On the move – to and from Sai

An upcoming workshop organized within the framework of the program “LMU – UCB Research in Humanities” brings together researchers from LMU Munich and the UC Berkeley to discuss phenomena of “Archaeologies of human mobility and migration”.  I am very happy to be able to participate and much looking forward to this event with a rich variety of archaeological case studies.

AcrossBorders, its aims and results are of course highly relevant for understanding people and things “on the move”, migration between Egypt and Nubia, but also aspects of appropriation and the entanglement of cultures. The location of Sai Island in a territory of strategic value with changing boundaries and alternating ruling powers in the Second Millennium BC (Egypt and Nubia) allows the addressing of questions of ancient lives across borders and cultures.

In general, we know that mobility of administrative staff and officials was common in New Kingdom Egypt – examples from Sai include the viceroy of Kush Nehi and other officials.  Nehi’s monuments in Egypt and Nubia (incl. door jambs, lintels, statues, stelae etc.) illustrate that high officials had temporary living quarters in different parts of Egypt as well as in Nubia.







My paper will present results of the AcrossBorders project based on the study of the material culture, here especially of ceramics including data from iNAA. In addition to the analysis of finds and architecture from the settlement, the mortuary evidence helps investigating the coexistence of Egyptians and Nubians on the island. The latest results from Tomb 26 will be discussed, highlightening also the potential of ongoing strontium isotope analysis for exploring the origin of the occupants of New Kingdom Sai.

The 13th European Meeting on Ancient Ceramics (EMAC) in Athens

Back again in Munich ‒ after three dense and highly inspiring days fully dedicated to the archaeometric study of pottery and ceramic materials at the 13th European Meeting on Ancient Ceramics (EMAC) held in the Acropolis Museum in Athens from Sep. 24-26.
Fall has definitively arrived and the EMAC meeting successfully closed a very fruitful conference summer season, started in June with the AcrossBorders workshop “Settlements patterns in Egypt and Nubia” at the Egyptian State Museum in Munich ̶ and continued over the summer with the International Congress of Egyptology (ICE) in Florence and the International Congress for Young Egyptologists (ICYE) in Vienna.
Since I am not an Egyptologist and unfortunately not even so young anymore, I happily represented, as the archaeometric ceramic specialist in our team, the AcrossBorders project at the 13th EMAC in Athens with a poster co-authored by Julia Budka, Elena Garcea and Johannes Sterba. The title of our poster was: “Discrimination of Nile clay ceramic ware by geochemistry: three case studies from Sai Island (Northern Sudan)”.

The entrance of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, venue of the EMAC 2015.

The entrance of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, venue of the EMAC 2015.

This was the third time I personally attended the European Meeting on Ancient Ceramics (EMAC) which has already a fairly long tradition. The first EMAC took place in Rome in 1991 with the aim of gathering together different scholars working on ceramics in the Mediterranean regions.
Over the last three decades, the European Meeting on Ancient Ceramics (EMAC) has become established as an important international forum in the field of ancient ceramics with a particular attention to the development of new scientific methodologies and laboratory techniques applied to the study of ceramic materials.
Nowadays, the geographical focus of the EMAC is not restricted anymore just to the Mediterranean regions, but the topics of the conference have been greatly extended and include also several different European and non-European countries.
Also the time frame of the conference topics is always very broad, ranging from the early pottery productions dated to Prehistory till more recent evidences and case studies from the Iron Age up to Roman, Medieval and post-Medieval times.
However, what represents to me the principal reason for interest in this conference is the exceptional condition of having gathered together in the same room so many specialists working on archaeometry and ceramics either with a background as archaeologists, or as hard scientists in the fields of petrography, mineralogy, chemistry and geology.

More than 200 abstracts were submitted in this last EMAC 2015 of which 197 were accepted and allocated either to poster or oral sessions.
The scientific committee did a great job in organizing both the poster and the talks by following a dual policy in the definitions of the sessions ̶ on one hand organized according to the main topics (i.e. methodology, raw materials, pyrotechnical ceramics, building materials etc.), and on the other hand according to chronological and geographical criteria.

The auditorium hall in the Acropolis Museum.

The auditorium hall in the Acropolis Museum.

