The Nubian A-Group

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The A-Group, an indigenous Nubian culture, emerged in Lower Nubia c. 3500 BC, during the Predynastic period in Egypt, and it reached its climax about the time of the Egyptian unification, c.3000 BC. George A. Reisner introduced the term “A-Group” in his chronological model of the Nubian cultures (1910). A-Group remains, mainly cemeteries, have been found between Kubaniya, 10 km (6 miles) to the north of Aswan, and Saras East in Bam el-Hagar, 30 km (20 miles) to the south of the Second Cataract. The rocky tract at Semna and Kumna may have constituted the southern border of this culture.

The most important archaeological source material related to the Nubian A-Group came from about seventy-five village cemeteries. Many graves had rich and varied funeral offerings that consisted of a whole array of indigenous and imported pottery types, including Nubian bowls and dishes with rippled surfaces, delicate thin-walled vessels with red-painted geometric patterns, and Egyptian bowls and wine jars. Among the other finds there were ivory bracelets, stone beads and amulets, mollusc shells from the Red Sea, copper tools, quartzite palettes, mortars and grinders, and female pottery figurines.

The general characteristics of the A-Group culture can be summarised as follows. The population, estimated at less than 20 000, lived in small communities along the flood plain. Structural remains of houses have been found only occasionally, most notably stone foundations and Afia, near Korosko. Animal husbandry, primarily cattle raising, formed the basis of their economy. They also practiced agriculture, growing cereal grains and leguminous plants. Fishing, hunting and food gathering were probably complementary parts of their subsistence. On the whole, the material remains of the A-Group display a blending of Egyptian and Sudanese designs and influences. The distribution of the funerary remains indicates a social inequality that became strongly emphasized towards the end of the period.

The control of trade and exchange in Nubia might have become the decisive factor in the development of the A-Group’s socio-economic and political structure. The leaders of the A-Group communities probably played an important intermediary role among the fast-developing Egyptian economy, the communities in Upper Nubia and those in surrounding regions, furnishing raw materials of various kinds, including ivory, hardwoods, precious stones, and gold, perhaps also cattle. There are three chronological phases of the A-Group. These are characterized as follows.

1. The Early A-Group inhabited the northern part of Lower Nubia and was contemporary with the latter part of Egypt’s Amratian, culture and early Gerzian. The richest cemetery was located at Khor Bahan. This phase was also coexistent with a Sudanese Neolithic culture called the Abkan, which dominated the region at the Second Cataract in Batn el-Hagar. The true relationship between the Egyptian Predynastic culture and the Early A-Group is not yet fully understood.

2. The Middle A-Group was contemporary with Egypt’s middle Gerzian and is considered to be a formative phase of the A-Group proper. The communities in Lower Nubia and the northern part of Batn el-Hagar developed a uniform culture, characterized by lively contacts with Egypt but also with Upper Nubia. There was a clear and unbroken continuation as regards traditions and social development between Middle A-Group and the subsequent Terminal phase.

3. The Terminal A-Group was coexistent with Egypt’s unification stage (end of Gerzian) and the initial part of the First Dynasty. Cultural and economic exchange along the Nubian part of the Nile valley was intensified during this period of prosperity and population growth.
The most affluent area was located in the southernmost part of Lower Nubia, displaying an impressive number of rich cemeteries with a strong social presence of women in both the village cemeteries and in many of the elite cemeteries. An advanced chiefdom that controlled at least the southern part of Lower Nubia may have been formed during the Terminal A-Group, perhaps the result of a consolidation process parallel to that of Egypt. The center was at Qustul near the present Sudanese- Egyptian border, where the Chicago Oriental Institute has excavated an elite cemetery with funerary offerings of outstanding quality. The complete breakdown of the A-Group culture came abruptly when the Egyptian kings of the First Dynasty took full control of the southern trade and the flow of raw materials. The population may have become nomadic, leaving few material remains behind. Between the reign of Djer of the First Dynasty (c.2900 BC) and the Fifth Dynasty (c.2374 BC) there are very few traces of indigenous Nubian settlements or graves. An Egyptian settlement, was found at Buhen opposite Wadi Halfa, dating to the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties.

Hans-Ake Nördstrom
Member of the Scandinavian Joint Expedition in Nubia
(Unesco Nubia Salvage Campaign).