Material Culture in Egypt and Nubia

Egyptology is still a text centred discipline with stress on historical and political interpretations derived from textual sources rather than on the ‘things’, which ancient Egyptians used. These are an equal source to inform on life’s reality of ancient Egyptians as well as on social and economic history and relationships. In this light a discrepancy in theoretical applications exists between archaeological remains that constitute a large portion of ancient Egyptian heritage and texts in the widest sense, many of which express political processes and opinions. These texts were written by elite members and for a socially restricted group, who were able to read. This research group, whilst not ignoring the textual evidence, focuses on the evidence from ‘things’ in order to test it with source groups transmitting political aspects. In this way differences and similarities of these source types will be highlighted and more information on social and cultural processes obtained.

Thebes burial (after Petrie 1909)

Material culture and material culture theory offer a wide range of opportunities to evaluate archaeological finds, importantly within their contexts, to gain independent means of interpretation. Basic considerations stressing the importance of objects are the rejection of the western idea, that human beings should be divorced from the ‘things’ they are surrounded with, considering the intellectual sphere as superior. Human beings have relationships with material culture even before the ability to speak. ‘Things’ express actions/processes and are not the consequence of an ‘idea’. Hence objects are influenced by their maker and their user, whilst the object exerts influence on its user as well, creating an interdependency. Histories of objects and people are tied together and become parts of biographies of individuals. Depending on this history objects and situations become memories in personal perception. In this respect Bourdieu’s habitus mediating social structure and individual agency is important. Habitus represents durable and internalised dispositions (i.e. to act in certain ways influenced by structures of material conditions) that unconsciously structure the actions of an individual, and through which the individual structures his/her environment. This process is continuously reproduced. ‘Things’ found in a variety of contexts inform about material aspects of culture and the relationships to individuals, who used those ‘things’ and, represent a source also for archaeology.

One of the aims of the research group is to bring together material culture and its context with other source types for a better understanding of cultural and social processes, about which textual sources are not particularly informative. In order to reach this goal find contexts from a wide range of sites will be re-assessed with thorough description and analysis of different object types in a (find) contextual manner. This re-assessment will provide new raw data necessary for new research.


Beyond Politics: Material Culture in Second Intermediate Period Egypt and Nubia

The Second Intermediate Period (ca 1800–1570/30 BC) is one of the most complicated eras in Egyptian history. It begins after the Middle Kingdom and comprises the later 13th to 17th Dynasties. Political instability is indicated by short reign lengths of ca 80 pharaohs in 200-250 years. The Second Intermediate Period ended about 1570/30 BC with the ‘wars of liberation’ won by Theban rulers unifying Egypt (18th Dynasty). But it is a well-known trope also that order is brought by pharaoh after chaos. The sources for the political/historical reconstruction are corrupted and fragmentary texts far removed from the original period. Archaeological sources contribute considerably to reconstruction of cultural and social processes in history but remain neglected. The material culture shows a certain regionalisation in this period, where the regions are interpreted as singular partly independent and even political units.
The project sets out not only to test whether such a regionalisation can be proved, but how it becomes manifest, and which possible reasons might exist beside the political explanation currently favoured. A major difficulty is the unclear relative chronology. Many well stratified archaeological contexts will be collated, consisting of various object categories (e.g. pottery, scarabs, tools, metal finds, etc) throughout Egypt and Lower Nubia. These objects will be analysed in a multi-scalar approach, from the objects themselves, within their contexts to site specific relative sequences and finally to inter-site comparative analysis. Thus, a dense relative-chronological network will be established for further consideration of diachronic and spatial developments of material culture and whether regional differences can be pinpointed – in the composition of contexts or the morphology of objects.

In order to reach this task modern documentation of finds from current excavations and museum objects from early excavations are combined, which will provide a large amount of new information enabling the construction of a sound relative chronology. To this end qualitative and quantitative analyses will be conducted. A common terminology for phasing will also be developed as it is currently rather vague. The stress on contextual study and material culture, both hitherto neglected in Egyptology, will provide an additional level of interpretation revealing behaviour, and identity of the people who created and engaged with their objects. Theoretical aspects of material culture enable interpretation of objects representing beliefs, ideas and values and identity unconsciously inherent in the production of objects (chaine operatoire). Therefore a better understanding social and cultural processes such as burial rites and the formation of identity (hence also ethnicity) will be achieved, as well as critical assessment of cultural affinity between Egyptian regions and beyond (Syria/Palestine, Nubia). Theoretical models will also explain relationships between object and individual and therefore also aspects of their behaviour and identity.

