Professor Julia Budka explains what ancient ceramics tell us about life in New Kingdom Nubia.
One of the main goals of the European Research Council (ERC) project ‘AcrossBorders’ is reconstructing life on Sai Island in Nubia during the New Kingdom (c. 1539–1077 BCE) according to the material evidence. The most numerous finds to be considered for this task on settlement sites like Sai are thousands of potsherds and ancient ceramic vessels attesting to the use and function and also the social fabric of the ancient town.
In general, New Kingdom pottery in Nubia is very similar to contemporary material in Egypt. However, a detailed study comparing early to mid-18th Dynasty sites situated in both Nubia and Egypt has not been conducted before and is now for the first time being undertaken within the framework of AcrossBorders.
The ceramic data from the New Kingdom town of Sai is being analysed and compared to the pottery corpora from the Egyptian towns of Elephantine and South Abydos. In this pottery analysis, a particular focus is laid on similarities and differences between local products and imported pieces, including the significant appearance of
so-called hybrid types – vessels which are outcomes of both the Egyptian and the Nubian ceramic tradition, e.g. Egyptian types made of Nubian fabrics or with Nubian surface treatment.
AcrossBorders’ archaeological interpretation and the ceramic typology is supported and extended by petrographic analyses, while neutron activation analysis is used for provenience studies. These scientific analyses have proven to be very useful to further distinguish within the Nile clays between real imports from Egypt and locally produced wheel-made vessels, illustrating a more complex cultural connectivity between Egypt and Nubia than previously thought.
Processing pottery on Sai
Sai Island is one of the major find spots for 18th Dynasty pottery in Upper Nubia – material was excavated both in settlement contexts (the New Kingdom town) and tomb contexts (especially pyramid cemetery SAC5). In addition to ready parallels from other Egyptian foundations in Nubia (e.g. Buhen, Askut and Sesebi) and New Kingdom sites in Egypt (e.g. Elephantine and Abydos), there is also a local component and site-specific features of the ceramics from Sai.
The majority of the ceramics from New Kingdom Sai is wheel-made pottery in Egyptian style, but local pottery of Nubian style is also present. Especially within the class of cooking pots, the general co-existence of Egyptian (wheel-made) and Nubian (hand-made) pottery traditions is evident. Most probably a distinction was made regarding the specific food to be prepared in each pot. It is also likely that the choice of an Egyptian or Nubian cooking pot was dependent on the identity of the pot’s user, although proof of this is almost impossible to achieve.
At Sai, it is intriguing that both authentic (imported) Egyptian wheel-made cooking pots and examples thrown on the wheel locally were used side by side with hand-made Nubian cooking pots. The imported cooking pots allowed the occupants of Sai to cook in Egyptian-style at their ‘home-away-from-home’ – to cover further demand, these authentic Egyptian vessels were also locally produced on the wheel.
Pottery and chronology
Several matters regarding settlement pottery of the New Kingdom are still unsolved, in particular chronological issues of the beginning of the 18th Dynasty. The ceramics from Sai Island have particular relevance for addressing these chronological problems of the 18th Dynasty.
Prior to AcrossBorders’ work, little was known about the chronology of the site of the New Kingdom town of Sai. The project’s excavations between 2013 and 2017 added important information about the evolution of Sai Island in Pharaonic times and especially its development from the early 18th Dynasty to the Ramesside era.
Three main phases could be proposed for the development of the town and their dating is primarily based on the detailed analysis of ceramics. In particular the mid-18th Dynasty was established as heyday of the site with a rich and very diverse pottery corpus, comprising not only Egyptian imports and local products but also imports from the Levant and Cyprus, attesting to the full integration of the town of Sai within the Egyptian international trade routes.
Pottery and society
Especially relevant for AcrossBorders’ task to reconstruct ordinary life on Sai and the social fabric of the site during the New Kingdom were thousands of potsherds. Such ceramic vessels attest to the use and function of sites and individual buildings and can also provide information on the occupants. It was striking that from the earliest strata onwards, Nubian ceramics appear at Sai side by side with imported Egyptian wares and locally wheel-made products. Since the Nubian pots are the minority, it seems safe to assume that the Egyptian style town was initially occupied by Egyptians. However, the production of hybrid pottery types suggests that Egyptians and Nubians lived and worked side by side, combining aspects of both cultures.
