Circles and Squares

Hello again, everyone!

I know, I know. I went quiet for a while. But I guess my situation was like that of a lot of people – a long winter in lockdown after a year in an out of lockdown coupled with an extremely busy start to 2021 (while in lockdown!) started to take its toll. Motivation was (and still is) hard to find, and while I haven’t been un-productive, that productivity has been a little slower than usual. Add to that an increasing level of irritation with some of the stuff going around on social media and the world generally, and I found myself needing to take some down time.


Living Nubia has been underway since March and things are going well, if a little slower than hoped. There were plans to do a bit of travel to gather some data, but of course that hasn’t yet been possible. So, for now I’ve been trawling through publications and collating information on all of the habitation sites I can find. There are a lot more than I’d realised. So many that I may need to refocus the project so that it remains manageable, but we’ll see.

So while quantity of data isn’t proving a problem, the quality of that data is often less than ideal. The data isn’t bad as such, but it’s state is a product of the nature of the material that I’m trying to work with. In the majority of cases, the habitation sites that I’m looking at are usually quite badly preserved or they are published only very briefly. Often these sites are little more than surface scatterings of pottery sherds, lithics, and perhaps a single course of stone or bricks that mark out the footprint of built structures, assuming that there was any such structure in the first place. Reports are correspondingly brief, largely descriptive, and maps or photographs are few and far between. In certain cases, for example the Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia (SJE), numerous habitation sites were identified but because of time pressure (it was a salvage project after all!) more time was given to the better preserved and materially more rich cemeteries. Even accounting for such extenuating circumstances, the result is that we have an archaeological record that is heavily skewed toward mortuary data, and where settlement evidence does exist it is usually from large sites like Kerma and Wadi es Sebua, both of which should not be taken as ‘typical’. In the end, we know a lot about how ancient Nubian communities buried their dead, but we don’t know much about how those same communities lived.

Truth be told, I’m still wading my way through the data and often find myself staring at whatever maps and photos I can find hoping that inspiration will come. The good news is that a few interesting things have emerged, prompted largely by my participation in a discussion panel (with Nadine Moeller and Julia Budka) for the Being Egyptian project, organised by Linda Hulin and Thais Rochas da Silva. The discussion happened a little earlier in my project than I’d anticipated so I could only present very preliminary ideas, which I’ll outline below and in future posts. Thankfully – and not surprisingly – these ideas continue some of the same themes from the InBetween Project, namely that it revises some old assumptions about ancient Nubia that have become rusted into the literature.

The first point I discussed was the assumption that small Nubian habitation sites were often badly preserved because the communities that built them were seasonally mobile and hence only used ephemeral materials for temporary structures. This certainly seems to apply to some Nubian sites, especially those dated to the Early Nubian period, which are often little more than surface scatterings of pottery sherds, lithics, and hearth remains. In contrast, many sites dated to the Middle Nubian period incorporate courses of large stones that mark out the footprint of the structures. In some cases, these stone footings are carefully built from standing slabs, the gaps in between filled with smaller stones, and the whole lined with mud plaster (fig. 1). The assumption is that these stone-built structures formed footings for walls and roofs made from perishable materials such as wood, matting, or animal hides.

Figure 1. Top left: Hut remains from Aniba (Steindorff 1935, pl. 89). Top right: Reconstruction of hut from Aniba (Steindorff 1935). Bottom left: Remains of a dwelling structure SJE Site 194, Faras East (Säve-Söderbergh 1989, pl. 165). Bottom right: Settlement remains at Sayala Area G (Bietak 1966, pl. 14).

The stone components are clearly not temporary structures, and it’s clear that a lot of effort was spent in constructing the foundations of the buildings. Why would anyone spend so much time and energy building something out of stone only to abandon it when the seasons change? Perhaps then we need to think of these structures as semi-permanent, or ‘permanently temporary’. In other words, the stone footings were permanent, but the walls and roofing materials could be taken down, packed up, and transported if and when communities needed to move. I think of it a bit like a concrete slab in a caravan park – the slab stays, but the caravan can come and go. It also makes me think about the animal hides and reed matting that feature so prominently in Nubian burials of the period, and especially those of the so-called ‘Pan-Grave’ culture. Might these have been the same materials used in dwelling structures? And if so, could one infer some deeper connection between the worlds of the living and dead?

Of course this idea of semi-permanence doesn’t apply to all of the habitation sites in the study. Kerma is an obvious exception, and sites like Wadi es-Sebua and even the village at Aniba are likely to have been occupied for extended periods, if not permanently. The structures at these latter two sites show that a great deal of effort was invested in their construction. Wadi es-Sebua has a large and carefully built drystone enclosure wall, and even the individual dwelling structures within the walls comprise stone footings (fig. 1). The ‘hut’ remains at Aniba are characterised by sunken floors with stone-lined and mud-plastered retaining walls. But even at small sites such as Sayala Area G and SJE Site 194 (fig. 1, bottom), considerable effort was expended on gathering stones and creating foundations for dwelling structures and enclosure walls. So just how ‘temporary’ and ‘ephemeral’ were these dwellings?

Figure 3. The village of Wadi es-Sebua, adapted from Sauneron & Jacquet 2005.

Another point that I raised at the discussion panel relates to expectations of what a Nubian habitation site should look like in terms of layout. It is often assumed that Nubian structures are circular or rounded while Egyptian structures are rectilinear. This was even reflected in the project logos for Living Nubia and for Being Egyptian, the former incorporating circular forms and the latter rectangular, which is perhaps a manifestation of some unconscious bias (fig. 3). In the mortuary sphere, Nubian graves are generally circular or oval in form, and if rectangular graves do occur they are interpreted as evidence of ‘Egyptianisation’. The same occurs in settlement contexts. For example, the extensively published city of Kerma comprised mostly rounded structures in its earlier phases, which were later replaced by rectilinear Egyptian buildings following the Egyptian conquest. Some circular structures did continue at Kerma, and this has been interpreted as evidence for Nubian cultural continuity, or even as Nubian resistance to Egyptian dominance (Bonnet 2019).

Figure 3. The logos of the “Living Nubia” and “Being Egyptian” projects.