Tell el-Retaba in the Wadi Tumilat (The Tell el-Retaba Joint Polish-Slovak Mission)

The site of Tell el-Retaba is known since the early 20th century AD and has been excavated among others by Flinders Petrie. Since 2007 the site is under excavation by the Polish Slovak mission, directed by S. Rzepka and J. Hudec, under participation of L. Hulková, collaborator of the project Beyond Politics. Whilst a cemetery of the Second Intermediate Period as well as a long settlement sequence and fortifications up to the Late Period were uncovered and documented in recent years, the cemetery and contemporary settlement of the Second Intermediate Period allow an assessment of the degree of similarity and contact with the Egyptian Delta and further south on the one side and southern Palestine on the other.

Material Culture in Colonial Contexts – The Uronarti Regional Archaeological Project (URAP)

The URAP is a project that Christian Knoblauch co-directs with Laurel Bestock from Brown University, Rhode Island, that is investigating the ancient Egyptian colonial outpost on the island of Uronarti in its regional context. Uronarti is a Nile Island about 80km south of the modern Sudanese border with Egypt, in the southern most reaches of Lake Nasser. In antiquity, this resource-rich area to the south of ancient Egypt was inhabited by populations that were culturally distinct from inhabitants of the Egyptian Nile Valley and for long swathes of history, politically independent of the pharaonic state. The main cultural-historical significance of Uronarti stems from the establishment of an Egyptian pharaonic fortress complex here in around 2000 BCE – the 12th Dynasty of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, as part of a system of settlements and fortifications intended, amongst other things, for local resource extraction and securing of trade routes to the area of modern central Sudan.

Previous archaeological work in the Middle Kingdom forts has emphasised the hegemonic nature of the Egyptian presence. With few exceptions, it has conceived of the processes and structures native to these colonial contexts as more or less static reflections of “intended” colonial outcomes. Typically, such “intended” outcomes were anticipated in ideological statements materialised in the large scale remodelling of the landscape as well as in texts and images. Our project is particularly interested in reconceiving of Egyptian Middle Kingdom colonialism as a complex, continuously shifting interplay between colonial aims and policies and the agency of local communities.

The URAP is conducted in cooperation with the National Corporation of Museums and Antiquities, Republic of North Sudan. In particular, we wish to thank Dr Abd el Rahman Ali the Director General of NCAM and our inspector Shadia Abderabo Abdelwahab – who makes everything work.

Uronarti, Nubia (© URAP)

The URAP has conducted three seasons of field work to date (2011/2012, 2012/2013, 2015/2016) – funded by the Brennan Archaeological Fund and Brown University. The focus of work has been on topographic and archaeological survey that will enable us to better understand how Uronarti and its population interacted with local environments and populations. Targeted excavations have investigated contexts outside the walls which expand our perceptions of what an Egyptian settlement was. The last season investigated the diachronic evolution of a single dwelling inside the fortress through 200 years of colonial settlement and continued the excavation in extra-mural areas.

There are three preliminary reports for the first two seasons:

  • Living beyond the walls: new Evidence for Egyptian colonialism at Uronarti, Nubia, Antiquity, Project Gallery April 2015.
  • Revisiting Middle Kingdom Interactions in Nubia: The Uronarti Regional Archaeological Project, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 6:4, 32–35.
  • A major preliminary report was published in 2015 in the Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts (Abteilung Kairo) 69.

Beautiful Kush: Cosmetic substances and utensils in Egyptian New Kingdom Nubia

Within the PostDoc project of Uroš Matić the use of cosmetic utensils such as kohl-pots, -cases, -sticks, palettes, “cosmetic” spoons, tweezers, “curlers”, “trimmers”, razors, mirrors, and substances during the New Kingdom in Nubia will be compared with their use in Egypt. The goal of this project is to investigate how much did the body care in Nubia change after the Egyptian conquest.


  • Janine Bourriau, Honorary Member of the Project Beyond Politics
    Janine Bourriau is Senior Reasearch Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.
    Janine Bourriau devoted much of her research time to the study of the material culture of the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period. Her rich experience in this respect and life-long interest and effort in this field make her a most valuable partner for this research group. In an extremely generous move she made available her personal card file archive of cemeteries of the Second Intermediate Period excavated in the early 20th century to the project Beyond Politics. These cards do not only include information on the overall situation of each of the tombs but also on each single item of a tomb group located in museums all over the world collected over a lengthy period of time. This work represents Janine’s unceasing effort and interest over several decades and we feel very honoured by her trust in the project and would like to acknowledge it gratefully.
  • Slawomir Rzepka, Jozef Hudec, Tell el-Retaba Joint Polish-Slovak Mission
  • Peter Lacovara, The Ancient Egyptian Archaeology and Heritage Fund
  • Regina Hölzl, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna