British Museum blog

Death, the great equaliser: Christianity on the Middle Nile

Julie Anderson, Assistant Keeper (curator), British Museum

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

People are often surprised to discover that two of the largest Christian kingdoms in the medieval world were in Sudan in northeast Africa. Ibn Selim Al-Aswani, an Arab traveller, visited Sudan in the 10th century AD and described the region north of Old Dongola, capital of the medieval kingdom of Makuria, situated roughly 750 kilometres upstream of Aswan Egypt, as an area of ‘about thirty villages, with beautiful buildings, churches and monasteries, many palm-trees, vines, gardens, cultivated fields and broad pastures on which one can see camels’.

Further to the south, Soba East, capital of the medieval kingdom of Alwa, located near modern-day Khartoum, was said to have ‘fine buildings and large monasteries, churches rich with gold and gardens’. This conjures up quite a romantic picture of medieval Sudan and provides us with an insight into the world in which the Sudanese female mummy, now in the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, had lived. Was medieval Sudan as idyllic as it sounds?

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © Trustees of the British Museum).

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © The Trustees of the British Museum).

I am captivated by the medieval wall-paintings of saints, apostles, bishops, royalty, biblical stories and archangels, particularly those unearthed by the Polish archaeological mission in the Cathedral at Faras, Sudan, a site situated near the modern Sudan/Egypt border and now beneath the waters of Lake Nubia/Nasser. The paintings were discovered and rescued during the 1960s UNESCO salvage campaign to save the monuments of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia threatened by the creation of the Aswan High Dam reservoir, and it is their singular beauty that inspired me as a student to focus on Sudanese and Nubian archaeology. To this day, I remain entranced by the richness of Nubian culture. The portrait in the Sudan National Museum of a Nubian queen or noblewoman, held within the protective embrace of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, is particularly striking. Splendidly attired, the queen bears a small cross on her forehead demonstrating her Christian faith to the viewer whom she gazes directly at. The age at which she was depicted is perhaps close to that of the Sudanese mummy, who would have been between 20 and 35 years old at time of her death.

The Sudanese mummy was very likely not a queen, but in death rich and poor alike received similar burials. The conversion to Christianity in the 6th century AD by missionaries from the Byzantine Empire brought about one of the most profound changes ever experienced in the Middle Nile Valley. Churches and cathedrals herald the arrival of Christianity as they replaced the earlier temples to pagan gods. The traditional system of rites and beliefs was swept away and, in its place, totally different attitudes towards death and the afterlife were introduced. Unlike earlier burials, those of the Christian period were not provided with sumptuous grave goods or food offerings. They were sparsely endowed, if at all. Death was a great social equaliser.

Christian graves were simple tombs with small, flat-topped rectangular superstructures of brick or stones that covered a narrow grave shaft. The deceased was wrapped in a shroud, and the head was often protected by a brick or stone. Bodies were placed on their backs in an extended rather than crouched or contracted position. More elaborate tomb superstructures were plastered white; they might be cruciform in shape or have rounded tops. Graves were orientated east–west, though in some places this was done according to the orientation of the Nile rather than true north. The west end of the tomb, the end which corresponded to the location of the head of the deceased, was sometimes equipped with a lamp-box, a small niche which provided protection from the wind for a lit lamp.

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

One such lamp (EA51771) was excavated from Faras Cemetery 4 early in the 20th century by the University of Oxford Expedition led by Francis Llewellyn Griffith, and is now in the British Museum’s collection. The disc on the top of the lamp is decorated with a rosette, and a retrograde Greek inscription reading ‘Great is the name of God’ adorns the shoulder.

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Artistic expression was not restricted to wall-paintings or ceramics (though traces of wall-paintings have so far been found in over 50 medieval churches), but also encompassed many minor arts such as basketry, leather and metal-work and textiles. Architectural elements were often embellished with Christian motifs. Such powerful religious symbolism is evident in a 7th-century decorative sandstone frieze (EA 606) from the First Cathedral at Faras. It depicts an eagle or dove surmounted by a cross, standing between columns and altars with its wings spread. This piece, originally part of a sequence of 24 birds, may have adorned the cathedral’s apse. Its yellow background with the relief features highlighted in black would have created an eye-catching, yet pious band of decoration which alluded to the resurrection of Christ, and it may have been something upon which our Sudanese mummy or her contemporaries gazed during their lives while contemplating salvation and paradise.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is on at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung.

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

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The Viking way of death

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil PriceNeil Price, Professor of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen

Among the most fascinating things in the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend are the numerous objects from burials and graves. The way that a people treat their dead can say a lot about their attitudes to life, and the Vikings were no exception. Although their graves take certain standardised forms – an earthen mound, a wooden chamber, a buried boat, and so on – in the detail of the rituals it’s clear that almost every funeral was different, a personalised send-off. We know that this was an age of individuals, but what can we understand from this infinity of responses to death? Let’s look more closely at just one example, which in all its unique complexity can stand for all the others.