I took that assumption (i.e. Nubia = round vs. Egyptian = linear) and checked it against the data that I’d gathered as part of Living Nubia, starting with the largest known C-Group settlement site at Wadi es-Sebua (Sauneron & Jacquet 2005). This is a large site often described as a fortified town owing to its substantial drystone enclosure wall and various other features, and before you ask, yes – the problems with these conclusions will be dealt with in a future post! Anyhow, in observing the map of the site, I noticed that almost all of the structures were rectilinear or very close to it. Some building have one curved wall, but on the whole the entire town was made of straight walls and defined corners. Only one structure in the whole village had a completely circular footprint, and only three others could be described as ‘rounded’ (fig. 4). So, none of the structures at the supposedly archetypal C-Group Nubian village conform to what one would expect a Nubian village to look like.

Figure 4. Plan of the village of Wadi es-Sebua with circular buildings marked in pink (adapted from Sauneron & Jacquet 2005)

I then noticed that the same applied to a number of the other sites in the dataset. Many of the habitation sites recorded by the SJE had rectilinear footprints, often with clearly defined spaces, as did the C-Group village at Wadi el-Arab (Emery & Kirwan 1935), as well as the ‘Kerma’ settlement at Gism el-Arba (Gratien 1999). Of course there were exceptions. The C-Group village at Aniba comprised mostly circular structures, as did the small C-Group settlement at Sayala (‘Area G’). A lot of the smaller sites documented by the SJE also displayed circular footprints, albeit much less well preserved. Even more intriguing is Area FC at Uronarti, where the material culture is entirely ‘Egyptian’ in character, but the style and technology of the buildings is not (Bestock & Knoblauch 2015). All of this variation demonstrates just how diverse habitation sites are, and especially those that are described as “Nubian”.

So the next step is to see if all of this variation has some deeper significance, or if there are more practical explanations, or maybe a combination of both. Different lifestyles, subsistence strategies, and environmental factors are likely to have a role, but maybe there’s also a chronological element, or an internal cultural difference that would, in turn, provide more evidence for reconfiguring the cultural divisions that we’re still working around.

In the end, I find myself looping back to the same fundamental problem that was at the centre of the InBetween project, namely why we as researchers make certain assumptions about what is “Nubian” and what is “Egyptian”, and why we make cultural divisions based on material culture typologies. Can we and should we even make such distinctions? And why do we need to divide things into such neat categories in the first place? What about the role of cultural practice and habitus? The more I look at this stuff, the more blurred the lines become. Hopefully I can bring at least a little more clarity over the course of the project!

Selected references
– Bestock, L. & Knoblauch, C. 2015. “Living beyond the walls: new evidence for Egyptian colonialism at Uronarti, Nubia”. Antiquity, Project Gallery 89 (344). Read here
– Bietak, M. 1966. Ausgrabungen in Sayala-Nubien 1961-1965. Denkmäler der C-Gruppe und der Pan-Gräber-Kultur. Vienna.
– Bonnet, C. 2019. The Black Kingdom of the Nile. Cambridge, MA.
– Emery, W.B. & Kirwan, L.P. 1935. The Excavations and Survey between Wadi es-Sebua and Adindan 1929-1931. Cairo.
– Gratien, B. 1999. “Some Rural Settlements at Gism el-Arba in the Northern Dongola Reach”. Sudan & Nubia 3, 10-12. Read here
– Sauneron, S. & Jacquet, J. 2005. “Ouadi es-Sebou’ est. Un village fortifié du groupe C en Nubie”. BIFAO 105, 321-356.  Read here
– Säve-Söderbergh, T. 1989. Middle Nubian Sites. SJE Volume 3. Partille.
– Steindorff, G. 1935. Aniba I. Glückstadt & Hamburg.

The long road to the end of the beginning.

With that verbose and overly poetic title, my time as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow officially comes to an end.

I was going to write a post about how amazing the experience has been, share some highlights, encourage others to apply for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie (MSCA) project etc etc. All of that would be completely true, but I decided that it would also be kind of boring and predictable. Besides, most of you will have seen all of that stuff on Twitter anyway! So, I’m taking a different and somewhat less celebratory approach to mark the end of this remarkable and truly life-changing time.

Day One in Vienna, outside the Hofburg. It was cold, and frankly a miracle that Adam could stand upright at all!

I have no idea where the last 24 months have gone. The project has been a whirlwind and some of it is still a bit of a blur. In contrast, my memories of getting here are incredibly vivid. I remember flying to Vienna in August 2016 to write my first attempt at an MSCA (which eventually failed). I remember trying again the following year and having an almost total breakdown when I was put onto a waiting list after having missed out by 0.2%. I remember conversations about giving up entirely and moving to Tasmania where we would get a dog and some bees and just live a normal quiet life. I remember sitting on our Ikea Karlstaad sofa and crying out of sheer relief almost six months later when I received the letter from the European Commission confirming that my project had been funded. I remember selling most of what we owned, putting the rest of our lives into boxes, and moving out of our apartment. I remember a near family tragedy days before my departure that could have been life-changing in a very different way. I remember saying farewell to my family and friends. I remember frantically buying any legal painkillers at a local pharmacy after my partner somehow hurt his back whilst packing his backpack and becoming virtually immobile TWO HOURS before we had to leave for the airport to board a 26-hour flight. I remember sobbing quietly as the plane’s wheels lifted off the ground, spending the entire journey feeling in limbo (or should I say, “InBetween”) and wondering if I was doing the right thing. I remember crying again the second the plane’s wheels skidded onto the tarmac in Vienna, knowing that this was the moment that everything became real. I remember that it was 42ºC on the day we left Sydney, and that it was -2ºC and snowing when we arrived in Vienna. That was perhaps the biggest shock of all.

I ordinarily have a weirdly vivid long-term memory for a lot of totally random things (much to partner’s frustration!), but I think the reason that I remember the process of moving to Vienna with such clarity is because of how difficult it was to get here. I don’t mean logistically difficult (although it was!), but emotionally.

