In the early 20th century, the Harvard archeologist George Reisner uncovered dozens of pyramids and temples in Sudan’s Nubian desert. Sifting his findings to send home to the Museum of Fine Arts, Reisner reached a catch-all conclusion. “The [Nubian] native negroid race had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention, and owed their cultural position to the Egyptian immigrants and to the imported Egyptian civilization,” he wrote in a 1918 bulletin for the MFA, where he was a curator of Egyptian art. He had no evidence to back himself up, relying instead on the dominant prejudice of the day: that skin pigment was intellectual destiny, and darker meant lesser.
A century later, Reisner’s misguided notions are the impetus of the MFA’s “Ancient Nubia Now,” a showcase of the museum’s unmatched collection of Nubian objects, many of them collected by Reisner himself. The title, just three words, holds the key: Ancient Nubia Now is nothing like the Ancient Nubia in Reisner’s then, and the show is unflinching in its atonement. “Correcting the Story” is the title of an introductory text block near the show’s entrance, and the MFA means it. “Reisner’s prejudices led him to misinterpret his findings,” it reads, and that he “made a serious miscalculation.” To put a fine point on it, the museum makes clear that Reisner “had it almost entirely backward.”
Such outright penance right there on a museum wall is no small thing, and the museum should be given due credit. It admits it hasn’t given its Nubian collection much notice in years, but its sudden rediscovery is surely in step with the moment. Undoing a generational myth of Nubian insignificance — a myth the museum was very much a part of — fits right in with the MFA’s burgeoning apology tour, right in time for its sesquicentennial next year. Still, there’s no defending the indefensible, and the museum’s Reisner association demands disavowal. Like many of his contemporaries, Reisner was guided by the belief that dark-skinned Africans could never have built a sophisticated civilization on their own. His conclusions informed the easy race-based consensus of the day: that Ancient Nubia was mired in what they judged to be the barbarism of Africa and beholden to Egypt for any and all of its worthwhile advances in art, architecture, and technology, and that Egypt was allied with the blossoming sophistication of Mediterranean cultures. (Reisner, completely incorrectly, also believed that the Egyptians were at least partly Semitic, but that’s another story).
By now, we know not an iota of any of this is true: Nubia was a full-blown civilization, replete with advanced art, craft, science, and governance. Nubia, in fact, ruled Ancient Egypt for a century, infusing it with its own culture and art, and inevitably borrowing some of it back. (Hence Reisner’s conclusions that Kerma was an Egyptian outpost; he concluded the fine objects he found there were imported from Egypt, which is just one of the things he got “entirely backward.”) The three-millennia history, short version, goes like this: Nubia rose along the banks of the Nile in 3000 BC as the kingdom of Kush; Egypt, faced with a formidable rival, conquered it around 1500 BC. By 800 BC, Nubia rose again, taking control of the entire region for 100 years.
Nubia itself didn’t make it easy — it had no written language until the third century BC, and what came into being after that remains largely untranslatable. Egypt’s very readable system of hieroglyphs, thanks to the Rosetta Stone, left storytelling — and Nubia’s history — in its hands. That leaves little wonder why Nubia came out on the losing end of history for so long; Egypt’s accounts of Nubian civilization were full of disinformation and disdain, the ancient world equivalent of fake news. Reisner, an Egyptologist, extended Egypt’s malign view into the 20th century, leaving Ancient Nubia to languish in comparative obscurity as a minor relic, lost in Egypt’s shadow.
It’s important that the MFA has come clean with its historical role in perpetuating that story, but it’s not more important than the museum framing its corrective as a glorious, in-depth exhibition of a civilization all but lost to the shifting sands along the Nile. There are more than 400 objects here, spanning some 3,000 years, and you’ll be struck, surely, by intricate tiny objects of pure gold, or azure ceramics made from faience, the result of fired copper ore.
But you should play close attention to the blend of aesthetics, which no doubt confused Reisner and helped him jump to ugly conclusions, because it also helps to unravel other misconceptions about the ancient world. In one gallery centered on the Egyptian occupation of Nubia, from 1550 to 1070 BC, old notions of dominance melted into a nuanced commingling of people and cultures. Egyptians and Nubians intermarried and shared both faith and aesthetic preferences. This trickled down to fashion choices, which often denoted social standing. The exhibition includes an intricate, perfectly preserved loincloth of pierced deer hide — a fine piece, worn by Nubian soldiers. This one belonged to Maiherpra, a Nubian who was a close attendant to the king. His position at the peak of Egyptian society was preserved in the tomb: His loincloth was found in the king’s burial chamber along with his mummified remains, an honor bestowed on him for his position.
Stories like these help support the idea of an ancient cosmopolitanism, and push against simpler narratives of rise and fall, conqueror and conquered. Those simplistic histories, ancient and otherwise, are finally starting to fall away, making the MFA’s re-engagement with its trove of Nubian culture timely indeed.
The balance of power between Egypt and Nubia was sometimes peaceful, and sometimes not — a gallery here captures the invasion of Egypt by the Nubian King Piankhy, who assumed control of Egypt in the eighth century BC. But “Ancient Nubia Now” is clear-minded in positioning Egypt and Nubia at the very least as equals.
That would have been unheard of until very recently, and the MFA acknowledges its own role in that tradition. That’s right, more apologies: On the wall, the museum notes it hasn’t had a permanent Nubian gallery since 2006, with only a handful of its collection on view since. This passively reinforced the notion of Nubia as insignificant. “We also commit to interpret this collection together with the communities we serve,” the wall text says.
That might be the most important thing here. I’m not immune to the beauty, and there’s plenty of it, in dizzying volume. But it’s hard not to be struck by the contemporary humanity found throughout these galleries of civilizations so long passed. Videos range from African scholars like the Smithsonian’s Shomarka Keita decrying the systemic prejudice that denied real analysis of Nubian culture for so long, to Lana Bashir, a first-generation Sudanese immigrant, discovering her ancient heritage in person for the first time. Edmund Barry Gaither, the director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, links Nubia’s contemporary obscurity to colonial legacies of slavery in a prominent text displayed on the wall. "[M]any African-Americans embrace Africa — and Nubia in particular, as one of the continent’s oldest civilizations — as a generalized ancestral legacy,” he writes. “Unfortunately, much of our knowledge of Nubian history has been distorted by racial prejudice and cultural bias that we are only beginning to correct.”
In contemporary Sudan, a combination of environmental change and violently corrupt politics adds a note of sudden urgency to this historic reclamation project. The remains of Ancient Nubia are now under a different kind of threat: Re-desertification has been slowly swallowing the temples and pyramids of Kerma for decades, with climate extremes now accelerating that process, while a cluster of hydro-electric dam projects being forced through by the corrupt regime of President Omar al-Bashir could leave the ancient society deep underwater.
It leaves me to wonder if we’re finally discovering Ancient Nubia, in all its complex glories, just in time for it to disappear forever. But in that mess we can take some comfort: That this is exactly what a museum is for, better late than never, doing exactly what it should.
ANCIENT NUBIA NOW
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Jan. 20. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org