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A Reassessment of the Qustul Incense Burner: Dating, Iconography

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

This essay presents a detailed reassessment of the dating, iconography, and origin of a decorated censer uncovered from Cemetery L at the A-group site of Qustul, commonly referred to as the Qustul Incense Burner. It argues that inconsistencies in the procedure used to date the censer have undermined interpretation of the artefact, and presents a revised dating based on the analysis of the object’s archaeological context. The piece suggests that pareidolic visions of the censer’s iconography have frequently been reiterated without critical comment, and questions the extent to which the object reveals the origins of pharaonic iconography. Finally, the piece examines new evidence concerning the censer’s material composition, and from this argues that the object is likely of Egypto-Nubian, rather than solely A-group, origin. This in turn offers striking insight into the relationship between Egypt and A-group Nubia during the proto-dynastic era, and tempers orthodox views of violent conquest with evidence of trade and gift-exchange.


The Qustul Incense Burner remains one of the most intriguing and contentious objects associated with the prehistoric Nubian A-group culture. Discovered in 1964 by the late Professor Kevin Seele in Tomb 24 of Cemetery L at Qustul (fig. 1), the burner is the most elaborately crafted object to emerge from any A-group context. It resembles a hollowed stone drum of approximately 8.5cm in width and 9cm in height, and is decorated with elaborate sunk reliefs on the external and upper faces (fig. 7). [1] 

As the burner was recovered from tomb L24 in many small fragments and quickly placed in storage, its significance was initially overlooked. Early publications variously referred to the artefact as a lamp or as a mortar for grinding pigments [2] 3, while its discoverer, Professor Seele, identified the object first as a palette, [4] then as a cylinder seal, [5] and finally as a censer. [6] This assertion was based on the discovery of traces of red dye in similar objects from L L19, and the prevalence of similar burners in Nubian contexts. Detailed of analysis of the object began only after its restoration in 1977 by Professor Bruce Williams, who dated the object to the era of state-building in Upper Egypt. His reconstruction revealed decoration that echoed pharaonic motifs from Upper Egypt, and had the potential to shed important light on the development of royal ideology and iconography in Egypt [figure 7]. Williams maintained that the pharaonic motifs of the burner proved the existence of a fledging A-group monarchy at Qustul, whose ideas later permeated into Upper Egypt – ‘sovereigns who ruled in Lower Nubia and Egypt before Scorpion’. [7] Hence, evidence of pharaonic iconography was taken as evidence for a monarchical state at Qustul. Williams’ monographs placed impetus for Egyptian kingship firmly within Nubia, an argument which was readily, if uncritically, accepted by scholars of the Afrocentrist movements, such as the Anta Diop School.

Nevertheless, Williams’ interpretation was not universally accepted. In 1985, W.Y. Adams published a rebuttal to what he termed the ‘A-group monarchy hypothesis’, arguing against notions of an A-group monarchy on broad theoretical and archaeological grounds. [8] Adams’s critique was well-devised, but it was published before detailed field reports from Qustul were available, and subsequently lacked a strong grounding in evidence from the cemetery. Williams’ own riposte to Adams’ argument was swift, and as of 1996 he continues to maintain that the ‘monumental pharaonic culture was entirely at home in Nubia, much earlier than was once thought’ [9] , arguing against sub-Saharan cultural influence in early Egypt and arguing that rulers of Abydos may have been descended from those at Qustul. [10] 

While the ‘A-group monarchy hypothesis’ has never found widespread approval among Egyptological circles, Williams’ description of the Qustul censer’s dating, iconography and origins are broadly accepted. Recent discoveries threaten to alter this picture however. Reassessments of the dating of L24, new interpretations of the censer’s iconography, and recent petrographic analysis itself have the potential to alter understanding of both the burner and the Nubian A-group culture at large. Key questions include whether the burner predates material with comparable iconography from Abydos, whether its decoration and iconography can be described as explicitly pharaonic or explicitly Nubian, and whether the burner is indeed of Nubian origin and design. Renewed analysis of dating, iconography, and material, this piece suggests the Qustul Incense burner is likely of a much later date than Williams suggested, and points to extensive interaction between Egypt and Nubia during the Terminal A-group phase.