From the outside, what I’ve done for the last couple of years might seem like ‘success’ (whatever that means), but what most people don’t know is that my successful MSCA application was the last in a string of 29 rejected applications to various other jobs and grants over a period of about 2 years. As I said earlier, it was also my second attempt at an MSCA application and even that wasn’t so straightforward. My application was favourably assessed, but I missed out on automatic qualification by 0.2% and was placed on a waiting list. That 0.2% deficit felt as wide and impassable as the Grand Canyon. To miss out is one thing, but to be so close yet still unsuccessful hurt me more than all of those other 29 rejections combined. Like someone was slowly pushing a dagger into my chest and was laughing as they did it. I had reached my lowest point, and I didn’t know what more could I possibly do.

It’s the little things…

I didn’t sleep at all that night, and the next morning, I got out of bed and unleashed all of my frustration on my poor unsuspecting partner. I was crying hysterically, shaking, and shouting in his direction, all before 8am. At that stage we had been together for about 12 years, but he had never seen me like that before. In fact, I don’t think even I had ever seen myself like that before. Nevertheless, he knows me well enough to know that trying to console me would be the worst thing he could possibly do. So he just sat silently, listened, and let me get it out of my system. I went to work at the gallery that morning, trying to be normal, but when one of my colleagues said “Morning, how are you?”, just as they did every morning, I completely broke down again, and hid in the toilet. It was a rough day. But I came back home to find a smiling face and a little bunch of flowers, and I knew that I would be OK.

The reason I’m telling you this story is because I know I’m not alone in the frustration and anger that I felt before finally landing the MSCA project. But mainly also because I think this side of Academia is something that too often goes un-discussed. In day-to-day conversations and especially on social media, we’re bombarded with images and stories of people being “successful”, but all of these images and tweets and Facebook status updates can sometimes cause people to compare themselves to this particular brand of “success”, which can in turn make people feel inadequate. ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is a real thing, and people at every level experience it. I grapple with it all the time. But what I realise now (and what people don’t say enough) is that for every “success”, there are who knows how many ‘failures’.

Missing out on opportunities is an unfortunate and ugly part of this game we call Academia. Every one of my 29 rejected applications hurt. Every one chipped away at my confidence and self-worth a little bit, and my efforts to cope came crashing down when I ended up on that waiting list. It took time, a lot thinking and self-reflection, but most of all A LOT of support from friends and colleagues to be able to pick myself up and keep going. It’s OK to be angry, and to be frustrated, and to cry, and to feel dejected. It’s necessary to work through those emotions. But that support from trusted friends, at least in my case, is what got me back on my feet.

“Success” means different things to different people, and we need to try not to measure ourselves against others. An impressive CV and a long publication list can get you so far, but in my opinion, a strong and supportive network of friends and colleagues is the most valuable asset anyone can have. Friends and colleagues who you can trust to be honest with you, who give you the ability to see yourself from the outside, and who will help you deconstruct yourself only in order to rebuild a more resilient version of yourself. People who understand that everyone’s journey is different, who will guide you away from bad decisions, but who will support your choices even if they aren’t the choices that they would make for themselves, and who will still be there if you decide to follow a different path. In turn, we need to lend the same support to those people who support us, because nothing is ever a one-way street.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had so many such people help and support me over the years, and even more fortunate that this network has expanded further since coming to Vienna. There are too many people to thank –collaborators, co-authors, workshop participants, friends, and more. I would love to name you all, but I know that I will unintentionally forget some of you. You all know who you are, but I want to make special mention of (in alphabetical order) Natasha Ayers, Bettina Bader, Andreas Dorn, Angus Graham, Amber Hood, Barbara Horejs, Lucia Hulkova, Christiana Köhler, Paul Lane, Greg Marouard, Nadine Moeller, Vera Müller, and Annik Wüthrich. All of you either (or both) helped me with the process of getting to Vienna or have helped me survive while I’ve been in Vienna, and I’m sure the support and friendship will continue. I hope you’ve found it mutual.

But the biggest portion of thanks goes to my partner, Adam, who has been been an unwavering source of love, support, and encouragement for 16 years now, who gave up so much to let me follow this path, and who has agreed to stay here for at least a couple more years. No amount of gratitude comes close to being enough.

That time a nerdy kid of an immigrant family from Sydney’s outer suburbs can’t quite believe that he was somehow invited to give a lecture at Cambridge. Jan 2020.

So, with that, the MSCA comes to an end… at least on paper. I don’t say this about many things, but the last two years has been truly life-changing. I’ve had experiences that I’d never imagined possible, seen things I’ve only ever dreamed about, and met people who were previously only names in books. All the way, I always remember how long it took to get here, and the dark places that I had to claw my way out of in order to keep going. I can’t say I enjoyed that process, but I also know that the low points make me appreciate the high points so much more.

And now, onto Living Nubia. But first, that grant report isn’t going to write itself!

From InBetween to Living Nubia

OK, so a lot of people have been asking, and I’ve been dropping hints about what is happening once my Marie Curie project officially ends (on Friday!!!). Well, I have some news…

I’m super excited (and immensely relieved!) to say that I’ve received a two-year project grant from the Austrian Science Fund (the FWF) under the Lise Meitner programme! I’m excited because I get to explore some new material and new ideas, and I’m relieved because I don’t have to make the virtually impossible and prohibitively expensive trip back to Australia in the midst of a pandemic! And while I would love to go home to see my dearly missed family and friends, I’m very happy that I can stay in beautiful Vienna for a while longer.

So, what is this new project all about?

Living Nubia: New perspectives on Nubian settlements

The Living Nubia project is going to be a comparative study of indigenous Nubian habitation sites of the Early and Middle Nubian periods, covering rock shelters, campsites, and larger villages. I use the word ‘indigenous’ here as a technical term to differentiate Nubian settlements established by Nubian communities from Egyptian installations south of the First Cataract.

The idea came from a casual conversation in the office kitchen with my colleague Luci. I was talking about something to do with Nubia (surprise!) and Luci asked if there were many remains of non-Egyptian settlements in Nubia besides Kerma. I answered yes, to which she said that she had never heard of them because it always seems to be about Kerma.

