Economy, trade and ceramic production in Meroitic Lower Nubia

January 16th, 2018

The economic potential and the autonomy of Lower Nubia

Lower Nubia has been an area with poor agricultural resources. Generally, the valley that lies several kilometres south of the First Cataract is relatively infertile in contrast to the valley north of Aswan (Jackson, 2002, Welsby, 1998, Edwards, 2004). According to Welsby (2002, 8) Lower Nubia is characterised by total absence of rainfall and, apart from a strip alongside the River Nile, the environment is completely hostile to plants, animals and humans. In the records of the ancient Egyptians Nubia is mentioned as “miserable” or “wretched” (Smith, 2003). The ancient Egyptians were attracted mainly by its high quality mineral resources, such as the diorite stones close to the area of the Second Cataract and the gold mines at Wadi al Allaqi and Gabgaba (Jackson, 2002, Friedman, 2002, Welsby, 1998, Edwards, 2004).

Little is known about the economic activities of the Kushites and, unfortunately, appreciation of the potential of their land is generally based on rather modern geographical observations. To the north, agriculture and animal husbandry was limited to the banks of the River Nile, since water is essential for such activities. However, the high banks of the river may have contributed negatively to local agricultural production (Welsby, 1998, 153). During the Hellenistic period the importation of the saqia from Mesopotamia and Egypt possibly contributed to local agricultural productivity by making irrigation more efficient (Trigger, 1965, 123) (1). According to Strabo, the main crop grown in Nubia was millet, presumably the Sorghum vulgare or dhurra in Arabic, which is still the main crop in modern Sudan (Shinnie, 1967, 159) (2). Olive trees, which used to be one of the main cultivations of North Africa during the Roman period, do not grow at all in Lower Nubia because of the desert conditions. Wine production, especially near the area of Qasr Ibrim, is unlikely to have existed (Welsby, 1998, 158) (3).

Even though local production of grain seems to have existed at Qasr Ibrim, it is most likely that other agricultural products (e.g. wine and olive oil) reached there from other areas, either from the heartlands of Kush or from the southern parts of Roman Egypt. It can be postulated that the social contact between the Meroites and the Romano-Egyptians in Lower Nubia was generally dictated out of necessity, since the arrival of foreign agricultural products was probably connected with the survival of the local populations.

The Lower Nubian settlements and population size

Most of the inhabited centres of Lower Nubia were located along the Nile. However, the surrounding desert could support sizeable nomadic groups, which often threatened the security of the settlements (Welsby, 1998, 153). Meroitic settlements in Lower Nubia possibly had a rather different character to the settlements in the southern heartlands. Although their importance as agricultural centres must have been small, they seem to have had considerable importance as part of the major transportation route that connected Meroe and Egypt (Edwards, 2004, 156).

Studying the size of populations in Lower Nubia is quite challenging. Anthropological studies conducted in Wadi Halfa have pointed out the low life expectancy of the Meroitic populations (Martin et al., 1984). It has been suggested that even though the Meroitic Empire reached a level of important political development, the populations of the north did not benefit at all (Armelagos et al., 1981, 53). Recent reanalysis of archaeological material from other sites along the Nile demonstrated that during the Meroitic period populations remained relatively small and were concentrated in a small number of settlements along the river, perhaps no more than ten to fifteen (Edwards, 1996). When bearing in mind that the Lower Nubian settlements were mainly isolated outposts in a rather inhospitable environment, it is easy to understand the problems that would have affected the demography of the area. Firstly, a certain amount of logistical support towards these populations would have been required, at least until these settlements could become self-sustainable. A second problem would have been various military campaigns or epidemic diseases, which might have affected the population size. Finally, the limited agricultural production would not necessarily have been able to sustain all members of the local population (e.g. non food producers, such as the members of the administration mechanism and the priests). In fact, it has been suggested that the whole population of Lower Nubia was partly dependent on imported food (Edwards, 2004, 156-159).

