Conclusions of study and suggestions

January 17th, 2018

A summary of the approach taken and the contribution of the results of the analyses

The social and political relations between two different cultural groups, such as the Romano-Egyptians and the Meroites, is a complicated issue and requires special attention and a careful approach. As stated in the introduction, the historical accounts that describe these relations come mainly from textual sources of the Romans. Therefore, the existing historical evidence represents only one side of the argument and it can be postulated that the Roman accounts were deliberately hostile towards ethnic/cultural groups such as the Meroites. Secondly, the Meroitic textual sources are mainly limited to inscriptions that record names of specific kings (e.g. King ‘Yesbokheamani’ at Philae) who appear to have marched within the territory of Egypt. In combination with the excavated military material from Qasr Ibrim and the surrounding areas, a reasonable conclusion is that the Romans and the Meroites were officially in a state of constant conflict that required the maintenance of Roman garrisons across the Romano-Meroitic borders.

However, the archaeological evidence from Qasr Ibrim does not only reveal information related to conflicts and war, but also evidence related to more peaceful contacts. Together with the recovered military artefacts from the fortress, a large concentration of Romano-Egyptian pottery was found, along with local Nubian and Meroitic wares. The hypothesis of this project suggested that the Romano-Egyptians and the Meroites might have had a more peaceful symbiosis and social contacts, at least for some time during the Meroitic period in Lower Nubia.

The general image of Lower Nubia was presented in two sections of this study through various arguments related to the geography, the population sizes and the economy of the area. Specific needs, such as the requirement of agricultural surplus to maintain non food producing populations in an isolated and dangerous geographical zone, made social contacts between Meroites and Romano-Egyptians likely to be necessary. Furthermore, by examining the nature of Lower Nubian settlements such as Qasr Ibrim, and their population size and demography, it is most likely that there was a perceived need for these settlements to administer the area, to regulate trade, to maintain the cult sites and to support social contact. It was also demonstrated that this contact existed through various economic activities, such as trade and migrant labour, and through non-economic activities, such as pilgrimage. The existence of trade appears to have been one of the most important forms of social contact between Romano-Egyptians and Meroites at Qasr Ibrim, and generally in Lower Nubia. The relationship between pottery and trade was suggested to have taken place at two levels: the ceramic vessels were either containers used in the transportation of agricultural products (e.g. wine amphorae) or vessels with a utilitarian and/or symbolic function, which were mainly found in burial contexts (e.g. finewares).

Of course, the circulation of traded goods between two cultural groups does not necessarily mean that the diffusion of new ideas took place through trade. In other words, even though trade may be a social interaction on its own, it does not mean that the trading partners will compulsorily adopt the cultural ideas or habits of their neighbours (Renfrew, 1969; 1984; 1993). In the case of Qasr Ibrim, the appearance of Romano-Egyptian wine amphorae is attributed to the consumption of Egyptian wine by the Meroitic populations, particularly by the elite (Adams, 1986b). However, even though the distribution of Roman wine amphorae in Kush is widespread, it can be argued that during the Roman occupation of the fort, Romano-Egyptian settlers moved to the south, bringing along their own wine drinking practices, which were not necessarily immediately adopted by the Meroites; therefore, the exchange of some cultural ideas through social contact and communication between two cultural groups cannot be examined solely in terms of trade.

In this study it was demonstrated that ceramic studies can act as a means of evaluating part of the social interaction between two cultural groups because pottery can operate both as a traded good and as a transporter of ideas related to pottery production patterns. More specifically, a ceramic vessel is produced by a potter who employs specific knowledge and skills in the manufacture process of the vessel. The potter expresses him/herself during the process of making a pot by selecting and manipulating the clay in specific ways, by producing deliberate forms, and decorating them with specific motifs (Rice, 1987; 1991); therefore, the vessel’s fabric, the form and the decoration can act as transmitters of ideas relating to pottery production patterns. As suggested earlier, vessels can transport these ideas to other potters by reaching other production areas through trade.

The study presented a short case study on Merioitic pottery production in order to demonstrate that most of the excavated sites in Lower Nubia (including Qasr Ibrim) and the northern regions of the Meroitic kingdom could have supported pottery production, while at the same time, a second industrial ceramic production area existed in the heartlands of Kush. It was revealed that these industries apparently employed similar technologies to those used in Romano-Egyptian ceramic production.

A hypothetical model was proposed to suggest that if any Meroitic production may have existed in Qasr Ibrim and the surrounding area, it was likely to have been affected by the Egyptian production patterns that were being exported to the Meroitic potters through trade. Furthermore, the possibility of a local ceramic industry having existed in Qasr Ibrim does not help to clarify whether or not Meroitic potters operated alone or if there was a mixture of local and Aswani immigrant potters. Therefore, the interaction between the potters could also be attributed to direct contact instead of trade. Such contact was likely because the geographic and economic nature of Qasr Ibrim supported communication between different ethnic/cultural groups, even though these groups could discriminate between themselves in other ways (Jones, 1997). Even if such production may never have existed in Qasr Ibrim, the Egyptian production patterns could have affected the Meroitic ceramic production at other sites, such as Argin, which were located close by.

