BMCR 2020.05.20

Handbook of ancient Nubia

, Handbook of ancient Nubia. De Gruyter reference. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. 1111 p.. ISBN 9783110416695. €249,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In his Handbook of Ancient Nubia, the first of its kind, Dietrich Raue guides us through the latest updates on Nubian Archaeology, a remote field of study that recently found its way back to the world scene, 50 years after the successful UNESCO Campaign, thanks to some remarkable discoveries, international exhibitions, a high potential for pioneering surveys and an increasing number of scholarly institutions involved in Sudan.

The two-volumes set, with a total of 1111 pages, includes a substantial amount of color plates, maps and drawings that illustrate the 43 chapters, some of them written by leading figures of Nubian archaeology. Divided in four parts, it begins with an introduction where the editor looks back on the historical steps of a fairly young discipline, including the particular context of colonialism in which it was first established and developed. A focus is also made on the long and ravaging history of dams, which still pose a threat to the Nubian heritage.

The first part, after the introduction, is a general presentation of the region through geology, topography, landscape and especially natural resources, which provide a clear vision of the territory’s diversity. In addition, two chapters on archaeozoology and archaeobotany offer interesting insights on the ecosystem, though they are limited to specific areas and with few explanations regarding the ecological impact on the economic system or the vital question of climate change. They are followed by an historical synthesis based on physical anthropology and an overview of ancient languages that focuses on the central case of Meroitic, the oldest of the Nilo-Saharan family that also had a specific script. The original combination of topics in this first part supported by recent archaeological work gives a useful opening to the volume.

The second and the third parts bring together 17 papers covering the time period from prehistory to the Bronze-age, and then 15 others starting with the 1st millennium BCE until the end of the Medieval period. They both apply the same mixture of studies on history, material culture, architecture and epigraphy, following more or less a chronological line.[1]In these two large sections that represent the core of the book, the diversity of the contents seems at odds with the concept of a handbook. Additional chronological and field subdivisions would have offered an easier navigation throughout the two heavy volumes. One advantage, however, is that readers familiar with Nubian Studies in their search for the latest information on certain topics will encounter technical studies that would have been otherwise relegated to a final chapter as is done in most conference publications and other scientific studies of the region. This volume tries to present ancient Nubia not only in an historical perspective but also in the complex diachronic vision of related subfields and is therefore meant not for a general audience but mostly for scholars and students who seek in-depth syntheses of recent research in Nubian archaeology.

In the second part, the potential contribution of north Sudan and the Nile Valley to the diffusion scenario of modern humans is well-presented through surveys, sites excavations and incidental findings. For the Palaeolithic period, though most of the territory remains terra incognita and known sites are mostly in eroded surface contexts, several examples are discussed showing how the study of lithic industry provides an unparalleled source of information. In their contribution “The Mesolithic and Neolithic in Sudan”, one of the key articles of this handbook, Sandro Salvatori and Donatella Usai gather a number of convincing arguments on the formation and interrelations between the cultural sequences at that time. A bit farther, Matthieu Honegger addresses the question of the emergence of the Kerma state, the first kingdom of Nubia, through the lens of the prehistorical sites surrounding the capital. He presents, with an impressive set of evidence and dates from settlements and burial grounds, the development of complexity that led to the formation of a regional capital.

Dietrich Raue, whose article serves as a conclusion to the topic and an introduction for the next sequence, discusses issues related to old terminology used for cultural groups such as “Pan-Grave” or “C-Group”. He explores the rise of a Nubian identity and the growing interest of Egypt in controlling the region, while most of the following articles examine different aspects of the conflict between the two. Among them, Neil Spencer’s presentation of settlements in the Second Intermediate Period and New Kingdom, which could at first seem like a technical review of urban development, reveals the correlation between town architecture, defensive purposes and global strategies in changing the cultural landscape of Nubia. Artefactual evidence, examined through the lens of cultural entanglement, finds an extension in the paper of Julia Budka on pottery. Here, influences, styles and technologies can be seen to travel both ways at the border of Kush, showing how scholars are currently building regional profiles to better identify imports and local productions, and hence economic dynamics within the new province. Another paper presents in a consistent way the religious scene, with useful tables of the New Kingdom sanctuaries followed by a general picture of funerary architecture and mortuary practices, while an article on leatherwork, though refreshing, diverges from the rest of the section by its ethnological approach and a number of illustrated cases that are Kushite and, therefore, later in date.

Opening the third part with a study on settlements, Derek Anthony Welsby describes the difficulties in studying the transitional period in which Egypt’s influence ceased and a local power arose. The emergence of a new royal lineage and the foundation of royal cemeteries at el-Kurru, Nuri and Jebel Barkal, marking an important evolution in burial customs and funerary architecture, is summarized by Angelika Lohwasser and Timothy Kendall. Surprisingly the book does not contain any synthesis on the religious center of the Djebel Barkal and its key role as a Nubian capital and the excellent presentation of Napatan sacred architecture by Alexandra Riedel is not sufficient to encompass the cultural and political background of this historical phase in which the famous 25th dynasty will thrive,[2] particularly under the reign of Taharqo.[3] After the brief account by Dominique Valbelle and Charles Bonnet of the extraordinary discovery of the royal statue cache in Dukki Gel, we rapidly jump into the study of social groups and material culture. Here, a focus on the latest results in bio-anthropology regarding the question of the Nubian identity would have offered a better context to that question.[4]

The transition to the later Kushite phase and the Meroitic period is made through an article written by Pawel Wolf on settlements, a recurring topic in the book, supported by helpful and legible maps of the region. This essay is another landmark for the publication, as it reveals very clearly the current state of our knowledge, the bias created by a long tradition of monumental archaeology in the Nile Valley, and the recent change of interest in a field that also benefits from new survey technologies. Funerary practices and sacred architecture come next, followed by a general reflection on Meroitic art by Steffen Wenig. A chronological presentation by Romain David of the ceramic production in the Kingdom of Meroe allows us to grasp the diversity of regional industries, traditions from the hinterland and influences from abroad resulting from long-distance trade. The case of wine and perfume oils imports from the Roman Empire is particularly striking.

We then enter the post-Meroitic and Christian periods with an analysis of defensive architecture by Bogdan Żurawski, shedding light on one of the major features in the Nubian medieval landscape. With precision, he shows the differences between fortresses and heavily walled enceintes that were used as refuges, including in his demonstration details on buildings material and techniques, topography, as well as political, religious and economical constraints. The section ends with a focus on sacred architecture and two articles by David N. Edwards, one of the few specialists of Sudan who has published on both Antiquity and the Medieval period. His second essay, on Islamic archaeology, shows the complex relationship between the Christian kingdoms of Sudan and Egypt after the Arab conquest, through conflicts, diplomacy and trade partnerships. When Christianity finally ceased to exist, Nubia was soon confronted by another Islamic power farther south, the Funj sultanate of Sinnar, before falling into the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

The Final part, dedicated to surveys, is a valuable addition to this general presentation of ancient Nubia. It closes the loop by reminding us of the connections between the valley, the wadis and the deserts where everything started.[5] We know that the Bayuda desert was the main road between the religious centers of the Jebel Barkal and the royal city of Meroe, as we know that the Nubian desert played a key role for the Egyptian armies venturing into the enemy’s territory. To the west, the vast lands of Kordofan and Darfur have also much to reveal about the first populations who migrated to the banks of the Nile. Given the substance of this section, the presentation of the eastern margins of Sudan by Andrea Manzo would have found a better fit here.

No conclusion was added by the editor to the book. Though it might not seem necessary considering the amount and the diversity of information presented along the two volumes, it would have been useful to discuss the future of Nubian Studies and the main challenges that await Sudanese and international institutions involved in the fields of rescue archaeology, museology and cultural heritage. In that sense, a presentation of the unprecedented Qatar Sudan initiative to promote and protect archaeological sites would have been informative, as would have the Sudanese point of view from the Antiquities Service, the National Museum and local universities on their priorities and current research programs outside of the frame of international cooperation.

At the beginning of the book, a general chronology would have helped to homogenize the terminology and avoid confusion while, for example, using the words ‘Kush’ or ‘Nubian’. For the historical period, a list of the rulers would have been convenient and offer a good context to some recent updates such as those proposed by Frédéric Payraudeau for the 25th Dynasty sequence, [6] or Claude Rilly for the Meroitic period.[7] Finally, many chapters suffer from reduced-size maps rendered almost illegible, a recurring problem throughout the book.

Nevertheless, these are minor issues compared to the considerable work achieved with this handbook, a long-awaited initiative and a must-read in Nubian studies.

Authors and titles

Part 1: General
1. Introduction / Dietrich Raue
2. Geological Induced Raw Materials Stimulating the Development of Nubian Culture / Dietrich Klemm, Rosemarie Klemm and Andrea Murr
3. Topography and Regional Geography of Nubia: River, Cataract and Desert Landscapes / Johannes Auenmüller
4. A Short Story of Human-animal Relationships in Northern Sudan / Louis Chaix
5. The Archaeobotany of Nubia / A. J. Clapham
6. The Role of Physical Anthropology in Nubian Archaeology / Michaela Binder
7. Languages of ancient Nubia / Claude Rilly

