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Detail of the Meroë head, now housed at the British Museum in London. Source: Paul Hudson / CC BY 2.0

Cracking the Mystery of the Decapitated Meroë Head

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Sometimes, modern archaeology reveals something that simply baffles us. Whether it is an item with inexplicable origins, or an out of place artifact, archaeology and history combined often leave us scratching our heads in confusion. The enigmatic Meroë head had that exact same impact when first discovered in 1910. It is a marvelous bronze head of Roman Emperor Augustus - but it was found thousands of kilometers away from Rome! Nevertheless, the puzzle of the Meroë head was finally solved through meticulous historical research.

Emperor Augustus’ Head Ends up in Distant Meroë

The conundrum began in 1910, during archeological excavations in modern-day Sudan, at the site of the ancient Nubian city of Meroë. While excavating a mound that was once a major temple at the site of the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Kush, the lead British archeologist at the site, John Garstang, stumbled upon a curious find at a depth of two and a half meters (8 ft). Discovered beneath the staircase of the ancient temple, it was a 46.2 cm high (18 inches) bronze bust of the Roman Emperor Augustus , expertly made and perfectly preserved.

The archaeological community was stirred into a frenzy when the bronze head was unveiled as a genuine ancient masterpiece, displaying remarkable precision and intricate detailing. It was not completely unique, however, as similar busts had been found previously across the Roman world. But what made the Meroë head so special was the site of its discovery. Meroë was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Kush, the age-old enemy of ancient Egypt. The great distance between Meroë and the Roman world only added to the mystery surrounding the Meroë head.

Needless to say, it took some careful work to solve this historic quandary. Initially, it was reasonably presumed that the bronze bust originated in ancient Egypt rather than Rome. During the Roman occupation of Egypt, many Roman cultural aspects were adopted, and numerous busts and sculptures brought over. In fact, the ancient historian Strabo wrote that many important cities in Lower Egypt boasted fine sculptures of Emperor Augustus – often described as the “first” Roman Emperor and one of the most influential in its history.

The Meroë Head as Kushite Raid Booty

The Kushite Empire, an ancient Nubian realm, was warring with its northern neighbor Egypt for many centuries and raids were not uncommon. When the Romans appeared in Egypt, the Kushites were quick to oppose them, leading to the outbreak of war. During the reign of the Kushite Queen Amanirenas, the two realms were at war - from 25 to 22 BC. This was the definite Kushite attempt to stop the Romans from spreading further south into Africa. Queen Amanirenas was successful in this attempt and made numerous raids into Roman Egypt as a result.

Strabo wrote that the Kushites plundered many Roman cities, taking with them considerable booty. Their most prized loot included bronze busts and sculptures of the Emperor Augustus. The removal of these heads and busts served as a significant morale boost for the Kushites.

The enigmatic Meroë head was part of their spoils. In a clearly symbolic act, Queen Amanirenas buried it beneath the temple stairs - the same stairs that led upwards towards a Kushite altar of victory. That way the Kushite leaders and nobles would symbolically step on the Roman Emperor’s head, while triumphantly celebrating their victories.

The Romans Never Recovered the Meroë Head

Over the course of their war with the Kingdom of Kush, the Romans managed to retrieve many of the lost heads, which they saw as symbols of their power and cultural expansion. They were never again to see the Meroë head. The bust's extraordinary beauty made it a highly coveted object, both to pillage and to retrieve. Nevertheless, Meroë, the capital of Kush, was a vast and formidable city with exceptional defenses that made it impregnable and gaining entry to the city was impossible.

And so it was that the marvelous bronze bust of Augustus lay dormant beneath Nubian sands for roughly 1,900 years, perfectly preserved by the dry and hot conditions. Long ago the Kushites disappeared and their cities crumbled to dust. The opportunity to symbolically step on the Emperor’s head was lost until the curious hands of a British explorer rediscovered it in 1910.

This bronze head of Emperor Augustus is known as the Meroë head. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This bronze head of Emperor Augustus is known as the Meroë head. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

The Travels of the Meroë Head: From Egypt to Nubia to London

One of the most exquisite bronze busts ever uncovered by archaeologists, it is widely believed that the Meroë head was crafted in Egypt using high-quality molds imported from Rome. Created with astonishing precision, the bust boasts a realistic and distinctly Greek style and was likely produced around 27 BC. But it is one remarkable feature that truly sets it apart from other similar busts: the eyes.

Due to the sand's ability to preserve it so flawlessly, the Meroë head managed to retain its artificial eyes, a feature that is often lost in other bronze busts. The eyes of this particular masterpiece are especially stunning, featuring irises made of calcite stone and inset glass pupils. This detail lends the face an unparalleled air of power and magnetism.

With the Meroë head’s mysterious origins solved, all we can so is stand back and admire its remarkable journey. From the skilled hands of Roman mold makers, to the bronze workshops of southern Egypt, and then into the eager hands of the Kushite raiders, it eventually traveled thousands of miles to London. The bust is housed in the British Museum , far from both Meroë and Rome. But it is exactly this that makes the Meroë head so special – showcasing the bust’s historic significance and underscoring the importance of preserving such artifacts for future generations.

Top image: Detail of the Meroë head, now housed at the British Museum in London. Source: Paul Hudson / CC BY 2.0

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Babić, S. and Janković M. 2014. The Edges of the Roman World. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Opper, T. 2014. The Meroë Head of Augustus. British Museum Press.

Williams, B. 2020. The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia. Oxford University Press.

 

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

Which Roman historian(s) described the practice of mass production of replicas? 

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Statuary like this was made in industrial-scale production for placement around the Empire, in the same way that portraits of the rulers of nations are distributed to official buildings and offices of nations today, and always. This portrait looks to have been made about 25 BC, judging from the age of the subject Augustus.

Compare the style, materials, and workmanship of this bronze head to the statuary found at the Villa of the Papyrii, probably owned by Piso, father-in-law of Caesar, just outside Herculaneum, and buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD – it looks like it could have come from the same workshop – or at least artisans carrying on the tradition of a workshop of Caesar’s time which was not long before the time of Octavian/Augustus (adopted son of Caesar) as Emperor.

Pete Wagner's picture

The quest for truth isn’t a drug, although it does feel good.  But if some potent serum helps get us closer, I’d be all for it.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Aleksa Vučković's picture

You *need* to lay off the drugs, my friend.

Pete Wagner's picture

There’s NO WAY a heavy bronze object gets buried unless the place was completely destroyed in some big calamity (probably the Atlantis event) leaving huge piles of rubble and a decimated culture.  Otherwise, somebody would have found it and walked away with it, like they did with most of the other bronze objects, ...during what is called ‘the Bronze Age’.  And this raises the question of the origin of similar busts and statues that are associated with ‘the Roman Empire’, which did not leave behind any official gov’t documentation, but only dubious historical narratives that could have been written later, and could be mostly fiction.  So let’s think it out:  There were millions of ancient Greek people alive during that time, later enslaved by tyrants, when we are to believe the Roman boyish haircut was all the rage.  Google images of the so-called Roman leaders, and you’ll see busts and statues that look similar.  So to find something like this buried in the sands of time across the sea, and to say, ‘look, it’s Augustus!’  is just silly.  More likely, these busts and statues were a somewhat a generic ancient Greek thing, to adorn their gardens and ancient gymnasiums, and probably mostly Atlantean era artifacts that were found during ‘the Bronze Age’, by the people that came later and resettled the ruins, ...which were laying sand-covered, all through the Ice Age, since the event, circa 115k BC, adding the zero back to Plato’s timeline.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Aleksa Vučković's picture

Aleksa

I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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