For many years, archaeologists and historians got the story of Nubian art and culture completely wrong, according to Denise Doxey, Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). She hopes to change people’s perceptions with the MFA exhibit “Ancient Nubia Now.” Denise joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about the exhibit, the advanced jewelry making techniques that Nubians used and the reasons why Nubian art is just as important as Egyptian art. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Denise Doxey, Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She is co-curating what looks like a fascinating exhibit opening at MFA on October 13th, “Ancient Nubia Now.” Denise is the author of The Arts of Ancient Nubia: MFA Highlights and co-author of Jewels of Ancient Nubia. Today, we’ll hear about the upcoming exhibit and learn more about the great civilization that many people are not aware even existed. Denise, welcome to the podcast.
Denise: Thank you.
Sharon: Thank you for being here.
Denise: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sharon: Can you tell us about your background? When and how did you become interested in the arts of Ancient Egypt and the Near East?
Denise: Believe it or not, it was in the sixth grade. I did a social studies project which led me to take a book called Pharaohs of Egypt off the shelf of the library. I became hooked and I never outgrew it.
Sharon: It’s so interesting. I think all of us at one point were fascinated by Ancient Egypt, but it’s really the exception for somebody to stick with it.
Denise: I think my parents expected me to outgrow it.
Sharon: So what do you study and where did you study?
Denise: I did my undergraduate degree at State University of New York at Albany, and I studied Mediterranean Archaeology because they didn’t offer Egyptology. Then, I did a master’s at Oxford and a Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania.
Sharon: In Egyptology?
Denise: In ancient history, actually. Egypt was my primary area of focus.
Sharon: Wow! I always think about that, how we go through a period of saying, “Oh my god, that’s cool,” and then we outgrow it or we say, “Do I really want to study that for the rest of my life?” But some of us do, and I’m so glad. Can you tell us about Nubia, or what was known as Kush? What can you tell us about it?
Denise: The word “Nubia” is a little bit of a misnomer for this culture, but it’s something that’s been used for so long that no one’s going to stop using it at this point. Basically, we’re talking about the region that makes up the southernmost part of Egypt, south of Aswan down to about Khartoum, so the northern half of Sudan, all in the Nile Valley. In antiquity, there was actually a series of different kingdoms. It wasn’t one unified state throughout. So in the exhibition, if you noticed, there were four different moments in the history of Nubia. One is the Kerma period, which is about 1,700 to 1,550 BCE. There’s a period of Egyptian occupation that comes after that, and then in the 8th century BC, we have a new culture further to the south called the Napatan Period, because the capital was near Napata. Later on, just about 300 BCE, the capital moved to Meroe, which is farther south yet, and in antiquity they were one of the major exporters of gold. I think it’s no mistake that their jewelers were so accomplished because they were a major source of gold. They exported throughout Egypt and the northern part of Africa.
Sharon: So this may be a naïve question, but is there a lot of gold in that part of the world? There was then, and is there now?
Denise: There was then. There still is some gold mining now, but the major veins they had back then are mostly exhausted now.
Sharon: And when was it known, or was it ever known, as Kush?
Denise: Yes, it was what the Ancient Egyptians called it in antiquity. We don’t know what they called themselves, oddly enough, and this is one of the reasons why I think the culture is so elusive to people’s understanding. The earliest jewelry goes back to the neoclassic period, so 4000 BC, but it wasn’t until the 7th century BCE, thousands of years into their history, was the first time they actually left any written records that people can understand. They did that because they had conquered Egypt at that point, so they started writing in ancient Egyptian language, in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Scholars can read those. Later in the Meroitic period, they started writing in their own language and their own script; it’s just never been deciphered. So there’s really only this tiny, little window where we can actually hear what the Nubians were saying about themselves, which leaves it purely up to archaeology.
Sharon: Wow! So what about their jewels? They had gold. Were they using gemstones?
Denise: They were using semiprecious stones, not faceted gemstones. They also experimented with a lot of advanced techniques in enameling, glazing and glassmaking. They were using techniques that were lost and weren’t rediscovered until centuries later, including several types of enamel. Early on in the Kerma period, they had a very distinctive style of bead, which is made of quartz crystal and then coated with a glaze that contains copper, so when it’s fired, it turns this beautiful translucent, bright blue. It’s a really difficult technique, because in order to get the fire hot enough to cause the glaze to fuse, it tends to make the rock crystal crack. It’s a very labor-intensive technique, and they really mastered it in this period from about 1700 to 1550. It’s one of the only places you ever see beads like that. It took years and years and years for experimental archaeologists to figure out how to reproduce it.
Sharon: Wow! What was the impetus behind this exhibit? In the press release and some of the literature, it talks about wanting to re-examine Nubia’s history. What is there about that that you want to set straight?
Denise: Part of it is that back in the early 20th century, our own excavators went into their work with an unconscious bias against Africa. They likened Egypt with the Mediterranean and didn’t think people in Africa could accomplish great things. They really misinterpreted some of the sites that they excavated, so their earlier publications are just filled with mistakes. It really wasn’t until the mid-20th century that people began realizing how much the early scholars had missed. Just in the last 10 to 20 years, there’s been a huge increase in the amount of excavation and scholarship going on in Nubia. This has given us a chance to revisit—and when we say Ancient Nubia now, we’re talking about where we have come in the last hundred years since the excavations, which is a long way, but also acknowledging that what we think we know now, a hundred years from now, will also be completely outdated. So we want to incorporate the results of new work.
