The C-Group culture

King Snofru (c. 2617–2593 BC) made a raid into Nubia, bringing back 7000 prisoners of war and 200 000 big and small flock. Most probably this was intended as a pre-emptive strike against the immigration of the so-called C-Group People (an abstract terminology introduced by the American archaeologist George A. Reisner at the beginning of the 20th century during the first Archaeological Survey of Nubia). Snofru, however, was unable to stop the C-Group immigrating into the nearly empty Lower Nubia thus becoming a neighbour of Egypt.

The C-Group is closely related, if not identical, to the earliest phase of the Kerma-Culture which settled about the same time, or slightly earlier, in the Kerma-basin, south of the Third Cataract in the Sudan. Most probably, the C-Group came therefore from the south or south-west and settled mainly on the West Bank in the most fertile places between the First and the Second Cataract. At the beginning they were mainly pastoralist herders of, especially, sheep, goats and cattle. Settlements consisted at the beginning of round huts enclosed by rubble walls and probably thorn hedges, leaving enough space to also protect their flocks over night. By and by settlement centres developed along the Nile at areas where the alluvial land was more spacious such as Dakka, Aniba, Qustul/Ballana and Faras. One may assume that the habitats offered by the Nile within places of seasonal lush vegetation, made agriculture and the accumulation of people possible. This lead to the development of larger tribal organisations headed by powerful chieftains. This picture is reflected in the inscriptions of the 6th Dynasty monarchs of Elephantine who mention different lands held by tribal leaders such as Irtjet, Satjw, Wawat. Egyptian trading expeditions, heading to the country Yam – most probably Kerma – had to pass these lands. The C-Group countries surely benefited for letting such caravans pass. By and by they seem to have united under a single leader who imposed more difficulties for the caravans and triggered military action by the Egyptians towards the end of the Old Kingdom.

The C-Group population was smaller and significantly more dark skinned than the contemporary Egyptian population. This shows not only in the results of osteological investigations but can also be seen in a wooden model of a company of archers from a tomb in Assiut, today in the Cairo Museum. There they wear a half-length coiffure with a headband and tight kilts, covered with beadwork. They were already employed in the Egyptian army in the Old Kingdom and played an important part in wars between the monarchs and in the unification process of Egypt during the First Intermediate Period. In the Theban tomb of the 11th Dynasty general Antef, and on the reliefs of the royal mortuary complex of Nebhepetreë Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahari, Nubian soldiers are seen shooting their arrows at fortresses probably situated in Lower Egypt, manned by Asiatic mercenaries. Their unsurpassed speciality was archery, besides oaring boats, hunting and tending hunting dogs as seen on the Gebelein stelae. This employment may explain the numerous Egyptian imports of pottery containers in Lower Nubia during the 11th and first half of the 12th Dynasty – commodities, perhaps sent to the families of the archers.

The employment of large parts of the male population in Egypt was probably already an important factor in Nubian economy at that time. The constant demand for soldiers led, at the same time, to a continuous influx of Nubians into Egypt where they were absorbed and contributed to the population type, especially that of Upper Egypt.

 C-Group cemetery

We know the C-Group especially from its cemeteries, which signal to the archaeologist the sizes of settlement over the country. A carefully constructed stone circle, covered by a tumulus of sand and pebbles protected the mainly oval to rounded rectangular pit tombs. The bodies were placed primarily in a crouched position on their right side in a local east-western orientation looking north as the burials of the Kerma Culture. Later, from the time of the 12th Dynasty onwards, this changed generally to a local north-south orientation with the head looking West. They rested on reed mats or sheepskins and were protected by a cover of mats. From the Middle Kingdom onwards, stone slabs covered the pits and from the late Middle Kingdom onwards, richer tombs were given vaulted chambers in mud brick. The offerings were partly placed in the pit, partly to the east of the superstructure, buried in sand. They consisted partly of beautifully ornamented pottery such as hemispherical cups, imitating ornamented basketwork. The love for geometric ornamentation, which shows not only on pottery and basketwork, but also on beadwork and body tattoo, can be considered as a specific feature of the C-Group Culture.

During the late Middle Kingdom, under the influence of the Kerma culture, the construction of a stone or mud brick chapel developed from this offering place at the east of the tumulus. At this time a significant hierarchical structure is observable in the cemeteries with some tombs having a diameter of 15 m and more.

It is difficult to assess the religious beliefs and activities of the carriers of this culture. They prepared for an afterlife. Female idols with signs of tattooing and animal figurines played a part in such preparations. Representations of cows and calves on funerary stelae of the early C-Group, on pottery, and rock art, reveal that an abundance of such animals was an eternal wish. In Sayala a rock cave with paintings from the time of the A-Group and the C-Group with cattle representations are a sign that specific cult places existed.

During the Middle Kingdom, the settlements of the C-Group Culture became more solid with a tendency to construct rectangular houses, partly of stone blocks, but also in mud brick alongside the traditional round huts. The Egyptians dominated the most important living areas of the C-Group by means of enormous fortresses, situated in the strategically important places of the country. After the Egyptian garrisons were disbanded at the end of the Middle Kingdom, some villages were built by the C-Group at Wadi es-Sebu‘a and Areika.

According to the evidence of the cemeteries the large communities of the C-Group Culture must have disappeared during the Second Intermediate Period. Small cemeteries are typical for this time. The Kingdom of Kush (the Kerma Culture) now politically dominated Lower Nubia. The archaeological picture shows influences from both the Pan Grave Culture (see below) and that of the Kerma Culture. Altogether the unity of culture is dissolved and shows a cultural mix. In this latest stage of the C-Group Culture, its original appearance has been lost. One gets the impression that thinly scattered small communities of different ethnic origin (the remains of C-Group- Pan Grave- and Kerma-populations) inhabited Nubia at that time. The unstable political situation between 17th Dynasty Upper Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush with armies rushing through from both sides did not permit stable conditions for the maintenance of the Culture, the C-Group had once been. The vacuum, which developed in the Second Intermediate Period in large parts of Lower Nubia, could also be felt in the New Kingdom.