With the collapse of Meroë in the mid-fourth century CE, the agricultural life of the small towns and villages continued with little change until about one hundred years later when a new group, with a slightly different assemblage of archaeological remains, came into that area. The term “X-Group” was applied to that culture by the continuation of the alphabetic system that George A. Reisner had developed during his survey of Nubia early in the twentieth century. Apart from the luxury materials found in the chiefs' graves—some imported from Egypt and the Byzantine world—the main items were pottery; also found in graves, they show some differences from the earlier Meroitic but no dramatic change of style. Other than cemeteries, some small X-Group villages, constructed of sun-dried brick, are known.

The X-Group is now often called the Ballana culture, after the name of the site in Egyptian Nubia where a number of richly furnished mound tombs were found. Much of the Ballana tomb equipment—and similar finds at Gemai, Firka, and Tanqasi in Sudan—suggests that they are of important kings or tribal chiefs. Though showing some resemblances to that of Meroë, the grave goods are sufficiently different to show that new rulers with new burial customs had arrived in the area; the same is true of the settlements and the commoners' graves.

From ancient texts, two groups were known to come into this area of Nubia—the Nobatae and the Blemmyes. The people of the Ballana tombs are usually identified with the Nobatae, whom Procopius (an early sixth century CE Byzantine writer) says were brought into the Nile Valley from the Western Desert oases by the Roman emperor Diocletian (r.285–305 CE). They were supposed to oppose and control the Blemmyes, inhabitants of the Eastern Desert, who were attacking settlements and monasteries in the Nile Valley. The Blemmyes are usually considered the ancestors of the present-day Beja, who today inhabit the same area (perhaps the same area as the Medjay of pharaonic texts).

That there was an important cultural change in the Nile Valley is shown by the disappearance of inscriptions in the Meroitic language by the end of the fourth century CE. The few inscriptions known are in Greek. The most elaborate of the Greek inscriptions is that of Prince Silko, written at Kalabsha as a secondary inscription on the wall of a first century CE temple. In this inscription, Silko calls himself “prince” (basiliskos) of the Nobatae and claims to have defeated the Blemmyes on two occasions. It seems that the Nobatae were largely successful in their role as peacekeepers, as Diocletian had intended. If their identification with those who made the distinctive X-Group material is correct, they established themselves quickly throughout much of the territory previously controlled by Meroë. From the middle of the sixth century CE, the northernmost of the three known Nubian kingdoms was called Nobatia. Most likely, the Nobatae had settled permanently along the Nile and were the people who introduced the Nubian language to the area, where it continues to the present day.


  • Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. London, 1977. The best general account with full references.
  • Emery, W. B., and L. P., Kirwan. The Royal Tombs of Ballana and Qustul. Cairo, 1938. The excavation report of the major X-Group site.
  • Emery, W. B. Nubian Treasure. London, 1965. A shortened and popular version of the 1938 report, with commentary; the author believed the tombs were those of Blemmye chiefs.
  • Shinnie, P. L. Ancient Nubia. London, 1996. Useful for general background.

Peter L. Shinnie