Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Meroitic Period and retainer sacrifice in ancient Nubia

Meroë in ancient Nubia, superseded Napata as the capital of the Kingdom of Kush under King Aspelta in about 591 BCE. Meroe's wealth was centered around a strong iron industry, as well as international trade in jewelry, pottery and textiles involving India and China. Meroitic metal workers engaged in both iron and Nubia's longstanding gold production were considered among the best in the world. The kingdom thrived until the 4th century CE and numerous kings and queens were buried in Meroë's royal cemeteries. 

The remains of Meroë were rediscovered by a French mineralogist Frédéric Cailliaud who published an illustrated folio in 1821. The first formal expedition led by Giuseppe Ferlini was launched in 1834. Ferlini primarily recovered mostly jewelry items which are now in the collections of museums in Berlin and Munich.  Then in 1844, C.R. Lepsius examined the ruins and produced plans and sketches of the site. These inspired E. A. Wallis Budge to lead an expedition to Meroë in 1902 and 1905. His finds were transferred to the British Museum. This was followed by excavations led by John Garstang of the University of Liverpool in 1910.

In 1931, British Egyptologist Walter Bryan Emery excavated the Ballana cemetery in Lower Nubia and uncovered 122 tombs dating from 350 to 600 CE.  In addition to objects of Nubian origin, there were many objects imported from Byzantine Egypt and other trading centers around the Mediterranean. His team found  royal crowns, horses, and servants buried with their masters.  

One of the most lavish burials was found in tomb 118 which consisted of a main burial chamber and two storage rooms.  Fortunately, the tomb's roof had collapsed so was apparently overlooked by looters. The body of the person buried there was found on a bier. It was most likely that of a king. Upon his head was found a crown. Under the bier, were the remains of a large wooden gaming board, weapons and an iron folding chair. There were also skeletons of a young male servant and a cow. In the two storerooms, more skeletons of servants, as well as pottery and several bronze lamps were discovered.

Human sacrifice was a longstanding tradition of Nubian civilization.  During the Classic Kerma Period (1700–1550 BCE), funerary monuments of Kerman kings could be up to one hundred meters long and included hundreds of sacrificed individuals.  One of the largest Kerma burials contained the remains of 322 individuals, most them female.  Archaeologist George Reisner speculated that the women could have been members of the royal harem.

The practice of retainer sacrifice appears to have abated while Nubia was under the rule of Egypt during the New Kingdom period and the reign of the 25th dynasty during the Third Intermediate Period.  But the sacrifice of retainers was revived when the royal cemetery was moved south to Meroë during the reign of Arkamaniqo (270-260 BCE).  At least 16 royal tombs including those of five kings, a queen, a prince, and eight of unknown status dating to as late as the 1st century BCE contained human sacrificial victims. I hope none of them were members of Gaius Petronius' retaliatory force!

Image: Nubian royal crown from the royal cemetery at Ballana Tomb 118 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor John Campana (digitally enhanced)

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

No comments: