Meroë is an ancient city of the east of the Nile, around 200km north east of modern Khartoum in Sudan, located near the modern settlements of Kabushiya and Begrawiya. The site comprised a walled city; various outlying temples; the pyramids of the royal burial grounds; and necropolises containing the tombs of other inhabitants of the city.
Known as Medewi or Bedewi in its own language, the city was inhabited from approximately 890BC to 350AD. It was the southern administrative capital of the Kingdom of Kush from around 750 BC, and rose in importance after it became the site of the royal burial ground after the sack of Napata around 590 BC. Situated on several trade routes, Meroë exported goods from its iron and pottery industries to other African states and beyond. The people of Meroë worshipped Egyptian deities as well as southern deities such as Apedemak. The City initially used Egyptian scripts, but developed its own script, Meroitic, around 300 BC. The script has been deciphered using place names found in inscriptions, but cannot be translated as the original language is now lost.
The city was well known to classical authors, but the site had been forgotten by the modern world. James Bruce first indentified the site of Meroë in 1722, and in 1821 Frederic Cailliaud correctly produced drawings and descriptions. The pyramids were examined by archaeologist and looted by treasure hunters in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, the site of the city was identified by orientalist, Archibald Sayce. He recommended the site to his friend, archaeologist John Garstang of Institute of Archaeology at the University of Liverpool (predecessor of the Department of Archaeology Classic and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool). Garstang, who had worked previously on funerary sites in Sudan, formed an excavation committee to fund his excavations and gained the approval of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudanese Government to excavated the site from 1909-1914.
The first season of excavations in December 1909 started as a small scale experimental excavation. Garstang was joined by the Institute’s photographer, Horst Schliephack, and 25 experienced workers and craftsmen hired in Egypt. The only visible masonry was a length of stone walling (later found to be the enclosure wall) and numerous mounds of stone, brick and debris heading eastward out into the desert. Initially they excavated a site within the ruins of the city marked by two visible ram statues which was found to be a small ‘Ptolemaic style’ temple (site 280). Further excavation of the area around the site, revealed the temple upon the site of a ‘fore-kiosk’ of a larger temple discovered to be the Temple of Amun (sites 260-280). A mound to the north of the site, locally known as ‘El Kenisa’ (the church), was found to contain the remains of a temple which Garstang believed was dedicated to Isis (site 600). The site contained stela and three four-sided stones with Meroitic inscriptions and the remains of two of statues of a king and Queen (actually representation of the gods Sebiumeker and Arensnuphis), reused as pedestals in a later building. To the south of the site, another mound was found to contain a temple which Garstang classed as the ‘Lion Temple’. The team also discovered a temple in a mound about 1kilometre east of the main site, which Garstang indentified as the ‘Table of the Sun’ mentioned by Herodotus (site 250). The team also excavated tombs with the necropolises to the east of the main site: the northern necropolis (tombs M 500 onwards) contained extensive collections of painted pottery; the middle necropolis tombs (tombs 300-399), classed as ‘ring graves’ due to the circular arrangement of dark pebbles on the surface of the tombs, were often blocked with cemented stone or red bricks and contained offerings in a uniform system; the southern necropolis (tombs 1-15) were covered by mounds with one or two doorways filled with stone and contained mostly pottery. Garstang believed that the tombs had been looted as they found very little small valuable objects in the tombs.
The team were also visited by Peter Drummond, the Sudanese Government antiquities conservator, who assisted Garstang’s survey of the standing temple at ‘Messawrat’ (Musawwarat es-Sufra) and possibly visited another Meroitic site at Alem.
In the second season (1910-1911), Garstang, Sayce, and Schliephack were joined by Major Elmhurst Rhodes (brother of Cecil Rhodes and a member of Garstang’s excavation committee) and Robert [Robin] Elcum Horsfall. The team continued to clear the site of the Temple of Amun and the Sun Temple. They discovered several secondary buildings near to the Sun Temple (sites 251-253) and a structure Garstang believed was the site of the priest’s house (site 255). They excavated two mounds to the north of the Isis Temple which were found to contain a tank (site 621) and a residence (site 622). Another mound to the site of the Temple was found to contain ‘extensive pottery kilns’ (site 260). In a mound next to the Lion Temple they discovered a second temple Garstang labelled the ‘Ox shrine’. They also examined mounds to the east of the main city (sites 282, 285, 286, 710, 711, 712) found to contain remains of workshops and other buildings. They began to excavate a large site east of the Temple of Amun thought to be a palace (site 750).
The team also traced out the foundations of the enclosure wall and began to look at sites within the wall. The excavated two sites in the south of the enclosure believed to be a royal palace (site 294) and the adjoining building (Site 295). Site 294 revealed various high quality artefacts including two vases containing gold and jewel, significantly gold spacers inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs. In the north of the enclosure they excavated site 296 and site 292. The walls of site 292 were decorated with frescos depicting prisoners before enthroned deity like figures. The team also discovered a decapitate head of a bronze statue of the Roman Emperor Augustus buried symbolically below the entrance of the building. Towards the end of the season, the site was visited by Lord Kitchener with Reginald Wingate, the Sidar of Sudan.
In the third season, (1911-1912), Garstang and Schliephack were joined by Garstang’s wife, Marie Garstang. They were also visited by Robert Mond, a member of the excavation committee. They also deployed cable way manufactured by R White & Sons, Widnes, and several lengths of light railway lent by the Sudan Government to move debris about the site. This season concentrated upon sites within the enclosure wall, mostly in the north east corner of the city, including sites 91, 92, 93, 94, 97, 98, 99, 192, 193, 197, 198, 289, 289, 298. The team mostly discovered the remains of Meroitic houses, including site 97 which contained a bath carved from a single piece of stone. In site 197, they discovered what Garstang classed as a ‘prostyle temple’. The most significant discovery of the season was a site to the west of 294/295 in the south of the enclosure which Garstang believed was the site of the ‘Royal Baths’ (sites 194/195), now believed to be a water sanctuary. The tank in the water sanctuary contained various fragments of statues which it is believed were stored carefully in the tank.
In the fourth season (1912-1913), Garstang and Schliephack were joined by Walter S George, who carried out an independent study of building types and stratification of the ruins. The team fully excavated sites examined in the previous season and other sites in the north east corner of the city (including sites 909, 909, 920, 924, 925, 928, 929, 941, 943).Many of the building investigates, especially site 929, contained upturned cinerary urns containing ashes which Garstang believed showed a move from burials to cremations.
In the final season (1913-1914), Garstang was joined by William John Phythian Adams, who developed a plan of the north of the city, and Mr Hamilton Beattie. The continued to excavate the north of the city, including site labelled as the ‘palace of Neteg-Amon’ (site 998); a building believed to be an observatory (site 950); and site 990. The team also excavated a few sites outside of the enclosure (sites 200, 740, and 720). Garstang also carried out an excavation of the nearby site of Hamadab (site 1000), where they discovered a building thought to be a shrine and two stelas with Meroitic inscriptions, one of which is now in the British Museum.
It is believed Garstang wanted to return to Meroë for one more season, but his work was suspended during World War I. By 1919, he was in charge of the newly created School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and never returned to Meroë. He did write a final excavation report but it was never published and has since been lost. During World War II, the Institute of Archaeology was hit during a bomb raid and the Meroë records were partially destroyed. The artefacts and finds from Meroë were exhibited by the Society of Antiquities annually during the excavations and catalogues were published each year.