Although it comes as no surprise that Egyptian representation is dominant within a colonial site like Sai, a local substratum is traceable as well. The pottery seems to attest to individuals who identified themselves primarily as Egyptian officials and occupants of an Egyptian site, but may nevertheless have had family ties in Nubia and derive from a local group whose specific cultural identity was never completely abandoned, resulting in a very dynamic world in New Kingdom Sai.
What is known about Sai’s ceramics industry?
Little is known about the ceramic industry on Sai, though the finished products and their technological features testify that Egyptian potters skilled in the wheel production of ceramics were certainly present at the town. To date, no New Kingdom kilns or pottery workshops have been identified with certainty. Furthermore, hybrid types attest to a regional style, despite a general similarity with contemporary pottery in Egypt.
Sometimes locally produced Nile clay pottery vessels have been modelled on Egyptian types, but with Nubian influences concerning the surface treatment, production technique or decoration. The appearance of such hybrid types is very significant, but not straightforward to explain – they can be regarded as evidence of material entanglement on the site. As such, they seem to attest a complex mixture of lifestyles in New Kingdom Sai.
Similar trends of entanglement are seen also at other Egyptian sites in Nubia, where seemingly Nubian traditions—mostly expressed by surface treatment and decoration—are also traceable.
Egyptian Marl clay vessels with incised decoration and a new type of Egyptian cooking pots illustrate that Nubian decoration patterns and shapes directly influenced the Egyptian pottery tradition of the 2nd Millennium BCE. The transfer of technology and knowledge between Egyptian and Nubian ceramic industries was clearly not unilateral: both traditions adapted specific aspects, illustrating the complex entanglement of Egyptian and Nubian cultures.
To conclude, the ceramics from Sai indicate that there was a complex, two-way mixture of lifestyles, resulting in great variability and also in hybrid forms that display both Egyptian and Nubian features. Despite the big caveat that pots do not equal people, the pottery from the island seems to suggest that the social strata of the town were dominated by people who identified themselves as Egyptian officials, but at least some of them were descendants of local Nubians whose specific cultural identity also left some traces in the archaeological record.
Understanding past societies across cultural borders
The AcrossBorders project goes beyond the common borders of Egyptian archaeology: it focuses not only on ordinary life in contrast to other studies, but it addresses subjects of wide impact like cultural and ethnical identities, trade and mobility between countries and across cultural borders. Its interdisciplinary research of recent years has resulted in fresh insights into the multifaceted life style and living conditions of various social classes in 2nd millennium BCE Egypt and Nubia.
Thanks to the application of diverse methods and extended fieldwork in both the town and the cemetery on Sai Island, new information on the complex evolution of the Pharaonic town is now available.
Sai was a changing microcosm throughout the New Kingdom, shaped by different individuals and adapting to historical and economic progress. In its first stage, Sai was probably not much more than a simple port and supply base for the Egyptians. During the time of pharaoh Thutmose III, a walled settlement was built that became an important administrative centre. The enlargement of the site goes hand in hand with an increasing complexity and varied lifestyles amongst the inhabitants, suggesting an intricate social stratification comprising both Egyptians and Nubians. Sai was now the administrative headquarter of Upper Nubia. New finds from both the town site and cemetery SAC5 stress that Sai was still important during the 19th Dynasty, side by side with Amara West. The occupants appear as Egyptian officials in terms of names, titles and material culture—but case studies suggest that this is the result of a developing and complex way of ‘Egyptianisation’ which is marked by cultural entanglement.
All in all, Sai can be taken as an example for the dynamic and situational character of past societies. Other than drawing artificial border lines between Egyptians and Nubians, AcrossBorders’ multi-faceted research illustrates that at the local level social, economic and cultural identities were changing, interacting and merging with each other.
With a continued focus on settlement archaeology, we will be able to create a more realistic understanding of Ancient Egypt in the near future, different from elite-biased and idealised projections deriving from the mortuary record only. This should be considered as one of the most important tasks of Egyptian archaeology, demonstrating the significant role ceramics play for archaeologists.
Professor Julia Budka
Institute for Egyptology, Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich
+49 (0) 89 / 289 27543
This article appears in SciTech Europa Quarterly issue 26