We like it hot – in Khartoum

Since Saturday, a small AcrossBorders team is busy working in Khartoum in the National Museum of Sudan. This two-week study season is dedicated to the documentation of finds from our 2017 fieldwork season on Sai Island. Due to the amazing discoveries both in the town and the cemetery, we simply ran out of time back in March and had to postpone the study of some objects. I am especially grateful to our colleagues from NCAM for their constant support and for a very productive setup and generous working hours! And we are really delighted that Huda Magzoub, our dear colleague, inspector and friend, joined as for this ultimate AcrossBorders season in Sudan. Temperatures here in Khartoum are quite a change compared to Vienna and Munich ;-).

Besides work on objects from Tomb 26, we are currently busy with material from the two large cellars we excavated in SAV1 East (Features 83 and 85). Both cellars represent very good contexts from the mid-18th Dynasty and therefore their pottery and small finds have particular importance for our study of the material culture in New Kingdom Sai.

I was especially looking forward to start working on the sherds from Feature 83. Below the collapsed bricks from the vault of this cellar, some smashed pottery vessels were found on the floor.

Broken pots at the bottom of Feature 83 – note the smashed jar in the middle of the picture.

These ceramics clearly belong to the latest phase of use of the structure and can be dated to the mid-18th Dynasty – but back in Sai, they were all broken vessels, not allowing proper photographs or drawings. In the last days here in Khartoum, I managed to reconstruct them – my personal favourite is this nice imported jug with painted decoration. A real beauty came out of those smashed sherds!

Reconstructed imported jug from Feature 83.

AcrossBorders in retrospect

Those were the days – back in 2013 we had our first season on Sai Island, starting work at sector SAV1 East. The outlines of Building A were discovered, exciting finds in the southern part of our squares allowed us to date the earliest remains in this area to the very early New Kingdom. Among the highlights were pots from the early 18th Dynasty, found in situ in a small storage bin.

Continuous excavations until this spring season 2017 brought to light further evidence supporting this original interpretation. It is well timed that a substantial volume on “Nubia in the New Kingdom” was just published – edited by Neal Spencer, Anna Stevens and Michaela Binder these proceedings of a conference in London 2013 bring together the latest results and a large variety of finds dating to the New Kingdom, unearthed in northern Sudan. I am proud that also AcrossBorders’ work on Sai Island is represented in this splendid and important volume – an overview about “Life in the New Kingdom town of Sai Island: some new perspectives” summarizes the potential of the first season back in 2013 in SAV1 East – and illustrates among others the significant find of the storage bin with its in situ pots.

Since 2013, I regularly wrote a blog post “summer break” in August, announcing vacation and a short break from our various tasks including blogging – well, those were the days… 2017 is a bit different – with the closing conference “From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Individual households and cities in Ancient Egypt and Nubia”, to be held from 1–3 September, 2017 in Munich, we are all very busy and time for vacation is limited. Travelling between Vienna and Munich, we are especially involved in the anthropological findings in Tomb 26 and the GIS applications of our documentation; the digital landscape models of Sai are getting prepared and all will be presented at the conference.

Perfectly timed is now the release of a video produced by the FWF high lightening our main research questions and most important discoveries on Sai. For those of you who have missed photos and reports about the nimiti flies in the last months – I am convinced that the video will make up for this: beautiful shots of SAV1 East, the one and only nimiti paradise ;-).

The journey of a New Kingdom beer jar

Hello, it’s us, Vanessa and Daniela!

After working for the project for over a year now, we finally made our first blog entry. We wanted to show you how a pottery illustration from the original sherd to the final drawing is generated.

The development of a pottery illustration for a publication from a single sherd is a long process and includes a lot of different steps in different locations. After the discovery and documentation of the sherd or complete pot, the object first has to be cleaned. This of course happens in the field.

The next step is to create a drawing of the specific piece.

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For that it is measured and drawn as detailed and accurate as possible. The diameter and ultimate height are taken, as well as its specific attributes, like coloured rims or other elements of decoration, which are included in the drawing. In the case of the lower part of the beer jar illustrated here, details like finger impressions around the base must be given. This step takes place at the magazine on Sai, where working photos of the pottery are taken as well.

Bild 3But after the field season is finished the work on the sherd has to be processed. Whereas in former times the final drawing for the publication was done by hand, we now create a digitized version of the drawings that were made on Sai.

In the new office of the project, we are well equipped for this last step. We are working with an Adobe Program on an interactive tablet to “re-draw” the sherd once again and create a vector graphic. For that, the outlines of the object are generated with the original drawing as the initial point. Then the inner lines, details or decorative parts of the sherd are transferred.

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It is important that this step is very accurate, because the original size and form of the sherd must not be changed. The object is named and the file is saved in different formats to be used with other programs.

So for the process of developing this final drawing, the piece of pottery has journeyed over hundreds of miles and a lot of months, from the actual sherd on Sai to the graphic illustration in our office in Munich.

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!

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.

Crossing borders: from Egypt to Nubia

Remains of the ancient town in the southern part of Elephantine Island.

Remains of the ancient town in the southern part of Elephantine Island.

The importance of Elephantine as site with strategic value due to its location just north of the First Nile Cataract is well known. More than forty years of excavations by the joint German-Swiss mission have considerably increased our understanding of this beautiful island in Egypt’s South.

For a long period Elephantine functioned as base for Pharaonic expeditions to Nubia and as important trading point at Egypt’s southern border (cf., e.g., von Pilgrim 2010). With the so-called reconquest of Nubia, the Egyptian expansion towards the South during the 18th Dynasty, there was an increased demand for the transport of goods, materials and people to and from Upper and Lower Nubia. Elephantine flourished and gained significance during the early New Kingdom and especially in Thutmoside times.

Egyptian officials who participated in expedition and/or military campaigns towards the South had to pass through the First Cataract region. Obviously they spent some time there, at Aswan and Elephantine, before their departure to Nubia as hundreds of rock inscriptions attest (cf. Gasse/Rondot 2007; Seidlmayer 2003).

Further first hand testimony for the presence of these officials comes directly from the settlement of Elephantine – inscribed door jambs attest well-known individuals like viceroy Nehi. Of special interest is the context of these epigraphic sources: living conditions of people like Nehi traceable by the architecture and material culture. For the latter, ceramics are of high significance allowing reconstructing aspects of the daily life like food production and consumption and much more.

Within the framework of AcrossBorders, it is therefore of key importance that the 18th Dynasty pottery from Elephantine provides very close parallels to the corpus excavated at Sai (cf. Budka 2011). Within the next years, a detailed comparison of the two sites is planned and the ceramics form main elements of this study. This week, we just started our 2014 season of documenting and processing pottery at Elephantine thanks to our cooperation with the Swiss Institute Cairo and kindly supported by the German Archaeological Institute.

The focus is on material from the very early to the mid-18th Dynasty: Bauschicht/level 10 at Elephantine corresponds to levels 5-4 and the early phase of level 3 at Sai Island. Thanks to the stratigraphy at Elephantine, where several phases within one building from a certain building level are much better preserved than at Sai, a fine dating of the material from the earliest occupation at both sites seems possible in the near future.

Having just started to work with the material, the close comparisons are striking me once again: the main types of vessels are consistent at both sites and include carinated bowls and dishes, plates, footed bowls, stands, beakers and beer jars, cooking pots, storage jars, water jars as well as decorated jars and Nubian vessels.

Differences can be noted in small details – for example regarding the quantities of certain wares and fabrics or technical features of the finished vessels.  All in all, we have now a considerable amount of data and material and these are supporting my first assessment published in 2011: The comparison between the material from Sai and Elephantine and especially the imported Nile clay and Marl clay vessels at Sai suggest for at least part of the corpus a provenience from the First Cataract area illustrating the importance of Elephantine as trading point and for equipping expeditions and settlements located in the South (Budka 2011, 29) .


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

Gasse/Rondot 2007 = Annie Gasse and Vincent Rondot, Les inscriptions de Séhel, Cairo 2007.

von Pilgrim 2010 = Cornelius von Pilgrim, Elephantine – (Festungs-)Stadt am Ersten Katarakt, in Cities and Urbanism in Ancient Egypt, eds. Manfred Bietak, Ernst Cerny and Irene Forstner-Müller, Vienna 2010, 257–265.

Seidlmayer 2003 = Stephan J. Seidlmayer, New Rock Inscriptions on Elephantine Island, in Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century, Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists Cairo 2000, ed. Zahi Hawass, Vol. 1, Cairo 2003, 441–442.


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.

