120 kilometres north of Khartoum lie the ruins of ancient Meroë. For almost a thousand years (c.700BC-AD330) Meroë was an important religious and administrative centre in the Kingdom of Kush.
One of the earliest cities in Africa outside Egypt, Meroë was at the heart of a complex, literate culture. Abandoned in the fourth century, the ruins were re-identified as the ancient city of Meroë in 1772. Between 1909 and 1914, the site was excavated by Liverpool archaeologist John Garstang.
Today, Meroë is recognised academically as among the most important sites in the history of ancient Sudan, but its history remains all-but-unknown to the general public. Overshadowed by its northern neighbour, Egypt, Meroë remains Africa’s forgotten empire.
John Garstang was among the first archaeologists to make use of photography to record excavations. The University of Liverpool maintains a large collection of his glass negatives. Among the most impressive finds at Meroë is the head of Augustus, now in the British Museum, likely taken to the site as a war trophy.
Finds from Meroë
The artefacts discovered at Meroë, large and small, were of remarkable quality.
Lions featured prominently in Meroitic art and sculpture, likely in honour of the Meroitic god Apedemak, who was often depicted with a lion’s head.
Another distinctive feature of Meroitic material culture is the thin, highly decorated pottery styles found throughout the site.
Language and Art
The culture of Meroë was heavily influenced by ancient Egypt, in both art and religion. The ancient Egyptian language, and its hieroglyphic script, functioned as a sacred language at Meroë. It was used for monumental and religious inscriptions.
The Meroitic people spoke their own language, which was not related to ancient Egyptian. However, when they devised a script of their own it was based on Egyptian writing systems. They made use of this script in later periods for monumental texts, in both hieroglyphic and cursive forms. Although the writing system was deciphered over a century ago, the Meroitic language still cannot be understood, and linguists are not certain to which family of languages it is connected.
Meroitic art drew on Egyptian canons, but had its own distinctive style. The figures typically possess a fuller figure than their more slender Egyptian counterparts. Figures in Meroitic art also tend to be dressed more elaborately than ancient Egyptians. The long, richly patterned clothes of the Nubians contrast with the Egyptian preference for more plain, typically white, linen garments.
While elements familiar from Egyptian reliefs such as the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt appear, other iconographic elements are distinctly Sudanese. In the scene fragment below, the heavy, rectangular earrings worn by the king and queen are particularly Meroitic, as are the items in the queen’s hands.
Animals such as elephants, not normally part of the Egyptian canon, are also found prominently in Meroitic sculpture and relief. Lions also occupy a far more central position in Meroitic art than they do in Egyptian.
Classical art also appears to have influenced the art at Meroë, with several statues found in reclining, classical poses.
The Amun Temple
John Garstang found many monumental structures at Meroë, including several buildings he identified as palaces and temples. The large temple of the Egyptian god Amun was likely built after the middle of the first century AD.
By the Egyptian New Kingdom (c.1539-1075BC), Amun had become the chief deity of the Egyptian pantheon, and his cult was exported to Nubia in this period. Amun was the most prominent deity in Meroitic religion, with many of the names of Meroitic kings and queens, such as Analamani and Amentari, containing the Nubian vocalisation of his name.
Amun is frequently depicted in ancient Egyptian and Sudanese art in the form of a ram. Two rows of ram statues would once have lined the way to the temple at Meroë.
Excavation and the Aerial Railway
The size of the excavation, taking in the entire city and necropolis of Meroë, made it necessary to find new techniques to clear rubble and debris from the site.
The Mond Aerial Railway was conceived as a way of moving equipment and soil quickly on an excavation. It was designed and built by R. White & Sons, an engineering firm based in Widnes, and paid for by the industrialist and archaeologist Robert Ludwig Mond (1867-1938).
The aerial railway was first used by John Garstang in 1911 under Mond’s direction at Sakçagöze in modern Turkey. Later, it was moved to Sudan, where it was used by Garstang at Meroë. The ‘railway’ consisted of a square bucket, suspended on an automated system of ropes and pulleys.
In addition to the use of the Aerial Railway sponsored by Robert Mond, the sheer size of Meroë also required additional heavy machinery to move spoil and equipment around the site.
To this end, Garstang borrowed several lengths of light railway track from the Sudanese government. Garstang’s contact in the government was the Inspector of Railways, Colonel Midwinter Bey, who facilitated this transaction. At the time of Garstang’s excavation, Sudan was under British control.
The Sudan Government Railway was originally constructed by the British to support a military campaign. The first line, from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamad, was built in the 1890s by order of Lord Kitchener for use in his campaign against the Mahdiyah. This was in retaliation for the Fall of Khartoum in 1885, and the death of the Governor-General of the Sudan, Charles Gordon.
After Kitchener’s victory the line was extended to Atbarah, a city located roughly 90 kilometres from Meroë.
Protecting the Royal Baths
During the 1912 season at Meroë, John Garstang reported finding “An interesting building complex […] between Palace 295 and the city wall.” The odd nature of the structure confused Garstang, and it was not until the last day of the season that he realized its true importance, naming it ‘The Royal Baths’.
The structure does resemble a typical Roman bath: it contained a deep tank pool surrounded by benches, known in Roman baths as a tepidarium. Along the benches above the pool were pieces of sculptures and reliefs set directly into the plaster wall. These include lions, gods and bright green faience tiles.
When excavating the pool itself, Garstang found a statue of a reclining figure, its obesity marking it out as a possible member of the royal family at Meroë.
In antiquity, the structure had been surrounded by a colonnaded courtyard, and the tank was surrounded by plastered walls, which had been painted with frescoes.
To protect his discovery, Garstang constructed a large wooden shed to prevent sandstorms from destroying the relatively fragile sandstone sculptures placed around the pool.
More recent excavations by German archaeologists have shown that the structure was likely not a royal bath, but rather a type of water sanctuary, related to the annual Inundation of the River Nile, on which the agricultural production of the Meroitic Empire depended.
John Garstang brought around twenty trained excavators from Egypt. In addition to this experienced workforce, he employed an additional two hundred local Sudanese workmen to carry out the excavation.
Garstang kept a record of the names of workmen he employed. We know from his notes that the chief of the Egyptian workers was Saleh Abd el-Nebi, who had worked with Garstang on many occasions.
The camp at Meroë was in a remote part of Sudan, so it was necessary to bring drinking water to the site by rail.
People of Meroë in the Early Twentieth Century
After the fall of the Meroitic civilisation in the fourth century AD, the city was abandoned. By the time John Garstang began work at the site, over fifteen-hundred years later, the area was a remote rural area of Sudan. The village of Begrawiya is the closest modern settlement to the ancient city.
For more information on Garstang’s excavations at Meroë, see Torok, Laszlo (1997) Meroe City: an Ancient African Capital (Egypt Exploration Society; London).
For more images from Garstang’s excavations at Meroë, see our Pinterest board, and don’t forget to check out our sketchfab page, which includes a 3D model of a Meroitic lion statuette in our collection!
By Gina Criscenzo-Laycock and Huw Twiston Davies