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Comptes rendus

Review of Anne Minault-Gout and Florence Thill, Saï II. Le cimetière des tombes hypogées du Nouvel Empire (SAC5), FIFAO 69, Cairo 2012

Julia Budka
Référence(s) :

FIFAO 69, Cairo 2012, ISBN 978-2-7247-0604-8; vol. 1 = xxvii + 422 p.; Vol. 2 = 190 p. with 176 plates many in colour

Texte intégral

  • 1 See the summaries by Vercoutter 1986 and Geus 2004.

1Sai Island, located in a favourable position in Upper Nubia, just south of the natural barrier represented by the Batn el-Haggar in Northern Sudan, has been continuously settled from Prehistory to modern times being occupied by various people throughout the ages. Nubian cultures of different periods but also Egyptians of the New Kingdom have left plenty of evidence on the island.1

  • 2 The three important New Kingdom cemeteries of Sai are SAC4, SAC1 and SAC5; for their location see p (...)

2The history of the systematic scientific exploration of Sai by a French mission started in 1954. The first excavations under the direction of Jean Vercoutter focused on the New Kingdom fortified town and temple, located on the eastern bank of the island. Soon after, research was undertaken in the nearby cemeteries of the Pharaonic age. The publication under review – which is dedicated to Jean Vercoutter – is the long waited for publication of cemetery SAC5, probably the most important Egyptian cemetery of the island, discovered in the season 1972-73.2 As at other Nubian sites like Aniba, Amara West and Tombos, Pharaonic-style tombs of the New Kingdom have been built at Sai. SAC5 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 Soleb and Aniba but also in Egypt, e.g. in the Theban necropolis.

3The volume offers a detailed description of 24 excavated tombs, referring to architecture, finds, ceramics and the interrelationships between the individual graves as well as to the inhabitants of Sai during the New Kingdom. The mortuary evidence from SAC5 strongly supports the findings from the New Kingdom town that there was a complex community of Egyptians and Nubians on Sai Island.

4Saï II is a high-quality book where the two substantial volumes (more than 600 pages in total!) are presented in a practical slipcase, all with very well designed covers. Volume 1 is the descriptive and interpretative text; volume 2 comprises the plates (photos and line-drawings). This division has many advantages for the user – in particular, given the format and size of the publication, it is very convenient to be able having a look at both, text and illustrations, at the same time and without scrolling through a single volume, searching for the figures.

5The text volume is organized in two parts: The first one is dedicated to the presentation of the archaeology, the burials and the tombs; the second one highlights the various groups of finds and materials. Such a division in architecture and archaeological descriptions and the finds is very common in funerary archaeology, especially in Egyptology. The chapters of part I are the following: Chapter 1. The tombs (p. 7-14) with brief descriptions of the architecture/form of the superstructures (the brick enclosure walls, chapels, pyramids and courts) including the mentioning of parallels and the proposed sequence and chronology as well as a discussion of the substructures (pits/chambers and caves). The authors define four types of superstructures (p. 8): type 0: no superstructure; type 1: a simple brick wall enclosure; type 2: an enclosure with a chapel and type 3: large superstructures with chapel, court, pyramid and enclosure. The simple types 1 and 2 can be dated to the 18th Dynasty, whereas type 3 with brick pyramids developed in the late 18th Dynasty and was especially in use during the Ramesside period (p. 12).

  • 3 The intriguing pyramidal structure, tomb 23, is not included in this publication and will be publis (...)

6Chapter 2. The burials (p. 15-17) gives an overview of the interments in the particular graves with special reference to the positioning of the body. Chapter 3. The catalogue of tombs provides detailed information about 23 graves: tombs 1-21 and 24-253. The most important one is tomb 8 in which a total of 40 individuals were found, 22 belonging to the first phase of use (p. 19-125). The closing chapter of part I is Chapter 4. An annex with the anthropology from tomb 8 (p.127-157). Here P. Murail presents two bodies from the southwestern chamber of the lower level of tomb 8 (p. 127-130); the skeletons are almost completely preserved and can be identified as one male and one female adult. The taphonomy and bioarchaeology of the general material from tomb 8 is then discussed by Fr. Adam (p. 130-155).

