The ‘Nubian-ness’ in ‘Egyptian-ness’: a message for Egyptology.

2020 was a lot of things – not all of them good – but one silver lining of an otherwise very dark cloud was the abundance of online lectures and workshops, enabling people to stay connected to the research community whilst most of us were locked-down and physically isolated. I was lucky enough to present a number of lectures for organisations around the world, but the last one was perhaps the most special to me. Not just because it marked the ‘end’ of the InBetween project, but also because the messages that I tried to convey are, in my opinion, the most important messages to come out of the project.

That lecture was part of the “New Perspectives on Nubia” series, presented jointly by the Badé Museum and the Archaeological Research Facility at Berkley University. Knowing this was the last chance to present my research with the academic weight of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship behind me, I decided to use it as an opportunity to make some necessary critical statements, mostly aimed at the discipline of Egyptology. As a result of this, I found myself oddly nervous in the moments before the lecture (I think this was noticeable in my voice for the first 2-3 minutes), but some things needed to be said. Some things might be obvious, some points may have been made before by other people, but maybe it will be new for some people, so the points bear repeating.

The lecture, entitled “More than Kush: Capturing the Complexity and Diversity of Ancient Nubia” is available to watch on YouTube (link at the end of this post), but I thought it worth presenting a written summary of the key points (and the key criticisms) via this webpage. Even as a material culture person, I acknowledge that the written word somehow has more gravity than a YouTube video.

Before I continue, a little pre-warning:
I get a bit ranty towards the end, but I hope you’ll see my point!

Names and Labels

A fundamental problem, which has been raised in the past, is that the sequence of Nubian cultural groups that we’ve inherited from past scholars simply does not work. The groups as we know them – the C-Group, Pan-Grave, and Kerma cultures – were devised and defined in the early 20th Century by scholars working within a colonial and culture-historical framework. Each of the groups was defined by difference, which drove artificial conceptual wedges between ancient Nubian communities, and in turn between Nubia and Egypt as collectives. In fact, we can see very clearly that there are many similarities that link the groups to one another – material culture traditions, burial practices, subsistence strategies, and so on (Fig. 1). I already demonstrated in one of my earlier posts that the three groups co-existed in the same time and space, so it is inevitable that contact and exchange would have occurred.

Fig. 1: We need to look for connection, not division! (Slide left & right to compare)

A key takeaway here is that the C-Group, Pan-Grave and Kerma cultures, as defined by people like Reisner and Petrie, are modern constructs that have been imposed upon the ancient archeological record. It is highly likely (one could even say it is almost certain) that the ancient populations did not recognise the same divisions. Ancient Nubian communities themselves did not leave behind written evidence explaining their own perspectives on any differences that they might have recognised, but the Egyptians did. Take the text from the tomb of the governor Sobeknakht II at Elkab (Fig. 2), in which he refers to attacks by a Kushite-led coalition of ‘looters’ from Wawat, Khentenefer, Punt, and the Medjayw (Davies 2003: fig. 2). Of course, these are the Egyptians’ names for the groups, and we don’t fully know what the divisions refer to (i.e. regions, cultures etc), but we can at least see groups were recognised.

Fig. 2: Sobeknakht’s account of Kushite-led attacks on Elkab lists Nubian groups that the Egyptians recognised, but did Nubians recognise the same divisions?

But here’s another thing: those divisions recognised by the ancient Egyptians don’t necessarily correspond to the groups that might have been recognised by the Nubians themselves. Not only that, the archaeological cultures that were devised over a century ago have virtually no relation whatsoever to these ancient divisions. The C-Group was supposedly most active in a land the ancient Egyptians knew as Wawat, which corresponds to Lower Nubia (between the 1st and 2nd cataracts), but C-Group material culture and cemeteries are found well beyond that region. Similarly, the so-called Pan-Grave culture is supposed to have come from Medja-land (don’t even get me started on this!), which corresponds to a large swathe of the Eastern Desert, but material associated with the Pan-Grave tradition is found all over the place (Fig. 3). This then raises the question of how we define and understand ‘culture’, but that’s a much longer discussion for another time.

