Holy Cow / Sheep / Goat!!

Notes on faunal deposits in Middle Nubian cemeteries

Fig. 1: A painted goat skull from SJE Site 47, now at the Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala University, Sweden (Photo: A. de Souza)

Following on from the shameless act of self-promotion that was the previous blog post, I thought I would keep the ball rolling and spend some time talking about the image on the cover of my book. It’s one of my favourite aspects of the Pan-Grave tradition, and it’s something that never fails to draw a few gasps, “oohs” and “aahs” from an audience.

Frontal bones and horns from the skulls of livestock animals – cattle, sheep, goat, and gazelle – are an unmistakable element of the Pan-Grave material tradition (fig. 1). The image on the book cover (fig. 2) is a photograph from the archives of the Scandinavian Joint Expedition (the SJE), now housed in the collection of the Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala University (Sweden). The photo, taken during the SJE’s excavation of the Pan-Grave cemetery SJE Site 47, shows at least seven goat skulls arranged in a row, facing the same direction, and placed in an arc-shaped trough with two upturned pots in front of them. This arcing arrangement is the most distinctive mode of deposition, but they can also occur in small groups inside a burial pit, or sometimes in groups of up to 60 individuals in discrete offering deposits.

Fig. 2: Cattle and goat skulls in an arc-shaped offering pit surrounding grave 51 at SJE Site 47. Two upturned Pan-Grave bowls are visible in the foreground. Image courtesy the Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala University.

You’ll also notice that the smaller skulls at the back of the row have dark spots and lines on them. That’s painted decoration, and it’s a defining feature of Pan-Grave animal skulls. The decoration usually comprises linear or spot motifs in black and red ochre, which on the white bone background is visually arresting in its graphic boldness. We were lucky enough to find a group of painted cattle skulls at Hierakonpolis in 2017, and I will never forget seeing a pair of painted eyes emerging from the sand, glaring menacingly at us, almost threateningly, after disturbing its almost 4000 years of rest.

No one knows exactly what the significance of these objects was, but we can make a few educated guesses. It’s very likely that the skulls relate to the Pan-Grave people’s pastoral lifestyle, and archaeozoologist Pernille Bangsgaard has observed that the skulls are often arranged as if they are a herd, with a large bull at the front, followed by cows, with the smaller sheep and goats bringing up the rear. Bangsgaard has also drawn a number of interesting ethnographic parallels with modern tribal and nomadic groups living in north and east Africa today. One is the ‘Mbanderu’ tribes from Namibia, in which the herd of cattle belonging to the head of a family is slaughtered and consumed by the family over an extended period after his death. At the end of the mourning period, the skulls of the cattle that have been slaughtered are arranged above the man’s grave… which sounds quite familiar, right?! In my many years of looking at SJE Site 47, which is the largest known Pan-Grave cemetery, I’ve noticed all of the graves with these large arc-shaped deposits of skulls are clustered together at the southern end of the cemetery, and they are generally among the larger burials. This might point toward a degree of stratification within Pan-Grave communities, and these larger graves surrounded by animal skulls may have been for a particular class of people.

Fig. 3: The famous painted bucranium from Mostagedda grave 3252 (adapted from Brunton 1937, pl. lxxvi.66).

The most famous example of Pan-Grave painted skulls from grave 3252 at Mostagedda (fig. 3). I say ‘grave’, but this example came from an offering deposit where it was just one of 40 sets of horns or frontal bones. This skull is remarkable because it is the only example to be decorated with a figurative depiction of a human, who, with his dark-skin, close-cropped hair and short kilt, is distinctly Nubian in appearance. The man carries an axe in one hand, which has led to the assumption that he is some kind of soldier; perhaps one of the Medjay with whom the Pan-Grave tradition is so often – and so problematically! – linked.

But even more remarkably, the man is accompanied by an inscription written in Egyptian hieroglyphs! Unfortunately the reading and translation of the word is unclear, but anyone interested should see the fascinating paper by my good friend, Julien Cooper and Hans Barnard (see references below). Despite the ambiguity of its meaning, the Mostagedda skull is a striking example of a hybrid object, in which Pan-Grave and Egyptian traditions have merged. The skull itself is a distinctly Pan-Grave object that has been treated and deposited in a wholly Pan-Grave manner, but the image applied to the object follows the canons of Egyptian art and incorporates Egyptian hieroglyphs. Regardless of whether we call this cultural mixing, hybridity, entanglement etc, the object is testament to the close relationship between Pan-Grave communities living in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period.