7Part II presents the material and finds from SAC5: Chapter 5. Funerary mobiliar like stelae and canopic jars, shabtis (p. 161-229); Chapter 6. Body adorments like beads, amulets etc. (p. 231-323) with a detailed catalogue; Chapter 7. Toilette objects like mirrors, razors and Kohl vessels (p. 325-333); Chapter 8. Ceramics (p. 335-378); Chapter 9. Clay objects and figurines (p. 379-380); Chapter 10. Non-ceramic vessels (p. 381-392); Chapter 11. Tools in bronze and stone (p. 393-398) and Chapter 12. The objects in bone, ivory and wood (p. 399-401). All of these groups of objects and their find position are clearly illustrated in the maps of the different situations of objects within the specific tombs in volume II.

  • 4 See Azim 1975; recently summarized by Budka & Doyen 2013 and Budka 2013.

8The conclusion (p. 403-418) summarizes the results and stresses the importance of the work. This densely written summary also gives an excellent overview of all the crucial historical questions connected with the fortified Egyptian town of Sai and its adjacent cemeteries. The key outcome of the detailed assessment of SAC5 is its dating: This cemetery was not in use prior to Thutmose III and flourished until the late 18th Dynasty; this reflects the general heyday of the 18th Dynasty on Sai Island. SAC5 is contemporaneous to the extensive building activities in the town, with an Amun temple, an enclosure wall, magazines and a governor’s residence.4 The cemetery SAC5 is “de type complètement égyptien” (p. 406), with a preferred extended position for burials, and with the only attested hypogea at Sai, with Egyptian pyramid superstructures resembling the Theban model of the New Kingdom and with typical Pharaonic installations for funerary offering cult. The assumption that Egyptian administrative staff and their families (see p. 413-414 for titles attested at SAC5) have been buried here is very likely and seems to be reflected in objects like heart scarabs and stone shabtis which are of high quality. Whether in contrast the “mixed” cemetery SAC4 was used by Kerma people who were in contact with the Egyptians living on the island still needs to be verified. It is also not yet proven that SAC1, a grave yard with about 20 chamber tombs, predates SAC5 and was used by occupants prior to the flourishing time under Thutmose III.

  • 5 Cf. the seminal papers by Smith 2008 and Binder 2011.

9The authors are well aware of the hypothetical character of their proposed sequence for which they have already strong arguments. The details of the diachronic development of the New Kingdom cemeteries at Sai must await the final publications of SAC1 and SAC4. All in all, SAC5 cannot be associated with the period of founding the Egyptian settlement on Sai in the very early 18th Dynasty (reign of Ahmose or Amenhotep I). The size of and qualitative data from SAC5 underlines the importance of Sai Island as Egyptian administrative center in Upper Nubia – it is even possible that Sai was the residence of the viceroy of Kush prior to Soleb during the 18th Dynasty (p. 418). Another significance of Sai derives from Late New Kingdom and Pre-Napatan burials as attested at SAC5 – together with Amara West and Tombos the site has great potential to assess this still little understood period in more detail and to reconstruct aspects of the transition of the New Kingdom to the Napatan Period in Upper Nubia.5

10One has to congratulate the two authors for a high quality and detailed presentation of important material – Saï II is beautifully illustrated and will function as a standard reference work for the upcoming years. The publication is extremely useful for scholars working at contemporaneous sites in Nubia. Especially in light of the ongoing excavations at neighboring New Kingdom cemeteries like Amara West and Tombos the rich material offers a very good basis for comparisons and discussion, in particular for still problematic periods like the Late New Kingdom.

  • 6 See e.g. Budka 2013.
  • 7 This work will be undertaken by Brigitte Gratien.