Fig. 3: Material distributions ≠ ancient regional divisions ≠ modern cultural definitions. What to do??

The issue of the Medjayw brings us to another problem. Many of us will be familiar with the highly problematic traditional view that equates the archaeological Pan-Grave with with the historical Medjay. There are so many problems here. Kate Liszka wrote an entire thesis about it (Liszka 2012), an article (Liszka 2015), and we both co-authored a chapter in the new Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia that outlines many of the problems (Liszka & de Souza 2021). But in this context we encounter a different problem. “Medjay” is an Egyptian term, and it appears in Egyptian texts from the late Old Kingdom onwards. The meaning changes depending on the time and context making it very difficult to understand if the term Medjay is an ethnonym, an occupational term, something else entirely, or all of the above. BUT that’s the point. The term ‘Medjay‘ does not refer to a single homogeneous cultural entity, and it is almost certainly not an ‘archaeological culture’, namely Pan-Grave. In some cases, the word Medjay is used to describe mercenaries fighting for Egyptian rulers, or they are depicted as attendants to a royal woman, or they are temple staff… but they are also listed among the Kushite-led coalition that attacked Elkab (Fig. 4). How is it that Medjay can simultaneously be friends and enemies? The answer is that Medjay ain’t Medjay. These groups are not simple, straightforward entities with clear boundaries. They are complex, and no matter how hard we try, we are viewing them from the outside and thus we can never hope to truly understand them. But we can try based on the evidence that we have.

Fig. 4: Medjay ain’t Medjay.

Ancient and Modern Divisions

For some reason this part of the lecture got the biggest response, but really, it should be a fairly obvious thing. I wanted to further contrast the disconnect between perceived ancient divisions and known modern boundaries by using a series of schematic maps (Fig. 5). I go into more detail in the actual lecture, but if you only follow this text version, I’d encourage you to slide through the images as you read along. But before I go on, it’s important to stress that the divisions I talk about below are based on divisions that we know from ancient texts and modern constructs. The aim is to show how complex the region is, to highlight the difficulties in linking text to archaeology to culture, and to emphasise the perils of imposing boundaries where they don’t fit.

I started with the biggest division – that problematic dichotomy of ‘Egypt’ and ‘Nubia’. According to ancient Egyptian ideologies, Egypt is the Nile Valley up to the First Cataract, and Nubia is everything south of that. BUT the terms ‘Egypt’ and ‘Nubia’ are themselves entirely anachronistic and are not the terms that were applied to these regions during the mid Second Millennium BCE. Then I showed a more ‘realistic’ (though still very schematic) map in which the Nubian and Egyptian spheres overlapped. Nubian-ness was always present in Egypt, and Egyptian-ness was always present in Nubia. So why do we divide the two? In the third map I added the point that even the Egyptians seemed to have recognised this overlap. The southernmost Upper Egyptian nome was given the same name as one of the many terms used to describe what we know as Nubia – tA-stj “The Land of the Bow”. That ideological boundary at the First Cataract was just that – ideological. The cultural boundary is much more blurry.

In the fourth map I added another level of complexity – Upper and Lower Egypt, and Upper and Lower Nubia. These are already very general constructs and there are certainly further regional sub-divisions, but let’s not make things too complicated right now! Another layer of complexity was added by placing some other regions from Egyptian texts onto the map, namely Ibhet and Medja . Even in this most schematic of diagrams you can see how all of these regions overlap and are interconnected. But then, the final map imposes the fixed modern boundary that divides Egypt and Sudan, located just near the Second Cataract. That modern boundary, a completely unnatural straight line cuts through the region like a knife, paying no mind to the ancient complexity. What I want to draw your attention to here is that all of Lower Nubia is in modern Egypt. And this is exactly my point – but more on that shortly.

Nubians north of the First Cataract

We know that ancient Egypt’s ideological boundary was located at the First Cataract. That is the point at which we are told Egypt ended and Nubia began. Ideology is one thing, but things look very different on and in the ground.

Fig. 6: Sites with Nubian evidence north of the First Cataract.

