Busy with Egyptian and Nubian pottery from House 55

As usual on excavations, time flies by. I was busy in the last days with drawings of important pottery vessels from House 55. The importance can be of different character: 1) completely preserved vessel and thus significant for the corpus of shapes and pottery types; 2) chronologically interesting piece and of significance for the ceramic phases and their fine-dating and 3) functionally relevant vessels including so-called hybrid vessels illustrating the intermingling of Nubian and Egyptian pottery making tradition on the island.

I had a bit of all three main categories during the last days, besides some very nice imports found in House 55, coming from the Levant and Cyprus, as well as a unique sherd of the famous Tell el-Yahudiya ware.

Among my favourites are the Nubian sherds from House 55. The Nubian cooking pots are mostly of Pan-Grave style with incised decoration, but a minority of the cooking vessels shows basketry impression and is very similar to pieces from Sai. Within the fine ware, Kerma Black Topped cups and beakers dominate, sometimes with the silvery band on the outside characteristic of the Kerma Classique period. Today, I made a drawing of a very nice Black Topped beaker and was able to reconstruct its complete outline.

Besides making drawings, I am busy with material excavated in the 26th and 27th seasons in House 55, thus more than 20 years ago. Among other interesting pieces, today I had the sixth piece of a so-called fire dog on my table. These fire dogs continue to fascinate me – especially since my work at Sai. At Elephantine, almost 50% of the ones found in 18th Dynasty levels are coming from House 55! But the small number is completely different to the large amount of fire dogs we found within the New Kingdom town of Sai Island. Research about the proper functional use of these devises thought to hold cooking pots above the fire will have to continue.

Nubian wares of House 55

This working week at Elephantine just flew by… I am back concentrating on another of my favorite topics within the intriguing House 55: the Nubian wares, comprising both fine wares and household wares, including drinking, serving and storage vessels as well as abundant cooking pots.

Most fascinating about the considerable assemblage of Nubian wares is besides the broad spectrum of forms and types that we find them in all levels of use of House 55 – thus, they are not restricted to the earliest phases from the 17th Dynasty and very early 18th Dynasty, but continue well into Thutmoside times. This also holds true for Kerma Black topped fine ware which is in particular of special importance – and of particular interest for us as we find good parallels in the New Kingdom town of Sai and AcrossBorders’ most recent works there.

My database currently holds 222 Nubian vessels from House 55 – 29 are Black topped fine wares, the well-known beakers, but also dishes, and small cups. Three more boxes full of Nubian sherds are still waiting to be documented, so these numbers will definitely increase in the next days. Detailed statistics and assessments of course have to wait until the very end, but the prospects are already really exciting!

Back at work on Elephantine

The last excavations of the Swiss Institute Cairo in House 55 on Elephantine will start tomorrow – fieldwork is almost finished and during the last 10 days, Martin Fera and Seta Stuhec produced for AcrossBorders a complete photogrammetric documentation. An image based 3D model will soon be available, allowing a better illustration of the complex situation within the buildings with its multiple installations and various rooms.

House 55 was quite a challenge for SFM documentation.

Martin taking the very last photos this afternoon…

The focus of the 2017 season is again on ceramics, small finds and other objects. Daniela and Lucia are busy documenting objects, Oliver is producing pottery drawings and I am processing the remaining ceramic assemblages from the 46th season on Elephantine (fall 2016 and spring 2017). The focus of all of us is on the early phases of use of House 55. I am currently busy with very interesting material from the long corridor in the entrance area of the building – the amount of Nubian pottery is extremely high and raises various questions. Besides typical Pan grave style cooking pots there is also Kerma Black Topped fine ware present as well as Nubian storage vessels.

3 more busy weeks ahead of us and the final season of work at House 55 looks very promising so far!

End of the 2015 season on Elephantine Island

Six weeks of excavation and study season passed by very quickly – we closed the work on House 55 at Elephantine yesterday, preparing to fly back home tomorrow.

The results are very satisfying ‒ both the new information gained from the continued excavation by Cornelius von Pilgrim and the new data from the studied material ‒ and support the special importance of House 55 as extraordinary building within the New Kingdom town of Elephantine. Meg Gundlach did a great job in object registration, assisted by Mona el-Azab, Oliver Frank Stephan and Eva Hemauer managed to get more than 350 drawings of complete vessels and diagnostic pieces done!