11Since excavations in the New Kingdom town of Sai are continuing6 and the publication of the other important 18th Dynasty cemetery SAC1 is planned for the near future7 there is furthermore much hope that we will be able to comprehend SAC5 and its occupants soon in a broader context. With Saï II, data have been published and are now available which will contribute to a better understanding of Egyptian sites in Nubia, especially in combination with finds from the relevant settlements. This publication is an important step towards reconstructing the social stratigraphy as well as assessing possible demographic changes throughout the New Kingdom at key places like Sai Island, probably reflecting historical developments and changes in the administrative system.

12Some detailed comments and additional remarks

  • 8 The reviewer is, however, aware that this is a result of a division of work; see p. 3-4 of the pres (...)
  • 9 Probably following here Holthoer 1977.

13The structure of part II of volume I is clear and well organized: the material is sorted according to “functional groups” and materials. It might have been worth to mention that this classification is purely artificial8 ‒ all of the finds have been part of the funerary assemblage and functioned either as burial gift, as container or as offering. Thus, a division in larger groups as e.g. “containers” or “funerary equipment” with further sub-groups according to the material could have illustrated the functional setting within the tombs better. It is, for example, not quite understandable why ceramic canopic jars (type D in the pottery corpus, pl. 131) are described in chapter 5 as the specific funerary equipment they doubtlessly are (pl. 90), but then have also been added to the vessel type corpus.9

14Some comments on scarabs from SAC5 which nicely illustrate the wide time span covered by the burials and the corresponding problems in dating:

15p. 258: T20Cb74 finds a new, perfect parallel at Amara West, cemetery D, tomb G301, F8022 (dating: 19th Dynasty), see Binder et al. 2011, fig 37.

16p. 262: For T21Cc54 one piece from Sanam is cited as a parallel; for a new analysis of this important cemetery, which was founded in the New Kingdom, see now Lohwasser 2012; for the cryptographic writing of Amun on T21Cc54 see Lohwasser 2013, 233 with further references. The most likely date for scarab T21Cc54 is Pre-Napatan or Napatan (corresponding to pottery of this date found in the tomb).

17p. 263-264: New parallels for Men-kheper-Ra-scarabs (and plaquettes) have recently been found at Amara West, see Binder 2011, dating to the Late New Kingdom; for this group of scarabs see now also Lohwasser 2013. The reviewer would propose a dating to the Late New Kingdom or Pre-Napatan time for the pieces from tomb 25 at SAC5 (against the 18th Dynasty dating of the authors).

18p. 266-268: For several amulets, especially the ones depicting animals and the god Bes, new parallels from Amara West can be named, see Binder et al. 2011.

  • 10 The most important parallels for the pottery from SAC5 can be found at Sai itself: the closely comp (...)

19p. 335-378: The ceramic is presented as basic corpus sorted according to forms, but without detailed comments, a fine dating or an individual assessment of the single vessels. Fabrics and wares are not given in detail; a classification according to the Vienna System was not conducted (p. 335). Consequently, a number of comments and a more precise dating can be proposed for most vessels; I will illustrate this here only by selected examples.10

  • 11 Aston 2003, 135-162; Aston 2008, 375; Bourriau 2010, 2-3.

20p. 335: The division of pottery of the New Kingdom into four main phases according to J. Bourriau was recently revised; most scholars follow now a separation into five phases as proposed by Aston.11

21p. 336: That no Blue painted pottery was found at SAC5 is remarkable; several fragments, both Nile clay wares and Marl vessels, have been discovered in the near-by settlement SAV1, see Budka 2011, 30.

22p. 342: For the typical mid 18th Dynasty type “flower pots”, the reference to type FP 2 of Holthoer 1977 is incomplete; FP 2 is the variant with a modelled rim; on pl. 132 also variants with unmodelled rim from SAC5 are illustrated, thus falling into class FP 1 by Holthoer.

23p. 350: The group of large amphorae is not homogenous; most of them are probably of Aston’s Mixed clay fabric 1 (Aston 1999, 6). T 21 9 and T21 38 illustrated on pl. 137 can be dated to the Late New Kingdom/the 20th Dynasty according to their form (bag shaped and very tall neck); the 19th Dynasty can be ruled out.

