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'The end of Meroe' - a comment on the paper by Patrice Lenoble & Nigm el Din Mohammed Sharif.

Issue is taken with the view offered in a 1992 ANTIQUITY paper of the later history of this Sudanese kingdom

The paper 'Barbarians at the gates? the royal mounds of El Hobagi and the end of Meroe' (Lenoble & Sharif (1992) in ANTIQUITY 66: 626-34) contains sufficient problems as to call for response.

We have been concerned with excavation at the town site of Meroe and studied the history and archaeology of the Meroitic state for many years; we consider that Lenoble & Sharif have confused many issues and suggested hypotheses which go far beyond what the material, archaeological evidence supports.

The excavation at Hobagi seems to have been skillful and careful but the description of how it proceeded is very obscure, and the plan, since it has no legend nor description, hardly helps. It is not clear what is meant by 'partial stratigraphic trenches' nor by the statement 'pillage of Tumulus VI had been viewed from the outside'. The description of the 'shield ring' is very difficult to follow, and the drawing in figure 5 is not clear. It stretches imagination to see in this battered piece of bronze the depiction of a Roman emperor, or to suggest that it claims 'recognition by Rome', whatever that implies. It is suggested, on the evidence of this piece and of an unillustrated bronze medallion 'perhaps copied from a Roman coin', that the region of Meroe may have been under vassalage to Rome. This stretches the bounds of possibility beyond what is reasonable and, from what we know of the Roman empire in the 4th and 5th centuries, seems most unlikely.

The main issues are chronology, the significance of large mound burials with rich grave furniture and their relevance for the history of the central Sudan in the period following the last royal pyramid burials in the North Cemetery at Meroe.


Little is said about chronology other than that the pottery in the graves implies a 4th-century AD date and one 14C date of AD 340-564 (GiF-7199 1600|+ or -~50 b.p.). This date seems reasonable to us and congruent with what we know about the dating of late Meroitic times. The complicated chronology of the Meroitic state need not be gone into in detail -- suffice to say that it depends largely on a hypothetical seriation of royal burials, on the dates of objects imported from the Graeco-Roman world, and on stratigraphic excavations at the central town, the 'capital' of the state, at Meroe. It is also -- not unreasonably, but perhaps wrongly -- often supposed that the inscription of king Aezanes at Axum describes an attack on Meroe; it certainly deals with military activities in the central Sudan and is to be dated to the middle of the 4th century AD. The presence of two fragments of Axumite inscriptions and one coin at Meroe certainly suggests that the Axumites were in the area. In any case, the Axumite inscription conventionally marks the end of occupation at Meroe. The large mound burials

The main thrust of Lenoble & Sharif seems to be that Meroitic culture and perhaps, though this is not clear, the Meroitic state and the power of Meroitic rulers did not come to an end with the last of the royal pyramids, but was continued by warrior kings buried under the massive tumuli at Hobagi. They say (1992: 629):

The replacement of the pyramid by the tumulus would be no more than a secondary occurrence, probably of a religious nature

though in the section 'Gambling on a discovery' (1992: 626-9) they say:

the renovated superstructure of the imperial burial is unmistakable |sic!~ evidence of a dynastic change and the restoration of the political system of 'divine kingship'.

This is confusing and obscure -- what is the renovated superstructure and why is it evidence for change and restoration? These two statements seem contradictory, and the main theme of the argument that there was no change. To us it seems that tumulus burial of rulers, or chiefs, marks a considerable change from the Meroitic practice of building pyramids with chapels.

There is a long tradition of tumulus or mound burial in the Sudan going back to at least c. 2000 BC; it would be equally reasonable to suggest that the Hobagi mounds, as well as others at Tangasi and Firka and at Ballana in Egyptian Nubia, are memories of that tradition and perhaps the burials of local rulers. This tradition seems to have ended, at least in the Nile valley, with the coming of Christianity in the 6th century AD.

There is a problem with interpreting Hosh el Kafir as the site of an 'imperial residence'. No description of it is given -- to the best of our knowledge it is a large dry stone rectangular enclosure, which has been shown to contain neither interior detail nor the domestic material that might suggest a dwelling. The interpretation of the funeral rite based on the objects found in the grave of Tumulus VI is an ingenious, perhaps brilliant, attempt -- but it can be no more than a suggestion. The use of objects is stated with conviction when it can only be supposition -- a small glass jar may have contained perfume, but we cannot know that, nor can we know that it was used as a censer in the funerary rites, nor can we know that other containers were used for milk, water and wine, nor that the bronze bowls indicate Isis worship. The authors also suggest that the finding of Meroitic bronze bowls is evidence for those buried in the tumuli being rulers of the Meroitic state. The presence of Meroitic bowls is important, and, if they are contemporary with the tumuli, provides some backing for a theory of cultural continuity. But could they not equally well be loot from an earlier tomb or from the Meroe town site? Incidentally, how many people not familiar with the Sudan will know what a daluka is? It is a Nubian word, borrowed into Sudan Arabic, for a small drum beaten with the hand, and on the Tumulus VI bowl it can be seen to be hung from the neck of the drummer. The 'royal mark' certainly appears to be such, and reference might have been made to Dunham's (1965) discussion.