For the session “Methodology”, two very useful talks regarded the application of the portable XRF- analyser to archaeological ceramics: what is the good, the bad and reality about (by A.M.W Hunt and R.J. Speakman) and which are the new prospects for the archaeological studies (by M. Daszkiewicz et al.). Highly interesting was also the talk given by some colleagues from Vienna (A. Kern, T. Ntaflos and D. Arnitz) about the “Experimental verification of calcite dependent temperature determination”. Material of AcrossBorders from Sai Island was mentioned in the co-authored paper by I. Hein et al. on “Patron recognition with Gabor filter and K-nearest neighbor algorithm applied to archaeological ceramic materials.”

Several stimulating talks were also presented in the session “Early pottery production and mobility”, among them I want to point out the one by S. Amicone, P. Quinn et al. regarding the study of late Neolithic and early Calcolithic communities in the Balkans and the one given by M. Dikomitou-Eliadou, V. Kilikoglou et al. about the earliest cooking pots traditions in Cypro.

The poster session was simply spectacular both for the variety of topics, chronological and geographical contexts presented and for the beautiful sunny open-air setting in the garden of the British School at Athens. Moreover, a parallel virtual session provided a complementary platform for the poster presentations.

Open-air poster session at the British School in Athens.

Open-air poster session at the British School in Athens.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how both Egypt and Sudan were very well represented in several posters and through different ages.
Our poster (P-016) in the session “Raw material” presented three patterns of variability recognized in the composition of both raw clay material and tempers in Nile clay ceramics from Sai Island, by means of chemical (INAA) and petrographic (OM) analyses.
The results, organized in three distinct blocks, included 1) a diachronic analysis of the Nubian-style handmade wares from Prehistory till the New Kingdom age, 2) a comparison between the Nubian-style and the Egyptian-style New Kingdom ceramics and 3) a comparison between the Egyptian-style and the Real Egyptian imported New Kingdom wares.

Coffee breaks and lunches, of course based on local delicious Greek specialities, offered the opportunity for informal talks and meetings with new and old colleagues from different countries.
Finally, I took a bit of time for sightseeing and for discovering the city ̶ there is simply no chance to avoid archaeology in Athens: the whole city is plenty of wonderful archaeological buildings and museums you cannot escape.

View of the Acropolis 1


When, at the time of the New Kingdom, the Egyptians came to Sai Island in Upper Nubia and founded a Pharaonic town, they settled on the island taking with them their own traditions – but they also made contact with the indigenous Nubian cultures and adopted part of the local customs. Thus, Sai Island soon became for them a “home away from home”.
Well, I can say that in the last two years since I left Italy for joining AcrossBorders, Vienna became as well for me something very similar to a “second home.” Still, now that the project moved to Munich, if I have the chance to go there because of my work, I feel like coming back home.
So nothing better than a one-week business trip to the Institute of Atomic and Subatomic Physics (AI) in Vienna to mitigate a little my “homesickness” and, most of all, together with Johannes Sterba, to take stock of our INAA chemical data! After two years there are more than 200 samples.

The main purpose of this Viennese “reunion” at the AI was to elaborate some of our recent results in view of the forthcoming workshop in Munich. In particular, during the last week Johannes Sterba and I have been focusing on our numerous set of Nubian samples – from the Khartoum Variant (c. 7400 – 5000 BC) till the New Kingdom period (c. 1550 – 1300 BC) – with the intent of linking the compositional data with the macroscopic and petrographic information we have about the local pottery and to look in detail at the chemical behavior of the Nubian samples.
Is it possible to recognize any variability in the use of the clay raw materials and tempers and in the pottery recipes through the course of the different chronological horizons? And what happened at the time of New Kingdom when for the first time Egyptian and Nubian ceramic traditions coexisted on Sai Island?

Apologies, but I am not going to reveal much more now as we prefer to keep you curious for the workshop! I can just say that Johannes and I were quite busy (but we had as well some fun) trying to plot different chemical elements against each other and to figure out how the samples might cluster (or not) according to their chemistry.
Besides that, spending one week at the AI gave also to me the opportunity to enjoy once again the unique atmosphere of the lab (I somehow like the smell of acetone and distillate water and all the chemical devices and small vials of which the lab is plenty) and to prepare a new bunch of 43 samples from our last field season in the winter of 2015.