These observations demonstrate that the traditional image of Lower Nubia being a rich agrarian province able to support large populations (Adams, 1977; Trigger, 1965) differs from recent interpretations. If an authority was prepared to support a population in such a barren area, they would do so if the population was primarily something other than food producers. In fact, it seems that most of the Lower Nubian settlements were primarily used as outposts or chain stations of a large trading network which lay north of the Second Cataract (Edwards, 2004, 156). Qasr Ibrim was also a sacred site and major cult centre from early Kushite antiquity (Edwards, 2004, 162). 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 contacts.

The Romano-Meroitic contacts through trade

The issue of Romano-Meroitic contacts, and the way that these reflected on trade activity, is complicated and has caused great deal of argument amongst modern scholars. A detailed study of the approaches taken for the investigation of Romano-Meroitic trade is presented in a separate article.

Generally, ancient trade activity could have taken place either by land or by water. In the case of Romano-Meroitic trade, both land and water transportation were in operation during the Meroitic era, especially in Lower Nubia. The most important and possibly cheapest transportation route was the River Nile, particularly for the transportation of low value goods such as relatively low quality ceramic containers (Peacock, 1977; Peacock 1982; Peacock & Williams, 2007). Trading activities along the Nile have been recorded on inscriptions and ostraca for both Romans and Meroites (Török, 1984; Welsby, 1998).

The Romano-Egyptians seem to have exported a variety of products such as olive oil, wine and honey (Welsby, 1998, 174). Romano-Egyptian ceramic containers recovered as far as Wadi ben Naqa prove that Egyptian agricultural products travelled quite far into the Meroitic Empire (Vercoutter, 1962). The existing Aswani ceramic evidence from Qasr Ibrim (Adams, 1981; Adams, 1986a) verifies similar observations, indicating that the fortress was indeed a destination for Egyptian products and possibly a middle station for their transportation further south.

The evidence for Meroitic trade is quite sparse. The absence of a structured monetary economy in Kush makes it difficult to understand the trade activities of the Meroites (Welsby, 1998). The elucidation of the nature of trade between a monetary economy, which existed in Egypt, and the non-monetary economy seen at Kush, requires even greater attention. The existence of fine pottery and other luxurious goods (both Meroitic and Egyptian) in burials all across Lower Nubia indicates that the local populations not only maintained themselves, but they also had the economic potential to purchase such goods (Welsby, 1998, 173). It is likely that some sort of wealth may have circulated in the area as a result of trade or migrant labour.

Another form of ‘embassy trade’ system appears to have functioned since the Napatan times between the members of the elites (Edwards, 1996). During the Meroitic period some members of the administration are recorded as ‘Apote Aromelis’, meaning ‘envoy to the Romans’. This title has been considered to relate to diplomatic and trading duties, and it therefore appears to indicate regular contact between the Meroites and the Romans (Edwards, 2004, 161-162; Haycock, 1974, 69). However, Edwards (2004, 167-168) suggests that there is no direct historical evidence which proves that private or commercial trade between these nations took place. On the contrary, most of the evidence refers to long-distance exchange, mainly of imported items found in burials, which were being channelled through elite or royal networks (Edwards, 2004, 167-168).

According to these observations it is certain that a large circulation of Egyptian and Meroitic pottery existed in Lower Nubia, even though it may not be attributed to organised and large-scale trade activity. These ceramic vessels were either containers used in the transportation of agricultural products or vessels with a utilitarian and/or symbolic function, which were mainly found in burial contexts. It is also likely that all of these vessels functioned as transmitters of ideas related to pottery production patterns, and possibly affected the patterns of local ceramic production, if this of course existed.

Meroitic pottery production in Lower Nubia

Shinnie (1967) and Welsby (1998) employ ethnological evidence to suggest that during the Meroitic period there were two forms of ceramic production in Lower Nubia: a) wheel-made pottery made by professional potters which was often traded, and b) hand-made pottery that was made by women for local use. Under the influence of Hellenistic Egypt, Meroitic pottery became a form of art which sometimes copied objects made out of metal or glass. Meroitic fine white wares and eggshell wares were amongst the most competent products of the Nile Valley (Welsby, 1998, 163-165; Shinnie, 1967, 116).

