A Reassessment of the Qustul Incense Burner: Dating, Iconography

This essay presents a elaborate reappraisal of the dating, iconography, and beginning of a decorated thurible uncovered from Cemetery L at the A-group site of Qustul, normally referred to as the Qustul Incense Burner. It argues that incompatibilities in the process used to day of the month the thurible have undermined reading of the artifact, and presents a revised dating based on the analysis of the object ‘s archeological context. The piece suggests that pareidolic visions of the thurible ‘s iconography have often been reiterated without critical remark, and inquiries the extent to which the object reveals the beginnings of Pharaonic iconography. Finally, the piece examines new grounds refering the thurible ‘s material composing, and from this argues that the object is likely of Egypto-Nubian, instead than entirely A-group, beginning. This in bend offers striking penetration into the relationship between Egypt and A-group Nubia during the proto-dynastic epoch, and piques orthodox positions of violent conquering with grounds of trade and gift-exchange.


The Qustul Incense Burner remains one of the most challenging and combative objects associated with the prehistoric Nubian A-group civilization. Discovered in 1964 by the late Professor Kevin Seele in Tomb 24 of Cemetery L at Qustul ( fig. 1 ) , the burner is the most intricately crafted object to emerge from any A-group context. It resembles a hollowed rock membranophone of about 8.5cm in breadth and 9cm in tallness, and is decorated with luxuriant sunk alleviation on the external and upper faces ( fig. 7 ) .[ 1 ]

As the burner was recovered from grave L24 in many little fragments and rapidly placed in storage, its significance was ab initio overlooked. Early publications diversely referred to the artifact as a lamp or as a howitzer for crunching pigments[ 2 ]3, while its inventor, Professor Seele, identified the object foremost as a pallet,[ 4 ]so as a cylinder seal,[ 5 ]and eventually as a thurible.[ 6 ]This averment was based on the find of hints of ruddy dye in similar objects from L L19, and the prevalence of similar burners in Nubian contexts. Detailed of analysis of the object began merely after its Restoration in 1977 by Professor Bruce Williams, who dated the object to the epoch of state-building in Upper Egypt. His Reconstruction revealed ornament that echoed Pharaonic motives from Upper Egypt, and had the possible to cast of import visible radiation on the development of royal political orientation and iconography in Egypt [ figure 7 ] . Williams maintained that the Pharaonic motives of the burner proved the being of a fledging A-group monarchy at Qustul, whose thoughts subsequently permeated into Upper Egypt – ‘sovereigns who ruled in Lower Nubia and Egypt before Scorpion ‘ .[ 7 ]Hence, grounds of Pharaonic iconography was taken as grounds for a monarchal province at Qustul. Williams ‘ monographs placed drift for Egyptian kingship steadfastly within Nubia, an statement which was readily, if uncritically, accepted by bookmans of the Afrocentrist motions, such as the Anta Diop School.

However, Williams ‘ reading was non universally accepted. In 1985, W.Y. Adams published a rebuttal to what he termed the ‘A-group monarchy hypothesis ‘ , reasoning against impressions of an A-group monarchy on wide theoretical and archeological evidences.[ 8 ]Adams ‘s review was well-devised, but it was published earlier elaborate field studies from Qustul were available, and later lacked a strong foundation in grounds from the graveyard. Williams ‘ ain rejoinder to Adams ‘ statement was fleet, and as of 1996 he continues to keep that the ‘monumental Pharaonic civilization was wholly at place in Nubia, much earlier than was one time thought ‘[ 9 ], reasoning against sub-Saharan cultural influence in early Egypt and reasoning that swayers of Abydos may hold been descended from those at Qustul.[ 10 ]

While the ‘A-group monarchy hypothesis ‘ has ne’er found widespread blessing among Egyptological circles, Williams ‘ description of the Qustul thurible ‘s dating, iconography and beginnings are loosely accepted. Recent finds threaten to change this image nevertheless. Reappraisals of the dating of L24, new readings of the thurible ‘s iconography, and recent petrographic analysis itself have the possible to change apprehension of both the burner and the Nubian A-group civilization at big. Cardinal inquiries include whether the burner predates material with comparable iconography from Abydos, whether its ornament and iconography can be described as explicitly Pharaonic or explicitly Nubian, and whether the burner is so of Nubian beginning and design. Renewed analysis of dating, iconography, and stuff, this piece suggests the Qustul Incense burner is likely of a much later day of the month than Williams suggested, and points to extended interaction between Egypt and Nubia during the Terminal A-group stage.


