This project studies a pottery workshop and the associated ceramics in Musawwarat es-Sufra, a unique sacral site of the Meroitic period (3rd century BC to 4th century AD) in Sudan. A propos this material, the project investigates a wide range of aspects concerning the production, distribution and use of Meroitic pottery.

Research

In 1997, excavations in the Great Enclosure, the main sacral complex at Musawwarat, revealed remains of a pottery workshop in which Meroitic fine wares were produced. Not least due to the high amount of finds, investigations were stopped soon and the detailed analysis of the workshop and its production remained a task for the future. According to previous knowledge, the Meroitic fine ware developed in Middle Meroitic times, between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, and was made from Caolinitic clays which were started to be exploited only then. Mainly comprising small open shapes, Meroitic fine ware ceramics are very sophisticated, thin-walled and usually decorated in painted, more rarely in stamped decoration. They occur all over the Middle Nile valley and have been interpreted primarily as an elite table ware. It is also found in funerary contexts.

The current project comprised a geophysical survey and extensive excavations in the workshop area and its surroundings (cf. project (A-1-1) The transformation of space by knowledge: The case study of Musawwarat es-Sufra, Sudan) as well as an exhaustive analysis of the recovered find material which includes over a ton of pottery, all in all some 27.000 sherds. The analysis of the pottery is the subject of a the PhD project (A-6-5-1) Meroic fine ware ceramics: production, distribution, use.

Results

The archaeological investigations indicated that pottery production at the workshop site may have started in the 1st century BC and continued into the 1st and possibly 2nd centuries AD. The excavations revealed parts of a substantial deposit of production debris, mixed with sherd material and numerous tools and gadgets used in pottery production, such as stamps for decor­ating fine ware pottery, polishing stones and a turning device.

The data gathered from the re-investigation of an adjacent workshop room provided unique insights, which are currently matched with the analysis of the find material. The room featured a basin which was probably used to prepare the clay or materials used in the subsequent decoration of the pots. The spot where parts of a potter’s wheel had been found in the 1960s was re-documented. It may indeed represent the place where the wheel had been worked by the ancient potter.

Extensive archaeometric analyses (MGR, WD-XRF, XRD, thin section) as well as technological analyses (determination of original firing temperatures using KH-analysis), and analyses of physical ceramic properties (apparent density, open porosity, water absorption) and functional properties (water permeability, thermal shock resistance; all undertaken by M. Daszkiewicz and G. Schneider) guided the study of the pottery and allowed to establish a robust fabric system. They confirmed that the majority of the wheel-made coarse wares as well as almost all fine wares are of local origin. A raw material survey allowed matching the fabrics with local raw material sources in the vicinity of the site. Comparison with analyses from other Meroitic sites indicated that the pottery from Musawwarat was not distributed. It can thus be argued that it was produced for on-site use in an attached specialised production. Interestingly, most of the handmade pottery that was found in the deposit (amounting to less than 1% of the overall corpus) is made from fabrics of non-local origin and must have come from elsewhere.

While the chronological horizon of the workshop is almost devoid of imported wheel-made pottery, older contexts at the site produce a significant ratio of non-local pottery, made e.g. from Nile alluvial clays. This finding does not only herald a fabric-based dating system for Meroitic pottery (which is notoriously difficult to date), but also indicates a development in the patterns of its production, distribution and use – for which the corpus analysed in the current project provides a uniquely detailed data set available for future extensions and comparisons.

First results of the project were presented at international conferences. Eight papers have been published in international journals so far (see https://www.topoi.org/person/naeser-claudia/publications/). Several of them can be accessed through the website www.musawwarat.com.