Tomb in northern Sudan aptly presents the ‘cultural entanglement’ of Egyptians and Nubians

Sudan_Tomb_Cultural_Entanglement_Egyptians_Nubians_1Ramesses II (reigned 1279–1213 BC) in his war chariot charging into the Nubians.

According to most historical traditions, the Kingdom of Kush (led by king Piye) invaded Egypt, and successfully controlled Egypt during 8th century BC. In fact, this ancient African Nubian kingdom’s sway over its northern neighbor lasted for almost a century before another foreign power in the form the mighty Assyrians toppled their Egyptian dominions. However the scope of relations between Nubia (the land encompassing present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt) and Egypt had existed long before that – with the ancient Egyptians under the New Kingdom (circa 1532–1070 BC) initially asserting their superiority in arms over the contemporary Nubian kingdom of Kerma. An effect of such back-and-forth wars, colonization and even trade was interestingly mirrored by the population of Upper Nubia. To that end, archaeologists have been able to analyse a fascinating tomb found in this region (east of the Nile River), and the female occupant was found to be buried with both Egyptian and Nubian influences.

According to the researcher team (from both UC Santa Barbara and Purdue University), this buried woman in question demonstrates the historical ambit of ‘cultural entanglement’. In fact, the burial ground was located in the village of Tombos (in northern Sudan), and it dates from around 1500 BC, the very same time frame when ancient Egyptians under the New Kingdom conquered most of Nubia. As Stuart Tyson Smith, a professor of archaeology and chair of the Department of Anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, made it clear –

You get this really interesting entangled culture blending different elements in really different ways, but also there seems to be a lot of individual choice involved. It’s not just a matter of the two cultures mash up and then you get this new hybrid thing that’s consistent. There seems to be a lot of individual choice — whether or not you want a Nubian bed and/or an Egyptian coffin and/or to be wrapped like a mummy or whether or not you want an Egyptian-style amulet and/or Nubian ivory jewelry.


A duck censor excavated from a tomb in Tombos in 2015. Credit: UC Santa Barbara.

To that end, in this tomb itself, the woman was buried in a Nubian style with her body being rested on a bed (in a flexed position on her side). However at the same time, she wore amulets around her neck depicting the Egyptian god Bes, a deity worshiped as a protector of households (including mothers during childbirth). This scope of cultural entanglement treads the ‘two-way street’ with both the colonizers (the Egyptians in this case) and the indigenous people (the Nubians) influencing each other. This contrasts with the conventional notion where the colonizers enforce their direct culture on the native populace.

Michele Buzon, a bio-archaeology expert from the Purdue University, has further extensively studied various manners of cranio-facial features, by assessing skeleton specimens and complementary burial rites. The team of Smith and Buzon were then able to establish a pattern where cultural entanglement in the Tombos area proceeded to such a degree that the native population (now heavily intermarrying with the Egyptian colonists) almost totally shifted to a whole new cultural identity. According to these experts, this incredible scope resulted in a local society where descendants of the Nubians considered themselves more culturally authentic Egyptian than even the ancient Egyptian rulers. As Smith explained –

We’re looking at the social dynamic from which those Nubian pharaohs emerged, and how that blended culture might have contributed to the cultural dynamic that allowed the pharaohs to come in, not just as conquerors, but as the legitimate restorers of the proper order of things in a decadent time. That’s exactly how they presented it.

So simply put, cultural pluralism led to the transferring of authentic Egyptian culture (or at least the local Nubians perceived so) in these regions, thus allowing for a unique dynamic that sort of ‘reversed’ ethnic and cultural exchange in the coming centuries – like when the (Nubian) Kingdom of Kush successfully invaded Egypt during 8th century BC. As Smith added –

What we’re looking at is a more nuanced model of Egyptian and Nubian culture entangling, and how individual choices drive this kind of ethnic and cultural change, and ultimately enable these Nubian pharaohs to take over. The local people, and the colonists coming from Egypt who become locals over time, are driving the trajectory of the civilization as much as larger policies of colonial Egypt or, later on, these emerging pharaohs. That goes over very well with the local population. They like that idea. It’s not just Egypt imprinting their culture on Nubia; the local people are really influencing things and making it possible for the Nubians to eventually rule Egypt.

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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