*light bulb*

Luci was right. Most people have heard of Kerma, but there are dozens of smaller Nubian habitation sites in and around the Nile Valley that get little or no attention. Most of these sites are only briefly published across numerous and disparate sources, partly because they are quite small and poorly preserved, and hence presumably were considered as being of secondary importance. Besides Kerma, the other settlements in Nubia that have received extensive attention are Egyptian monuments – fortresses, temples, temple towns. Not only that, most of what we know about Nubian populations comes from their graves, so we know a lot about how Nubians buried their dead, but virtually nothing about how ancient Nubians actually lived. Addressing all of these imbalances is the ultimate goal of Living Nubia.

The main research questions driving the project are:

  1. What constitutes an ‘indigenous’ Nubian settlement during the late-third to the mid-second millennium BCE (c. 3200–1550 BCE)?
  2. How far do variations in settlement style and spatial organisation reflect varying subsistence strategies and lifestyles?
  3. To what extent do Nubian built environments construct, maintain or challenge social structures and concepts of identity?
  4. Can changes in the character of Nubian built environments and settlement patterns be linked to broader cultural processes such as contact, conflict, and identity negotiations?
  5. What evidence is there for Nubian impacts on Egyptian culture and identity?

Sites to be included in the survey include the many small campsites and village remains along the length of the Lower Nubian Nile Valley (e.g. at Sayala, Aniba, and around the Second Cataract), the well-known site of Wadi es-Sebua, and Mahal Teglinos in the Sudanese Eastern Desert, along with many other small sites in the region. There are also a handful of Nubian settlement remains in Egypt, like the supposedly ‘Pan-Grave’ villages located near Badari. The city of Kerma is already extensively published but it will of course be included, mainly as a point of comparison.

The settlements themselves are central to the project – their architectural styles, building technology, and spatial organisation – but (as always!) I’m also interested in the material culture objects that were found in association with these structures. These objects and their distributions could offer clues as to how spaces were used and inhabited. Object biographies will also be explored by considering objects that moved between the quotidian and mortuary worlds.

I’ll also take the landscape into account, in particular factors like access to resources, wildlife, spatial relationships to cemeteries and other habitation sites, transport and migration routes, and other things. This might offer some insights on the choices that might have been made in selecting a location to settle, even if only temporarily.

And, as the title of the project is Living Nubia, I will as much as possible engage with members of the Nubian community to gain an understanding of their perspectives on the built environment. Here again I refer to the work of Menna Agha, who has already given me enlightening insights into Nubian concepts of dwellings, domesticity, and the social role of ‘the house’.

The project will officially begin in March 2021 after an “in-between” period during which I’ll wrap up all of the reports and administrative stuff for the InBetween Project. But fear not! InBetween might be over in official terms, but its outcomes and its driving concepts will live on in this new project and everything that comes after it.

I hope you’ll follow me on the Living Nubia journey. Let’s see where it takes us!

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.

It won’t happen overnight…

Gradual steps towards new perceptions

The (De)Constructing Nubia workshop is now behind us, but plenty of work continues behind the scenes. It was an intense (and exhausting!!) two-days for all involved, but we  covered a lot of ground and have laid out some plans for how we can tackle the many problems that have restrained the discipline for far too long. There was also a lot of interest among attendees for some updates on the outcomes of the discussion session that took place on Day Two of the workshop, so here is a brief outline of some of the key points, and an overview of the main outputs that will be coming.

Thinking outside the box

One of the clearest messages from the workshop is that the culture-historical model that we have inherited from past generations of scholars is no longer sustainable. Of course this observation is not a new one, but as far as I’m aware the workshop was the first time that people have gathered to talk about these issues in a structured and focussed way in front of an informed audience.

Simply put, the old cultural ‘boxes’ of A-Group, C-Group, Kerma, Pan-Grave are too rigid and do not adequately capture the cultural diversity of the Nile Valley and its surrounds during the Second Millennium BCE. The word “complex” (and the less flattering adjective “messy”) came up again and again, because that’s what it is – complex. Every region, every site, every individual context, and even every object is unique, but all of that uniqueness and diversity occurs within a broad “horizon” under which everything is connected in all manner of complex ways. And we’re not just talking about material culture. The region was also incredibly linguistically complex, as was clearly demonstrated by Julien Cooper.

All of this complexity is what makes the region so fascinating, but it also makes it incredibly difficult to classify and organise the evidence, which, as scientists – and as humans – we are hard-wired to do. For analytical reasons, and to be able to compare data between sites and regions, we need to be able to organise the data in a scientifically meaningful and useful way. But doesn’t this bring us back to the basic problem of forcing things into boxes? Are we trying to impose order on something that defies order?

From form to Function

One possible avenue by which we could shift the focus from the typology-based approaches would be to pivot towards a functional approach that operates on small and large scales. Looking at things like cooking pots and lithics and asking questions about traces of use and patterns of distribution (esp. in settlement contexts) can provide insights into how people lived. At larger scales, deeper investigations of burial practices, interactions with the landscape and uses of space would allow us to understand living behaviours and belief systems. This sort of approach would enrich our comprehension of ancient cultural diversity by taking more theory-based approaches to the data.

To do this properly, we need to make sure that we consider the full spectrum of available data because, at the moment, much of the cultural definitions are heavily dependant on pottery. Yes, pottery is usually the most abundant type of artefact and, yes, I have focussed on pottery in the past, but we can only really come to grips with the diversity of the region if we look at everything. Pottery, textiles, leather, beads and jewellery, lithics, furniture, rock art, settlement remains, grave structures, faunal remains, metal objects… everything! All of it matters, and all of it should be interpreted through multiple approaches that look at typologies, technological processes, function… anything is possible. And we must also include scientific methods of analysis, which is still possible for material excavated in the Sudan, but should also be explored for objects in museum collections around the world.

Starting from scratch?

All of that being said, we still need to find some way of talking about all of this complex and diverse stuff in a way that is systematic and meaningful from a scientific perspective. But is it even possible to devise a uniform system of terminology that is applicable to all of the data? Remember that the point here is diversity, so how realistic and appropriate is it to confine all of this diversity to a system? Do we start from scratch by dismissing the old cultural labels, re-documenting all of the material, and allowing the objects to tell us how they should be organised? Just thinking about how much material there is and how widely it is scattered across the globe makes me go a bit weak at the knees. No single person can do this, so it has to be a collaborative, worldwide effort, potentially over a couple of academic generations. And of course, all of this requires money, time, and energy, which are all finite resources. Time and energy can usually be found, but money? At a time when the world is tightening its collective purse-strings, how easy will it be to find money?

