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This article is about the ancient city. For other uses, see Kerma (disambiguation).

Kerma (now known as Dukki Gel, a Nubian term which can be roughly translated as "red mound") was the capital city of the Kingdom of Kerma, which was located in present day Egypt and Sudan. Kerma is one of the largest Nubian archaeological sites. It has produced decades of extensive excavations and research, including thousands of graves and tombs and the residential quarters of the main city surrounding the Western/Lower Deffufa. The Kerma site has been confirmed by archaeology to be at least 9,500 years old.[1][2]

Around 3000 BC, a cultural tradition began around Kerma. Kerma was a large urban center that was built around a large mud brick temple, known as the Western Deffufa.[3] Some unique aspects of this culture were beautiful pottery, the importance of cattle, a system of defense, and the King's audience chamber, which bears no resemblance to any Egyptian building (it was rebuilt 10 times).[4]

'Kerma' is also used to describe the early Sudanese culture, of which Kerma was capital. The material culture at Kerma is synonymous with the culture of Kush. This was one of the earliest African civilizations, commanding an empire that circa 1600 BCE rivaled Egypt (stretching from the First to Fourth Cataracts). As a capital city and location of royal burials, it sheds light on the complex social structure present in this anhistoric society (there was no indigenous writing system in Nubia). Kerma is about 435 miles (700 km) south of Aswan/the first cataract.

25th Dynasty

Early settlement[edit]

Human populations settled in the Kerma Basin at a very early date, as evidenced by several Mesolithic and Neolithic sites. The earliest traces of a human presence in the region date back tens of thousands of years. From 7500 BC onward the archaeological remains become more significant: semi-buried dwellings, various objects and tools, and graves.[5][verification needed] What’s clear is that Kerma’s civilisation emerged from an ancient pastoral culture that had flourished in that part of Sudan since at least 7000 B.C. when the first settlements were established. Near Kerma, archaeologists have discovered one of the two oldest cemeteries ever found in Africa – dating back to 7500 B.C. – and the oldest evidence of cattle domestication ever found in Sudan or, indeed, in the Egyptian Nile Valley. Around 3000 B.C., a town began to develop near the Neolithic dwellings.

  • Pre-Kerma (c. 3500-2500BC) No C-Group Phase
  • Early Kerma (c. 2500-2050BC) C-Group Phase Ia-Ib
  • Middle Kerma (c. 2050-1750BC) C-Group Phase Ib-IIa
  • Classic Kerma (c. 1750-1580BC) C-Group Phase IIb-III
  • Final Kerma (c. 1580-1500BC) C-Group Phase IIb-III
  • Late Kerma – ‘New Kingdom’ (c.1500-1100?BC) ‘New Kingdom’


The Nubian Capital and Its Artifacts[edit]

25th Dynasty

In the past thirty years (1977-2003), archaeologist Charles Bonnet's systematic excavation of Nubian Kerma has presented a better picture of the site than was previously possible. We now know it held at least 10,000 inhabitants by 1700 B.C. The evolution of its residential area is highly complex, yet it seems to correspond to a protected zone reserved for an elite population, much like African capitals further south in later periods. Unlike many other Kerma sites, the capital had spacious homes inhabited by dignitaries who monitored the trade in merchandise arriving from foreign lands, and who evidently (to judge from the numerous local-style scarab seals) supervised shipments dispatched from administrative buildings.[8]

The site reveals signs of a vibrant culture rather different from ancient Egypt not only in the subject matter of its art (featuring more sub-saharan African fauna) but in the extensive use of faience, mica, ivory and quartz, glazed quartz and innumerable bracelets and necklaces. Especially distinctive are Kerma ceramics, considered among the most elegant from the ancient world.[citation needed]

A vast abundance of sherds of blue faience characterizes the Kerma archaeological site. This has attracted much scholarly attention. It seems that the people of Kerma developed faience technologies independently of Egypt (Julian Henderson, The Science & Archaeology of Materials, London: ROutledge 200: 54), and were manufacturing unusual new crafts such as glazed quartzite, faience pots and architectural inlays [9][10]

The Western Deffufa

Kerma was defended by substantial city walls. At least two miles of ramparts and dozens of bastions protected it from attack. Yet by around 1500 B.C., the defences failed and Kerma was conquered and occupied by the Egyptians, led by Pharaoh Tuthmosis I.