The new bunch of samples mostly includes local Nubian and Egyptian style Nile clays plus a number of Egyptian cooking pots and decorated ware which according to their macroscopic features could be imported on Sai Island from Egypt and we are now going to test by means of INAA analysis.

Johannes properly cleaning the agate mortar with pure quartz powder.

Johannes properly cleaning the agate mortar with pure quartz powder.

The protocol we adopted for their preparation was exactly the same we used in the past:
1- few grams of sample were manually ground in an agate mortar into fine powder and temporally stored in small plastic vials
2- the samples were dried over the night at 90°C in a kiln
3- around 100 mg of sample were weighed and sealed into Suprasil glass vials waiting for irradiation.
Proud of our sample number 8 (of this last bunch)!

Proud of our sample number 8 (of this last bunch)!

Labelling our samples by engraving the numbers on such small glass vials can be a lot of fun!

Labelling our samples by engraving the numbers on such small glass vials can be a lot of fun!

All these operations require a lot of patience and concentration. Once again, the expertise and the great support of Michaela Foster, technical assistant at the AI in Vienna, were essential to me in the lab and I would like to thank her deeply.
Michaela sealing the glass vials by fire (definitly not a job for archaeologists)!

Michaela sealing the glass vials by fire (definitly not a job for archaeologists)!

Some more potsherds from 2015 are still waiting to be prepared in the lab so that at the end of this year our total number of samples will amount at more than 300.

With the hope to come soon back to Vienna (my personal “home away from home”) and to prepare more of our samples, I am now looking forward for the upcoming workshop here in Munich!

Discussing New Kingdom ceramics at Kerma

Huda Magzoub, Giulia D’Ercole and me just returned to Sai from a very successful ceramic meeting in Kerma. This was actually the third time that colleagues working on New Kingdom sites in Nubia gathered for a 2-day on-site workshop to discuss fabrics, wares, vessel typologies and much more. The first meeting was held on Sai Island in 2012, followed by a meeting in Amara West in 2013 and we are very grateful to the Swiss Mission working at Dukki Gel/Kerma directed by Charles Bonnet that they hosted this year’s meeting. Philippe Ruffieux, the mission’s ceramicist, organized a splendid meeting bringing together colleague from Tombos (Stuart Tyson Smith and Bruce Williams), Amara West (Anna Garnett and Alice Salvador) and Sai Island (the three of us).
We had the great chance to look at samples and sherds from all the sites under investigation – this time the very close parallels between newly excavated material from Dukki Gel and Sai were among the prime interests.

Our joint application of petrography (OM) and iNAA shows some significant differences between "Egyptian style" and "Egyptian" vessels from Sai - work in progress!

Our joint application of petrography (OM) and iNAA shows some significant differences between “Egyptian style” and “Egyptian” vessels from Sai – work in progress!

Giulia gave a brief update of our ongoing petrographical and chemical analyses of New Kingdom fabrics and clays from Sai. We tried to explain why we do think that some of the Nile clay vessels are real imports from Egypt (especially painted wares, cooking pots and small dishes), whereas the majority was of course produced locally in “Egyptian style” on the wheel. Unfortunately we are still missing any evidence for pottery kilns datable to the 18th Dynasty on Sai.
The highlight of our 2 days at Kerma was of course the tour led by Charles Bonnet through the excavations at Dukki Gel and the visit to the site museum!

Amazing tour with Charles Bonnet through his recent findings at Dukki Gel.

Amazing tour with Charles Bonnet through his recent findings at Dukki Gel.

Looking much forward to future meetings and a continuous fruitful exchange! I would like to express once more my gratitude to the Swiss mission hosting us during a very busy (and hot) week of their own fieldwork – very much appreciated!

The long-lasting ceramic tradition on Sai Island

It is well known that Sai Island has been occupied by various cultural groups from Palaeolithic times onwards – illustrating the good living conditions and also a favourable strategic position in the Nile valley which resulted in the importance of the site during the Kerma period and the New Kingdom.

The large Kerma cemetery in the southern part of Sai Island.

The large Kerma cemetery in the southern part of Sai Island.