OK, OK. So I’m sounding a little bit negative, but you have to admit that this is a daunting task. On the bright side, it was pretty clear throughout the workshop that people actually do want change. Now we just have to do it. But even if money and time were infinite resources, we need to be conscious that we don’t just demolish the existing framework for the sake of it.

De-constructing the existing models needs to happen, but it needs to be done slowly and methodically, and it can only happen collaboratively, with openness, a willingness to share, the space to get things wrong, to float new ideas and have them constructively critiqued by our colleagues, and to slowly but surely find our way. The process will take time, but as New Zealand supermodel Rachel Hunter once said about a well-known brand of hair care product (not named for copyright purposes), “It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.” That reference will probably be entirely lost on you unless you’re from Australia or NZ, but the sentiment is apt.

Not just Nubia

While the scope of the workshop was for the mid-Second Millennium BCE, the group identified that these issues and the ways in which we handle them have a much wider reach, both chronologically and geographically. As I’d mentioned many times through the workshop, I hope that the approach is taken up more widely in Egyptology, which for too long has maintained this false image of cultural homogeneity. The reality is that ancient Egypt was anything but homogeneous, especially in terms of material culture.

There are a number of researchers who have worked on this theme for decades. Janine Bourriau led the charge for the material culture perspective, and her views have been taken up by (among others) Bettina Bader and Carla Gallorini. Both Bettina and Carla participated in the workshop, and Bettina’s ongoing project, “Beyond Politics” is tackling the issue of regionality head-on. From a broader theoretical perspective, people like Thomas Schneider and Gerard Moers had encouraged us to question what terms like “Egypt” and “Egyptian” actually means in the context of the ancient region that we now call Egypt. But somehow, these ideas have been frustratingly slow to catch on in the field at large, and I am still bemused by the prevalence of this idea that Egypt was some kind of special anomaly characterised by a single monolithic culture. This is a bigger issue than can be dealt with here, and others can do it far better than I, but for now I want to encourage Egyptology to look beyond the pharaohs and the “elite” and more deeply examine the rich and diverse social fabric of the ancient society that inhabited the Nile Valley and surrounding deserts between Aswan and the Mediterranean coast.

Short-term goals

Anyway, what are we doing about all of this in the short term? Well, the group identified a few dissemination plans that we hope will start to chip away at the problems. Our initial goal is not to establish a new framework, because as we all know, that can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t happen overnight (see Rachel Hunter quote above). Instead what we need to do is get the message out to a wide audience and to encourage new ways of thinking and approaching the evidence. That way, it’s not just early career and established researchers tackling the problem, but hopefully the short-term outputs will plant seeds of change in the minds of future generations of students and researchers.

The primary output will of course be a published volume, but this won’t simply be a proceedings volume that recounts the papers that were presented during the workshop. Instead, we’re planning to put together a volume that takes a thematic approach to identifying and addressing some of the big issues. There will be contributions dealing with questions of broad-scale terminology (e.g. Nubia/Nubian, Egypt/Egyptian, Bronze Age, Nile Valley, Nile Basin, Northeast Africa, Sudan…), others dealing with the concept of archaeological cultures (e.g. is “Pan-Grave” really a thing?), the difficulties of linking linguistic and archaeological evidence, interpretative issues surrounding ‘Egyptian’ objects in ‘Nubian’ contexts… and many others. I hope that the volume can be published some time in 2021, but whenever it appears I hope that it will be a starting point for broader discussions that encourage critical thought, and maybe even some real, tangible change.

There’ll be some other more accessible outputs intended to reach a wider and more diverse audience. There’ll be a short summary video for YouTube that summarises the key problems and ways by which they might be addressed, there’ll be updates to this blog (and I’ll also try for a few guest blogs), and I’ve also taken on a few opportunities to give lectures and interviews in which I’ll talk about the outcomes of the InBetween project, the workshop, and the ways in which all of this will [hopefully] encourage new approaches to the study of this culturally rich region.  

There are also plans to establish a public-facing online consultation network that will allow researchers to seek advice on Nubian material culture that they’re working with. The idea is to provide some mechanism by which researchers can contact a group of specialists for advice on problematic data (e.g. objects that are difficult to classify) or to discuss interpretational issues. So let’s say you have a pot or a type of bead and you don’t know what to do with it or how to interpret it, you can contact the network, maybe send along some images, and we can help you find parallels and bibliographic references, or put you in contact with a specialist who can give you some advice on how you might approach the object(s) in a way that isn’t constrained by the old frameworks.

So, things are underway, change is hopefully afoot, but, as the workshop and its immediate outcomes have demonstrated, the conversations about these complex issues must be tackled collaboratively. If widespread change is to happen, it’ll take all of us to adjust our thinking and our approaches to our own chosen evidence. Maria Gatto used a nice analogy during the workshop – we are trying to build a house, and to build a house, we need bricks. If you think about it, we already have the bricks, but the house that Petrie and Reisner built doesn’t really fit our ever-expanding family anymore. So, now it’s time to renovate, maybe dismantle some sections, reclaim the bricks, chip off the old mortar, trim them into new shapes, and carefully rebuild a new and more suitable house. But at the same time, we have to accept that no house will ever be perfect, and we have to leave space for others to make their own renovations when the time comes.

My only request: no floral curtains. They’d clash with the Kerma beakers.

(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.

Struggles with ‘Otherness’

This is a post that I’ve been wanting to write for some time but I’ve put it off, mainly out of fear. But given everything that’s going in the world right now, it would be remiss of me not to say something. This issue is infinitely more important than my planned descriptions of cemeteries at the Second Cataract, and it is directly relevant to the themes of the project, and to the dark legacy that we have inherited as archaeologists and historians.

The issue, of course, is that of racism, and particularly of racism in academia, and even more particularly in the field of Egyptology. It’s something that is being talked about more and more lately, which is great, but at the same time we all know that getting onto the right path is going to take a lot of work and a lot of time. Words will be said. Things will get heated. Feelings will get hurt. We know that things will eventually find equilibrium, but it will take time, and the journey will be difficult, but it’s a journey that must be taken.

