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Hellenizing Art in Ancient Nubia 300 B.C.–AD 250 and Its Egyptian Models: A Study in “Acculturation”

July 2014 (118.3)

Book Review

Hellenizing Art in Ancient Nubia 300 B.C.–AD 250 and Its Egyptian Models: A Study in “Acculturation”

By László Török (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 53). Pp. xxvi + 484, pls. 160, diagram 1. Brill, Leiden 2011. $221. ISBN 978-90-04-21128-5 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Synthesizing evidence and arguments from his previous investigations into Meroitic art and history, Török’s new book provides a diversified analysis of cultural elements in order to address the nature of Meroitic cultural interaction with the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean world. This comparatively short volume integrates elements and discussions from Török’s earlier works by utilizing traditional methods of historiography in connection with a pluralistic analysis of archaeological evidence, providing the reader with a useful introduction to the types and variability of material within the Meroitic corpus. The stated goal of the text is to examine Egyptian Hellenistic and Hellenizing art within the Meroitic sphere from a Meroitic cultural perspective (24). While the premise and supporting material serve as an important step forward in Meroitic studies by treating the Meroitic kingdom as an independent cultural horizon, rather than a tertiary extension of Egypt or the classical world, the focus on the central goal ultimately limits the argument by concentrating almost exclusively on the artistic meanings asserted by the Meroitic center and elite. Such a focus is not inherently flawed and does not neglect—but does gloss over—understood meanings in the periphery and areas of highest cultural interaction.

The first two chapters address the historical narrative of Meroitic interaction with Late Period to Roman Egypt. Chapter 3 shifts the focus to an analysis of Ptolemaic and Roman influence on the existing Egyptian cultural reality and sets up the discussion found in the following chapters, wherein Török introduces a new form of art and its cultural relevance for each. The artistic forms examined in chapters 4–8 include such varied material as Hellenistic utensils, statuary, the great enclosure at Musawwarat es-Sufra, painted pottery, and the kiosk at Naqa. The final chapter then attempts to unify the presented evidence into an overarching thesis on the nature of Meroitic cultural borrowing. Török concludes his discussion with the assertion that the elements of foreign culture incorporated into Meroitic artistic tradition have already passed through the filter of Ptolemaic/Roman Egypt and are those that have specific cultural relevance to Meroe, such that their presence serves to further illustrate existing Meroitic cultural ideas rather than to demonstrate a shift from a local belief system to that of a foreign power.

Unlike scholars from earlier periods of Meroitic studies, Török seeks to understand Meroe from its own perspective rather than as a recipient of culture from Egypt or the Graeco-Roman world. This view fundamentally shapes his discussion and allows for a thoughtful and nuanced analysis of Meroitic cultural identity. By seeking to understand foreign artistic elements from the Meroitic perspective, Török manages to further explain Meroitic belief systems and to provide a window into aspects of Meroitic traditions that have been previously ascribed to simple cultural acquisition (170–73). His diachronic and multifaceted investigation into cultural borrowing provides a unique and needed window into Meroitic cultural reality.

While the text serves as a useful introduction to a number of areas of Meroitic cultural investigation and has the accompanying references to make it a solid jumping-off point for further study, there are two areas that could have been further developed: the concept of “acculturation” and the discussion of Lower Nubia. Regarding the concept of “acculturation,” Török states at the outset that he does not wish to get into a theoretical or anthropological discussion about the nature of acculturation and therefore places the term in quotation marks throughout the volume (x). However, Török’s use of “acculturation” seems to mark the presence of various syncretic processes (namely incursion, addition, deletion, and transformation) as opposed to acculturative strategies (such as integration, separation, assimilation, and marginalization). By employing a more nuanced discussion of cultural exchange, rather than creating a catchall term for cultural interaction, Török could provide not only a firmer theoretical foundation for his findings but also a more precise description of Meroitic culture.

In addition, Török’s presentation of Meroitic cultural exchange and identity appears to treat the Meroitic kingdom as a monolithic unit by utilizing evidence primarily from its southern reaches to describe the nature of cultural exchange throughout the kingdom as a coherent and unified program extending even into its northernmost outposts. While his method serves as an excellent investigation into the role and elements of cultural interaction for the central government and elite, it downplays, if not discounts, differences that even he observes in the northern reaches of the kingdom. The exception to his southern-centered evidence is his presentation of painted vases from Lower Nubia, in which he notes the proliferation of iconographic diversity and the similar iconographic meanings in Hellenistic and Egyptian mortuary rites (259–60). Such evidence would seem to point to extensive cultural exchange in the north, with perhaps more fluid cultural identities. As a result, further examination and comparison of northern and southern evidence would help to create a clearer picture of life throughout the Meroitic kingdom.

Overall, Török’s new book serves as a thoroughly welcome addition to Meroitic studies, synthesizing material that will be of interest and use to Egyptologists, classicists, and historians who are looking at cultural interaction in fringe areas. The diachronic and diversified approach to the evidence illustrates the depth and breadth of material Meroe has to offer, and the organization demonstrates the gains made by approaching Meroitic studies from the “Meroitic perspective.”

Alicia Cunningham-Bryant
Intellectual Heritage Program
Temple University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19122-6090

Book Review of Hellenizing Art in Ancient Nubia 300 B.C.–AD 250 and Its Egyptian Models: A Study in Acculturation, by László Török

Reviewed by Alicia Cunningham-Bryant

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3 (July 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.CunninghamBryant

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