Intercultural Communication: Egypt and Nubia c. 2543-1076BC

By Carl Graves

Egypt’s involvement in Nubia is a topic much studied by Egyptologists over the last century. However, Nubia’s influence over Egypt is less well considered. Nevertheless, the reciprocal nature of the contact between these two geographic regions is worthy of investigation. Upon receiving a selection of objects on loan from the Eton College Joseph William Myers Collection last year, the first object that caught my eye was the faience head of a Nubian (ECM822). This object provoked me to choose this topic for display in the ‘Connections’ exhibition. On closer inspection, the collection contained other tems specific to Nubian culture, including four fragments of Pan Grave pottery; providing a corpus of material from which the subject of Nubian and Egyptian interaction can be discussed.

The Nile: An Interactive Highway.

Nubia is a region stretching south from the area around the First Cataract (the traditional southern border of Egypt) into modern Sudan (fig.1). Traditionally the area was divided into Lower (Northern) and Upper (Southern) Nubia, just like Egypt, these were named Wawat and Kush respectively. Unlike Egypt however, the region was not united under one common culture for much of its early history. Instead we can discern three specific groups of people; the A and C-Groups,1 the Pan Grave people2 and the Kushites3 Each group had their own distinct cultural assemblage, customs and settlement sites, although there were also many common features which they shared – and from which they are now denoted as ‘Nubian’ cultures.



When compared to Egyptology, Nubiology is a relatively young discipline. Early excavations in Nubia focused on the Egyptian remains and often assigned Nubian ruins an Egyptian origin – mostly due to semi-racist and colonial views.4 During the salvation campaigns preceding the construction of the High Dam at Aswan in the 1960s, Nubian monuments and remains were heavily excavated. Since then Egyptologists, and a new breed of Nubiologists, have been studying the excavation reports from these campaigns to further understand the relationship between these two northern African regions. The most recent findings at Kerma in Upper Nubia have brought to light an advanced Sudanese civilization which challenges past studies regarding Egyptian involvement in Nubia.5

Contact in Context.

The early unification of Egypt (c. 2900BC)6 is not mirrored in Nubia. The three Nubian populations continued to develop their individual cultural traditions and posed little threat to a united northern kingdom.

The Egyptian Old Kingdom rulers exploited Lower Nubian resources and people by establishing a small community at the site of Buhen.7 During the First Intermediate Period however, this presence disappeared.

The Middle Kingdom Pharaohs aimed to control all of Lower Nubia and succeeded in establishing a system of fortresses along the Nile up to the second cataract at Semna.8 While military in appearance, texts indicate that its primary role was to facilitate trade with the kingdoms of Central Africa – likely through the emerging kingdom of Kerma.9 During this period the Egyptians interacted very little with the local populations and Nubian sites exhibit very little Egyptian imports or cultural adaptations at this point.10

In the Second Intermediate Period there is evidence of a threatening southern power emerging. The prosperity gained by the kingdom of Kerma from contact with Egypt during the preceding centuries had helped it develop into a powerful Upper Nubian (Kushite) kingdom. An inscription recently translated in the tomb of Sobekhotep at El-Kab in Upper Egypt records an attack on his town by a Nubian army.11 We also know that during this period those governors remaining at the Egyptian fortresses in Lower Nubia were working for the ‘Ruler of Kush’, despite constructing temples to Egyptian deities.12 Clearly this period, while seen as a ‘dark age’ in Egypt, was one of prosperity and advancement for the kingdom of Kerma.

The campaigning Seventeenth and Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs ended this successful period and destroyed the city of Kerma.13 They finally established Egyptian rule over all Nubia and constructed huge ‘Temple Towns’ in the region,14 while regenerating the older Middle Kingdom forts.15 This period saw an acculturation between the Egyptians and Nubians,16 which secured Egyptian hegemony over Nubian culture for centuries after.