Lenoble & Sharif also suggest that to speak of the 'end of Meroe' is incorrect: there was nothing to be attributed to politics or war which caused such an event,; instead there was 'a continuous evolution over the 4th and 5th centuries |AD~, leading the same Nilotic peoples from one political system to another'. (Nilotic is an unfortunate term, since it has come to have a specific meaning, referring to such people of the southern Sudan as Shilluk, Dinka, Nuer etc. and their languages.)

The interpretation of archaeological material and the drawing of historical information from it is always difficult, and any conclusions should be hedged with 'probably', 'possibly', 'perhaps' -- disappointing though this may be for those who wish for certainty or to push through new interpretations. Interpretation of the Hobagi mounds seems to have gone far what is reasonable, and states much as fact which is only hypothesis. The present generally accepted view of the end of Meroitic rule, given in rather cautious terms in Shinnie (1967: 56) and Robertson (1992: 35-50), is markedly different. It is far from clear to us that the discovery of the Hobagi burials, important for the 4th-century AD history of the Meroe area, warrants this major change in interpreting the history.

There seems to us good evidence for the ending of the Meroitic state and Meroitic culture -- whether due to Aksumite invasion or not. Archaeological work at Meroe shows no signs of primary occupation after about the 4th century AD. There are clear signs of squatter occupation in the ruins of some temples, and excavations of temples M282 and KC101 revealed such evidence. Hearths were found in both these temples, as well as other material from domestic occupation, including a quantity of sorghum. Domestic occupation of temples strongly suggests that the buildings had lost their sacred function. We do not know the process which led to the decline of Meroitic religious authority, but we certainly have the evidence that demonstrates, very late in the history of the town, that a people lived there who are unlikely to have been believers in the traditional Meroitic religion. The temples also seem to have been destroyed after this period of domestic occupation, and temple M282 shows that there had been burning -- parts of charred logs were found.

In addition to this evidence for an end to urban culture at Meroe -- apart from the inscribed bowl in Hobagi Tumulus III -- it seems that Meroitic writing came to an end, perhaps also the language. Without written documents it is difficult to know what language was being spoken, but a few hundred years later Nubian was the main language of the Nile valley and there was no trace of the earlier Meroitic. It may be that these languages are distantly related, but they are certainly not the same.

At this time we think Meroe declined to the point that a power vacuum was created. Local chiefs vied with each other for power and for the riches of the semi-abandoned capital. The tumuli at Hobagi appear to be the burials of such chiefs, and many of the artefacts buried in the tumuli may represent war booty. Meroe was an urban, pre-industrial city. It contained a relatively stable population of different social classes: royal family, nobility, priests, scribes, skilled craftsmen, soldiers, farmers and labourers. It was a unique city for its time with an economy based on local agriculture, manufacture and long-distance trade for exotic items from the north and south. Although there is some evidence for continuous occupation in the area up to modern times, there is scant evidence of Meroitic culture after approximately AD 350. After that date, this stretch of the Nile reverted to a rural, perhaps largely pastoral economy. There is no evidence for urbanism, and pyramids were no longer constructed. The gods of Meroe passed from recorded memory, as did the language and the writing system, and the city itself came to an end.


DUNHAM, D. 1965. A collection of 'pot-marks' from Kush and Nubia, Kush 13: 131-47.

LENOBLE, P. & NIGM EL DIN MOHAMED SHARIF. 1992. Barbarians at the gates? the royal mounds of El Hobagi and the end of Meroe, Antiquity 66: 626-34.

ROBERTSON, J.H. 1992. History and archaeology at Meroe, in J. Sterner & N. David (ed.), An African commitment: 35-50. Calgary: University of Calgary Press. SHINNIE, P.L. 1967. Meroe -- a civilization of the Sudan. London: Thames & Hudson.

Patrice Lenoble(*) writes:

Sometimes the archaeologist is invited, for a brief period, to change jobs. Asked to make known to a wider public than his usual audience of specialists a somewhat surprising result, you see him stepping out of his territory and his library to attempt to summarize a decade of work. As the announcement has to be brief, anticipating fuller publication, the information is couched in language with double, even triple layers of meaning.

