History

Early States: A-Group and C-Group

Most of what we know about Bronze Age Nubia comes from Lower and Upper Nubia; little archeological work for the period has been done elsewhere in Sudan. While Upper Nubia had a relatively high population density all through ancient history, Lower Nubia was comparatively low in population. And while Upper Nubia had been the homeland of Sudan's ancient civilization, Lower Nubia may be best described as a buffer zone between Sudan and Egypt.

Relief Plaque of a Scorpion. Classic Kerma. Source: Wildung, Dietrich.Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.

Once the ancient Egyptians began to write down their history about 3000 BC, they recorded and commemorated battles against the people of Nubia. The ancient Egyptians called Sudan Ta Sety meaning land of the bow;1 that is because the Nubians were popular in the ancient world for their efficiency in using bows. The Nubian people, on the other hand, were referred to as Nehasay.2

One of the oldest mentions of the ancient Nubians is found in an inscription from Gebel Sheikh Suleiman, in the Sudan's nothern border.3 The inscription dates to Predynastic Egypt showing a scorpion and a bound Nubian captive. The Nubian identity of the captive is defined by his feather. Another figure, in the same inscription, is shown with a bow, which is a symbol of Nubia.

The inscription is significant in that it indicates the importance of early Nubia in the development of Predynastic Egypt. The inscription also suggests that the ancient Nubians were active in Upper Egypt. The Egyptian Pharaoh Menes, considered by many scholars to be the first true pharaoh of Egypt, considered defeating the Nubians as a necessary step to unifying Egypt.

The C-Group:

The C-Group settlements were excavated in Sudan dating to as early as 2900 BC. Recent archeological excavations have concluded that the C-Group were part of a migratory population from the Dongola Reach area of Sudan.4 The C-Group culture has essentially evolved from the older and more expanded pre-Kerma culture.

Both, the C-Group pottery and the Kerma pottery were usually polish in red and brown colors. However, the C-Group pottery is characterized by more complex designs that cover most of the pot's surface. The Kerma-Group pottery is characterized by little designs; however, with carefully painted bands of colors around the opening.

After 400 years had passed since the disappearance of the A-Group culture from Lower Nubia, a C-Group culture reemerged around 2500 BC.5 The C-Group population of Lower Nubia fell to Egyptian dominance after 2000 BC.6 The Egyptian colonists built fortresses to control them and deprived them from their weapons.

Dating to the last phases of the C-Group in Lower Nubia, which lasted until 1550 BC, burials were done in Egyptian-like graves. Thus, it is likely that the C-Group have melded with the Egyptian populations. There, they assimilated to the Egyptian culture, thus contributing to the mixed social and cultural structure of Lower Nubia.7 The C-Group people in Sudan, on the other hand, were absorbed by the Kerma culture since the twentieth century BC.

The A-Group:

A population known as the A-Group flourished in Nubia around 3500 BC. Because no significant excavations have been carried in Upper Nubia for this period,8 most of what we know about the Group comes from Lower Nubia. The Group is believed to have originated from the Dongola Reach area of Sudan. In Lower Nubia, the A-Group population practiced flood plain agriculture, animal husbandry, and conducted trade.9

Tracing of an Egyptian inscription dating to the reign of the first known Egyptian pharaoh, Aha.
Nubian inscription

Unfortunately, the Group's settlements cannot be traced in precision because of two reasons. First, their houses were built of perishable materials, such as unbaked-mud. Second, the Group's settlements were established very close to the Nile river where seasonal floods would have destroyed them long time ago.10 Therefore, most of what we know about the A-Group culture comes from the cemeteries located few miles away from the Nile valley.

The material culture  uncovered from the burials indicates a complex culture with a hierarchical structure.11 Excavations in cemeteries, in Sudan's northern border area, provided a good insight on the social complexity of the A-Group.12 The sizes of the graves there indicate the social status of the deceased. The larger the grave the richer was the deceased, and the smaller the poorer was the deceased.