Put simply, there is A LOT of evidence that can be identified as Nubian from sites north of the First Cataract. There are entire Nubian cemeteries, Nubian-style objects in Egyptian settlements, and even Nubian-style objects in otherwise Egyptian burials. The stuff is everywhere, from the Delta to Elephantine, at the oases, and on the Red Sea coast. Of course – important point! – this does not mean that people identifying as Nubian were there because, as we all know, pots are not people. We know that some Nubian communities were at least partially mobile and as they moved, their things will have moved with them, so the objects may have arrived at a given place through trade or via some other process. The only context in which we can say that people identifying with a ‘Nubian’ tradition might have actually been present is in cemeteries. At the Pan-Grave cemeteries at Hierakonpolis, for example, the material culture and burial customs are distinctly non-Egyptian, but even then can we ever know how those individuals self-identified? They might have used Nubian things, but they might have felt themselves to be ‘Egyptian’.

Nubian evidence is attested in Egypt from as far back as the Predynastic period onwards, occurring in Egyptian towns and cemeteries and in text and art. In the ‘real’ everyday world, away from politics and power-struggles, Nubians and Egyptians seem to have coexisted without any obvious issues. So then comes the question: at what point does something stop being ‘Nubian’? And conversely, when does something stop being ‘Egyptian’? Nubian-style cooking pots are so prolific at sites like Tell Edfu and Elephantine, so are they still Nubian? Or were they just part of the repertoire of utilitarian wares in circulation in Egypt? What is Egyptian? And what is Nubian? Can we and should we even draw a distinction in the first place?

These issues of identity and ethnicity are complicated and, as you can see, any attempt to deal with these issues only raises more questions (see Moers 2015). But I hope that for now, one thing has become clear: Nubians and Nubian-ness were an integral part of the ancient Egyptian world.

An Ill discipline

OK… this is where I get a bit complainy (more than I did in the actual lecture!), but please hear me out!

The scholarly division between ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia is completely misleading and plainly false. There were no hard boundaries in the ancient world. Communities were embroiled in complex networks of interconnected relationships and encounters. The divisions between ‘Egyptian’ and ‘Nubian’ become weaker and weaker the more you interrogate them. So why, then, are ancient Egypt and Nubia treated as separate entities? And why, oh why, does Egyptology often seem so hell bent on keeping Nubia separate?

A big part of the problem is the colonial, racist framework in which the academic discipline called Egyptology was invented. Ancient Egypt was perceived as a direct ancestor of European imperial powers, while Africa (Nubia) was seen as uncivilised, ‘less than’, passive, and there to be dominated. Maintaining that image was a justification; if the all powerful ancient Egyptians treated Nubia like ‘the other’, then so too could the empires of Europe.

These attitudes of division inevitably permeated the discipline. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been told that I’m not really an Egyptologist because I study Nubian material culture. Apparently sometimes this is said in jest, but the fact that it is even said at all is a problem in itself. As I said above, Nubian-ness is an integral aspect of Egyptian-ness, and so I ask the question again – why are our disciplines divided in the way that they are?

I also want to clearly state that a division between Egyptian archaeology and Sudanese archaeology is equally problematic. The first point is the indisputable fact that all of Lower Nubia is within the borders of modern Egypt, so ‘Nubia’ and ‘Sudan’ are not interchangeable terms. But also, think about it: why is the excavation of an ‘Egyptian’ temple town in Upper Nubia considered Egyptology, while the study of a ‘Nubian’ cemetery in Middle Egypt is not?

Fun fact: all of my postgraduate, doctoral, and postdoctoral research has been on Nubian material culture, but I have never visited or worked in Sudan. I have tried, but those opportunities didn’t work out for one reason or another. But it’s also not by choice because – another fun fact! – I would say that at least 70% of the Nubian material that I study was excavated at sites in modern Egypt, including all the Lower Nubian sites that are now under the floodwaters behind the Aswan High Dam. And that’s the main reason that I haven’t worked in Sudan – I’ve been too occupied studying Nubian material that was excavated in Egypt! So not only do I sometimes feel ‘othered’ by Egyptology, I also don’t really fit in with Sudanese Archaeology. At every turn the title of this project, InBetween, becomes more and more appropriate.

