March 26, 2011

Pounders and quern

Before their visit to the town of Meroë, the African Expedition stopped to a less known locality, which was recorded by Henry Field with this paragraph in the 1949 Chronicles: 
About 2.5 miles slightly south of west of Hagar el-Mirwa our Rubatabi guide led us to a large ruined site, referred to on the map and locally as El Koneisa ("The Church"). Here thousands of sherds covered the continuous low mounds. We also collected many quartz pounders and a few fragmentary querns. The newly appointed Commissioner for Archeology, Peter L. Shinnie, who identified the pottery as third-fourth century Meroitic, deduced that this was no Christian church. The outer wall was of irregular outline with maximum dimensions of approximately 150 x 100 meters. The raised structure, now but rubble, in the northeast corner may have served as a watch-tower. Excavation would probably yield but little of significance except the ground plan.

Featured today are a few of the quartz pounders and one quern.
Peter L. Shinnie, who replaced A. J. Arkell as Commissioner for Archaeology and Anthropology in 1947, published many books and articles on his work in Sudan. It would be interesting to know if he agreed with Field upon the minor value of excavating El Koneisa or if the site was ever probed. Among the rubble Henry Field and colleagues noticed some petroglyps and despite their relevant weight they shipped two fragments to Berkeley. You can see them here.

Hearst Museum # 5-1006
Pounders, quartz
Africa; Sudan; El Koneisa
Collected by UC African Expedition, 1947-1948

Hearst Museum # 5-1021
Quern, fragment
Africa; Sudan; El Koneisa
Collected by UC African Expedition, 1947-1948

March 4, 2011


The ancient town of Meroë, in Sudan, had already been excavated for about thirty-five years when the University of California African Expedition was leaving Egypt and moving south through Sudan. In his 1949 chronicles, the anthropologist Henry Field wrote:
     during a brief stop at Meroë, we took some photographs and collected a series of sherds.
This fragment of a large decorated vessel is one of the sixty fragments that were collected from the surface that day. In the footnotes, Field specified that this town was:
     not to be confused with Merowe (Napata) on the bend of the Nile. [John] Garstang, who excavated here from 1909 to 1914, found the Temple of Amun, the baths and Temple of Aspert (circa 590 B.C.) and the Temple of the Sun mentioned by Herodotus. Reisner (1920-1925) excavated a cemetery of brick pyramids used about 355-300 B.C.
The origin of both towns is with the Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt whose pharaohs were Nubians and briefly ruled in the 8th century B.C. They left a trail of inscriptions where they portray themselves as the custodians of an "Egyptian" identity that they felt was being diluted by Asian influence. Their military enterprises against the Assyrians, however, failed to gain them a decisive victory and they were eventually defeated and driven back to their homeland. In the following centuries the capital - Napata - lost most of its appeal. Without the labor and skills of Egyptian artisans, the city infrastructures and bureaucracy started to crumble and the common people went quietly back to the previous way of life. The final demise of Napata as a power center is still matter of research.
Reisner's opinion was that the Meroitic culture was merely a continuation of the Napatan, originating after the transfer of the capital to Meroë and still unable to stop the decline of its past fortune. He dated the rise of the Meroitic kingdom to 308 B.C. but he also believed that  Nubian kings would return to be buried at Napata, which remained their sacred cradle for many decades afterward.
His interpretation and chronology had been variously challenged by other historians. One line of criticism came from the reading of Herodotus whose Histories have no mention of Napata while he wrote about "the great city of Meroë which is said to be the capital of the other Ethiopians (II, 29)". Since Herodotus was writing around 450 B.C. it made more sense to them to favor the establishment of Meroë as the royal palace and burial ground at 538 B.C.

One potsherd can tell a very long story.

Hearst Museum # 5-1004
Africa; Sudan; Meroë
Collected by UC African Expedition 1947-1948

John Garstang's field notes and collections are curated at the Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool.