(De)Constructing Nubia: Why do we need to do this?

The following is the [slightly edited] text and slides from my introductory paper presented on Tuesday 8 September at the online workshop ‘(De)Constructing Nubia’, hosted by the Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology (OREA) and the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW). The aim of the introduction was to lay out the key issues that we need to address in Nubian archaeology, and how these issues and how they are relevant to the broader study of ancient northeast Africa.

Fig. 1: Why do we need to “DEconstruct” how we understand ancient Nubia?

This workshop, and the InBetween Project of which it is a part, takes us back to the mid-second millennium BCE in ancient Nubia. The timespan is relatively short – c. 1850 –1500 BCE – but the geographic reach is vast, encompassing Upper and Lower Nubia, with some forays into Upper Egypt and the surrounding desert regions on both sides of the Nile. Despite the relatively short timeframe, this 300-year period is extremely dynamic and intensely multi-cultural. The centralised dominance of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom had faltered, the so-called ‘Hyksos’ rulers had conquered the north of Egypt, and Nubia, led by rising Kushite rulers based at Kerma, presented a severe threat to what remained of Egyptian stability. But Nubia during this period was more than just Kush and Kerma. In fact, the Nubian Nile Valley and the surrounding deserts were extremely culturally diverse in their own right, and that’s what we’re all here to talk about.

Fig. 2: The distributions of the so-called Middle Nubian Traditions overlapped both geographically and chronologically

We’ve known for over a century about the various cultural groups that populated ancient Nubia, and thanks to people like Petrie, Reisner, Säve-Söderbergh and many others after them, we’ve inherited a framework in which the Upper and Lower Nubian Nile Valley was populated by three Middle Nubian “cultures”, each existing in its own “sphere of activity” (Fig. 2).1 During the period in question, there was the powerful kingdom of Kerma concentrated in Upper Nubia but with scattered attestations along the Nile into Egypt, the C-Group mostly in Lower Nubia but again with attestations in Upper Egypt, and the Pan-Grave, which was kind of everywhere. This multi-cultural complexity was further amplified by remnants of the originally Egyptian communities that remained in Lower Nubia after the cessation of Middle Kingdom control of the region.

The spheres of activity for each group overlapped to a certain extent, but the culture-historical framework that we inherited from early 20th Century scholars portrays three distinct and bounded entities, each with their own cultural practices, material traditions and lifestyles. The groups certainly encountered one another, but like billiard balls they bounced off one another, retaining their cultural integrity (Fig. 3). Variation or difference was seen as “decline”, and eventually these sub-Saharan African cultures, which were perceived as being less civilised, succumbed either by choice or compulsion to the supposedly irresistible civilising power of the more advanced – and falsely European-ised – Egypt. The Nubians “Egyptianised”.

Fig. 3: The old model. Egypt poised and ready to exert its cultural might on all of the Nubians. (Image: adapted from Wikimedia Commons)

This model was simple and elegant. Anything that was identified as being Nubian, dating to this period  and found in the Nile Valley was made to fit into one of three categories (Fig. 4). If you had incised pottery with white encrustation, you were C-Group. If you had painted goat skulls, you were Pan-Grave. And if you have shiny tulip-shaped beakers, you were Kerma. Simple.  

But the reality is anything but simple.

Fig. 4: Some of the most diagnostic object and burial types for each of the three Middle Nubian traditions, as they are currently defined.

It’s only been in recent times, perhaps since the turn of the 21st century, that opinions really began to shift and serious challenges were launched at these old cultural boxes. Rather than being oppressed by a dominant Egypt, Nubia and Nubians came to be seen as a cultural and political force in their own right, made up of a diverse array of cultures that had interacted in all sorts of complex ways across a vast region for thousands of years. We now see that ancient Nubia was too dynamic and too diverse for the old system of cultural boxes, but yet many of us – myself included – continue to refer to the old boxes simply because it’s easier. But after over a century of forcing things into ill-fitting boxes, the time has come to accept and admit that something has to change and we need to find a new way. But how? That deceptively simple question – How? – is what we hope to address over the next two days.

Before continuing, I want to stress two things that this workshop is not about. The first thing is that the workshop is not about the origins of the Middle Nubian groups. That is a whole other topic in its own right. We are also not addressing questions about biology or genetics, because that is also an entirely separate and contentious issue. A person did not need to be biologically “Nubian” to be culturally “Nubian”… whatever that even means.