So, what I want to do here is tell you a little bit about my own struggles with this issue as a person who is neither white nor black, and to express some of my own failings, what I’m trying to do about it, and link all of this back to the study of ancient Egypt and Nubia, however circuitously. It’s a little bit stream-of-consciousness, but I want this to be an honest and personal exploration of these issues from my own “InBetween” perspective.

My surname and my Australian-ness might not make it immediately obvious, but if you’ve ever seen a picture of me, you’ll know that I’m not white. My family is Singaporean, but we are of Portuguese, Dutch and Malay (and maybe also Chinese and Indian?) ancestry. Put simply, I and all of my immediate relatives are living products of colonialism and the European exploitation of… well… pretty much of the entire world. It’s why there’s a question mark around the possible Chinese and Indian parts of my bloodline. Our story, until maybe three or four generations ago, was told in a largely European voice.

Often in my research group, we discuss things like concepts of ethnicity and identity, and this has forced me to reflect on my own ethnic identity. To be honest, I don’t really know what I am in terms of ethnicity, and I couldn’t give you just one simple answer. I’m Australian by birth and citizenship. I only speak English (and passable German), and the only Malay that I know and understand is either food-related or curse words. At least fifty percent of the food that I cook and eat is from one or another Asian cuisine. Depending on the situation, I might feel more Australian or more Asian, depending on who I’m with, where I am, and what I’m doing. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice to emphasise certain aspects of a certain facet of my identity, but sometimes I find myself presenting as more Singaporean or more Australian without even realising that I’m doing it. Sometimes I foreground my European heritage for various reasons, perhaps to make myself seem less Asian, to highlight my family’s colonial past, or sometimes to just “fit in”. At other times I find myself exoticising the Singaporean aspects of identity, almost invariably in relation to cuisine because I know it makes people jealous! But then I wonder, why? Why do I make these choices? and why do I even feel the need to choose in the first place? I am, to all intents and purposes, a living manifestation of the InBetween-ness that my project is all about. I am many things, but nothing in particular.

My parents and two sisters migrated to Australia in 1980 (I was born in 1982), and even though it had been seven years since the abolishment of the White Australia Policy, my family was among the first southeast Asians to settle in the outer suburbs of Sydney. I distinctly remember going to the one Asian supermarket in our part of town, which was a 20-minute drive from our house. Asian culture was still relatively new, so much so that one of our first neighbours referred to my family as “the tribe”, and one of my sisters was interrogated by her Australian teacher because her lunch smelled weird. It was a prawn sambal sandwich, but my poor sister lied and said it was peanut butter to avoid embarrassment. Fast-forward 40 years and prawn sambal sandwiches are now a hot ticket item in some of Sydney’s most popular Asian eateries. My, how times change.

But even though things had supposedly changed, I myself have been subjected to what I would call racism in more recent times –– sometimes blatant, sometimes less so, and sometimes probably unintentional. I was once told that I’m not bad looking <quote> “for a darkie” <unquote>, which I can only assume that person meant as some kind of compliment. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, in response to my saying I’m Singaporean, that I don’t look Chinese, presumably because they think all Asians are supposed to look the same. More recently, my own perspective of being an immigrant has drastically changed since moving to Austria. I’ve found that many (but not all!) local people assume that I don’t speak German. They’ll either speak to me in English (even after I’ve spoken to them in German!), or they’ll ignore me entirely and speak in German to my blonde-haired blue-eyed partner, who, in spite of his appearance and Germanic surname, speaks only very basic German. He inevitably stares like a deer in headlights, and I have to say, in my most polite German, “Darf ich Ihnen helfen?”

Whether or not it’s intentional, to me it feels like they assume that I don’t speak German because I don’t fit their expectation of what a German-speaking person is supposed to look like. One time, I was waiting at a crossing and a woman was asking for directions in German. She asked everyone around me, but they were all white American tourists. She looked at me, and I smiled at her, but she looked away and didn’t ask me. Maybe she had just given up and couldn’t be bothered asking, but the first thing to cross my mind is that she assumed I don’t speak German because I’m brown. The thing is, I knew what she was looking for and I knew exactly how to get there, but I decided not to help her unless she asked. Was it wrong of me to expect that she speak to me in German? Maybe. She wasn’t to know that I have a PhD and had been learning German on-and-off for about six years. But what is more wrong is that my first thought was that she had excluded me because of the colour of my skin. I felt that my voice and my experience was dismissed as not being worth the effort or time. That is not right, and it deeply upset me.

The casual racism isn’t just limited to strangers. People I know well, e.g. academic colleagues, and sometimes even friends have told me that they don’t see me as being “brown”, even if I had just identified myself as such. This used to confuse me; I knew I was offended by the statement, but I didn’t understand why. Then, recently, I spoke to my sister back home in Sydney, and she said that people have said the same thing to her in her workplace, where she is the only non-white person on her team. She explained to them that by saying they see her as “one of them”, it implies that being “one of them” (i.e. white) is somehow better. Suddenly I understood why these comments had upset me. “Not seeing colour” isn’t a compliment. It suggests that being “colourless” is an ideal, or that it’s necessary to fit in. But I don’t want to be colourless, and if you’ve seen my collection of shirts you’ll know this to be true! But seriously, why should anyone assume that I would? or that I would prefer to be “one of them”?

My point in saying all of this is that being subjected to racism is unpleasant, to put it very, very mildly. Even if it’s unintentional, it hurts, and often it’s difficult to articulate why it hurts.

But what on earth does all of this have to do with Egypt and Nubia?

We all know the discipline has a racist past that is built on colonialism and the European exploitation of Egypt and Sudan. I don’t need to dwell on that as many others have already done and are doing a better job than I ever could. But in thinking about all of this I realised a few things:

  1. I am one of only two not-white Egyptologists in Vienna, and possibly even in all of Austria (as far as I know).
  2. Besides myself, I know only four other Asian people working in Egyptology personally.
  3. I only personally know one Black American person working in Egyptology.*

That last point truly shocked me more than any other. It also strikes me that when most scholars who are based in “the West” (i.e. Europe, the USA, Australia etc), are asked to think about Egyptologists, we generally first think of well-known names, usually male, based at big universities in Europe, the UK or the United States. But what about our colleagues in Egypt and Sudan? There are so many Egyptian and Sudanese researchers, and we all know them (especially anyone who has ever done any fieldwork), but why do most of us not immediately think of them? I myself am lamentably guilty of this failing.

