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Katherine Strange Burke: Archaeological Texts and Contexts on the Red Sea. The Sheikh's House at Quseir al-Qadim. Diss., Univ. of Chicago, Ill., Ann Arbor, MI: UMI 2007, XIX + 550 S.

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Bethany Walker
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Stephan Conermann
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Bethany Walker: Rezension von: Katherine Strange Burke: Archaeological Texts and Contexts on the Red Sea. The Sheikh's House at Quseir al-Qadim. Diss., Univ. of Chicago, Ill., Ann Arbor, MI: UMI 2007, in: sehepunkte 13 (2013), Nr. 4 [15.04.2013], URL:

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Katherine Strange Burke: Archaeological Texts and Contexts on the Red Sea

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The revival of Indian Ocean studies in the last decade owes much to the popularization of global history, which has inspired a new interrogation of this region and its interconnections with other regional systems. Recent scholarship in the new thalassology, network analysis, and diaspora studies has benefitted from this surge of interest in the Indian Ocean and its global networks. [1] The result has been the unfolding of "connected" and "entangled" historical narratives that pay tribute to networks, relations, and forces of a truly global scale. [2] Parallel to these developments in Indian Ocean historiography has been growth in the archaeology of Indian Ocean trade, with a particular interest in the westernmost outreaches of this system, where the socio-economic worlds of the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Mediterranean figuratively flow into one another. [3] These efforts have revealed ways that the archaeological perspective on the Indian Ocean world(s) can complement that of the historian, by demonstrating the common culture of these worlds and illustrating the myriad ways that coastal landscapes (landscapes in both a physical and social sense) and their hinterlands functioned. [4]

Burke's dissertation contributes to this emerging body of archaeological scholarship on Red Sea ports. Quseir al-Qadim, the target of her study, was, along with ʿAydhab, the port serving Qus, the capital of Upper Egypt in the "Middle Islamic" period. As a node in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean mercantile networks, and a stop on one of the Egyptian hajj routes to Mecca, the port and town at Quseir al-Qadim played an important role in the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods in maintaining Egypt's relations with the extra-Mediterranean world. The site is particularly important for the study of mercantile and cultural networks in this period, as it is one of the few Red Sea port towns systematically excavated, and the only one of its kind Ayyubid in date. [5] Perhaps more significant, however, is its rich trove of "archaeological texts" - documents retrieved from archaeological contexts, rather than those maintained in archives ("exterior texts", from the archaeologist's perspective). Those studied by Burke constitute a corpus of some 1445 fragments of paper documents written in medieval Arabic - largely shipping notes and letters - which were relevant to the business life of the port and the personal (family and business) networks of one Sheikh Abu Mufarrij, preserved by the uniquely desiccate conditions of this coastal site. These texts, artifacts in their own right and some bearing dates, were recovered from stratified contexts, providing a unique opportunity to experiment with different methods of textual analysis and to reconstruct a history of settlement and mercantile culture, which go beyond the narratives that either the archaeological or textual records alone could reveal.

In her dissertation, Burke focuses on a single building complex located in the center of the archaeological site and called by the excavators the "Sheikh's House", the residence and office of a prominent local merchant. [6] Her ultimate goal is to reconstruct the history of this complex from a combination of primarily ceramics and the archaeological texts found in this complex, as well as "exterior texts" that make reference to the site, to a more limited degree. The work loosely takes the form of a formal archaeological report, organized into six chapters, and a volume's worth of appendices, as is typical of this genre: a survey of previous fieldwork, the site and its physical setting, architecture, ceramics, small finds, archaeological texts, stratigraphic analysis, and appendices (pottery profiles and fabric charts arranged by locus; site plans, archaeological texts, and small finds by phase with links to site phasing in Table 7). The chapters on ceramics and the archaeological texts are the longest in the two-volume work and comprise the heart of the study.

The second half of Chapter Two is devoted to the Sheikh's House, its layout, physical development, and construction techniques. Occupied between 1200 and 1250 CE - dates determined through a combination of ceramic, numismatic, and textual evidence - the Sheikh's House consisted of two independent domestic structures of classical bayt form (the South and North Houses) and their respective storage facilities (roofless huts called shunahs). Making use of the original field notes, locus sheets, and pottery records, Burke works out a two-fold phasing of the complex: Phase I (when the South House and two shunahs were in use) and Phase II (when the North House was constructed and more shunahs were built). Pulling on the published translations of the archaeological texts found in the complex and references to domestic architecture and its components in the roughly contemporary Geniza documents for Cairo (an "exterior text"), Burke documents the development of the complex over the course of the first half of the thirteenth century, as a single family of merchants expanded operations to include non-family business partners and eventually left the town, possibly during the revolt of the Beni Kanz in 650/1252-3 (314). The storage facilities (the shunahs and mat-lined pits in the living spaces of the houses), in combination with the archaeological texts, bear witness to the kind of trade in which these merchants participated: the transport of grains to the Haramayn, provisioning pilgrims en route to Mecca, and as a transit point for merchandise brought by Yemeni ships (carrying Indian and Chinese merchandise) for further land and riverine transport to Cairo and on to Mediterranean ports.

This architectural study stands as a backdrop to the much larger ceramic study. The author, a trained archaeological ceramicist, devotes the 110 pages of Chapter Two, the longest in the work, to developing a typology of pottery found in the Sheikh's House, its rough chronology (in support of dating the archaeological texts), and its meaning as a genre of artifacts tied to Red Sea/Indian Ocean trade. Her study is based on some 850 sherds, a sample of the previously unpublished pottery from the University of Chicago's 1982 season (75). The pottery is grouped by fabric; sub-divided into wares by surface treatment and overall form; and dated by parallels from contemporary sites (namely Fustat, the Ayyubid walls of Cairo, Kom al-Dikka/Alexandria, Qasr Ibrim in Nubia, and al-Tur in the Sinai). Burke describes four Egyptian fabric groups (Aswan, marl-dominant, Nile-dominant, and stonewares) that illustrate the main trajectories of domestic trade, transport, and possibly mercantile migration in which Quseir participated. The bulk of the imports were Yemeni (Black on Yellow Ware, Track Ware, Turquoise Slip-Painted, Brown-Painted), although Nubian pottery, Indian cooking pots, and limited quantities of Chinese luxury wares (a variety of celadons, qingbai whitewares, and surface finds of blue-and-white porcelains - from later occupation) were also recovered. Burke remarks on two ceramic problems of particular interest to this reviewer: 1. the marked change in cooking pot forms from the Ayyubid to Mamluk periods (possibly suggesting a break in dining habits or foodways or the arrival of new groups of people) and 2. the nature of the domestic Ayyubid-era sgraffito wares, which also suggests a break with later "classical" Mamluk wares.[7]

It is the author's analysis of the archaeological texts, however, that makes this otherwise traditional archaeological study stand out. Burke's aim in Chapter Four - "Texts in Context" - is not to engage in paleography or textual analysis, as such, but to study the archaeological texts as artifacts, applying archaeological methods to write a history of the building and its occupants. [8] The documents are, in archaeological parlance, "read" in their stratigraphic context. Burke opens this chapter with a review of the debates over texts and archaeology that have appeared on and off in archaeological circles since the 1970s, describing some of the methods that have been applied to interpreting "archaeological texts". In her own analysis of the Sheikh's House documents, she relies heavily on Andrén's models of identificationcontrast (identifying objects excavated in the complex with the terms used in shipping notes), correlation (ordering the documents by archaeological phase, identifying patterns between the textual and archaeological narratives based on entire assemblages, and creating new narratives in the process), and association (opening "an object of study to as many connections as possible", through comparisons with other archaeological sites and exterior texts), in an effort to connect the textual and archaeological records (321). [9] The result is a rich description of personal networks; a lively, but not high volume, inter-regional trade (297); growth and diversification of the family business; and changes in business patterns.