What we are interested in today is material culture. Objects. Things. “Stuff”. And what that stuff tells us about the people who made it and the world in which they existed. There is one exception in a paper about linguistics and language and how this relates to material culture and identity. Other than that, no matter who you say it, “stuff” is what we’re looking at today.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been asked this question on numerous occasions – “should we just get rid of the Nubian groups?” This is not an easy question to answer, and we will come back repeatedly, but personally – I would say no, we should not get rid of the Nubian groups… yet. Or at least not entirely.

I would argue that there are noticeable divisions and differences. Especially in cemeteries, certain types of objects and practices do often seem to cluster together. To some extent,  different Nubian traditions seem to be distinguishable based on, for example, pottery types or burial practices, but of course that is not always the case. There is crossover – a lot of it – and sometimes it’s difficult to put a particular object or assemblage into one or another cultural box. That is where things get interesting, and that is where the InBetween project operates. Rather than looking at the groups as closed units, the projects delves into the spaces in between – mixed assemblages, objects that defy classification, and so on. But what do these InBetween spaces look like? And what do they tell us about the people who made these things and the world in which they existed?

Fig. 5: The grave assemblage from Grave 7 and SJE Site 410, Debeira East. This grave, and indeed the cemetery as a whole, has a “mixed” character with elements from the Pan-Grave, Kerma, and Egyptian traditions. How should such sites and contexts be interpreted? (All images © A. de Souza, courtesy the Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala University)

An example of one of these “InBetween” contexts is grave 7 from SJE Site 410 at Debeira East in Lower Nubia, which is one of many assemblages I studied in Uppsala, Sweden, as part of the InBetween project (Fig. 5).2 The grave is the undisturbed burial of an adult male buried with two pottery vessels – one (in the blue square) that has almost exact parallels in the Classic Kerma tradition, and another (in the red square) that fits the Pan-Grave tradition. Around his neck was a faience bead naming the Egyptian pharaoh Senwosret I, who ruled a few generations earlier. A grave in Nubia with pottery from two different Nubian traditions and an Egyptian jewellery item. Mixed contexts like this are not at all unique and they occur in cemeteries across Nubia and Egypt. But what do we do with contexts like this? How did these objects end up together? Is it a Pan-Grave burial with Kerma elements? A Kerma burial with Pan-Grave elements? Something else entirely? And is it even possible or appropriate to make such distinctions in the first place?

Fig. 6: Nubian-style pottery in Egyptian settlement contexts presents all sorts of complicated questions and issues!

And it’s not just cemeteries. We see similar cultural collisions in settlement contexts, but interpretation is especially difficult in Egypt, where “Nubian-style” pottery occurs in relative abundance, but often in the absence of any other type of evidence for a Nubian presence (Fig. 6).3 Here again the analyst is faced with the questions of how the material should be defined, classified, categorised… is it Pan-Grave? Kerma? Medja? Late Middle Nubian? Kerma but a funny shape? Sort-of-A-Group-but-not-really? Hybrid? And once again, is it even possible or appropriate to make such distinctions or to link objects to cultural identities when we have no other clues as to who made the pottery, why they made it, and how it got to where it is?

This question of “who made the pottery” is also a significant one. Of course pottery is made by people, but the pots themselves obviously are not people, so how far can we link material culture with ethnic or cultural identities? What, for example, makes a beaker a Kerma beaker? Is it right to assume that objects are related to identity? Does the maker’s identity dictate the object’s identity? Or do the objects define a person’s or a group’s identity?

So what do we do with all of these questions? We can see that the existing groups and classifications don’t work all of the time, but what do we do about it? How do we move forward with describing and organising this material in a way that is useful from a scientific perspective, but that at the same time is a more accurate reflection of the complex and messy archaeological reality?

Here is where we return to the question of whether or not we should get rid of the existing groupings. As I’ve already said, my opinion is no – we should not just throw the groups out, because then what? Does everything just become “Nubian”? or non-Egyptian? Or something else? And does replacing an old label with a new one actually address the problem? As researchers and scientists we kind of depend on taxonomies and classification systems, but we need to be careful that whatever solutions we find are an accurate reflection of the complexity of the situation whilst being useful and meaningful from a scientific perspective.