This problem and personal failing became immediately apparent to me very recently, and in a manner that makes me feel deeply embarrassed and ashamed. I’m organising an online conference for the InBetween project, which, of course, focusses on ancient Nubian cultures and their interactions. I think I have a really good panel lined up, but just a few days ago I came to a shocking realisation:

Apart from myself, the panel is entirely white.

I was so focussed on having an even gender balance that I didn’t even think about other types of diversity. It embarrasses me, as a brown man, that I am hosting a workshop that is focussed on the history of Nubia, but I don’t have any African voices in the room. And not just African; I don’t even have any other non-white voices in the room at all. It embarrasses me that I – someone who has himself been subjected to racist remarks and actions – have myself been unintentionally racist and exclusive.

But what do I do now? On the one hand, I’m reluctant to add a person of colour to the panel at this stage, because it would feel like I am just making a “diversity hire” for the sake of it. Like I’m just ticking a box as an afterthought. I myself would feel very uncomfortable if someone hired me for a similar reason. I never want to be a “diversity hire”, and I refuse to do that to somebody else. But on the other hand, perhaps that person would be grateful for the opportunity to be at the table and to provide their perspective. But the even bigger problem is that, try as I might, I can’t think of any people of colour doing research immediately relevant to the workshop. The few people that I do know of (at least by name or reputation) conduct research on aspects of Nubian history that are not directly relevant to the very specific theme of the workshop. Adding them to the panel at this late stage would feel like the most blatant of diversity hires, and that makes me uncomfortable… but why does my own comfort level matter? But more importantly, where are these people?

History, as they say, is written by the victors, and when it comes to Egypt and Sudan, that history is almost exclusively white. The British, the French, the Germans (i.e. the Prussians)… all of them went into the region with grand colonial aspirations, furnished their museums and institutions with the wonders of Egypt, and shaped the version of Egyptian and Sudanese history that we have inherited today. Our Egyptian and Sudanese colleagues have not been afforded the same opportunities available to those of us in ‘The West’, and, as a result, their voices have been stifled. I am not immune to this charge. How can we tell the story of the region without the voices of the people who have inherited that land and a history so long and glorious that Europe was driven to claim it as its own?

This is such a complex topic, and to be honest with you, I don’t really know what can or should be done to address the issues. All I can do now is share with you my experience and my perspective as a non-white person in a white field, in the hope that it might help us find some answers together.

Diverse voices must be heard, but it is vital that those voices are included because they are truly valued, and not because they fill a quota. I want the field to be more inclusive, but I don’t want that inclusion to be a token gesture. I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve been employed because I’m brown, or gay, or whichever aspect of my diversity ticks an empty box, and I don’t ever want anyone else to feel the same way.

This stream-of-consciousness foray into these intensely complex issues doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, and there are a lot of things that I can’t fully articulate. For now, what I’d like us all to take away from this is the simple fact that nobody is perfect, and that we all make mistakes. We all have the potential to display racism or some other bias – unintentionally or otherwise. The important thing is that we learn from our mistakes, that we accept our faults, and that we actively seek change for the common good.

These conversations will be difficult, and at times they may be uncomfortable, but they need to happen respectfully, constructively, and with open ears, hearts and minds if the field is to change or progress. And you know the funny thing about conversations? You can’t have them alone. We’re all in it, and we all deserve to speak, but we also need to know when to listen.

* My deepest gratitude to this person, my friend Sasha Rohret, who listened to me as I was preparing this piece, offered valuable feedback, and who generously shared some of her own personal thoughts and experiences on these issues.

The SJE Collection (Part 1): A Nubian material culture lover’s dream

Sweden. A land of pristine forests, Vikings, flat-packed furniture, ABBA, no social-distancing, and – believe it or not – copious quantities of Nubian antiquities. Uppsala was the first stop on InBetween’s research mission, and hence will be the first series of retrospective travel posts on the blog. I say ‘series’ because (a) it was a long trip (six weeks in total), and (b) there is much to share!

This was actually my third visit to Uppsala – I’d been here in 2013 and 2014 as part of my PhD research on Pan-Grave pottery. In total I’ve spent about three months there and have recorded close to 1000 objects from seven sites, four of which I re-recorded in their entirety.

It’s a lovely place, home to the oldest University in Scandinavia (est. 1477), seat of the archbishop of the Church of Sweden since 1164, and it will no doubt be familiar to fans of the TV show “Vikings”. Besides all that, the city is home to one of the largest and most significant collections of Nubian antiquities anywhere in the world, now held by the Museum Gustavianum. All of the finds were excavated by the Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia (the SJE) between 1961 and 1964. The SJE was one of the largest missions of the UNESCO salvage operation to rescue the antiquities of Nubia, which were to be lost following the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

A map of Lower Nubia showing the various international concessions. The SJE is marked with a red bracket. (Image: The UNESCO Courier, Feb/Mar 1980)

The SJE’s concession extended along a 60km stretch of the Nile between the towns of Faras and Gemai, immediately to the south of the Egyptian-Sudanese border (marked with a red bracket on the map). In sum, the mission recorded 490 sites, more than 4200 individual burials, approximately 2600 rock inscriptions, and collected thousands upon thousands of material culture objects. Finds from the excavations were divided between Sudan and the four participating Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) in accordance with legal agreements in place at the time.

The bulk of the material was sent to Uppsala, which now holds material culture objects and organics from the Early and Middle Nubian sites. Some of it is on display at the Museum Gustavianum, but most of the material is in storage at the nearby Evolution Centre.

The Museum Gustavianum (left), which is sadly closed for refurbishment until 2021 (I think), and the Evolution Centre (right) which was my base for the duration of my time in town.

The collection includes pottery (15 tonnes of it!!), jewellery and other small finds, lithics, metals, textiles, and organics (human remains were sent to Copenhagen). Not only that, but Uppsala also holds the full archival records of the mission – field notes, reports, correspondence, press clippings, excavation photographs, object photographs, and the most wonderful series of photographs of people and everyday life in towns and villages that are now lost for all eternity. The collection is immense, and having access to the objects and the archives is a really unique opportunity for a researcher. Reading the field notes, looking at photos, and holding the objects makes you feel like you are right there in the field with the team. It’s truly wonderful.