The scene is a small, beachfront trading community, located in the outer reaches of the Oslofjord in Norway. We know this place as Kaupang, it just means ‘market’, but to its inhabitants it was known as Skíringssalr – something like ‘the shining hall’, perhaps named after its lord’s residence on the hill behind. Nearly twenty years of excavations there have revealed rows of small houses and workshops strung out along the water’s edge, with access to wharves where the ships came in from around the whole region. But this is for the living; outside the settlement, on promontories and on the low heights along the edges of the fjord, are the graves of the dead.

One of them seems at first to be a relatively simple affair. In the middle of the 9th century a man of indeterminate age was buried on his left side, probably dressed in a cloak because a brooch was found at his shoulder. His chest was pressed up against a large stone, and his body had been covered from the waist down with a cloth of very fine quality, drawn up like a blanket over his legs. With him were a handful of objects: two knives, a fire steel and two flints, a whetstone, some fragments of a soapstone bowl and what the excavators called an ‘egg-shaped stone’. Little in this is particularly exciting, though even this meagre grave has its own character and individualism, everything in it being there for a reason. However, it is what happened next that is remarkable.

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early tenth century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

Several decades later in the early 900s, an 8.5m-long boat was placed exactly on top of the dead man, its keel aligned precisely along the axis of his grave (which tells us that its location was remembered). Inside the boat were the bodies of four people: a man, two women and an infant, together with a number of animals. Around and above the bodies, laid out together with them or deposited above them as the boat was filled with earth, were masses of objects. Let us look a little closer.

In the prow a man and a woman lay apparently on blankets covering the decking. The woman was aged about 45-50 when she died, arranged on her back with her right hand on her breast, ankles crossed and her feet pointing into the prow. Her head was resting on a stone, like a pillow. She was expensively dressed, her clothes held together with silver jewellery. From her belt hung a knife and a key. To her immediate right was a bucket. Balanced across her knees, a weaving sword.

A baby was wrapped in the woman’s dress, bundled at her hip with her left hand resting on its head.

Lying head to head with the woman, arranged symmetrically with his feet pointing to the stern, was a man of unknown age. He had been placed slightly twisted, on his back but with legs flexed and bent to one side at the waist. Laid out around him were weapons: two axes, of which one was an antique; a throwing spear; a sheathed sword, its point precisely at his head, with two knives and a whetstone next to it; a shield (two more lay nearby); a quiver of arrows and therefore probably also a bow. A silver arm-ring lay above him. On his midriff lay an inverted frying pan. On the sword scabbard two spindle whorls had been carefully placed. A pot of German manufacture had been smashed and its pieces scattered over the man’s body along with three glass beads, near a soapstone vessel. Two more of the latter were deposited at the man’s feet. An iron dog chain was draped next to him, with a sickle somewhere nearby.

Amidships, a bridled horse had been killed and laid on the deck. Its throat was probably cut, and it seems to have been decapitated and roughly dismembered, its limbs and body parts then placed back in approximately their anatomical positions. A single spur was placed on the mangled corpse.

In the stern of the boat was a second woman, apparently buried sitting up, either in a chair or hunched up against the rising end of the vessel. From her location and posture it is possible that the steering oar of the boat was resting in her hands. A whetstone and a bridle-bit leant against her feet, which touched the carcass of the horse. She was well-dressed in high fashion. Behind her was a shield. To her right, resting on the deck, another of those enigmatic ‘egg-shaped stones’ and a weaving sword of iron. To her left, an unusual iron staff pinned down under a large rock. Somewhere near her was an axe. In the woman’s lap was an imported bowl of bronze that had been scratched with runes, i muntlauku, ‘in the hand basin’. The bowl contained some unidentified little metal objects, and the severed head of a dog. Its body lay across the woman’s feet. One pair of its legs, perhaps detached, lay a little below the torso; the other legs were missing. Marks on the bones suggest crude carving of the flesh before the ragged skeleton was reassembled. Around the woman were also found fragments of wood and bark, pieces of sheet iron and objects of copper alloy; we do not know what they were.

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

The iron staff might offer a small clue to the nature of the dead steerswoman, as it is of a kind identified as a tool of the sorceresses called a völur, and other female magic-workers, who feature extensively in the Icelandic sagas. Several staffs of this kind can be seen in the exhibition.

The whole burial was then covered with earth and complex stone constructions, building up to a low mound. The excavators also found patches of cremated bone and wood mixed here and there in the deposit, hinting at further rituals about which we know nothing.

In all of this, note the detail, the precision, the deliberate choice and positioning of objects. The treatment of these Viking-Age dead is eloquent in its sheer specificity.

So what were they doing, on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the early tenth century? A burial of four people in a boat, itself placed on top of another grave, a few decades old. Were the man and woman a couple, with their child? Or were they unrelated? Who was the woman sitting in the stern, apparently some kind of witch? Did they all die together, either violently or through illness? Was one or more of them killed to accompany the others in death? Whose were the boat and the animals, or did they belong to none of the dead? What do the objects mean, and would a contemporary understanding of them even approximate to our own? What connection did all of this have with the man under the keel? One thing is certain: it does not resemble any kind of funeral familiar to us.

