Chiefs or Kings?

Rethinking Early Nubian Politics

By: David O'Connor

Originally Published in 1993

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Egypt and Nubia—immediately upstream of Egypt developed the two earliest known of Africa’s many civilizations. Yet Nubia is not found on modern maps and for many people its history remains mysterious. In medieval and later times it was rec­ognized as a distinct country, but today most of Nubia is subsumed into the Republic of the Sudan. and northernmost Nubia is part of mod­ern Egypt.

Nubia and Egypt were for­midable competitors for control over key sections of the Nile Valley. trade-routes, and sources of raw materials. Nubia not only resisted but reciprocated Egyptian aggression. Indeed, soon after the Late Bronze Age (1550-1000 B.C.), during which Nubia endured a 400-year domination by Egypt, the Nubians drastically turned the tables. Egypt was conquered by Nubia—partially after 750 B.C., fully after 712 B.C.—and for a period a line of Nubian pharaohs, known as the 25th Dynasty of Egypt, ruled both lands. This “Agypto-Nubian” kingdom was the largest ever seen along the Nile until recent times.
For a long time relatively few scholars studied Nubia’s early civi­lization as compared to Egypt’s or those of the Near East, and hence it was little known to the public in general. That situation has im­proved. Specialists in early Nubia are increasing in number. The evidence recovered by the pioneers in Nubian archaeology is being re-evaluated and significant new archaeological discoveries be­ing made. Since the Brooklyn Museum’s exciting exhibit in 1978-1979, important Nubian ex­hibits have opened in Europe, Canada, and the United States, in­cluding The University Museum’s “Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa.” Our knowledge of ancient Nubia is expanding and changing.

The Land and its Civilization

Here, I focus on the Nubian Bronze Age (3000-1000 B.C.), one of several major phases of Nubian civilization that are covered in this issue of Expedition. Geographically. Nubia was like Egypt—a fertile, narrow oasis running through arid deserts. OnIv in Southern Nubia could nomads survive east and west of the Nile. Other nomadic groups roamed the Bed Sea hills far to the east of Nubia.

Nubia was a very large country. Mea­sured along thre twisting coursed of the Nile, it was 1700 kilometers long 1054 miles), Egypt only 1100 kilometers. Most Bronze Age Nubians lived on the fertile flood plain. which was concentrated in three relatively well settled regions: Lower or northern Nubia. Upper or cen­tral Nubia. and Southern Nubia. Each was separated from the other by long stretches of fertile, thinly occupied land. ‘Nubia is a name that occurs rela­tively late in history (towards the end of the 1st millennium B..). Its medieval and later inhabitants spoke a distinctive language, called Nubian but whether Nubian was spoken extensively in the Bronze Age or even later, in Napatan-Meroitic times. is uncertain.

The economy of Bronze Age Nubia was simple. Most people were agricultur­alists dependent on flood and basin irri­gation (Fig. 2), although animal heading was also important. However, a surplus was produced which, supplemented by income from trade with Egypt and else­where, supported an elite stratum in Nubian society and the development of a distinctive civilizatiim.

Some scholars recognize Napatan­ Meroitic culture as a civilization, but not the Bronze Age culture which preceded it. And it is true Bronze Age Nubia lacked some features associated with other civilizations. Egypt, for example, had grandiose architecture, elaborate art forms, and a writing system; Nubia did not. Yet, Bronze Age Nubia had temples, palaces, and royal tombs; in other words, it had a complex society and the institutions that went with it. Moreover, Nubian political sys­tems were probably larger in scale and more state-like than is generally recog­nized. It is this relatively advanced stage of social development, as well as the richness and variety of its material culture, that makes Nubia civilized.

Understanding Bronze Age Nubia

Our understanding of Bronze Age Nubia as a cultural and political force is based in part on its archaeology, and in part on references to Nubia in con­temporary Egyptian texts and art. Understanding also depends on the models or theories about Nubian devel­opments put forwards by various schol­ars. These have proved valuable and productive, but nevertheless need to be debated, tested, challenged and, if necessary, revised.

One model controlling many presen­tations of ancient Nubia is that of “center and periphery.” The basic tenet of this model is that of any two peoples or poli­ties involved in such a relationship, the “center” is snore highly developed eco­nomically, politically, and technological­ly. The other entity, the “periphery,” is dependent on the center economically and for cultural stimulation. As a result of the center’s influence or control, social change in the periphery may be due to external rather than internal factors. In this model, Nubia is the dependent, sometimes subject, periphery of Egypt, the center, Yet this influential model may not accurately reflect the relationship between Nubia and Egypt. First, the theory in general is complex and “raises many detailed questions concerning the precise formulation of the relationships involved” (Champion 1989:18). Further, its application to Bronze Age Nubia as a whole may he overly simplistic, true in part for some periods, but not for others. In fact, the notion that Nubia was typi­cally peripheral to Egypt is debatable. We tend to overvalue Egypt For its “western-style,” grandiose culture, and to undervalue the seemingly more modest, certainly much less well documented Nubian civilization.

