Ring cairn graves at Berenike, burials of the Blemmyes?
by: Shanna Kennedy

In the effort to better understand the cultural identity of the inhabitants of Berenike, the remains of ring cairn graves found in and around Berenike, presumably erected by natives of the Eastern Desert, should be considered. These burials will here be compared to accepted 'Blemmyes' tombs at Deraheib (Northern Sudan) and Wadi Qitna (Southern Egypt) in terms of topography, architecture and mortuary practice. It will be suggested that the damaged remains of apparently analogous tomb constructions appear over too vast a geographical region to be plausibly identified with a group as specific as the Blemmyes.

A large number of ring cairns are situated west of Berenike and along the desert tracks that connect it to Hitan Rayan, Hitan Shenshef, and Wadi Kalalat. These tombs, mostly from the fourth to sixth century A.D., are bounded by rubble-filled, stone-faced walls which encircle subterranean stone coffins. No one has so far been discovered intact: all were plundered, yielding at present only small fragments of bone and pottery. Near Hitan Rayan, a cemetery of thirty ring cairns – most measuring 3-4 meters in diameter – was found. Despite looting, many of the graves contained remnants of stone cysts, bits of human bone and pottery. Although some of these tombs stand alone, others were grouped directly adjacent to one another in clusters of up to ten individual burials. In the course of the survey ten such groups were located. The first set of burials, a pair, occupies a 3 x 7 meter area. The west one appears to be an enhanced pre-existent depression in the rocky ground, both graves preserve the central stone box that once held the body of the deceased (Sidebotham and Wendrich, 1996). The fourth group, a cluster of six cairns, includes one structurally independent tomb: this easternmost example utilized a natural rock ledge to complete its superstructure of large stones which were piled over a recession in the stone floor. The ninth burial, a single cairn measuring 3.5 meters in diameter, was constructed of a black stone that outcrops around its central stone cyst. From this grave some human bones could be extracted.

Circular stone platform tumuli, measuring 4-15 meters in diameter and 0.5-1.0 meter in height, were found at Deraheib, the 'desert capitol of the Blemmyean kingdom', situated in the desert region between Wadi Halfa and the Red Sea (Sadr et al., 1994). In each of these, one body was placed on the desert floor at the center of the mound that rose above it. So far, hundreds of tombs have been recorded and seven excavated, but only four were found intact – the rest were severely plundered. Two of these have been securely dated to the sixth or seventh century A.D. The largest tumuli were found in a cemetery a few kilometers southeast of town. They were ostensibly owned by the highest-ranking or, judging by the gold objects found inside, wealthiest members of the Blemmyes population at Deraheib. Few such graves were discovered at Deraheib proper. Their location appears to accord with Olympiodorus' claim that the Blemmyes chiefs preferred to stay in their desert encampments rather than live within the towns they controlled.

Wadi Qitna
Wadi Qitna is located in Egyptian Nubia, 65 kilometers south of Aswan, on the west bank of the Nile. The cemetery here occupies the slopes and adjacent high ground along the edges of the valleys, with the highest concentrations of graves situated along rock outcrops where stone was readily available (Strouhal, 1984). Individual tombs were most often formed by natural cysts in the rock and were covered with tumuli of stacked boulders. In places where no clefts were available for exploitation, burial chambers were built at ground level or slightly below, presumably in an effort to minimize both labor and cost. One (Cluster 17, Group II) of the dozens of tomb groups at the site, mostly dated to the sixth century A.D., is comprised of three adjacent mounds faced with a layer of flat blocks to impart a rough but uniformly textured exterior. The burial cavities of the three tumuli were cut 15-30 centimeters below ground level in irregular oval shapes.  Directly over these cysts rose pseudo-vaulted chambers, measuring 1-1.5 meters in height, which were originally covered by stone slabs. Though plundered, the shallow subterranean chambers each held the displaced remains of two bodies. Scattered objects left in and around the trio of tumuli included complete and fragmented pottery vessels, a stone bowl, a small bronze bell, a ladle, fruits, doam palm nuts, a string of beads and fragments of cloth.

In all three cases, the graves resemble tumuli and are located in hilly regions outside their respective settlements. At Wadi Qitna and Berenike, the graves overlook a desert valley (wadi). While this topographical situation may have carried symbolic meaning, it certainly optimized preservation. Furthermore, the chosen locales secured the availability of building materials and facilitated exploitation of natural features such as pre-existent stone cysts and rock outcroppings. Building materials utilized at the three sites vary:  the tombs at Deraheib and Wadi Qitna were built primarily of dry masonry, while the Berenike graves were comprised of heaped earth surrounded by stone walls. It is likely, however, that this was determined by the availability of resources – stone, for instance, was relatively scarce at Berenike. The tombs of the three cemeteries differ in size, with the largest examples erected at Deraheib. Each grave at Deraheib appears to have been devoted to an individual, whereas a single tumulus at Wadi Qitna might contain more than one person and adjoin other structures, as was also the case at Berenike, perhaps designating familial groups. Deraheib’s status as the 'desert capital of the Blemmyes' may explain the appearance of more monumental burial structures there:  it is probable that these tombs were built for members of the ruling class.

At all three sites, the bodies of the deceased were insulated within a defined space at the center of the grave; however, the positioning differed. At Deraheib, the body was placed atop the desert floor and then built over; at Wadi Qitna, it was most often interred within a stone recess and then additionally vaulted over; at Berenike, it was laid inside a stone box, presumably covered with a stone slab, and then heaped with sand, gravel, and rock. Analysis of the funerary offerings buried alongside the bodies is difficult as most graves were heavily disturbed by plunderers. Extant evidence, however, strongly suggests that the Deraheib burials were wealthier than those of the other two sites.

The ring cairn graves which litter the rising slopes of Berenike's outlying areas may, indeed, represent Blemmyes burials, considering their loose topographical and architectural similarities to accepted Blemmyes tombs at Deraheib and Wadi Qitna as well as their chronological and geographic context. Still, the appearance of analogous grave types throughout the Eastern Desert and the Upper Egyptian, Lower Nubian and even Upper Nubian Nile Valley, may indicate the use of common or similar mortuary practices among numerous contemporary but distinctly different cultural groups. For instance, during the same period, the Noba of Upper Nubia erected gravel mound tombs in groups of varying sizes along the rising areas of the desert just beyond the cultivable land of the Nile Valley they inhabited. These tumuli were likewise faced with stone, when it was available nearby (Adams, 1977). For this reason, it is perhaps overly ambitious to positively identify the owners of the ring cairns in and around Berenike with the Blemmyes inhabitants of the Egyptian Eastern Desert.

Nubia: Corridor to Africa; by: William Y. Adams. Princeton University Press, 1977.

"Archaeology in the Nubian Desert"; by: Karim Sadr, Alfredo Castiglioni, Angelo Castiglioni and Giancarlo Negro. Sahara, volume 6 (1994).

Berenike 1995. Preliminary report of the excavations at Berenike (Egyptian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the Eastern Desert; by: Steven E. Sidebotham and Willemina Z. Wendrich (eds.). Leiden, Research School CNWS, 1996.

Wadi Qitna and Kalabsha-South. Late Roman – Early Byzantine tumuli cemeteries in Egyptian Nubia (Volume I); by: Eugen Strouhal. Prague, Charles University, 1984.

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