It was probably in the course of writing these two books about Nubia that I started realizing that even books that came out 10 years ago were out of date because there’s so much new work. Every time you go to a conference, there’s somebody talking about some exciting new thing found in Nubia. So we’re trying to revisit it, but also acknowledge that we still don’t have all the answers. We’re also bringing in some voices from outside the museum, people who are influenced by Nubian art in some way or another. We have a contemporary photographer, Chester Higgins, from New York, who talks about his own inspiration from the Nile Valley. We have a scholar of American literature who’s talking about African-American authors in the early part of the 20th century who described these magical sites in Nubia that they must have just been hearing about—this was before our excavations even took place, so they were already present in the popular imagination, Meroe in particular, even in 1902.
Sharon: When you say our excavations or our explorers, are you talking about—I know the Boston MFA has a huge collection of artifacts and things from this area. Is that what you’re talking about when you say “our”?
Denise: I mean MFA, because Harvard University and MFA jointly ran excavations from both Egypt and Sudan from 1905 to 1947. Most of the teams in the early ’20s were working in Sudan, and as a result—the policy then was that, in order to encourage scientific excavations and discourage looting, the government would divide the finds of an excavation between the museum of Khartoum, and Cairo in Egypt’s case, and the institute that did the excavations. As a result of that, we were awarded almost 50 percent of what we discovered, which makes ours the largest collection outside Khartoum.
Sharon: Wow! When you mention some of the mistakes, what kinds of mistakes are you talking about?
Denise: The site of Kerma, in particular, is the one they got wrong, because Kerma has no writing, no written records and they were rivals of Egypt. They often had border skirmishes. They could be trade partners, but they also didn’t get along, and the Egyptians consequently always portray them in a very negative fashion. They do this with all of their neighbors, not just Nubia. They always want to make themselves the best and the brightest. Consequently, they always describe Nubia as vile, wretched Kush, and the archaeologists who first excavated read this. They came as Egyptologists first, because the Kerma culture had never been excavated before. They had no idea what they were finding, and they had a bias that was Egyptocentric, but it also gelled perfectly with their own early 20th century racist ideas.
As they started excavating and they found a number of really important pieces of Egyptian art, they assumed that the site was an Egyptian outpost and they attributed this fine art to Egyptian influence. Everything that was just mundane pottery they would attribute to the local indigenous population. So they assumed that a sculpture of an Egyptian, he must have been the governor and that it was some sort of military fortress. In fact, what we know now is that the people of Kerma had successfully attacked Egypt and brought these things back as souvenirs of war. It wasn’t the Egyptians defeating Kerma. Ultimately, the Egyptians did defeat Kerma, but not prior to this. This was at the peak of their power, the site that Reisner excavated. He got it backwards because he couldn’t see past the idea that the people of Kush were somehow backward and incompetent.
Sharon: Interesting! When you think about the amount of scholarship and research that goes into something like that and having to figure that out, it’s really amazing. Were jewels found early on? Were they in the popular culture, like “Oh, there’s buried treasure here?”
Denise: They must have been because as early as the turn of the 20th century, Meroe in particular, had a reputation for great wealth. In 1832 or 1834, an Italian traveler named Giuseppe Ferlini actually found his way into one of the royal pyramids at Meroe and discovered this incredible treasure of gold and enamel jewelry, which he smuggled out of the country. It’s now in Germany. It’s too bad for us, because otherwise we would have had it a hundred years later. Anyway, that already established a reputation for Meroe, in particular, of having fabulous jewelry. We started excavating in Sudan in 1910 and Kerma in 1916, and Merilee was ’21 to ’23. Our excavations moved farther south as we progressed up the Nile and interestingly enough, it turns out that we also excavated in chronological order because the earliest culture was farthest north.
Sharon: Are there excavations going on now?
Denise: Yes, Museum of Fine Arts no longer excavates in Egypt or Sudan, but there are a lot of excavations. In fact, one of the things we’re including in the exhibition is some video of the current excavations that are still going on there, including drone footage to show that these same sites are still being excavated.
Sharon: Why do you think Nubia is so unfamiliar? It doesn’t have the same mystique as Ancient Egypt. Why do you think this area and these ancient civilizations are unfamiliar to most Americans?
Denise: I think a lot of it is the fact that they don’t have writings, so we don’t have their own words describing themselves, which for years led people to rely on the Egyptians’ descriptions, which were negative. I also think because Sudan is not a place people visit, it’s never really gotten a big—it’s interesting that when the British were in charge of Sudan years ago, they tried to develop a tourist industry and it just didn’t take. It’s not a place people visit, and it’s also not a place that—I mean, there are Nubian art collections but far, far fewer of them than Egyptian collections. There are really only a handful of places in the world that you can see any Nubian art. I think people just aren’t introduced to it and it’s not taught in schools the way Egypt is. I think some of it has to do with racism early on because, as I said, the early archaeologists couldn’t believe that Nubia could possibly be as interesting or vital as Egypt, and I think to some extent that stuck. Certain cultures that a Eurocentric viewpoint valued made it into our school curricula, in a way that others like Nubia has not.
Sharon: That’s really true. It’s terrific that you’re having this. I know that MFA has an incredible collection. Do I remember correctly that you have—maybe it was just Egyptian jewels—but you have a small but incredible collection of ancient jewelry on permanent display?
Denise: We currently have a really nice display of Greek and Roman gems. The Nubian jewelry was on view for a long, long time, but because of renovations going on around the building, it’s been closed for a bit. It hasn’t been seen within the last few years by people, so it’ll be nice to get it back out.
Sharon: Will some of it be included in this exhibit?
Denise: Oh, yes, a good portion of this is jewelry.
Sharon: Well, I’m looking forward to it. It will be great to broaden our perspectives and see some of the differences and similarities. Thank you so much for being here.
Denise: You’re welcome.
Sharon: And everybody listening, we’ll have Denise’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com, as well as more information about the exhibit. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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