Evidence for pottery production from the Kingdom of Kush is scarce. It is clear that during the Meroitic period, previous Napatan traditions that had been inspired by Egyptian production, were replaced by new types of pottery, with a range of origins (Edwards, 2004, 170). The diversity of the Meroitic wares (both hand-made and wheel-made) may reflect that they were manufactured in various centres of production and by many different potters, even though Meroe (4) seems to have been a central focus of their manufacture (Adams, 1973, 204). The expansion of wheel-made pottery production appears to have begun around the first century BC. The new wheel-made products exhibited standardised and homogeneous forms, and decorative motifs (5). Their production appears to have increased to such an extent, that they presumably displaced other hand-made wares. Assemblages in Lower Nubia also tend to include quantities of imported Egyptian pottery, usually about 20% on sites north of the Second Cataract, although older studies have failed to distinguish local from imported pottery found at Meroitic sites (Edwards, 2004, 171-172).

The location of Meroitic pottery industries would have been affected by two major factors: firstly the availability of fuel and secondly the proximity to the market (Welsby, 2002, 191). Access to the market was generally available through river transportation. As was mentioned above, Qasr Ibrim has been proposed to be one of the production sites of the Meroitic period, even though there is no archaeological evidence to prove this. During the X-Group period (also known as the Ballana period, between c. AD 400 and c. AD 550) Qasr Ibrim became a very important settlement with the largest population in its history (Adams, 1996, 5). During that phase archaeological evidence indicates extensive pottery production and large scale importations of wine and luxury goods from Egypt (Plumley, 1975, 6-13; Plumley et al., 1977, 42-47). Unfired medieval white wares have been found at Qasr Ibrim, which indicates that it was one of the production centres of the time (Welsby, 2002, 193). The main settlement at Qasr Ibrim was located inside the fort on the top of the bluff, but during some periods there was also a settlement at the foot of the bluff, close to the river’s bank (Adams, 1996, 1). This part of the settlement has been identified as operating in the Middle Ages under the name ‘Lower Ibrim’ (Browne, 1991) and perhaps earlier as well. During that period industrial activities that required fuel and water, such as pottery production, must have been carried out close to the river (Clarke Sommers, 1912, 78-81). Unfortunately, these areas of Lower Ibrim were not excavated before their final destruction by the construction of the Aswan Dam (Adams, 1996, 1), so it is not known if similar production existed there during the Meroitic period. In order to understand Meroitic pottery production in Lower Nubia it is necessary to focus attention on other known production sites.

Meroitic pottery kilns have been excavated in Meroe, in the northern area of the ‘Royal’ city (Garstang, 1912, 46). It seems that the most elaborate finewares were manufactured in the capital of the Meroitic Empire (Török, 1997). More recent evidence from Meroe indicates that both hand-made and wheel-made wares were being fired in kilns and it is possible that the same potters employed both hand-made and wheel-made techniques in their workshops (Robertson & Hill, 1999). Pottery workshops have been discovered in Musawwarat es Sufra, in the area beside the north wall of the city’s enclosure. Large dumps of kiln wasters indicate that high quality Meroitic finewares were being produced there, along with quantities of local coarse wares. However, excavations in other parts of the site revealed a sparsity of finewares; therefore, it has been suggested that the production of finewares in Musawwarat es Sufra might have been largely unsuccessful (Seiler, 1998; Edwards, 1999). The paucity of finewares in the area may also be attributed to a fineware production that mainly orientated towards other markets at a further distance, such as Lower Nubia and Qasr Ibrim. Furthermore, in terms of technological means, evidence from Musawwarat es Sufra shows that Meroitic pottery production exhibited great similarity to the Romano-Egyptian production patterns. As well as operating the same type of circular kilns, the existence of Romano-Egyptian style decoration stamps and a potter’s wheel indicate the employment of similar manufacture technologies (Edwards, 1999), possibly attributed to some diffusion of ideas between the potters. Other possible Meroitic kilns have been identified in Abdel Qadir and Argin in Sudanese Lower Nubia by Adams (1962). However, Edwards (1999, 41) argues that the kilns at Argin are of an urban nature and do not contain any manufacturing debris; therefore, their identification as pot kilns is rather unlikely. A more detailed study of Merotic production sites is presented in one of the following articles.