In reality, Eqypt and Nubia may have been much more equal in political anti military strength than we tend to think; and certainly Nubian culture needs to be evaluated in its own terms rather than by comparison with Egypt’s. Egyptian influ­ence existed in Bronze Age Nubia, hut the dynamics of society and culture were often distinctly Nubian.

These issues relate to yet another interpretive models applied to early Nubia which involves the distinction be­tween chiefdoms and states. “Complex” chiefdoms are larger than “simple” ones, but both are smaller in scale and less efficiently impersonal in governance than states. In both scholarly and popular literature the contrast between Egypt and Nubia is often presented as one between a state and an agglomeration of chiefdoms.

Egypt did represent a nation state. albeit an unstable one that periodically underwent political fragmentation and even civil war. However, Nubia also may have incorporated Bronze Age states. The Egyptians themselves used the same terms for ruler (heal, wer) for both Nubian and Near Eastern leaders. the latter often being state rulers; it is mod­em scholars who translate these terms as “king” for Near Easterners, but “chie’ for Nubians. There is in fact consider­able evidence suggesting state formations was a well-established process in Bronze Age Nubia, and consequently we need to revise many of our ideas about early Nubian politics.

Nubia and the Origins of Egyptian Civilization

Revisionism can, however, some­times go too far. Qustul, a Lower Nubian site of the earliest Bronze Age (ca. 3000-2900 B.C.), is a good example. It has been challengingly described as “a birthplace of pharaonic civilization several generations before the rise of the First historic Egyptian dynasty” (Williams 1980:12; 1986). This proposition is not only doubtful in itself, it unintentionally diminishes Qustul’s significance ford Nubian political devel­opments.

Qustul belongs to the “Terminal” phase of a long-lived Lower Nubian culture (ca. 3500-29(H) B.C.) labeled A-Group by George Reisner, who first defined the archaeological and cultural phases of Nubia for both Bronze Age and Napatan-Meroitic times. A-Group Nubians belonged to a complex stratified society, with an elite benefiting from a lively trade with Egypt.

Terminal A-Group material culture is distinctive and striking. Its many prod­ucts include a wide range of pottery styles, one of which was an incredibly thin-walled “luxury” (non-utilitarian) ware with bright red designs painted on the exterior surfaces (Fig. 6). Unfortu­nately, many important aspects of the social, economic, and technological lives of the A-Group are now irrecoverably lost. Settlements yield the best evidence for these aspects, hut until recently archae­ologists preferred to excavate cemeteries and temples in Nubia (as in Egypt). For much of Nubia this imbalance between cemeteries and settlements can be redressed in the future, but Lower Nubia, now serving as the reservoir (Lake Nasser) of the Aswan Dam, is permanently flooded.

Cemeteries do, however, tell us something about social organization, and the cemetery of Qustul was an unusual one. Though few in number, the graves were exceptionally large and much more lavishly supplied with local luxury goods and Egyptian imports than other known A-Group cemeteries. Williams, who pub­lished the cemetery, supposed that scenes painted on pots from Qustul rep­resented Nubian victories over contem­porary southern Egyptians kingdoms, and deemed a stone incense burner carved with icons typical of early Egyptian king­ship and religion to be Nubian in origin (Fig. 3). He concluded that “some twelve kings at Qustul participated with other kings in Upper Egypt in the creation of a unified culture” and “helped fashion pharaonic civilization” (1980:21).

For good reasons, most interested scholars do not accept Williams’s theory; the scenes of victory are doubtful, and the incense burner was certainly decorat­ed by an Egptian. Qustul is a politically charged site, but those buried there are not precociously early Egyptian pharaohs. They are more likely rulers of a complex chiefdom that covered all of Lower Nubia. This chiefdom was on a scale much larger than scholars supposed prior to Pustule’s discovery. This in turn suggests a process of political devel­opment was underway from which emerged, a few centuries later, what might be Nubia’s first known state.

The First Nubian Kings?

Polities with a population substantial­ly exceeding 100,000 would normally be called states, and their rulers, kings, not chiefs. Such kings may have existed in Nubia as early as 2250 B., at the time of the emergence of the C-Group and Kenna cultures.

Egypt, itself only recently formed into a national state, expelled the A-Group people from Lower Nubia by 2900 B.C. It maintained the region as a largely empty buffer zone except for, after 2520 B.C., a few strategically located centers. During this period. Egypt trad­ed with hut also raided Upper Nubia, according to reliefs depicting captured prisoners in pharaoh Sahure’s funerary temple (2458-2446 B.C.). Upper Nubia already had rulers, perhaps even a pant-mount ruler.

The archaeology of Upper Nubia is poorly known until 2400 B.C., after which we find people of two strongly different material cultures, labeled C-Group and Derma-Group, coexisting there. In shape and decoration C-Group and Derma-Group pottery were very different (Figs. 4, 5). Their tombs were also dissimilar: C-Group people built stonemasonry, circular tomb super­structures, while the Kerma-Group pre­ferred earthen tumuli (see Fig. 8 in Alexander’s article, this issue). The C-Group probably descended from the A-Group people who had fled south, the Derma-Group. from an Upper Nubian “Pre-Derma” people.

