The Archaeology of Late Antique Sudan: Aesthetics and Identity in the Royal X-Group Tombs at Qustul and Ballana

by Rachael J. Dann


This book constitutes a major reassessment of the mortuary remains from the two X-Group royal cemeteries at Qustul and Ballana in Lower Nubia (c. AD 380–500). Since their excavation more than seventy years ago, and the subsequent flooding of the sites following the building of the Aswan High Dam, and despite the spectacular nature of the finds, the sites have received remarkably little scholarly attention. This book offers the first interpretation of social life at these key sites, and proposes a series of innovative, theoretically informed frames for exploring the significance of the material remains found there. In doing so, it sheds new light on a culture which, although less well known than the Meroitic Empire that preceded it and the subsequent development of the Christian Kingdoms of the Sudan, is nevertheless of considerable archaeological and historical significance.

The sites present a series of archaeologically unique monumental tumuli and multi-chambered tomb structures containing evidence of human and animal sacrifice, as well as a highly sophisticated material culture. The interpretations presented here draw on the emergent field of sensory archaeology to address the key issue of identity formation. It makes a case for the heretofore unrecognised significance of an ‘aesthetic’ identity mediated by material culture. It approaches X-Group culture as a materially complex indigenous culture that created and altered identities through time via the manipulation of materials, colours and patterns (the ‘aesthetic’ basis of identity).

This study explores the relationships between humans, animals, and artefacts. It demonstrates how a less stable society, which based control on aggressive public displays, became a more stable state, as power was mediated by magico-ritual performances, festal occasions, and the rise of certain individuals.

The interpretations put forward here are based on a systematic quantitative analysis of the archaeological material from the sites. These analyses draw on complex typologies differentiating objects according to use, ware, colour, decoration method, designs, surface finish, contents, grafitto, location in a tomb, location near a body, etc. Such a quantification and synthesis of tens of thousands of individual pieces of data enabled the identification of key trends in the dataset––the empirical basis for the modelling of socio-political change undertaken here.

The study was undertaken to combat the limited and unsatisfactory set of questions posed by previous debates about the activities at Qustul and Ballana. It constitutes a significant departure from previous work which restricted the discussion of life at the sites to a limited debate about the identity of tribal groups and the chronology of activity at the sites. In contrast, this research demonstrates that the way in which the X-Group(s) dynamically created, maintained, and altered their identity through various forms of praxis.

The book is essential reading for anybody researching ancient Sudanese civilisations. It has a wider appeal for researchers and graduate students interested in new developments in approaches to the archaeology of North-East Africa. It also has a broader appeal to all those interested in the theorisation of identity, the practical application of archaeological theory to the study of material culture and the human relationship to the sensory nature of the sensory world.


© Cambria Press, 2020. Innovative Publisher of Academic Research. /About Us/ Contact Us/ Privacy.