Early Holocene Pottery in the Western Desert of Egypt: New Data from Nabta Playa

Article excerpt



The region of Nabta Playa-Kiseiba, excavated by the Combined Prehistoric Expedition, occupies a significant place on the map of the eastern Sahara (Figure 1). It has provided numerous sites from the oldest settlement in the area, which occurred following a long, arid period at the end of the Pleistocene (Wendorf & Schild 1980, 1998, 2001a; Banks 1984; Close 1987; Nelson et al. 2002). The pottery from the region plays an important role in understanding and defining the region's cultural development in the Early Holocene. Many years of excavation combined with the study of pottery production technology and its decoration have provided an abundance of data, while more than 100 radiocarbon dates have enabled the determination of a fairly precise chronology (Schild & Wendorf 200la: 45-6, 2001b: 52-4, tab. 3.1).

The oldest ceramic types appear very early in the southern Western Desert of Egypt, within the Early Holocene El Adam phase (Nelson et al. 2002), which dates from c. 9800 BP (10 000-8750 cal BC at 1[sigma]) (at E1Adam Playa) to 8870 BP (8240-7750 cal BC at l[sigma]) (at Site E-77-7, El Gebal El Beid Playa). The El Adam ceramics are among the earliest examples of pottery production in Africa, which from its first appearance presents a technologically advanced form. The El Adam vessels, decorated with simple impression and simple rocker-stamp motifs belong to a wide, early Saharan/Sudanese tradition of pottery manufacture, which emerges in the Sahara and the northern Sahel (Roset 1982, 1987a; Connor 1984; Barich 1998; Wendorf et al. 2001; Nelson et al. 2002; Haour 2003; Jesse 2003a; Huysecom et al. 2009; Ozainne et al. 2009).


The El Adam pottery, however scant, is encountered at nearly all sites connected with this phase. The scarcity of potsherds buried in situ has often raised doubts as to the association of the ceramic vessels with the early El Adam settlements. The latest excavations in Nabta Playa, however, have yielded new chronological data pertaining to the age of early pottery-making in the southern region of the Western Desert of Egypt. We present here the discovery of this pottery in situ and discuss its context within the earliest pottery manufacture in Africa.

The Nabta Playa site

Site E-06-1, where excavation began in 2006, is located on the eastern shore of the Early Holocene Nabta Playa lake (Figures 2 & 3). Although partially truncated by recent wind erosion, the site is embedded in dunes at the shoreline and overlapped by a massive lower-mid Holocene silt deposition which heralded a major arid phase (compare Schild & Wendorf 2001a). So far a dozen remains of dwellings, several dozen hearths and rich artefact assemblages have been excavated, including nearly 20 000 stone artefacts and bone fragments, together with eight pottery sherds, five of which were embedded in the dated archaeological features (Figure 4). Analysis of the material indicates that the huts belong to the El Adam phase and were inhabited by a small group of people. The uncalibrated radiocarbon dates indicate an occupation between 9200-9000 BP.


The pottery

The El Adam variant of pottery is known in the Nabta Playa-Kiseiba basins from six sites (Figure 2): E-75-9 (Wendorf & Schild 2001b: 109, 13(?) fragments); E-77-7 (Close & Wendorf 2001: 68, 1 fragment); E-79-8 (Connor 1984: 239-44, 6(?) fragments); E-804 (Close 1984: 346, 5 fragments); E-91-3 (Close 2001: 79, 7 fragments); and E-06-1 (8 fragments) (Figures 5-9). All of the excavated vessel fragments represent a high technological level. Extensive studies of the production technology of pottery in the Nabta Playa-Kiseiba region were carried out by Zedeno (2002). Zedeno found that the Early Holocene pottery from the Nabta Playa and Bir Kiseiba basins was made from locally available material. Clay was acquired at the edge of the playa, while easily available granite temper could come from eroding igneous rocks present on the surface (Nelson 2002a: 3). …