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

Two scarabs from tomb 26

Tomb 26, newly discovered in cemetery SAC5 on Sai Island during AcrossBorders’ field season in 2015, is not yet completely excavated. Our work focused on a careful cleaning of its rectangular shaft – north-south aligned, it measures c. 2.60 x 1.80m with a depth of more than 5.20m. Several flood deposits were exposed and slight differences in the filling material will allow a detailed reconstruction of the use-life of the tomb. Obviously, there were several phases of burials, plundering and abandonment spanning the period from the late 18th Dynasty to Napatan times.

Besides a number of ceramics, including intact vessels, a total of 146 finds was recorded from the shaft filling of tomb 26. The majority are beads in different shapes and made of various materials (jasper, carnelian, faience etc.). The most important objects from the shaft filling are three sandstone fragments giving the name and title of the jdnw of Kush Hornakht who was active during the reign of Ramesses II (Kitchen 1980, 117-118; Budka 2001, 210-212 with further literature).

Several finds indicate a Ramesside burial in tomb 26. Among them there is the scarab SAC5 121, found just above the base of the shaft. This small intact piece made of steatite (17 x 8 x 13 mm) shows on the reverse a seated Maat, a recumbent sphinx with a double-crown and a winged cobra.

SAC5 121a (thumbnail)Parallels are known from the New Kingdom, especially the 19th Dynasty. A nice example was found in Amrit in Syria and is now in the British Museum (BM E48260). To the best of my knowledge, SAC5 121 is the first scarab with this motif found on Sai Island (see Minault-Gout/Thill 2012, pls. 115-118 for other scarabs from SAC5).

SAC5 120a (thumbnail)Another scarab, SAC5 120, of smaller size (12 x 6 x 9 mm) and perhaps also made of steatite, was discovered in the upper levels of the shaft filling of tomb 26. The reading of its reverse is not entirely clear, as is its date. To the left, a mn-sign above an n-sign, above two small signs, perhaps a sun-disc and stroke suggest a reading as “Jmn-Ra”. Is the boat-shaped sign to the right maybe just an irregular version of the j-hieroglyph (reed sign)? Or is it something completely different? Any suggestions are highly welcome! For me, the scarab SAC5 120 seems to post-date the New Kingdom. A number of Napatan vessels from the upper levels of the shaft filling suggest a use of tomb 26 during this period and the scarab might belong to this later phase of burials.

Prior to excavating the burial chamber of tomb 26, it is of course much too early to reconstruct a clear sequence of burials – nevertheless, the interesting material from the shaft allows us a to suggest a complex period of use covering several centuries.


Budka 2001 = J. Budka, Der König an der Haustür. Die Rolle des ägyptischen Herrschers an dekorierten Türgewänden von Be­a­m­ten im Neuen Reich. Beiträge zur Ägyptologie 19. Vienna 2001.

Kitchen 1980 = K. A. Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions. Historical and Biographical, Vol. III. Oxford 1980.

Minault-Gout/Thill 2012 = A. Minault-Gout, F. Thill, Saï II. Le cimetière des tombes hypogées du Nouvel Empire (SAC5). Fouilles de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire 69. Cairo 2012.

Tracing Ramesside burials in SAC 5

Since a few days we have the confirmation that the burial chamber of tomb 26 opens to the north. Today, the excavation of the shaft was completed, reaching a depth of more than 5.20 m.

Cleaning remains on top of the shaft base of tomb 26.

Cleaning remains on top of the shaft base of tomb 26.

The filling material of the shaft was highly interesting – especially in the lowest level just above the shaft base, two scarabs, a number of complete vessels as well as some stones (pieces of architecture) were found. Three nicely decorated, complete Marl clay pilgrim flasks are especially noteworthy, found together with other pottery vessels (especially storage vessels) and one complete stone vessel.

Three almost complete Pilgrim flasks were found together against the east wall of the shaft.

Three almost complete Pilgrim flasks were found together against the east wall of the shaft.

Since these finds were clustering along the eastern wall of the shaft and in particular in the southeastern corner, the most likely explanation is that remains of a burial were removed from the chamber in the north and left in the shaft during one of the phases of reuse (or possibly plundering?).

Probably the most important finds so far are two sandstone fragments with the name and title of the jdnw of Kush Hornakht. This official of the Egyptian administration in Upper Nubia is already well attested from Sai Island and was active during the reign of Ramesses II. Several of the vessels from the shaft of tomb 26 are datable to the 19th Dynasty, suggesting that the inscribed pieces actually belonged to one of the burial phases. Of course everything has to wait until we checked also the burial chamber and understand the complete picture of tomb 26 and its complex use life, but for now it is possible to say that we found traces of early Ramesside burials in SAC 5. This is extremely exciting and opens much room for new thoughts about the importance of Sai during the Nineteenth Dynasty and its relation to the now flourishing site of Amara West.

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.

Back to SAC 5, the New Kingdom pyramid cemetery on Sai Island

Recent fieldwork in the New Kingdom town, both at SAV1 East and SAV1 West, has added new data to our assessment that a very complex community of Egyptians and Nubians have been living on Sai Island during the 18th Dynasty. However, it remains too early providing conclusive answers to the crucial questions who were the inhabitants of Sai in the New Kingdom era.

In the forthcoming years, a detailed comparison between the material found in the town and in the cemeteries will be undertaken – see already an earlier post.

For this purpose we just resumed work in the large New Kingdom cemetery SAC 5. This pyramid cemetery is probably the most important Egyptian cemetery of the island and was discovered in the season 1972-73. It lies approx. 800 m south of the Pharaonic town and was party excavated by the French mission, recently published as a substantial monograph in two volumes (Minault-Gout/Thill 2012). Similar to other Nubian sites like Aniba, Amara West and Tombos, Pharaonic-style tombs have been built at SAC5. This cemetery is of major importance because it was in use for a long period of time, covering the New Kingdom as well as the Pre-Napatan period (the so called Third Intermediate Period in Egypt). Its rock-cut tombs with mud-brick chapels and mostly pyramidal superstructures find close parallels at Aniba, Soleb and Amara West but also in Egypt, e.g. in the Theban necropolis.

Surface cleaning at SAC5, southern part.

Surface cleaning at SAC5, southern part.

I am very happy that we finally resumed work at this important site – we have chosen the southern part of the cemetery for our new investigation. We are currently cleaning the surface – of course hoping that we’ll soon have information whether this part of SAC5 still holds tombs to be excavated or not… As yet, the finds are still limited and range in date from the Neolithic period to the Ottoman and sub-recent era! However, some of the sherds are clearly mid-late 18th Dynasty in date – very promising.

I am especially grateful that our work is undertaken in close cooperation with our French colleagues – Florence Thill, the former excavator of SAC5, will join us next week. Hopefully just in time for some exiting new discoveries!


Minault-Gout, A./Thill, F. 2012: Saï II. Le cimetière des tombes hypogées du Nouvel Empire (SAC5), FIFAO 69, Cairo.

AcrossBorders 2015: the fieldwork season approaches

In a few days, the first group of team members of AcrossBorders will be on the way back to Sudan. We will travel via Khartoum to Sai Island and will start our third season on January 1 (insha’allah). As in the previous seasons, AcrossBorders will focus on the New Kingdom on the large island of Sai. We plan to work in different sectors within the town area and to renew work in the New Kingdom cemetery SAC5.

The 2015 fieldwork will concentrate on the continuous excavation at SAV1E and SAV1W in the New Kingdom town, the new excavation of presumed tombs in cemetery SAC 5 and the documentation of already excavated material from SAV1N, SAV1E and SAV1W (sorting and recording of the material in the courtyard and working room).

One of the main goals of the project is to improve our under­standing of the population on the island and to explore the nature of the coexistence of Egyptians and Nubians. A comparison between the material culture from the Egyptian style cemetery and the Egyptian town will be highly relevant in this respect; human remains will offer multiple aspects for analytical research, especially for studies of biological identities.

SAV1 East

Continued fieldwork in the site to the east of the Pharaonic town, labelled SAV1E, investigated for the first time in 2013, is planned for 2015. The orthogonal structure called “Building A” was largely exposed; we aim to finish the complete excavation of this important complex of the mid-18th Dynasty. Contemporaneous to the excavations, the pottery will be studied.

SAI_1887SAV1 West

New fieldwork in a site to the west of the Pharaonic town, labelled SAV1W, was started in 2014. The western enclosure wall was traced in two squares and brick work datable to the 18th Dynasty exposed. Very promising New Kingdom deposits have been noticed within the town, to the east of the enclosure wall – several phases for these structures are visible in sections of Post-Pharaonic pits. This interesting area of 18th Dynasty occupation will be the focus of the 2015 season. Contemporaneous to the excavations, the pottery will be studied. Work will also focus on a detailed study of the stone tools from SAV1W by Silvia Prell.

Sector SAV1 West.

Sector SAV1 West.


In 2011, a geophysical survey was conducted in the area of the most important New Kingdom cemetery of Sai, SAC5 to the South of the Pharaonic town. We plan to excavate unexplored tombs visible on the magnetometric map of the cemetery, starting with the surroundings of tombs 14 and 15 in the southern part of the cemetery. Our work will include besides the study of the architecture, finds and human remains Structure-From-Motion techniques to create a 3D model of the cemetery and especially of the newly exposed tombs.

The New Kingdom cemetery SAC 5 to the south of the Pharaonic town (view from the north).

The New Kingdom cemetery SAC 5 to the south of the Pharaonic town (view from the north).

I am especially happy that Florence Thill (Lille University) will join us during the excavations in the cemetery and will offer her expertise based on her previous work in SAC 5.

Other tasks

This year, the team will be strengthened by two geoarchaeologists, Miranda Semple and Sayantani Neogi. They will build upon the geological survey conducted in 2014 and will focus on questions of the location and nature of the ancient harbour and the ancient stone quarries. Furthermore, they will collect samples to investigate the micromorphology of the Pharaonic town, focusing on formation processes and cultural activities. It is planned that they will compare the different excavation areas (SAV1N, SAV1W and SAV1E as well as SAV1) to each other. Environmental and climatic settings and changes during the New Kingdom will be focal points in the next years – being investigated by surveying, drilling and test pits.

Furthermore, I am very happy to welcome Frits Heinrich (archaeobotanist) and Jaime van der Heul from Groningen University as external experts – they will conduct archaeobotanical research and will take relevant samples in different areas of the town.

Without doubt another busy season is waiting for us – with renewed work in the cemetery, there will be fresh challenges and for sure a lot of new material. Thanks to all of the support by our Sudanese friends and colleagues and of course due to the joint efforts of all team members, I am more than confident that the results will be amazing and the 2015 season again very productive and highly interesting.

Looking much forward to travel to Sudan and wishing all team members & friends of AcrossBorders very happy holidays and a perfect start into 2015!

New Year Sai