Blog Post #43: Graduate Student Feature with Annissa Malvoisin

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What Topic do you Study?

I am a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto in Egyptology and my research takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying material culture and human connections. By combining Egyptology with Nubian archaeology and Museum Studies, my doctoral thesis investigates the ceramic production and trade industry during Meroitic Nubia and its potential far-reaching networks linking Nile Valley civilizations Egypt and Nubia to Iron Age West African cultures in Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Ghana, and Libya. My work also investigates shorter-distance trade connections through maritime trade routes along the Red Sea coast linking Egypt and Nubia to the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean.

Along with ancient trade route re-evaluation, I use ceramics as the diagnostic material to trace movement between these regions based on the decorative program used for production. Meroitic ceramics, including and especially their finewares, form a critical underpinning for my work, as they are distinctive and intentional (Adams, 1986a, 1986b; David, 2019). These variables make examining trans-decorative patterns highly discernable. This is the first approach to my research.

The second approach builds upon the archaeological record in order to piece together the object biographies (Kopytoff, 1981) of select Nubian collections in North American museums. It is important to reconsider questions of long-historical provenance for object-based research in museum collections as a means to maintain their contextual integrity both for scholars and museum audiences that will engage with it.

The Libyan Desert, Idehan Ubari, by Luca Galuzzi 2007 CC-By-SA 2.5.jpeg
What Sources or Data do you use?

My research utilizes ceramic data as a top priority, but it also includes investigation of material made of glass and stone such as beads. The latter material is produced in great quantities, easy to carry, and was valued on antiquity trade markets. Thus, its inclusion in my analyses adds a complimentary material dimension that enhances the validity of connection.

For Meroitic pottery, the decorative approach can divulge much about craftsmanship, imperial prestige, and types of centralization. Consistent with Nubian art and iconography, there is a clear combination of foreign and local tradition visible on wares. Local indigenous tradition includes employing the use of the fast wheel for production and usually a kaolinitic fabric for a specific subtype of fine ware. Foreign influence is based upon studies conducted by Török (2011) on the Hellenistic similarities between the Meroitic decorative treatment which includes polychromatic painted motifs, and traditional Graeco-Roman motifs such as geometric designs, leaf scrolls and kymations (Török, 2011; Wenig, 1979).

The mix of local tradition and foreign influence is visible via the decorative treatment of vessels produced between the 1st and 2nd century CE especially (Adams, 1986a, 1986b; David, 2019; Török, 2011; Wenig, 1979). During this time, Hellenistic iconography such as the Dionysiac scene, as well as Pharaonic and Romano-Egyptian religious themes, are represented as vessel decoration (Török, 2011), iconographic programs that are clearly foreign to Nubia. However, traditional Nubian iconography and decorative ceramic programmes remain consistent despite inclusions of foreign decorations (this includes representations of animals indigenous to Nubia, stamps, geometric designs, and the stylizations of decorative placement). In West African regions, the indigenous decorative representations are present along with parallels with Meroitic types. In this respect, I studied pottery types from Nok (Nigeria), Jenné-Jeno (Mali), the Fazzan region (Libya), and Ghana (Daboya), all of which were producing equally complex and high-quality pottery types at the same time as Meroitic Nubia.

Additionally, I use a combination of primary textual sources such as Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and archaeological data, and secondary source interpretations (such as but not limited to: Edwards, 1998; Shinnie, 1991, 1996; Sidebotham, 2011) to help reconstruct and understand trade routes. Incorporating these data allow me to construct a reliable narrative of interconnection based primarily on materials that are indestructible to time and persist both in textual sources and on archaeological sites.

How does this research shed light on real people in the past?

Inter-connection is important to understanding the past at any point in time. To be able to fix historical fractures in the archaeological record through art historical and trade analysis is meaningful. My research informs the understanding that the Nubian civilization was a dynamic civilization at the turning point of Medieval African commerce, and argues that adjacent cultures in the West were growing considerably during the same era with paralleling decorative programmes. It is through the study of both histories of the Nile Valley and West Africa that will further a better understanding of medium- and long-distance connection between African regions during the African Iron Age. Excellent scholarship has been undertaken where foundational archaeological work was carried out at key sites which both highlight specific communities necessary to trade relationships and routes, and also their livelihoods in respective regions. I intend for my scholarship to contribute to ongoing work that sheds light on human interaction, a complete confluence of intercultural communication, and the necessity for commodities that spans great distances.