This period of contact between the two populations resulted in depictions of Nubians in Egyptian art – often very stereotypically. They are regularly shown with flat noses, thick lips and stern facial expressions. ECM822 is an exceptional example of this traditional Egyptian style (fig. 2 © IAA University of Birmingham). It depicts the head of a Nubian (broken from the neck down) made in Egyptian faience, with a suspension loop on the back of the neck. The hair is made into a cruciform pattern, highlighted by the application of black manganese paint, with holes drilled for earrings and a hair-ring to be inserted into the piece. A monkey has been fashioned on each shoulder, an animal traditionally associated with Nubian trading commodities. The modelling of ECM822 is stylistically similar to depictions in the New Kingdom Tomb of Huy, the Viceroy of Kush under Tutankhamun. A scene showing Nubians bringing tribute depicts them all in this typical Nubian style, which differentiates them from the native Egyptians also shown in the scene.17 One of the ‘Chieftains of Wawat’ portrayed bowing down in the tomb of Huy is named Hekanefer, Prince of Miam (modern Aniba). His tomb is located at Toshka East, where he is represented in an entirely Egyptian style.18 The adoption by Hekanefer of an Egyptian name and artistic style shows a desire for Nubians to adapt, whether through personal ambition or force, to the styles of their northern overlords. However, this stereotypical image is maintained in Egypt throughout the pharaonic period.

The Pan Grave Culture.

While Kerma grew in importance during the Second Intermediate period in Upper Nubia, the Pan Grave people were adapting to different situations in Lower Nubia. The Pan Grave people were so-named by William Flinders Petrie because of their shallow circular burial pits,19 often characterised by their distinguishable pottery.  The weakening of the traditional Egypto-Nubian border during the decentralisation of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period allowed the Pan Grave nomadic groups to migrate north and into Upper Egypt.20 They appear to have originated from the Eastern Deserts of Sudan and perhaps as far away as the Red Sea21 but settled in Egypt at various points along the Nile during the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period, as far north as Middle Egypt.22

Balabish: Nubians in Egypt.

3-ECM1947Balabish is just one place where Pan Grave burials have been found. Excavated in 1915 by Wainwright for the American branch of the Egypt Exploration Society,23 much of the finds were disseminated across institutions in the United States – however, a few fragments of the Balabish pottery have been located in the Eton College Myers collection. Among these sherds are four which are clearly Pan Grave, distinguishable in the Balabish publication as B-ware types 3, 4 and 5 (due to their characteristic ‘collar’ rims, pl. XIV).  

 These sherds (ECM1944 and 1947, figs. 3 and 4) exhibit a smooth burnished black interior. The exteriors are also burnished red with a carefully applied blackening from the top to the depth of the modelled rim. All these sherds come from open vessels, which is a characteristic feature of Pan Grave assemblages. All closed forms found at Balabish, and other Pan Grave sites, are Egyptian in origin indicating that this group received their transported goods through communication with Egyptians in the Nile Valley. Those closed forms found at Balabish are of an Upper Egyptian origin probably from the Theban area.24

4-ECM1944Petrie dated the Pan Grave culture to the Second Intermediate Period and further research has proven this chronology.25 Using Bourriau’s analysis of the Kamose texts it can be postulated that the area of Balabish was under the jurisdiction of the Theban rulers during this period.26 That the closed form Egyptian pots found at the site were of an Upper Egyptian type is therefore unsurprising. Other scholars have shown that the Pan Grave people could be equated with the Medjay of later texts and were perhaps employed by the Hyksos and Thebans as mercenaries.27 Bourriau’s theory promoted the idea that they were in fact used to guard the border between the two kingdoms.28

Our Pan Grave pottery therefore indicates the cultural wares that distinguish this group from Egyptians buried in other nearby cemeteries. But the Egyptian imports found with them indicate an intercultural connection between the two groups – in this case as payment.

