History of El Kurru

During his archaeological work, Reisner identified the earliest burials at Kurru as rounded tumuli, with later burials developing into tumuli with rounded enclosure walls, then small rectangular enclosures, and finally Egyptian-style pyramid burials with kings in one area and queens in another. Even the earliest burials contained unusual wealth, despite having been looted, perhaps supporting Reisner’s notion that these burials were the beginning of a sequence of elite or royal burials (cf. Edwards 2004,102; 118).

Four kings buried at Kurru exercised control over Egypt as the 25th Dynasty: Piye (or Piankhy), Shabaqo, Shebitqo, and Tanutamani. One of the 25th Dynasty kings, Taharqo, a son of Piye, was buried at a new royal cemetery he founded at Nuri, upstream of the cult centre at the holy mountain of Gebel Barkal and the probable administrative centre at Sanam.

Elements of Egyptian elite culture at Kurru and later sites of the Napatan Dynasty include the use of hieroglyphic writing, worship of Egyptian deities including Amun in ram-headed form, introduction of mass produced pottery, and highly skilled artisanship that is Egyptianizing if not quite Egyptian.


Excavations by George A Reisner

The first individual to undertake systematic archaeological work at El Kurru was George A. Reisner (1867-1942), an American archaeologist, who had a very extensive career. He excavated at many major archaeological sites in Sudan, including El Kurru, Gebel Barkal, Nuri and Kerma. He was a Professor at Harvard University.

Reiner began his excavations at El Kurru in late 1918, and he worked there until early 1919. He excavated the obvious archaeological features at the site including the tumuli and pyramids, plus further features including a number of Queen’s burials which were at a distance from the plateau, and the series of horse burials connected to the King’s graves.

Whilst recovering substantial quantities of material culture from the burials at the site, Reisner’s major contribution was in developing a chronology for the El Kurru burials.


Andrew Reisner, 1922 (photo from The World’s Work via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

After Reisner’s excavations he was permitted to export back to America many of the objects that he found. These are now held by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Images of some of the artefacts collected by Reisner can be found here.


New work at El Kurru

The rise of the Napatan dynasty in Nubia has remained unexplained since George Reisner’s work. Despite knowing the sequence of these rulers, the absolute dating of the Kurru tombs has been the subject of debate, with some supporting a date in the 11th century BC that eliminates a “dark age” after the collapse of the Egyptian New Kingdom, and others maintaining a date closer to Reisner’s estimates in the 9th century BC (Török 1999; Kendall 1999a; Heidorn 1994).

Beyond chronology, many questions remain (see Kendall 1999b). We do not know the source of these rulers’ political authority. Possibly, like Heka-Nefer, the prince of Miam (Aniba) in Lower Nubia (Simpson 1963), the 25th Dynasty emerged from a local family that had participated in Egyptian colonial rule and who exercised greater authority in the absence of Egyptian control. They may have been Nubian elites who had lived in Egypt and returned after the collapse. Given the clear prominence of the Amun cult, political authority may have developed alongside religious authority, perhaps in relation to Egyptian priests who either maintained Amun temples after the collapse of the New Kingdom or who came to re-open Amun temples in Nubia after a lapse of time. It also remains unclear why El Kurru was chosen as the royal burial site of the 25th Dynasty, when it is seemingly surrounded by areas with greater agricultural potential.

The International Kurru Archaeological Project (IKAP) is a collaborative project co-directed by Dr. Geoff Emberling (University of Michigan), Dr. Rachael J Dann (University of Copenhagen) and Professor. Abbas Sidahmed Mohammed Ali (University of Dongola, Karima), and comprises three related components. Dr. Geoff Emberling’s team have begun work to re-locate elements of the town site. Dr. Rachael Dann’s team are investigating areas in and around the royal cemetery, and in particular the painted tombs. Professor Abbas Sidahmed Mohammed Ali has begun work to remove Reisner’s spoil heaps, and re-excavate some of the royal tombs. In collaboration with the National Council of Antiquities and Museums (NCAM), and the people who live in the modern village at El Kurru, the team are working on a Site Management plan, to facilitate future access to the archaeological site, whilst protecting it the long-term.

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