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MFA Boston Offers a Fresh Look at Ancient Nubia in New Exhibition

  • BOSTON, Massachusetts
  • /
  • October 13, 2019

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Vessel in the shape of a bound oryx, early 7th century B.C.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

For more than 3,000 years, a series of kingdoms flourished along the Nile Valley in what is today southern Egypt and northern Sudan, a region known in antiquity as Kush and by modern scholars as Nubia. In Ancient Nubia Now, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presents more than 400 works of art from its collection, made over thousands of years of Nubian history—masterpieces that highlight the skill, artistry and innovation of Nubian makers and reflect the wealth and power of their kings and queens.

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The Nubians left behind remains of cities, temples, palaces and pyramids, but few written records. As a result, their story has been told in large part by others—in antiquity by their Egyptian rivals, who used propaganda to cast Nubia in a negative light, and in the early 20th century by American and European scholars and archaeologists who brought racial prejudice to their work.

The exhibition explores how these narratives have evolved over time, confronting the MFA’s own past misinterpretations, and offering new ways of understanding Nubia’s history and contemporary relevance. Ancient Nubia Now opens in the fall of 2019, the season leading into the MFA’s 150th anniversary in 2020. As part of the Museum’s renewed focus on the local community, family passes to see the exhibition will be distributed to all sixth-grade students in the City of Boston—in alignment with the Massachusetts social studies curriculum that includes ancient Nubia and Egypt.

Winged goddess pectoral (743–712 B.C.)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Ancient Nubia Now is on view from October 13, 2019 through January 20, 2020 in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery. 

All of the objects in the exhibition are drawn from the MFA’s collection of ancient Nubian art, the core of which was formed between 1913 and 1932, when the Museum partnered with Harvard University on the first scientific excavations of Nubian sites. The expedition team, led by archaeologist and MFA curator George A. Reisner, undertook this work at the invitation of the Egyptian and Sudanese governments, then under British colonial administration. In exchange for financing and performing the excavations, the Museum received a portion of the finds, a standard practice at the time. Like a number of 20th-century scholars, Reisner failed to acknowledge the sophistication of ancient African cultures south of Egypt. While his meticulous notes, records and photographs—which have been preserved by the MFA—continue to be an important source for ongoing research and excavations, curators, scholars and archaeologists today are also asking new questions and correcting his original assumptions.

The ancient Nubians established vast trade networks that reached across the Mediterranean into Greece and Rome and far into central Africa. At the time that Nubian kings conquered neighboring Egypt in the 8th century B.C.E., they controlled one of the largest empires of the ancient world. Yet for many people today, this powerful history remains little known. Ancient Nubia Now looks at four moments in ancient Nubian history, presenting more than 400 works of art made in the early Nubian kingdom of Kerma (2400–1550 B.C.E.), during the Egyptian occupation of northern Nubia (1550–1070 B.C.E.) and throughout the Nubian empires of Napata (750–332 B.C.E.) and Meroe (332 B.C.E.–364 C.E.). Each section explores the distinctive artistic achievements of each era and region, as well as broader issues that relate to the objects on view.

Bracelet with image of the goddess Hathor 250–100 B.C.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Kerma (2400–1550 B.C.E.)

Already an established and fortified city by 2400 B.C.E., Kerma grew to become the capital of a vast Nubian kingdom by about 1700 B.C.E., with a trade network that reached from the Nile Valley into Central Africa and the Red Sea coast. Palaces, offices, workshops and homes within the city clustered around a massive mud brick temple. Outside the walls lay suburbs, ports and smaller settlements. A cemetery to the west of the city housed mortuary temples and mounded royal tombs, where Kerma’s rulers were buried along with the remains of animals and humans, sacrificed to accompany them to the afterlife. 

