The object in focus this week is a small limestone statuette of a Lion from the ancient capital of Sudan, the city of Meroë (around 200km northeast of modern Khartoum). He is 14.8cm tall and was discovered by Prof. John Garstang during the 1912 season of excavations. Garstang excavated extensively at Meroë on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology between 1909 and 1914. His excavations revealed a complex layout of houses, temples and palaces built of stone and mud brick, with the remains of earlier periods being buried by later constructions as the city continued to be occupied for nearly a 1000 years. Meroë had a big impact on Garstang’s life, shown by the fact that he named his daughter after the city, which he had spent so long excavating.
The Kushite Empire was long lived and dates from between 890 BC and AD320. Whilst it was centred in the cities of Meroë and Napata, the rulers of Kush also held Egypt for around a century during the period known by Egyptologists as the Late Period. During this time a number of Kushite kings, such as Piye (Piankhy), Shabaqa and Taharqa also ruled over the Nile Valley as the 25th Dynasty of Egyptian kings. Despite losing their territory within the Egypt during the Assyrian conquest of the country, the Kingdom of Kush remained a major power in East Africa well into the early fourth century AD.
The art and culture of these kings was a fusion of the classically Egyptian and that of their native Sudan, both of these traditions living side by side. The golden age of the Kushite rulers within Egypt is often focused on the reign of Taharqa, who rebuilt temples within the Nile valley and attempted to extend the borders of his kingdom north of the Sinai. However, it was not to be, and the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal eventually expelled these rulers from the Egyptian Nile valley. Taharqa also produced one of the best known objects from this time, a sphinx in the British Museum which clearly shows the fusing of Egyptian and Kushite artistic traditions.
Whilst the mythical sphinx is not unusual within Ancient Egypt, after all there is an exceptionally large example hewn into the Giza plateau itself, the lion also held a special significance within the Meroitic culture for a number of reasons. In fact, lions are a recurrent element found in the artefacts of this culture. As such, this statuette is only one of many leonine artefacts within our collection.
One of the primary functions of the lion was as a marker of royal authority, often shown devouring captives, or in this case seated regally. The lion headed god Apedemak was worshipped as “the Lord of Royal power” in his temple at Naqa (south of Meroë). One famous relief in this temple shows a three-headed, four-armed Apedemak being adored by Queen Amanitore and King Natakamani.
In addition to this, lions were also hunted, along with rhinoceroses. This dangerous game hunting was a sign of the power of the individual. The burial of animals with the Kings of Kush is well attested- with the first King buried at the site of el-Kurru, King Kashta, with a number of chariot horses. In this tradition, there is also evidence for the burial of three young lions at Sanam- though why this was done is unclear.This statuette will be displayed in our new galleries in 2014 with a range of Ancient Sudanese material from Gartang’s excavations. He will be joined by a whole pride of lions both small and large!