Excavations Between Abu Simbel and the Sudan Frontier
Keith C. Seele, Director

Part 1:

The A-Group Royal Cemetery at Qustul, Cemetery L
Bruce Beyer Williams

                    The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition
                    Published in 1986
A-Group 3800-3100 B.C.; Cemetery L at Qustul, Nubia [Sudan] was discovered in January 1964 by Dr. Keith C. Steele.


Page 1-2: Cemetery L and Egyptian History

At this time, the "Protodynastic" date of the cemetery was hardly challenged, and many months were devoted to classifying and describing pottery and objects as well as research into the place of Cemetery L in the history of those cultures that occupied Nubia and the Sudan. Cemetery L was seen for the time as a cemetery of provincial royalty ancestral to great things in Nubia, but pale when compared to the first achievements of Egyptian political organization, art, and architecture. However, as the preparation of the manuscript progressed, from A-Group to Egyptian objects, persistent problems with the dating emerged. Only the latest tombs in the cemetery seemed to contain objects that ceased to be deposited in Egypt about the time of Djer, and they could be compared more precisely to materials from the time of [King Menes] Aha and earlier. Early tombs in the cemetery, such as L 24, contained pottery and stone vessels that had generally been dated before the First Dynasty. A group of painted bowls and a stand from slightly later tombs that belonged to the early and middle period of the cemetery also dated to the late Predynastic period. Other evidence from Tura, Beda, and elsewhere indicated that Cemetery L began well before the First Dynasty, and the scratched serekhs from the cemetery related directly, in date as well as type, to Kaiser's group of Predynastic palace facades. The cemetery was mostly earlier than the modest "Dynasty 0" tombs of Ka, Narmer, and B 1/2 (Iry-Hor) at Abydos and not contemporary with the later great monuments of the First Dynasty. The larger tombs of Cemetery L actually equaled or exceeded these in size and elaboration.
This volume is the materials excavated under the direction of Professor Keith C. Seele in a concession that extended from the Abu Simbel temples to the Sudan frontier in two seasons, 1962-63 and 1963-64. It presents, in detail, Cemetery L at Qustul, which is a small cemetery containing unusually large and wealthy tombs of A-Group. The tombs contained pharaonic images on A-Group objects, indicating that they belonged to rulers from the period before Egypt's First Dynasty. This lavishly illustrated volume details the elaborate A-Group painted pottery and decorated objects as well as more common finds, with individual chapters on the tombs, pottery, small objects, epigraphy, and a discussion of the special importance of Cemetery L in early Nubia with its possible role in the development of pharaonic Egypt.
Excavations Between Abu Simbel and Sudan: The A-Group Royal Cemetery at Qustul: Cemetery L (Nubian Expedition)
by Bruce Williams

388 pages + loads of Illustrations

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Nubia A-Group Painted Ceramic Bowl
Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Professor Seele had excavated a cemetery of fully royal tombs that equaled the elaboration of its counterparts in Egypt; L 24 was some generations earlier than any tomb in the B cemetery at Abydos.

Apart from other "first" in representation and art, the Qustul incense burner (cemetery L 24) stands out at this writing, not as a provincial imitation of some unknown Egyptian monument but as the first self-evident pharaonic monument from the Nile Valley, the first unequivocal representation of a pharaoh in his person, the first datable monumental-ceremonial object that compares with the slate palettes and maceheads of Egypt. The evidence is summarized below.

