The Nubians first learned the art of pottery making from their Egyptian neighbors, but almost from the beginning they followed traditions of their own in the use of color and decoration. Artistically, the best of the Nubian wares sometimes surpassed anything made in Egypt. This was true in the Nubian Meroitic period (c. 100-350), and again in the classic Christian period (c. 850-1100).
Meroitic pottery decoration made abundant use of ancient Egyptian motifs such as the ankh, sa, and wadjet eye. These were combined with Hellenistic floral patterns, various animal and bird representations, and geometric designs to produce an elaborate and highly distinctive Nubian style that was applied mostly to the exteriors of fine cups and bowls, as well as to some larger jars and jugs. The preferred colors were dark brown and red on a cream or buff background, although there was also some decoration in black and cream on red.
After the collapse of the empire of KUSH, around 350, the whole tradition of Meroitic pottery decoration disappeared. Both in NUBIA and in Egypt there was a preference for plain red vessels imitative of Roman forms. Over the centuries the Nubians once again developed increasingly distinctive canons of forms and decoration, although their preference in the early Middle Ages was for very plain and austere geometric designs.
Around 850 there appeared, quite abruptly, the classic Christian decorative style. It comprised elaborate combinations of floral, faunal, and curvilinear geometric designs, most of them inspired by Coptic and Byzantine manuscript illumination. The designs, as in Meroitic times, were most often executed in dark brown and red on a cream or yellow background. The most commonly decorated vessels were large vases and wide bowls. The classic Christian pottery wares were made at FARAS and at a factory at or near the Wadi Ghazali monastery (see NUBIAN MONASTERIES). From these and probably other centers, they were widely traded all over Nubia and were evidently prized luxury possessions.
In the later Middle Ages Nubian pottery underwent a further process of stylistic transformation. Most floral and faunal elements disappeared, and geometric designs gradually became more rectilinear, more formal, and more ornate. This tendency reached its apogee in the late Christian style (c. 1200-1350), when the preference was for decoration in black on a red or bright orange background. In the last century of Nubian Christianity there was a rapid simplification of designs, and a return to rather plain and very boldly executed geometric patterns.
With the fall of the Christian Nubian kingdoms, the decorated pottery industry came to an end. The Nubians reverted exclusively to the use of undecorated utility vessels. In its heyday, however, decorated pottery represented one of the two most highly developed and distinctive art forms of the medieval Nubians, the other being church decoration.
[See also: Nubian Archaeology, Medieval.]
- Adams, W. Y. “An Introductory Classification of Christian Nubian Pottery.” Kush 10 (1962):245-88.
- . “An Introductory Classification of Meroitic Pottery.” Kush 12 (1964):126-73.
- . “The Evolution of Christian Nubian Pottery.” In Kunst und Geschichte Nubiens in christlicher Zeit, ed. E. Dinkler. Recklinghausen, 1970.
- . “Progress Report on Nubian Pottery, I. The Native Wares.” Kush 15 (1973):1-50.
- . “Medieval Nubian Design Elements.” In Studies in Ancient Egypt, the Aegean, and the Sudan, ed. W. K. Simpson and W. M. Davis. Boston, 1981.
WILLIAM Y. ADAMS