In any event, the signs of exchange of ideas in the ceramic record were illustrated above in terms of common forms and decorative motifs. Furthermore, the similarities in clays were perceived to be indicators of a similar exploitation of clay resources or even suggesting the existence of a similar production area. For these reasons three different types of examinations were conducted on two distinct ware groups of the Meroitic and the Aswani pottery traditions in order to verify if the diffusion of ideas in pottery production patterns in the Qasr Ibrim region took place.

The results of the stylistic analysis indicated that the examined Meroitic fineware samples exhibited a larger variation of decorative motifs, possibly affiliated to the symbolic nature of Meroitic pottery’s decoration. However, this observation should not be perceived as a generalisation, since ware W26 may indeed be the only Meroitic ware showing such variability in decorative motifs. These motifs were very elaborate, combining painted, incised and stamped techniques in various combinations and colours. The vine wreath and the thin stripes were two of the basic motifs, yet not religious and not distinctively ‘Meroitic’. Other Meroitic religious symbols, such as the altar and the wedjat-eye, drew from the ancient Egyptian mythology and suggested that Meroitic decoration was a lot more diverse than it was traditionally believed. On the contrary, the Aswani samples examined were not always decorated. Their decoration was largely limited to the vine wreath motif and linear bands, even though the representations never showed any resemblance to the highest quality of the same motifs on the Meroitic vessels.

In terms of forms, the Aswani samples exhibited a larger and more complex variety than the Meroitic vessels. Again, this should not be perceived as a generalisation, since R30 may indeed be the most diverse ware of Family A. This diversity could be attributed to the experience of the Aswani potters, probably for two reasons: a) the probably industrial nature of their production and b) the security of manipulating difficult forms when using highest quality clays. It is interesting that both Meroitic and Aswani wares were made in similar forms, mainly bowls, goblets and cups. The Aswani assemblage contained mainly finewares and table-wares used for drinking, along with two wine amphorae sherds that were internally resinated. This proves the existence of wine trade to Qasr Ibrim, and if combined with the existence of similar Meroitic forms used for drinking purposes, it also casts some light on the level of professional interaction between the potters. The Meroitic finewares and the Aswanis had similar wall thicknesses; however, some of the Meroitic samples were indeed eggshell. This shows that the Meroitic potters were equally or more capable to produce high quality vessels than the Aswani potters.

The most interesting conclusion of the stylistic analysis was the following: even though the Aswani potters were a lot more experienced in producing more complex forms of pottery, they did not decorate them as elaborately as the Meroites. Furthermore, they decided to roughly imitate decorative motifs that were popular amongst the Meroites, such as the vine wreath and the linear stripes, even though the vine wreath motif originated from previous Ptolemaic traditions. This does not necessarily mean that the Aswani painters were not equally as good as the Meroites. It appears more likely that Aswani production was performed on a large scale and the vessels never required elaborate decoration, whereas Meroitic vessels may have had a utilitarian and/or ceremonial function (in most cases ending up in funerary contexts), which required more elaborately painted motifs. Therefore, the Aswani potters employed motifs that looked familiar to the Meroites, possibly because their mass production was mainly orientated towards the Meroitic market (1).

The examination under a compound microscope showed that the Aswani production was based on a general fabric type of local origin, which could only be divided into two subgroups: a finer version for fine, thin-walled vessels and a coarser version for thicker amphorae used for the transportation of wine. The same conclusion was verified by thin section analysis. The Aswani fabrics matched the geology of the local region. The examination of Meroitic finewares under a compound microscope suggested that the fine clay of Adams’ M Family could be easily confused with the fabrics of his N Family wares, which were described as wheel-made Nubian siltwares. Furthermore, the variation in fabrics indicated that the Meroitic production took place in various different production centres. This fabric variation became more apparent after the thin section analysis of the Meroitic samples. The results showed that the Meroitic finewares came in four different fabrics: two of them were of northern origin, similar to Smith’s Aswan/Meinarti clay family, yet exhibiting variations in the presence of pyroxenes. This could be an indication that naturally mixed clays from the Nile region were used. The third fabric was difficult to identify in terms of mineralogical analysis. The fourth fabric appeared to be of southern origin, matching Smith’s southern clay group and previous thin section analyses of samples from Meroe.

The present thin section analysis of the Meroitic finewares produced two interesting conclusions: firstly, the resemblance in fabrics between some Meroitic samples and some Aswani samples suggested that the potters of the two different cultural groups might have been exploiting the same clay source, possibly collected from areas along the banks of the River Nile, between Qasr Ibrim and Aswan. Aswani clays came from a kaolinitic source that fired to a pink colour, which was the same as the kaolinitic clay source of most Meroitic samples that resulted in pink or beige. Secondly, the presence of finewares from Meroe in the Qasr Ibrim assemblage proved the existence of transportation networks and trade activity with the southern territories of Kush, even though the sample was too small to describe its scale.