If one is to argue that A-group iconography influenced that of Upper Egypt, then the date of the Qustul censer is clearly of critical importance. Williams assigned Tomb L24 to the Nagada IIIa1 period, contemporary with the A-group Terminal period or the earliest phases of the Egyptian Predynastic. In this view, L24 predated crucial 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 linear seriation of Cemetery L and assessment of grave contents, [12] and his chronology has been widely and uncritically accepted, even by scholars who reject other aspects of his interpretation. [13] Although W.Y. Adams questioned Williams’ methods of pottery and tomb seriation, [14] he did so before detailed field reports from Qustul were available. With the benefit of this new contextual information, the chronology of L24 is open to fresh appraisal.

The objects linking L24 to the Nagada IIIa1 comprise a set of Palestinian jugs, [15] a fragment of a pot with a transversely elongated body, and a segmented jar. [16] Of these objects, the last two are securely dated to Nagada IIIa, but the date of the Palestinian jugs is uncertain. Williams identified parallel vessels in a tomb from Azor in Israel, which he dated to Nagada IIIa on the basis of an Egyptian ripple-flaked blade found in the tomb. [17] The reports from Azor paint a different picture however. While the blade and jugs were found in close proximity, the tomb also contained many later Egyptian and Palestinian objects, which the excavators dated to around 3100 BC, contemporary with the Nagada IIIb1 period. Since stratigraphy indicated a single burial, it was concluded that the elaborate knife was probably an heirloom, interred long after its production. [18] Thus, the presence of Palestinian jugs does not support a Nagada IIIa1 attribution. On the contrary, vessels and objects from L24 suggest a much later date.

Approximately seven shattered pot-stands were found in L24. Of these, two were squat and undecorated, two were high-rimmed with incised decorations and rectangular openings, and the remainder had rectangular openings in their sides. [19] Low stands of this type appeared in Egypt during the Nagada IIIa period, [20] but did not become common until the First Dynasty. [21] On the other hand, analogous tall stands occur almost exclusively in Early Dynastic contexts. [22] Of the stoneware found in the tomb, a fragmentary Egytpian cylinder jar with wavy handles is dated by Williams to the Nagada III period. His reports concede however that the jar could have been produced at any time between Nagada III and the First Dynasty. [23] Remains of an almost identical vessel were found at the First Dynasty tomb of Neithhotep at Nagada. [24] A later dating for L24 is also supported by a flat-based shallow stone bowl found adjacent to the Qustul censer, [25] the design of which is attested in Upper Egypt during the First Dynasty alone. [26] 

A final piece of evidence is provided by the beads from L24, which Williams described as ‘early versions of the grooved pendant and of the bilobate beads … found among the jewelry [sic] deposited in the [First Dynasty] tomb of Djer’. [27] No other parallels for this jewellery have been identified. In order to circumvent the chronological problems entailed by this comparison, Williams argued that the jewellery from the Djer’s tomb were actually of a Nagada IIIa date. [28] This conjecture was based on the testimony of a single bracelet, bearing serekhs and falcons carved in plaques of turquoise and gold, which was found on a mummified arm in the tomb. According to Williams’ stylistic analysis, these motifs were no employed by the time of Djer. [29] W.M.F. Petrie dates the bracelet to early during Djer’s reign however, [30] noting that the earliest and closest parallel for use of plaques of turquoise and gold is provided by the lapis lazuli and ivory labels found in the same tomb. [31] 

Collectively, this contextual evidence speaks strongly in favour of a much later date for L24 and the Qustul incense burner that has traditionally been assumed. Although Williams placed L24 early in his seriation of the cemetery, contemporary with the Nagada IIIa1 period, this position no longer seems tenable. [32] While ceramics suggest that Cemetery L was being used as early as the Nagada III period, if one is to accept Williams’ Nagada IIIa1 dating for L24, it is necessary not only to accept that both low and high pot-stands were used significantly earlier than is usually suggested, but also to discard the testimony of the flat stone bowl, tall-decorated pot-stands and bilobate beads, for which First Dynasty examples provide the only parallels. If a First Dynasty date is proposed for L24, the scenario is altogether more comfortable. Some of the vessels found in L24 may be older than this, but it is easier to explain them as heirlooms [33] than to antedate the remainder of the assemblage. This conclusion meshes well with the writings of earlier scholars, who have repeatedly dated major A-group phases 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 large niched-building, also sit more convincingly in a First Dynasty context. [36] 


