Lost Kingdoms of the Nile
• In 1906, George A. Reisner, at the request of the Egyptian government, began
an extensive survey of northern Nubia backed by Harvard University and the
Museum Fine Arts, Boston. Plans to expand the original Aswan Dam made the
• From 1913 – 1932, Reisner and his team continued to move further south
surveying the area between the first and sixth cataract (large rapid). See map
• When the surveying concluded, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston received half
of what was found and the Cairo Museum received the other half.
Where is ancient Nubia?
The term “Nubia” came about in the Middle Ages (approx. A.D. 500 – 1600). It
possibly comes from the tribal group “Nuba” or “Noba” that occupied the area in
the 4 th century A.D. and absorbed the declining Kingdom of Kush. Some writers
have also speculated that the name comes from the Egyptian word “nub” which
means “gold”, but this is probably incorrect.
The area of Nubia has had several different names throughout its history.
- Ta-Seti in approximately 3200 B.C. It means “Land of the Bow” because
Nubians were skilled archers and feared soldiers.
- Kush (Cush in the Old Testament) was the name ancient Egyptians used for the
region of upper Nubia. The Kingdom of Kush actually began in Kerma and
encompasses the Napatan Period and the Meroitic Period.
- Aithiopia was the Greek name for Nubia. It means “Burnt-Faced Ones” and
refers to the very dark skin of the Nubians.
- Nubia was the Middle Ages name for the land of Kush or Aithiopia.
- Sudan is the modern name that is Arabic for “Land of the Blacks”.
How do we know about Nubia?
• In 1906, George Reisner surveyed Upper Nubia between the 1 st and 2 nd
cataract (rapid) before the area was flooded by the Aswan Low Dam.
• George Reisner and his chief excavator, Dows Dunham, moved south to survey the
area between the 2 nd and 6 th cataract.
• This study included burial sites at Kerma,
el Kurru and Nuri, the Great Temple at Jebel Barkal
and the pyramid field of Meroe.
• In 1986, a new team led by Timothy Kendall renewed excavations of Nubia and have
revealed new discoveries at Jebel Barkal.
Information about ancient Nubia is somewhat limited for several reasons…
• Nubians had no written language until the later Meroitic Period and scholars still have yet
to completely translate this text.
• Much of what is known is based on Egyptian texts, artifacts and Nubian structures.
• Sand erosion has been a major cause for concern. The sand and wind basically act as
an eraser, eroding exposed relief work and outer surfaces of the pyramids. Sand has
also almost completely covered some of the tombs and monuments.
Pyramids at Nuri
• In 1834, Italian explorer, Giuseppe Ferlini, smashed the tops off 40 pyramids in
Meroe searching for treasure.
• He only found one gold cache and had a difficult time selling the gold to Europeans
who didn’t believe black Africans could make such fine jewelry.
Pyramid field at Meroe
• In 1954, construction began on the Aswan High Dam. This threatened the Temple of
Abu Simbel, constructed by Ramesses II. Archaeologists and teams of workers were
able to move this site before it was covered with water, but many other archaeological
treasures were lost.
3100 B.C. to 350 A.D.
A – group (3100 – 2800 B.C.)
• A-group marks the beginning of Egyptian writing, so there now becomes record of
independent kingdoms living in both Egypt and Nubia.
• They most likely lived in small mobile camps because they were hunters, fishermen
and herdsmen and had to move where there was food and good pasture.
• Their tents were probably made of cowhide, grass and reeds built on stone
• Clothing items such as leather and linen loincloths, belts, sandals and leather caps
with feathers have been found in graves.
• Known for their unique thin-walled pottery called “eggshell” pottery. It is usually
painted with shades of red and orange iron oxide in patterns that imitate basketry.
A-group Burial Practices
• A-group graves were usually shallow oval or rectangular pits. Some graves had a
circular stone structure built on top with an adjoining stone chapel area for
• The body was usually dressed in elaborate clothing and placed on it side, curled up
in sleeping position.
• Royal graves contained gold jewelry, pottery and stone vessels.
• Other grave goods included small human and animal figurines made with mud or
clay and containers for storing and eating food and drink. This might indicate that
they had a belief in a spiritual life after death.
C-group (2000 – 1500 B.C.)
• Archaeological findings indicate they lived in open villages with more permanent
• They farmed small, fertile areas along the riverbank and raised cattle. They also
traded with Egyptians and produced artistic pottery.
• They dressed much like the A-group people.
C-group Burial Practices
• Continued with the circular grave pit.
• Added animal sacrifices to their burial practices. Skeletons of sheep, goats, cattle,
gazelles and dogs have been found in graves.
• Cattle represented wealth, so several graves were found with multiple cattle skulls
and depictions of cattle on grave stelae (tombstones) and on pottery.
Pan Grave (2200 – 1700 B.C.)
• Pan Grave people had much in common with the A and C-group, but were
well-known for being skilled bowmen and warriors.
• Egyptian kings took notice of their archery skills and actually hired them as
soldiers in exchange for land in Egypt on which to live with their families.
• They were often buried with weapons and cow skulls painted with battle
• Pan Grave people had a unique grave style. Early archaeologists named this
group “Pan Grave” because their shallow, round graves resembled frying pans.
Kerma (2000-1550 B.C.)
• Known as Kerma culture because remains of its capital are found in the modern day
town of Kerma in Sudan.
• One of the largest ancient cities to be found.
• Archaeologists found what they think is a large temple complex. Modern day Nubians
call it Deffufa, meaning “mud-brick ruin.”