Even if AcrossBorders is focusing on the period of the Egyptian presence on Sai Island, I was always keen to set our ideas and studies into a larger context, the diachronic development of the site throughout the millennia. Therefore I am very happy that Elena Garcea, working since many years on the Prehistory of Sai, was willing to cooperate with my project and we can thus tackle interesting aspects of local and also regional phenomena within a very broad timeframe.

Elena Garcea at work on Sai Island (field season 2013).

Elena Garcea at work on Sai Island (field season 2013).

The perfect opportunity to present some of our ongoing research on pottery production came up with the 14th Congress of the Pan African Archaeological Association for Prehistory and Related Studies, hosted from July 14-18 by the University of the Witwatersrand at Johannesburg, South Africa.


Our paper aims to illustrate that in Nubia (Northern Sudan) pottery making has a very ancient tradition with long-lasting aspects of production techniques and raw materials. We will present a comparative study on diverse Nubian ceramic assemblages from Sai Island, covering a period of over 5000 years: from prehistoric times (Khartoum Variant, Abkan and Pre-Kerma) until the New Kingdom period (especially Dynasty 18).

slide 4 archaeometryThe pottery data are presented according to both stylistic and technological aspects, taking into account the entire manufacturing sequence, from the raw material procurement to the firing of the vessels. In order to address the different archaeological questions, macroscopic and analytical approaches have been combined, by means of petrographic (OM) and chemical (XRF and INAA) analyses.[1]

We do believe that the ceramic production reflects aspects of the general development of economic choices and corresponding lifestyles. Much research has still to be undertaken, but the first results, especially deriving from the INAA, are very promising! We are very much looking forward to the conference and in particular to feedback from our colleagues working in different areas of Africa!

[1] We are very grateful to the Center for Earth Sciences of the University of Vienna for its support concerning the petrography (thin sections and OM), especially to Dieter Mader and Claudia Beybel. We also wish to thank the Institute of Atomic and Subatomic Physics, Vienna for the INAA and here first of all Johannes Sterba who is doing a great job working with our Sai Island samples! For some analyses of the Prehistoric samples we are also very thankful to the Department of Earth and Geoenvironmental Sciences, University of Bari, Italy, especially to Giacomo Eramo and Italo M. Muntoni.

From Abri, Sudan to Asparn, Austria: experimenting with ancient recipes for making pottery

In January, during the 2014 field season, together with Huda Magzoub – our inspector of NCAM – and Erich Draganits – the geologist of the project – we went for a one-day excursion to the pottery workshop in Abri (1). Our purpose was to interview the two modern potters working there and collecting information concerning the manufacturing sequence of the vessels they produce for the people of the village and surroundings.
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Talking with them, we learned they produce every year many kinds of vessels (i.e. large jars for storing the water, cooking pots and vessels for milk production), following a traditional recipe. This recipe,however,will vary according to the specific function and performance of use of the respective vessels.

They explained to us, for example, that for the zir (water storage vessel) they prefer to use  as the raw material a soil collected in the inland, far from the river banks: this soil is less hard and compact compared to the proper Nile silt and therefore more suitable for the production of such large vessels that have to be porous and also light in order to be movable.
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In addition, the modern potters seem partially to differentiate also the tempers they add to the clay: they select intentionally the dung from goat or sheep for the small pots, while the one from donkey is preferable for making larger vessels.

The variables in terms of clayey raw material and tempers we observed in the nowadays pottery production at Abri may explain some minor technological differences we also notice in our New Kingdom assemblage from Sai Island and especially in the organic-rich Nubian fabrics.
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Three full days (26/06-28/06) of experimental archaeology at the “MAMUZ” open-air Museum in Asparn (Lower Austria), organized thanks to the kind cooperation of our colleagues from the University of Vienna (especially the archaeologists and prehistorians responsible for the experimental archaeology class: among others Stefan Eichert, Mathias Mehofer and Hans Reschreiter – the latter with the initial idea for us to join!), were the perfect occasion to test our ideas and impressions, playing a bit with clay and tempers in order to experiment by ourselves the ancient pottery recipes!

One of our experimental projects in Asparn (the other one concentrated on fire dogs and their possible function) was dedicated to the production of small clay test tablets (c. 9 x 9 cm) using different kind of clay and tempers we collected in situ at Sai Island.