Excavation in A-Group cemeteries, uncovered everyday life tools. Findings include jewelry, weapons, plates, beakers, storage jars, and cups. Pottery, however, is the most abundant of all the grave finds, and has been essential for informing archeologists on the culture of the Group. Incised and impressionistic decorations are typical of the A-Group pottery. Foreign pottery from Syro-Palestine and Egypt has been found in considerable amounts indicating that the Group has practiced extensive trade.13

A-Group conical vessels, left: from Gezira Dabrosa, right: from Saras. Source: Wildung, Dietrich.Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.
Nubian pottery
Samples of early Nubian pottery.Source: Wildung, Dietrich.Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.
Nubian pottery

An important A-Group cemetery is located in the modern village of Qustul.14 Some graves there reach 34.34 square meters.15 Their roofs were built of Timber and were found containing high quality goods including gold and copper objects.16

Owners of these graves were undoubtedly rulers; however, whether they ruled all of Lower Nubia, or parts of it, is unknown. An incense burner was found depicting the figure of a pharaoh, who was probably Nubian according to the type of fashion he was depicted as wearing. (The dress included a long belt that dangled all the way down to the knees, i.e. a typical Nubian dress).17 O'Connor suggests that the archeological evidence for the economic and social structure of the A-Group indicates a "Proto-kingdom" similar to those of late predynastic Egypt, and not just a state as previously suggested by archeologists.18

No archeological evidence indicates the continuation of the A-Group after 2900 BC, (except for little traces of the culture in the second cataract area). Historians assume that stronger Egypt would have expelled the A-Group after the latter date.19


  • 1 P. L. Shinnie, Ancient Nubia (Kegan Paul International, 1995).
  • 2 E. Kormyseva, ed. Ancient Egypt and Kush. In Memoriam Mikhail A. Korostovtsev (1993).
  • 3 T. A. H. Wilkinson, W. Toby, and Society and Security, Early Dynastic Egypt: Strategies (Routledge, 2001) 179, and W. Needler, “ A Rock-Drawing on Gebel Sheikh Suliman (near Wadi Halfa) showing a Scorpion and Human Figures”, JARCE 6 (1967): 87-91.
  • 4 D. E. Edwards, The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of the Sudan (Routledge, 2004).
  • 5 R. Keating, Nubian Rescue (R. Hale, 1975).
  • 6 P. L. Shinnie, Ancient Nubia (Kegan Paul International, 1995).
  • 7 B. J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (Routledge, 2006) 54-5.
  • 8 F. Geus, "Burial Customs In The Upper Main Nile: An Overview," Egypt and Africa: Nubia from Prehistory to Islam, ed. W. V. Davies (London: British Museum P, 1991) 57-73 , and H.A. Nordström, Neolithic and A-Group Sites, The Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia,3, (Stockholm, 1972).
  • 9 W. Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (Princeton UP, 1977), B. Trigger, Nubia under the Pharaohs (Thames and Hudson, 1976), J. D. Fage, and R. A. Oliver, The Cambridge History of Africa (Cambridge University P, 1982) 539, and J. A. Hill, Cylinder Seal Glyptic in Predynastic Egypt and Neighboring Regions (Archaeopress, 2004).
  • 10 Keating, note 6 above.
  • 11 Wilkinson, note 3 above at 176-7.
  • 12 M. C.Gatto, "A Very Preliminary Review of the A-Groups Ceramic Material," Proc. of the Eight International Conference of the Society of Nubian Studies, University of Lille (Lille, 1976).
  • 13 Gatto, note 8 above.
  • 14 B. B. Williams, The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition, Vol. III, Part 1: The A-Group Royal Cemetery at Qustul: Cemetery L.(Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1986).
  • 15 D. O'Connor, Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa (University of Pennsylvania P, 1994) 20.
  • 16 O'Connor, note 11 above at 14-20.
  • 17 See image: B. Williams, The A-Group Royal Cemetery at Qustul: Cemetery L. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (1968) 34, Courtesy of The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, in Kingship-Early Burials (Click here for link).
  • 18 O'Connor, note 11 above at 22. Secondary source: Wilkinson, note 3 at 176-7.
  • 19 Hill, note 5 above.
Authored: 2004.
Edited: Feb. 2009.
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The primary material of the website is authored by Ibrahim Omer © 2008.