Thus cup HBG VI/1/16 (Lenoble & Sharif 1992: 631, figure 4) first illustrates a ritual interpretation as the recipient of a water libation. It refers also to an unspoken fact for Meroiticians: an almost identical cup exists, long since published, whose distant Egyptian origin illuminates its function as interpreted: frogs and lotus flowers symbolize rebirth, obtained by the sacramental gesture of pouring out the water from the Nile. And it reveals the humour of choosing to publish HBG VI/1/16 first, before other documents: the only comparable cup was found in Ethiopia, not in the kingdom of Meroe, and from Ethiopia came the presumed destroyers of that kingdom. The authors risk giving pawns to their contradictors.

Another example, the drum in figure 3 (Lenoble & Sharif 1992: 631), also explicitly illustrates the religious interpretation of the obsequies (1992: 630). An implicit reading refers back to the distant Egyptian origin of the object. Specialists immediately identify its first known appearance in Sudan, more than 1000 years before HBG VI/1/21, in a religious scene. They call to mind Meroitic religious usage from these objects. They remember the real object found in a 'post-Meroitic' tomb at Qustul, and conclude that, as at el Hobagi, the drum's purpose can with certainty be supposed to be religious. Humour gives a third reading: the term daluka is taken from an 'ethnoarchaeological' text known to all Meroiticians, and the word is a disguised quotation. So much for the form.

In the forthcoming publication, we will justify our terminology, which it is not futile, but premature, to criticize now. An insoluble question: can we already confront the Hobagi experience with the Meroe experience when neither excavation is fully published? The el Hobagi bronzes are missing from Shinnie & Robertson as much as the description of the ruin and domestic occupation of Meroitic temples M 282 and KC 101 are missing from Lenoble & Sharif.

As for the substance, these first unfavourable comments on the (very relative) upheaval of historiographic tradition anticipate a debate to be held in 1996, at the next Meroitic conference in London. Thanks to Professor Shinnie, among other specialists, Lenoble has been burdened with revealing at that time the new evidence gathered over 10 years in the area, and with advancing his arguments for revising our ideas about the 'End of Meroe'. Apparently, the debate will be heated. And thus profitable, when new facts and the reasoning they give rise to are revealed, and when terms and work methods are defined in common. It will be up to the conference to confront traditional theories with new, to correct the latter and modify the former.

In the meantime, Meroiticians should count the rising number of tumuli yielding Meroitic material (which only prejudice, which cannot be verified archaeologically, interprets as booty) and should note the number of pyramids yielding post-Meroitic stuff! The chapels attached to the Qustul tumuli, recently published (Williams 1991), escaped the excavators of the 1930s, and demand adaptation of the traditional theory which from now on they contradict. The 50 or so liturgical bronzes from el Hobagi demand it no less: if they were pillage from Meroe (where is the proof of that?), then was it or was it not with the intention of kitting out a Meroitic funerary ceremony?

To end with, an observation in the form of a puzzle with two or three meanings. In a 'post-Meroitic' royal tomb in Nubia, Ballana 118, the sovereign's crown, interpretable as part of Meroitic symbolism (Torok 1987), was next to a 'silver object, the purpose of which is unknown. Cup-shaped, with a flat rim, the top is surmounted with a carnelian set in silver' (Emery & Kirwan 1938: 153). New theory adapts a term from Greek pottery and calls this object a mastos, likening this receptacle to the shape of a breast, first to recognize a libation of milk. It associates it with the near-by bronze basin, but mostly with the cow buried near the deceased. Lastly it reveals the Meroitic ritual of the divine nursing of the king's personage. An ingenious, perhaps brilliant, inter-pretation? It will be for the London conference to decide, from the account and the reasoning which will be put forward. The usefulness and worth of a new theory are only proven by the richness of its results. * IFAPO, PO Box 11-1424, Beirut, Lebanon.


EMERY, W. & L. KIRWAN. 1938. The royal tombs of Ballana and Qustul. Cairo: Service des Antiquities de l'Egypte.

TOROK, L. 1987. The royal crowns of Kush: a study in Middle Nile Valley regalia and iconography in the 1st millennia bc and ad. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. International series 338. Cambridge Monograph in African Archaeology 18.

WILLIAMS, B.B. 1991. Noubadian X-group remains from royal complexes in cemeteries Q and 219 and from private cemeteries Q, R, V, W, B, J and M at Qustul and Ballana. Chicago (IL): Oriental Institute. Nubian Expedition 9.
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Title Annotation:includes reply; response to P. Lenoble and Nigm el Din Mohammed Sharif, Antiquity vol.66, p.626
Author:Shinnie, P.L.; Robertson, J.H.
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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