The remainder of the censer’s iconography is worthy of assessment for other reasons. As Adams opined, ‘the evidence for an A-Group monarchy, like that for the Predynastic Egyptian monarchy, is almost purely iconographic.’ [37] Williams maintained that the burner was ‘clearly linked to pharaonic civilization by many details, including the palace facade, the white crown, the falcon label, the falcon-standard, the feline it labels, the sacrificial victim, and possibly the rosette’, all of which considered to be among the Nile Valley’s earliest examples. [38] Although the burner’s crucial scene is almost entirely missing, Williams’ reconstruction has become canonical, [39] such that scholars have even cited entirely reconstructed elements in relation to iconographic discussion. [40] Williams also held that the burner was of ‘entirely Nubian style and origin’.

Clearly, if the burner was of ‘entirely Nubian character’ and its motifs were shown to predate the iconography from Upper Egypt, this would challenge established notions of artistic development in Egypt. Nevertheless, a great deal of Williams’ interpretation rests upon insecure reconstruction of iconographic details. The wearer of the ‘crown’ is missing, the pharaonic vessel is incomplete, the ‘rosette’ is largely destroyed (and bears great resemblance to the raised legs of the animal directly to its left), and the Horus figure is ambiguous. When coupled with the dating insecurities outlined above, and the issue of the burner’s material discussed further below, it becomes clear that the burner tells us more about relations between Upper Egypt and Nubia than it does of A-group notions of kingship.

One of Williams’ central contentions was that the Qustul censer featured the earliest depiction of the Egyptian white crown, [41] an assertion tallied with the crown’s historic association with Upper Egypt, [42] and placed the impetus for this key insignia in Nubia. There is no reason to suspect that the Qustul Incense burner provides the earliest depiction of the white crown however. Similar tall conical hats with bulbs appear on two Nagada I statues from Gebelein, [43] and on an ivory knife handle now in the Metropolitan Museum (Nagada III). [44] Pierre Amiet has also identified a cylinder seal from Susa depicting a similar hat that predates all these examples. [45] If the Qustul censer is dated later than the Nagada III period, it also postdates depictions on the Scorpion Macehead and Narmer Palette. [46] Of all these examples, the Qustul censer is the least well-preserved, and its relevant section may admit other interpretations. [47] While it must be stressed that wearing a tall hat is not synonymous with control of a monarchical state, arguments against Williams’ reconstruction include the fact that the pharaoh faces away from the direction of travel, [48] the crowns’ lack of a distinctive bulb or ear-hole, the unusual proportion of the figure (which does not match that of the only well-preserved figure on the censer), and the limitations of the corroborating iconography.

If Nubia were indeed the site of an elaborate icon-forging kingdom which presaged that of Upper Egypt, we might expect to find evidence of this pursuit elsewhere. But testimony is sparse, more readily associated with a tribal culture of intercessory trading than with proto-monarchy. Of the other incense burners found in Cemetery L, ‘… their designs [were] so simple or poorly preserved that they were difficult to recognize until the Qustul incense burner was deciphered.’ A seal impression found in an A-group tomb at Siali may depict a seated, bearded figure saluting the hieroglyphs for Ta-Seti, [49] but interpretation of this piece is contested, [50] and the lack of a native Nubian script would in any case dictate that the ‘writing’ be Egyptian rather than indigenous. While most Egyptologists have envisioned a common origin and a close interconnection between the pharaonic monarchy, the iconographic symbols of monarchy, and the hieroglyphic writing system in which so many royal symbols are embedded, Williams seems to consider these independent variables. The recent discovery of early hieroglyphic labels at Tomb U-j seems to prove beyond doubt the intertwined origins of bureaucracy, writing, and kingship, and leaves little room for a Nubian catalyst in this process.