A preliminary macroscopic classification of the Nubian wares from House 55 was conducted by Giulia D’Ercole. Four main groups of fabrics were distinguished and – other than at Sai Island – the corpus here at the border of Egypt is clearly dominated by fine-medium and medium wares dung and/or chopped straw tempered.
I personally concentrated on processing the pottery from this season and the one from last year – more than 41.000 sherds passed through my fingers in the last weeks, including over 12.500 diagnostic pieces. The latter comprised almost 2000 Nubian sherds – quite a substantial amount which will be further assessed in the next season.

In less than a month we will be already working on the other island currently under investigation by AcrossBorders – the 2016 season on Sai Island is approaching and promises similar exciting results like our work at Elephantine.

For now, many thanks to all participants and everybody involved making our work here possible – Ma’a Salama and looking much forward to the 2016 season in House 55!


Linking and differentiating Sai and Elephantine further

The first week of our season on Elephantine just flew by! There are also many things and tasks keeping us busy, besides the glorious surroundings and wonderful setting.

IMG_6148aAs announced earlier on this blog, the 2015 season on Elephantine, concentrates on the material excavated by the Swiss Institute from House 55. The presence of Nubian ceramics is highly relevant, especially for establishing links between the region of the First Cataract and Sai Island.

While my assistants are busy with drawing Egyptian type vessels, I was mainly focusing on Nubian pottery this week. A set of 35 Nubian sherds was studied in detail and drawn. There are striking similarities between the Nubian pottery corpus from Elephantine and Sai – especially regarding the fabrics, both the black topped fine ware and cooking pots with basketry impressions. But there are also certain differences, suggesting maybe a more “local” Lower Nubian tradition here on Elephantine like a preference for incised decoration.

The percentage of Nubian ceramics within House 55 very nicely compares to both SAV1 North and SAV1 West – from 4119 sherds studied in this first week, 140 were Nubian pieces. 3.4 % equals our findings in Sai Island where the average was 3-5 % during the early to mid-18th Dynasty.

Among others, Egyptian water jars, so-called zir vessels, are common features here on Elephantine. A considerable number of them are present in House 55.

Typical early to mid-18th Dynasty Marl zir vessels from Elephantine (after Budka 2005).

Typical early to mid-18th Dynasty Marl zir vessels from Elephantine (after Budka 2005).

Although the typical Nile clay versions of this vessel group are also known, most of these large jars are made in a very typical Marl clay variant. And here another difference to Sai can be observed – at Sai, the Nile clay vessels dominate, the Marl clay vessels are present, but only in small numbers.



Typical Nile clay zir-like vessel from Sai (after Budka 2011).

Typical Nile clay zir-like vessel from Sai (after Budka 2011).

Whether this indicates a different system of water storage or the Nile clay variants simply replaced the Marl clay jars in Sai (produced locally “on demand” once the imported ones were no longer functionable/out of stock), will be considered further, taking related pottery types like drinking cups and beakers into account.





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

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

Nubian household pottery on Elephantine and its potential

Having just returned from – despite the heat wave – a very pleasant stay in Luxor, I am currently working on the ceramic database of the material from Elephantine. As mentioned in earlier posts, the striking similarities between the early 18th Dynasty levels on Sai Island and Elephantine are currently of key priority for our research.

The upcoming season on Elephantine, scheduled for October-December 2015, will concentrate on freshly excavated material as well as on Nubian pottery from House 55. The latter are of high interest, especially for establishing links between Sai and the region of the First Cataract.

At present, 28 Nubian sherds from House 55 were documented in the database and by drawings and photos. Most of them are cooking pots of various types, but also storage vessel, drinking cups and fine ware are present. Black topped Kerma beakers appear in different qualities. The rim sherd 27606G/c-01 was made in a very fine Nubian fabric and compares well to fragments from the New Kingdom town of Sai and also Kerma itself.

Nubian storage vessel and Black Topped Kerma Beaker from House 55.

Nubian storage vessel and Black Topped Kerma Beaker from House 55.

Very interesting is a large storage vessel of a type well attested both in the Kerma cemeteries and in the Pharanic town on Sai. 27605N/b-03 illustrates the use of a heavily chaff-tempered, coarse Nubian fabric – a fabric attested for large Nubian cooking pots but most often for thick-walled storage vessels.

