The Pan Grave Culture

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The carriers of this specific Nubian culture are thought to have been nomads from the Eastern Desert and are identified with the Medjay (later the Bedja) of the Egyptian texts – a designation of the desert Nubians in contrast to the Nehesy-Nubians of the Nile valley. This may be the correct assessment for a part of this population. The Medja land is known, however, since the late Old Kingdom and seems to have been situated near the Nile. Since king Nebhepetre Mentuhotep (c. 2043-1992 BC) of the 11th Dynasty had married, besides other Nubian consorts, a dark skinned princess from Medja with the name Ashait, one may assume that this land was an established kingdom at that time, probably sited near the Kerma kingdom and was absorbed by the latter during the Middle Kingdom. This may have triggered the move of the Pan Grave people to Lower Nubia and Egypt. According to both the Semna Despatches, dating from the late twelfth Dynasty (c. 1850-1800 BC), and the name of the 10th Nubian MK fortress “Khesef-Medjayu” -“The one which repells the Medjay”- the Egyptian military authorities tried to stop this immigration from the desert, but in vain. Pan Grave cemeteries can be found in Lower Nubia and at many sites in Egypt dating principally from the time of the late Middle Kingdom and early Second Intermediate Period (c. 1800-1600 BC). Normally the cemeteries are small and situated on the fringe of the desert, often in the vicinity of cemeteries belonging to the local population. The most important sites are Deir Rifeh, Mostagedda with the largest cemetery, Qau, Balabish, Hu, Tôd, Daraw, and in Nubia at Shellal, Dakka, Wadi Allâqi, Sayâla, Aniba, Toshka, and at several places between Faras and Gammai. Sherds of this culture have been found at many other sites in Egypt extending as far north as Memphis. The most distinct cluster is, however, in Middle and Upper Egypt and in Lower Nubia.

The name Pan Grave Culture comes from the typical circular pit graves, which sometimes have a small stone circle as their superstructure. The dead are buried in a crouched position, on their right side, oriented either according to the absolute co-ordinates north-south with the head in the north, looking west, or oriented east-west, with the head in the east, looking south. The bodies rest on mats and are wrapped in leather or fur. They seem to have also imported Egyptian linen according to the representation of a Medjay man painted on a bukranium. This painting also shows the coiffure bulging backwards, in a similar manner to that worn in modern times by the Watussi men.

Pan-Grave pottery consists of open, flat, round-bottomed bowls with polished surfaces, and ledged rims. They are either plain polished with a black polished interior, which extends over the rim in the form of a black top. Other types of such bowls show an incised pattern, produced by a rough comb in criss-cross fashion. Beadwork of ostrich egg shell and nerita snails can be found with burials of both genders and are typical for this culture. The latter show connections via the eastern desert to the Red Sea. The Pan Grave people also had shell strip bracelets which seem to occur only in this culture. Very specific is the deposition of the bukrania of gazelles or goats, often painted with red dots, within the superstructure of the tombs. We also meet a similar custom with bull bukrania among the Kerma Culture.

No domestic architectural features are known from the Pan Grave Culture. Camps only display open-air features. The physical population type is very specific, showing long isolation and archaic African features such as long jaws with large teeth, the third molars being the biggest. They were taller than the Egyptians and had strong muscular features. This made them very suitable for the warrior profession. Often weapons of Egyptian typology such as daggers and battle axes, as well as bowstrings and arrow tips are found in their graves. This documents the employment of those people as warriors of the 13th and early 17th Dynasties. Records of the 13th Dynasty show different Medjay delegations being received at court.

Towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period the Medjay seem to have completely adopted the Kerma Culture which shows that new waves of immigrants had arrived. We may conclude this since according to Egyptian records the Medjay were engaged by the Theban late 17th and early 18th Dynasties as soldiers against the Hyksos. Nubian graves and settlement remains in Egypt from this period at Deir el-Ballas, Avaris and elsewhere reveal, however, no Pan Grave features but only signs of the Kerma Culture.

During the New Kingdom the Medjay were formed into a special force in charge of the deserts and the necropoleis. They served under Egyptian officers and, by means of documents can be followed up to the time of the 20th Dynasty, although nothing of their original culture has survived so late within the archaeological record. Nevertheless the Medjay were still remembered in Ptolemaic times as being associated with the eastern desert and bringing the traditional product of this region, gold.

Manfred Bietak,
Austrian Archaeological Institute, Cairo

Bibliography for C-Group and Pan Grave Culture:

W.Y. ADAMS, Nubia, Corridor to Africa, Princeton 1977;
M. BIETAK, Ausgrabungen in Sayala-Nubien 1961-1965, Denkmälerler der C-Gruppe und der Pan-Gräber-Kultur Vienna (Austrian Academy) 1966;
IDEM, Studien zur Chronologie der nubischen C-Gruppe, Vienna (Austrian Academy) 1968;
IDEM, The C-Group and the Pan-Grave Culture in Nubia”, in: Nubian Culture: Past and Present, Kunigl. Vitterhets historie och antikvitets akademiens Konferenser 17. Stockholm (Swedish Academy of Letters) 1987, 113-128;
C. BONNET, Kerma, Royaume de Nubie, Geneva 1990;
J. BOURRIAU, “Relations between Egypt and Kerma during the and the New Kingdoms”, in: Egypt and Africa, Nubia from Prehistory to Islam, ed. by W.V. Davies. London (British Museum) 1991;
B. TRIGGER, History and Settlement in Lower Nubia, New Haven 1965.