The presence of a large niched building on the censer (or ‘palace-facade’) provides compelling evidence for a monarchical connection, although this connection need not be with a specifically Nubian monarchy. [51] Although the boats on the Qustul censer are shown travelling upstream (i.e. towards Nubia) with raised sail, the direction in which the censer is ‘read’ determines whether boats travel away from the building, or, towards it (as Williams maintained) [52] . Since Adams notes that even by the time of King Djer ‘there was hardy a permanent building from one end of Nubia to the other’, [53] it is less problematic to conclude that the niched building was in Upper Egypt, where the earliest physical examples occur, [54] than in Nubia itself. The only data to support placing the niched structure in a specifically Nubian context is the suggestion that the artefact and its designs are of specifically Nubian origin, an assertion which is assessed below.


Most assessments of the Qustul Incense burner concur with Williams’ suggestion that the burner is a Nubian object of local design. Until very recently it was assumed that the burner was composed of undurated clay or ‘a mixture of fine clay materials’ that could not be traced to a specific place of origin. [55] Since Upper Egypt did not have a tradition of censer use, this implied that the Qustul Incense Burner was of local manufacture, and hence that its iconographic testimony applied to the A-group alone.

Recent x-ray florescence analysis conducted by the Oriental Institute has however revealed the burner to be made of limestone. [56] Since there are no limestone outcroppings anywhere near Qustul, this means that either the raw material or the object itself had to have been imported to the area. While limestone is a soft stone that the people of A-group Nubia would likely have been able to work, a number of factors make an Egyptian origin likely. Other carved limestone objects found at A-group cemeteries are either undecorated or have only incised lines, [57] and the A-group Nubians appear to have lacked a strong tradition of limestone carving. The Qustul incense burner’s exceptionally-well carved decoration finds close contemporary parallel only in the limestone objects from Abydos, [58] and First Dynasty Egyptian rock graffiti, such as the Gebel Sheik Suleiman inscription. [59] This perhaps indicates that Egyptian craftsmen were involved in the object’s manufacture, an assertion strengthened by the significant stylistic disjunction between the Qustul incense burner and other censers from cemetery L. [fig 1] All the other censers found at Qustul were made of clay, [60] have shallower reservoirs, less elaborate decoration, and scratched rather than sunken designs. Oft-repeated declaration that the censer’s decoration is characteristically Nubian can be discounted on the basis of comparison with the aforementioned graffiti and objects, as well similarities of iconographic elements (specifically the ‘palace-facade’) with numerous and better-documented examples from Upper Egypt.


Such conclusions, if correct, have the potential to alter our understanding of the burner and its A-group owners profoundly. While orthodox narratives of the A-group collapse stress the impact of violent conquests during the First Dynasty, [61] newly-identified material analysis and revised chronology of the Qustul Incense burner indicate that high-level trade and gift exchange between Egypt and Nubia continued into the early dynastic period. Crucially, the Qustul incense burner is not an isolated element in this equation. The large number of Egyptian vessels and imports found at Qustul, many of which bore primitive serekhs, attest to pervasive trade-connections between Nubia and Egypt, as does the presence of gold objects in the First-Dynasty tombs at Abydos. [62] Comparison of the Egyptian vessels found at Qustul with more recently-excavated material from Abydos would likely shed additional light on the relationship between Egypt and the terminal A-group. Whether or not suggestion of an Egyptian origin for the Qustul incense burner’s carvings is accepted, identification of an Egyptian material confirms that significant economic interaction between A-group Nubia and Upper Egypt continued into the late terminal A-group phase, a time usually associated with marginalisation and violent conquest by First Dynasty rulers.. When dating revisions, material and iconography testaments are is viewed alongside the cosmopolitan contents of Cemetery L – which included Palestine pottery and First Dynasty Egyptian stoneware – this picture is modified to one of trade, exchange, and interconnections.

(2,959 words)


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