The ‚hidden hands‘ who sustained New Kingdom colonial Nubia: progress report of Work Package 2

Sudan’s revolution is well underway. Millions of Sudanese took off to the streets of Khartoum and other locations across the country to demand freedom of choice. This is most inspiring for us as human beings living in the present, but also as scholars writing about the Nubian past.

I have so far directed my attention to understanding the general logics of what was happening in contexts outside mainstream colonial sites to try to identify how colonial peripheries in New Kingdom Nubia became centres of human experience that produced alternatives to colonial social relations.

In the New Kingdom colonial period, a wave of Egyptian-style objects flooded Nubia and determined on which grounds various social negotiations would take place—i.e. based on people’s adoption and use of foreign objects in local contexts. On the one hand, this means that if you managed to consume Egyptian-style shabtis or jewellery, you’d probably have a good chance of negotiating an ambivalent sense of identity in-between ‚Egypt‘ and ‚Nubia‘. However, if you didn’t manage to possess such objects, your previous life would probably have changed little anyway, at least from an archaeological point of view—after all, we need the stuff to be able to reconstruct human experience anyway…

So, I have been interested in the experiences of those who could not really negotiate in colonized Nubia; those who couldn’t really find effective ways of making inputs to culture, despite their immense inputs to society: though we don’t know who were those people living and dying outside of mainstream colonial sites, there’s a huge chance we’re actually talking about farmers and other labourers who were the ‚hidden hand‘ that supported colonial economy. (Julien Cooper’s recent suggestion that desert dwellers were the ‚hidden hand‘ of the Egyptian gold enterprise in the Nubian deserts, Cooper 2021, is so interesting that it deserves to be expanded to seek other ‚hidden hands‘ that remained invisible in our narratives so far.)

I’m currently teaching a course on postcolonial and decolonial approaches to the archaeology of the Nile valley. This also greatly inspires my research and the way I look for interesting things in the archaeological record to „hear“ the voices of those who remained silenced by major constraints to action in antiquity. So far, what I find most interesting is people’s sense of collectivism. In social and geographical peripheries—here I’m referring to non-elites working for colonial elites at temple-towns and farmers and other workers living/dying in the outskirts of these major sites—individual inputs to culture are rare as consumption was limited and scarcity was rampant. However, when there’s scarcity, there’s also wisdom—Brazilian geographer Milton Santos would agree (Santos 2001).

This sums up my research in this first year as a DiverseNile postdoc. I have been focusing on finding interesting features in the archaeological record of excavated/surveyed sites in the peripheries of colonized Nubia while waiting to be back in Sudan to celebrate the achievements of local people past and present. I have discussed these topics in more detail in three forthcoming publications, which should be available very soon:

Lemos, R. (forthcoming). Heart scarabs and other heart-related objects in New Kingdom Nubia. Sudan & Nubia 25.

Lemos, R. (forthcoming). Can we decolonise the ancient past? Bridging postcolonial and decolonial theory in Sudanese and Nubian archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Lemos, R. and J. Budka. (forthcoming). Alternatives to colonization and marginal identities in New Kingdom colonial Nubia (1550–1070 BCE). World Archaeology (themed issue on ‚The archaeology of marginal places and identities‘).


Cooper, J. (2021). Between the Nile and the Red Sea: Medjay Desert Polities in the Third to First Millennium BCE. Old World: Journal of Ancient Africa and Eurasia 1 (1): 1–22.

Santos, M. 2001. Por uma outra globalização: do pensamento único à consciência universal. 6th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Record.

From the field in Egypt to the digital classroom

Just one week ago, I closed the very successful 2021 season of the LMU Ankh-Hor project and finished my last tasks of the pottery study for the South Asasif Conservation Project. It has been 5 amazing and intriguing weeks in Luxor, and it was great to be back in the field, especially because it was the first time since the covid-19 crisis.

This week, the winter term at LMU has started and I am also busy preparing a short field trip to Sudan in November. In respect of teaching, I will continue to combine aspects of my current research in Egypt and Sudan with classes for both undergraduates and graduates. There are two personal highlights in my classes this winter term – one seminar focuses on the First Cataract area where I have been working since 1997 and here in particular on the role of the region as link between the Lower and Middle Nile. We will discuss cultural contacts over 5 millennia and complex two-ways of interactions which is very much in line with both my previous AcrossBorders project and the current DiverseNile project.

The second highlight is a seminar I will be co-teaching with Rennan Lemos. Under the title “Egyptian History: Colonial Narratives on Ancient Egypt” we will explore particular topics in the archaeology of colonialism in northeast Africa, with a special focus on Egypt and Nubia. Among others, we will discuss case studies like the question of power of colonial centres during the New Kingdom and the formation of „peripheries“ in colonised Nubia. Particular attention will be paid to the role of objects and material culture and how these shaped colonial interactions; but we will also discuss how the remnants of colonial discourses characterised earlier scholarship about ancient Egypt and Sudan.

The archaeological study of colonialism in the ancient past is a very broad field and for Egypt and Sudan, a large number of various objects and images can be discussed – both regarding their context in antiquity and their interpretation by modern scholars.

Both Rennan and me are very much looking forward to this seminar which will offer the students fresh insights from our ongoing research about cultural diversity in the Middle Nile and will provide us, without doubt, with much food for thought. We believe that the new method of contact space biography I introduced for DiverseNile will reveal an alternative narrative regarding colonial Nubia, stressing the importance of social practices, communities, and the subsistence strategies of marginal regions in Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology. Discussing these points with a group of students will undoubtedly be an enrichment.

Although it is still partly difficult to adapt from the splendid atmosphere of the Theban Westbank and from a dig schedule to Munich and Vienna and the daily routine in the office/home-office, this winter and our teaching term promise much input for all of us! Looking much forward to the feedback from our participants.

Discussing theory and methodology

I’ve been really busy with several commitments besides my research project, but I’d like to give you a quick update about what I’ve been up to lately. As you know, my WP2 research focuses specifically on the data collected by Vila within the region from Attab to Ferka. However, in order to have a more comprehensive idea of the significance of this data, comparison with other regions is a key aspect of my methodology. If sites such as tomb 3-P-50 at Ginis West allow us to start challenging ingrained conceptions about society and culture in New Kingdom Nubia, e.g., colonial ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’, putting sites like this into a broader context is a really important step.

In previous posts, I stressed the importance of data sets like those produced by the ASSN or the Finish Expedition in the Batn el-Hajar area, as well as sites in the 4th cataract. But comparative research shouldn’t be limited to feeding information from different sites into a database, although it remains an important aspect of my research. A descriptive approach to data would allow us to identify previously ignored data, especially for regions that are not usually part of major narratives about Nubia, e.g., the Attab-Ferka area. However, a clear theoretical approach allows us to abstract descriptions into understandings of broader social phenomena.

I’ve recently been invited to speak in the New Perspectives on Ancient Nubia seminar series, co-hosted by the Bade Museum and University of California Berkeley. In my talk, I discussed the role and potential of postcolonial and decolonial theory for New Kingdom Nubia. A broader theoretical approach allows us to bring together evidence from different contexts into a general narrative about social logics that both produce and are produced by the material culture we investigate and describe in our databases.

Postcolonial theory has had a huge impact in archaeology, although its role in the Nile valley has not always been that explicit. Postcolonial theory provides us with a framework from which we’re able to criticise colonial narratives and practices, but also to unveil hidden, silenced logics that have remained outside mainstream historical narratives. This is highly important for the DiverseNile theoretical and methodological framework.

Egyptian-style material culture has been understood, as whole, through a generalising lens that emphasised the Egyptian presence and transposition of knowledges and practices to an acculturated Nubia. My research in the last few years allowed to unveil, from a postcolonial perspective, alternative realities created by transformed foreign objects in local contexts in New Kingdom Nubia (I explore this further in a forthcoming paper on heart scarabs, which will be published in the next issue of Sudan & Nubia). So, developing and applying a postcolonial approach to our data from the region from Attab to Ferka, combined with information from the very centres of colonial power in New Kingdom Nubia, will certainly shed more light on the substance of diversity, allowing us to include regions traditionally excluded from historical narratives into histories of alternative experiences created and sustained by alternatives roles performed by spreading material culture. That’s a bit of what I’ve been reading, thinking and writing lately. I’d be happy to think about these issues together with anyone interested!