Kerma had many distinctive features: two deffufa - solid mud-brick towers that seem to have been religious buildings;[11] a large circular building believed to have been a royal audience hall; palace buildings; and cemeteries containing the huge circular tombs of Kerma's rulers.

Kerma's Cemetery and Royal Tombs[edit]

Kerma's cemetery lies beside the capital in what is now desert. At the end of its general use (about 1480 BC) it had grown to be about a mile (1.6 km) long, north to south, and about half a mile (.8 km) wide at its greatest width. It is estimated to contain over 30,000 graves, the oldest located at its northern end and the latest at its southern. Most of the graves take the form of low tumuli covered or ringed with hundreds or thousands of white or black desert pebbles.

The southern border of the cemetery is distinguished by dozens of enormous mounds, four of which are about 300 ft. (90 m) in diameter. These belonged to the most powerful kings of Kerma during the last century of the city's existence. They are clustered around the remains of the large brick building known as the "Eastern Deffufa," thought to have been a funerary chapel connected with the royal tombs. All across the cemetery smaller graves seem to cluster around larger graves, which undoubtedly belonged to those of the highest rank.[12]

The large (royal) mounds/ tumuli were found to contain numerous grave goods including furniture with mica cut-outs. Many contained hundreds of sacrificed cattle, apparently tribute from various parts of Kerma's domains, and human retinue. Studies suggest the victims were not poisoned or violently killed.

Royal burials by the kings of Napatan Kush (c.1000-500 B.C.) continued at this cemetery in the early centuries of the Napatan empire (c.1000-800 B.C.), despite the sacking of Kerma centuries earlier. This suggests some cultural continuity between the two sites. Certainly both had a 'city of the dead' next to a 'city of the living,' and the key monuments of both Napata's and Kerma's cemeteries were arranged in a similar fashion.

Building materials[edit]

In Old Kerma (2450-2050 B.C.), religious buildings and special workshops for preparing offerings were built using trunks of acacia trees and roofed with palm fibers. These plant-based materials, once encased in hardened clay, could be painted in lively colors. The round huts were usually made of wood and clay. This method of construction, inspired by traditions dating back to prehistory, is still being used today.

Around 2200-2000 BCE, the builders began using unfired mud-bricks. Later, the use of fired bricks constituted a significant change, because such material remained almost unknown elsewhere along the Nile Valley until the Late Period.


Early 20th Century[edit]

Early archaeology at Kerma started with an Egyptian and Sudanese survey made by George A. Reisner, an American with joint appointments at Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reisner later led these two institutions, the so-called "Harvard-Boston" expedition during three field seasons at Kerma (1913-1916). He worked in Egypt and Sudan for 25 years, 1907-1932.[13]

As one of the earliest sites to be excavated in this region, Kerma and Reisner’s contributions to the region’s archaeology are fundamental. A basic chronology of Nubian culture was established based on the work of Reisner’s Harvard-Boston expedition (1913-1916); this provides the scaffolding for all other findings in the region. Reisner’s precise excavation techniques, site reports, and other publications made later reinterpretation of his results possible.

The Lower/Western Deffufa (a massive tomb structure) was found closer to the river; the Upper/Eastern Deffufa is a few kilometers away from the river in a cemetery. Most burials were slightly flexed lain on their sides. Reisner saw many links to ancient Egyptian culture through architectural techniques and the dimensions of the base of the Lower/Western Deffufa (52.3m x 26.7m/150x100 Egyptian cubits).[14] He assumed it was a fort. He did not conduct further excavations of the settlement suspected to surround the Lower Deffuffa.

The Upper/Eastern Deffufa was located amidst thousands of low, round graves, with clear stylistic differences between the northern, middle, and southern parts of the cemetery. The most elaborate tombs were found in the southern part of the cemetery. Reisner assumed that the large, quadrangular deffufa structures were funerary chapels associated with the largest mound graves, not tombs themselves.[15] He interpreted these based on his knowledge of Egyptian mortuary customs, and since many of the grave goods found were Egyptian, he had no reason to think otherwise.

George A. Reisner fit this archaeology into his understanding of ancient life along the Nile, assuming that Kerma was a satellite city of the ancient Egyptians. It was not until the late 20th century that excavations by Charles Bonnet and the University of Geneva confirmed that this was not the case, instead uncovering a vast independent urban complex that ruled most of the 3rd cataract for centuries.

