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V.2 Highlighting Economic and Cultural Exchanges

p. 98-102


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1The potential of the analysis of ceramics for reconstructing economic and cultural exchanges and the close links between aspects of cultural identity and technological features of the pottery manufacture are well known in archaeology. The following presents a case study from the Nile Valley.

The AcrossBorders Project as a Case Study

2Sai Island is located in the river Nile between the Second and Third Cataracts in Upper Nubia (Sudan). The town on the island is one of the urban centres erected during the Egyptian “colonisation” in the New Kingdom (ca. 1450 bc). Prior to the New Kingdom, Sai was an important stronghold of the Nubian Kerma Kingdom.

3The Egyptian town and its contemporaneous cemetery on Sai were the focus of the European Research Council project AcrossBorders from 2013 to 2017 (Budka 2020). The project aimed to provide new insight into the lifestyle and living conditions in New Kingdom Nubia based on new fieldwork and multi-layered research on the island. In this respect, pottery played a major role.

4In order to reconstruct life on Sai, all archaeological material was considered from pottery to small finds, tools and other various equipment; each item was assessed in detail and in relation to associated finds, architecture and past human actions.

Economic Significance and Production

5The functional, economic and social significance of ceramics were discussed by the AcrossBorders project in order to answer questions relating to Nubian vs. Egyptian lifestyles. Scientific analyses of materials, and especially petrography in the present case, contributed to the archaeological interpretation of pottery from Sai.

6A site-specific fabric corpus was established for the New Kingdom town of Sai, which closely resembles ceramics from other New Kingdom towns, but also includes local fabrics for Egyptian vessels as well as for Nubian wares. This fabric corpus comprises six large groups: 1) imported Nile clays from Egypt, 2) locally produced Nile clays from Sai/Upper Nubia, 3) Nubian clays from Upper Nubia, 4) imported Marl clays from Egypt, 5) other imported wares (Oases, Levant, Cyprus) and 6) imported Mixed clays from Egypt. Thus, it was clear that many imports from Egypt and beyond landed on Sai, including not only amphorae and storage vessels but also painted wares, which were considered as luxury wares (fig. 51). The local production of ceramics on the island comprised wheel-thrown Egyptian-style Nile clay vessels (fig. 52) as well as hand-made Nubian vessels. Nubian cooking pots (fig. 53) and storage vessels are regular finds and attest to Nubian presence in the Egyptian town or maybe to Nubian cooks or persons otherwise involved in food production.

Figure 51. Painted Marl clay jar from Egypt, found in the Egyptian town of Sai (SAV1E 874/2017)

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Figure 52. Rim sherd of painted dish, local style, from the Egyptian town of Sai (SAV1W P016)

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Figure 53. Nubian cooking pots from the Egyptian town of Sai

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7Other than the analysis of fabrics, important evidence of local pottery production comes from wasters and unfired sherds and should therefore be treated with priority in the archaeological record.

8Sai can be used as a case study of local pottery workshops and traditions in New Kingdom Nubia. Regional style was mostly expressed by surface treatment and decoration. The main difference to pottery corpora from sites located on main-land Egypt is the predominance of Nile clay wares, even for shapes usually produced in Marl clay. This is, of course, related to the accessibility of raw materials, which always needs to be considered.

Cultural Encounters and Material Entanglement

9In order to assess a pottery corpus regarding information on potential cultural encounters, the material must be checked for comparisons and specific features. In the case of Sai, the rich ceramic material from the town found ready parallels not only in other Egyptian foundations in Nubia (e.g. Rose 2018), but also at various New Kingdom sites in Egypt. However, a local component of site-specific features was also noted. Besides local decoration patterns (fig. 52), these are especially hybrid types of ceramics which illustrate two-way influences of the Nubian and Egyptian pottery traditions at the site (fig. 54). Some locally produced Nile clay pottery vessels were modelled on Egyptian types, but with a “Nubian” influence regarding the surface treatment, production technique or decoration. Such vessels can be considered as evidence of “material entanglement” (Stockhammer 2013) indicating a complex mixture of lifestyles during the New Kingdom on Sai.

Figure 54. Hybrid vessels from the Egyptian town of Sai

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What can we Learn from the AcrossBorders Project?

10Sai and the results of the AcrossBorders project illustrate the dynamic and situational characters of past societies. Other than drawing artificial border lines between cultural groups, in this case Egyptians and Nubians, the aim of modern archaeology should be to reconstruct social, economic and cultural identities at the local level of sites (see e.g. Spencer et al. 2017). Such identities can change, interact and merge with each other. On Sai, the ceramics indicate that there was a complex intermingling of the Egyptian and Kerma traditions, resulting in a great variability and in hybrid forms that display both Egyptian and Nubian features.

11The most pressing questions about the pottery from Sai were the identity of the potters and of the users of the vessels. The answers must derive from respecting a very dynamic microcosm with fuzzy boundaries between cultural identities at the site. For Middle Kingdom Nubia, episodic work of Egyptian potters as itinerant craftsmen travelling from site to site could be reconstructed (Reshetnikova, Williams 2016). At major sites industrial workshops showing local features produced ceramics on a large scale, whereas the production at other sites was for much smaller demands. On Sai, an industrial workshop for the Egyptian-style pottery seems likely, but details relating to the ceramic production remain unclear. Close interconnections between Egyptians and Nubians are evident and it seems most likely that Nubian potters were trained in the wheel-made production by Egyptians. Thus, production patterns and the identity of the potters changed during the life of the town of Sai.

12In summary, Nubian pots, representing the minority in the pottery corpus, confirm the character of Sai as an Egyptian-style town. As for other groups of the material culture, the pottery corpus attests to people primarily identifying themselves as Egyptian officials but who may nonetheless have had Nubian family ties. As such, they were part of a local group with a specific cultural identity that was never completely abandoned but greatly adapted to an Egyptian appearance—including the production of Egyptian-style pottery with local features.

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