According to the distribution of the sites that have been excavated to date, it can be said that Meroitic Pottery production existed in two main areas: one close to Lower Nubia and the north regions of Kush, and another one in the south, at the areas around Meroe and Musawwarat es Sufra. A similar division of manufacture centres has been suggested by Laurence Smith (1997; 1999) based on fabric analysis examinations. Smith (1997; 1999) points out that the clay sources used in Meroitic pottery production can be divided into two main clay groups: the northern clays of Aswan, Meinarti and Kalabsa, and the southern clays of Meroe and Musawwarat es Sufra.

A theoretical model of pottery production

How pottery production may have functioned in Qasr Ibrim and the surrounding areas

As suggested earlier, pottery production in Lower Nubia (and probably Qasr Ibrim) is likely to have taken place in two different ways: firstly, as household production of hand-made pottery for domestic use (6), and secondly, as workshop production of wheel-made vessels that were traded. The Aswani production of wheel-made pottery operated almost certainly on an industrial scale and specialised workshops produced standardised forms. A similar industrial production scale may have existed for the Meroitic finewares.

The existence of these two types of Meroitic pottery production falls within Peacock’s ethnological model of pottery production in the Roman world (1982, 6-11). According to Peacock (1982), individual household production can exist without the need for complex facilities, technologies and skills. Vessels are usually hand-made, produced by women, fired in open firing conditions and used for domestic activities, even though some ethnological examples from the Balkans show that such pottery can also reach the open market. Industrial production can exist at a level of household industry or individual workshop production. It requires some professional skills and the use of more complex technologies and facilities than individual household production, such as turntables or fast wheels and larger firing kilns. These vessels are mainly intended to be sold in the open market (Peacock, 1982) (7).

The agricultural resources of Qasr Ibrim and the surrounding areas of Lower Nubia were of relatively low potential; local populations would have been able to produce some foodstuffs to sustain their communities, but many other agricultural products would have been imported from other locations. Even if local inhabitants were self-sustainable, it is still unclear how non-food producers, such as potters, maintained themselves. However, various ethnological observations have demonstrated that pottery production can be conducted as a seasonal activity, practised for extra income along with agriculture and animal husbandry (Peacock, 1982; Sinopoli, 1991).

Pottery production may result as a natural by-product of food production: ceramic containers are needed for storing seasonal surplus, cooking pots and serving vessels may be necessary for processing and serving food, and larger containers are useful for transporting local goods to markets to be traded (Sinopoli, 1991; Skibo, 1992). It is rather unlikely that agricultural activities in Qasr Ibrim produced any surplus to be traded to long-distance markets by being carried in ceramic containers, and certainly in the case of grain, it can be transported in other containers such as sacks and basketry. Similar organic materials have been recovered in Qasr Ibrim because of the dry nature of the area that enables their preservation through time (Adams, 1985; Adams et al., 1983). The transportation of water from Qasr Ibrim to the nomadic populations of the deserts could have taken place in ceramic containers, as was the case during the medieval period (Welsby, 2002). However, skins could also have been used for the same purpose.

The location of Qasr Ibrim appears to be appropriate for supporting pottery production: its proximity to the River Nile enables easy access to clay sources and water, even though obtaining fuel may be a problem in an area that cannot fully support trees and plants. Dean Arnold’s ethnographic Ceramic Resource Threshold Model suggests that at production sites connected with sedentary or semi-sedentary societies, 37% of both clay and temper resources are produced within a distance of less than 1km away from the production area (Arnold, 1985). This specific model would probably match the situation at Qasr Ibrim, as it would also match most of the production sites located along the River Nile.