24p. 350: It is worth mentioning that the pot marks on the large amphorae are all executed post firing; this is a very common phenomenon, finding ready parallels at Hillat el-Arab, Amara West and Aniba (Late New Kingdom and Pre-Napatan period).

25p. 353-354: Pilgrim flasks have a very distinct typology and morphological development; it would have been necessary to separate these vessels according to types in order to illustrate their dating from the 18th Dynasty to Ramesside and Pre-Napatan times (e.g. several pieces from tomb 7, T7 86, T7 32 and T7 33 belong to the Post-New Kingdom use of this grave).

26p. 359-360: Especially remarkable are the unique plastic vases (one in fish shape, one in lotus shape) coming from tombs 8 and 1, dating to the mid 18th Dynasty (probably Thutmose III-Amenhotep II).

27p. 363: The “white splash” found on the exterior of two dishes (T11 S2 and T16 S18) is compared to the well attested “red splash” of Thutmoside times; however, plates and dishes with white finger impressions on red ground (or uncoated surface) are exclusively used in the funerary sphere (other than the “red splash” which, e.g., is well attested at SAV1, the New Kingdom town of Sai). The vessels from SAC5 find some predecessors at Thebes, dating to the late Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period (see Seiler 2005: 80-81, fig. 34 for examples from the 17th Dynasty).

28p. 369: A parallel for the Mycenean stirrup jar (T21 61), probably of late 18th Dynasty date/context, was excavated in the New Kingdom town of Sai, see Budka 2011, 31.

29p. 384: The reading of the personal name on the vessel is very unclear; another possibility could be ḥnwt-t3.wj (PN I, 244.12).

30Some comments on the excellent summary of the publication, hoping to underline the importance of the site:

31p. 403: Add here to footnote 2 the recent paper Gabolde 2011-2012 for an assessment of the epigraphic sources of the 18th Dynasty on Sai.

32p. 403: For the important work at Doukki Gel a new report has been published: Bonnet 2012; cf. also Valbelle 2012.

33p. 404: The new dating of SAV2 as Thutmose III is correct and essential; the references for a former proposed Middle Kingdom date are given in note 5.

34p. 415: The heydays of SAC5 are assumed as the reign of Thutmose III, the time of Amenhotep II to Thutmose IV and the reign of Amenhotep III; this corresponds perfectly with the evidence from the New Kingdom town (see Budka 2011; Budka 2013).

35p. 415, note 28: For the essential analysis and studies in bioarchaeology Buzon 2008 is still an essential reference; however, much progress has been made, especially with strontium isotope analysis of human remains at Tombos (also currently undertaken for Amara West); an updated study by Buzon will appear in the conference volume: N. Spencer, A. Stevens, M. Binder (eds.), Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived experience, pharaonic control and indigenous traditions. Proceedings of the 2013 conference, London, British Museum, OLA, Leuven, forthcoming.

36p. 417: About the work conducted by the British Museum, directed by Neal Spencer at Amara West, several new papers have been published; for the cemeteries important new references are: Binder et al. 2010; Binder 2011; Binder et al. 2011.

37p. 418: Work at Sesebi has continued in the last years, see the reports by Spence et al. 2011; a small formal detail on this excavation: since 2009 Sesebi is not only a project by Cambridge, but a joint mission of the University of Cambridge and the Austrian Archaeological Institute, Cairo branch.

38p. 418: The reviewer does not share the opinion that especially future excavations in cemeteries of sites as Sesebi will provide a more precise dating – settlement archaeology is the key to fine dating New Kingdom ceramics and understanding this period in more detail. Recent work at settlement sites in Upper Nubia (Sai, Sesebi, Amara West and most recently also the town at Tombos) has already expended our knowledge immensely.

39p. 418: The importance of gold exploitation at Sai has become clearer during the last field seasons at the New Kingdom town, see Budka forthcoming.