But I wasn’t there to revel among the wonderful objects, I was there to work!

Views of me working on the collection. Having direct access to the objects right across the hallway was a dream scenario for any researcher, and made the job infinitely easier! (Photos: A. Grubner)

The goal of my trip was to record the finds and archives from three sites that have culturally mixed assemblages, because these sites and their mixed characters might tell me something about how the various Nubian groups interacted, and how those interactions impacted how they materially expressed their cultural identities. I’ll write a separate post about those sites, but for now I will say that they are not the sites that I had originally planned to look at. As with fieldwork, it’s important to be adaptable, and in a way, what I was doing in Uppsala was fieldwork – I was re-excavating an excavation. When I saw this material on the shelves in the storeroom, it spoke to me, and I listened.

As I said, I’ll write about the sites in more detail in a future post, but today I want to talk about the collection itself, and what it’s like to work with ‘legacy data’ – that is, material that was excavated in the past and that, in this case, had already been studied and published.

Some views of the dreamy storerooms.

The collection has been impeccably organised and catalogued by the lovely Ludmila Wekström, the curator of the collection. Ludmila has the objects beautifully organised in rolling compactus storage, minimalist foam-lined light wood shelves, and scores of white archival boxes. Textiles, organics and metals are in similarly beautiful climate-controlled rooms. It really is a dream of a place, and all very modular and Swedish.

Finding the material is not a problem. What proved to sometimes be tricky is working with the material once you’d found it. I quickly came to realise that for some sites, the published records do not accurately reflect what is actually in the collection, and in some cases there were discrepancies between the objects, the archives, and the publications. Sometimes I would open a bag of sherds, which corresponded to a single object number in the published lists, only to find that in fact there were sherds of multiple different vessels. In other words, what was published as one vessel in reality could be two, three or even more!

This was obviously frustrating, but one has to remember that the researchers who studied this material before me were working with intimidating amounts of data – 15 tonnes of pottery alone. FIFTEEN TONNES!!! And that’s just the Early and Middle Nubian material! I was only working on a few sites, but imagine doing this for 490 sites with limited time and limited money and you can understand how these discrepancies might occur.

Despite the  occasional oversights, the SJE volumes are still one of the most extensive published records of the UNESCO missions, rivalled only by the Chicago Oriental Institute’s publications. Publishing this volume of data was an immense task, and we owe our forebears a great deal, so such errors are entirely forgivable and made me realise a few things:

  1. We all make mistakes. As researchers, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us, but those giants were human, and humans make mistakes sometimes, and that’s OK.
  2. Always question your sources. Even the most reliable source will have errors in it somewhere. I mean, I’m reliable to the point of it being boring, but even I’m too scared to open my own book because I find a typo every damn time!!
  3. If you are able to return to the data, then return to the data. There is no better way to check the validity of your evidence than by holding it in your own hands and looking at it with your own eyes.

Setbacks aside, the collection has one major advantage that makes it hugely attractive to researchers like myself. One word: Sherds. Most museums are populated with whole or near complete vessels, but the SJE collection includes bag upon bag upon bag of sherds. Big ones, tiny ones, diagnostic ones, non-diagnostic ones, coarse wares, fine wares, decorated, undecorated, closed forms, open forms… you get the idea. There are a lot of sherds. And this opens up an array of possibilities for scientific analysis. I was given permission to take some samples for petrographic analysis (publication in preparation!), and hope I can do more in the future, along with other analytical methods. 

Some of highlights from the SJE Archives: notes, hand-drawn maps, negatives, photographs, and some cute little flowers drawn in the margin of one of the field diaries 🙂

But the best thing about the collection is that almost everything is in one place – objects and archives. I could start with the original hand-written finds list, check it against objects in the collection, find the original field diaries and see the excavator’s comments about the moment it was uncovered, and look through the photographs to find pictures of it in situ. If there were discrepancies between the various records, a thorough checking of the notes and photos usually clarified things. It really is like being there, at the moment of excavation. You could even see traces of quiet moments, where one excavator found time to draw flowers around the margins of their page. Handwriting grew less and less legible and the day progressed. This is such a unique experience, and something that is impossible to get from other collections where the objects are often scattered between multiple museums and totally divorced from their original archival documentation.

If it wasn’t clear, I love the SJE collection. It may sound corny, but it holds a special place in my heart. So much of my work has been based on this collection, and it has really been a privilege to work with it.

So, now you know about Uppsala and the SJE collection. Next time, more about the sites…

Reliving past glories

OK OK… I know. This blog has sort of slipped by the wayside.


The time has come – as the Australians say – to “pull my finger out” and get things moving.

The weird thing is that I have so much to write about, but so much of it needs to be reserved for formal publication, and there is a lot that would be academically inappropriate / unethical to put on a public forum such as this. So, what to do?

One thing I’ve caught myself doing quite a bit while in “lockdown” is looking back through photos from research trips that I undertook over the past year or so, before COVID-19 – the “year BC”, if you will (Sorry, that was awful 😕). Many of us had travel plans that had to be cancelled. Research opportunities were quashed, dream holidays were smashed to pieces, and so I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the experiences that I’ve had to have seen the things that I’ve seen.

And then it hit me. I had intended to (but obviously didn’t!) write blog posts for all of my research travels while I was doing the travelling, so why not do that now? I can revisit past happy memories, look forward to times when we can travel again, and maybe some of you out there will enjoy the ride, too.

From now on, there WILL be blog posts in which I return to my past research trips to Uppsala, London, Oxford, Manchester, Liverpool, Swansea, Cambridge, and finally Egypt. I guess the advantage of doing this now is that I’ve had time to reflect on the experiences, to process data, and to develop ideas, some of which I’d like to share. It’ll be a combination research blog and sometimes maybe just a travel diary, but hopefully it’ll be interesting, whatever it is. I’ll aim to post fortnightly at a minimum, and have just now set myself a reminder in my calendar so that I don’t forget!!

So… more to come. And this time, I actually mean it!!