Nubian Women in Ancient Egypt

Image of the Week: A boxwood sculpture portrays a young woman during a vibrant period of cultural renewal and territorial expansion.

Nubian girl carrying a cosmetic jar, c. 1350 B.C. Boxwood with pigment and gold leaf. Oriental Museum, Durham University, U.K.

Many of the surviving cosmetic jars and utensils feature representations of figures atypical of Egyptian society. In addition to this example and its companion, there is a jar held by a black man, and another carried by a dwarf. It seems that the act of pampered service represented by these figured vessels was intentionally coupled with the obligatory, comprehensive subservience of the other. A more concise statement of the layered authority and social structure of the New Kingdom Egyptian state is hard to imagine.

There had often existed some degree of accommodation, both cultural and ethnic, between the people of Nubia and Egypt. Even during periods of Egyptian dominance, Nubia retained a considerable ability to negotiate relations with its powerful northern neighbor. In addition to Nubia being a source of valuable raw materials, gold and its famed archers, politically motivated unions were often formed between the Nubian elite and their Egyptian counterparts. In many cases, Nubian women became part of the royal family itself and produced heirs to the throne. Tiye, one of the wives of Amenhotep III, may have been Nubian. Among her children was the well-known reformer pharaoh Akhenaton.

One of the most tangible results of these intercultural marriages, and of population dynamics in general, manifested itself in the progressively darker complexion of people living in the southern area of Egypt between Thebes and the first cataract of the Nile. The girl with the unguent jar therefore was not an ethnically isolated presence in the household of Meryptah. She may have been technically free, with the status of the baket, or servant, but may also have been a slave.

Interestingly, one ancient Egyptian word for slave was hem, a term derived from the word for “body,” and sometimes also used to refer to statuettes buried with the dead to serve them in the afterlife. Despite this girl’s humble status, upward mobility may still have been possible through adoption into her owner’s family. If a female slave became a concubine of the male head of household, she might even have provided heirs in the more exalted manner of Tiye.

The young woman seen here serves as a vivid intermediary between two great civilizations whose relationship, at times quite contentious, ultimately resulted in a mutually beneficial exchange of culture and identity. The nature of ancient Egyptian civilization, too often seen in isolation from its neighbors, would not have been as vibrant or authentic without the many contributions of this fabled land to the south.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.