40p. 418: That Sai was founded prior to Sesebi is indeed likely, but not yet proven. Both of these sites have produced significant and very similar ceramics of the early 18th Dynasty in the last years (Spence et al. 2011; Budka 2011), so after all they could also be contemporaneous foundations – this question has to be addressed by future excavation.

41p. 418: It is probable that Sai was an administrative center during the first half of the 18th Dynasty, especially before Soleb held this function; the present state of knowledge allows being even more precise: from the reign of Thutmose III onwards such a function is traceable; see Budka 2013 and Budka forthcoming.

42p. 418, note 52: For gold mining in this area of Upper Nubia see now also Klemm & Klemm 2013.

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Aston 1999 = D. A. Aston, Elephantine XIX. Pottery from the Late New Kingdom to the Early Ptolemaic Period, AV 95, Mainz am Rhein.

Aston 2003 = D. A. Aston, New Kingdom Pottery Phases as revealed through well-dated Tomb Contexts, in: M. Bietak (ed.), The Synchronisation of Civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Second Millennium BC II, Vienna, 135-162.

Aston 2008 = D. A. Aston, Untersuchungen im Totentempel des Merenptah in Theben Bd. IV, The Pottery, Beiträge zur Ägyptischen Bauforschung und Altertumskunde 17, Mainz am Rhein.

Azim 1975 = Michel Azim, Quatre campagnes de fouilles sur la forteresse de Saï, 1970-1973. 1ère partie: l’installation pharaonique, CRIPEL 3, 91-125.

Binder et al. 2010 = M. Binder/N. Spencer/M. Millet, Cemetery D at Amara West: the Ramesside Period and its aftermath, Sudan & Nubia 14, 25-44.

Binder 2011 = M. Binder, The 10th-9th century BC – New Evidence from Cemetery C of Amara West, Sudan & Nubia 15, 39-53.

Binder et al. 2011 = M. Binder N. Spencer and M. Millet, Cemetery D at Amara West: the Ramesside Period and its aftermath, British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 16, 47-99.

Bonnet 2012 = Ch. Bonnet, Les grands monuments égyptiens et nubiens du début de la XVIIIe dynastie sur le site de Doukki Gel (Kerma), BIFAO 112, 57-75.

Bourriau 2010 = J. Bourriau, The Survey of Memphis IV. Kom Rabia: The New Kingdom Pottery, EES EM 93, London.

Budka 2011 = J. Budka, The early New Kingdom at Sai Island: Preliminary results based on the pottery analysis (4th Season 2010), Sudan & Nubia 15, 23-33.

Budka 2012 = J. Budka, Neue Arbeiten in der Siedlung des Neuen Reiches auf Sai Island (Nordsudan), Sokar 24, 54-63.

Budka 2013 = J. Budka, Die 18. Dynastie auf Sai Island (Nordsudan) – neue Puzzlesteine als Ergebnisse der Feldkampagne 2013, Sokar 26, 78-87.

Budka forthcoming = J. Budka, The Egyptian “re-conquest of Nubia” in the New Kingdom – some thoughts on the legitimization of Pharaonic power in the South, in: F. Coppens, J. Janák and H. Vymazalová (eds.), 7. Tagung zur Königsideologie, Royal versus Divine Authority Acquisition, Legitimization and Renewal of Power, Königtum, Staat und Gesellschaft früher Hochkulturen, Wiesbaden [2014].

Budka and Doyen 2013 =J. Budka and Fl. Doyen, Living in New Kingdom towns in Upper Nubia – New evidence from recent excavations on Sai Island, Egypt and the Levant 22 [in press].

Buzon 2008 = M. R. Buzon, A Bioarchaeological Perspective on Egyptian Colonialism in the New Kingdom, JEA 94, 165-182.

Gabolde 2011–2012 = L. Gabolde, Réexamen des jalons de la présence de la XVIIIe dynastie naissante à Saï, CRIPEL 29, 115-137.

Geus 2004 = Fr. Geus, Sai, in D. A. Welsby and J. R. Anderson (eds.), Sudan. Ancient Treasures. An Exhibition of recent discoveries from the Sudan National Museum, London, 114-116.

