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.

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.