You, too, can marvel at the enigmatic Mostagedda bucranium in the Nubian Galleries at the British Museum, London!

But, this is the InBetween Project, so what can these skulls tell us about the relationship(s) between the Pan-Grave, Kerma, and C-Group traditions?

Fig. 4: Hundreds of cattle skulls surround a tumulus burial at Kerma (www.kerma.ch/en/histoire/royaume-de-kerma)

The first point is that the burial of animal skulls, or even just parts of animal skulls, is not unique to the Pan-Grave tradition. Kerma burials are also famous for being surrounded by scores and sometimes even hundreds of cattle skulls (fig. 4). The differences are that these skulls are virtually always cattle skulls, usually with their horns intact, and – as far as we can tell – they were never decorated. The cattle skulls around Kerma burials invariably had their impressive horns intact, and these were placed pointing upward in circles surrounding the tumulus superstructures for maximum impact and intimidation.

Cattle skulls in Pan-Grave burials don’t always have horns, and sometimes it appears that the cattle have been polled, that is, that they had their horns removed at a young age before they could fuse to the skull. It’s just a guess, but maybe this has something to do with their pastoral nomadic lifestyle; removing the horns would have made it safer for the animals, but also safer for the people. These animals were the livelihood, so the last thing you need is them goring each other (or you!) with their big pointy horns! It seems that Kerma Nubians were also aware of the dangers posed by horns, but instead of cutting them off, they covered the tips with ivory or bone caps (fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Ram skulls with inlaid ivory caps covering the tips of their horns. (Reisner 1914, fig. 19)

The C-Group’s relationship with cattle is a little less obvious. Their graves do occasionally include cattle skulls, but far less frequently and in a far less dramatic fashion than their Pan-Grave and Kerma counterparts, and some have even suggested that the C-Group was influenced by Kerma in this regard. (Disclaimer: I generally avoid jumping to external influence as an explanation, and this time is no exception… but more on that another time!). Nevertheless, cows were clearly an important part of C-Group life to judge from the depictions of cattle on pottery and on the large sandstone stele that stood among their early cemeteries. One of the most famous examples, and arguably one of the most famous Nubian objects of all, is the so-called Chicago Cattle Bowl, discovered at the Cemetery K at Adindan in Lower Nubia, and now a star attraction of the Nubian collection at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago (fig. 6). The beauty of this object and the care with which it was made undoubtedly reflected the importance of cattle in the C-Group tradition.

So, the Middle Nubians loved cows, and some of them loves sheep and goats, too. These animals were an important aspect of their livelihood and possibly also their group identity. What differs is the way in which the different groups expressed the importance of these animals in their material culture and cultural practices. Some put their skulls around their graves, some put them in the graves. Some painted them, others didn’t. Some put them on pots, and sometimes on stelae. However it happens, cows (and sheep and goats) are always there, and it’s a factor that needs to be considered when exploring how the ancient Middle Nubians were connected with one another, and with the socio-cultural landscape of the region.

Selected references

Bangsgaard Jensen, P., Ritual Cows or just another Flock of Sheep? Faunal Deposit Practices at C-Group and Pan-Grave Cemeteries (PhD Dissertation: University of Copenhagen – Copenhagen, 2010).

Bangsgaard, P., “Pan-Grave faunal practices – Ritual deposits at five cemeteries in Lower Nubia”, Anthropozoologica 48:2 (2013), 287-97. (here)

Bangsgaard, P., “Nubian Faunal Practices – Exploring the C-Group “Pastoral Ideal” at Nine Cemeteries”, in J. Anderson, D. Welsby (eds.) The Fourth Cataract and Beyond. Proceeding of the 12th International Conference for Nubian Studies, (Leuven, 2014), 347-55. (here)

Chaix, L., Dubosson, J., Honegger, M., “Bucrania from the Eastern Cemetery at Kerma (Sudan) and the Practice of Cattle Horn Deformation”, in J. Kabaciński, M. Chłodnicki, M. Kobusiewicz (eds.) Prehistory of Northeastern Africa: New Ideas and Discoveries. Studies in African Archaeology, Vol. 11. (Heidelberg, 2016). (here)

Cooper, J., Barnard, H., “New insights on the Inscription on a Painted Pan-Grave Bucranium, Grave 3252 at Cemetery 3100/3200, Mostagedda (Middle Egypt), AAR 34 (2017), 363-76. (here)