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The Amulets of the Kerma Culture

Iconography and manufacture technique of the amulets of the Kerma culture in Nubia, Sudan (2500-1400 BC)

Project Abstract

Banner image credit: Amulet-beads from Classic Kerma graves (Reisner 1923b, Photo A2114, plan 43,2) and Amulets from Classic Kerma graves (Reisner 1923b, Photo A2114, plan 44,2)


"The amulets of the Kerma Culture" project led by Dr. Elena D’Itria and granted by the Shelby White and Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications deals with a largely unpublished collection of decorative objects from the Kerma culture (2500-1400 BC). These amulets were brought to light at the site of Kerma in Upper Nubia, Sudan, during the archaeological investigations conducted by the Harvard-Boston Expedition under the direction of G.A. Reisner between 1913 and 1916 [1] (see objects in banner image, above). G. Reisner was the first to excavate parts of the Kerma site, including the cemetery with its royal tumuli and associated funerary chapels. During his fieldwork he discovered Egyptian sculptures in the large southern tumuli and erroneously interpreted the site as a Middle Kingdom Egyptian outpost that gradually declined due to the growing influence of the local population. However, this theory was later proven incorrect by H. Junker and by T. Säve Söderbergh (in 1920 and 1941 respectively). Moreover, F. Hintze (1964) demonstrated that the site must be the capital of the Nubian kingdom alluded to in Egyptian Second Intermediate Period texts. After the Aswan High Dam Salvage Campaign, new attention was focused on the Kerma culture by the University of Geneva mission under the directorship of Ch. Bonnet. Beginning in 1973 and continuing to the present day, these new investigations have revealed a remarkable quantity of data from an excavated area measuring more than 30 hectares. In addition to the excavations in the city, the Geneva mission also resumed excavations in the eastern necropolis [2]. Through this excavations, Kerma was identified as the capital city of the kingdom of Kush mentioned in Middle Kingdom and early New Kingdom Egyptian sources. During the Middle Kingdom, the center of power in Upper Nubia was located here at Kerma. This is indicated by the size of the Royal City of Kerma, the earliest known and largest city in Upper Nubia, and the great wealth of the luxury goods found in the town and the burials there. By the end of the Middle Kingdom and during the Second Intermediate Period, when Egypt was politically decentralized with competing rulers in Lower and Upper Egypt, the resulting power vacuum in the region was filled by the flourishing Kingdom of Kush (2450-1550 BC).

Despite playing an important role in the history of North-eastern Africa between the mid-3rd and the mid-2nd millennium BC, no written documents produced by the Kerma culture have ever been discovered. Therefore, any attempt at writing a history of the Kingdom of Kush can only rely on the archaeological data. Unfortunately, the study of funerary monuments and religious customs has so far provided scant information on the Nubian pantheon. Excavations have shown that some temples located in the city and in the cemetery of Kerma were used for religious ceremonies and rituals that were probably intended to attract the benevolence of its deities, thus ensuring life on earth and in the afterlife. Such a situation renders the study of the amulets essential to understanding ancient Kerma culture. They present an invaluable source of information on the symbols and animals that were believed to have held a protective power [3]. Because these objects are closely associated to religious beliefs, they can, therefore, help us to understand some features of contemporary Kerman religion and gain insights into a still unknown pantheon that is likely to have been highly complex. The study of the amulets and their iconographies suggest that the articulation of the pantheon of Kerma could reflect, especially in Classic Kerma times, the multi-ethnic composition of the kingdom of Kush. Given the role of Kerma as interface between Egypt and inner Africa, the pantheon may have been possibly composed of Nubian together with Egyptian and southern African elements.

A total number of 1,767 Kerma amulets (1,746 collected by G. A. Reisner, that are now in Boston and in Khartoum, and 21 by Ch. Bonnet which are currently held in the Musée d’Art et d’histoire of Geneva)[4] have been studied, and a great variety of amulets were identified. Full documentation of these finds currently stored in the MFA of Boston, in the NMS of Khartoum and in the MAH of Geneva was accomplished during this research. The study is aimed at elaborating a first typology and distribution analysis of the amulets in the Kerma culture, as the available publications are largely incomplete. Not all the amulets excavated by Reisner were included in his report Excavations at Kerma published in 1923. Reisner did not indicate what kind of amulets were found in each tomb, and he did not even specify their number. Moreover, photographic documentation was also very poor, as only two plates were devoted to this class of materials (see Reisner 1923b, plan. 43,2- 44,2), therefore making it very difficult to get a clear idea of some types of amulets (Reisner 1923a, 89-133).

The study of the amulets of the Kerma culture will be the subject of a forthcoming monograph entitled The amulets of the Kerma culture, published by Harvard Egyptological Series (in agreement with the MFA of Boston) and granted by the Shelby White and Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications. The book will not only consist of a systematic study of the amulets collected at Kerma by G. Reisner, which are still largely unpublished, but will also provide the first insights into the production, development and significance of these finds. The research focused on a systematic comparative analysis, to confirm the apparent differences between the typologies found in the capital city and those from Kerma sites located in the peripheral areas of the Kingdom, such as the sites in Upper and Lower Nubia, and in the Fourth Cataract area.


[1] Reisner, G.A. 1923a-b. Excavations at Kerma, Parts I-III, Parts IV-V. In Harvard African Studies 5. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Harvard University.

[2] Bonnet, Ch. 1986. Kerma, territoire et metropole: quatre leçon au Collège de France. Institut française d’archéologie orientale du Caire. Le Caire; Bonnet, C. and Valbelle, D. 2000. Edifices et rites funéraires à Kerma. Paris: Errance.

[3] Bonnet, Ch., D. Valbelle and C. Privati. 2004. Le temple principal de la ville de Kerma et son quartier religieux. Paris: Errance; Bonnet, Ch. and Valbelle, D. 2014. La ville de Kerma. Une capitale nubienne au sud de l’Egypte. Lausanne: Favre.
Bonnet, C. 1990. Kerma royaume de Nubie. L’antiquité africaine au temps des pharaons. Mission archéologique de L’Université de Genève au Soudan. Genève: Musée d’Art et d’Histoire.

[4] We would like to thank Rita E. Freed and Denise Doxey of the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, Beatrice Blandin curator of the Musée d’art et d’Histoire of Geneva and the Director General of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museum of the Sudanese Government for their generous help and advice throughout the course of this research.

Suggested Citation

Elena D’Itria. (2022) "The Amulets of the Kerma Culture". Released: 2022-09-12. Open Context. <> DOI:

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