First-hand experience with New Kingdom pottery

Over a month has passed since I came back to the office after spending 4 weeks on the wonderful island of Sai – time to share some of my experience! I have taken home loads of new impressions (new country, new culture and new people!) and acquired a lot of fresh skills in drawing pottery.

My main task on Sai Island was to draw pottery, in particular vessels and sherds excavated in the sectors SAV1 North and SAV1 West. This was something new: until February I was only digitizing the pencil drawings from the previous seasons, so sometimes it was hard to imagine the proper piece of pottery. With real sherds in my hands, I gained new experiences in dealing with ceramics.

My working table at Sai.

My working table at Sai.

My first working step was to take a close look at the object, especially for getting its dimensions, first of all, the diameter. Then I had to figure out the right orientation, to measure the preserved height and transfer it onto the drawing paper. Afterwards I checked the external profile again and finalised its outline – adding the inner profile in the next step. The last stage was to flip the outer profile from the section side (right) to the left side (front view) and to add characteristic features of the object, especially related to the manufacturing process.

Some of my drawings from vessels excavated in 2014 at SAV1 West.

Some of my drawings from vessels excavated in 2014 at SAV1 West.

Helping our inspector Huda with washing sherds and sorting these according to types and wares was another small task for me at Sai Island.

Huda and me, exploring the island.

Huda and me, exploring the island.

All in all it was a huge new experience to work directly on objects and hopefully not the last time.

Finally, some personal impressions from Sai Island:

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Drawing ceramics from Sai Island, New Kingdom Pharaonic town: One of the masterpieces

Additionally to processing the find from our current excavations at SAV1 East and SAV1 West, we continue, like in 2013, documenting material which was excavated in SAV1 North in the last years by Florence Doyen.

Nicole, Julia andDSC_5023 Elke have been very busy in the last weeks and I would like to present one of the masterpieces. This unique fragment also nicely illustrates why detailed drawings of pottery vessels are simply necessary in additions to photos: technical and morphological details, the general shape and also the outline of decorative patterns can be best clarified with a drawing in 1:1.

Rhyton SAV1N

Pencil drawing of decorated rhyton SAV1N N/C 1205.

The important piece recently documented with an accurate drawing by Nicole is a lower part of a decorated rhyton, covered in a red slip and burnished, made in a very fine Nile B (SAV1N N/C 1205). The area around the perforated bottom of this vessel is painted in black with floral elements. Just above these lotus flowers a register with figural painting is still partly visible. According to the remains it seems to be a scene in the marshes: a striding male figure is carrying something with a pole set on his shoulder. Maybe the hanging objects are large fishes? Nicole is still not completly convinced and I must admit that her nice drawing also raised some doubts for my interpretation.

As I have stressed in an earlier post, rhytons like N/C 1205 had the character of luxury items in 18th Dynasty Egypt, the vessel shape being characteristically Aegean. Our small masterpiece from SAV1 North is an Egyptian copy in Nile clay of a Late Minoan IA rhyton.

New Perspectives: The western edge of the Pharaonic town

SAI_1639One of our goals this season is to investigate the enclosure wall of the fortified New Kingdom town of Sai on its western side, just north of the main city gate. We opened two squares at a new site labelled SAV1 West.

P1000024 SAI_1641Both trenches comprise mud bricks visible on the surface – according to their alignment they should belong to the enclosure wall of the town and maybe to one of its towers. Therefore it was no surprise that a large amount of 18th Dynasty pottery came to light already during surface cleaning – however, the precise quantities and proportions are quite interesting. Square 1 (10 x 10 m) yielded 26 baskets of pottery and 75 % are datable to the 18th Dynasty! The remaining 25 % include Post-Meroitic material, but most of it is Christian and Ottoman ceramic.

Trench 2 (15 x 5 m) is set above a shallow depression further south and only 9 baskets of pottery were collected from the surface – out of these sherds, just 24 % are of New Kingdom date. The majority belongs to material of Post-Pharaonic times, in particular the Christian/Medieval period. Thus, the relations of the ceramics are completely opposite than in Square 1. An interesting starting point for the upcoming weeks – does it reflect the neighborhood of the Ottoman fortress which is closer to Square 2 than to Square 1 and/or a disturbance in ancient time? Or can it be explained differently? We’ll keep you posted as work at SAV1 West continues!