Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa

Press Release

Africa's diverse and sophisticated Nubian civilization, circa 3100 BC to AD 400, is the subject of a major exhibition, Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa, to open September 29, 1995, at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa will run through December 15, 1995.

Only a handful of American museums have significant Nubian collections. As a consequence, the exhibition's traveling schedule was booked immediately with a waiting list of more than 20 museums. The Kelsey Museum's Associate Curator of Collections, Prof. Thelma K. Thomas, was one of the very first to reserve one of the exhibitions traveling slots. In 1991, while plans were still being laid, she recognized that Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa promised to be an extremely important exhibition for this generation of museum-goers and scholars interested in the history of Africa.

Salvage projects necessitated by the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s saved a number of Nubian monuments from destruction by inundation and enhanced our knowledge of ancient Nubia tremendously. It was not until 1978, in a joint project organized by The Brooklyn Museum and the Loewey Museum of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, that a major exhibition presented this aspect of African history to the public. Public response was overwhelming then. Meanwhile the numbers of interested parties has grown exponentially. Grass-roots reading groups were organized in African-American communities in response to the dearth of presentations of just this type of information. Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa is an excellent, in fact, prime, opportunity for disseminating information, and for providing concrete evidence of this past that is so eagerly sought after.

The exhibition places ancient Nubians and their civilization in a new historical context, offering visitors a compelling well-founded perspective on this little-known African civilization. "Nubians in the Bronze Age, from about 3100 BC to 1000 BC, are usually thought of as divided into small chiefdoms, with the partial exception of the Kingdom of Kush in the Middle Bronze Age. However, recent research suggests that large kingdoms arose in Nubia much earlier than is generally thought. Over the centuries Nubians and Egyptians competed for power and advantage throughout the vast Lower Nile region, from the Mediterranean Sea south to the Sixth Cataract in the Sudan. Powerful and centrally organized early Nubians are truly Egypt's rivals in Africa" states Dr. David O'Connor, curator of the exhibition.

The exhibition was curated by Dr. David O'Connor while he was Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian Section of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has since accepted a new professorship at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. A leading authority on ancient Nubia and Egypt, Dr. O'Connor has published several articles on the early Nubian Kingdoms and contributed a chapter to the Cambridge History of Africa. He is the author of Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa, the book which accompanies the exhibition to its eight venues. Dr. O'Connor has co-curated many exhibits for the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He is co-director of the Pennsylvania-Yale archaeological excavation project at Abydos in southern Egypt, where he has worked since 1967. Dr. O'Connor received his post-graduate Diploma in Egyptology form the University College, University of London, and his Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Cambridge, England. The Kelsey Museum is pleased to announce that Dr. O'Connor will deliver a special lecture at the University of Michigan in conjunction with this special exhibition.

The exhibition has enjoyed great success since its opening at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in October of 1992. This is clear in reviews and educative articles in, for example, Newsweek (October 19, 1992), the Washington Post (May 10 and May 29, 1995), and the New York Times (July 2, 1995).

Dr. Thelma K. Thomas is curator in charge of the installation of this exhibition at the Kelsey Museum. Dr. Thomas is Associate Curator of Collections at the Kelsey Museum and Professor of Late Antique, Early Christian, and Byzantine Art History. While her own area of expertise, specifically that of Byzantine Egypt, hardly overlaps with the topic of this exhibition, Dr. Thomas' graduate training in ancient Egyptian art history and a previous position at the Brooklyn Museum had prepared her for the signal importance of Dr. O'Connor's exhibition.

In Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa, a wide variety of artifacts, including ceramic vessels, jewelry, statuary, and funerary inscriptions, document the rise and fall of a series of Nubian kingdoms, the richness and variety of their indigenous cultures, and the complicated relationships they had with the pharaonic state of Egypt. Exhibition artifacts span a 3,500 year range, and come from different regions of the culturally diverse Nubian civilization, which extended over 1400 kilometers (868 miles) along the Nile Valley in what is now southern-most Egypt and the Sudan.

Artifacts in Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa are drawn from the University of Pennsylvania's collections in the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The collection is extensive, containing more than 7,000 items, and one of the most important in the United States. The University of Pennsylvania was one of the major institutions involved in the salvage archaeology of ancient Nubian civilization that occurred at various times between 1890 and 1970, as the Egyptian government gradually transformed what had been Ancient Nubia into a giant reservoir.

This exhibition is supported, in part, by generous funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, as well as the International Institute and the Office of the Vice-President for Research of the University of Michigan.

The Kelsey Museum has, since its inception, devoted much of its resources to the study of Egyptian culture and its impact on world history. One field project in Upper Egypt was just completed--it explored ancient trade between Egypt and its neighbors farther south in Nubia and in other parts of Africa, India, the Middle East, and Europe via excavation at the entrepot site of Coptos and survey of the caravan routes linking Nile and Red Sea trade systems. A recent publication and accompanying exhibition focused on 12-13th c AD trade textiles that were found in Egypt but had been imported from India as part of an enormous trade system during Egypt's medieval Islamic period. And, of course, the Kelsey Museum's permanent installations and many special exhibitions have long featured ancient Egypt. Since deciding to take this exhibition, the Kelsey Museum has hired a new curator, Dr. Janet Richards, whose interests are much closer to the subject of the exhibition: Indeed, she studied with Dr. O'Connor. One of Dr. Richard's projects for the Kelsey Museum is to pursue long-term loans of Nubian materials to enhance our permanent display of artifacts from Nile Valley cultures.

The Kelsey Museum of Archeology is located at 434 State Street. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday 9 am to 4 pm; Saturday and Sunday 1 to 4 pm. Admission is free (a contribution is suggested). For general information call (313) 764-9304. The Museum will arrange evening rentals for groups for the duration of the exhibition.