Lower Nubia was eventually resettled by C-Group people (after 2390 B..). but Egyptian expeditions continued to traverse both that land and Upper Nubia, trading Egyptian products for incense, ebony, panther skins, elephant tusks, and other materials. During this time, Egyptian sources tell us, the Nubians were organized under rulers: the relatively modest tombs of these rulers at places like Anibeh in Lower Nubia and Kerma in Upper may not be accurate reflections of their power. which might have been considerable. Were these rulers chiefs, each indepen­dent of the other, or were they in some cases kings—leaders of small states—with the other rulers being their agents?

Most scholars think the first situation more likely, but Egyptian sources on early Nubia suggest the second was possi­ble. Harkhuf, an intrepid Egyptian ex­pedition leader, re­lates that by 2240 B.C. the Nubian poli­ties of Wawa, Irtjet, and Setju had united under a single ruler. Most scholars believe this process involved only Lower Nubia. producing at best a complex chiefdom. But if both Lower and Upper Nubia were in­volved, as is possible, the result would be a polity about 1100 kilometers long with a population well in excess of 100,000, and a polity this size, ac­cording to anthro­pological distinctions, would be a state, not a chiefdom.

Despite subse­quent conflict with Egypt, this Nubian state may have contin­ued until about 2000 B.., while Egypt fragmented into com partitive northern and southern king­doms. Advocates of a center and periph­ery model could argue that the emergence of either state or chiefdom was due to contact with Egypt, but on present evidence, internal Nubian dy­namics were just as likely to be the decisive factor.

The Kingdom of Kush

By 2000 B.C., Egypt succeeded in forcibly reoccupying Lower Nubia. The C-Group people, inherently warlike and experienced in siege craft due to long service in the Egyptian army, resisted invasion and could only be rendered subordinate by means of powerful Egyptian fortresses built throughout their land (Fig. 10).

Throughout most of the Egyptian occupation, the C-Group were excluded from the fortified towns, but else­where interaction between Nubians and Egyptians was significant. For exam­ple, Wegner’s recent study (nod.) of a C-Group “village” excavated by The Uni­versity Museum in 1901 has shown it was occupied by Nubian soldiers and their families, together with the Egyptians who officered them (Fig. 8).

Upper Nubia, known as Kush by its then inhabitants, remained independent while Kerma-Group culture underwent important developments. Vercoutter, Gratien and Bonnet have much expand­ed our knowledge of this culture and identified two “central places” (sites of greater regional importance than others) at Sai and Kerma (O’Connor 1994). Cemeteries here and elsewhere reveal a highly stratified society, with graves vary­ing greatly in size and in lavishness of offerings (Figs. 1, 9). Militarism is an omnipresent feature (Fig. 11): early Kerma-Group burials include those of many bowmen, burials of a middle phase often have daggers, and males in the final, “Classic” phase typically were buried with a short bronze sword (Fig. 12).

At Dermit itself, Charles Bonnet’s recent excavations have revealed a sub­stantial town. Its central core (6 hectares, or about 15 acres) contained a large tem­ple, a circular “royal audience hall,” a palace and many elite houses, the whole ringed by a 30 foot high, fortified town wall (O’Connor 1994). Extramural settle­ments expanded the town to about 25 hectares, making Kerma-because of its size and important functions—the earli­est known city in Africa outside of Egypt.

Scholars differ as to the political status of Upper Nubia at this time. Extant Egyptian texts can be interpreted as showing Upper Nubia divided up among several small chiefdoms that slowly and imperfectly coalesced into a state by 1100 B.C. But an alternative reading suggests Upper Nubia was orga­nized as a state as early as 2000 B.C.with a capital at Kerma and subeapitids at Sai and perhaps Bugdumhush.

Certainly, throughout the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 B.C.) Egypt felt threatened by Kush. Despite strong trad­ing relationships, Egypt attempted to intimidate Kush by periodic attacks, to little avail. Indeed, in ca. 1870 B.C. the Egypto-Kushite frontier was heavily fortified, as if in anticipation of Kushite attacks on Egyptian-held Lower Nubia. Kush was certainly increasing in strength, and by 1100 B.C. was ruled by a Nubian dynasty of great power and wealth. Its rulers were buried at Derma under enor­mous tumuli about 300 feet across.

Eventually, these kings did conquer Lower Nubia, and the Egyptians officials within its fortresses transferred their loyalty from Egypt to Kush. Inscriptions set up by these officials record the ser­vices they provided the “ruler of Kush.” These are the earliest known inscriptions set up on behalf of an African ruler out­side of Egypt (see Alexander’s article, this issue).

While Kushite or Derma-Group culture shows some Egyptian influence, its political independence from Egypt and pre-existing social complexity sug­gests the center and periphery model may not he appropriate here. Soon, how­ever, this model does become much more relevant.

Cite This Article

O'Connor, David. "Chiefs or Kings?." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 2 (July, 1993): -. Accessed February 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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