If one is to reason that A-group iconography influenced that of Upper Egypt, so the day of the month of the Qustul thurible is clearly of critical importance. Williams assigned Tomb L24 to the Nagada IIIa1 period, modern-day with the A-group Terminal period or the earliest stages of the Egyptian Predynastic. In this position, L24 predated important iconographic testimony from tomb U-j at Abydos, which Gunter Dreyer has assigned to the Nagada IIIa2 period.[ 11 ]Williams ‘ dating was based on the additive seriation of Cemetery L and appraisal of grave contents,[ 12 ]and his chronology has been widely and uncritically accepted, even by bookmans who reject other facets of his reading.[ 13 ]Although W.Y. Adams questioned Williams ‘ methods of clayware and grave seriation,[ 14 ]he did so earlier elaborate field studies from Qustul were available. With the benefit of this new contextual information, the chronology of L24 is unfastened to fresh assessment.

The objects associating L24 to the Nagada IIIa1 consist a set of Palestinian jugs,[ 15 ]a fragment of a pot with a transversally elongated organic structure, and a metameric jar.[ 16 ]Of these objects, the last two are firmly dated to Nagada IIIa, but the day of the month of the Palestinian jugs is unsure. Williams identified parallel vass in a grave from Azor in Israel, which he dated to Nagada IIIa on the footing of an Egyptian ripple-flaked blade found in the grave.[ 17 ]The studies from Azor paint a different image nevertheless. While the blade and jugs were found in close propinquity, the grave besides contained many subsequently Egyptian and Palestinian objects, which the excavators dated to around 3100 BC, modern-day with the Nagada IIIb1 period. Since stratigraphy indicated a individual entombment, it was concluded that the luxuriant knife was likely an heirloom, interred long after its production.[ 18 ]Therefore, the presence of Palestinian jugs does non back up a Nagada IIIa1 ascription. On the contrary, vass and objects from L24 suggest a much later day of the month.

Approximately seven shattered pot-stands were found in L24. Of these, two were knee bends and unadorned, two were high-rimmed with incised ornaments and rectangular gaps, and the balance had rectangular gaps in their sides.[ 19 ]Low bases of this type appeared in Egypt during the Nagada IIIa period,[ 20 ]but did non go common until the First Dynasty.[ 21 ]On the other manus, correspondent tall stands occur about entirely in Early Dynastic contexts.[ 22 ]Of the stoneware found in the grave, a fragmental Egytpian cylinder jar with wavy grips is dated by Williams to the Nagada III period. His studies concede nevertheless that the jar could hold been produced at any clip between Nagada III and the First Dynasty.[ 23 ]Remainss of an about indistinguishable vas were found at the First Dynasty grave of Neithhotep at Nagada.[ 24 ]A later dating for L24 is besides supported by a flat-based shoal rock bowl found next to the Qustul thurible,[ 25 ]the design of which is attested in Upper Egypt during the First Dynasty entirely.[ 26 ]

A concluding piece of grounds is provided by the beads from L24, which Williams described as ‘early versions of the grooved pendent and of the bilobate beads… found among the jewellery [ sic ] deposited in the [ First Dynasty ] grave of Djer ‘ .[ 27 ]No other analogues for this jewelry have been identified. In order to besiege the chronological jobs entailed by this comparing, Williams argued that the jewelry from the Djer ‘s grave were really of a Nagada IIIa day of the month.[ 28 ]This speculation was based on the testimony of a individual watchband, bearing serekhs and falcons carved in plaques of turquoise and gold, which was found on a mummified arm in the grave. Harmonizing to Williams ‘ stylistic analysis, these motives were no employed by the clip of Djer.[ 29 ]W.M.F. Petrie dates the watchband to early during Djer ‘s reign nevertheless,[ 30 ]observing that the earliest and closest analogue for usage of plaques of turquoise and gold is provided by the lapis lazuli and tusk labels found in the same grave.[ 31 ]