Holthoer 1977 = R. Holthoer, New Kingdom Pharaonic Sites. The Pottery, SJE Vol. 5:1, Lund.

Klemm & Klemm 2013 = R. Klemm and D. Klemm, Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Geoarchaeology of the Ancient Gold Mining Sites in the Egyptian and Sudanese Eastern Deserts, Natural Science in Archaeology, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht, London.

Lohwasser 2012 = A. Lohwasser, Aspekte der napatanischen Gesellschaft. Archäologisches Inventar und funeräre Praxis im Friedhof von Sanam – Perspektiven einer kulturhistorischen Interpretation, Contributions to the Archaeology of Egypt, Nubia and the Levant 1, Vienna.

Lohwasser 2013 = A. Lohwasser, Zu den Men-Cheper-Re-Skarabäen der 25. Dynastie, in: J. Budka, R. Gundacker and G. Pieke (eds.), Florilegium Aegyptiacum ‒ Eine wissenschaftliche Blütenlese von Schülern und Freunden für Helmut Satzinger zum 75. Geburtstag am 21. Jänner 2013, Göttinger Miszellen Beihefte 14, Göttingen, 229-234.

Miellé 2011-2012 = L. Miellé, La céramique pharaonique de la ville fortifiée (SAV1 N) de l’île de Saï, CRIPEL 29, 173-187.

Seiler 2005 = A. Seiler, Tradition & Wandel. Die Keramik als Spiegel der Kulturentwicklung in der Zweiten Zwischenzeit, SDAIK 32, Mainz am Rhein.

Smith 2008 = St.T. Smith, Tombos and the transition from the New Kingdom to the Napatan Period in Upper Nubia, in: W. Godlewski/A. Łajtar (Hgg.), Between the Cataracts. Proceedings of the 11th Conference of Nubian Studies. Warsaw University, 22. August – 2 September 2006, Main papers, Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean Supplement Series 2/1, Warschau, 95-115.

Spence et al. 2011 = K. Spence et al., Sesebi 2011, Sudan & Nubia 15, 34-38.

Valbelle 2012 = Dominique Valbelle, Comment les Égyptiens du début de la XVIIIe dynastie désignaient les Kouchites et leurs alliés, BIFAO 112, 447-464.

Vercoutter 1986 = J. Vercoutter, Préface: l’archéologie de l’île de Saï, in: B. Gratien, Saï I. La nécropole Kerma, Paris., 7-17.

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1 See the summaries by Vercoutter 1986 and Geus 2004.

2 The three important New Kingdom cemeteries of Sai are SAC4, SAC1 and SAC5; for their location see p. 405, fig. 17. For the history of research at SAC5 see p. 3.

3 The intriguing pyramidal structure, tomb 23, is not included in this publication and will be published elsewhere with a detailed functional assessment.

4 See Azim 1975; recently summarized by Budka & Doyen 2013 and Budka 2013.

5 Cf. the seminal papers by Smith 2008 and Binder 2011.

6 See e.g. Budka 2013.

7 This work will be undertaken by Brigitte Gratien.

8 The reviewer is, however, aware that this is a result of a division of work; see p. 3-4 of the present publication.

9 Probably following here Holthoer 1977.

10 The most important parallels for the pottery from SAC5 can be found at Sai itself: the closely comparable corpus of New Kingdom pottery excavated in the town, unfortunately not yet fully published (and therefore not accessible for the authors of the reviewed work), see Miellé 2011-2012; Budka 2011. A detailed study is currently undertaken and prepared for publication by the reviewer.

11 Aston 2003, 135-162; Aston 2008, 375; Bourriau 2010, 2-3.

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Julia Budka, « Review of Anne Minault-Gout and Florence Thill, Saï II. Le cimetière des tombes hypogées du Nouvel Empire (SAC5), FIFAO 69, Cairo 2012 »Methodos [En ligne], 14 | 2014, mis en ligne le 05 mai 2014, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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