The observations above proved that the Meroitic and the Aswani potters were not acting as two distinct and separate cultural groups. On the contrary, they had been under constant interaction, employing similar manufacturing techniques, vessel forms and decorative motifs. Furthermore, it is possible that a local production indeed existed in Qasr Ibrim and the surrounding areas, even though thin section analysis could not determine the exact location of this production area. The hypothetical production model described above was verified by the results of the three analysis techniques.

Furthermore, although historical evidence indicated a high level of official mutual enmity between Roman Egypt and the Meroitic kingdom, including attacks and militarisation of the frontier area, the ceramic evidence clearly demonstrated fairly continuous social, cultural and economic contacts between the populations of Lower Nubia throughout this period. Even though the two political entities had their own reasons to claim Lower Nubia for themselves through various acts of war, at the same time they were conducting peaceful trade with Lower Nubia, treating it as a prosperous market or a route to other markets instead of a battleground.

The preference for decorative motifs that were familiar to both cultural groups on Aswani vessels that were mainly orientated for the exportation of agricultural products to Lower Nubia showed that trade activity not only existed on an economic basis, but also that an attempt was made by the Romano-Egyptians to adjust their products to the common cultural beliefs that they shared with the Meroites. The existence of Meroitic finewares in Lower Nubia showed that even though the Romans might had controlled the fort for a long period of time, the cultural connections with the heartland of Kush were possibly not interrupted. Of course, this hypothesis was based on the recovery of a single sherd that was petrologically characterised as being made out of a southern clay. In order to form a better idea of the internal Meroitic trade and the scale it took at Qasr Ibrim, more samples would need to be examined in the future.

The exportation of Aswani products to Lower Nubia was combined with an exportation of ideas that affected the social contact of the two cultural groups. This social contact was proven to have existed both in terms of pottery production patterns and patterns of vessel use. For example, Egyptian wine was exported in Aswani containers, and was consumed from both Meroitic and Aswani cups and goblets that came in similar forms. It is possible that this contact did not stop there, but also carried over into other aspects of everyday life.

Another important observation was that if the Meroitic and the Aswani potters were able to access similar clays from the same region, it could be possible that the Meroites and the Romano-Egyptians did not have any distinct political borders in Lower Nubia, even though they discriminated between themselves as ethnic and cultural groups. Therefore, the conflicts between the two groups may have existed in specific periods when the central governments supported war as a mean of asserting control in the area (e.g. during Nero’s reign), even though the inhabitants of Lower Nubia might have been used to a more peaceful symbiosis, which was not always under direct control of the political power centres of Rome and Meroe.

Suggestions for future research

In this study, it was demonstrated that ceramic studies can provide insight into the level of social interaction between two nations such as the Meroites and the Romano-Egyptians. For the purposes of this study it was decided to compare two groups of pottery from the Qasr Ibrim collection, which were sampled according to Adams’ initial classifications. The two groups examined were the W26 Meroitic finewares (M Family) and the R30 Aswani imported wares (A Family). It would appear to be interesting if other wares that belong to the same broader families, such as wares R35 and W26 of the M Family and wares R31, R37, W24 and W32 of the A Family, could be investigated to verify or reject the conclusions above.

Furthermore, as demonstrated in the compound microscope analysis and the thin section analysis of the present Meroitic samples, some of the M Family fabrics that were described by Adams as being made out of fine clays, were surprisingly detected as belonging to rather coarser fabric categories, such as the Nubian siltwares of Adams’ N Family. This may mean two things: firstly, it may be an indication that Adams’ initial classifications were based mainly on stylistic observations and many sherds were misplaced in the wrong ware categories. Secondly, and this appears more likely, that the fabrics of Meroitic finewares and Nubian siltwares may not be as different as had been suggested in the past. In other words, if some of the clays were deliberately mixed or selected from sources along the Nile, which in both cases shared similarities with the Aswani clays, it may be possible that the Nubian siltwares were made out of the same kaolinitic clays with a larger admixture of Nile silt. Future thin section analysis of Nubian siltwares and comparisons with Aswani and Meroitic fineware fabrics may show a more accurate indication of the clay sources employed in each production.

A second issue that would be of great interest for the elucidation of Meroitic trade regards the distribution distances of the Kushite manufacture centres that supplied Qasr Ibrim with Meroitic pottery. Further thin section analysis of Meroitic samples from the fortress may elucidate which production centres of mainland Kush managed to send their products as far as Qasr Ibrim. If Qasr Ibrim did not have any ceramic production of its own during the Meroitic era, such work would be able to prove the scale of Meroitic trade within Lower Nubia.


  1. Of course, there was local Egyptian consumption of Aswani wares, which formed a significant proportion of the ceramic assemblages of Upper Egypt, while they were also found further north (e.g. in Amarna) (Faiers, 2005).