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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt What is This? Provides authoritative coverage of the art, religion, language, literature, trade, politics, social life, and culture of ancient Egypt.

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the archaeological designation for an indigenous Nubian culture; the term “A-Group” was introduced by George A. Reisner (1910) in his chronological model of the Nubian cultures, but it came into general use much later, in connection with the 1960s salvage archaeology of the Nile region that would become flooded by the soon-to-be-built Aswan High Dam. The cultural designations “Archaic,” “Protodynastic,” or “Early Dynastic” had been preferred for it before that time. The term “A Horizon” was first proposed for it by William Y. Adams (1977).

The A-Group emerged in Lower Nubia in the territory adjacent to the Nile River between the First Cataract and the Second, during the Predynastic period in Egypt. It reached its climax about the time of the Egyptian unification c.3000 BCE. A-Group remains have been found between Kubanniya, 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the north of Aswan, and Saras East in Batn el-Hagar, 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the south of the Second Cataract. The rocky tract at Semna and Kumma might have constituted its southern border.

The chronological framework of the Nubian A-Group consists of three phases (Nordström 1972 and as of 1999 in press). The Early A-Group inhabited the northern part of Lower Nubia and was contemporary with the latter part of Egypt's Amratian culture and early Gerzean (called in Werner Kaiser's 1957 chronology, Naqada Ic and IIa–c); the Early A-Group was also coexistent with an indigenous Neolithic culture called the Abkan, which dominated the southern part of Lower Nubia and Batn el-Hagar, with the Second Cataract area as a center. Archaeological finds also indicate contacts at this time between Egypt and all of Lower Nubia. During the Middle A-Group, the second cultural phase, coexistent with Egypt's middle Gerzean (Naqada IId and IIIa), the communities in Lower Nubia and the northern part of Batn el-Hagar developed a uniform culture, characterized by lively contacts with Egypt but also with communities to their south. Cultural and economic exchange was intensified during the third phase, the Terminal A-Group, a period of prosperity and population growth that was coexistent with Egypt's unification stage (Naqada IIIb) and the initial part of the first dynasty.

The A-Group was basically a prehistoric culture with no written sources of its own, yet with a distinct Nubian identity; there are a few contemporary textual remains of Egyptian origin that are directly relevant in this context. “The Nubian land” or “the land of the bow” (tʒ-sty) was the Egyptian name for Lower Nubia, and the oldest known evidence with this designation is a first dynasty tablet of King Aha (c.2920 BCE). It shows a prisoner with a Nubian bow, and a sty-sign (Old Egyptian for “bow”), and it may have commemorated the king's conquest of the originally Nubian district between Gebel es-Silsila and the First Cataract, which established the border at Aswan (Elephantine). Another document is a relief (now in Khartoum) cut on a rock at Gebel Sheikh Suleiman on the western bank of the Nile in the district of Wadi Halfa, showing slain enemies and Nubian prisoners, one of them tied to the prow of a boat; presumably it is of Early Dynastic origin but its date has been disputed.

The most important source material of the A-Group is archaeological and came from some seventy-five village cemeteries situated on or above the narrow floodplain, systematically excavated during the various salvage expeditions. They have yielded rich and varied funeral offerings of both Egyptian and indigeneous objects (see below). Only a small proportion of the finds originated from settlements, such as house structures or camp sites, and these have been less systematically recorded and published. The osteological (bone) material has been thoroughly studied, however.

The general characteristics of the A-Group can be summarized as follows. The population, estimated at less than ten thousand, lived in small communities along the Nile's floodplain. Structural remains of houses have been found only occasionally, most notably stone foundations at Afia. The A-Group people practiced agriculture; they grew cereal grains and leguminous plants. Animal husbandry, primarily cattle raising, formed the basis of their economy; this was concluded by abundant finds of cowhides in their graves and from cattle dung mixed into the potter's clay as temper. Fishing, hunting, and food gathering were probably complementary parts of their subsistence economy.

They buried their dead in cemeteries, usually in oval or subrectangular pits that were dug into the alluvium, and placed the body in a contracted position with the head toward the south (the upstream direction of the Nile). The burials were commonly furnished with offerings of various kinds. The richer graves yielded collections of fine imported Egyptian objects: open bowls, pottery jars (many with signs of having been used in daily life), stone vessels, incense burners, cylinder seals, slate palettes, copper implements, amulets, and stone beads. The greater part of the finds, however, were of Nubian origin, and those consisted of an array of pottery types (the finest were thin-walled bowls with red-painted geometric designs), and of locally made stone palettes, ivory bracelets, and beads; there were also local pottery figurines, feather fans, and remains of leather clothing. Mollusk shells from the Red Sea (or Indian Ocean) were common. On the whole, the material culture of the A-Group has displayed a blending of Egyptian and Sudanese designs and influences. The distribution of the funerary remains indicates a social inequality that became strongly emphasized during the Terminal phase.

The control of trade and exchange might have become the decisive factor in the development of the A-Group's socioeconomic and political structure. The leaders of the A-Group communities probably played an important intermediary role among the fast-developing Egyptian economy, the communities in Upper Nubia, and those in surrounding regions, furnishing raw materials of various kinds, including ivory, hardwoods, precious stones, and gold, perhaps also cattle.

An advanced chiefdom that controlled at least the southern part of Lower Nubia may have been formed during Terminal A-Group times, perhaps the result of a consolidation process parallel to that of Egypt. The center was at Qustul, near the present-day border of Egypt and Sudan, where an elite cemetery with funerary offerings of outstanding quality has been located. Other focal points were Sayala and Dakka farther north. The complete breakdown of the A-Group's structure came abruptly—when the Egyptian kings of the first dynasty decided to take full control of the southern trade and the flow of raw materials. After the reign of Djer of the first dynasty (c.2900 BCE) through the fifth dynasty (c.2374 BCE) the A-Group was practically nonexistant; traces of permanent A-Group settlements dating in that period were scarce in Lower Nubia, and only a few scattered graves have been unearthed.

The B-Group had been proposed as an early archaeological designation for an indigenous culture in Lower Nubia. It had been identified by George A. Reisner (1910) and some other scholars as perhaps contemporary with Egypt's Old Kingdom. The B-Group, however, is no longer accepted as a cultural entity by archaeologists; the burials formerly attributed to it are now considered to be either Early A-Group or to belong to a poor social stratum of the Terminal A-Group.

See also NUBIA.


  • Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. Princeton, 1977.
  • Kaiser, Werner. “Zur inneren Chronologie der Naqadakultur.” Archaeologia Geographica 6 (1957), 69–77.
  • Nordström, Hans-Åke. Neolithic and A-Group Sites. Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia, 3. Stockholm, 1972.
  • Nordström, Hans-Åke. “The Nubian A-Group: Perceiving a Social Landscape.” In Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference of Nubian Studies. Boston (in press, 1999).
  • O'Connor, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa. Philadelphia, 1993.
  • Reisner, George A. The Archaeological Survey of Nubia. Report for 1907–1908. 2 vols. Cairo, 1910.
  • Smith, Harry S. “The Development of the ‘A-Group’ Culture in Northern Lower Nubia.” In Egypt and Africa: Nubia from Prehistory to Islam, edited by W. V. Davies, pp. 92–111. London, 1991.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. History and Settlement in Lower Nubia. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, 69. New Haven, 1965.
  • Williams, Bruce B. The A-Group Royal Cemetery at Qustul: Cemetery L. Excavations between Abu Simbel and the Sudan Frontier. The University of Chicago, Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition, 3. Chicago, 1986.

Hans-Åke Nordström

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