• At one point, the Kerma Kingdom controlled much of southern and northern Egypt
while Egyptian kings ruled only a small district at Thebes.
Kerma Burial Practices
•Kerma graves changed over time and the royal tombs were most interesting.
• Early Kerma graves
- small and rather modest
- The body was placed on a tanned ox hide, with another hide covering it.
- Sacrificed sheep are often found in early Kerma graves.
• Later Kerma graves
- Kings dressed in leather garments, sandals and fine jewelry were buried under
huge dirt/sand mounds sometimes as large as football fields.
- The body was placed place in sleeping position on a gold-covered bed.
- Grave goods included gold, ivory, jewelry and weaponry.
- Entire herds of cattle
- In addition to the animal sacrifices, the bodies of men, women and children lined
the corridors leading to the burial chambers. One of the largest graves contained
almost 400 people!
Illustration of Kerma burial mound
The Kingdom of Kush: Napatan Period (750 – 270 B.C.)
• During the Napatan Period, Egypt became weak again.
• In about 724 B.C., kushite king Piye (Piankhy) conquered Egypt and declared
himself pharaoh over all of Egypt and Nubia.
• Kushites governed for about 60 years.
• During their reign, the Kushite pharaohs created harmony and stability in Egypt
and encouraged a resurgence in traditional art, architecture and religion.
• They used the Egyptian language, and wore Egyptian royal dress, but the Kushite
pharaohs retained links with their Nubian ancestry.
• They promoted fellow Kushites to powerful positions as a way of keeping
control and chose to be buried in cemeteries surrounding Napata.
Napatan Period Burial Practices
• During the Napatan Period, Nubians adopted several Egyptian customs including
some funerary traditions.
• Nubians began to build small pyramids. The first Nubian pyramids were built in
el-Kurru and included king Piye’s tomb.
• They began mummifying their dead.
• The Egyptian tradition of including servant statuettes or shawabtis took the place
of human sacrifices.
• The main Nubian burial practice that stayed intact was the use of funeral beds
instead of coffins (wood) or sarcophagi (stone).
• Later in the Napatan Period, pyramids were built in Nuri as well.
• The oldest and largest pyramid at Nuri belongs to king Taharqa, Piye’s son.
Pyramids at Nuri
Pyramids at el-Kurru
The Kingdom of Kush: Meroitic Period (270 B.C. – A.D. 350)
• During the Napatan Period, in about 660 B.C., the Assyrians invaded Egypt and sent
the Nubians back to their homeland.
• Eventually, in 270 B.C., the Nubians moved their kingdom south to Meroe.
• Meroitic people introduced their own form of writing.
- Meroitic writing is loosely based on Egyptian hieroglyphs and demonic script.
(popular script written right to left in horizontal lines)
- It appears during the reign of kandake (queen) Shanahdekheto, but it may have
been spoken years earlier.
- It is written two different ways – hieroglyphs in temples and cursive in business
and practical matters.
- It is a genuine African language, but does not appear to closely related to any
other known language which makes it difficult for scholars to decipher.
- Royal names are sometimes written in both Egyptian hieroglyphs and in Meroitic
which allowed the alphabetic values of the script to be determined, but how it is
read is still a mystery.
Meroitic Period Burial Practices
• By the Meroitic Period, burial traditions were a solid mixture of Egyptian
• As in Egypt, the body was mummified and placed in a wooden coffin, but
true to earlier Nubian cultures, shawabtis were replaced once again with
• Meroitic graves were filled with imported objects such as pottery, bronze
work, glass and silver from the Mediterranean world.
• Meroitic people created large statues of humans with bird wings. This
was most likely an adaptation of the Egyptian ba bird, which represented
a spiritual form of the deceased.
Nubians in a nutshell
• For food they hunted hippos, gazelles, ostriches, geese and duck, fished the Nile
• They grew wheat and barley which were made into bread and beer.
• Dates, figs and nuts were grown
• They traded with Egypt for a variety of other types of food.
• They raised cattle, sheep and goats for food and used their hides for clothing
•Clothing consisted of leather caps, net head coverings, loincloths, skirts, girdles
•They sometimes decorated their clothing with beads, stained them red or pierced
patterns into them.
•Their furniture mainly consisted of shelves, tables, chairs and benches made of mud
•The wealthy could afford furniture made of ebony wood decorated with ivory
•Furniture was also made out of basketry; woven mats, trays, decorated wooden
boxes, chests and beds are among the pieces that have been found.
• Each group of Nubians created their own style of pottery. This has been quite
helpful to archaeologists because it has helped them learn about and date the
• Pottery was used as dishes, storage containers, cooking pots, offering vases and
•Nubians used cosmetics. Oils and fats were used in both cooking and in making
•Both men and women used black eye paints, like the Egyptians.
•Palettes and stones for grinding the eye cosmetics, as well as mirrors, razors and
tweezers have been found in Nubian graves.
Join us for
Lost Kingdoms of the Nile
September 11, 2009 – April 12, 2010
Haynes, Joyce L. Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
Ayo, Yvonne. Eyewitness Books Africa. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1995
Hart, George. Eyewitness Books Egypt. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2008
Web Photo Resources
Objects - www.MFA.org
Meroe pyramids - http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/piramides/coppens_pyramids02.htm
Nuri Pyramids - http://www.dignubia.org/maps/timeline/bce-0525.htm
El Kurru Pyramids - http://www.dignubia.org/maps/timeline/bce-1000.htm
Duffufa - http://archaeology.about.com/od/kterms/g/kush.htm
Abu Simbel - http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/88b1a/1ea9f7/
Aswan High Dam -