The great tombs in Cemetery L are to be dated sequentially, ending by the time of Abydos Cemetery B and beginning six generations or more earlier, L 24 being about four generations or more before Ka. The tombs are much the same as Abydos B 1/2 (Iry-Hor), B 7/9 (Ka), and B 18/17 (Narmer); the trench and associated chamber represent, perhaps, the double pit design of these pre-First Dynastic tombs at Abydos. Although fragmentary, the wealth was vastly superior to any contemporary tombs in Nubia or Egypt down to the Royal Cemetery at Abydos; this includes the thousand painted bowls, a hundred stone vessels from the cemetery, twenty-two storage jars in one tomb, and local objects in unusual numbers and quality. The Qustul incense burner and Horus of Nekhen incense burner are royal documents and other incense burners with serekhs [were the enclosing devices within which the early names of Kings were written] are comparable with the prehistoric palace facades from Egypt. The Qustul incense burner clearly shows the nesu [king] with Horus about four generations before Iry-Hor, and a series of roughly contemporary seals and sealings from other sites refer to the dynasty by the use of the same unusual form of palace facade. One sealing actually refers to the name Ta-Seti, the name used at this period of the plaque of Hor-Aha from Abydos, the Gebel Sheikh Suleiman inscription, as well as this sealing from Nubia, that connects this particular form of palace facade with the name Ta-Seti.
Nubia A-Group
Vessel decorated with a rowing boat with multiple oars, ostriches and undulating lines symbolizing water.
Nubia Museum, Aswan, Egypt
Research 2004:
Excerpts from book (Chapter 4):

Current research suggests that the system of elites, headed by a male chieftain, which was already a fixture of Nubian society from the middle of the fourth millennium B.C.E., continued to be the norm throughout the history of the A-Group. The evidence from the local Abka culture of the Neolithic Period would also indicate that Nubian civilization of the A-Group developed internally, at least in some regions, without response to outside stimuli.

Current research also suggests that the system of elites, headed by a male chieftain, which was already a fixture of Nubian society from the middle of the fourth millennium B.C.E., continued to be the norm throughout the history of the A-Group. The evidence from the local Abka culture of the Neolithic Period would also indicate that Nubian civilization of the A-Group developed internally, at least in some regions, without response to outside stimuli.
Clothing and Accessories

In certain respects, the costumes and accessories of the Nubians of the A-Group culture find their correspondences in the immediately preceding Neolithic Period and suggest a degree of cultural continuity.

The Nubians of this period continued to hunt, fish, and fowl, but also placed great value on the raising of cattle, on the model provided by the modern Maasai. The hides of these herds were cured and dyed for manufacture into clothing. The presence of the antelope as a motif on vessels of the period and on petroglyphs putatively of the same date suggests that their hides were also used for such garments. More rarely, the Nubians of the period wore linen garments, but either the bolts of cloth or the garments themselves had to have been imported into Nubia from Egypt because flax, from which linen is derived, was not natively cultivated during this period. The leather garments were either simple loincloths in a short and long style or phallus sheaths for men, which were worn separately, not together, if one can trust later depictions of the phallus sheath. These could be secured around the body with belts, which like the leather garments, might be decorated with a network of beads either of bone or imported faience sewn into geometric patterns.

There is evidence that the Nubians also wore a leather cap. The appearance of the cap at this time indicates the longevity of certain fashion statements, because a similar cap was also worn by Nubians during the Kerma culture. Both of these are evocative of a cap still worn by Nubians today.

The accessories of the Nubians were rather simple in design. These included bracelets, which often incorporate seeds, strung as if they were beads. Luxury materials such as ostrich egg shell and ivory were Grafted into armlets and necklaces, which might also be designed from stones. Beads were by far the most popular form of decorative element in the jewelry of the period, and those made of faience represent imports into Nubia from Egypt. Finger rings are known, but are rare. The presence of palettes suggests the continuing use of cosmetics, which may have also been used in life, in order to accompany the styling of hair, as the presence of both combs and hairpins suggests. Nevertheless, certain articles of the Nubian toilette continued to serve as indices of decorum. Graves of elite members of the Nubian oligarchy at Sayala, for example, were buried with cosmetic mirrors made of a mica, cosmetic palettes (indicating the practice was unisex), and two ceremonial maces, the handles of which were gold sheathed. One presumes the weapons were used in life as parade accessories. To date there is no evidence for the use of ear, lip, or nose plugs during this period.


