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.