Burke's work is a valuable contribution to ceramic studies (particularly in the area of Egyptian Ayyubid pottery and Red Sea intra-regional ceramic exchanges), and it is hoped that this chapter will eventually be developed for publication in monograph form. The dissertation also offers to archaeologists a holistic approach to specialists' studies - how to use one genre of artifact to "dialogue" with another - and makes available in print the results of the University of Chicago's excavations, much of which remains unpublished. She does a service to Islamic archaeology, in turn, by generating a narrative about life in an Ayyubid-era port town that is rare in a field that has been traditionally dominated by excavations of castles and urban centers. Burke's approach to the analysis of archaeological texts is, finally, a breath of fresh air, making possible the integration of texts-as-artifacts with other archaeological data. In all, this dissertation effectively describes a common culture that existed in the Red Sea littoral.

Although the Sheikh's House does not appear to have been occupied in the Mamluk period, Burke's study does have something to offer to Mamlukology, as well. The case study of Quseir al-Qadim sheds light on how Red Sea, and the larger Indian Ocean, trade operated on the local level and provides a window on domestic and economic life in an Egyptian port town in the thirteenth century CE.


[1] On the latter, see Leif Manger: Hadrami Diaspora: Community-Building on the Indian Ocean Rim, New York 2010.

[2] Most relevant in this regard is Sanjay Subrahmanyam: Explorations in Connected History: Mughals and Franks, Oxford 2005.

[3] Representative of this work are Lucy Blue / John Cooper / Ross Thomas / Julian Whitewright (eds.): Connected Hinterlands: Proceedings of Red Sea Project IV. Oxford 2009; Derek Kennet: The development of Northern Ras al-Khaimah and the 14th-century Hormuzi economic boom in the lower Gulf, in: Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies (2002) 32, 151-164; Kristoffer Damgaard (ed.): Jordan's Port on the China Sea: A Preliminary Report on the 2010 Field Campaign of the Aylah Archaeological Project", (published on-line at:; and Reem al-Shqour / Johhny de Meulemeester / Davy Herremans: The Aqaba Castle Project, in: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan 10 (2009), 641-656.

[4] The recent workshop on the Materiality of the Islamic Rural Economy at the University of Copenhagen highlighted on-going archaeological research on Arabian ports and their hinterlands.

[5] Previously excavated Red Sea ports include Ayla (Aqaba), al-Tur (in the Sinai), and Athar (in southern Arabia). Quseir al-Qadim has been excavated in multiple seasons by different institutions: University of Chicago (1977-1982, focusing on the town) and the University of Southampton (1999-2003, with excavations in the Eastern Area, with its Mamluk-era occupation, but largely focusing on the port). Final reports have not yet been published for either project, although a series of preliminary reports (surveyed by Burke) have been.

[6] The archaeological site of Quseir al-Qadim consists of two main domestic complexes, both excavated by the University of Chicago (the Sheikh's House and the Merchants' Houses), and a neighborhood closer to the shore, excavated by Southampton (the Eastern Area, which is later in date).

[7] Burke's "Marl 4 Incised Monochrome Glazed Ware" was the most common tableware in the Sheikh's House (171). She suggests that one sgraffito sub-group, with incised arabesques on segmental bowls, grew out of a long Fatimid-era ceramic tradition. A similar argument, focusing on the contrast with Mamluk sgraffitos, has been made about the same kind of Ayyubid sgraffito found at Kom al-Dikka and Fustat (B.J. Walker: Ceramic Evidence for Political Transformations in Early Mamluk Egypt, in: Mamluk Studies Review 8.1 (2004), 1-114 - there called "Wide Rim Arabesque").

[8] Burke relies on Li Guo's edition and translation of these documents for their content, Arabic terminology, and reproduction of dates (Commerce, Culture, and Community in a Red Sea Port in the Thirteenth Century: the Arabic Documents of Quseir, Leiden 2004).

[9] Anders Andrén: Between Artifacts and Texts: Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective, (translated A. Crozier), New York 1998.

Bethany Walker