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Egyptian Objects and Style in a Kerman Burial Community: Adaptation, Not Imitation

Elizabeth Minor is a PhD candidate working in the Near Eastern Studies Department at UC Berkeley. This was the Marie Buttery Memorial Lecture, Elizabeth was the best student paper winner.

Kerma was the capitol of the Kushite Kingdom located near the 3rd Cataract on the Nile in Upper Nubia. The classic Kerma period is dated 1700-1550 BC.  In Egypt, the 2nd Intermediate Period, a time of weak or no central government, make it easy for Kerma to expand north, and the northernmost evidence for military forays is found at El Kab a site 80 km south of Luxor on the east bank of the Nile.

Kerma is also the site of the late Kerma culture royal tumulus graves. The grave goods from these royal tumuli include a variety of very engaging inlays of animals and mythical creatures.  The royal burials discussed in this paper cover four generations of rulers at Kerma, each buried under a huge burial mound – or tumulus – each of which is surrounded by smaller graves of the elite of the reign.  Almost all of the elite graves are actually dug into the sides of the tumulus.  Mrs. Minor is particularly interested in the foreign motifs – specifically of Egyptian origin or influence - reflected in these inlays.  She noted that ivory and mica were used to produce some of the most creative devices.  Ivory inlays were applied to funerary beds; mica figures were applied to leather caps. The motifs involved resulted in a rich burial/funerary mythology.

 Tumulus KXVI (1st generation) is the earliest of the four large royal tumuli.  The grave goods from this ruler’s burial include inlays of hawks, giraffes, elephants, etc.  34 subsidiary tombs have similar inlays but of rosettes; only the ruler could use animal imagery. 

 Tumulus KX (2nd generation) located the ruler’s burial at the center of the tumulus, with 300 individuals who had been sacrificed arranged along the central corridor that runs the diameter of the tumulus.  9 of these sacrificial victims were adorned with leather caps decorated with mica figures.  5 caps had geometric designs, 4 used birds and giraffes. As is evident, the use of animal motifs is no longer relegated exclusively to the ruler. 

 There are 98 subsidiary burials in KX, which post-date the corridor sacrifices, but belong to the same generation.  12% of these elite burials were found on inlaid funerary beds; 15% wore decorated leather caps. Inlaid birds were the most popular inlays, followed by giraffes, elephants, gazelles or ibex, donkeys, hawks, bustards and ostriches.

 One of these elite graves, K1053 produced beautiful, undamaged inlays, though the bed which they had once decorated was gone.  The Egyptian goddess, Taweret, gazelles, and hyenas were placed in rows across the width of the foot of the bed.  Taweret seems to have been readily adopted by the Kermans.  Hats found in this tumulus are decorated with a mixture of geometric and animal motifs, but unlike the beds, only one animal type appears on each hat.  The funerary complex expanded during this period, and the elite now took up the use of animal motifs.   There seems to be a restricted group of elite who adopted the use of inlaid funerary beds and each was unique.

 Tumulus KIV (3rd generation) had only half as many subsidiary graves in the tumulus. 7 inlaid funerary beds and 6 decorated hats were found.  Pairs of heraldic goats facing each other with their front feet resting in a tree, appears for the first time and this motif was likely inspired by Near Eastern art.  Vultures are the most common motif, unlike the variety of the previous generation. Winged giraffes and double-headed bustards also appear in this generation. The percent of burials with inlaid funerary beds drops, though some motifs from former generations are retained. All of the new motifs are either of foreign origin or local animals re-imagined into fantastic forms.

 Tumulus K-3 (4th and final generation) had a completely unique glazed quartzite funerary bed for the ruler’s burial. There were 38 subsidiary burials, 3 of which contained inlaid funerary beds.  Only vultures and lions remained in use from the variety of local animal motifs. Lapwings were introduced, likely copied from the Egyptian rekhyt symbol.  Winged giraffes continued and a new version of a “winged” Taweret appeared.  Once again, all new motifs were either foreign, fantastic, or both. The final bed from this tomb has 5 rows of lions made in copper instead of ivory.  The ruler of this generation also featured lions prominently in his chapel, suggesting they have special meaning at this time.  The use of funerary beds and leather caps is further restricted, and those present demonstrate a push towards more exceptional personalized motifs.

 Funerary customs of the Kerma culture changed in response to changes in social relationships, driven by an increase in international dominance over Egypt.  The ruler had introduced the tradition of animal motifs, after which the elite took up that tradition and extended it for their own use.  Subsequent generations, however, became more restrictive.  New inspirations were sought for expressing exclusivity via exotic or fantastical animals, looking both within their local experience and newly broadened horizons.