Originally known as Group C, the C-Group was one of a number of similar terms first coined by the American archaeologist George A. Reisner in 1907 to designate a Nubian grave type located during his excavations in Cemetery 7 at Shellal, immediately upstream of the First Cataract of the Nile River. The C-Group was characterized by graves with the deceased orientated east–west, laid on its right side, head to the east, facing north. Accompanying the body were beads, and closely associated with the graves were black-and-red polished pottery and a unique incised ware of local Nubian production that remains one of the most distinctive features of the C-Group cultural assemblage. The form of the grave monument was another distinctive feature, a tumulus constructed of concentric rings of small upright stone slabs.
Research, especially on the ceramics by Manfred Bietak (1987), refined the chronology of the C-Group, which has been divided into phases I, II, and III, with the first two also subdivided into a and b. The C-Group was contemporary with Egypt's Old Kingdom and lasted into the New Kingdom's early eighteenth dynasty, approximately seven hundred years. The C-Group culture is still largely known from its mortuary remains; the people, at least in the earlier phases, are thought to have been pastoralists, with flocks principally of sheep and goats but also including cattle, which were frequently depicted on the locally made pottery. The early C-Group population probably occupied temporary camp sites, which have left little trace in the archaeological record. A more settled lifestyle gradually developed, associated with some reliance on agriculture, and hunting and fishing probably remained important. In the larger centers, an abundance of wealth derived from trade led both to increased social differentiation and to political development toward statehood. The most substantial of the few permanent settlements known from that phase, at Wadi es Sebua, is a village of over 100 stone-built, circular and subrectangular houses, bounded by a thick defensive wall. Archaeologically the C-Group is attested from Kubanniya, a little to the north of the First Cataract, to the Batn el-Hagar, the inhospitable region in present-day Sudan immediately upstream of the Second Cataract.
Although there are some similarities between the C-Group and the preceding culture in that same Nubian area—the A-Group—a long period of abandonment of Lower Nubia appears to have separated them. It has been suggested that the C-Group moved into the region, probably from the south or perhaps from the west, forced by climatic deterioration to leave their homelands in what was becoming the Sahara. All the evidence for the early C-Group is confined to the western bank of the Nile. The close similarities with the Kerma culture (that was at the time based in the Northern Dongola Reach) has suggested that those two groups shared a common origin. The C-Group's artifactual material and grave types have also been found in association with materials characteristic of the Kerma culture, at least as far upstream as the region of present-day Dongola.
The C-Group were a nonliterate people. To learn about their history, the ancient Egyptian sources were consulted, which contain a wealth of information recorded by traders and military expeditions that operated to the south of Elephantine; later, records were kept by administrators. The northern part of this area was known to the ancient Egyptians as Wawat; farther upstream, was Irtjet, Setju, and Yam. Today, many scholars believe that the first three were in Lower Nubia—the area occupied by the C-Group—whereas David O'Connor (1991), in particular, is of the opinion that Wawat occupied the whole of Lower Nubia, with Irtjet and Setju much farther upstream, and Yam south of the Fifth Cataract. Clearly, the presence of the C-Group cultural assemblage cannot be equated with ancient political boundaries.
The annals of the merchant Horkhuf have indicated that Wawat, Irtjet and Setju were on occasion independent entities; at other times, they formed part of a single political unit under one ruler. Although the rulers of those states were in a position to tax or otherwise hinder Egyptian trading ventures—testifying to their power—still, they were forced to acknowledge the military might of their southern neighbor, Yam. Horkhuf has informed us that on his return from the south he was escorted, presumably through Lower Nubia, by soldiers provided by the king of Yam. Under the pharaoh Pepy II (c.2300–2206 BCE), the Egyptians mounted a campaign against Wawat and Irtjet, and the rulers of those areas subsequently traveled to the pharaoh in Memphis, to pay homage.
Egypt's definitive solution to the problem of interference with the southern trade was the conquest of virtually the whole of the region occupied by the C-Group, during the reigns of the twelfth dynasty pharaohs Amenemhet I and Senwosret I (1991–1928 BCE). The C-Group elite thus lost its position as middlemen in any trade along the Nile Valley, and that loss of wealth was reflected in the greater rarity of Egyptian objects imported at that time—although the area lay under direct Egyptian control. The new middlemen in the African trade were the rulers of the kingdom of Kush to the south of the C-Group, the successors to the rulers of Irtjet and Setju, or of Yam.
The C-Group people had been warlike, and for a long time had served as mercenaries in the armies of the pharaohs. The conquest of Wawat by the Egyptians was thus no easy matter, and hostilities were extended for some time—for about one hundred years. More than ten extremely powerful fortresses were built by the Egyptians at strategic points along the Nile Valley particularly at the Second Cataract of the Nile. Their function may have been mainly to protect the trade routes down the Nile, although a few of the fortresses appear to be situated near major C-Group population centers and may have been located at least partly to keep those populations under surveillance.
During the Second Intermediate Period, Egyptian control of the C-Group lapsed but the political vacuum was rapidly filled by an advance of the Kushites from the south, who brought with them their distinctive Kerma Classique culture, which was overlain on that of the indigenous population. It was during the Kushite domination that C-Group culture, as an independent entity, became increasingly adulterated. It disappeared forever with the New Kingdom occupation of Nubia.
- Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. London, 1977. Discussion of the C-Group is found on pp. 142–162.
- Bietak, Manfred. Studien zur Chronologie der Nubischen C-Gruppe. Denkschrift der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Phil-hist. Klasse, 97. Vienna, 1968. Of fundamental importance for our understanding of the chronology and internal development of the C-Group.
- Bietak, Manfred. “Ceramics of the C-Group Culture.” Meroitica 5 (1979), 107–127. A detailed analysis of some of the finest products of the C-Group, its incised ceramics.
- Bietak, Manfred. “The C-Group and Pan-Grave Culture in Nubia.” In Nubian Culture Past and Present, edited by T. Hägg, Stockholm, 1987. pp. 113–128.
- O'Connor, David. “Early States along the Nubian Nile.” In Egypt and Africa, edited by W. V. Davies, pp. 145–165. London, 1991. One of several articles by this author on the location of the areas recorded by Egyptian sources upstream of Aswan; includes discussions of their political organization and level of development.
- Reisner, George A. The Archaeological Survey Report for 1907–1908. Cairo, 1910.
- Sauneron, Serge. “Un village nubien fortifié sur la rive orientale de Ouadi es- Sébouʿ.” Bulletin de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale 63 (1965), 161–167. A description of one of the few known C-Group settlements.
- Säve-Söderbergh, T., ed. Middle Nubian Sites. The Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia, vol. 4.1. Partille, 1989. A general introduction to the C-Group is to be found on pp. 6–14.
- Trigger, Bruce G. Nubia under the Pharaohs. London, 1976. A detailed account of Egyptian activities south of Aswan and of the cultures, including the C-Group, with which they came into contact.
Derek A. Welsby