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.