The accelerated mercantile interactions between the Egyptians and the Nubians during the course of the period of the A-Group culture (about 3250-2800 B.C.E.) witnessed the exchange via barter of Africa's natural resources by the Nubians for typically Egyptian products. These exchanges were to have their impact on the diet of the Nubians. Cattle, which were always a measure of wealth among the Nubians, as among the modern Maasai today, served the medium of exchange in this barter economy of the period. The Nubians, consequently, bartered their cattle for Egyptian staples, which included beer and wine, as well as cereals and vegetable oils, which were now introduced into the Nubian diet. These same Nubians continued to hunt, fish, and fowl and may have continued to eat the flesh of the antelope, an animal that is the frequent subject of their vessels and of petroglyphs suggested to date to this period. They also expanded the repertoire of crops grown, which now increased to include wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. Melons continued to be a feature of their diet as well.

The Egyptian Speos (Temples)

The Egyptian rock cut temple, or speos, was of Nubian origin. The earliest example of which was the cave sanctuary at Sayala, a Nubian site just north of Abu Simbel on the west bank of the Nile River. This site is dated to the period of the Nubian A-Group culture (3700-3250 B.C.E.). This particularly Nubian architectural expression was adopted by the Egyptians of the New Kingdom, whose pharaohs commissioned several temples in Upper Egypt and in Nubia. The earliest of these, at Speos Artemidoros, is dated to the reign of Queen Hatshepsut of Dynasty XVIII, and the most famous are the paired Northern and Southern Temples at Abu Simbel. Here, Rameses II, to whom the Greater, or Southern Sanctuary is dedicated, is equated with male solar deities but can only dawn via the ministration of the female principal, ascribed to his chief queen Nofertari, to whom the Lesser, or Northern Sanctuary is dedicated.

The Final Phases of the A-Group Culture

At some point in time during the Final Phase of the A-Group culture the mercantile condominium that had been established between the Egyptians and the Nubians was dismantled. That dismantling is ascribed to numerous factors, one of which was certainly changes in the climate that caused the drying up of one or more arms of the Nile River, forcing Nubians of the A-Group to abandon their settlements there. These climatic changes contributed to a depopulation of the area, which was accompanied by a more aggressive Egyptian military presence in the region. Some scholars have interpreted a tablet associated with the Egyptian pharaoh Aha of Dynasty I (about 3007-2975 B.C.E.) as an early commemoration of a victory over the Nubians. Although this interpretation is not universally endorsed, the evidence for such campaigns seems to be unequivocal regarding the subject of a rock carving from Gebel Sheikh Suliman, now removed and in the collections of the National Museum in Khartoum. This scene was probably created during the reign of one of Aha's immediate successors, Djer (about 2974-2927 B.C.E.). This monument appears to be a record of an Egyptian raid against the Nubians in the vicinity of the second cataract. By the end of Egypt's Dynasty I (about 2850 B.C.E.) Lower Nubia no longer appears to be actively trading with Egypt; the importation of Egyptian goods and products appears to have been arrested, but military activity appears to have accelerated. The closing years of the Final Phase of the A-Group culture witnessed the virtual disappearance of the Nubians of the A-Group. Having lost control of Lower Nubia, her inhabitants appear to have retreated to the desert or regions beyond the third cataract.

The A-Group Royal Cemetery at Qustul, Cemetery L
by Bruce Beyer Williams, The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition, (1986) pp. 183, 185

Cemetery L, A-Group, and Nubia

The A-Group disappeared about or shortly after the time Cemetery L ended. The reason for this disappearance and whether there was any continuation of the culture begun in the A-Group are major problems. First, the violent destruction of Cemetery L parallels the destruction and burning in the royal cemeteries of Egypt. The end of A-Group may not be related to this destruction, or even to the campaign of Aha. Certainly a number of features occur later that appeared in A-Group but not dynastic Egypt. We are therefore confronted with the puzzling situation in which a long period of relatively sparse occupation by different culture groups was succeeded by periods in which a number of distinctive A-Group features reappear.

Despite the lack of comparable material from the succeeding period in either Upper or Lower Nubia the question of continuity can be addressed by asking two questions: "Are there any materials anywhere that resemble distinctively A-Group materials and associations so closely that knowledge of them must have been transmitted?" and "Do these material similarities exist in a relationship to one another that indicates that a coherent group of materials and practices were transmitted?" The answer to this last question will determine whether or not an antecedent relationship existed. The similarities would comprise combinations so complex that their successive occurrance cannot be fortuitous or a result of casual borrowing out of context.

