Early States and the
A-Group 'Proto-Kingdom'

Most of what we know of Bronze Age Nubia comes from the extensively excavated Lower Nubia. However; the archeology of Lower Nubia is different, in many ways, from that of Upper Nubia. The latter is where the powerful kingdom of Kush developed.

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. One of Egypt's biggest rivals and closest neighbors were the Nubians. To the ancient Egyptians, Nubia was called Ta Sety (land of the bow)1 and they also referred to refer to the Nubians as Nehasay.2

One of the oldest mention Nubians is an inscription found at Gebel Sheikh Suleiman (i.e., in the Sudanese-Egyptian border).3 The inscription shows a scorpion and the figure of a bound captive whose Nubian identity is identified by a feather on his head. Another figure is shown with a bow and an animal tail, which are additional symbols for Nubian people. The inscription indicates the importance of early Nubia in the development of predynastic Egypt.

It also indicates that Nubian states or cheifdoms were active in Upper Egypt and Menes considered defeating the Nubians a necessary step before unifying Upper Egypt.

A-Group Proto-kingdom:

A population known as the A-Group flourished in Lower Nubia around 3500 BC; though no significant excavations have been carried in Upper Nubia for this period.4  The A-Group population practiced flood plain agriculture, animal husbandry, and conducted trade.5 The Group's settlements cannot be traced because of two reasons; first, their houses were built of perishable materials, such as unbaked-mud; and second, their settlements were established on the valleys, very close to the Nile River, where seasonal floods would have had them destroyed long time ago.6 Therefore, most of what we know of 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.7 Excavations in cemeteries provided the best insight into the social complexity of the A-Group,8 both located south of Lower Nubia near the Sudanese border. 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 the deceased.

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

Excavation in A-Group cemeteries, revealed grave findings used in every day life. These findings included jewelry, weapons, plates, beakers, storage jars, and cups. Pottery, however, is the most abundant of all the grave finds, and is essential for providing us with a good insight into the culture. Incised and impressionistic decorations are typical of the A-Group pottery. Foreign pottery from Syria-Palestine and Egypt has been found in Upper Nubia in considerable amounts indicating that the A-Group population practiced extensive trade.9

An important A-Group cemetery, is located on the modern village of Qustul.10 Although the cemetery had been severely plundered, it provided historians with a good idea of the A-Group social complexity. Some graves reached 34.34 square meters.11 Their roofs were built of Timber and were found containing high quality goods including gold and copper objects.12

Numerous foreign artifacts, most of them defined as upper Egyptian. Owners of these graves were undoubtedly rulers, however; weather they ruled all of Lower Nubia or part of it is unknown. An incense burner was found depicting the figure of a pharaoh, who was probably Nubian according to the type of custom he was depicted as warring. (The custom included a long belt that dangled all the way down to the knees, i.e., a typical Nubian dress).13 O'Connor suggests that the archeological evidence on 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 archeologists14.

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

No archeological evidence indicate the continuation of the A-Group after 2900 BC, (except for little traces of their culture in the second cataract area). Historians assume that stronger Egypt would have expelled the A-Group after the latter date.15

The C-Group settlements were excavated in Upper Nubia dating as early as 2900 BC. Many historians speculate that the C-Group may have been part of  the A-Group population that vanished from Lower Nubia earlier.16 The Group's settlements were found in Lower Nubia and in Upper Nubia in Sudan. The culture was clearly influenced by Kerma, in Upper Nubia, as indicated by the style of pottery.

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 covers 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 have passed since the disappearance of the A-Group culture from Lower Nubia, a C-Group culture reemerged around 2500 BC.17 The C-Group population fell to Egyptian dominance after 2000 BC.18 The Egyptian conquerors built fortresses to control them and deprived them from their weapons.

Dating to the last phases of the C-Group, 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 and assimilated to the Egyptian culture.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 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).
  • 5 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).
  • 6 R. Keating, Nubian Rescue (R. Hale, 1975).
  • 7 Wilkinson, note 3 above at 176-7.
  • 8 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).
  • 9 Gatto, note 8 above.
  • 10 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).
  • 11 D. O'Connor, Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa (University of Pennsylvania P, 1994) 20.
  • 12 O'Connor, note 11 above at 14-20.
  • 13 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).
  • 14 O'Connor, note 11 above at 22. Secondary source: Wilkinson, note 3 at 176-7.
  • 15 Hill, note 5 above.
  • 16 B. G. Trigger, Nubia under the Pharaohs (London, 1976).
  • 17 Keating, note 6 above.
  • 18 P. L. Shinnie, Ancient Nubia (Kegan Paul International, 1995).
  • 19 B. J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (Routledge, 2006) 54-5.
Authored: 2004.
Edited: Feb. 2009.

The primary material of the website is authored by Ibrahim Omer © 2008.