Part 2: From Palaelithicum to 2nd Millennium BC
8. The Palaeolithic – Stone Age / Donatella Usai
9. The Mesolithic and Neolithic in Sudan / Sandro Salvatori and Donatella Usai
10. Eastern Saharan Prehistory during the 9th to 5th Millennium BC: The view from the ‘Libyan Desert’ / Heiko Riemer and Karin Kindermann
11. The Holocene Prehistory of Upper Nubia until the Rise of the Kerma Kingdoms / Matthieu Honegger
12. Holocene Lithic Industries in Nubia / Bastien Jakob
13. The Later Prehistory of Nubia in its Interregional Setting / Maria Carmela Gatto
14. Cultural Diversity of Nubia in the Later 3rd – Mid 2nd Millennium BC / Dietrich Raue
15. Eastern Sudan in the 3rd and 2nd Millennia BC / Andrea Manzo
16. Middle Kingdom Fortresses / Christian Knoblauch
17. Pharaonic Rock Inscriptions in Nubia – The 3rd and 2nd Millennia BC / Johannes Auenmüller
18. The Religious Architecture of Kerma and Dokki Gel from the 3rd to the 1st Millennium BC / Charles Bonnet
19. Settlements of the Second Intermediate Period and New Kingdom / Neil Spencer
20. Pottery of the Middle and the New Kingdom from Lower and Upper Nubia / Julia Budka
21. Nubian Leatherwork / André J. Veldmeijer and Lucy-Anne Skinner
22. Egyptian Temples in Nubia during the Middle and the New Kingdom / Martina Ullmann
23. New Kingdom Toms in Lower and Upper Nubia / Kate Spence
24. Nubians in Egypt in the 3rd and 2nd Millennium BC / Dietrich Raue

Part 3: 1st Millennium BC – 2nd Millennium AD
25. Settlements of the Early Kushite Period / Derek Anthony Welsby
26. Napatan Necropoleis and Burial Customs / Angelika Lohwasser and Timothy Kendall
27. The Sacred Architecture of the Napatan Period / Alexandra Riedel
28. The Cache of Dukki Gel (Pa-nebes) / Dominique Valbelle and Charles Bonnet
29. Early Kushite Ceramics of the Earlier 1st Millennium BC in Lower and Upper Nubia / Pamela J. Rose
30. Nubians in the 1st Millennium BC in Egypt / Julia Budka
31. Settlement in the Meroitic Kingdom / Pawel Wolf, Ulrike Nowotnick and David N. Edwards
32. Tom Architecture and Burial Custom of the Elite during the Meroitic Phase in the Kingdom of Kush / Jana Helmbold-Doyé
33. Meroitic Temples and their Decoration / Josefine Kuckertz
34. Art of the Meroitic Kingdom / Steffen Wenig
35. Ceramic Industries of Meroitic Sudan / Romain David
36. Defending the Indefensible. Nubian Fortifications in the Middle Ages / Bogdan T. Żurawski
37. The Sacral Architecture in the Kingdom of Makuria / Włodzimierz Godlewski
38. Post-Meroitic Nubia / David N. Edwards
39. Islamic Archaeology in Nubia / David N. Edwards

Part 4: Surveys and Fringes
40. Archaeology Surveys at the Third, Fourth and Fifth Cataract Regions / Marius Drzewiecki and Aneta Cedro
41. Living and Travelling in the Bayuda: The Wadi Abu Dom / Tim Karberg and Angelika Lohwasser
42. Recent Research Work at the Western and Southern Fringes of Nubia / Adrian Chlebowski and Mariusz Drzewiecki
43. Rock Art / Tim Karberg
44. Fending off the Desert Dwellers – The Gala Abu Ahmed Fortress and other fortified Places in the South Libyan Desert / Friederike Jesse


[1] It is, for example, a bit odd to find a chapter on Post-Meroitic Nubia (943) describing the end of the Meroitic state in the course of the 5th and 6thcenturies CE, focusing on social and political changes that pave the way to a new medieval era, right after two papers on Christian defensive and sacred architecture from the 6th-10th centuries CE.

[2] Török, L. (1997). The kingdom of Kush. Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization. Brill, Leiden.

[3] Pope, J. (2014). The Double Kingdom under Taharqo. Studies in the History of Kush and Egypt, c. 690-664 BC. Brill, Leiden.

[4] Smith, S. and M. R. Buzon (2017). ‘Colonial encounters at New Kingdom Tombos Cultural entanglements and hybrid identity’, in Spencer, N., Steven, A. and M. Binder (eds) Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived experience, pharaonic control and local traditions (BMPES 3). Peeters, Leuven. pp 613-628.

[5] Archaeological surveys, a growing part of Sudanese field studies have recently been boosted by the 4th Cataract campaign prior to the construction of the Merowe Dam, as stated by Mariusz Drzewiecki and Aneta Cedro in the present volume.

[6] Payraudeau, F. (2014). ‘Retour sur la succession Shabaqo-Shabataqo’, Nehet 1, Paris. pp 115-127.

[7] Rilly, C. (2017). ‘Histoire du Soudan des origines à la chute du sultanat Fung’, in O. Cabon (ed.) Histoire et civilisation du Soudan de la préhistoire à nos jours. Soleb-Bleu Autour, Paris. pp 121-122.