Paper Proposal

Acculturation in Upper Nubia: Egyptian motifs in Kerma’s mortuary archaeology.

The city-center of the Upper Nubian city of Kerma is located on the East bank of the Nile River, 700km south of the First Cataract (Aswan). The main cemetery is about 3km east of the city, with the monumental Upper/Eastern Deffufa rising from its southern part. The cemetery contains thousands of graves and tombs, stretching from the oldest at the northern reach of the cemetery to the most recent at the southern end of the cemetery (around 1500BC).

Similarities between the material culture of Kerma and Egypt were enough to fool George A. Reisner, who led the Harvard-Boston Expedition in the early 1900s: “’Wretched Nubia,’ as the Egyptians called it, was thus at first a part of Egypt. After the First Dynasty, it was only an appendage of the greater country, and its history is hardly more than an account of its use or neglect by Egypt, its enrichment or impoverishment by changes of the Nile and the climate” (Reisner, 1910, p. 348). In fact, Upper Nubia (Kush) was a powerful independent polity neighboring ancient Egypt. Kerma’s relationship with ancient Egypt to the north was at times antagonistic and at times peaceful, with both sides benefiting from trade along the Nile.

The height of Kerma’s strength, as Kush’s likely capital and royal burial ground, stretched hundreds of years (~2500-1500BC). This period in Upper Nubia is often referred to as the “Kerma Period” and was coincidental with the Egyptian Old Kingdom (2686-2181BC), First Intermediate Period (2181-2055BC), Middle Kingdom (2055-1650BC), and Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550BC) in Egypt. At the beginning of the Egyptian New Kingdom, Pharoah Thutmose I sacked and burned Kerma, effectively ending its “golden age.”

Throughout the Kerma Period, archaeologists find a continuation and elaboration of indigenous Nubian mortuary practices (Bonnet, 1992; Bonnet & Valbelle, 2006). Over time, elite mound burials (tumuli) expand in size and accessory burials of animals and humans surrounding elite tumuli increase in number. However, it is during the New Kingdom that the most interesting shift in mortuary practices can be found. After the fall of Kerma, when its cemetery is still used as a Kushite royal burial ground, mortuary practices trend towards Egyptian influence, mixing images of local and Egyptian gods (Eisa, 1999).

First, this paper will examine mortuary changes in Upper Nubia from the Kerma to New Kingdom periods, focusing on the adoption and adaptation of Egyptian patterns. Second, it will discuss the role of bioarchaeological methods in interpreting the context of this change. Isotopic analyses and metric and nonmetric skeletal analyses can help determine the origin of individuals in a cemetery population, shedding light on whether the expanding Egyptian empire was exporting ideology, individuals, or both (Ambridge, 2007; Buzon, 2006). Finally, the paper will consider how the relationship between ideological and population spread might be applied to other empire expansions.


Ambridge, L. (2007). Inscribing the Napatan Landscape: Architecture and Royal Identity. In N. Yoffee (Ed.), Negotiating the Past in the Past: Identity, Memory, and Lanscape in Archaeological Research (pp. 128–154). Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Bonnet, C. (1992). Excavations at the Nubian royal town of Kerma: 1975–91. Antiquity, 66(252), 611–625.

Bonnet, C., & Valbelle, D. (2006). The Nubian pharaohs : Black kings on the Nile. Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press.

Buzon, M. R. (2006). Biological and Ethnic Identity in New Kingdom Nubia: A Case Study from Tombos. Current Anthropology, 47(4), 683–695.

Eisa, K. A. (1999). Le mobilier et les coutumes funéraires koushites a l’époque méroïtique. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Reisner, G. A. (1910). The Archaeological Survey of Nubia, Report for 1907-1908 (Vol. 1). Cairo: Egypt Survey Department.