Late 20th Century to present[edit]

For decades after Reisner’s excavations, his dismissal of the site as an Egyptian satellite fortified city was accepted. “The patient and diligent work of Bonnet and his colleagues unearthed the foundations of numerous houses, workshops, and palaces, proving that as early as 2000 B.C.E. Kerma was a large urban center, presumably the capital city and a burial ground of the kings of Kush”.[16] From 1977 to 2003, Bonnet and an international team of scholars excavated at Kerma.

Bonnet’s Swiss team has excavated the following types of sites at Kerma: ancient town, princely tomb, temple, residential/administrative buildings, Napatan buildlings, Napatan potter’s workshop, Meroitic cemeteries, fortifications, and Neolithic grain pits and huts. Among many other unique finds, Bonnet uncovered a bronze forge in the Kerma main city. “It is within the walls of the religious center that a bronze workshop was built. The workshop consisted of multiple forges and the artisans’ techniques appear to have been quite elaborate. There is no comparable discovery in Egypt or in Sudan to help us interpret these remains” [17]

In 2003, Archaeologist Charles Bonnet and a team of Swiss archaeologists discovered a cache of monumental black granite Pharaonic statues while excavating near Kerma. The statues were Nubian Dynasty pharaohs, including Taharqa and Tanoutamon.[18] They were the last two pharaohs of the 'Nubian' Dynasty and their statues are described as "masterpieces that rank among the greatest statues in art history."[19]

Bonnet and team have published regular reports on their field seasons, mostly in French. Bonnet with collaborators has also produced a number of articles and at least one book [20] in English, cataloguing some of their finds. The website is an extensive French-language Swiss website cataloguing the history, research, and archaeological sites of Kerma. The “Publications” section is a useful tool if you are interested in further research.


Mortuary practice in Kerma varied over time, and this is visible in the archaeological record. The large cemetery, around the Upper/Eastern Deffufa is arranged with older graves in the north and more recent (and complex) graves and tombs in the southern part. “In the Early Kerma period, 2500-2050BC, burials are marked by a low, circular superstructure of slabs of black sandstone, stuck into the ground in concentric circles. White quartz pebbles reinforce the structure”.[21] Smaller burials are found surrounding the larger tombs of important individuals. Tombs progress from simple mounds to Egyptian-inspired pyramid complexes. This transition, interestingly, does not begin until long after pyramids are out of fashion in Egypt.

Bonnet notes that sacrificial victims appear and become increasingly common in the Middle Kerma period. Because burial chambers can be easily entered, I would question the likelihood of the sacrifice of a wife and/or child when a man dies, without any ethnohistorical evidence to support this in this culture. In fact Buzon and Judd [22] question this assumption by analyzing traumata and indicators of skeletal stress in these “sacrificial victims.”

Most remains are found in a lightly contracted or contracted position on their sides. Because of the arid desert climate, natural mummification is very common. Without the normal processes of decomposition to skeletonize the body, soft tissues, hairs, and organic grave goods are still often found (e.g., textiles, feathers, leather, fingernails). Grave goods include faience beads, cattle skulls, and pottery. Skeletal collections, like other archaeological evidence, continue to be re-examined and re-interpreted as new research questions arise. Two recent studies highlight the kinds of questions that bioarchaeologists are asking of the skeletal material excavated from Kerma.

Kendall [23] suggests that large tombs in the Upper Deffufa contained the bodies of dozens or hundreds of sacrificed victims. A later bioarchaeological examination of “sacrificed” individuals from these contexts [24] showed no significant differences between the skeletal stress markers of sacrificed versus non-sacrificed individuals. They drew samples from the “sacrificial corridors” and interments outside of the large tumuli corridors. Accompanying individuals in the tumuli at Kerma are interpreted as wives sacrificed upon the death of the husband, but the bioarchaeological evidence does not support this archaeological conclusion. A prior study noted no difference in the frequency of traumatic injury.