Evidence for the Pan Grave culture is not found in Egypt after the Eighteenth Dynasty. There could be many reasons for this, such as: the Pan Grave people were no longer needed following unification and so returned to their Nubian heartland, they became casualties of the unification battles, or their material culture changed. This final theory is one that wins favour with the other sites such as Mostagedda and Riffeh.29 During the campaigns of the Seventeenth Dynasty Theban rulers the Pan Grave people likely determined the strength of the Hyksos-Theban border. Once they switched sides to the Thebans (as is shown at Mostagedda) the Upper Egyptians had a clear path to the Hyksos capital of Avaris in the Delta.30 At this point an increasing amount of Egyptian pottery types and other goods (such as kohl tubes and jewellery) can be seen in the Pan Grave burials.31 This, together with changing funerary practices, indicates an Egyptianisation of the Pan Grave people and greater interaction between this cultural group and the local Egyptian neighbours in the Nile Valley.32

But was this development one-way? Did the Egyptians adopt any Nubian traditions?

Reciprocal Communication.

Egypto-Nubian interaction during the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period is a very complex topic. The Egyptians exercised a strong military presence in Nubia itself, but Nubians migrating into Egypt during the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period indicate that control of the population was not the primary role of the fortress system. Burials in Egypt from the Second Intermediate Period have been found to contain the distinctive ‘Kerma Classique’ beaker ware, with a highly polished red, black-topped exterior with flaring rims.33 While some of these may be Kerma people settling in Egypt, another theory could be that these burials belong to wealthy Egyptians who saw these objects as prestige pieces – no doubt due to their technological beauty.

Another possible adoption from this period is the controversial theory of a Nubian origin for the god Bes, a bow legged dwarf god believed to protect women and children, particularly during childbirth. He was a prominent domestic deity and depictions of Bes appear frequently in urban contexts. Bes was initially assigned a Nubian origin because of titles he is given at the Roman temple of Dendera, where he is named ‘Lord of Punt’.34 Romano showed in 1980 that this origin is almost certainly wrong. ‘Bes-images’ have been found in Egypt dating to the early Middle Kingdom and are stylised from the image of a lion on its hind legs.35 Bes himself is likely an amalgamation of various apotropaic dwarf deities, such as Aha (‘the fighter’). However, Romano points out that during the reign of Amenhotep II the Bes-image adapts the once leonine features of the god into a more anthropomorphic form – but gives no reason as to why this could be.36 A finely crafted amulet of this later form of Bes can be seen in ECM1666 (fig. 5). The features of the god now exhibit the flatter nose and thicker lips often associated with depictions of Nubian’s during this period (as we saw in ECM822).

5-ECM1666ECM1666 shows Bes standing with the traditional bow-legs and mane-like beard adopted from the leonine image. However, the clearly human eyes, nose and mouth date the piece stylistically to the New Kingdom or later, as do the plumed headdress and muscular limbs. The plumed headdress has before been likened to the headdress worn by Anukis, a goddess worshiped at the First Cataract region and also associated with Nubia.37 

While I have no doubt that the Bes-image in its earliest form is an Egyptian creation, likely modelled on the figure of a lion on hind legs, I believe that the adoption of Nubian traits into the figure of Bes should be taken into account. The early New Kingdom rulers engaged in wars with the Nubian kingdom of Kush and were also instigating an acculturation and interaction policy within their southern colonies. The influx of Nubians into Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period can also not be discounted. The increasing contact between the two cultures and changes in the ethnic demography within Egypt could be to blame for the changes seen at the time in the Bes-image.

An Interactive Legacy.

Egypto-Nubian relations did not end after the New Kingdom. Nubia continued to grow as an economic power, especially in the south around Gebel Barkal. During the Late Period (c. 753) Pi(ankh)y, ruler of this region, campaigned North into Egypt overthrowing the local rulers of the Nile Delta, establishing the 25th Dynasty.38 This dynasty of kings ruled Egypt and Nubia for the next 100 years continually adapting and combining the two, now almost inseparable, cultures.

Contact between Nubia and Egypt clearly resulted in the transfer of traditions and development of iconographic styles. There is no other way to explain why finds at Meroe, 1500km by Nile (850km direct) south of the First Cataract, are unmistakably Egypto-Nubian hybrid in style. The topics of Nubiology and Egyptology both deserve their separate disciplines, but a multidisciplinary approach should be used, as I have here, to better understand how these cultures interacted.  


1. The C Group were descended from the A Group who disappeared from records during the Egyptian Old Kingdom; Kendall 2007: 405.

2. The Pan Grave people were a group of ‘semi-nomadic cattle breeders’, Bourriau 1981: 30.

3. The Kushites were usually labelled ‘Nehesy’ by the Egyptians. They settled around the city of Kerma in Upper Nubia; Edwards 2004: 75.

4. These views persisted for many years in Egyptology, as exemplified by the publication of Reisner’s excavations at Kerma. He assumed that Kerma was an Egyptian outpost where intermarriage between Egyptians and Nubians had resulted in racial degeneration; Reisner 1923: 556.

5. The most recent excavations at the New Kingdom site of Doukki Gel have found three Egyptian temples alongside a contemporary circular mud brick Nubian temple; Bonnet 2009: 14.

6. All dates in this essay follow Hornung et al. 2006: 490-495.

7. There is evidence of Egyptians taking Nubians as slaves to Egypt while also exploiting gold reserves; Emery 1963: 116.

8. Kemp 2007: 231.

9. Various sources add to our understanding of the Middle Kingdom fort system. The Semna Dispatches imply that military monitoring aided a trading network (Smither 1945) – the stelae of Senwosret III erected at Semna during years 8 and 16 also imply this; Lichtheim 1973: 119 and S. Smith 1991: 126. Kemp sees the system as a grain supply route to aid military campaigns further south; Kemp 1986: 128. The kingdom of Kerma may be equated to the historic location of Yam, mentioned in Old Kingdom sources; Kendall 2007: 406.

10. S. Smith 1997: 67.

11. Davies 2003: 53.

12. Stela Philadelphia 10984 recounts how Sepedhor (Goevernor of Buhen) constructed a temple to Horus, Lord of Buhen ‘to the satisfaction of the Ruler of Kush’; Säve-Söderbergh 1949: 55 and H. Smith 1976: 56.

13. Inscriptions of Tuthmosis I by the Fifth Cataract show that the kingdom of Kerma was defeated by his reign; Arkell 1955: 83-84. The autobiography of Ahmose, son of Abana, also records the military campaigns of this pharaoh in Nubia; Lichtheim 1976: 14.

14. Soleb and Sesebi are examples of Temple Towns established by Amenhotep III and IV respectively; Kemp 1972: 651.

15. S. Smith 1995: 137. A stela of Kamose dated to year 3 of his reign also indicates building work at the site of Buhe; H. Smith 1976: 8.

16. Frandsen 1979: 169.

17. Davies and Gardiner 1926: Plate XXVII.

18. Simpson 1963: Figure 7.

19. Petrie 1901: 45.

20. Bourriau 1981: 30.

21. Edwards 2004: 100-101.

22. Rifeh is the northern extent of Pan Grave pottery finds (with the exception of an isolated sherd from Kahun, Kemp 1977); Bourriau 1981: 27.

23. Wainwright 1920: 35-52.

24. Bourriau 1981: 30.

25. Petrie 1901: 48.

26. Bourriau 1999: 44.

27. Edwards 2004: 99.

28. Bourriau 1999: 46.

29. Bourriau 1999: 46.

30. The attack on the Hyksos capital is recorded in the Kamose stelae; H. Smith and A. Smith 1976: 60.

31. Increasing Egyptian objects in Pan Grave burials at Balabish provoked Wainwright to propose that contact with Egypt was occurring; Wainwright 1920: 51. Second Intermediate Period Egyptian objects also occur in Pan Grave burials at Diospolis Parva; Petrie 1901: 47.

32. Bourriau 1999: 44.

33. The Kerma Classique beaker wares are so heavily polished that the fabric has a metallic sheen; Edward 2004: 85.

34. Altenmüller 1973: 721. Punt is often discussed in relation to the scene of a journey there represented on the walls of the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari – the exact location of Punt is unknown, but is certainly south of Egypt, perhaps along the coast of the Red Sea.

35. Romano 1980: 41-42.

36. Romano 1980: 46.

37. Bonnet 1952: 102.

38. Pi(ankh)y’s campaigns are recorded on a victory stela; Lichtheim 1980: 66-84.



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