Jointly, this contextual grounds speaks strongly in favor of a much later day of the month for L24 and the Qustul incense burner that has traditionally been assumed. Although Williams placed L24 early in his seriation of the graveyard, modern-day with the Nagada IIIa1 period, this place no longer seems well-founded.[ 32 ]While ceramics suggest that Cemetery L was being used every bit early as the Nagada III period, if one is to accept Williams ‘ Nagada IIIa1 dating for L24, it is necessary non merely to accept that both low and high pot-stands were used significantly earlier than is normally suggested, but besides to fling the testimony of the level rock bowl, tall-decorated pot-stands and bilobate beads, for which First Dynasty examples supply the lone analogues. If a First Dynasty day of the month is proposed for L24, the scenario is wholly more comfy. Some of the vass found in L24 may be older than this, but it is easier to explicate them as heirlooms[ 33 ]than to predate the balance of the gathering. This decision meshes good with the Hagiographas of earlier bookmans, who have repeatedly dated major A-group stages at other sites to the dynastic age,[ 34 ]and finds support in ceramics from Cemetery L.[ 35 ]Preserved elements of burner ‘s iconography, notably the big niched-building, besides sit more convincingly in a First Dynasty context.[ 36 ]


The balance of the thurible ‘s iconography is worthy of appraisal for other grounds. As Adams opined, ‘the grounds for an A-Group monarchy, like that for the Predynastic Egyptian monarchy, is about strictly iconographic. ‘[ 37 ]Williams maintained that the burner was ‘clearly linked to Pharaonic civilisation by many inside informations, including the castle frontage, the white Crown, the falcon label, the falcon-standard, the felid it labels, the sacrificial victim, and perchance the rosette ‘ , all of which considered to be among the Nile Valley ‘s earliest illustrations.[ 38 ]Although the burner ‘s important scene is about wholly losing, Williams ‘ Reconstruction has become canonical,[ 39 ]such that bookmans have even cited wholly reconstructed elements in relation to iconographic treatment.[ 40 ]Williams besides held that the burner was of ‘entirely Nubian manner and beginning ‘ .

Clearly, if the burner was of ‘entirely Nubian character ‘ and its motives were shown to precede the iconography from Upper Egypt, this would dispute established impressions of artistic development in Egypt. Nevertheless, a great trade of Williams ‘ reading remainders upon insecure Reconstruction of iconographic inside informations. The wearer of the ‘crown ‘ is losing, the Pharaonic vas is uncomplete, the ‘rosette ‘ is mostly destroyed ( and bears great resemblance to the raised legs of the animate being straight to its left ) , and the Horus figure is equivocal. When coupled with the dating insecurities outlined above, and the issue of the burner ‘s stuff discussed further below, it becomes clear that the burner tells us more about dealingss between Upper Egypt and Nubia than it does of A-group impressions of kingship.

One of Williams ‘ cardinal contentions was that the Qustul thurible featured the earliest word picture of the Egyptian white Crown,[ 41 ]an averment tallied with the Crown ‘s historic association with Upper Egypt,[ 42 ]and placed the drift for this cardinal insignia in Nubia. There is no ground to surmise that the Qustul Incense burner provides the earliest word picture of the white Crown nevertheless. Similar tall conelike chapeaus with bulbs appear on two Nagada I statues from Gebelein,[ 43 ]and on an ivory knife grip now in the Metropolitan Museum ( Nagada III ) .[ 44 ]Pierre Amiet has besides identified a cylinder seal from Susa picturing a similar chapeau that predates all these illustrations.[ 45 ]If the Qustul thurible is dated subsequently than the Nagada III period, it besides postdates word pictures on the Scorpion Macehead and Narmer Palette.[ 46 ]Of all these illustrations, the Qustul thurible is the least well-preserved, and its relevant subdivision may acknowledge other readings.[ 47 ]While it must be stressed that have oning a tall chapeau is non synonymous with control of a monarchal province, statements against Williams ‘ Reconstruction include the fact that the Pharaoh faces off from the way of travel,[ 48 ]the Crowns ‘ deficiency of a typical bulb or ear-hole, the unusual proportion of the figure ( which does non fit that of the lone well-preserved figure on the thurible ) , and the restrictions of the corroborating iconography.

If Nubia were so the site of an luxuriant icon-forging land which presaged that of Upper Egypt, we might anticipate to happen grounds of this chase elsewhere. But testimony is thin, more readily associated with a tribal civilization of intercessory trading than with proto-monarchy. Of the other incense burners found in Cemetery L, ‘ … their designs [ were ] so simple or ill preserved that they were hard to acknowledge until the Qustul incense burner was deciphered. ‘ A seal feeling found in an A-group grave at Siali may picture a seated, barbate figure toasting the hieroglyphs for Ta-Seti,[ 49 ]but reading of this piece is contested,[ 50 ]and the deficiency of a native Nubian book would in any instance dictate that the ‘writing ‘ be Egyptian instead than autochthonal. While most Egyptologists have envisioned a common beginning and a close interconnectedness between the Pharaonic monarchy, the iconographic symbols of monarchy, and the hieroglyphic authorship system in which so many royal symbols are embedded, Williams seems to see these independent variables. The recent find of early hieroglyphic labels at Tomb U-j seems to turn out beyond uncertainty the intertwined beginnings of bureaucratism, composing, and kingship, and leaves small room for a Nubian accelerator in this procedure.

