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1/11/13: The royal cemetery at El Kurru

The reason El Kurru was so interesting to George Reisner back in 1919 was not the settlement that I’m looking for. It was the royal cemetery that turned out to contain the burials of some of the most important and powerful kings of Kush: Piye (aka Piankhy), Shabaqo, Shebitqo, and Tanwetamani. These were some of the kings that conquered and ruled Egypt from about 750 BC to nearly 650 BC. They fought against the Assyrian army when it invaded Israel and were defeated in Egypt by the Assyrians. The Kurru cemetery also contains burials of numerous royal women, both queens and queen-mothers. For photos of some of the extraordinary finds from these burials, currently in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, click here

In addition to its importance in the history of these “Great Men,” the cemetery demonstrates some extremely interesting and as yet poorly understood cultural relations between Egypt and Kush. The first burial on the site, placed at the highest point, was of a traditional Nubian form: a round mound of stones piled over a burial pit. And even though it had been looted in antiquity, the remains were incredibly rich, including more than 400 gold beads and pendants. From that point, the burials became progressively more Egyptian, with enclosure walls, chapels to make offerings to the dead, and finally pyramids over the burials. There was even a set of horses, decked out in gold and silver trappings, buried standing up and facing away from the royal pyramids, as if preparing to take their king on a final ride.

We don’t yet know why kings and queens of Kush adopted these elements of Egyptian burial, but we know that they adopted other Egyptian practices, including writing in hieroglyphs. Perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, Egyptian priests fleeing political unrest in Egypt arrived in Kush and instructed the locals. Or perhaps we should consider the possibility that the rulers of Kush were the active agents in this process. In any case, excavating the settlement at El Kurru may help us understand the way that one ancient culture adopted aspects of another.