In my opinion, the key starting point is that we should not and must not expect any cultures or groups to be consistent across space and time. Remember that Nubia is a vast region, so variation is inevitable, even within what is ostensibly the same cultural entity. Taking the Pan-Grave tradition as an example shows just how diverse one tradition can actually be (Fig. 7).4

Fig. 7: The Pan-Grave tradition is characterised by broad regional variability – so just how far can it be considered a ‘tradition’? Where does Pan-Grave begin and end?

But given this variation, how do we identify where one group ends and another begins? And if there is so much variation, how do we even define the groups? Should we even do that? And are they even groups at all?

There is also historical, textual evidence that Nubia was populated by different groups in different regions – Wawat, Kush, Irtjet, Medja, Setju, and so on, each of which had its own leader or chief. A text from the tomb of Sobeknakht at Elkab refers to a coalition of multiple Nubian groups under the leadership of Kush, indicating that these groups could, on occasion, band together under a single leader for a common cause (Fig. 8).5

Of course, these texts were written by Egyptians who may have had their own perceptions for how these groups were defined and identified. BUT, would it be unreasonable to suggest that the groups perceived by the Egyptians might actually correspond broadly to those perceived by the Nubians themselves? The fact that each of these groups had its own leader or chief suggests that the Nubians themselves considered the groups “real” enough and distinct enough that each had its own internal leadership structure. So maybe the Egyptian historical data shouldn’t automatically be dismissed as inherently biased.

Fig. 8: Egyptian texts refer to numerous groups in ancient Nubia – how accurate might their descriptions be? And how much can the divisions be related to material culture traditions?

The issue then, should not be whether or not groups existed, because it seems like they did. There are patterns in the archaeological record that suggest the existence of groups, and there are references to groups in the Egyptian historical record. The bigger issue, in my opinion, is how we connect these two bodies of evidence. How do we relate patterns in material culture to the cultural divisions that we know of from ancient texts? And is this even possible?

Until now I’ve only talked about the Nile Valley, but Egypt and Nubia are more than the river. In fact, the two regions are dominated by the desert. But the word “desert” is perhaps misleading. These ‘desert’ regions were dynamic, living environments that were exploited for mineral resources and populated by people who were constantly on the move, connecting regions and cultures as they did so. We know about the Jebel Mokram Group of the Atbai, whose material traditions are comparable with the well-known Pan-Grave tradition of the Nile Valley, and the Handessi Horizon in the Wadi Howar and surrounding region, whose material culture is strikingly similar to that of the C-Group and Kerma traditions (Fig. 9).6 But if the material traditions of the desert and river valley are so similar, why do we put these desert peoples into different cultural boxes?

Fig. 9: There is more to the region than just the Nile Valley, but how do these desert-based populations relate to the more well-known riverine groups?

So this has all been a sweeping overview of the issues that face us and some of the issues we need to address. But the issues are not new. They are things that all of the speakers and our colleagues at all levels grapple with on a daily basis. The next two days – as far as I’m aware – is the first formalised and structured attempt at bringing people together to present their evidence, ask the big questions and to look for ways that we can move toward a more nuanced framework that allows us to explore the complex and interconnected worlds of ancient Nubia during the mid-Second Millennium BCE. The old boxes of C-Group, Pan-Grave, and Kerma don’t work anymore. We know that. But what do we do? And how do we do it? I don’t think any of us expects to find the solution to these problems by 6pm CET tomorrow, but at least a formalised conversation will have begun.

These questions don’t just apply to Nubia, but are applicable to the study of ancient and modern cultures worldwide. Above all, I hope that today’s discussions encourage some critical questioning about Egyptology as a discipline. Why is it that Nubia is populated by so many cultures and groups while Egypt is often portrayed a homogeneous cultural entity united under an all-powerful pharaoh? I can tell you now that that is a huge misconception. Egypt was never an homogeneous cultural entity. Ancient Egypt was always regional, and it was just as diverse as Ancient Nubia. The stories of these two entities are inextricably intertwined, and the one cannot exist without the other. The more we recognise this, the deeper, more inclusive, and more nuanced our understanding of the history of the Nile Valley and the northeast Africa generally will become.

To finish up, I want to come back one last time to the question – should we get rid of the groups? As I’ve already said, my answer today is “no”, or at least “not yet”. First we need to break down the groups from the inside – DEconstruct – by using the evidence to establish what works, what doesn’t, and why. Once that foundation has been established, only then can we REconstruct, being mindful not to simply replace the old boxes with new boxes and to make sure that our solutions are as nuanced as the archaeology is complex.