Traumatic injury is viewed through the lens of modern traumatic injury patterns. “Many aspects of the Kerma injury pattern were comparable to clinical [modern] observations: males experienced a higher frequency of trauma, the middle-aged group exhibited the most trauma, the oldest age cohort revealed the least amount of accumulated injuries, a small group experienced multiple trauma and fractures occurred more frequently than dislocations or muscle pulls”. Parry fractures (often occur when an individual is fending off a blow from an attacker) are common. These do not necessarily result from assault, however, and Judd does acknowledge this. She does not use the same parsing strategy when considering Colles’ fractures (of the wrist, usually occur when falling onto one’s hands) may result from being pushed from a height rather than interpersonal violence, and this is not acknowledged.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Emberling, Geoff (2011). Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa. New York: The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-615-48102-9. 
  2. ^ Bonnet, Charles (2003). The Nubian Pharaohs. New York: The American University in Cairo Press. pp. 16–26. ISBN 978-977-416-010-3. 
  3. ^ Emberling, Geoff (2011). Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa. New York: The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-615-48102-9. 
  4. ^ Bonnet, Charles (2003). The Nubian Pharaohs. New York: The American University in Cairo Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-977-416-010-3. 
  5. ^ Bonnet, Charles, et al. The Nubian Pharaohs: Black Kings on the Nile, AUC Press (February 22, 2007) - ISBN 977-416-010-X
  6. ^ Edwards, D. N. (2004). The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of the Sudan. London ; New York: Routledge.
  7. ^ Bonnet, C., & et al. (1982). Les fouilles arhcaeologiques a Kerma (Soudan). Rapport preliminaire des campagnes de 1980-1981 et de 1981-1982. Genava, 30, 1–53.
  8. ^ Bonnet, Charles (2003). The Nubian Pharaohs. New York: The American University in Cairo Press. pp. 16–26. ISBN 978-977-416-010-3. 
  9. ^ W SS, 'Glazed Faience Tiles found at Kerma in the Sudan,' Museum of the Fine Arts, Vol.LX:322, Boston 1962, p. 136
  10. ^ Peter Lacovara, 'Nubian Faience', in ed. Florence D Friendman, Gifts of the Nile - Ancient Egyptian Faience, London: Thames & Hudson, 1998, 46-49)
  11. ^ Emberling, Geoff (2011). Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa. New York: The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-615-48102-9. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ Kendall, T (1996). Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1500 B.C.: the archaeological discovery of an ancient Nubian empire. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. p. 126. ISBN 0965600106. 
  14. ^ Kendall, T (1996). Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1500 B.C.: the archaeological discovery of an ancient Nubian empire. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. p. 126. ISBN 0965600106. 
  15. ^ Reisner, G. A. (1923). Excavations at Kerma, Parts 1-3. Harvard African Studies (Vol. 5). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  16. ^ Grzymski, K. (2008). Book review: The Nubian pharaohs: Black kings on the Nile. American Journal of Archaeology, Online Publications: Book Review. Retrieved from
  17. ^ Eisa, K. A. (1999). Le mobilier et les coutumes funéraires koushites a l’époque méroïtique. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz., translation by SenseOfHumerus.
  18. ^ Bonnet, Charles (2006). The Nubian Pharaohs. New York: The American University in Cairo Press. pp. 74–100. ISBN 978-977-416-010-3. 
  19. ^ Digging into Africa's past
  20. ^ Bonnet, C., & Valbelle, D. (2006). The Nubian pharaohs : Black kings on the Nile. Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press.
  21. ^ Bonnet, C. (1992). Excavations at the Nubian royal town of Kerma: 1975–91. Antiquity, 66(252), 611–625.
  22. ^ Buzon, M. R., & Judd, M. A. (2008). Investigating health at Kerma: Sacrificial versus nonsacrificial individuals. American journal of physical anthropology, 136(1), 93–99.
  23. ^ Kendall, T (1996). Kerma and the Kingdom of Kush, 2500-1500 B.C.: the archaeological discovery of an ancient Nubian empire. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. p. 126. ISBN 0965600106. 
  24. ^ Buzon, M. R., & Judd, M. A. (2008). Investigating health at Kerma: Sacrificial versus nonsacrificial individuals. American journal of physical anthropology, 136(1), 93–99.
  25. ^ Judd, M. (2004). Trauma in the city of Kerma: ancient versus modern injury patterns. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 14(1), 34–51. doi:10.1002/oa.711

External links[edit]

  • Kerma website Official website of the Swiss archeological mission to Sudan.
  • [1] A museum gallery at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago includes information about Kerma.

Coordinates: 19°36′03″N 30°24′35″E / 19.600802°N 30.409731°E / 19.600802; 30.409731