Cracking the Mystery of the Decapitated Meroë Head
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.
Did you get the #closeupchallege right? It was emperor Augustus!
Photograph of the head of Augustus from Meroë, Sudan. Found by John Garstang, under the steps of a Nubian temple. It was likely deliberately placed there, so that the Roman ruler would always be below their feet. pic.twitter.com/bfh2Ygz1X8
— Garstang Museum (@GarstangMuseum) February 25, 2020
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.
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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 @britishmuseum has a wonderful short guide to the bronze head of Augustus. Includes these amazing images of the excavations in Meroe, Sudan, that led to the discovery of the head by archaeologist, John Garstang. https://t.co/zVG6kGgEk9
Photos originally from @GarstangMuseum pic.twitter.com/oZCdm8SHMC
— Dr Sophie Hay (@pompei79) August 24, 2018
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)
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
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.