'The End of Meroe' - a Comment on the Paper by Patrice Lenoble & Nigm El Din Mohammed Sharif

By Shinnie, P. L.; Robertson, J. H. | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview
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'The End of Meroe' - a Comment on the Paper by Patrice Lenoble & Nigm El Din Mohammed Sharif


Shinnie, P. L., Robertson, J. H., Antiquity


Issue is taken with the view offered in a 1992 ANTIQUITY paper of the later history of this Sudanese kingdom

The paper 'Barbarians at the gates? the royal mounds of El Hobagi and the end of Meroe' (Lenoble & Sharif (1992) in ANTIQUITY 66: 626-34) contains sufficient problems as to call for response.

We have been concerned with excavation at the town site of Meroe and studied the history and archaeology of the Meroitic state for many years; we consider that Lenoble & Sharif have confused many issues and suggested hypotheses which go far beyond what the material, archaeological evidence supports.

The excavation at Hobagi seems to have been skillful and careful but the description of how it proceeded is very obscure, and the plan, since it has no legend nor description, hardly helps. It is not clear what is meant by 'partial stratigraphic trenches' nor by the statement 'pillage of Tumulus VI had been viewed from the outside'. The description of the 'shield ring' is very difficult to follow, and the drawing in figure 5 is not clear. It stretches imagination to see in this battered piece of bronze the depiction of a Roman emperor, or to suggest that it claims 'recognition by Rome', whatever that implies. It is suggested, on the evidence of this piece and of an unillustrated bronze medallion 'perhaps copied from a Roman coin', that the region of Meroe may have been under vassalage to Rome. This stretches the bounds of possibility beyond what is reasonable and, from what we know of the Roman empire in the 4th and 5th centuries, seems most unlikely.

The main issues are chronology, the significance of large mound burials with rich grave furniture and their relevance for the history of the central Sudan in the period following the last royal pyramid burials in the North Cemetery at Meroe.

Chronology

Little is said about chronology other than that the pottery in the graves implies a 4th-century AD date and one 14C date of AD 340-564 (GiF-7199 1600|+ or -~50 b.p.). This date seems reasonable to us and congruent with what we know about the dating of late Meroitic times. The complicated chronology of the Meroitic state need not be gone into in detail -- suffice to say that it depends largely on a hypothetical seriation of royal burials, on the dates of objects imported from the Graeco-Roman world, and on stratigraphic excavations at the central town, the 'capital' of the state, at Meroe. It is also -- not unreasonably, but perhaps wrongly -- often supposed that the inscription of king Aezanes at Axum describes an attack on Meroe; it certainly deals with military activities in the central Sudan and is to be dated to the middle of the 4th century AD. The presence of two fragments of Axumite inscriptions and one coin at Meroe certainly suggests that the Axumites were in the area. In any case, the Axumite inscription conventionally marks the end of occupation at Meroe. The large mound burials

The main thrust of Lenoble & Sharif seems to be that Meroitic culture and perhaps, though this is not clear, the Meroitic state and the power of Meroitic rulers did not come to an end with the last of the royal pyramids, but was continued by warrior kings buried under the massive tumuli at Hobagi. They say (1992: 629):

The replacement of the pyramid by the tumulus would be no more than a secondary occurrence, probably of a religious nature

though in the section 'Gambling on a discovery' (1992: 626-9) they say:

the renovated superstructure of the imperial burial is unmistakable |sic!~ evidence of a dynastic change and the restoration of the political system of 'divine kingship'.

This is confusing and obscure -- what is the renovated superstructure and why is it evidence for change and restoration? These two statements seem contradictory, and the main theme of the argument that there was no change. To us it seems that tumulus burial of rulers, or chiefs, marks a considerable change from the Meroitic practice of building pyramids with chapels.

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