It will be of particular value to establish, once the excavation of House 55 is completed, the percentage of Nubian pottery within the whole ceramic corpus and the total number and distribution of the various household vessel types – comparing these data with building units on Sai might allow further thoughts about the coexistence of Nubians and Egyptians at the beginning of the New Kingdom.


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!

Home game: presenting AcrossBorders in Vienna

I was fortunate to present AcrossBorders at several conferences in the last two years (Prague, London, Neuchâtel), as well as on the occasion of invited guest lectures, e.g. in Khartoum, Münster, Göttingen, Warsaw, Swansea and Pisa. Having for the first time a home game in Vienna (19/11/2014, 5:30 pm) is very much appreciated – especially because it gives all current (and a number of future) team members plus Viennese friends and colleagues the chance to join the presentation tomorrow.

Budka_Spannungsfeld 1911The paper will focus on results of our field work from 2013 to 2014 in the areas SAV1 East and SAV1 West. New insights about the environmental setting, the outline and internal structure of the Pharaonic town will be summarised. Selected finds, including highlights of the 2014 season, and the most important object groups will be discussed.

As mentioned earlier (and elsewhere), objects of Egyptian type dominate the material assemblage at Sai and find many parallels at Egyptian sites in both Egypt and Nubia. Interestingly, the artefacts and ceramics testify to an obvious coexistence between Egyptians and Nubians, from the foundation of the town in the early Dynasty 18 through the remainder of the New Kingdom. During my lecture, I will give some examples, e.g. hybrid forms of pottery, Nubian style female figurines and the small number of hieratic dockets on vessels.Budka_Spannungsfeld 1911a

An outline of our planned work in the upcoming season will end this short summary of AcrossBorders’ fieldwork in 2013 and 2014 – I am very excited that the 2015 season is approaching and will give us more to think about!

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.

Kerma presence at SAV1 East

A small sneak preview of my upcoming London paper: based on results from recent fieldwork, I will summarize our present understanding of the diachronic development of the New Kingdom town at Sai Island, and I will also briefly speak about the possible cohabitation of Egyptians and Nubians.

The earliest level at area SAV1 East within the New Kingdom town corresponds to the domestic remains and structures excavated by M. Azim in the 1970s around Temple A (SAV1, Azim 2011-2012). Azim was able to show that these occupation remains are earlier than the stone temple and thus Pre-Thutmose III in date – based on parallels from the site of Gism el-Arab and observations on Nubian ceramics found in the surroundings of Temple A, an interpretation of SAV1 as Kerma classique habitation site was tentatively suggested (Azim 2011-2012: 36-37).

As reported, feature 14 and other remains in the southern part of SAV1E allowed us to link our new excavation site with the domestic zone around Temple A. Interestingly, within the storage bin (feature 14) and in its surroundings there have been several fragments of Kerma vessels in the local Nubian tradition. A Nubian presence is therefore traceable at SAV1 East, mostly represented by cooking pots, but also fine wares and a storage vessel have been found. This compares well to material documented at SAV1 North and to what Azim mentioned for the zone around Temple A. Parallels can be also named  from other Upper Nubian sites like e.g. Sesebi (see Rose 2012).Kerma presence1Thanks to the associated Egyptian material at SAV1 East, we are able to date the Kerma material as early 18th Dynasty, pre-Thutmose III, but not pre-New Kingdom. Characterized by small structures with single-brick walls and storage facilities, the area at the eastern edge of the site can be safely interpreted as part of the newly founded Egyptian town without an earlier Kerma habitation below.


Azim, M. 2011-2012. Une installation civile antérieure au temple A, 11–36, in M. Azim/J.-F. Carlotti, Le temple à de l’île de Saï et ses abords, CRIPEL 29, 11–63.

Rose, P. 2012. Early 18th Dynasty Nubian Pottery from the Site of Sesebi, Sudan, in I. Forstner-Müller/P. Rose (eds.), Nubian Pottery from Egyptian Cultural Contexts of the Middle and Early New Kingdom. Proceedings of a Workshop held at the Austrian Archaeological Institute at Cairo, 1-12 December 2010, Ergänzungshefte zu den Jahresheften des Österreichischen Archäologischen Institutes 13, Vienna, 13‒29.