBurney Laboratory for Geoarchaeology).