Ancient Nubia is a Roman name denoting the area extending from the southern area of modern Egypt into the northern part of modern Sudan, roughly from Aswanto Khartoum. Brighton & Hove Museums’ collections hold objects from Ancient Nubia from excavations by Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862-1934). Griffith was from a local Brighton family and has a pre-eminent place in Egyptology. He began his career with Flinders Petrie and became Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford. Upon his death he bequeathed funds to establish an institute for the study of ancient Egypt at Oxford and the Griffith Institute remains one of the major Egyptological centres in the world today.
In the early 1900s, Griffith began excavations at two sites in Nubia: Sanam and Faras. At Faras, which is just within the southern border of modern Egypt, he discovered burials which contained evidence of some of the very early contact between Egypt and Nubia (3500-3000 BC). One significant piece from this period in the collection is a cosmetic palette which still has traces of ground green eye-paint on the surface. Although palettes have been found quite often in Egyptian and Nubian graves, the preservation of the cosmetic is rare and suggests that this was a personal possession of the tomb owner.
Egypt and Nubia
Egypt was keen to maintain contact with Nubia and determined to control access to Nubian gold mines. Much of Egypt’s wealth derived from these mines and many later New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) tomb scenes show Nubians bringing tribute to the Pharaoh, often featuring objects of Nubian gold. During that period, the office of ‘Viceroy of Kush’ was instituted as head of the administration of Nubia and the title-holder was one of the most important officials of the time. One figure of particular note was the viceroy, Mery-mose, appointed by the pharaoh Amenhotep III. A funerary cone, architecture from his tomb, is stamped with hieroglyphs of his name and title.
After the New Kingdom, the control by the Egyptians began to wane and in turn the power of local leaders began to increase. By the time of the 25th Dynasty (747-656 BC), these Nubian rulers had taken control of Egypt. Interestingly, they often chose to emulate Egyptian pharaonic style and many of the objects of this period retain a heavy Egyptian influence. From the name of the religious centre at Napata, this period is often referred to as the Napatan Period.
Griffith excavated a number of objects from this crucial period from the cemetery at Sanam, including pottery and jewellery, which demonstrate this cultural influence. Sanam is located in modern Sudan.
Nubian control of Egypt ended with the 26th Dynasty but within Nubia itself rulers retained considerable power. Still continuing their cultural assimilation to the Egyptians, the kings were buried in small pyramids, with Egyptian-style funerary equipment. However, from the beginning of the 3rd century BC onwards the kings were buried at Meroe and this is seen as the beginning of the Meroitic Period. Although cultural similarities continued there were some notable changes. From about the 2nd century BC, recording of texts in Egyptian hieroglyphs gave way to a local Meroitic script. The first inspired breakthrough in translating this alphabetic script was by Griffith. Although some progress has been made, Meroitic texts still remain largely untranslatable.
Significance of the Sudanese Collection
The collection is significant from a local history perspective as Griffith was such a notable local figure.
In addition, the standard of documentation of the material Griffith excavated is extremely high. Many objects can be traced not only to a specific burial but also to a specific location within the burial. For example, jewellery found around the neck or anklets at the feet.
Brighton & Hove Museums is one of only two dozen museums in the UK to hold excavated Sudanese artefacts, which are mostly in the major university or national collections.
This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website.