Welcome to InBetween!

Grüß Gott aus Wien!

A date with the basement at the Kunsthistorisches Museum

The InBetween project has now been running for about a month, and now that the seemingly endless string of bureaucratic tasks is completed (at least for this week!), I figured it was time to populate this blog with some information about the project, and what better way to start that with an overview of what the project is about!

For those of you who know me, it will come as no surprise that InBetween is all about Nubian archaeology. Of course ceramics are a big part of the project and the Pan-Grave culture is involved, but this time I am looking at all kinds of archaeological evidence from more than one Nubian culture.

At the core of the project are the three so-called Middle Nubian cultures – Pan-Grave, C-Group, and Kerma. These three groups were all identified and named about a century ago by different people at different places, their defining characteristics were laid out, and each was put into its own distinct cultural box. Since that time, the cultures have generally been treated as such – as distinct cultural entities – but in recent years archaeologists have started to realise that these three cultures share as many commonalities as they do differences. They no longer fit into the neat boxes that were constructed over a century ago. The time has come to unpack these cultural boxes and to rethink how these groups might be perceived, and that’s precisely what InBetween is all about.

On the surface, the three Middle Nubian groups are archaeologically quite distinct. I’ll introduce each of the three cultures in coming posts, but for now we’ll take a more general view.

Fig 1: Archetypal Middle Nubian pottery: Top L: stunning Classic Kerma beakers; Bottom L: a gorgeous late C-Group cup;  R: one of the most perfect Pan-Grave bowls you will ever see. (All photos by the author, courtesy Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala University)

Starting with the most abundant evidence (and my favourite!), the ceramic productions of the each of the Middle Nubian groups look quite different as you can see above, but beyond this their burial styles differ widely, each seems to use a different subsistence strategy, and each seems to be mostly concentrated in fairly localised geographic regions, with some overlap. One of the key factors that led to these cultures being separated is that there seemed to be very little mixing between the groups, and each seemed to have kept largely to themselves, especially when it came to cemeteries. It had even been noted that, for example, Kerma material had never been found in a Pan-Grave context and vice-versa, and it was only in the later stages of these cultures that some inter-cultural blending seems to have occurred. Rarely was there any cultural mixing in death, and so in turn it was presumed that the same divisions applied in life.

A painted goat skull from a Pan-Grave burial at Debeiera East, Site SJE 47. Photo by the author, courtesy the Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala University.

Things have progressed considerably in the 100+ years since the Nubians were put into their cultural boxes. The commonalities between the three groups are becoming more and more apparent. Their pottery, though different, shares fundamental similarities — hand made black-top wares with incised geometric decoration and a predominance of bowl forms. In some cases it is almost impossible to distinguish one tradition from another. Although there are some differences in scale and complexity, their graves seem to follow a broadly similar pattern of circular pits with the bodies being placed in a contracted position with some kind of above-ground marker of varying complexity. Cattle and livestock held an important place in each tradition, so much so that cattle skulls were often included in graves either singularly or by the hundreds.

The assumption that Pan-Grave and Kerma material are not found together should also be corrected following recent discoveries. Kerma sherds are now known from a Pan-Grave cemetery at Hierakonpolis (I’ve seen them!!), and pottery from both traditions has been found together in graves at sites near the Fourth Cataract of the Nile (Emberling & Williams 2010). Pan-Grave activity can now be identified well beyond Lower Nubia, extending far to the south and out into the Eastern Desert regions, making contact and exchange with other cultures inevitable (Manzo 2017). Similarly, if we look at the beginnings of the C-Group and the Kerma traditions, the two groups appear virtually identical in terms of ceramic technologies and burial traditions. The only difference is the areas in which each cultures was identified — the C-Group in Lower Nubia, Kerma in Upper Nubia. In fact, it seems that the two groups share a common ancestor and that the differences that arose resulted from migration and varied engagements with different communities and environments.

The InBetween Project lives in these spaces in between the Middle Nubian cultures, because that, if anywhere, is where we will be able to get into the relationships between the groups. I use the word “relationships” here in the broadest sense––how the groups might be related via a common ancestor (like cultural siblings), and how they related to and engaged with one another in life. The Nubians did not leave us any texts to tell us about themselves, and texts written by the Egyptians are inherently one-sided and imbalanced given their ideologically negative attitude towards anyone who was not Egyptian. The only way we can get into those spaces between the groups is via the objects that the Middle Nubians made and used.

You’ll be glad to hear that there’s more than just pottery in the InBetween project! I’ll be looking at animal remains, jewellery, stone tools and objects, and even the graves themselves. I’ll look back in time to the cultures that came before the Middle Nubians––in some cases even as far back as Neolithic times, thousands of years before the Middle Nubians even existed, in order to dig out their roots. I’ll be doing fun things like RTI photography to closely study the technological processes used to produce these objects, and where possible I’ll also explore scientific methods like XRF and microscopy to analyse the raw materials. If there are common technologies and materials between the groups, then perhaps this might reflect corresponding ancestral relationships, cultural continuity, or technological exchanges.

As part of the trip I’ll also be making trips to Sweden, the United Kingdom, Egypt and (hopefully!) Sudan. Needless to say that there should be lots of experiences, anecdotes, and great visuals ahead!

So, stay tuned! I look forward to sharing the adventure and discoveries with you!

Emberling, G. & Williams, B. 2010. “The Kingdom of Kush in the 4th Cataract I-III Report on the Sites of Hosh el-Guruf and El-Widay.” GAMAR 7: 17-38. (PDF)
Manzo, A. 2017. Eastern Sudan in its Setting. The archaeology of a region far from the Nile. Oxford: Archaeopress (PDF)