Ptolemaic to late antique pottery from Syene and Elephantine

The contextual study of the ceramic material from the domestic contexts in Syene and Elephantine is the basis for an analysis of the innovative and traditional elements of a pottery production center that for several centuries was one of the most important of Egypt. Based on a typological and chronological assessment of the pottery, house inventories are being reconstructed and functional analyses are taking place.

The island Elephantine and the Nile town of Syene, modern Aswan, located on the opposite east bank are linked by a long and eventful history. The prosperity of both settlements is the result of their geostrategic position and the associated ability to control the first cataract region of Egypt. Both had functional Nile harbors and were also military posts that secured the border to the south. The local quarrying of Aswan Granite and the production of fine wares were of supraregional trade importance; the fine wares were disseminated widely throughout Egypt in the Roman imperial period and reached their peak in late antiquity.

The archaeological context

Excavations of the Swiss Institute for Egyptian Building Archaeology and History under the direction of C. von Pilgrim in cooperation with the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Aswan, as well as the OeAI yielded decisive new insights on the domestic contexts of the city of Syene of the Ptolemaic and Roman period in the area 13c and area 2 measuring around 1,000 m2. The archaeological context clearly demonstrates that particularly during the late Ptolemaic period they were high-quality residential buildings with rich furnishings of the urban elite which were converted into a row of shops in the early imperial period. The late antique domestic contexts of the former temple area on Elephantine were studied by the DAI in cooperation with the Swiss Institute and were typologically published in 2003. A large quantity of well-preserved pottery was discovered in the houses to the south and west of the Khnum temple; the houses were constructed in the 5th century CE and were inhabited into the 7th sometimes even into the 9th century CE.

Ceramic find material

The large quantity of ceramic find material from both settlement areas and their exceptionally good preservation made it possible to contextually analyze the Ptolemaic to late antique pottery. The find material examined from area 13 does not only exhibit a plethora of Mediterranean imports but in addition to Egyptian traditions it also exhibits a clear Hellenistic-Roman character of the locally produced ceramic wares. The Aswan Pink Clay used from the middle Ptolemaic period and regionally quarried was increasingly used in pottery production in the Roman imperial period. It reached its peak in early late antiquity. The tableware was produced in large quantities and imitated Mediterranean shapes; it was exported beyond the borders of Egypt and can be identified in contexts of the 8th century CE.

For the first time the in-situ contexts in the houses permit a typological-chronological classification of various pottery groups leading to a reconstruction of the inventory and functional analysis of the pottery. A diachronic analysis of the ceramic find materials from the houses provide important information on changes in cooking habits but also the reception of new drinking and eating practices.