As a raw material, we employed two different samples of clay (labelled clay “type A” and “type B”) collected at different locations of the island. As a tempers we used: sand, caliche, charcoal and dung from goat, cow and donkey from Sai Island plus a sample of horse dung from Austria.
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Preparing the temper - dung from donkey.

Preparing the temper – dung from donkey.

We prepared the test tablets following an accurate protocol, taking notes of all the relevant scientific steps: from the preparation of the clayey raw material and tempers (STEP 1) to the production/forming of the tablets (STEP 2) and then to the drying (STEP 3) and the firing (STEP 4) phases.
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Mixing the clay with water.

Mixing the clay with water.

All in all, 17 test tablets were realized of which: eight were produced using the clay “type A” in combination with the different set of tempers and eight using the clay “type B” with the same tempers (for each series one tablet was made only with clay). In addition, a further tablet was realized with clay “type B” by adding a larger amount of dung from donkey.

Clay type A and dung from goat.

Clay type A and dung from goat.

Vera and Nicole forming the tablets.

Vera and Nicole forming the tablets.

The tablets were weighted during the production and then after the drying and the firing to check how much water they lost.

Our test tablets.

Our test tablets.

Our next step will consist in analyzing them by iNAA and also in preparing thin sections to be studied under the microscope!

Looking forward for the results, we already learned a lot from this experience and had so much fun working together!

Many thanks go first of all again to our colleagues and to all students of the experimental archaeology class of the University of Vienna, to Vera and Ludwig Albustin who have been of invaluable help in preparing the clay and much more! Thanks also to the AcrossBorders’ team: Julia Budka, Nicole Mosiniak, Jördis Vieth and Arvi Korhonen. We did a great team job, sharing for three days the joys and also the pains of being potters!

Having fun in Asparn...

Having fun in Asparn…

The hard life of a potter...

The hard life of a potter…

(1) A comparable excursion was already done by our colleagues working at Amara West – the pottery specialists Marie Millet and Michela Spartaro also used the valuable information provided by the modern potters and included modern clay samples into their scientific analysis. See the recent paper: M. Spataro, M. Millet & N. Spencer, The New Kingdom settlement of Amara West (Nubia, Sudan): mineralogical and chemical investigation of the ceramics, in: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 2014, esp. fig. 4 (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12520-014-0199-y).

Post-excavation working steps in Vienna

Back in Vienna, all of us are engaged with several tasks, most of them of course connected with the field season 2014.

I am still busy with finalising reports and accounts, hoping to finish the administrative aftermath of the season as soon as possible!

Giulia is particularly occupied as we brought a large number of ceramics samples to Vienna, thanks to the kind permission of NCAM. Two sets of new samples are already prepared for iNAA – Johannes Sterba and his colleague at the Atominstitut have been most efficiently as usual! Tomorrow we have an appointment at the Geozentrum in order to arrange the next thin sections – we are in particular focusing this time on Nubian fine wares (Black topped cups and beakers) and Egyptian wheel-made cooking pots. The latter are most likely real Egyptian products in a very sandy Nile E variant – of course this macroscopic assessment has to be checked by petrographic and chemical analysis.

Ceramic samples from Sai selected for thin sections.

Ceramic samples from Sai selected for thin sections.

Jördis is currently updating our literature database – a number of very important articles have been published recently. Especially stimulating and a must-read for all interested in Nubian archaeology is the special new issue of the Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections! A particular inspiring paper by Neal Spencer on “Creating and Re-Shaping Egypt in Kush: Responses at Amara West” corresponds nicely to AcrossBorders’ focus and aims.

The literature database is growing - counting already more than 750 entries!

The literature database is growing – counting already more than 800 entries!

Nadia is working on the samples of animal bones we took from Sai to Vienna – it’s a nice collection from SAV1 North, from Levels 5-3, thus datable to Dynasty 18.

SAV1 North is also the prime task for Florence – she is currently integrating her new data about the architecture gathered at the site in February with the previous documentation from earlier years.

Elke has started again with digitalising new pottery drawings and Daniela is helping me with the database of the small finds – focusing on the new objects from SAV1 West and reworking some of the photographs.

Preparing photos in reduced scale for the object database.

Preparing photos in reduced scale for the object database.

It’s hard to believe that we left Sai Island already more than a month ago – but all the data collected there will keep us busy during the next months!