. . . October 1995
|UNEARTHED FROM RUINS|
By John Woodford
"Africa has no history." Hegel’s disdainful remark has come down to us from the 18th century, echoed not only by contemporary scholars but even, according to The Haldeman Diaries, by a US president. Africa has long lain under the charge that no noteworthy ancient civilizations arose among the myriad Black societies that lived below its Mediterranean regions. The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s current three-month exhibition, "Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa," will go far toward correcting that misimpression.
The exhibition, which opened Sept. 29 and runs through Dec. 15, contains more than 230 objects that span the millennia from 3500 BC to 100 AD from a Black African civilization that arose immediately south of Egypt more than 5,000 years ago. The curator of the exhibition is David O’Connor, who headed the Egyptian section of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and is now at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.
Nubia’s northern region began at the site of the present-day Aswan Dam, and curled 868 miles down the Nile Valley. By 1700 BC, Nubians lived in sizable cities for those times, forming a class society comprising workers, farmers, priests, soldiers, bureaucrats and an aristocracy, and developing technological and cultural skills on a level with the other advanced civilizations of their day.
Nubia was known as the Kingdom of Kush in the Bible, and the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Nubia was renowned for its fair rulers and "pious and just" citizens. Nubia traded, conducted diplomacy and occasionally battled with Egyptians, Romans, Judeans and Assyrians. Nubia was colonized by Egypt from around 1500 to 1000 BC, but in 750 BC, the era of the Greek poet Homer, the Nubian King Piye turned the tables, conquering a weakened and disunited Egypt and becoming the first of several Nubian pharaohs who ruled a unified Egyptian and Nubian state for the next century.
Nubians produced and traded gold, ivory, incense, ebony, animal skins, grains, cattle, cotton and smelted iron. They controlled trade between Mediterranean lands and the African societies to the south and were middle men in the slave trade. Nubia, itself, however, O’Connor says, seems never to have served as any more significant source of slaves to Egypt than did nearby Semitic and West Asian lands.
Nubia’s fortunes rose and fell over the millennia, as all civilizations have done. Its last high point in ancient times was the state of Meroe (MAYR-o-way), a great cultural center whose scribes developed an alphabet around 180 BC to better express the Nubian language, which until then had been written with Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Meroitic alphabet is still largely undeciphered, and until linguists crack its code, the sizable number of remaining written records are inaccessible. O’Connor says once the linguistic puzzle has been solved, we’ll know more about the last days of ancient Nubia, which faded around 400 AD. In 500, Nubians turned from their own Egyptian-influenced religion to Christianity, and the region converted heavily to Islam a thousand years later.
Scholars began excavating northern Nubia (which in confusing scholarly parlance is called Lower Nubia because it lies on lower lands along the north-flowing Nile) in the first decade of this century. Yet this exhibition—which began in Philadelphia and visited Newark, Rochester and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC before coming to the Kelsey, and is bound next for Baltimore and Minneapolis—is the first major public presentation of Nubian history, culture and artifacts.
Why did Nubian history lie in general obscurity despite the consistent interest in it shown by generations of African American scholars? Ethnocentric bias played a big role in the underappreciation of Nubia, O’Connor says. In his catalog for the exhibit, he notes that many Western scholars have conveyed the idea that Nubia was either backward in comparison with Egypt and other societies of the time, or that Nubians borrowed all of their advanced technologies and ideologies from Egyptians. He cites as an example of "scholarly biases" the practice of translating the Egyptian words heka and wer as "ruler" or "king" when they are applied to heads of Near Eastern kingdoms or states, "but as ‘chief’ for the Nubian [leaders], although nothing in the text warrants the differentiation."
Peter Lacovera, an Egyptologist at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, told the Washington Post, "What we realize now is that the Nubians weren’t copying the Egyptians; they were innovators in their own right. In fact, they were often more innovative than the Egyptians in their use of different materials and in their artistic styles. Nubian ceramics were well beyond Egypt in technology and decoration." Nubians also built more pyramids than the Egyptians, although the Nubian version is smaller and has a flat rather than pointed top.
U-M Assoc. Prof. Thelma K. Thomas, an art historian and the Kelsey Museum’s associate curator, points out that George Reisner, who pioneered in Nubian archaeology with his excavations in the early 1900s of a 5,000-year-old Nubian royal cemetery, seems to have been unsettled by his discovery.
Reisner argued that the pottery he had unearthed represented a culture that must have been essentially Egyptian—that is, non-Black, according to the widespread view of that time of a hierarchy of races. He theorized that this original culture soon declined as a result of the "increasing change in the racial character of the people. The negroid element became dominant."
Reisner had to twist his argument through "a good deal of mental gymnastics," Thomas continues, when he attempted to account for facets of Nubian culture that were distinct from Egypt’s. She cites the following passage from his report:
"Thus a race was revealed which had only a political and geographical connection with Egypt. It was racially and culturally descended from the people living in the same place in the Old Kingdom. The Nubian race was negroid, but not negro; it was perhaps a mixture of the proto-Egyptian and a negro or negroid race, possibly related to the Libyan race. It lay outside the cultural influence of Egypt and, seeming to lack power or opportunity of self-culture, developed through several phases of the same quasi-Neolithic state in which we first find it."
Thomas, who is "fascinated by such historiography and by the still-growing accumulation of various versions of ancient Nubian history," says that today statements like Reisner "ought to leap out from the page as offensive as well as misguided." Versions of Nubia’s past are concocted not only by those who would belittle Nubia but also by those who seek to glorify it as a Golden Age state that gave birth to Egyptian civilization.
Some members of the African American community seize upon utopian depictions of ancient African societies as a corrective, however exaggerated or even erroneous, to the belittling versions of African cultures that arose as ideological justifications of the slave trade.
Thomas offers as an example of Afrocentric "popular re-imaginings" a comic book about an ancient Nubian super-hero, Heru, Son of Ausar, whose creator Roger Barnes includes a bibliography of African and African American historical interpretations of Nubia.
All over the globe versions of ancient history remain hotly contested by those who excuse or vindicate present policies on the basis of rights they claim through their interpretation of the past. American scholars have reported that some of their Egyptian colleagues think it is ludicrous to devote attention to ancient Nubia, which they have been taught to view as merely a poor country cousin of pharaonic Egypt.
It’s more surprising to hear that the Sudanese establishment, too, shows minimal interest in ancient Nubia. Sudanese archaeologists say that some leaders of the current Islamic state see little value in valorizing the achievements of "pagan" originators of their culture.
Nonetheless, Thomas emphasizes, African archaeologists and historians, including Egyptians and Sudanese, are now playing major roles in reconstructing and reinterpreting Nubian and other early African civilizations that now present the largest remaining uncharted territory for researchers into ancient life.
The Kelsey Museum is seizing upon this awakening interest by using the Nubian exhibition "to expand our own attention to Africa beyond Egypt and Tunis, two areas that are well represented in our collections and related research," says Becky Loomis, Kelsey’s education and development officer, who has arranged numerous events to acquaint U-M students, regional school systems and the local community with the exhibition. Meanwhile, Kelsey Assistant Curator Janet Richards is investigating additions of Nubian materials for Kelsey’s permanent exhibit.
Professor O’Connor will give a public lecture on the exhibition Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m., Auditorium C, Angell Hall. For other information, call (313) 747-0441.
Initial funding for "Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa" came from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Financial support was also provided by the University’s International Institute and the Office of the Vice President for Research. All images used in this article are from the exhibition catalog by David O'Connor and may not be reproduced without permission of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.