The last two entries after our return from the summer break have had a focus on things referring to cults and rituals rather than the archaeology proper of the world we present and discuss through this Internet space. Perhaps nothing particular in that, given the coincidences in time that we examined (Ramadan, Equinox). But since today we entered a new month, why should we return to this subject? The reasons are three, and these will constitute the subject of this entry.
First of all, the Medieval Sai project itself concerns the archaeological investigations at a site where a very intriguing question to be answered is whether it was there that the known from written sources Christian Bishopric of medieval Sai was indeed once situated. This means that we are seeking to define whether the religious character of this place was of such importance as to stand out among the rest of the sites with possible medieval church remains on the island; then, what are the archaeological remains that can point to it having functioned as the episcopic see for the Christians of this region of medieval Nubia. In other words, one is also asking how can be traced the particular rituals performed at a site deemed of such particular role and importance. Actually, very few attempts have been made to describe the rituals performed during the cults that ordained the religious experience of people with Christian faith in medieval Nubia. Traces of these rituals are not preserved in such eloquent ways as one can find when granted access to the cult places of modern Sudanese Islam, centered on sufist practices…
Nevertheless, such discussions have been very vividly opened in other communities of historical and archaeological research, and after the volume edited by Timothy Insoll and titled, “Archaeology, Ritual and Religion” (London 2004), there came another collective work (the fruit of the Third Cotsen Advanced Seminar) edited by Evangelos Kiriakidis and titled “The Archaeology of Ritual” (Los Angeles 2007).
Presenting books of interest to our work is the second point of this entry and in the future we will try to be as communicative as possible in that respect. For more reviews : http://greeknorwegianmission.blogspot.com/2010/09/book-reviews.html
One of the main issues raised in the Kiriakidis’ edition (a collection of papers that is thought provoking, often controversial, but always of extremely high quality) is what constitutes ritual activity and how can this be traced archaeologically. With presentations from various disciplines (history and art history, archaeology and anthropology, cognitive studies and linguistics, religion, and performance) and spanning a large geographical horizon (the Americas, the Aegean Sea, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, and India), the volume touches upon both interesting and innovative points of research and constitutes an inspiration for further such seminaries and publications.
On what basis can such a discussion be opened in Nubiology?
The cover of the volume “The Archaeology of Ritual” depicts one of the wheels of the Sun temple at Konarak, Orissa, in India. This is one of the archaeological features used to define the antiquity of the ritual of the dance of Odissi. (Alessandra Lopez y Royo, pp. 155-181).
Do we have examples of the ritual character of a dance in medieval Nubia that we can attempt to discuss in a way meaningful for such researches in Nubian Studies?
Actually, yes, and this is the third point in today’s entry:
In 2004, among the wall paintings discovered in Old Dongola by the Polish Mission (http://www.centrumarcheologii.uw.edu.pl/fileadmin/pam/PAM_2004_XVI/226.pdf), of special interest was deemed a scene of dancing figures (figs. 2, 6 & 7). This is a unique find that still awaits full decipherment, just like the legends in Old Nubian accompanying it. The first to present them (Małgorzata Martens-Czarnecka, “Wall Paintings Discovered in Dongola in the 2004 Season, PAM XVI, pp. 273-284) made of course a sincere effort to understand their meaning and provenance (pp. 276 & 281). But was that enough?
Is it not high time also for Nubian Studies to introduce such inter-disciplinary and innovative discussions on more cognitive approaches to the archaeological record? Jacques van der Vliet introduced an interesting opinion in the last Nubian Studies Conference in London, where he suggested that the formulaic structure of the inscriptions on the funerary stelae erected for Christian Nubians in medieval times had a performative function, namely to help the participants of funerary rituals to remember the words of the prayers to be chanted for the dead commemorated by the medieval Nubian church.
We believe that such dynamic approaches – whether correct or not – widen the horizons of a field of studies and accelerate knowledge thereof.
To return, in conclusion, to the example of the dance scene from Dongola, wouldn’t it be interesting to revisit the similarities and/or differences between such medieval records and both spoken descriptions as well as performed rituals of dances by the Nubians of today?