They died a long time ago and we do not know their names, but these people of the Viking Age faced the same eternal questions of life and its meaning as still puzzle us today. The boat burial at Kaupang was one of their answers.


Neil Price is a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Amara West 2012: mid-season report from the cemetery


Michaela Binder, Durham University

We’re now halfway through the season in the cemeteries of Amara West and we have excavated 10 tombs (four still ongoing) and made a number of exciting new discoveries. One of the more surprising discoveries so far was the tumulus dating to the early-middle Kerma period excavated by Ashild Vagene and Mohammed Saad at the start of the season.

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

Remains of a pyramid and tomb-chapel (G309)

Another major part of this season’s works is the pyramid tomb G309, only the third known at Amara West. Though of distinctive Egyptian appearance on the outside, underneath the surface the grave provides a particular mixture of Egyptian and Nubian cultural elements – a characteristic encountered in so many aspects of life at Amara West.

Difficult working conditions for Philip Kevin consolidating the coffin in G309

Difficult working conditions for Philip Kevin consolidating the coffin in G309

In G309 this is exemplified through a pottery assemblage which features several examples of Egyptian vessel types produced with a technique more typical of local Nubian pottery. At present, Philip Kevin, conservator in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum, is working to preserve parts of a wooden coffin decorated with painted plaster.

No less interesting is G314, the grave Laurel Engbring has been working on for the past few weeks. Underneath a low burial mound, the grave features a shaft with two small burial chambers. While the western one still awaits investigation the eastern chamber is now almost fully exposed.

Mohammed Saad with workmen Rami Mohammed Abdu and Nayel Terab excavating Grave 319

Mohammed Saad with workmen Rami Mohammed Abdu and Nayel Terab excavating Grave 319

Inside we were able to document for the first time an almost complete wooden burial bed. Thanks to Philip, several large side elements could be consolidated and preserved. A female, placed on the bed in a flexed position – characteristic of Nubian funerary traditions – appears to have been covered in a coarse woven textile.

Elsewhere in the cemetery Mohammed Saad, after his exciting discoveries of an almost intact burial container in G317, has moved on to another, slightly different tomb with a nicely carved rock-cut burial chamber. A first glimpse into it leaves us with high expectations: three well-preserved skulls are visible, alongside pottery, all partly covered in sand…

 


 

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

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Progress in the cemeteries

Michaela Binder, Durham University

After a somewhat disappointing first week in Cemetery C during which we only found heavily disturbed graves, our luck turned last week. We discovered two largely intact graves which provide us with important insights into the funerary customs of the people living at Amara West.

Excavations in Cemetery C

One of these intact graves is G216. As with most of the other graves excavated in Cemetery C it is of the niche grave type, in which the body of the deceased is placed in a narrow niche on the bottom of a rectangular shaft.

With a length of 2.2 metres and a width of 1.2 metres, G216 is the largest niche discovered so far. In contrast, other graves found this week are very small, with just enough space to accommodate a small child burial.

G217: Niche grave for a child burial

While some of these graves were used for only one burial, G216 was re-used no less than five times. As the niche is only large enough to hold one body, the older burials were simply thrown out of the shaft – we found the remains loosely scattered within it.

The coffin inside the burial niche of G216

Only the latest burial was discovered intact within the burial niche, placed in a wooden coffin decorated with a fine layer of white plaster, painted with parallel red and black stripes. This coffin was not exclusively used for this individual – parts of an earlier burial were found on the bottom of it.

Ivory Bes amulet (F9459)

One of the most exciting finds of this grave so far is a finely-carved ivory amulet found within the jumble of human bones on the side of the coffin. The figurine represents Bes, the Egyptian household god.

Though Bes amulets are not an unusual thing to find in graves, this is a special one. Its body features all the elements of a typical Egyptian style, but its head is carved in an entirely different, presumably local, manner, which is more reminiscent of an African mask than an Egyptian god. This little amulet therefore nicely shows how imported religious iconography was combined with local cultural elements.

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Some more #Halloween fun: this ‘unlucky mummy’ in the collection was thought to bring bad luck to anyone who owned it!
#mummy #curse Our free exhibition #WitchesAndWickedBodies is a #Halloween delight, examining the portrayal of #witches and #witchcraft from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Explore the exhibition in Room 90, until 11 Jan 2015. Happy #Halloween! Today we're sharing all things spooky and scary! Check out some Halloween #Pinspiration at 
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#museum #london #gallery Room 6, Assyrian sculpture and Balawat Gates, is the next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. This room contains large stone sculptures and reliefs which were striking features of the palaces and temples of ancient Assyria (modern northern Iraq). Also in the gallery are two colossal winged human-headed lions, which flanked an entrance to the royal palace of King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) at Nimrud and replicas of the huge bronze gates of Shalmaneser III (858–824 BC) from Balawat.
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