Concluding Remarks

The Royal Cemetery of Ta-Seti of Qustul is thus the key element in a reorientation of our understanding of events in Nubia. The eclectic tastes of the Kerma-Kushites had concealed the diversity of cultures above Aswan. As with the A-Group before, the Kushites held the geographical pivot of northeastern Africa. They mixed ideas and materials from the north (Egypt), east (Pan Grave-Medjay), and south to west (Sudanese-Saharan). Since no one could pass them by they mediated contacts among these groups. At the same time, the A-Group-Kushite tradition remained a major center of Lower Nile civilization. Having a common origin with Egypt in the Naqada I-II, the southern group remained more true than Egypt to the archaic heritage that was passed to its descendants at Napata and Meroe, and, though modified by continuing contacts with Egypt, was revived in dramatic form by the Noubades in the final pharaonic cemeteries at Qustul and Ballana.
Additional reading by author Bruce Beyer Williams:

Forebears of Menes of Nubia: Myth or Reality? (1987)
Qustul Incense Burner
About 3000 B.C.

The following text is from the book: Africa in Antiquity, The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan, Steffen Wenig, The Brooklyn Museum, p. 177 (1978)

DESCRIPTION: A scene in sunk relief on the outside of a conical vessel shows a palace facade and three boats. A man stands behind a cabin on the first boat, and a crocodile, whose head only is preserved, is visible below it. Traces of prow and stern remain of the second boat. Behind it is a harpoon (?) and a goat standing on its hind legs, followed by a man wearing a scanty loincloth. He faces the third boat, one of his arms raised. On the third boat is a large quadruped, and under it is a fish pierced by a harpoon (?). Above the scene are incised hatchings. The flat rim of the vessel is decorated with hatched triangles.

Several similar objects in sandstone as well as limestone have been found in A-group excavations (Save-Soderbergh 1964, 29, pi. Ilia; Nordstrom 1972, 119f.; Nordstrom 1962, 58, pi. Xa; Griffith 1921, 9, pi. IV, 3; Reisner 1910, 277, pi. 64h). They are either undecorated or have only incised lines. Other pieces from Qustul Cemetery L and now in Chicago (Oriental Institute Museum 23684, 23709, 23717, 23719, 24058) have for the most part only a shallow depression on top, and several show traces of burning inside.

These vessels have been regarded as censers (Firth), as lamps (Save-Soderbergh 1964, 29; Nordstrom 1972, 119f.), and as dishes for grinding pigments, since an object of this kind found in Grave L 19 shows traces of red dye (Seele 1974, 29-30, 33-34). They might have had nothing to do with cylinder seals, the similarity of form being purely coincidental.

The present object should be classified with the pieces cited, which may well include some censers, although others were certainly used as mortars. The fact that the vessel is decorated is a sign of its owner's high position in society. Although the limestone was imported from Egypt, the decoration appears to be the work of a Nubian stonecutter. Similar boat representations are frequently found in rock drawings in Nubia (Landstrom 1970, figs. 73-74 on 25). The goat is a buck of the common domestic type, with twisted horns (Brentjes 1962, 14ff.). The fish is more difficult to identify since its tail fin is not plainly visible; Brentjes thinks it may be a Nile perch (Lates niloticus). He identifies the quadruped standing on the third boat as a baboon, based on the proportions of the extremities, the form of the hind legs, the simian long tail and dorsal line, and the shape of the head (by letter). According to this exact view, we must regard Nubia as the country of origin of the relief, since baboons still existed there when this object was made. Egyptian parallels are lacking.


Brentjes, B. Wildtier und Haustier im Alten Orient. Lebndiges Altertum, Populare Schriftenreihe fur Altertumswissenschaft, 11. Berlin/DDR, 1962.

Landstrom, B. Ships of the Pharaohs: 4000 Years of Egyptian Shipbuilding. London, 1970
Nubia A-Group Painted Ceramic Vessels
Garnet and jasper beads. From Qustul, Egyptian Nubia, A-Group
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