Fig. 10: Based on our current understanding, we can see that the Middle Nubian groups all intersect with each other and with Egypt, but there are also other groups traditionally perceived as being on the peripheries.

The Middle Nubian groups should no longer be perceived as neatly-defined bounded un-mixing entities.We know that the groups overlap. Egypt is also a part of the story, as are the desert-based populations that are viewed as existing on the cultural peripheries (Fig. 10). Where we need to look is at the centre, where the groups overlap. The space “InBetween”. What happens when the groups overlap? And what does this tell us about the groups themselves?

Fig. 11: Is there where we need to be? Groups and sub-groups and sub-variants interacting with one another in all sorts of complex ways. It’s complicated and “messy”, but that’s where the beauty lies!

But here is where I think we need to be (Fig. 11). There are still broad groupings, but each of those groupings is made up of subgroups, and those subgroups interact with other subgroups in all manner of complex ways. It’s messy, yes, but in my opinion, to see it as anything less would diminish the diversity and the fascinatingly beautiful complexity of ancient Nubia.

1. Bietak, M. 1966. Ausgrabungen in Sayala-Nubien 1961–1965. Denkmäler der C-Gruppe und der Pan-Gräber-Kultur, Vienna; Bietak, M. 1968. Studien zur Chronologie der nubischen C-Gruppe. Vienna; Reisner, G. 1910. The Archaeological Survey of Nubia. Report for 1907–1908, Cairo; Reisner G. 1923. Excavations at Kerma. Cambridge (Mass.); Säve-Söderbergh, T. 1941. Ägypten und Nubien. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte altägyptischer Aussenpolitik, Lund; Säve-Söderbergh, T. Middle Nubian Sites, The Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia, vol 4: 1–2, Partille.
2. Säve-Söderbergh 1989, pp. 251–254.
3. Forstner-Müller, I. and Rose, P. (eds) 2012. Nubian Pottery from Egyptian Cultural Contexts, Vienna; Raue, D. 2018. Elephantine und Nubian vom 4.–2. Jahrtausend v. Chr. (2 vols.), Berlin.
4. de Souza, A.M. 2019. New Horizons: The Pan-Grave ceramic tradition in context, London, pp. 140–153.
5. Davies, W.V. 2003. ‘Kush in Egypt. A New Historical Inscription’, Sudan & Nubia 7: 52–54.
6. Arkell, A.J. 1954. ‘Four Occupation Sites at Agordat’, Kush 2: 33–62; Crowfoot, J.W. 1928. ‘Some Potsherds from Kassala’, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 1928: 112–116; Jesse, F. 2004. ‘The development of pottery design styles in the Wadi Howar Region (northern Sudan),’ Préhistoires Méditerranéennes 13: 97–107; Manzo, A. Eastern Sudan in its Setting. The archaeology of a region far from the Nile Valley, Oxford.

The (De)Constructing Nubia Workshop – Follow Up


An online workshop presented as part of the InBetween Project.
8–9 September 2020
Hosted by the Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology (OREA) and the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW)

The (De)Constructing Nubia conference happened just last week and, to be honest, I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcomes! I’m exhausted, but I’m excited to tell you all about the outcomes very soon! I was also totally overwhelmed by the interest in the workshop, with the 100 available places quickly filled and a waiting list that grew by the hour! It was really exciting to see that the project is reaching such a wide and international audience, and that researchers seem to be hungry for change!

Day One comprised a series of wonderful papers presented to an eager online audience by a diverse range of speakers (in alphabetical order):
Laurel Bestock, Julia Budka, Julien Cooper, Aaron de Souza, Maria Gatto, Christian Knoblauch, Kate Liszka, Andrea Manzo, Elizabeth Minor, Claudia Näser, and Marie-Kristin Schröder.

Day Two was a focussed discussion group for the speakers, with additional input from Bettina Bader, Carla Gallorini, Angus Graham, Andreas Dorn, and Friederike Jesse. Over five intense hours, the group identified the biggest challenges that face Nubian Archaeology as a discipline, and laid out plan for how to achieve our collective goals. I’ll be telling you about all of that in a following post.

Updates will be coming very soon, so stay tuned! In the meantime, here is the book of abstracts for those of you who haven’t seen it already.