Two of the exhibition’s galleries are dedicated to Kerma. The first introduces the kingdom’s material culture through objects such as blue faience temple remains, carved inlays from funerary beds, and burial offerings, including jewelry and some of the finest pottery found anywhere in the Nile Valley. The second features objects found in the royal tombs, while addressing how racial prejudices informed Reisner’s work and led to misinterpretations of Kerma. A highlight is the large-scale Statue of Lady Sennuwy (Egyptian, Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, reign of Senwosret I, 1971–1926 B.C.E.), a masterpiece of Egyptian sculpture that was found in Kerma, buried in the tomb of the kingdom’s last ruler. While Reisner originally concluded that Kerma was a military outpost ruled by Egypt, scholars now believe that an army from Kerma attacked Egypt, looted sanctuaries and brought Egyptian objects home as souvenirs and status symbols.

Egyptian Occupation (1550–1070 B.C.E.)

One exhibition gallery explores the intertwined histories of ancient Nubia and Egypt as neighbors on the Nile—particularly during the period beginning in the mid-16th century B.C.E., when Egypt ruled over northern Nubia after defeating Kerma’s army and destroying the kingdom’s capital. Egyptian propaganda cast Nubians as the barbaric “other.” The Reliefs of Thutmose III (Egyptian, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Thutmose III, 1947–1425 B.C.E.), for example, refer to the ram-headed god Khnum as the “opposer of bows,” in reference to the Nubians’ proverbial skill as archers, and “smiter of bubalis-antelopes,” comparing the Nubians to wild desert animals that need to be brought under submission. The true relationship between the Nubians and Egyptians, however, was far more nuanced. As other objects in the gallery reveal, they lived in proximity, traded materials and luxury goods, shared ideas and religious beliefs, and intermarried.

Napata (750–332 B.C.E.)

During the reign of the Nubian king Piankhy (743–712 B.C.E.), power dynamics in the Nile Valley took a dramatic turn. Piankhy and his army conquered Egypt, which he and his successors ruled as the 25th Dynasty. Official inscriptions and religious texts began to be recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphic script—offering, for the first time in their history, the Nubians’ own voices and perspectives in writing. Piankhy ruled from the city of Napata, which by the beginning of the 8th century B.C.E. had become the capital of an expansive Nubian kingdom, located at a strategic site for controlling trade and near Nubia’s holiest site, the “sacred mountain” at Gebel Barkal.

Three galleries of Ancient Nubia Now are focused on the Napatan era, when Nubia took its place as a world superpower and left monuments and artworks of uncontested beauty and power. Highlights include the spectacular jewelry of Piankhy’s wives; statues of kings Senkamanisken and Akharitene found at Gebel Barkal; the gold and silver “treasure” of king Aspelta; and more than 100 shawabties, or funerary figurines, of kings including Taharqa, the most powerful of Nubia’s rulers.

Meroe (332 B.C.E.–364 C.E.)

By the fourth century B.C.E., the Nubian capital moved south to Meroe—a cosmopolitan metropolis that was one of the great cities of antiquity, yet remains among the least understood. In part, the mystery stems from the fact that scholars still cannot read Meroitic script—the second-oldest African script, after Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Stele of King Tanyidamani (180–140 B.C.E.), on view in the final gallery of Ancient Nubia Now, is covered in the longest known Meroitic inscription, but is yet to be deciphered. The Meroitic period coincided with Greek and then Roman rule in Egypt, bringing Nubia into close contact with the classical world, while also ushering in a deeper relationship with central Africa. Additional highlights of this gallery include finely decorated pottery that drew inspiration from cultural exchange across the Mediterranean; elaborate jewelry that reached heights of technical sophistication unparalleled in the ancient Nile Valley; Greek and Roman objects that may have been diplomatic gifts, tribute or results of trade with Meroe’s many rulers; and a set of recently conserved auloi (reed pipes) that are the subject of an ongoing international research project.

An additional gallery provides further context into the role that archaeology—particularly, the MFA’s own excavations—has played in influencing how ancient Nubia’s story has been told on a global scale since the late 19th century. Twentieth-century photographs from the Museum’s archive, taken by Reisner and his team, are accompanied by historic excavation materials, as well as contemporary photographs and drone footage of modern-day sites at Kerma and Meroe.

Tags: antiquities

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