Further Reading


Adams, W. Y. (1986a). Ceramic Industries of Medieval Nubia: Part I. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.

Adams, W. Y. (1986b). Ceramic Industries of Medieval Nubia: Part II. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.

David, R. (2019). Ceramic Industries of Meroitic Sudan. In D. Raue, & G. Steindorf, Handbook of Ancient Nubia. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.  

Edwards, D. N. (1998). Meroe and the Sudanic Kingdoms. Journal of African History, 175-193.

Aghram Nadharif: The Barkat Oasis (Sha’Abiya of Ghat, Libyan Sahara) in Garamantian

Haaland, R. (2014). The Meroitic Empire: Trade and Cultural Influences in an Indian Oncean Context. African Archaeological Review, 649-6.

Hopkins, & Levtzion, N. (1981). Corpus of early Arabic sources for West African history . Cambridge University Press.

Insoll, T. (1997). Iron Age Gao: an archaeological contribution. Journal of African History 38 (1), 1–30.

Kopytoff, I. (2014). The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process. In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (pp. 64-92). Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Liverani,M. (Ed.). (2005). Aghram Nadharif: The Barkat Oasis (Sha’Abiya of Ghat, Libyan Sahara) in Garamantian Times. (2005). Italy: All’insegna del giglio.

Mattingly, D., Leitch, V., Duckworth, C., Cuénod, A., Sterry, M., & Cole, F. (Eds.). (2017). Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond (Trans-Saharan Archaeology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schoff, & Arrian. (1912). The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea : travel and trade in the Indian Ocean. Longmans, Green.

Shinnie, P. L. (1991). Trade Routes of the Ancient Sudan: 3,000 BC – AD 350. In W. V. Davies, Egypt & Africa: Nubia from Prehistory to Islam (pp. 49-53). London: British Museum Press .

Shinnie, P. L. (1996). Ancient Nubia. New York: Routledge.

Sidebotham Sidebotham, S. E. (2011). Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route. Berkerley: University of California Press.

Then-Obłuska, Joanna. (2015). Cross-Cultural Bead Encounters at the Red Sea Port of Berenike, Egypt. Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 24, 735-777. 

Then-Obłuska, J., Gilg, H.A., Schüssler, U., and B. Wagner. (2021). Western Connections of Northeast Africa: The Garnet Evidence from Late Antique Nubia, Sudan. Archaeometry 63, 227-246.

Török, L. (2011). Hellenizing Art in Ancient Nubia 300 B.C. – AD 250 and its Egyptian Models . Leiden: Brill. Wenig, S. (1979). Meroitic Painted Ceramics. Meroitica 5, 129-134.

Online Resources

Brooklyn Museum, Arts of Africa collection and Ancient Egyptian Art collection

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa exhibition catalogue

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas collectionAncient Egypt collection

Royal Ontario Museum, Egypt and Nubia collections

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Art of Ancient Egypt, Nubia, and the Near East collection and Ancient Nubia Now! exhibition

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara exhibition catalogue

Penn Museum, Egyptian and Nubian collection

Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, Field Projects

Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project

Photo of Annissa Malvoisin taken on her front porch with a street and cars in the background.
Annissa Malvoisin

Annissa’s research deals with inter-regional communication between the Nile Valley and West Africa. As a ceramicist, she investigates the geographical, ideological, symbolic, economic, and artistic trajectory across the Sahara during Nubia’s Meroitic period (ca. 500 BCE – 500 CE). Her work contributes to increasing the historical context of Nubian collections in museums. She earned her Master of Museum Studies from the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and incorporates museum theory and practice into her academic and professional work. She has worked with collections at the Royal Ontario Museum in the Department of Arts and Culture: Global Africa and in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, as well as with the Bioarchaeology of Nubia Expedition at Arizona State University.

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