Eastern Desert Ware (EDW) refers to a rather recently identified corpus of relatively small, hand-made vessels with a remarkable surface treatment, mostly dating from the 4th-6th centuries AD and found in the Eastern Desert, between the Nile and the Red Sea, in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. It is assumed that these vessels were produced and used by the indigenous, nomadic inhabitants of the desert at the time.

Historical background
According to both Pliny the Elder and Strabo, Berenike was the most important harbor on the Egyptian Red Sea coast in Graeco-Roman times. Founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282-246 BC), who named the settlement after his mother, the originally military installations, built for the import of African elephants for Ptolemaic army, were quickly incorporated in the long distance trade routes to and from East Africa, Arabia Felix and India. The prevailing northern winds and the dangers of coral reefs and pirates made a longer overland journey via Edfu (in Ptolemaic times) or Qift (in Roman times) more desirable than sailing north to Myos Hormos (Quseir al-Qadim) or Clysma (Suez). Again the traders could use an existing infrastructure: routes had been laid out in the desert to connect the mines, quarries and harbors in Eastern Desert with the Nile Valley. Along these routes, marked with cairns, manned way-stations (hydreumata) could be found at regular intervals providing travellers with water and shelter.

In 1994 the Egyptian authorities kindly granted permission to a group of researchers from the Netherlands and the United States for the archaeological study, including excavation, of Berenike and its hinterland all the way to the Nile. During the on-going analysis of the large amount of new material, numerous previously unknown observations could be made concerning the inhabitants of Berenike and their partners in the long distance trade. These were not only based on the recovered pottery, coins and ostraka, but also on the study of the organic remains which were relatively well preserved. Berenike appears to have been occupied until the mid-6th century AD. Three periods of increased activity have been identified: the early Ptolemaic period (directly following the foundation of the town), the early Roman period (1st century BC - 1st century AD) and the late Roman period (mid-4th century AD - 5th century AD).

During each peak the centre of activity in Berenike shifted to the east, following the changing coastline. The exact reasons for the fluctuations in activity are still unknown. The composition of the population also must have changed. Little is known about the Ptolemaic era as the remains thereof are not only covered by later debris but also have been mostly re-used in later periods. Given the military nature of the operations, at least initially, and the general tendency of the Ptolemaic rulers towards centralized control, it is likely that during this period the population of Berenike consisted mainly of representatives of the military and the state bureaucracy. They would all have come from the Nile Valley, bringing or importing all their supplies.

This is certainly true for the early Roman period as indicated, for instance, by the large number of pig, chicken and catfish bones from that period as well as firm indications that cattle was walked in from the Nile Valley, to be slaughtered on site. Next to these Graeco-Roman Egyptians other groups from even farther afield were present on site. Among these were a number of Palmyrene soldiers, who left a shrine and several inscriptions, and possibly representatives of the traders in Rome, Axum and India.

Also in the late Roman period there was a strong Roman Egyptian presence at Berenike. This is reflected in the majority of the potsherds and also, for instance, by the find of a jar of garum (fish sauce), which was an important element of Roman cuisine, and the unearthing of a Christian church. But from this period there were also finds of a much different nature like a large number of ovicaprid (goat and sheep) bones, as well as rope and textiles made of their hair. Combined with a significant drop in the proportion of fish remains, this suggests a more desert oriented population. One possible explanation for this would be that another group joined the already multi-ethnic population of Berenike. An explanation which seems supported by the contemporary historical sources, by Procopius and Olympiodorus, which mention the presence of a nomadic people in the area. Even though this group has at Berenike been tentatively linked with a corpus of pottery its identity has so far escaped definition.

EDW 75
EDW 53
Pottery finds in Berenike
Already during the first excavation season the variety in the origin of the potsherds found in Berenike became apparent, even though the number of types seemed limited. This pattern, concurrent with the function of the site as a harbor, was consistent during further excavation and study of remains of pottery. Most of the sherds are from vessels made in the Egyptian Nile Valley. Comparable remains have been found at other, relatively nearby sites (Quseir al-Qadim and Balana) as well as associated with the numerous way-stations along the desert routes. Trade, and maybe also traders, coming through Berenike from the west are testified by the remains of vessels produced in present-day Turkey, Italy, Tunisia, Spain and France, among others. Vessels from the east to be expected include those from East Africa, Arabia Felix and India. Of these, both Axum and India have been firmly identified.

Apart from these three large, more or less distinct groups, from the Nile Valley, the Mediterranean and from the East, there is a heterogeneous group of sherds, mostly of hand-made vessels, of unknown origin. These may originate from anywhere along the ancient trade routes, including Arabia Felix which so far has escaped recognition in most of the find groups present in Berenike. A portion of these sherds, however, show striking similarities with some of the sherds from other sites in the Eastern Desert and Lower Nubia. They are united by a very characteristic repertoire of vessel forms and decorative motifs, as well as technological features. The most comprehensive description of these sherds derives from the excavation of the 4th-5th century AD cemeteries in Wadi Qitna and Kalabsha South. Comparable sherds, among much larger quantities of wheel-thrown Egyptian or (post) Meroitic sherds, have also been found in Kalabsha North, Sayala, Wadi al-Arab, Qasr Ibrim and, much further south in the Nile Valley, in Kurgus and Wadi al-Tereif. Places in the Eastern Desert where similar sherds have been found include a number of tombs scattered in the Wadi Alaqi area, most notably in Wadi Elei and Wadi al-Ku; several sites with an unknown function in the vicinity of Berenike: Hitan Rayan, Shenshef and Qaria Mustafa 'Amr; sites associated with the beryl mines in the Mons Smaragdus area: Sikait, Gebel Zabara and Kab Marfu'a; and, again much farther to the south, Tabot.

Based upon study of sherds associated with them, and in some cases C-14 analysis of associated finds, their production seems limited to the 4th-6th centuries AD, with possible precursors as early as the 2nd century AD and production probably lasting until well into the 8th century AD.

Given the distribution of this ware and its homogenous physical characteristics, very sandy fabric without much organic temper, it has been labelled Eastern Desert Ware (EDW). It is remarkable that no EDW has been found in Daraheib, which is halfway between its northern-most and southern-most occurrence and has been tentatively identified as the ancient goldmine Berenike Panchrysos or the 'desert capital of the Blemmyean kingdom', nor in settlements west of there, in Wadi Alaqi. Because of the current lack of archaeological data and the ambiguous labelling in the historical sources the people that must have produced and used EDW are prudently labelled Eastern Desert Dwellers. They are supposed to have lived a nomadic life, much like their present-day counterparts, in the region defined by the sites where EDW has been found. 

The sherds of the pottery produced and used by these Eastern Desert Dwellers are thinly scattered over a large area which makes detection difficult. But in places where outsiders provided an infrastructure allowing for them to settle, probably temporary assisting the newcomers in some way, sherds could accumulate and are now found in small quantities among pottery produced elsewhere. Other places of accumulation are graves and several of these, both in the Nile Valley and in the desert, have yielded EDW. The cemeteries in Sayala were close to a desert settlement which was proposed to have been a temporary settlement of nomads helping our with the harvest in the Nile Valley. Since then a number of very similar settlements of unknown function have been described much further from the Nile Valley making this interpretation doubtful. As the retrieved pottery may be the only source of information about the Eastern Desert Dwellers, a research group has been formed to extract as much information from this as is possible.

Pottery production
Food preparation
Next page