For nearly 3,000 years a series of kingdoms flourished in ancient Nubia (present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan). The region was rich in sought-after resources such as gold and ivory and its trade networks reached Egypt, Greece, Rome, and central Africa. This exhibition presents highlights from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's extensive collection of Nubian objects and features superbly crafted jewelry, metalwork, and sculpture exhibiting the wealth and splendor of Nubian society.
Nubia—a region along the Nile River in present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan—was home to some of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa. This exhibition presents superbly crafted jewelry and other precious objects excavated in Sudan in 1913–32 by the joint Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. Most of the pieces come from royal and aristocratic burials, and all vividly display the splendor of ancient Nubian society.
Beginning around 2400 BC, a series of kingdoms dominated Nubia from successive capitals at Kerma, Napata, and Meroë. Collectively known as the Kingdom of Kush, they flourished during a period of nearly three thousand years, skillfully making use of their rich natural resources, location on key trade routes, and military strength. Throughout this time, close ties to Egypt, Nubia’s neighbor to the north, encouraged commercial and cultural exchanges but also led to conflict. Nubia was a place of artistic, religious, and political innovation, and its legacy of personal adornment as an expression of power and identity continues to resonate today.
The Kerma Period (about 2400–1550 BC)
Nubia’s Kingdom of Kush arose around 2400 BC at the city of Kerma (in present-day Sudan). It established trade relations with Egypt, the lands bordering the Red Sea, and northern Nubia, exchanging both raw materials and finished products. As Kerma grew, monumental mud brick buildings were constructed, along with a vast cemetery containing tens of thousands of burial mounds. The deceased were accompanied by rich assortments of objects and, in the largest tombs, by human and animal sacrifices. Desiring Nubia’s wealth and fearing its military power, the Egyptians invaded Kerma around 1550 BC and occupied the region for nearly five centuries.
The personal adornments discovered in the burials at Kerma were made from a variety of materials, including gold, silver, semiprecious stones, ivory, bone, and shells from the Red Sea. Nubian artisans also produced faience, a colorful glazed quartz-based ceramic long popular in Egypt. Some of these materials had religious or symbolic associations.
The Napatan Period (750–332 BC)
After the Egyptians withdrew from Nubia around 1000 BC, the indigenous Kingdom of Kush revived, now centered farther south along the Nile River at the city of Napata (in present-day Sudan). The sacred mountain of Gebel Barkal, located nearby, was the site of a great temple dedicated to the supreme god Amun, a ram-headed adaptation of the Egyptian deity. Napata grew very powerful, and around 725 BC King Piankhy invaded and seized Egypt. The Nubians ruled as pharaohs of Egypt until 653 BC, during a period known as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, and maintained their capital at Napata for centuries thereafter.
Nubian rulers were buried near Napata in tombs that often took the form of pyramids, although smaller and with different proportions than their Egyptian counterparts. They filled their burials with rich objects made of gold, silver, semiprecious stones, and faience (glazed quartz-based ceramic). These works frequently bear Egyptian imagery and hieroglyphic inscriptions, but many were crafted by Nubian artisans in a distinctive local style.
Queens of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty
Nubian royal women became more influential during the Napatan period. Female relatives of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty rulers were sent to Egypt to become high priestesses of the god Amun. At the Nubian court, queens presented themselves in sumptuous adornment. Several queens from the reign of King Piankhy (743-712 BC), the dynasty's founder, were buried with jewelry at a site now known as el-Kurru, near Napata. Finds from five of their tombs are displayed in the exhibition. Protective amulets from the burials reflect the influx of Egyptian religious ideas during the period of Nubian domination in Egypt. They typically represent deities, often Amun in the form of a ram's head and various goddesses associated with motherhood, such as Isis and Hathor. These objects were worn as pendants or as pectorals placed on the chest. Many were fashioned from faience, but others were made of more costly materials like gold, silver, and semiprecious stones.
The Meroitic Period (about 332 BC-about AD 350)
Soon after 600 BC, the Kushite kings of Nubia moved their administrative center from Napata to Meroë, farther south along the Nile River in present-day Sudan. Meroë was a cosmopolitan city connected to the complex trade networks of the Mediterranean, which were increasingly dominated by the Greeks and Romans. By around 300 BC, the city became the place for all royal burials. The remains of more than two hundred pyramid tombs have been discovered, many of which contained jewelry and ornaments of exceptional quality.
The works produced at Meroë display a mix of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman influences but have their own vibrant Nubian character. Local jewelry makers were especially skilled at enameling, in which powdered glass was applied to metal and then melted to create colorful patterns. They also employed metalworking techniques such as filigree (fine wirework) and granulation (decoration with tiny gold spheres) to fashion intricate designs. Glass beads were frequently incorporated into necklaces, and cornelian was a particularly popular gemstone.
Queens of Meroë
Nubian royal women took on increasingly powerful roles in the Meroitic period. Beginning in the late second century BC, a number of queens ruled the Kingdom of Kush from the capital at Meroë. They were known by the term kandake, which may have originally meant "queen mother" but later referred to women who ruled independently. Meroitic queens are depicted in relief scenes carved on temple walls, the chapels of royal pyramid tombs, and dedicatory stone slabs. Their distinctive costumes and regalia include elaborate headdresses, fringed robes, tasseled shawls, and ornate jewelry, often with images of ram's heads representing the supreme god Amun.
Expedition in Sudan, 1913-1932
In February 1913, George Andrew Reisner, director of the Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition, arrived in northern Sudan. With permission, he and his team began excavating at Kerma, and continued working in Nubia until 1932. This Nubian campaign established the basis for future archeological work in the region.
Reisner pioneered the use of photography to document fieldwork. He trained an Egyptian, Said Ahmed Said, to take archaeological photographs. Said then trained a team of Egyptian photographers, including Bedawi Ahmed Abu Bukr, Mahmud Shadduf, Mohammedani Ibrahim Ibrahim, and Mustapha Abu el-Hamd. Roughly 45,000 photographs are preserved at the MFA Boston as glass-plate negatives, an extensive record of the expedition’s work.
Following the practice of the time, archaeological finds were divided between the host country and excavators (a system known as partage). As a result, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston possesses the most important collection of Nubian art outside of Khartoum—including the jewelry on display in this exhibition.