The presence of a big niched edifice on the thurible ( or ‘palace-facade ‘ ) provides compelling grounds for a monarchal connexion, although this connexion need non be with a specifically Nubian monarchy.[ 51 ]Although the boats on the Qustul thurible are shown going upstream ( i.e. towards Nubia ) with raised canvas, the way in which the thurible is ‘read ‘ determines whether boats travel off from the edifice, or, towards it ( as Williams maintained )[ 52 ]. Since Adams notes that even by the clip of King Djer ‘there was hardy a lasting edifice from one terminal of Nubia to the other ‘ ,[ 53 ]it is less debatable to reason that the niched edifice was in Upper Egypt, where the earliest physical illustrations occur,[ 54 ]than in Nubia itself. The lone information to back up puting the niched construction in a specifically Nubian context is the suggestion that the artifact and its designs are of specifically Nubian beginning, an averment which is assessed below.

Topographic point OF ORIGIN

Most appraisals of the Qustul Incense burner concur with Williams ‘ suggestion that the burner is a Nubian object of local design. Until really late it was assumed that the burner was composed of undurated clay or ‘a mixture of all right clay stuffs ‘ that could non be traced to a specific topographic point of beginning.[ 55 ]Since Upper Egypt did non hold a tradition of thurible usage, this implied that the Qustul Incense Burner was of local industry, and therefore that its iconographic testimony applied to the A-group entirely.

Recent x-ray blossoming analysis conducted by the Oriental Institute has nevertheless revealed the burner to be made of limestone.[ 56 ]Since there are no limestone outcroppings anyplace close Qustul, this means that either the natural stuff or the object itself had to hold been imported to the country. While limestone is a soft rock that the people of A-group Nubia would probably hold been able to work, a figure of factors make an Egyptian beginning probably. Other carved limestone objects found at A-group graveyards are either unadorned or have merely incised lines,[ 57 ]and the A-group Nubians appear to hold lacked a strong tradition of limestone carving. The Qustul incense burner ‘s exceptionally-well carved ornament discoveries near modern-day analogue merely in the limestone objects from Abydos,[ 58 ]and First Dynasty Egyptian stone graffito, such as the Gebel Sheik Suleiman lettering.[ 59 ]This possibly indicates that Egyptian craftsmen were involved in the object ‘s industry, an averment strengthened by the important stylistic disjuncture between the Qustul incense burner and other thuribles from graveyard L. [ fig 1 ] All the other thuribles found at Qustul were made of clay,[ 60 ]hold shallower reservoirs, less luxuriant ornament, and scratched instead than drop designs. Oft-repeated declaration that the thurible ‘s ornament is characteristically Nubian can be discounted on the footing of comparing with the aforesaid graffito and objects, every bit good similarities of iconographic elements ( specifically the ‘palace-facade ‘ ) with legion and better-documented illustrations from Upper Egypt.


Such decisions, if right, have the possible to change our apprehension of the burner and its A-group proprietors deeply. While Orthodox narrations of the A-group prostration emphasis the impact of violent conquerings during the First Dynasty,[ 61 ]newly-identified stuff analysis and revised chronology of the Qustul Incense burner indicate that high-ranking trade and gift exchange between Egypt and Nubia continued into the early dynastic period. Crucially, the Qustul incense burner is non an stray component in this equation. The big figure of Egyptian vass and imports found at Qustul, many of which bore crude serekhs, attest to pervasive trade-connections between Nubia and Egypt, as does the presence of gilded objects in the First-Dynasty grave at Abydos.[ 62 ]Comparison of the Egyptian vass found at Qustul with more recently-excavated stuff from Abydos would probably cast extra visible radiation on the relationship between Egypt and the terminal A-group. Whether or non suggestion of an Egyptian beginning for the Qustul incense burner ‘s carvings is accepted, designation of an Egyptian stuff confirms that important economic interaction between A-group Nubia and Upper Egypt continued into the late terminal A-group stage, a clip normally associated with marginalization and violent conquering by First Dynasty rulers.. When dating alterations, stuff and iconography testaments are is viewed alongside the widely distributed contents of Cemetery L – which included Palestine clayware and First Dynasty Egyptian stoneware – this image is modified to one of trade, exchange, and interconnectednesss.

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