So I ask again – how is the study of ancient Nubia and ‘Nubian-ness’ not a central aspect of Egyptology?

Let me say it one more time:
Nubians and Nubian-ness were an integral part of the Egyptian world.

This statement doesn’t just apply to ancient communities, but also to modern ones. This point has become patently and powerfully clear to me following a recent conversation with Dr Menna Agha, a Nubian architect and researcher. To quote the title of one of Menna’s articles (which I urge everyone to read) – Nubia Still Exists (Agha 2019). The land might be underwater, but the memories of that land and its history lives on the hearts and minds of the displaced people who were forced to leave their homes.

Becoming Complex

As a final exhortation, I want to reiterate my closing statement from the lecture: The ancient world was complex, and so, if we want to understand it, our approach needs to be equally complex. Boundaries didn’t exist back then, and so we also must not confine ourselves to falsely constructed fields of specialisation. We need to collaborate, to share, to talk to people beyond our disciplines, to be open to having our minds changed, and to be constructively critical of ourselves. No one person can ever have the answer. Indeed, not even a group of people can have the answer. Because there isn’t just one answer. But, if we want to move closer to understanding, we need to work together. The complexity is the key, so we must complicate the issue, together.

Agha, M. 2019. “Nubia Still Exists: On the Utility of the Nostalgic Space,” Humanities 8, 24.
Davies, W.V. 2003. “Kush in Egypt: a new historical inscription,” Sudan and Nubia 7: 52–54.
Liszka, K. “We have come to serve Pharaoh: A study of the the Medjay and Pangrave as an ethnic group and as mercenaries from c. 2300 BCE until c. 1050 BCE.” PhD Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.
Liszka, K. and de Souza, A.M. 2021. “Pan-Grave and Medjay: At the intersection of archaeology and history,” in G. Emberling and B.B. Williams (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia.
Moers, G. 2015. “Egyptian identity? Unlikely, and never national,” in H. Amstutz, A. Dorn, M. Müller, M. Ronsondorf, S, Uljas (eds), Fuzzy Boundaries. Festschrift für Antonio Loprieno. Hamburg. 693–704.

Author: Aaron de Souza

Aaron de Souza is an archaeologist specialising in Nubian material culture of the Second Millennium BC. He obtained his PhD at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, with a dissertation on the ceramic traditions of the so-called Pan-Grave archaeological culture. Aaron is currently the Nubian ceramics specialist with the Tell Edfu Project (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago), and has an ongoing involvement with the Hierakonpolis Expedition (University of Oxford), where he recently excavated two of the last remaining Pan-Grave cemeteries. Aaron has also recently worked with the Aswan-Kon Ombo Archaeological Project and the Swiss Mission to Elephantine, and has previously worked as ceramicist with the Dendara Necropolis Project (Macquarie University), and the Helwan Project (Macquarie University). Aaron has also conducted extensive museum-based research at the Museum Gustavianum (Uppsala University, Sweden), and at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. For more information and a CV, visit Aaron’s Academia profile.

4 thoughts on “The ‘Nubian-ness’ in ‘Egyptian-ness’: a message for Egyptology.”

  1. Great article!! Thank you so much for pointing out / summarising these important issues!

    As for the division Egyptology / Sudan Archaeology: I’m working on my MA thesis about the MK fortresses in the 2nd cataract region and when I asked my Prof (in an – apparently – exclusively Egyptology-based institute) if the topic would be okay the response was a concerned face with a comment like ‘Since it’s about *Pharaonic* fortresses located in Nubia it’s fine’ and something like the other way around would not have worked… I was like ‘Okay… thanks…’ but actually why?!

    Anyway, I’m thrilled to see what’s coming next from your research!!


    1. It’s a real thing that still happens!!
      As for your research – go for it!! I think one of the best ways to counteract this problem is to challenge it from within!
      Thanks for taking the time to send a message, and for following the project! All the very best with your MA 🙂


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